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Ash's Tim Wheeler on being called a legend, the anguish of watching his father's battle with Alzheimer's and why he'd like to be a dad himself one day

His home is now in New York but the Downpatrick-born musician was back here recently to collect a prestigious award. He talks to Una Brankin about fame, family and why he's looking forward to heading out on the road again

Published 24/11/2016

Tim Wheeler of Ash
Tim Wheeler of Ash
Tim Wheeler with his father George
An earlier Ash line-up featuring Wheeler, Hamilton, McMurray and Charlotte Hatherley

Turning 40 must be daunting when you're famous for being a rock idol with a string of hits brimming with callow youthful energy. Ash frontman Tim Wheeler's has mixed feelings about reaching that milestone, on January 4.

"It's hard to believe but I'm closer to accepting it now," he says down the line from Brooklyn. "Turning 39 was worse. I've had a year to get used to reaching 40. Being 39 just seemed to hit me out of the blue."

Based in New York for the last 11 years, the award-winning Downpatrick-born songwriter and his bandmates Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray were in Belfast recently to pick up the Legend Award and perform at the Mandela Hall, bringing the annual Sound of Belfast event to a storming close.

The Legend Award is presented and awarded by Belfast's Oh Yeah Music Centre - named after Ash's hit single - in recognition of the exceptional contribution of a musician or a music industry figure from Northern Ireland. After receiving the honour Ash performed in its entirety their platinum-selling debut album 1977, released 20 years ago in 1996.

"Um, I'm a bit young to be a legend, but it is a great honour," says Tim, those Co Down tones still prominent in his voice. "I'm still trying to get my head around it. Having the centre named after our song alone is a great honour.

"I wrote Oh Yeah when I was 18 about a girlfriend I had when I was 15. So yes, it's a love song. It was my first romance. It consisted mostly of hanging out after school. The song's about having those feelings for the first time."

Shy and polite, Wheeler's not the type to have parents running to lock up their daughters. Although he had legions of young female fans, his name was never linked with a string of women in the band's heyday or beyond. Engaged in his late 20s, in 2004 he went on to date singer/songwriter Emma-Lee Moss, aka Emmy The Great. They remained friends after splitting up and released a Christmas album, This Is Christmas (Infectious) in 2011.

He also had a relationship with a bartender when he moved to New York in 2005, before moving in with a Texan called Leanne. At present, though, he's footloose and fancy free.

Isn't he planning on giving his mother Rosalind any grandchildren?

"I would like to have a family - the rest of the band have kids and I like kids, but, um, I'll have to find a wife first," he laughs. "I've always been a serial monogamist. I'm single at the moment, and quite enjoying the freedom. It's nice."

His floppy fringe has been replaced by a rather severe parting, and he has a more rugged jawline these days, but the judge's son hasn't changed radically since his youth. He's been a one-woman man from an early age. The hit Girl From Mars, written when he was in the midst of his A-levels at Down High School, was inspired partly by his break-up with that first local girlfriend. He had fallen "hardcore in love, but it had fizzled out that summer, and I was still mourning that".

At 16 he started feeling depressed, the archetypal lovesick teenager. By 18, however, he had a new girlfriend and was prepared to follow her into the same course at university. A record deal got in the way and he never did get to university, but he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Open University last month for his exceptional contribution to education and culture.

"I applied to uni when I was at school to do French and business, but that was only because my girlfriend at the time - the second one - was doing it," he admits. "I would have liked to have done English literature, and I wish I could have studied music at university, but I wasn't good enough. I would have done piano but I got nowhere near the grades for it."

The Open University honorary award acknowledges Tim's work promoting awareness of Alzheimer's disease and, in particular, his work with Alzheimer's UK, which funds the university's Alzheimer's research team. Its work in studying the effects of a protein in the brain that is associated with Alzheimer's could provide insights into how to keep the brain healthy and prevent the onset of the disease.

In 2014 Tim released a haunting debut solo album, Lost Domain, in response to the loss of his father, Dublin-born former High Court Judge George Bomfforde Wheeler, who had a severe form of Alzheimer's.

The album, on which Tim plays most of the instruments, charts the progression of his father's condition, from becoming forgetful in 2008, to coming to terms with his death, at 78, in January 2011.

Tim, the middle son (he has an older sister and brother and a younger brother), crossed the Atlantic many times to visit his father in the dementia ward, only for George to fail to recognise him.

More painful for Tim were the times his father had flashes of awareness of his illness, as he said in a previous interview. "One particular day he looked up at me as I came in and gasped, as if he knew exactly who I was, but also who he was, and why he was there, in hospital. He just started crying."

By coincidence, I'm speaking to Tim on the phone from a home for dementia patients in Lurgan, and I have to explain the odd interruption and clamour in the background. He's immediately interested and sounds chuffed to hear my 92- year-old aunt is enjoying the cover of the 1960s hit Cuando Cuando Cuando (famously covered by Englebert Humperdinck) recorded by Teddy Mac (Ted McDermott), who has Alzheimer's and suffers from short-term memory loss.

The 80-year-old from Blackpool landed a record deal with Decca after his car journey sing-alongs with son Simon went viral on YouTube.

"Aw, that's beautiful. I'll look that up," says Tim, clearly moved. "Music can be medical, very therapeutic. There were times dad had very lucid moments and I tried to play keyboard with him in the dementia ward. I recorded him and put in on the Lost Domain album," he says.

"It was a very emotional, personal project. There were a lot of keyboards on it. Dad was a very good keyboard player, a natural musician. The nurses were amazing with him."

He also credits his mother for having good taste in music and a natural ear for it, remembering the music played in the Wheeler home included The Beatles, The Fureys and Abba - "great poppy stuff". Ash once did a cover of Abba's rousing Does Your Mother Know for a B side, but it was grunge icons Nirvana who were the biggest influence on the young Tim.

"Before we got into grunge Mark and I had been in a band called Vietnam, when we were both 12. People used to laugh at us a lot in Downpatrick," he recalls cheerfully. "But we kept on going and working at it and then we discovered Nirvana, and that sent us in a different direction.

"I went to see them in Belfast in 1992. I was a massive fan and I got Kurt's autograph after the show, amongst a crowd of kids.

"He was dead cool; he just stood there patiently signing autographs.

"Courtney Love was there too, and Dave Grohl - he's another hero of mine. He's an amazingly nice guy; very cool."

Roll on a couple of years and Ash were assigned the same Press agent as Nirvana by their record company.

"There was talk of us opening for them on tour, which was very exciting for me," he explains.

"It was devastating when he died. I remember hearing he'd been wheeled out of the Europa in a wheelchair after the show I'd been to. He hurled himself about on stage; he had that self-destructive thing."

Ash went on the surpass Nirvana's chart success in the UK with two number one albums in the and 18 Top 40 singles.

They've sold more than eight million records worldwide, and Tim won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Pop Song in 2001 for Shining Light.

He has also written soundtracks for film and TV, and Ash tracks have featured in countless movies and video games.

I wondered about the significance of the band name. It turns out there is none.

"Well, I always liked band names with one word and one syllable, like Blur and Suede and Ride," he explains. "I opened the dictionary and started at the As, and I was so bored by the time I got to 'ash' I decided that was it…"

He chuckles at the mention of the BBC documentary makers who following Ash on the road during their first tour, which resulted in a programme that the powers-that-be in Broadcasting House deemed too raw to air.

"Mark had jumped off a balcony and broken his feet," he remembers. "He was quite badly hurt - he used to come off the stage and put his feet into a bucket of ice and drink a bottle of gin.

"We were young and used to get into a real state, drinking. We were burning the candle at both ends - partying till late, then up early to do promotional stuff. It was a lot of fun but we were exhausted all the time.

"We never ended up in rehab but, yeah, we were a right state at times," he adds.

"That documentary eventually did came out about five years ago as a bonus DVD. I'd like to get it up online - it's an interesting record of what was going on with us at the time."

It would be great timing, just ahead of their 1977 anniversary tour. After that, the band are going to bring out another album, their second after saying they were hanging up their boots, around 2011 (they changed their minds after realising playing together made them feel like teenagers again).

"We're going to play the album in sequence, which can be a tough thing to pull off, but doable with 1977. Some of these songs have grown with us throughout the years; others have the ability to transport us mentally and emotionally back to that crazy formative year of 1995 to 1996. These gigs are going to be a trip."

Before all that, it'll be home for Christmas for the unassuming Tim, and back again for his 40th birthday party.

"There'll be a party in New York but I'll have to have one at home too," he concludes. At Christmas there's a bit of hosting goes on in the various houses - I've a brother in Limerick, a sister in Lisburn and another brother in Belfast.

"I'll be bringing Mum to Limerick at some stage. I like to be with the family at Christmas."

Belfast Telegraph

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