Tim Wheeler: I'm always starstruck when I see Dave Grohl, he's such a good dude
As he gears up for the release of Ash's latest album and supporting the Foo Fighters at Slane, Tim Wheeler tells Chris Jones about life in New York and his solo record
It's hard to shake the image of Ash as those three teenagers from Downpatrick, gangly and doe-eyed on Top Of The Pops way back when. Two decades have passed since they were catapulted into the spotlight and now their name is etched into the annals of Northern Irish rock history - four top 10 albums (five if we're including compilations) and 18 top 40 singles, while Belfast's music hub the Oh Yeah Music Centre is named after one of their songs.
But as much as it's nice to look back, Ash are still very much a going concern, and when Tim Wheeler answers the call from his home in New York, he sounds a little fragile after a late night finishing off the band's new album Kablammo - their first since 2007's Twilight Of The Innocents.
Though you wouldn't know it from his accent, where a slight trace of his London years colours the Downpatrick twang, Wheeler has been in New York for some time, and is settled in Brooklyn, where he lives with Texan girlfriend Leanne.
"We first came here in '95 on tour and really fell in love with the place," he says. "It always seemed like an amazing artistic place with so much energy. Then in 2005 we were wrapping up the end of the Meltdown tour and myself and Mark (Hamilton, Ash bassist) just went, 'Why don't we move to New York and change it up?'. So we did."
It's not hard to see the appeal for Wheeler at the time - a young man of means with a penchant for punk rock and partying. But he admits that now, at the age of 38, his lifestyle has slowed down a little.
"When I first got here I was partying loads," he says. "With all the bars being open until 4am, I got into late-night living. And my girlfriend at the time was a bartender so I was pretty much on her schedule. I used to go out a lot more and drink a lot more. Nowadays, I'm in the studio and I'm much more work-focused. Also I do some Muay Thai kickboxing, so it's a bit more healthy living."
You sense that there's a little bit of the party animal left inside - Wheeler admits that he preferred the hustle and bustle of Manhattan to his more sedate neighbourhood in Brooklyn - but he doesn't rule out eventually moving back home to Northern Ireland.
"Yeah, I'd love to be back close to my family," he says. "But it's strange, I haven't lived in Northern Ireland since I was 18. I never even lived in Belfast with my mates or anything. I went on tour for a year and then went to London. But I get home at least five times a year so I never get to miss it too much."
Wheeler and his bandmates will be back home to play a gig at the Limelight in Belfast on June 8, preceded by their appearance at Slane on May 30, supporting Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters.
Ash and the Foos' shared history goes back to the summer of 1995, when both bands played the Reading Festival for the first time, but for Wheeler and Grohl it goes back even further than that.
"I got his autograph from the King's Hall when Nirvana played in '92! I'm always starstruck when I see him," he laughs.
"He's such a good dude. We once went to his Halloween party in Los Angeles and he was dressed as a wizard. That was amazing fun!
"There was a while when we kept playing Washington DC and his mum kept coming to our shows. She's really cool, she's a school teacher and at one point the Grohl family almost moved to Northern Ireland. She had a job offer and they were considering moving, so things could have been very different!"
The last time Ash played Slane was in 2001, when they went on stage immediately after the crucial World Cup qualifier between Ireland and the Netherlands - fortunately, Ireland won.
"It's a really great place to play so I can't wait, it's very special," says Tim. "And I'm also very excited about the Limelight and the tour we have coming up."
The last that fans heard of Tim Wheeler was towards the end of last year when he released his first solo album, Lost Domain. The record was written about his father George, who died in 2011 after suffering from Alzheimer's in his final years. Heart-rending and fearlessly honest with lush piano and string arrangements, it was a far cry from the supercharged power-pop that Ash are known for, and it showed a new side to Wheeler as a songwriter.
"It was a very cathartic record to make and a big part of that was releasing it and getting out and playing it," he says. "I got really good feedback and support and I was really proud of how different it was. Even with how tough the subject matter was, people got really into it, I think."
Could there be more solo records in the future? "I don't know because (Lost Domain) was driven by such personal reasons," he says. "It didn't quite feel right for it to be an Ash record. It sort of depends how busy touring will be, and also I feel we'll be quite re-invigorated with Ash. I'd quite like to focus on getting into another Ash album."
But first there's Kablammo. Back in 2007, at a time when illegal downloading was rampant and record sales plummeting but streaming services hadn't yet taken off, Ash declared that the album format was doomed and that they would never make another. They then embarked on the Herculean task of releasing 26 singles in a year and touring to some of the unlikeliest gigging outposts in the UK, in alphabetical order: Aldershot to Zennor. So why the change of heart? "I feel like we really explored the alternative which was the singles series," he says. "That went well but it was also a crazy amount of work to sustain it for a full year. Since then I've made a Christmas record and the solo album so I started to see the appeal of albums again."
The band launched their new single Cocoon on Ash Wednesday and it has been well-received, fans and critics noting that it revisits the fizzy, punk-pop style of the band's two best-loved albums, Free All Angels and 1977.
"We did some touring with 1977 as a complete album a few times over the last few years. So I guess we knew we wanted to tap into that a bit, at least on some songs. And with Cocoon, it felt really right - it has the essence of Ash."
Both of those albums were recorded when the band were very young - teenagers with 1977 and in their early 20s with Free All Angels - and they contain their best-loved songs, such as Girl From Mars and Shining Light. Now that Wheeler and co are pushing 40, are they comfortable with the enduring image of Ash as a youthful, even teenage band?
"I guess that's the challenge," says Wheeler after a long pause. "It's a great thing on one side because people really love one thing about us, but it's difficult to experiment and break out of that. But we've always tried.
"I guess it's a tough balance for any band that lasts a bit of time - to keep that thing that people love about you while experimenting and keeping it interesting. As long as the songs are great, I think you can get away with it."
- Ash play the Limelight 2 in Belfast on Monday, June 8. Tickets are on sale now from Ticketmaster
A decade when home-grown music stars ruled the airwaves...
In the mid-90s, Ash went from Downpatrick schoolboys to world-touring rock stars in a matter of months. Here are a few other Northern Irish natives who did well out of the decade.
Hailing from Larne and Ballyclare, noise rockers Therapy? started the decade with a rabid local fanbase and by the mid-90s they were rubbing shoulders with Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers as one of the biggest bands in the world. Commercial success was short-lived but they still command a devoted fanbase.
Londonderry's Peter Cunnah had a series of dance-pop hits in the mid-90s, but he will be best remembered for Labour's landslide general election victory in 1997, and its use of his anthem Things Can Only Get Better. Oddly, he's no longer the most famous member of his own band - one Dr Brian Cox played keyboards before devoting himself to science and TV stardom.
Bap Kennedy enjoyed his moment in the sun as the frontman of Eighties band Energy Orchard, but with the patronage of Van Morrison, little brother Brian would eclipse his success. First, he served time as one of Van's backing singers, before embarking on a successful solo career that would include the hit album A Better Man in 1996.
The Divine Comedy
Dapper, erudite and the son of the Bishop of Derry, Neil Hannon made for an unlikely pop star - particularly at the height of the brash Britpop era. But the songwriter often compared to Noel Coward made inroads on the charts in the mid-90s with sardonic, witty songs like National Express and Something For The Weekend. He performs as The Divine Comedy to this day.
Co Derry five-piece Scheer made a sizeable dent in the mid-90s alternative scene after signing with indie label 4AD. The critics loved their one and only album Infliction (Entertainment Weekly described it as "Hole morphed with the Cocteau Twins") but it wouldn't last and they broke up in 1998. Singer Audrey Gallagher moved into dance music and guitarist Neal Calderwood now runs Manor Park studio in Moneyglass.