Tim Wheeler: I suppose I should be thinking about mortality, but I'm more focused on living. Music keeps you young
Back home from New York recently, Tim Wheeler sat for a while in his old bedroom, where, as a teenager, he wrote the hit song, Oh Yeah.
Later that evening, he performed the track at the Belfast music centre named after it, as part of their 10th anniversary celebrations. The acknowledgement is not lost on the Downpatrick-born Wheeler, a softly-spoken, unassuming and friendly person who shows no signs of a rock star ego.
"I never imagined when I was writing Oh Yeah in my bedroom - I was 18 - that it would become the name of a music centre," he says. "I'm very proud of that. It was an amazing honour, and then to get their Legend Award last year. I still feel a bit young for that, even though I'm 40 now. It's just really cool to have survived this long in music."
Based in New York for the last 12 years, Tim flies home as often as he can to visit his mother Rosalind - "83 and fit as a fiddle" - and his siblings (an older brother and sister, and a younger brother). He lost his father, Dublin-born George Bomfforde Wheeler, to a severe form of Alzheimer's Disease, at 78, in January 2011. The former High Court Judge would recognise his middle son only fleetingly in the dementia ward, and Tim was heartbroken to see him in distress.
In 2014, he released a poignant debut solo album, Lost Domain, which charts the progression of his father's condition, from becoming forgetful in 2008, to coming to terms with his death. A highlight of the album is the ballad, Vigil, with its soulful refrain, 'You are not alone'.
"I do find it easier to talk about now, with the passing of time," he says quietly, down the line from Brooklyn. "Dad had faith. Me, no. I don't know if I'll ever see him again but every now and again I have very vivid dreams. It feels like he's there.
"Making Lost Domain helped me express the grief. It was painful to make but cathartic. Talking helps and being able to do something for the Alzheimer's Society helps."
He also has a new girlfriend to talk to, an Italian who works in the film industry, in costumes. The relationship is in its early days, and he can't say if she's 'the one', but given his history of writing about his ex's (Oh Yeah, Shining Light and The Girl From Mars, to name a few), there's a chance the new romance could work its way into his lyrics for the next Ash album, due for release next year.
The fact the band are still making albums is something Tim didn't envisage, back in 2007, when the Oh Yeah centre was opened. To the dismay of some of their old-school followers, the band announced that, with the advent of the download and music piracy, they would no longer be releasing albums.
After eight years of collaborations and touring, they made a U-turn in 2015 with the release of Kablammo!, their seventh studio album.
"It was tricky to navigate our way back then (in 2007)," says Tim. "It was a turning point in the music industry; the way people listened to music was changing and the emphasis was on single tracks.
"We said Twilight Of The Innocents would be our last album and we'd only release singles from then on. So, it's amazing to be here, 10 years later, recording a new album and playing the Oh Yeah centre's 10th anniversary party. And I got to do Teenage Kicks with the band at the Stendhal festival in Derry in August. That was a dream come true."
Looking back over the last 10 years, the loss of music icons from Michael Jackson ("big fan growing up") to Prince ("a genius"), stand out in Tim's memories. Closer to home, he was saddened to hear of the death of Belfast singer/songwriter Bap Kennedy, on November 1, last year.
"He was a sweet guy. When I lived in London, I used to go to Filthy McNasty's - Bap would hang out and play there," he recalls. "I saw him the year before he died at a New York show. We had a really nice time. He told me about a book he'd read on the Apollo landings and I went and got it, and it inspired me to write a song called Moondust.
"He was an amazing guy; really creative. His wife Brenda's amazing too. She really looked after him.
"It was a shock to hear he died. So tragic."
He feels fortunate to have toured with David Bowie in 2002 and Leonard Cohen in 1995.
"Bowie was a real gent, very down to earth. He talked to me as a working musician, forgetting he was a legend. He'd talk about how hard it was to get people to listen to his new stuff and the hardships of being on the road, and trying to give up cigarettes.
"He'd watch us play. He was quite interested in us, really. And Leonard Cohen - I was a big fan of him. His gig in Radio City in New York was the best gig I've ever seen. He had just the best lyrics."
Tim moved to the Big Apple after nine years living in Highbury, London, where he became an Arsenal FC fan. He lived on the Lower East Side before settling in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where he lives alone.
"I still miss the city a bit, but I've got used to it," he concludes. "It's not very far away; only one sub stop. It's much quieter here. I don't get lonely - New York's a hard place to feel lonely in. I've friends nearby; Mark's in Hoboken, New Jersey.
"But I come home often, direct into Aldergrove. I had a big 40th birthday party in a castle in Fermanagh. It's funny turning 40; you're meant to start thinking about being middle-aged but I don't feel any different to 30.
"I suppose I should be thinking about mortality at this stage, but I'm more focused on living. Music keeps you young."
Uniting NI through music ...
The Oh Yeah Centre has honoured musicians from Northern Ireland with their Legend Award since 2008. Lisburn-born Vivian Campbell, best known as Def Leppard's lead guitarist, will receive this year's Oh Yeah Legend Award tomorrow night at the Mandela Hall in Belfast.
As Belfast's dedicated music hub, Oh Yeah is an invaluable resource for music makers and also for the business of music. It was constituted in 2007 in the belief that music is a valuable agent in Northern Ireland.
The seeds for the centre were sown in December 2005, in a conversation between Belfast music industry people and the band Snow Patrol. Since then, the centre has welcomed 160,000 visitors through the doors, while more than 5,500 artists, musicians and DJs have used the facilities.
The centre is headed by former Radio Foyle reporter and researcher Charlotte Dryden, who took over as CEO from Stuart Bailie in June 2016. In 2010 Charlotte was presented with a special achievement award at the Belfast Media Group Top 40 Under 40 Awards for her services to music in the community. For details, visit ohyeahbelfast.com