Why Ash man Tim Wheeler's still making some great music with his ex
If Christmas is a time of love and forgiveness, that certainly seems to be the case for Ash frontman Tim Wheeler. After all, reuniting with your ex-girlfriend – in this case London-based singer-songwriter Emmy the Great – to play a number of live dates might be the stuff awkward encounters are made of.
To be fair, though, there doesn't seem to be any bad blood between the duo who made the 2011 seasonal album, This Is Christmas. "Not at all," says Tim. "We'd broken up before we did the shows last year, and it's all good. We're good friends. We're also really proud of the record, and it's a laugh playing it."
The setlist for the upcoming gigs – one in London and the other at Belfast's Limelight 2 this Sunday – will feature This Is Christmas in its entirety, alongside some festive favourites.
"We're pretty good at Fairytale of New York (by the Pogues) and Stay Another Day (by East 17)," says Tim. "This is the first year we're attempting Mariah, though!" he adds, referring to Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas Is You.
Emmy and Tim's own material includes sentimental efforts like Snowflakes, Christmas Moon and Home for the Holidays, as well as less serious fare such as Zombie Christmas, Jesus the Reindeer and Christmas Day (I Wish I Was Surfing). Was the latter tune perhaps inspired by yearnings for the North Coast back home?
"No, I wasn't thinking of Portrush," Tim grins, explaining that the track was instead written about a Christmas the singer enjoyed in Costa Rica. "It didn't have the same festive feel but I was with a load of friends, so it was still good," he says.
If that was the strangest place Tim has been on December 25, then this year the star – who has made New York City his home in recent years – is looking forward to spending the holidays with his family in picturesque Co Down.
"Another great thing about this show is that it gets me home good and early," he says, "So lots of relaxing with the family."
It may also be a time for reminiscing about the days before he was a global rock star. Yet even then, he seemed to know what the future held.
"It was Santa who gave me my first guitar," he recalls. "It was a (Ibanez) Destroyer copy. My cousins taught me to play Teen- age Kicks, by The Undertones, on Christmas Day. It was brilliant!"
Playing the Limelight 2 should also be a trip down memory lane for Tim. It is now more than a decade since Ash last visited the venue – then known simply as the Limelight. In more recent times, the trio have gigged at the likes of the Limelight 1 (formerly the Spring and Airbrake) and the Ulster Hall. Is he looking forward to coming back to his old stomping ground?
"Yeah, I'm very excited," says Tim. "I remember early Ash gigs there. We played a good few of them, and they were always really fun. Then we started getting some attention from the London music press, and it was a big deal for us that the NME came and reviewed us playing.
"We also had a class Ash Christmas gig one year, where Mark (Hamilton, bass) brought a Christmas tree he'd cut from his neighbour's garden and Rick (McMur- ray, drums) got mad because we wanted him to dress as a fairy."
The outfit (below) – who have been relatively inactive of late – are gearing up for a busy 2014.
"Our next shows are in the US early next year," Tim says. "Then we're linking up with Weezer for the Weezer Cruise from Florida to the Bahamas. It's a four-day cruise with some great bands, and we do three shows during it. We've done a couple of writing sessions this year and are gathering songs up, so there should be new material out next year. I can't wait."
As for the threesome writing a Christmas song, Tim isn't ruling it out. Ash have performed seasonal covers, but to date have avoided penning their own Yuletide ditty. Tim insists it has nothing to do with concerns about undermining their indie credibility.
"I've always loved the Ramones' song Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)," he says. "Once they did that it was okay for any punk band to do it."
This Is Christmas is probably the closest Tim has come to making a solo album, but he isn't ruling out going it alone eventually.
"I think I would enjoy doing a solo record someday," the 36-year-old says. "I've had some fun dabbling in film and TV recently."
But for now, he remains loyal to Ash. Amazingly, the trio have been together for 21 years, since forming at school in Downpatrick.
"I think the fact we were all schoolmates to begin with helped," Tim says. "We also went through some tough times early on and got through them together. So we're like family."
INTERVIEW: ANDREW JOHNSTON