In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Ash frontman Tim Wheeler.
1: What backwards message does the song ‘Evil Eye’ open with?
“We were going to put something about George W Bush but the label got scared so we ended up saying ‘Suck Satan’s cock’.
(Laughs) Nice and mature! We were in LA making ‘Meltdown’, our most hard rock record, living our childhood heavy metal fantasies, so it was inspired by crazy stories you’d hear in school in the ‘80s about how if you played Ozzy Osbourne records backwards, there were instructions telling kids to kill themselves.”
JT LeRoy wrote the liner notes for ‘Meltdown’. Did you have any inkling at the time it was a hoax?
“I’d been emailing JT LeRoy while we toured America in the year leading up to that album. When they visited the studio, I thought there was definitely something weird going on with that quirky group of people! (Laughs) The one masquerading as JT LeRoy was quiet and strange, but the one who was really behind things [Laura Albert] was really high-energy and crazy. We played a song and she jumped up onto the couch and started dancing really hard! It’s cool to have liner notes written by someone who didn’t actually exist.”
2: Name three of the porn-inspired slogans from your early T-shirts.
“Oh right! ‘Guaranteed Real Teenagers’, ‘Domination Teenage Bisexual’ and ‘Three Boy Hardcore Action’.”
“My memory’s intact! When we started to play in Belfast, our manager at the time was cutting stuff out of gay teen porn magazines for the flyers and posters. I think he was trying to market us as rent boys (Laughs). We also had a T-shirt called ‘Return of the Rent Boys’. We ran with it for a while.”
3: Which is the only track in your A-Z Series where the singles letter corresponds to the song name?
“Oh wow! Let me see! (Long pause) That’s impossible! Could it be ‘Summer Snow’?”
WRONG. It was S – ‘Spheres’ (‘Summer Snow’ was released as the letter ‘U’).
“Ah ok, damn! (Laughs) If I’d planned things totally through, I would have made every song title begin with the corresponding letter of the single – because that confused people. But I didn’t go that deep! It was groundbreaking and fun – we explored a lot of styles and got away from the traditional album/tour cycle. It’s the kind of thing people are doing nowadays a lot with streaming, so I think it was ahead of its time. We did an alphabetical tour of the UK – our last show was in Zennor [Cornwall], where we couldn’t even get our tour bus down the lane into the village because it was such a small place. We played their village hall which held about 80 people. We played a leisure centre in Milton Keynes and the dressing room overlooked a trampoline class so there would be people appearing at the windows every two seconds doing flips through the air (Laughs). When we played the Isle of Wight – V for Ventnor – I told the security guards off for stopping people dancing and they let the air out of our tour bus tyres. It was an adventure.”
4: What do the two Dutchmen at the start of ‘Jack Names the Planets’ suggest the song should be called?
“‘Jack Names the Planet Nieuw-Vennep’ (Laughs)”
“Which is the town they came from. They were my old friends I met on holiday in France when I was a teenager. We’d send each other cassettes instead of writing letters. We’d record ourselves chatting and me playing a couple of songs. That snippet was from a tape they’d sent me. Whenever we play Amsterdam, they come and hang out. In fact, the first time I ever got really drunk was with them. I was 15 – they were a few years older. I ended up puking all over the tent I was sharing with my brother (Laughs).”
Was the vomiting as volcanic as your hidden ‘Sick Party’ ‘1977’ track?
“It’s a recurring theme! (Laughs)”
5: Which organisation once fittingly used ‘Girl from Mars’ as their telephone hold music?
“(Laughs) I never called them to check it out but’s pretty cool – and shows they had a good sense of humour.”
What are your memories of making ‘Girl from Mars’’s attendant album ‘1977’?
“We’d just left school – I’d turned 19. We worked with the Oasis producer Owen Morris, a lunatic who loved getting us into trouble and introduced us to drugs and cross-dressing (Laughs). The locals must have thought it was weird – all of us going into different charity shops and buying crazy dresses to record in. We made a couple more albums with him. On the third, 2001’s ‘Free All Angels’, one night Owen drunkenly decided it would be a great idea to drive his Range Rover around the fields beside the studios. He suggested that Mark [Hamilton, bassist] take the wheel, so Mark handed his half-finished bottle of vodka to me – that was my cue to get the fuck out! He did one circuit of the field before crashing through a massive fence – a big pole smashed through the windscreen narrowly missing his head (Laughs). The next day, the shit hit the fan with the studio owner ‘cos that field was where his daughter usually kept her horses. He said if the horses had been there, he would have grabbed his shotgun and shot us. He wasn’t joking! (Laughs) That was a typical day recording with Owen.”
Did you have drag names when cross-dressing?
“We should have! Actually, NME once dressed us up as The X-Files, and I was Gillian Anderson’s Scully. I looked pretty hot as a woman! (Laughs)”
6: What is the name of the character Chris Martin plays in your unreleased horror film ‘Slashed’?
“Ah! Sherbet Bones.”
“He’s pretty much Sherlock Holmes. I was impressed by his acting skills – he left us all in the dust! (Laughs) Jonny Buckland [Coldplay guitarist] was playing a Watson-type character called Datsun Ford.”
Will you ever finish and release it?
“No. We filmed the death scenes of Mark, Rick [McMurray, Ash drummer] and Charlotte [Hatherley, former Ash guitarist] – sorry, spoiler alert! Then our US touring stopped before we got to film the end – my demise. I don’t think there’s anything we could cobble together, but they’re using CGI to recreate James Dean, so with better technology, it might be possible! (Laughs). We’ll add Carrie Fisher in there as well! For our 20th anniversary, Mark showed the footage that remains and talked through the whole thing, filling in the gaps. That’s the only time it’ll see the light of day.”
“We were trying to crack America, and running into these people. I regret not asking David Bowie to do it when we toured with him – ‘cos he’s actually a good actor! We’ll add him to the CGI list (Laughs).”
What was Bowie like?
“Charismatic and down to earth. He was trying to quit smoking, sneaking off behind his assistant’s back to bum fags off people. I didn’t expect that from the Thin White Duke! (Laughs)”
7: Ash wrote and recorded the title track to the 1997 Ewan McGregor-starring film ‘A Life Less Ordinary’. Which of his movie roles did you once screen test for?
“I screen tested for the role he played in Moulin Rouge!”
CORRECT. For the starring role of poet Christian.
“It was a musical, so the director Baz Luhrmann was asking singers to try out for it. I did a screen test in LA, which was daunting as I’d never acted before. I spent a couple of hours with Baz talking me through the film, even down to the colours they were using – which were based on Toulouse-Lautrec’s absinth-tinged paintings.”
8: Which pop band receives a thank-you in the promotional copies of your 2002 singles collection ‘Intergalactic Sonic 7″s’?
WRONG. It’s S Club 7.
“Oh yeah! For a while we were doing TV shows that they were always on. Some of them gave us a joint at one point (Laughs). They had the image of being a clean-living kids’ band, but there was a couple of partiers amongst them!”
There ain’t no party like an S Club Party?
“(Laughs) You nailed it! Two of the Spice Girls – Sporty and Baby – came to one of our parties at the height of their fame in ’97 and that was fun.”
Who’s the most unusual person who’s said they like your music?
“Dana – the Irish singer who won Eurovision [in 1970 with ‘All Kinds of Everything’] – has just covered ‘Shining Light’ which is…odd. So she must be a fan! Annie Lennox also covered ‘Shining Light’. A lot of our fans were offended by her version so when I met her, she actually apologised for doing the cover. (Laughs) I was like: ‘No way! That was one of the greatest honours of my life!’. Quentin Tarantino came to one of our gigs and spent the whole show making out with a girl standing at the back. Ash’s music definitely seemed to make him horny! (Laughs)”
9: In a feature titled ‘If Pop Was World War 2’ in Select magazine in 1996 comparing Britpop to historical figures, who were you likened to?
“(Laughs) Woah! I’m guessing maybe it could have been someone really young – because we were some of the youngest kids in that scene? But I have no idea – please enlighten me!”
WRONG. It was General Charles de Gaulle!
“Really?! That’s amazing. My girlfriend’s French as well – she’ll be impressed when I tell her! (Laughs)”
For a bonus half-point, can you guess who either Stalin or Hitler were?
“OH MY GOD! Erm – let me see. Hitler might have been Crispian Mills from Kula Shaker after his swastika debacle. (Laughs) I’d love to know who the hell Stalin is in all of this!”
“That’s very harsh! I mean, Noel was a bit of a dictator in Oasis – but that’s extreme! (Laughs).”
Didn’t you turn down supporting Oasis at their legendary 1996 Knebworth shows?
“Yeah, we were touring a lot in the States – it’s a shame we didn’t fly back and do it. I remember Noel saying he really liked ‘Shining Light’ except for the guitar which reminded him of James (Laughs). We’d run into Noel quite a lot because of working with Owen Morris – we should have got him to do a solo on ‘1977’ or something. We were actually the first ever people outside of Oasis’s camp to hear ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’ because we went to hang out with Owen in the studio on the day they finished the mix – and stayed up all night smashing the album.”
10: You once ranked first in Attitude magazine’s 2004 list of ‘Indie Boys We’d Like to Fuck’. Can you name any others in the top five?
“(Laughs) That would be a very fucked-up orgy! I’m pretty proud of being first. That’s one of the greatest achievements of my life – that’d I’d completely forgotten about. I wish I’d actually got some kind of statuette that I could proudly display on my mantelpiece beside my Ivor Novello Award. (Laughs). I remember once supporting Björn Again at G-A-Y. We covered ‘Mamma Mia’ – one of the bangers that was meant to be in their set, and they wouldn’t talk to us because of it. One of the five or six Björn Again’s touring around the world at this minute are pretty pissed off at us! (Laughs)”
Bonus question! For half a point: You’ve just released a remastered version of ‘Jack Names the Planets’. Name the planets in the solar system.
“Ahhhh! OK. Um…Pluto, Venus, Uranus (Laughs), Jupiter, Earth, erm…oh my God – Mars, Neptune, Mercury….Saturn!”
CORRECT. Although Pluto was relegated to a dwarf planet in 2006.
“It would have been bad if I forgot Mars!”
The verdict: 7.5/10
“That feels average! It’s good to know rock ‘n’ roll still does the damage it’s meant to!”
‘Teenage Wildlife: 25 Years of Ash’ is released on February 14 via Sony BMG. The band’s extensive UK tour begins on February 17 2020 in Leeds. Full details can be found here.