It speaks volumes for a young band that would look to improve on their sound after being named in NME’s Top 500 albums with their debut release.
It would be easy to rest on your laurels and think you were onto a winner within the parameters that got you there in the first place, but it takes a special kind of talent to risk making changes so early in their career.
Ash were such a band, having received this distinction with their debut album 1977 in 1996.
Rather than bask in the limelight and attempt to replicate their fortune, Ash chose to add another member to the band, with vocalist and guitarist Charlotte Hatherley joining Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray, not only upping the trio to a four piece, but also redefining their sound with a female vocalist.
“I think it was through touring the 1997 record that we felt being a three piece was kind of limited,” founding member and drummer Rick explained.
“In the studio we hooked up things – there would be lots of guitar parts – and especially after we toured with Weezer in the States for four weeks, we were really blown away by the sound of the double guitar thing they had going on and we felt that it would really improve our band so that’s when we got Charlotte in and she really filled that role perfectly.”
Having such critical acclaim piled upon them in their infancy, Ash could have easily fallen victim to their own success and imploded on the very ideals that contributed to their success, but Rick says that despite their newly acquired stature the band had already learnt that success is only achieved through sustained effort.
“I think being so young we were full of confidence,” Rick confessed. “We’d had a year before that when we were releasing a string of singles which were on that album like Kung Fu, Girl From Mars and Goldfinger, but when the record came out that kept building because our profile kept building and things were getting bigger and bigger and that gave us a lot of confidence when we were finishing off the record. We definitely felt like we were riding the crest of a wave at that point but it was nice to be in the top 500 that’s for sure. I think if we were aware of that before we made the record it might have freaked us out a little bit but ha-ha.”
Despite the bands continued success as a four piece, Rick says the band never quite settled in to growing from the initial three piece, and after four albums, Charlotte eventually left the band after nine years in 2006.
“It’s taken us a few years to get used to being back as a three piece,” Rick mused. “I think we were a little self conscious about that but about five years ago we had Russell from Block Party playing with us and he filled in but he was very prone to getting ill and during that time there were a few gigs that he had to cancel and we ended up doing them as a three piece. After that it was kind of like ‘it still sounds great as a three piece’ so that gave us a lot of confidence going in to the new album and I think a big part of the sound on that album was us trying to make things work as a three piece; whereas before that we would try and use different instrumentations to fill in the gaps but now we felt confident enough to leave those gaps and it sounds great.”
Unlike most splits between band members, this one was amicable, with Charlotte still fondly remembered as part of the band, even to the point of having continued sporadic involvement.
“We had Charlotte up on stage with us a few weeks ago in London, which was great” Rick beamed, “She got up for the encores and did four or five songs with us. We are comfortable now either way with these songs.”
While it is easy to maintain focus and direction while things are going well, the true test of a bands character comes when the chips are down, and in the late 1990’s Ash faced a crisis which threatened to critically derail their career.
Despite earlier success it was revealed that the band was on the verge of bankruptcy, with Rick saying it was only through an unyielding self belief that the band continued.
“I think one thing had helped us through was we were still pretty young then,” he reflected.
“It was just before we started recording Free All Angels and when we released Shining Light as the single. We had a lot of confidence around the band at that point even though we’d struggled for a couple of years and I guess we had a new manager and producer who really believed in us as well. The best illustration of where we were at mentally at that point was when we gave the record company a demo of Shining Lightand we said ‘this is gonna be our comeback single, it’s perfect’ and they were like ‘no, this won’t ever be a single, you guys are crazy’. They refused to pay for the studio time so we put up some of our last money to pay for the studio and our producer agreed to waive his fee until we finished the single so we went ‘fuck you we’re recording this anyway’ which we did and they were like ‘okay, okay, you guys were right.’ I guess that kind of explains where we were at with our confidence. I think if it wasn’t for that we wouldn’t still be here.”
When Twilight of the Innocents was released in 2007, Ash made the unusual and brave step of announcing that although they weren’t actually breaking up, the band would no longer be putting out albums.
It was envisaged that the changing face of music was heading away from the album structure and would be dominated by singles in the future, and Ash were keen to stay one step ahead of the impending transition.
“I think it was a lot of things,” Rick offered.
“The climate at the time was like…. It seemed in the industry that people were predicting the end of the album and we felt that way as well. An album release didn’t have the same feel as it did ten years before that and I think more than anything we wanted to change with the times and reflect how people were buying music which was turning back into a cassingle type culture and we wanted to get there first. We had the album and it was coming out that week. It seemed that people were downloading individual tracks from the album and we wanted to move with the times and reflect how people were consuming music and we felt that we had to be proactive with it. Record companies seemed to be ignoring the problem hoping it would go away and we felt like we had the chance to do it ourselves but I guess in the intervening years the album has had quite a big resurgence with the rebirth of vinyl.”
Their next project was an ambitious venture, the A – Z Series – an enormous task of 26 singles in one year with a single for each letter of the alphabet which were released at fortnightly intervals.
Although proving an innovative and fresh take on way music was delivered, Rick says the band were almost happy to have been proved wrong when they decided to record their sixth album Kablammo! after an eight year absence.
“It felt like the time was right for us to go back to the album format,” he conceded, “but it was also a lot of pressure as well because having announced that we’d never do it again we felt like if we were we’d have to justify why we were doing it musically so we were kind of looking at 1977 and Free All Angels as the kind of benchmark. Things had to be at least as good as those which were held as our classic albums and everything had to live up to that standard. It was definitely a good motivational factor and one which worked. When we released Kablammo! people were saying to us that it was the best album since 1977 or Free All Angels so it did kinda feel like ‘thank God for that’ We’d done what we set out to do. We were really excited ourselves but the proof of the pudding is when you get that reaction from the fans which we did.”
Written by Kris Peters
ASH – KABLAMMO! AUSTRALIAN TOUR
Friday 11th March: MELBOURNE – Corner Hotel
Saturday 12th March: SYDNEY – Max Watts
Wednesday 16th March: BRISBANE – The Triffid
Friday 18th March: ADELAIDE – The Gov
Saturday 19th March: PERTH – The Rosemount
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