As Ash prepare to celebrate 21 years of Free All Angels, Tim Wheeler looks back on the album that saved the band. The group are all set for a live show at Belfast's Ulster Hall this December.
Summer, 1995. When most 18-year-olds were nervously picking up their exam results, Tim Wheeler, Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray were releasing their sixth single, playing Top Of The Pops and knocking U2 out the Top 10.
When their debut album, 1977, hit a few months later, Ash were already world-beaters. Tracks like ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Girl From Mars’, ‘Gold Finger’ and ‘Oh Yeah’ became instant alt-anthems for anyone who wanted more drive to their Brit-pop – less Blur and Oasis and more Lemonheads and Weezer – hitting the charts with a blast of transatlantic pop punk that sounded like a whole new generation were kicking down the door.
A headline slot at Glastonbury followed, as did the inevitable sophomore slump when their harder-edged follow-up, Nu-Clear Sounds, failed to get the same airtime. Burned out on their own success and completely out of money, Ash almost became the best short-lived band of the 90s before pulling it all back around with 2001’s Free All Angels.
Landing the band straight back at No.1 and becoming one of the defining pop punk records of the era, Free All Angels is to Ash what Let It Be is to The Replacements – a reset, a second wave, and the album that still speaks with the band’s strongest voice.
As Ash prepare to celebrate the record’s 21st birthday Tim Wheeler looks back on the album that changed everything.
It’s 21 years of Free All Angels, but also 30 years of Ash. Does it feel like that long?
It definitely doesn’t feel like it adds up to that amount of time, but I guess I can’t deny it! I dunno though, I just don’t really feel that different y’know? It’s kind of strange. I guess the music keeps us young. And the music still feels young to us.
You famously started young. During those early years I remember there was barely a review or a biography written about you that didn’t feel the need to mention your age. Did you feel young at the time? Or did it feel like everyone was putting you down a bit?
We definitely found a bit annoying at the time. I think there was something a bit patronising about all of it. When you’re young, you don’t want to be told that you’re young, right? But, I guess, looking back, I can see it was it was a bit crazy that we did all the stuff at such a young age. It was such a fast ramp for us at the beginning. Like, literally from the moment we left school, really. I think we probably felt more grown up than we actually were.
Those first three albums are all so different from each other, but you can also really hear the sound of a band growing and evolving across them. It must feel like a weird kind of nostalgia for you when you listen to them back now?
Absolutely. I was doing a lot of remastering stuff with BMG recently – we’ve reissued the first and third so far on vinyl this year – so I had to listen to them very intently, just to make sure that all the tracks were right. It’s been fun hearing all the deeper cuts again, but they definitely do all bring back so many memories of the recording sessions and the tours. I don’t go back to our older stuff very often, but when I do it’s always like a cool, weird time machine.
The whole period leading up to Free All Angels is often painted as this rollercoaster of highs and lows for you. Is that how you remember it?
Yeah, I guess some of it seems a bit exaggerated now. Especially the stuff I’ve read about how bad Nu-Clear Sounds did, because it didn’t do as bad as it’s often made out – it was still a gold selling album. And we did do a really massive world tour for it. But I guess it just wasn’t full of pop singles. It was a different kind of thing to 1977. But then also around that time we had this this whole post-Brit Pop hangover going on in general. There was a bit of a decline going on everywhere and the vibe in the music scene was that things were kind of taking a darker turn. So I think we were in a similar place to a lot of bands who had a big record and then had a follow-up that didn’t do as well.
Did that darker industry atmosphere add extra pressure to everyone’s expectations?
For sure. But then you’re getting into the territory of being dropped by your label, and in those days that was the end of your career. So that’s what we were facing with Free All Angels. If it hadn’t been a success, we probably would have been dropped. And in those days it was really hard to sustain yourself, and most bands split up. So we were incredibly determined that that wouldn’t happen to us. We were far too young to be facing the end of our careers, you know? That just felt… unfair. The whole 1977 success had been so overwhelming too that I hadn’t really enjoyed it as much as I should have, and I was already kind of regretting that. So I was determined to do it again, and do it right.
So much of Nu-Clear Sounds feels like a reaction to everything that was going on at the time. Were you consciously trying to make a second record that felt very different from the first?
I think there was also an element of maybe wanting to put the brakes on. We felt a bit invincible after 1977 and it had all gone to our heads a bit. I think we probably thought that it didn’t even matter what we did next, that whatever it was we’d be able to fake it and make something great. But yeah, I think that we also trying to react against our own success a bit – especially some of the elements of it that we weren’t that comfortable with. I’m talking here about the whole teen pop side of things. We ended up being on the cover of Smash Hits magazine and playing on Top Of The Pops. We liked being in Kerrang! and in NME and Melody Maker. But that Smash Hits cover kind of freaked us out a bit.
So then you get things like the video you made for ‘Numbskull’ – something that was so X-rated it couldn’t be played on TV…
Yeah we definitely trying to try to kill that whole thing off. I guess it worked?!
How bad did things get for you after that though? Was the band running out of money at this point?
We were really getting quite broke. We spent a fortune making a tour documentary around the 1977 time. When that was being edited it really cleaned us out – and then we never even ended up releasing it, so it was a massive waste of money in some ways. Luckily, we had a song in the Gran Turismo computer game. That was good money, and I think that kind of saved us. But yeah, at one point we were a grand away from having an empty bank account. It was scary, and our manager definitely used that to put the fear into us.
Was there a specific moment for you when you decided to try and turn things around?
I guess maybe it was when ‘Numbskull’ came out actually. That really cleaned the slate and gave us a licence to start again. I’d enjoyed hearing our music played on the radio, and I wanted that again. I knew I had to write my way out of it. And I knew we had to have some really strong singles to come back. I guess I knew then that I was consciously going for more of a pop kind of thing. And I remember writing ‘Shining Light’ and instantly thinking, “this is the song that’s gonna do it”. And luckily it did!
This is when you were back working in the same garage you started out in – back in your parents’ house. How important was it for you to physically get back to your roots for Free All Angels?
I just needed somewhere to get my head together really. I’d been caught in this big whirlwind since leaving school in 1995. The following year we were No.1 and then things probably didn’t really slow down until mid 1999. So I just needed to take stock of everything that happened and check in with myself. I needed to remind myself where I was and where I’d come from. And it was good, because there was time to chill and reflect at my folks’ house. It’s a house in the countryside, and it’s really pretty around there, so it was a good place to go after living in London and travelling around the world. I think the peace did me a lot of good.
Were you writing what might be your next hit album, or writing what might be your last album? How worried were you about it not landing the way you wanted it to?
Oh it wasn’t a sure thing at all. We did send a demo of ‘Shining Light’ to our manager, and he came back really excited about it. And our producer was flipping out about the songs as well. So I guess we had a good early reaction to the new material, but you have to remember the musical climate around that time – Steps was in the charts, and a lot of manufactured pop was coming back really strong. So it seemed like there was a lot less room for rock in the mainstream. But then that time was also coinciding with stuff like The Strokes, and these new indie glory days, even if not many bands from the Britpop era were finding a place in it. Luckily, we fit in!
What are your memories of the Free All Angels tour? Did it feel different then to the shows you’d been playing for Nu-Clear Sounds?
Oh it was so great. We’d rehearsed them all live a lot before we recorded them, so we kind of had a good sense of how they might land, but having those songs become hits straight away was amazing. We started off opening our sets with ‘Burn Baby Burn’, and then it went down so well that we ended up closing on it instead. That became our closer during that tour and it’s stayed there ever since. It was a good feeling though, y’know? Playing hits again. ‘Shining Light’ went Top 10. And then during that year ‘Burn Baby Burn’ won NME’s Single Of The Year. That also went on to become the first song ever played on BBC 6 Music.
How do you feel about the album now that you’ve spent some time going back to it for the rerelease? Has your relationship changed to it changed at all?
There’s probably about five songs from that album that we regularly play live, so those songs still very much feel part of me, but it was going back to all the others that I enjoyed the most. The ones I don’t hear that often. Honestly, when I listened back again I just thought ‘this is a really great bunch of songs’. The deep cuts are really strong as well. It just kind of makes me feel sad that we haven’t played them as much, but I guess we’ve put out a lot of music since then!
And how’s it been rehearsing with Charlotte [Hatherley] again? Getting back into the rhythms of playing as a four?
It’s fun. And it’s good for me because most of the time we’re playing as a three-piece these days, and it’s just relentless. I don’t get a moment to switch off. Charlotte is such a great guitarist and keyboard player so it just sometimes gives me a moment to stand at the back, strum my guitar and just take it all in [laughs]! I also love singing together with Charlotte as well. We’ve actually only done one rehearsal so far – we did a little acoustic run through the other day, but I can’t wait to get into the rehearsal room with the amps cranked up.
What else are you looking forward to beyond the album anniversary shows?
We’ve got some good stuff coming up. We’re doing a big 30th anniversary show at Ulster Hall in Belfast just before Christmas. We should hopefully have some good special guests for that one too. 30 years is big deal, right?! It feels like a big one. I mean, not many bands get there without having split up at least once! And then after that we’re in Australia and New Zealand. It’s been like 20 years since we went to New Zealand so I really can’t wait for that. And then hopefully we’ll be back with some new music next year as well.
This is the new double album you’ve teased?
I guess it’s probably gonna be two albums. We realised that we’ve got these two completely different feels to what we’re doing. And they don’t really sit together, so we’re kind of expanding on those two vibes and making two albums, which we’re working on simultaneously. I have no idea which one’s going to come up first, or when, but it’s fun. Lot’s of really good stuff still to come…
Ash play a one-night 30th-anniversary show at the Ulster Hall, Belfast on 16 December 2022. Tickets are on sale now. See available tickets HERE.
The group are also set to play reschedued shows in Dublin, Wexford & Limerick. New dates yet to be announced. Watch this space!