Ash’s Tim Wheeler: “Live music is in deep trouble – it’s really important that venues survive”

The frontman on the Passports: Back To Our Roots gigs and plans to release two new albums

A host of bands are coming together to help save the grassroots venues where they first found their feet. Elbow will play the Night And Day Café for the first time in 30 years. Slow Readers Club will return to Hebden Bridge Trades Club to relive the heady days of 2018. And Ash will play Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh where they… um…

“It’s actually one we’ve never played,” Tim Wheeler admits, discussing the band’s involvement with the Passports: Back To Our Roots gigs, “but it’s one that Rick [McMurray, drummer] loves to go to. We had to choose a city that we aren’t planning to play eventually when things open up. Rick lives in Edinburgh so we thought it’d be good to support a local venue. All I know is it’s very small, about 100 capacity. It’s gonna be really intimate, and it’s got a super-cool name!”

The idea of the ‘Passports’ gigs is that fans donate £5 and gain entry to a prize draw for passes to huge bands play tiny grassroots shows, at venues such as Bedford Esquires and London’s Amersham Arms, to be held as soon as coronavirus restrictions allow. It’s as much as a lifeline for Tim as the fans, after months of globe-trotting COVID frustrations. “It’s been a tough year,” he says, “we’re definitely missing getting out on the road.”

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NME caught up with Tim to discuss saving live music, what he’s been up to in lockdown, and new Ash music.

Why did you get involved in Passport: Back To Our Roots?

“Small venues have been really important to us throughout our career. It’s where we started out and we go back to play them a lot. Between festivals we’re always doing a few small club shows. I think they’re absolutely vital for new bands, an intrinsic part of the British music scene, so it’s really important that they survive all of this. It’s worrying to think how small businesses can survive without support. They’re gonna be the last things to open and it must be very tough for them at the moment. This is a way of getting people to support – even if you support by just sending £5. It’s an industry that’s in deep trouble, so I think it’s a cool way to draw attention to it and people can think about it as a donation to their favourite venue.”

Are you concerned that the government support seems inadequate so far – just £3.25million of the £50million the industry needs – and isn’t getting where it needs to go?

“Absolutely, and when you think about how many venues there are, there’s obviously massively important cultural places like the Royal Albert Hall and things like that that probably need a lot of support too. I’m sure by the end of it, it won’t stretch that far in the end. I’ve heard it’s quite slow to get the money to these places, it’s taking a long time to distribute it so there’s probably a lot of small businesses that may not be able to last until it arrives.”

Tim Wheeler of Ash
Tim Wheeler of Ash CREDIT: Kieran Frost/Redferns

What happened to the drive-in gigs you were going to play?

“They were on sale and they pulled the whole series of shows because I think the potential for the local lockdowns made it seem like it was going to be impossible. Live Nation was behind that idea and it’s a shame it couldn’t work. They would’ve been weird gigs but I would have been happy to have got to play in any way, even if it was in a strange way, it would have been fun. There’s definitely something missing if you don’t have an audience. There have only been a couple of times we’ve played seated venues, one was opening for Weezer in Tennessee and it’s kinda strange. You can’t beat a jumping crowd.”

How have you been coping with lockdown?

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“OK. I got stuck in Ireland for months. My big stress was that I wouldn’t be able to get back to the States to move. We’ve been planning to move to London since last year and I was worried I wouldn’t get back. I had to go to Turkey for two weeks to get back. I had to be out of the Schengen zone for 14 days. Then I got back to New York and had to do everything in a mad rush.”

New York seems to have been hit hard.

“Yeah, because of the riots on top of coronavirus a lot of it’s boarded up, so it’s feels so weird and Escape From New York-ish. It definitely made leaving easier because I thought, ‘It’s gonna be weird for a long time here’. It’s quiet, a bit eerie and so many homeless junkies on the street. It feels very edgy.”

What has been your take on how the pandemic has been handled?

“The government handled it really badly in the beginning. We knew that gigs were inevitably gonna get cancelled but if it had been a week earlier we probably would’ve played to 10,000 people that week, but the week that happened huge gigs were going on. It would’ve made a big difference, things would probably be a bit better at the minute if they’d dealt with it better at the time. I think they were slow.”

Will it be the end of Trump?

“Oh, I really hope so! Although he somehow seems to get away with everything. It’s such a mess in America and I really hope it’s a way of getting rid of him.”

What happened with Ash when lockdown kicked in?

“We were one third of our way through a tour, going round Europe. It got to the point where we were taking it one day at a time. We knew things were gonna get cancelled but it’s a tough position to be in because we couldn’t cancel the gigs. It had to be the promoter doing it, otherwise we would’ve been liable to pay back a ton of money. It’s tough that the government didn’t shut down the UK shows before they did. We didn’t know until the day before our tour was about to start that it was cancelled and that meant I got stuck and couldn’t get home to America for months. We were waiting for the word but I couldn’t fly back in the meantime. We had some big UK dates in March and that got pushed back to September and then got pushed back to next March. I wouldn’t be surprised if they get pushed back further at some point.”

Have you been writing and recording?

“I’ve almost had an album finished for a long time and this touring has kept pushing back finishing it. I’ve just finished vocals on it and when I was in Ireland for a few months I finished all the lyrics, so that was good. I got back to New York and had to shut down the studio – so it’s sort of a matter of getting a new studio set up now I’ve moved to London. It could be finished kinda soon-ish, but also I wrote a ton of songs in lockdown so we’ve almost got another record ready to record as well. It’s not very lockdown-y. I’ve kinda found it a good escape to write as if things were normal, just to remind myself what normal life was like.”

So will there be two new Ash albums before the next tour?

“There probably will be one and we’ll still be touring our greatest hits album from earlier this year. Next year there’s gonna be a lot of records coming out.”

Ash join Passports growing line-up which already includes Elbow (who will play at Manchester’s Night & Day Cafe), Everything Everything (Esquires in Bedford), Public Service Broadcasting (Amersham Arms in London) and The Slow Readers Club (The Trades Club in Hebden Bridge). The dates of the gigs are yet to be announced, and entry to these shows will be conducted via a prize draw here – which runs until 10am on August 31.

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