Recently we had the opportunity to chat with Ash bassist Mark Hamilton to get his thoughts on the band’s latest release The ‘A-Z’ singles. We shared a phone call while Mark and the band were preparing for a show at The Guildhall in Gloucester and talked about the inspiration behind this innovative concept and also the group’s plans regarding the rest of the year.
“After six albums you have to try different things”
S] Is there a constant theme running through the A-Z singles which you have been releasing since the beginning of October?
M] No. The whole idea with having the collection of singles was so that we could approach each one individually rather than work on them as a cohesive album. To tie the whole thing together with a theme would mean that it would have to be an album. We realised that 95 per cent of the downloads on iTunes are all individual tracks and people are changing the trend of buying music, and so we thought we should try and adapt and evolve. Also, an album can take anything up to three years to get together and then you have to go on the road and tour it and then there’s the new writing process. So there’s this three year cycle where bands have to wait for the next bunch of new material – we wanted to keep regular songs coming, like every three weeks which is what we’re doing now and the fans have something to constantly look forward to – like a favourite TV show. Doing this means that each song can be scrutinised individually while on an album a lot of songs don’t even get any sort of attention at all. So for us, we really have to up our quality control and make sure that each song we release is good enough to be a single. We are being guinea pigs for ourselves you know? Just to see if it works but we are pretty pleased with the music that we have recorded and we think the fans will be happy with it is as well.
There’s something for everyone. I mean, some fans like the more rock side of Ash and some people like the poppier side and the more punk side but we’ve been really experimental on it as well.
S] What are you looking forward to most about touring and turning everything up in the live arena?
M] Well, we’ve recorded a lot of songs. There are 44 so far for the whole ‘A-Z’ series but the best 26 of those will be released as singles. We’ve been in the studio for the last year-and-a-half recording, whenever you are in a studio for that long and you haven’t been playing live, you really start to miss it and it’s like, ‘Damn it, I want to go out on the road’ – you really start to look forward to it. So after a full two years of not touring, excluding the festivals we played earlier this year, this is the longest full tour we have done for a while.
S] You guys are never short of surprises, so do you have anything coming up soon we should know about?
M] I guess as well as the 26 singles, we are going to end up having about 30 bonus songs that aren’t going to be released as singles but because we are not doing b-sides and because it’s all going to be digital, we are just going to have these bonus tracks and we are going to think of some more interesting ways to give them out like in exclusive blogs or on different websites. Because people are getting all their music from the internet these days we are thinking of new and different ways of utilising and maximising that opportunity
M] Can you expand on what ideas you have about releasing stuff in the near future?
M] Well, right now we have someone on tour with us full-time videoing everything that we do and that’s going on nme.com as part of our own microsite and there’s exclusive content being uploaded to it every week. I think he’s just uploading the first instalment of the tour and then I think every week there’s going to be a five minute re-cap of what’s going on. At the end of it we’re probably going to turn it into a feature-length film. It’s kind of focussing on the new way of approaching our music. We want to go it alone now and establish our own independent label which is what we’re doing. We’re also trying to re-approach our ideas about releasing music because a lot of people have opinions on that and about the music industry as a whole and the fact that it’s really “tanking” right now because the money is just drying up.
We had the option to continue going down this road which wasn’t really getting us anywhere for the last couple of albums or come up with something new. We presented the labels with an idea and they thought it was really crazy, they were like, ‘There’s no way we are releasing 26 singles a year because it would just cost so much money’ and we just said that we were going to give it a go even if we had to just do it ourselves.
S] Which one of the new singles best represents the state of Ash as a unit now in 2009?
M] That’s an interesting question because sometimes it’s really hard to nail exactly what we are as a band because so many people like our various different sides. Some of the new songs will likely turn people off and some will go, ‘Oh that’s far too pop, and that one has far too many guitar solos and is too metal’. Fortunately, most people like that idea and the fact that we have so many different sides but of course some do find it frustrating and they can be unsure whether they like us or not because there are so many different aspects. I guess, at the end of the day we just make music that we like and we have quite a wide range of influences and we’ve never been really afraid to try different things out.
A great example of this would be the first come back single (‘Return Of The White Rabbit’) were we tried to do this kind of synth-electro-pop song and it was certainly a little bit daring because it wasn’t what people expected and this way there’s potential to isolate some of the people who are into the heavier side of the band. Whenever you look over the course of the full 26 songs, I think that everything is going to be covered. You can’t really pander to just one view we are trying to experiment. After six albums you really have to be able to try different things.
S] There’s some nifty electronics going on with this new stuff – it’s been said that this is a real time of experimentation and progression for the group away from the known sound – how are you enjoying it – is it freeing almost?
M] It’s going to be fun to see how all of the different people react. We have a really good relationship with a lot of the fans on our message board. It’s great for us to see their reaction to different songs because you’re never going to know if people are going to be in to certain ones and often it can be surprising because we’ll think that certain people won’t be into a track and then they really like it. We never release any music that we are not completely happy with and so you can’t really get upset if people don’t like it. We just have to always think positively.
S] Talking about that element of positivity, would you agree that there’s definitely an element of that within the sound and the mood of these songs?
M] I think that you always get that freshness when you try something new. We took a very different approach to writing the songs where we didn’t start off with a vocal melody but we started with some drum beats and it was like doing it from a completely different angle and because of that we could come up with things that we wouldn’t have done otherwise.
S] Has there been a particular moment that has stood out for you whilst you have been in the studio?
M] I guess the one that sticks out for me is when we wrote the bass-line for ‘Return Of The White Rabbit’ because that really was a cool part and I mean, we pretty much wrote the entire song around that bass and we’ve never really done that before. It was just really fun to do and the bass is really dancefloor-friendly, we just jammed it for a long time and we must have recorded about 20 minutes of just different styles then we just put it on the computer and started to count the best parts in order to build up this strong structure. A lot of our songs will be written on an acoustic guitar first and then we’ll get together as a band and jam them out but that track particularly is completely different and it was a song built from bass.
S] Obviously you can’t speak for the band but how do you feel you have grown and developed personally through the music since 2007 ‘Meltdown’ and Charlotte [Hatherley]’s departure through to deciding not to release another album and now, putting out this collection?
M] Well, the biggest thing that has happened to me was becoming a father. I have a ten-month-old baby and it has completely changed my life. The last ten months have been the best time of my life and also the most exhausting and trying time. You have to completely re-evaluate your life and the fact that it’s not about you anymore because everything’s focussed on this other little person, so that’s definitely been life changing.
S] Congratulations! So do these personal experiences ever come through musically?
M] Yeah, I guess a lot of songs are written as an autobiographical commentary.
S] OK, we have a fan question from Colm O’ Rourke in York, North Yorkshire and he asks: “How did it feel when you began being tagged as britpop and what are your fondest memories from that era?”
M] It was a pretty exciting time and there were a lot of great bands. It was kind of like the gold-rush of British pop, or guitar-indie music. You had these great acts like Blur, Pulp and Elastica and it just seemed like the record companies were throwing money at every last band and those were definitely golden years, not necessarily for us musically, but it was definitely a fun time. People always have a lot of nostalgia for the britpop 90s and stuff, we made a lot of friends and I guess it was quite a decadent time as well because there was an awful lot of money in the music industry and a lot of excesses going on [laughs] so, it was very fun in lots of different ways.
S] How has your attitude to the music industry changed since you began?
M] We’ve kind of watched it crumble over the last few years since 2004. There has been a real dramatic decline in the industry. A lot of people that used to have jobs are fired or being made redundant simply because the labels don’t have the money and they can’t sustain that many employees. Also, CD sales dropped dramatically and it’s a weird one because labels did sort of have this monopoly where they all charged the same price and I remember a lot of people thinking that was too expensive. I guess though, that was the price of creating. Now you will find a lot of bands just won’t get signed because there’s not the investment money for labels to pump in to new music, as a result a lot of bands will have to find ways to make money themselves. It’s getting even harder now because the cost of touring is going up and there’s only so many people out there, especially in this recession who can afford to go to shows, so it’s tough out there and you have to find new and interesting ways to get people’s attention and that’s what we’re trying to do.
S] If you could listen to the collection of singles all together with one person over dinner who would you pick Mark?
M] I guess it would be really cool to play my music to one of my personal heroes. Kurt Cobain was always a massive influence on us when we were younger and he was really into the heavier guitar stuff but he also liked pop music and it would be interesting to see just what he would think of the tunes as a lot of our songs are very pop orientated. Nirvana were a band that I felt so close to through the music and it’s almost like you felt as if you knew the person even if you didn’t. I mean, I met him once and got his autograph but I never knew him personally. I’d really have liked to have been able to play for him because his music directly influenced us to start with.
S] Thanks Mark. We’re up North in Yorkshire so we’ll hopefully see you soon?
M] Yeah. We’re hopefully coming through in the spring and playing Leeds.
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