Rick McMurray was at home in Edinburgh when I called, all set for the next run of live appearances with Ash, the following fortnight alone including outdoor festivals in Devon, Lancashire, Hampshire and Warwickshire, and club dates in Reading and Derby, then his adopted home city and Cardiff.
And despite so many career highs over the years, I got the impression that 44-year-old Rick loves his job as much now as when he first teamed up with Tim Wheeler and Mark Hamilton in his school days. To namecheck the Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz movie the band provided title music for in 1997, it’s been ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ for these three lads from County Down.
Rick, actually born in Larne, County Antrim, will take the stage at the Cotton Clouds Festival, Saddleworth Cricket Club, Lancashire, on Friday night, August 16th, on a bill topped by Peter Hook & The Light, 25 years after the first of 18 top-40 singles and seven hit albums – including two No.1s – with this groundbreaking Northern Irish outfit. So is it still the career of sorts he signed up for all those years ago?
“Yeah, it’s good. It’s been a little bit back and forward, sporadic, so I’m looking forward to the next run, with these festivals and club shows between. It’s almost more knackering going away for the weekend then coming back, trying to recover in time for the next one while looking after your kids, then more travelling.
“But it’s still a buzz. We’ve been doing it now for … I don’t know, I dread to think, doing the miles and working out how many years since we started.”
Funny you should say that. I was trying to suss out the timeline. I gather it all started in 1989, but it wasn’t until 1994 that you delivered debut mini-LP, Trailer.
“I think it was probably 1989 that Tim and Mark started playing together.”
Was that with their Iron Maiden cover band, Vietnam?
“Yeah. We went to the same school, although I didn’t really know them. It was probably six months before we got together. I saw them play some kind of Children in Need show at school.”
Were you impressed?
“Erm … they were a kind of weird band. They had these two older guys who’d left school, one playing drums, one singing but walking off stage because he couldn’t sing, Tim having to take over. But I thought they were kind of cool. They were (two years) younger than me, but you could tell Tim and Mark had something, even if the others were something questionable.
“It was shortly after that they got rid of the other guys, and the only other drummer they knew was me.”
That was handy then. And had you been playing for a while by then?
“Yeah, just in my bedroom. I’d never been part of any band.”
What was the first song the band worked on that you thought was something special?
“I’d been in the band maybe two weeks when we recorded the first six-song demo. That was cool and exciting. And I remember Tim had gone away on his summer holidays and came back with ‘Jack Names the Planets’. That was like, ‘Oh wow! This is a different league.’ It was definitely more accomplished from a songwriting point of view. A big leap forward.
“We did our first demo, then Tim went away, came back with that, and I think it was at the end of that summer that we did our first show.”
That first show was at The Penny Farthing in Belfast, a venue Rick says they played monthly for around a year. Do those performances blur into one now?
“Yeah, the line-ups changed slightly, with new bands coming in, but it was essentially a bunch of bands playing to other bands, not making any money.”
Was that quite a way from your home patch then?
“It was. I think most nights we’d go on first, because the last bus to Downpatrick on a Saturday was around half 10. We’d do the gig then maybe watch one or two other bands, then crash at mates in Belfast or run up the road with guitars and drums to catch the bus.”
Different times, not least with the complications of getting in and out of the city back then.
“I guess it wasn’t something we really thought about then. I think we only really became conscious of that after 1977 came out and we had crew from the rest of the UK. You’d soundcheck, go and get something to eat, and they’d say, ‘What the fuck is that?’, pointing. There was no point saying, ‘Well, it’s a soldier with a gun’. It was pretty normal to us.”
I think of The Undertones recording debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’ for Good Vibrations in Belfast, then their big break when John Peel famously played it (twice in a row) on BBC Radio 1. Was it a similar tale with you, but with Steve Lamacq helping spread the word?
“Yeah, but I guess it was just finding a label interested in us first. I can’t remember the name of the label, but Daisy Chainsaw were around, maybe ’93. They’d been in touch, hearing a demo, showing interest but then going cold on us – these naïve teenagers from Northern Ireland thinking, ‘Oh shit! We nearly had it’. We didn’t know what we needed to do, frustrated.
“Luckily there was this guy who worked with Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins’ (Bad Moon) PR firm, Paddy Davis, whose wife was from Downpatrick, and a cassette landed on his desk. He passed it on to a friend who had some kind of one-off singles label. So he paid for us to go in the studio to record ‘Jack Names the Planets’, then Steve Lamacq played it.”
That friend – I think I’m right in saying – was Stephen Taverner, who put up the cash to press 1,000 7 inch copies on his LaLaLand label, and subsequently became the band’s full-time manager. Was Rick listening in at the time when Steve Lamacq first played the single?
“Yeah, it took a long time for that buzz to wear off!”
And are we talking an old C60 with that demo on it?
“It might have been a C30.”
Have you still got anything like that stored at your place?
“Probably at my parents’ house, but after a life of living out of a suitcase on the road, I’m not the most organised person, so those things fall by the wayside. The only thing I really collect is drums. But at this point in my life I can’t really get into my drum room to play – there’s too many of them.”
Rick’s been based between tours and recording stints in Edinburgh since around 2005, and has two children, aged eight and four.
“I was educating them in Edinburgh city centre a couple of nights ago, taking them down to see Johnny Marr, with my brother tech-ing bass and drums down there in torrential rain!”
It’s been just over a year since the most recent Ash LP surfaced, Islands, and what a corker it was, not least the track ‘Buzzkill‘, featuring The Undertones’ Michael Bradley and Damian O’Neill.
“Yeah, although that was done remotely. Tim had been working on the song, had just done the backing vocals, then was back home and The Undertones were playing, and he realised he’d really ripped off their style of backing vocals. So he felt a bit of flattery might help him get away with it, and fortunately they were well up for it.”
Well, I think they’d readily admit a few wholesale ‘steals’ from other influences over the years, so what goes around the turntable …
“Oh absolutely, and we had the pleasure of playing with them a few times last year, including the BBC 6 Music weekend event in Belfast, pretty much under the Harland & Wolff cranes. That was an iconic Northern Irish moment.”
You should be used to such moments, not least after your part in a truly momentous happening 21 years ago, playing Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on the night the ‘Yes’ campaign famously brought together SDLP leader John Hume and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, something I was reminding myself of before this interview, going back to Stuart Bailie’s excellent Trouble Songs from last year.
“Yeah, in fact we did a gig with Snow Patrol there back in May, the first time we’d been back in that building together since. Yeah, that was pretty insane.”
It was such a big moment – albeit one that this whole Brexit fiasco threatens to undo, of course. Does that night in May 1998 remain clear in the memory, or was it all something of a blur?
“It was really intense, but there were moments that stood out. It was all very last minute. I think it was only a week before that we first heard about it. We were in the studio working on Nu-Clear Sounds when we got the call.”
That was at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, wasn’t it?
“That’s right, and we were told, ‘Let us know tomorrow morning If you want to do it.’ It was kind of a no-brainer really. We’d not been in Northern Ireland during the campaign, but gathered that the ’No’ side were constantly in the headlines and seemed to have real momentum behind them. We had to do something to play our small part in whatever this would turn out to be. My most vivid memories are of John Hume walking up the stairs and saying, ‘It’s gonna happen’. That was the whole moment kind of summed up.“
And referencing an Undertones hit at the same time.
Charlotte (Hatherley) hadn’t been so long with the band then, had she?
“She’d definitely been in the band for less than a year. I think U2 was one of her first gigs the previous summer. Yeah, she’d been in the band less than a week and then we were supporting U2 in Belfast!”
I should ask. Are you still in touch with Bono?
“Err … no. Ha! Snow Patrol did their own festival recently, but we were trying to beat the traffic home, so left before the end, and only the next day heard we missed him.”
It’s now 15 years since Charlotte left and you reverted to the original three-piece set-up. There’s something about that which is magical, from my love of The Jam right through to Wilko Johnson’s band. Can you put your finger on why that formation works so well? Is it just that you have to work that little bit harder?
“Erm, well, I’m doing backing vocals now, Tim’s taken on all the guitar parts … but it’s no more work for Mark! Ha!”
And are you still in touch with Charlotte?
“Yeah, we always try and meet up if we’re in London. I’ve not seen her in a while but we keep in touch via social media and stuff. She’s doing great at the minute, doing selfies with Nile Rodgers!”
Actually, that got me thinking. I saw Ash at the L2 in Liverpool on Thursday, August 14th, 1997 with my mate Neil, when we were reporters in Chorley. He’s now a sports editor in Western Australia, but was in Birkenhead then, or ‘rural Cheshire’ as he tred to convince us. I’d like to say it was a memorable night, but was worse for the drink later and can’t recall much. I remember loving Ash’s performance, the 1977 album not far behind them. I should at least recall if Charlotte played, but the memories are blurry.
It turns out that Charlotte’s Ash debut was at Belfast’s Limelight just four days ealier, and the following week the new lineup played the second V Festival’s NME Stage. Her recording debut happened later that year with sublime single, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, followed by the following year’s Nu-Clear Sounds LP. So now you (and I ) know.
Anyway, if Tim and Mark have been based in New York since around 2006, and you’re in Edinburgh, how do rehearsals work?
“I think these days we kind of avoid rehearsing! This year we’ve done a grand total of probably 45 minutes. Most of our two days rehearsing last year was Tim changing pedals on his rig, stuff like that. I think rehearsing at home is more productive. I’ll be doing some of that in the next couple of days.”
Do you talk to each other a lot via phone or social media between engagements?
“Yeah, yeah, usually emails through the night, with the time difference and that. We’ve been working this way pretty much since we started. I was in Belfast before I moved here, when the others were in London. We’ve always had this remote set-up, and it seems to work.”
It certainly does. I was impressed enough by the Wedding Present releasing 12 singles in one year back in 1992. But you somehow managed one 7″ a fortnight from 2009/10 for your A-Z Series. I don’t suppose you have another 26 singles tucked away for the coming year, have you?
“We’ve a fair few tracks up our sleeves. I think for the first time in our career we’re quite ahead of ourselves. When a band’s been around this long, and when a label you’re signed to buys all your back-catalogue, there are certain other things that may delay that, but … Back in the ‘90s I remember it was, ‘Where’s the follow-up album?’ Fast forward 25 years and it’s us saying, ‘Come on! Let’s get this out!’”
And it’s a case of all three of your bringing in ideas?
So could there be a new album next year?
“We’ll see. I don’t want to put a date on it. But if it was up to us it would probably be out by now.”
So many great songs in the catalogue, and such a rich collection of wonderful singles over the years, but is there a record you don’t think gets the exposure it should? Or do you love them all as much as each other, and – like your own children – couldn’t possibly name one above another?
“Yeah, we’ve never really had a problem with playing the hits, but I was bored a couple of months ago, playing random album tracks. There are certain songs that the set is made of, but it would be fun to look into including others. I think our sets are definitely more high energy than the records, which have more of an ebb and flow to them. It might be nice to turn that on its head at some point. There are no plans, but if I had my way …”
Finally, if you could go back to the Penny Farthing and offer yourself some advice, what would it be?
“Cut your hair, sort those glasses out!”
Ash are on the bill this Friday, August 16 at Cotton Clouds Festival, Saddleworth Cricket Club, Lancashire, with more details about the two-day event here. And for more on the band and other dates in the diary this year, try their website and keep in touch via their Facebook and Twitter accounts.