Ashes to Ashes: Interview with Rick McMurray

Published on 10th November 2009 by the University Observer

“Fame? I just drink my way through it.”

Ash have been together seventeen years, selling eight million albums, playing a part in the Good Friday Agreement, and being named as one of Q-Magazine’s “50 Bands to See Before You Die”. Now they’re back, with a new take on the music scene: declaring albums defunct and singles contemporary, they’ve set themselves a challenge of twenty-six singles in one year, releasing one every two weeks.

Drummer Rick McMurray explains the reasoning behind this concept, called the A-Z Series. “We just decided to ditch the album concept a couple of years back, we kind of got bored of having a three year cycle of the album and then spending a year and a half on the road and then back in writing again, and we kind of wanted to mix things up a bit and mix up the writing with the touring as well. I think it’s the way people buy music as well these days; people are just cherry-picking tracks off albums rather than buying a full album, they’re just buying songs that they hear on the radio or on MySpace or whatever. We decided we just wanted to do things a little bit differently so we came up with the concept of just bringing out a single every two weeks and we’ll do that for a year… twenty-six songs, which is coincidently the number of letters in the alphabet, and that’s where the name comes from.”

Ash1Taking the decision to release every song as a single means each song’s melodies must be strong; for one thing, the band sacrifice the ability to pad out an album with filler material simply to take up space. “We have been recording a lot in the studio over the last year and we’ve come up with forty-four songs. Because every one is a single, we really want to keep the quality up – we’re going to go into studio I think early next year too – so we’ll have plenty of tracks… hopefully we’ll have, like, fifty to choose from.”

Ash formed and released their first album while still in school, and can ably be thought of as one of Northern Ireland’s most successful bands and exports, having had considerable success not only in Europe but in America. otwo asks Rick how they have managed to stay together so long.

“We all grew up together, we get on really well and we still have a lot as a band to achieve; ambitions, things that we haven’t done yet… we’ve never had a number one single so we’d like to get that, and we’d love to headline one of the big festivals as well, so we’re still really excited. We think, because we’re not doing albums any more, it’s like a new lease of life for the band… it almost feels like we’re started again; when a band starts out, not really thinking about albums, you know, trying to write as many songs as possible and write the greatest songs you can.”

Not only are Ash songsters, they’re actors too. Musicians turned to acting can be calamitous at the best of times, and you’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard of Ash’s big-screen endeavour. Slashed, the unreleased horror film they created starring Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, themselves and featuring Moby, James Nesbitt and Dave Grohl, still hasn’t come to a cinema screen near you. “I don’t know if we’re going to release it, it never actually got finished at the time, there’s a few scenes that didn’t be shot and it’s just, like, ‘I think we’d look a little bit older’. It’s seven years ago so it’ll never be finished, but I think Mark’s talking about just editing some little clips of it together for YouTube or something like that.”

Rick also quells the rumours that Dave Grohl was against the release, for fears of being seen running around in bloodstained boxers. “Dave actually comes across quite well, he’s a pretty good actor. I’d say he’s probably one of the best actors in it, he’s kind of like a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes.”

But back to business. In their new vision of a single-based music market, Ash have acknowledged that the industry they’re in is constantly evolving, and also recognise the challenges this poses for up-and-coming artists. “I think things have changed for bands starting off,” opines McMurray. “It’s changed so much since we’ve started – I mean, that was before the internet even existed and you didn’t have to set up your own MySpace or your Facebook or be constantly Twittering all the time. I guess there’s so many different tools out there for bands – but, again, the music business just isn’t the same; there’s just such a quick turnover of bands, I think it’s going to be really tough for them out there. Especially with illegal downloading, it’s really hard to establish yourself but I guess people have got more money for going out and seeing gigs rather than buying records, so I guess you’re just going to have to get out on the road and keep plugging away.”

otwo also asks what the music scene in the North was like in the early ‘90s. “It was kind of weird because in our hometown, Downpatrick, there were so many bands – it’s a really small place with a population of about fifteen thousand, but there were at least about fifteen bands that were kicking around at that time. Nirvana was a huge influence – it just made everyone want to go out and join a band. That was cool, and then I think things sort of died off for a little bit after that; we were one of the lucky ones we got signed and got successful.”

Despite being part of a band that drinks their way through fame and allegedly smoked spliffs with S Club (“S Club. Did we? We were definitely there the night they got busted anyway for doing something… they seemed to be quite big fans of the band strangely enough”), the then-foursome didn’t forget their roots, with Rick citing their role in the Northern peace process as a highlight of his career. “We played a concert at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in the week coming up to the Good Friday Agreement. The No campaign was grabbing all the headlines. I think it was John Hume and Bono’s idea to put on a gig with a big band from the North and really promote the Yes campaign, and it did seem to really have an effect around the country. It was suddenly the Yes campaign that was grabbing all the headlines so it was much more positive and we were just really proud to play whatever part we could in it.”

McMurray, Wheeler and Hamilton parted ways with guitarist Charlotte Hatherley in 2006 after nine years as a foursome, returning to the three original members of the band. “I think we’re really happy as a three-piece. I think when we got rid of Charlotte we were nervous, wondering whether we could pull things off because we were a four-piece for so long. But pretty much within the first week of gigs we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re definitely staying like this’.”

Not that the devolution back to a three-piece changed the style of Ash’s output: the band have been changing their sound since the outset. “If you listen to the first of the singles which we put out last Monday, which is called ‘True Love 19AD’, and compare that to our early stuff, it sounds like two different bands. We’ve always been big fans of bands who change their sound and change their identity a lot. There’s no point in repeating yourself, once you’ve done something it’s time to move on to something else that’s new.”

And how about the fact that they think their staggered releasing of singles could stop potential illegal music sharing? McMurray believes that this form of distribution minimises the free copies of a record to people in the media, among others, and therefore it’s less likely to end up on Limewire et al. “It’s not like doing an album – we’re doing a single every two weeks, people aren’t going to hear it until it’s been released, you hear it as it unfolds, and we’ve got a subscription from a website which is £13 in the UK for all 26, so it’s really well-priced. I think music still has to have a value – if people get things for free they don’t really care about it as much as they do if they’ve paid for it, so I think it’s important that the music has a value so people care about it.”

Though maybe not a revolutionary idea, Ash seem ready to tackle any hindrance, and see the changing industry as a challenge rather than an impediment. So what’s next for them? “This whole campaign’s going to run for a year so I guess we should be touring all around the world, going to Japan I think next year and maybe America as well… the whole single thing doesn’t finish until the end of next September, but after that we’re going to have to come up with a new concept.”

What Ash might come up with next is anyone’s guess, but without doubt it’ll be worth watching.

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