It’s been a long way back to basics for Ash. The Irish trio became stars as teenagers in the U.K. for their ebullient pop-punk jams and endearing youthful antics, cute enough to be (erroneously) marketed as a boy band in their early days but RAWK enough to cite J Mascis as a key influence. But for a decade, the group hadn’t released a full album in their classic, sunny guitar-pop mold since 2001’s Free All Angels — detouring with ’04’s metal-inflected Meltdown, 2007’s dingier Twilight of the Innocents, and most notably, the ultra-ambitious, wildly digressive A-Z Series singles project that stretched from 2009 into 2010. But for latest album Kablammo!, out this week in the U.S., Ash had no objectives beyond making an album of catchy, invigorating and preternaturally tuneful and cuddly rock blasts that could hold their own with the smashes off Angels and their breakthrough debut album, 1996’s 1977.
“A lot of this band is about pushing boundaries and stuff,” drummer Rick McMurray explains. “We’ve been conscious of not trying to repeat ourselves or taking things into new territory. But with Kablammo!, it’s the first time we’ve looked back and we’ve got all this history with us. We have to take account of that and try and make [the new album] stand up.”
To the band’s credit, it does. Arriving just in time for summer — which has long been Ash’s season, playing an integral role in career highlights like “Girl From Mars,” “Oh Yeah,” and “Walking Barefoot,” and radiating from the shimmering guitars and sweetly sentimental vocals in all others — Kablammo! both feels and sounds like a lost late-’90s Ash album, a missing chapter in between 1977 and Free All Angels, self-acknowledged as their two best LPs. If released in the trio’s prime, new songs like the soaring “Machinery” and the chiming “Hedonism” could’ve been massive hits; released in 2015, they still hold their own against any of the band’s established crowd-pleasers.
Forming as teenagers in Northern Ireland in the early ’90s (and naming themselves after the first short word in the dictionary that they liked), Ash came to U.K. prominence in the middle of the decade, at the height of Blur vs. Oasis mania. Though the group would ultimately be lumped in with those bands — 1977 co-producer Owen Morris had even previously worked on the Gallagher brothers’ own star-making debut, Definitely Maybe — the group were, in their own way, as much of a reaction to the Anglophilia of the musical moment as the Britpop movement originally was a response to the international dominance of American grunge.
“We were very happy to be influenced by American bands,” frontman Tim Wheeler recalls — making the band an anomaly among the oft-fervently insular world of Britpop. “We loved Nirvana and everything: Dinosaur Jr. and Pixies, we were openly into that stuff.” McMurray adds, “It was cool to be around when there was a lot of guitar music in the charts over there [in the U.K.], but we felt like we were gate-crashing the party. It’s always felt that we’ve been our own real thing.”
Even if their music wasn’t explicitly of the “Yanks Go Home!” mentality, it was exciting and anthemic and youthful enough to fit alongside the dominant Britpop acts on the charts. In ’96, 1977 debuted at No. 1 in the U.K., and its effervescent lead single (and eventual signature Ash song) “Girl From Mars” began the group’s imperial phase, kicking off a streak of 13 consecutive Top 40 U.K. hits — many of which featured the additional guitar and vocals of fourth member Charlotte Hatherley, who joined in ’97. All of those singles were ultimately compiled on 2002’s Intergalactic Sonic 7″s, which today stands as the group’s definitive document, a sparkling, all-killer collection of gems that deserves to be thought of as this century’s Singles Going Steady — even if Ash was having too much fun riding the wild surf and watching Jackie Chan movies to be infected with the crippling anxiety that characterized many of the Buzzcocks’ best.
But the group could never quite get the timing right in the States. When Ash broke in the mid-’90s, American pop-punk still leaned closer to the second half of the genre’s name, with underground-bred bands like Green Day, the Offspring, and Rancid leading the charge; tunes as sugary-sweet as Ash’s best were still mildly anomalous. By the time Blink-182 and their polished peers helped shift the balances, Ash were in a rare turn-of-the-century commercial lull with 1998’s darker Nu-Clear Sounds, an album with fewer obvious singles than 1977. And when they came soaring back in their home territory with Free All Angels in ’01, here audiences were now mostly interested in nu-metal. (Wheeler even remembers one of the guys at their U.S. label Dreamworks playing him a Papa Roach song as an example of “what’s blowing up,” and basically telling the band not to even bother trying to crack the States.)
In retrospect, given their already relentless touring schedule and adolescent penchant for all things revelrous, the group wonders if they weren’t better off staying a cult favorite in America. “I think it may have killed us if we had [broken the States],” McMurray theorizes. “We were so burned out by that point.” Wheeler also points to an abortive meeting Ash had with MTV in 1996 as a potential turning point for the band. “It was after a show, and we were really late and really drunk for it. And then we had an interview the next day and we were puking in the green room before our interview,” he recalls. “We definitely really pissed them off at the time, and our label was furious, and that curbed their spending on us… We kind of fucked that up a bit.”
Ash’s popularity in the U.K. also began to wane some as the ’00s progressed, and Hatherley left the group amicably in ’07, as the band decided to return to their three-piece origins. But they never stopped writing great songs, and in the years since Sonic 7″s, they’ve amassed enough high-quality singles (“Orpheus,” “You Can’t Have It All,” “Return of White Rabbit”) and deep cuts (“Evil Eye,” “I Started a Fire,” an inspired cover of Carly Simon’s “Coming Around Again”) for a theoretical compilation nearly its equal. Many of those late-career highlights come from the A-Z Series, a collection of 26 singles released over the course of a year. The exhaustive (and exhausting) endeavor saw the band expand their arsenal to encompass twinkling synth-pop (“True Love 1980″), goofy pop-funk (“Space Shot”), and shoegaze-y epic-rock grandiosity (“Sky Burial”), all while maintaining the band’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and peerless ear for immediate hooks and singalong choruses.
The project was a huge achievement, but also temporarily emptied the band of ideas, and outside of a covers EP (2012’s Little Infinity), they didn’t record again for another half-decade. It may have surprised some Ash fans that when the band did reconvene, they did so to record a proper LP. In 2007, the band proclaimed Innocents to be their last full-length album, and recorded the A-Z Series partly out of the belief — not an unreasonable one at the time — that because of the rise of iTunes song sales and music streaming, the album was likely on its way out as a leading musical format. “It just seemed like I wasn’t listening to full albums for quite a few years,” Wheeler explains. “I was more like, picking single tracks, and more into playlists.”
However, the LP’s death has come slower than the band predicted. “It certainly seemed that way at the time but I think things have sort of come around again,” McMurray reflects. “I think if the album was going to disappear it would’ve disappeared within a decade of the whole internet revolution and people stealing stuff.” Bassist Mark Hamilton agrees, theorizing: “There was definitely a phase where people were doing playlists, but maybe people are zoning in on albums again, probably because of the resurgence of vinyl.”
And so, the trio reunited in New York — where Wheeler and Hamilton have lived full-time for almost a decade, and McMurray visits for weeks-long stints while recording — for Kablammo!, a conventionally sized set of 12 songs, 39 minutes of the kind of revved-up power-pop your cool uncle’s Ash made. “Let’s Ride,” and lead single “Cocoon” are brightly-colored firecrackers that could’ve easily fit on 1977, “Moondust” and “Free” are their lushest, swooniest power ballads since Free All Angels, even chunkier rockers like “Go! Fight! Win!” and instrumental “Evel Knievel” are reminiscent of the more immediate parts of in-betweener Ash LPs like Nu-Clear Sounds and Meltdown. When the band plays live, their new songs flow seamlessly in and out of their classic material — purposefully so. “We are thinking this album has to work really well live,” Wheeler explains. “Because we have such a body of work that it has been hard to get new songs into the set that can really stay.”
Their days of being a Top 40 force may be behind them — Kablammo! peaked at No. 41 on the U.K. charts, and “Cocoon” has yet to make a dent. But Ash are the rare veteran band that seems at peace with their past, present, and future. The band has their own Manhattan studio, and appreciates having the freedom to work on their own terms. They’re grateful to be a fixture on the festival scene in the U.K., and always play the hits when they do, but also enjoy their cult status touring the U.S., where Wheeler says they “can get away with being more obscure.” When the band plays a headlining show at Brooklyn’s 250-capacity Rough Trade days after opening for Foo Fighters at Ireland’s 60,000 capacity Slane Castle and Wheeler announces that the trio feels more comfortable playing in front of their few-but-passionate fans at the Williamsburg venue, it feels sincere.
And for a band as formerly hard-living as Ash — when asked what the best part of is touring as a thirtysomething, McMurray simply answers “Remembering it” — just surviving is something of a victory. “We saw a lot of our contemporaries split up and then reform again over the years,” Wheeler rhapsodizes. “Scenes have come and gone,” adds Hamilton, faux-wistfully. But Ash has improbably lived on, long enough to still make great records while also being able to enjoy the ongoing victory lap that is the 20th-anniversary celebration cycle. (“The first couple we embraced,” Wheeler explains. “Now it’s just like, there’s so many coming up it’s just a matter of putting something up on Twitter.”) And as with their live performing, the band hasn’t lost their verve for partying, merely added old-hand wisdom to youthful exuberance. “We used to start drinking as soon as we got in the venues,” Hamilton relates. “But now it’s like, at least not until we’re on the stage.”