If it's I.. we're in Ipswich
Rock band Ash are playing Ipswich as part of their A-Z alphabet tour
Rock band Ash have ditched making albums and are currently criss-crossing the country with an A to Z map with a difference. As the alphabet tour reaches Ipswich, bassist Mark Hamilton spoke to JONATHAN BARNES.
SORRY Inverness, Ilford and Ifracombe, we've got the gig.
Tonight, enduring British rock band Ash reach the letter I in their nationwide A to Z tour - and that means Ipswich.
The Northern Irish trio, due to play at the Corn Exchange, might now fall into the veteran category - they've been going for 17 years now - but everything feels very new.
For a start, they're not releasing albums any more; instead they're putting out a new single every two weeks for a year.
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And the 26 singles matches the number of towns and villages they'll play on their current tour, running through the alphabet from Aldershot to Zennor (a tiny village in Cornwall, with a tiny village hall).
The tour bus rolled out of Hastings on Wednesday night, and it's the long trip to Jersey tomorrow.
They had wanted to play out-of-the-way towns on the alphabet tour, places they hadn't been before, so did they consider Ipswich a musical backwater - or was it the only suitable place beginning with I?
Possibly the latter, as the band actually played at the Corn Exchange on the Free All Angels tour in 2001.
“I don't know - we left it to our agent,” admits bass player Mark Hamilton, struggling to remember the band's last date in town.
He says the idea for the tour came on the back of the singles plan: “Twenty-six singles, 26 letters of the alphabet; it was sitting on a plate for us really.
“It was our manager who came up with the idea to play secondary towns, smaller places and to hit them alphabetically.
“Most of the gigs are at smaller venues; three, four five-hundred capacity. The smallest one is in Zennor - we couldn't find anywhere else beginning with Z.
“The village hall has a capacity of 70; the whole village is only about 220 people. We had to cheat a bit with Exmouth, because there's nowhere that starts with X.”
While the tour is something of a gimmick, the decision to stop making albums is something the band had been mulling over for some time.
Ash have made six of them since Hamilton and his Downpatrick schoolfriends Tim Wheeler and Rick McMurray started out in 1992, combining A-level studies with burgeoning rock stardom.
They've sold well too - particularly 1977, released in 1996, and 2001's Free All Angels - but the band had begun to get restless.
Knowing their 2007 album Twilight Of The Innocents was the last in their deal with Infectious Records, they floated a fresh idea with label bosses.
“We said we wanted to release lots of songs on a very regular basis, a singles-based approach,” says Hamilton. “That freaked them out, they said it was too risky, and that was that - end of the deal.”
But Ash had their hearts set on the idea and decided to do it themselves, setting up their own label, Atomic Heart Records.
The first single of the series, True Love 1980, was released on October 12, on digital download and vinyl, and was followed by Joy Kicks Darkness on Monday.
“It's much more spontaneous,” says Hamilton. “No one gets to hear the song until it's released and it keeps the fans engaged, keeps the music coming.
“We can try out lots of different styles and sounds and treat every song on its own merits, rather than thinking about how an album should sound. We're also not stuck in that three-year cycle of releasing albums, which can get frustrating. We've got 44 songs recorded already and we'll just keep releasing them.”
The trio are playing a number of the new songs on tour, and also have a healthy back catalogue to call upon, with 18 top 40 hits.
They've been back to a three-piece for three years now, since second guitarist Charlotte Hatherley left after a nine-year stint.
Hamilton says “it didn't take too long” to get used to being a trio again and says it's the close bond between the three which has kept the band going, even though he and frontman Wheeler, both 32, live in New York and drummer McMurray, 34, is in Edinburgh.
“We've known each other for so long it's like a second family,” says Hamilton. “We've kept going as we've had a lot of success and a couple of big albums, but the main thing is we still love what we do.”
And they're finding there are new things to savour all the time - like a new generation of fans.
“At the last few shows, we've had parents bringing along their children,” says Hamilton.
“Some of our fans are in their late 30s now, and they're coming to the gig with teenagers. It's strange, but it's great.”
Giving up on albums and playing a 70-capacity village hall is probably a bit strange too, but bear with Ash - they might just be doing something great.
- Tickets for tonight's show can be bought on the door or by calling 01473 433100.
- For more details about the A to Z singles series go to the band's website at www.ashofficial.com
DID YOU KNOW?
In 2002, Ash had roles in a horror movie called Slashed, which featured Coldplay's Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland as FBI agents trying to track down a supernatural serial killer. The footage has never been released.
Ash reportedly nearly went bankrupt at the turn of the decade before Tim Wheeler wrote Shining Light, which went on to become one of the band's best-selling singles and won Best Contemporary Song at the Ivor Novello Awards.