Ash have returned with a new album bruised with heartache but brimming with cracking guitar pop

"It was like Derry Girls - it was so normal that you ignored it." Ash’s bass player Mark Hamilton is recalling his time growing up in Northern Ireland in the eighties and nineties.

"I think we’ve always had a sense of escapism in music growing up in the north. Music was our vehicle to escape 9 to 5 and whatever nonsense was going on up there.

"From a very young age it was always our dream to be in a band and go off and travel the world so I guess even still, we’re in our forties now and I’ve got two kids, but the band is still a way to escape."

It is just over twenty years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and Ash, the young Downpatrick band who were then still in their early twenties, found themselves at the heart of the drama at a time when hope and history rhymed with the signing of the GFA in Belfast.

Twenty years later, the promises of that historic day are looking depressingly empty (and please no cash for Ash puns) but Hamilton and his band mates, drummer Rick McMurray and ever youthful front man Tim Wheeler, are still lashing out buzzy and melodic guitar music.

Hamilton and Wheeler have lived in New York for 13 years and McMurray is long domiciled in Scotland but ask them about their memories of that glorious Good Friday in Belfast in 1998 and the memories tumble out.

"We did that gig around the Agreement and it’s the 20th anniversary of that last April so it’s a shame that there’s not more to celebrate with the state of the government." says Wheeler soberly.

"We’ve done a few interviews around the anniversary and we were asked what it was like doing gigs before and after the agreement and you look back and you think, what was normal for us as kids?" says McMurray.  

"It was going up to Belfast and getting stopped at army checkpoints just to go into a gig and it’s great that there’s a generation of musicians in Northern Ireland in their late teens, early twenties who’ve never had to experience that. They’ve no idea what it’s like and that’s something to be celebrated."

Ash’s new and seventh album is called Islands and no, it is not a direct reference to the historically painful relationship between Ireland and Britain. The title comes from places much further afield for the well-traveled band.  

"We’d just finished our last tour of Japan, a place where we’d toured over 20 times but never got any time to actually see much of it," says Wheeler. "So I made a little pilgrimage to the island of Naoshima, which is this island town in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea that is known for its art museums

"We did that gig around the Agreement and it’s the 20th anniversary of that last April so it’s a shame that there’s not more to celebrate with the state of the government." - Tim Wheeler 

"I really enjoyed being on my own in these really isolated places so I decided to go to more islands. I went to Deià in Mallorca where Robert Graves lived and Fionn Regan wrote that great album, a 100 Acres of Sycamores. Kevin Ayers used to live there in the seventies."

He also did another writing trip in Santorini and then he came closer to home and went to Lambay Island, which is just off the eastern coast of Dublin, where he spent another ten days writing.

Recorded in their own studio, Atomic Heart in New York, which has been their base for 12 years, Islands is one of Ash’s most effervescent album in years. It sounds like The Beach Boys and The Ramones jamming with The Undertones down among the dunes - a fizzy sugar bomb of great tunes primed for an endless summer.

"A lot of the time we all have different ideas about what to do with the songs but this time we agreed really quickly what songs we wanted," says McMurray. "It’s always been my dream to have an album that is an intense burst of creativity and we finally achieved that on this record."

"Some of the songs just sounded really great from the get go and didn’t need any production. All we have to do is replicate the sound of this in this rehearsal room right now," adds Wheeler.

Islands sounds like The Beach Boys and The Ramones jamming with The Undertones down among the dunes - a fizzy sugar bomb of great tunes primed for an endless summer.

"The songs are simple but they’ve got everything you need - interesting melodies and hooks so we didn’t need to make things too fancy."

The expletive-heavy Buzzkill also features Damien O’Neill and Mickey Bradley of The Undertones, a fellow Northern Irish act who have always been a key influence on Ash but at its heart, Islands is a break-up album. Incoming Waves is a bit of tearjerker that echoes the emotional pull of Wheeler’s solo album Lost Domain, which was about his late father.

"Lost Domain was so cool because it was a whole journey and a narrative," Wheeler says. "And there is a similar thing going through this record. Incoming Waves really reminds me of Deià in Mallorca a lot."  

"I’d say three quarters of the songs are autobiographical but I kind of embellish them as well . . . most of this record is about a particular girl. But it was a few years ago so it’s all OK now. That’s the trouble with writing break-up songs.

"You tend to dwell on things longer than you would have but then the benefit is you get to understand things and move on. It definitely got to the point two years later where I thought I definitely shouldn’t be working on this song. I should have been done with this a year ago."  

With an upside down picture of Skellig featuring on the album cover and a song entitled It’s a Trap, Islands bristles with Star War references, another link to Ash’s early years. But ask the trio if The Last Jedi should be struck from the SW canon, and there is much dissent.

"Yes." says Rick abruptly and walks off. "I’ve got some problems with it but I still liked it." says Hamilton. "I’ve a serious problem that Yoda was able to use lightning to burn a tree down because that means he could have intervened at any point so that just doesn’t make any sense."

"I’d say three quarters of the songs are autobiographical but I kinds of embellish them as well . . . most of this record is about a particular girl. But it was a few years ago so it’s all OK now. That’s the trouble with writing break-up songs."

"I liked it, yeah," says Wheeler. "The next one is going to be interesting because it’s going off into new territory with new characters. The Force Awakens was cool but the repetition of plot from the old Star Wars movies was a bit much."

Right now though, island life is back on the trio’s minds. Ash are planning a trip back to Lambay to shoot a Father Ted version of recent single Buzzkill, only with all those F bombs replaced with some full-throated fecks.

 "We actually ordered three priest suits the other day . . . " smiles Wheeler. "We’re actually going back to Lambay Island just to film some stuff and have a bit of a laugh so we can pretend we’re on Craggy Island."

Alan Corr @corralan

Islands is out now. Ash play BBC Biggest Weekend in Belfast on Saturday, May 26 and the Revival Festival, Listowel, August 11