Ash frontman Tim Wheeler has announced his return to Belfast for The Oh Yeah Centre on Friday 7th November 2014.
You can trace the roots of Tim Wheeler’s extraordinary first solo album, Lost Domain, back to when he was a boy in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland. His father, George, would come home from work and unwind by playing the family piano, singing songs to Tim and his three siblings. That’s what originally made Tim want to take up the piano. Which led him to the guitar, which in turn led to the formation of a band, Ash, with two school friends. Before Tim even turned 21, Ash had enjoyed a Number One album and become the youngest act to headline Glastonbury Festival.
Tim left Northern Ireland – first for London, then for New York – but his tight bond with the father more than 40 years his senior remained. “My dad was such a smart and principled man,” he says. “And he was always there for me. We were super close.”
Not surprisingly then, George’s rapid descent into dementia knocked his son sideways. “He’d always been such a together man,” says Tim. “It was bewildering to see him with Alzheimer’s. This extremely rational person, starting to see things that weren’t there and becoming very paranoid. It was awful watching him deteriorate.” After six desperatemonths in a dementia ward, George passed away in 2011, with his devastated wife and children at his bedside.
Afterwards, hit by waves of emotion, Tim attempted to deal with his grief the only way he could: by writing about it. “I was trying to process what had happened,” he says. “In a way, despite what it’s about, this album was quite easy to write, because I felt I needed to write it.”
Lost Domain, then, is an album in which Tim battles to come to terms with his loss. Over 11 songs, the record charts his father’s slide into illness, his death and the tumultuous effect that it had on Tim, his life, and his relationships. “I realised it would take a full album to get across all that I wanted to say,” he says.
But while this is a brutally open and sometimes stark record, it’s not a maudlin one. In fact, throughout the album, moments of joy and hope shine amidst the heartache and sorrow. As in Vigil, an enormously touching song which documents George’s final moments, but also celebrates the strength and closeness of Tim’s family. “It was a really hard time,” he says. “But it was a beautiful time as well.”
The music, too, is less sparse than you might imagine for an introspective solo record. Emboldened by his celebrated recent soundtrack work – most notably for Mat Whitecross’s Ashes film and Fleming TV series – this is some of the richest and most accomplishedmusic that the Ivor Novello –winning musician has made. “There are really big emotions in this record,” he says. “So at times I knew I wanted the music to feel really big too.”
And so it does. String sections, horns and electronics all combine to add to Lost Domain’s emotional wallop. Indeed, the two instrumental tracks – bluesy opener Snow In Nara and the jazz–tinged, 5/4–signatured Vapour – are among its most affecting moments.
But perhaps the most moving song of all is the album’s epic centrepiece, Medicine. “I started that one day when I’d been to visit my dad in hospital, and seen him in a way I’d never seen him before. A year later I ended up spending three or four days in my apartment, hardly leaving the place, trying to get down that whole experience onto the page. It was quite a painful song to write.”
The result is a 10–minute soundtrack to a harrowing hospital drama that plays in your head. The song is built around the same repeated chord sequence, but with a sonic mood which swings wildly, in time with that of George. The string arranger’s assistant wept when she first read the lyrics.
Although Ash are very much still a going concern – they’ve toured Asia and North America this year and new material is in the pipeline for 2015 – Lost Domain was always going to be a solo record. “Rick and Mark have been very supportive,” says Tim. “I think they understood that this was something I needed to do by myself.”
Tim recorded the album at his own expense in Ash’s New York studio. He played almost everything, roping in musician friends when he needed a hand: Andy Burrows (ex– Razorlight) and Fred Aspelin (Alberta Cross)each played some drums; Ilan Eshkeri and Oliver Kraus helped with the string and brass arrangements which were performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra; Leanne Macomber from Ejecta and Neon Indian sang; and Moon Hooch’s Wenzl McGowen played saxophone after they met on the New York subway. There’s even a sample of Tim’s dad’s piano playing in Medicine.
Now, Tim is ready to put the album out there to the world with a portion of the proceeds being donated to the Alzheimer’s Society. “I do feel a bit nervous about it being released, because it is very bare and open,” he says. “But I think it’s something that everyone will relate to, and hopefully find some beauty in.”
Certainly, Lost Domain is an album of rare power and heart. The work of a richly talented songwriter and musician, putting everything into a record that means so much to him, and which he couldn’t help but make.
Whatever the album’s reception, simply making it has clearly been worthwhile for Tim. “It’s definitely helped me understand what I went through,” he says. “I’m glad I documented it. It was a very cathartic process. And I hope my dad would’ve been touched by it.”
That much is a given. No doubt many others will be too.