It is often stated that it is one of the hardest tasks for an artist who is used to being part of a band to then go solo.
Ash front man, Tim Wheeler has done just that with the release of his new album ‘Lost Domain’. On Friday past, Wheeler finished the last night of his 4 date tour, at the Oh Yeah Centre in Belfast. I was fortunate to be there and spoke to him after the gig.
To a packed hall, Tim understatedly, took to the low lit, low level stage to start things off with the first track of his new album, ‘Snow in Nara’. Tim called this out as one of the tracks he was most proud of – ‘I don’t know where it came from. I put this as this first song on the record as it is probably not what people who listen to Ash, are expecting, it lets them know that there are a few surprises on this record’.
The undertaking of his solo work is all the more commendable once it is known that the album deals with the loss of his father to Dementia in 2011. He manages to capture a range of emotions experienced from the visiting of his father in hospital to being at his bedside to dealing with the aftermath of his passing. Tim went on to admit it has been hard to play these songs but it has also been rewarding – ‘Belfast was by far the hardest night of the tour as I was playing in front of my family. I found the whole process quite cathartic. I played ‘First Sign of Spring’ for my younger brother, he loved it and that gave me encouragement to write more. I was most worried about what my mum thought about it as she had the hardest time of us all, having to look after my dad but she thought it was beautiful’.
The music itself is a far cry from the pop infused fun and often fast paced sound of Ash. The sound is still undoubtedly by Tim Wheeler but is stripped back and for the most part, the guitar has been traded in for the piano and synthesiser. Tim admits it is different from what Ash fans have heard in the past – ‘It is really different, it is much more personal. It is piano based whereas most Ash material is guitar based. It is contemplative and cinematic, although saying that it maintains its melodic sensibility that you might associate with Ash’.
This could all sound very bleak but Wheeler manages to capture the light in this dark time, as he tells the story of how this period brings his family closer together. ‘I have tried to display my own personal experience but in that, look at the positives, in and around that period. What I was astounded with was the level of care my dad received from the staff that looked after him. That display of human caring was incredible and it is something that is not celebrated often in song. It is also a record dealing with my journey, resilience, dealing with that landmark event in your life, that acceptance and also a coming of age’.
In the first half of the night, Wheeler runs through most of the new album, with the highlights being the tracks, ‘Hospital’, his previous single ‘First Sign of Spring’ and the most uplifting track on the new album and title track, ‘Lost Domain’. Wheeler alternates his on stage stance, track on track, from standing guitar to curled over the piano. Tim acknowledges he was nervous about touring as a solo artist. ‘Before the first night of the tour in London, I was really nervous. I’m not used to playing the piano live so it was a first time for me as well as the first time playing this fresh set but now I have done it I would like to tour it again’.
Although looking slightly nervous (which Wheeler later admits to the crowd, due to performing this new material in front of family), his voice is clean, clear and on point. The intimate and personal emotion of these tracks lend well to the venue, with the audience hanging on every note and lyric.
Wheeler finishes the album set with the real standout tracks of the album, ‘Medicine’ followed by ‘Vigil’. ‘Medicine’ is an epic 10 minute track that deals with the visiting of his father on the ward. Thoughtfully it even includes a few notes of his father playing the piano. It roams from mood to mood, sometimes painful, sometimes confused but manages to capture the positivity of their time spent together. Tim calls this song as the hardest one of the hardest to write but one he is most proud of – ‘with Medicine I had to cut it down from 40 verses to the 10 minutes that it is. I tried to mirror the chord sequence and melody in the track with the mood shifts of my dad’.
‘Vigil’ highlights Wheelers outstanding song writing ability. A powerful track that is almost a final message to his father – this track demonstrates the development of Wheeler as a solo artist. ‘The recording of this record was very different to recording Ash material. Previously I would half write a song and the guys would help me finish it or tell me whether it was worth finishing. This time round I had to record it myself then listen to it, add layers to it and figure that out for myself. It was a whole new process and that was a big challenge’.
For the last of the night’s tracks, VerseChorusVerse’s (who supported on the night) front man, Tony Wright joins Wheeler on stage. Rattling through an acoustic performance of the Ash fan favourite, ‘Shining Light’ as well as a sing along of another Ash fan favourite ‘Oh Yeah’, the night draws to a close. Talking to Tim about the local music scene he admits he is ‘blown away’ by the talent he sees coming out of Northern Ireland. ‘I’m a big fan of Tony Wrights; he’s a very enthusiastic talented song writer. Also ‘And So I Watch You from Afar’ (ASIWYFA), they are incredibly hard working musicians who seem to be constantly touring’.
Looking to the future Tim reveals there may be further solo tour plans as well as plans for Ash. ‘I would be keen to play more solo dates of this album but we will wait to see if this grows wings. I would be keen to play some festivals. Also I would love to involve an orchestra with the live performance of this album. I think the way it is, it is ready to go to have it performed that way’ As for plans with Ash – ‘we are half way through writing and recording a new album and that could be released in April or May of next year. We are keen to get back touring together and keen to visit Belfast!’
Transforming himself from punk band front man, to solo artist, while tackling such personal and poignant themes, Wheeler has again proven himself to be one of the great Northern Irish song writers and performers. ‘Lost Domain’ is out now. Michael Chapman, Giggingni.com