Tim Wheeler, frontman of Ash, tells David Hennessy about his new solo debut album in which he deals with his late father’s battle with dementia
“I was just trying to say it as it was and I guess I was trying to give some voice or strength back to my dad, all these things that he was losing,” Tim Wheeler, known as frontman of multi-million selling band Ash, says of the motivation for writing his solo album Lost Domain. Tim has always reached for music to express himself and he began writing the material that would become the record when his father George was diagnosed with dementia in 2008. Tim would watch his father’s rapid decline before he passed away in 2011.
“I sing the song Medicine about him but in the first person. I didn’t really realise I was doing it at the time but I think I was trying to empower him a bit again because he was very helpless and he was very distressed, trying to find his car keys and wallet and these kind of things that he didn’t have anymore.
“I was trying to be true. I don’t think I tried to soften anything.”
George was battling with his illness at a time when Tim was very much busy with the band, Ash who had a Best Of compilation in the pipeline and various tours. Was it hard leaving his father in the dementia ward to go and sing onstage? “It was hard. He was in a dementia ward and I was… One good thing about all the touring I was doing was we were doing a lot of festivals when he first went into hospital so that meant I had a lot of free time during the week. I was able to see him a lot and be there. But it was difficult. I was having to leave the hospital and then get straight on a plane and go to a festival and headline, ya know, put on a good show. But I think it was a nice outlet, getting to play as well. It helped me a bit too.”
In recent weeks, Tim has been doing numerous interviews about his new album and talking about his father has been unavoidable. Is it right to say he has rather enjoyed thinking of him and recalling what he was like, including foibles such as how he could lose his temper behind the wheel? “Absolutely, that was the surprise actually. I thought it would be painful to talk about but a lot of people were asking what kind of man he was and I get to talk about him. I’ve had to dig out some old photos for things. It’s really nice bringing his memory up again. I think my mum’s really enjoying it as well, we had a big picture of him on the TV this morning and she loved it.
“That’s the hard thing with dementia: It takes the person away in a lot of ways and changes them. it’s nice to remember him in his full glory, at his best. I guess that comes with time.”
George was 75 when he was diagnosed. In his career, he had been a solicitor and then a district judge. What was his reaction to the news that his son wanted to go into an insecure profession like music? Tim laughs before answering: “I think they were keen for us to make sure we got our exam results even though we had got a record deal. That was the one sensible thing that they made sure that we did. But apart from that, they were happy. I think they felt we were in good hands. We had a good label and manager behind us. Although they were probably a bit worried, they just let us go for it and then, he was very proud. He was dead excited by the whole thing when we started getting successful. He got a lot of attention for it. I think he loved it.
“He would always go to the local music shops on his lunch breaks, go to the CD racks and put all the Ash CDs to the front and things like that, which I always found really embarrassing but it was really sweet.”
Success came to Ash very quickly as the teenage band were still studying for the A levels Tim’s parents insisted they attain when they were writing and recording their debut album Trailer. They would become known for hits like Girl form Mars, Goldfinger and Oh Yeah as Trailer was followed by 1977 and then Nu-Clear Sounds which attained platinum and gold sales respectively. The band have now released six studio albums.
Tim knew from the beginning that the songs from Lost Domain were not for the band and he plays many of the instruments himself which shows just how personal it is to him: “I felt it was too personal for Ash really. That’s why I made it as a solo record.
“I was interested in pursuing a few different things. There’s a couple of stripped down songs on there, then there’s some stuff that was more electronic and a lot more keyboard based.
“With Ash going forward, I wanted to just go back to a 90s guitar thing. These songs were emerging in a different kind of way. It made sense to be a solo record.”
His upcoming tour of the UK will be the first time Tim has performed the Lost Domain material live. Will these be emotional shows for Tim to perform? “I think it will be, yeah. I’m playing Belfast at the end of the run so all of my family will be there so I think it will be quite hard but I think it will be very cathartic actually as well, to kind of bring an end to the whole process. It’s been a few years, I was writing some of these songs four years ago. It’s nice that they’re finally coming out but getting to sing them live will be a really great outlet.”
Naturally, Tim’s family were among the first to hear the material and their reactions meant a lot to him: “They were probably the first to hear it. There’s a song called First Sign of Spring that I played to everyone quite soon after dad died as a response to that. That got a really nice reaction from the family straight away and then they didn’t really get anything else until I finished the whole record.
“I do know my big brother was driving home to Limerick from Belfast and he was listening to it and he was in tears. I was kind of wondering what my mum would think as well but she thinks it’s beautiful. It really means a lot. She’s always been very encouraging of my writing. I think she can understand it as an artistic thing as well as an emotional thing.”
Dementia changed Tim’s father’s character to the point that his mother couldn’t deal with his quick temper. Tim has already got reaction from people who identify with the unfortunate circumstances: “I’m getting a lot of feedback which is a nice surprise. I hadn’t really expected it: People saying they are dealing with a loved one with dementia or they have lost someone to it or even just people talking about losing their parents, even if it was 20 years ago. They’re saying about how much a song like Vigil is connecting with them and I guess I had been worried that it might be a depressing kind of record for people but I think it’s connecting with people in a really strong and emotional way.
“I might have been a bit concerned approaching a record label and saying, ‘this is an album about Alzheimer’s, it might scare some people off but I think the music has a triumphant side to it too.”
Alzheimer’s is a growing problem but it is under-funded. Proceeds from Tim’s album will go to the Alzheimer’s society: “Statistically so many people are affected by it or are going to be affected by it but it’s just not understood or funded the same way that cancer is. I think that’s starting to change a bit. I’m glad to be part of it.
“I remember when my dad was diagnosed, he didn’t want anyone to really know about it, you know there’s a stigma about it and I think it’s important to break that down.
“The Alzheimer’s Socirty are very supportive and it’s nice for me to have a bit of a voice about it as well because when you’re watching a loved one go through it, you feel so helpless. I did a show in Belfast with Neil Hannon (whose father is also a sufferer) of The Divine Comedy and The Undertones and it felt like: ‘I could actually do something about what my dad had been through’.”
With Christmas approaching, will New York-based Tim soon to be back with his partner Emmy the Great to perform tracks from their Christmas album? “Unfortunately not this year. With my record coming out in November, it just didn’t seem like it made sense. We probably would have been going to a lot of the same venues. Hopefully, we’ll get our elf suits back on next year.”
That is if Tim is not too busy with the band he made his name with . Although they have not released a studio album since 2007, the three piece have been working on a new record: “I’d say we’re almost halfway through a new album. We’ve been working a lot over the last year. Once I get back, I’ll be able to really get stuck into it. I think that will probably come out in the Spring time, April or May.”
Lost Domain is out on November 3.
Tim Wheeler plays London’s Bush Hall on Tuesday November 4, Manchester’s Deaf Institute on Wednesday November 5, Glasgow’s ABC on Thursday November 6 and Belfast’s Outlet Building on Friday November 7. See more info at ash-official.com.