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Northern Ireland's Ash ready to burn up Portland stage

Band eager to be re-introduced to American audience


by: COURTESY OF ASH - The Northern Ireland band Ash, including bass player Mark Hamilton (above), has produced 18 top-40 hits in the United Kingdom, and recently worked on making 26 songs corresponding to the alphabet, A to Z.They hail from the town where St. Patrick was laid to rest, played a tiny role in ending the Irish Troubles, and sold millions of records since they formed in 1992.

Yet when Downpatrick, Northern Ireland’s Ash plays America, they still generally gig in nightclubs as opposed to stadiums. Then again, they may have blown their chance to completely conquer America when they got drunk the night before they met MTV executives in the 1990s.

As Mark Hamilton, Ash’s bassist recounts, guitarist and chief songwriter Tim Wheeler wasn’t feeling all that fine at the next day’s meeting and proceeded to toss up his breakfast in front of MTV’s suits.

“It was not professional,” Hamilton says drily. “That didn’t help.”

In a phone interview from New York City, where he now resides, Hamilton spins one yarn after another about the band, which has put 18 singles in the U.K. Top 40, including 1995’s “Girl From Mars” and 2001’s “Burn Baby Burn.”

Since 2007, Ash has eschewed recording albums, focusing on releasing singles, including 26 consecutively in its “A to Z” series from 2009-10.

In addition to Hamilton and Wheeler, Ash includes drummer Rick McMurray. Former members include British guitarist Charlotte Hatherley, who’s also worked with KT Tunstall.

The group plays with Deaf Havana and Vendetta Red at the Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E. Burnside St., at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28.

Tickets are $15 in advance, $17 at door, and the show is 21 and older. For info, visit www.dougfirlounge.com.

What Kurt wrought

Nirvana inspired the punk-pop-rock Ash to play, Hamilton says. When the grunge band’s music hit the Irish airwaves back in the early '90s, time split in two for him and his friends.

“Everything that people listened to in the past was just like rubbish,” he says. “Nirvana showed you didn’t have to be technically amazing to write a song.”

He also realized he didn’t have to be technically amazing to play good bass, although he briefly dabbled in complex playing.

“There was really no point to it other than to show off,” he says. He focused on creating simple, catchy bass lines that would service Ash’s rock sound. The band co-writes songs as a group, but Wheeler is the engine that drives Ash’s music machine, Hamilton says.

“He’s got the gift of writing the really good melodies and a really good song. Then we’ll just sort of jam it out.”

Bono calls

Of the hundreds of gigs Ash has played, from headlining festivals in Europe to sharing tours with Weezer in America, the one of which the band is most proud took place in 1998, in Waterford Hall in Belfast.

The gig was intended to promote a “Yes” vote on the Good Friday Agreement to end the Irish Troubles, the 30 years of strife between the mostly Catholic nationalists and the mostly Protestant unionists and their British allies. The agreement’s electoral fate was in doubt and U2’s Bono called up Ash and asked them to play the concert, which brought nationalist leader John Hume together with unionist leader David Trimble on stage.

“We had lived through the Troubles our entire lives,” Hamilton says, noting Ash readily agreed to play the concert, which observers said did inspire young people to come out and vote. Although violence still erupts occasionally to this day in Northern Ireland, Hamilton says no one who hadn’t lived through the Troubles can imagine what a difference the agreement made.

“British forces were in our streets as a daily routine,” he says of his youth. “It almost became sort of normal.” Now that they aren’t, “it’s kind of weird that they are not there.”

The road ahead

Ash has seen its highs and lows, from being hailed as one of Brit-pop’s greatest bands to flirting with bankruptcy. Having become experts at the art of the rock ‘n’ roll single, the trio sees its upcoming tour as a chance to re-introduce themselves to America.

“We try to build a loyal fan base,” Hamilton says. “We’re still working on new material. We just want to keep continuing to do what we want to do until we can’t.”

He adds that it pays to ignore trends and just write what you think is good.

“You don’t know what’s gonna be hot in nine months time,” he says.