Caged Angels

For every UK-based rock band that has achieved staggering success here in the United States, there are scores who, despite great success in their own territory, have never made the trip across at all. Then there are those that have made the jump only to get swallowed. Manic Street Preachers, anyone? Placebo? Pulp? Suede? Heck, even Damon Albarn had to (temporarily) ditch Blur and create a transgenre animated outfit named Gorillaz to really hit U.S. pay dirt.

The reasons are as various as the examples -- bad timing, personal tragedy, differences in the nuances between effective British and effective American hype, chronic misbehavior -- but it often comes down to a simple lack of appreciation for the scale of the task and insufficient resources with which to tackle it. While a band can easily pile into a van and play every toilet in the British Isles inside a month, and then repeat the process two or three times a year, to effectively cover the United States in the same manner requires a commitment of at least three months, and that's just to do it once.

But every so often, you get a band that manages to live in both worlds at once, one that explodes spectacularly in the UK and manages to tour effectively as a club act in the States. Ash (formed in 1992 in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland) has the first part nailed: It debuted at the top of the charts with its first full-length, 1977, seven years ago, and has reached similar heights with each release since.

Conquering America has been a little slower in coming -- this is the band's first stateside headlining turn since its debut -- but seeds have been planted via well- conceived support slots as recently as last year, when the group toured as the warm-up act for Coldplay and Dashboard Confessional and as part of the Area 2 tour.

"Yeah, it's kind of strange," observes singer-songwriter-guitarist Tim Wheeler. "We spent so much time over here last year that we kind of forgot that we're actually pop stars. And then we went back and we did a show at the Royal Albert Hall a while ago, and it was just jam-packed full of fans. Everyone knows every single word. You kind of forget that people know who you are."

A lot of bands wouldn't put up with not being stars at every show. Not Ash. "A lot of bands, I think, get put off by the amount of touring you have to do and just sort of stay in Britain," says Wheeler. "We don't mind. We learned how to work, how to tour properly, from American bands. You have to get up and play every day. Big long drives? Who cares?"

Wheeler's unassuming nature makes it seem as if he's still just on a lark, having fun making music and seeing what happens. He also says he enjoys the challenge of winning over America. "I think that makes us play better and stops you getting complacent," he says.

Then again, he has been doing this since he was 15, so perhaps the charms of the road for its own sake have worn off a little, even if his bio still lists "wild sex" under "interests" and "zero gravity orgy" under "aspirations."

"I enjoy traveling, but sometimes I do get a bit homesick nowadays," he allows. "We toured the last album for two years, so by the end of that I really needed a break. Spending some time in your own bed. Having all your own stuff around you."

Free All Angels, Ash's current album, was released in 2001 in the UK and last year in the States. Given both the band's previous output and its live ire, the CD isn't quite as aggressive as one might expect. But even by the end of a first complete listen, it becomes apparent that Free All Angels is simply a broader, more cinematic pass at the well-established Ash archetype: pop with lyrical and musical meat.

Wheeler ascribes the progression to good old-fashioned hard work, combined with a return to the band's origins, literally. Ash returned to the garage it had written in prior to the start of it all and just made music. The band also took its time -- songwriting for Free All Angels took up roughly a year and a half, in which time the group composed 30 pieces for consideration, with 14 making the cut.

"We just got back to that original feeling of being in a band just for the sake of it," reflects Wheeler, and that sense of fun shows. Free All Angels makes you realize that there really is an angel in just about every one of us, and that's pretty powerful pop. Sonically, Free All Angels is almost bubbly; a good-natured, optimistic, the-world-is-a-sunny-place vibe holds sway. Themes of lust also shoot through -- both for sex and "World Domination."

"We've all got a little bit of Dr. Evil in us," Wheeler chuckles about the album-ender. On the whole, however, Wheeler says the album is about "freedom and escapism, with a little bit of love and heartbreak in there as well."

The lyrics and the sweeping pop hooks seem perfectly synched with that segment of "alternative" radio that isn't playing seventh-generation Korn knockoffs. While excited about the possibility, Wheeler remains cautious about having a stateside smash on his hands. The idea of this tour is to establish enough of a base in the States to see to it that the band will be able to come back the next time around. (The band is planning to go back into the studio in September.)

Having acquired an American booking agent will no doubt help in that endeavor, since even the Coldplay opening slot came about through a personal rather than professional connection. When Ash first arrived as a teenage rock band, the folks who would later comprise Coldplay were out in the audience, digging what they heard. "That's one of the best things about having been at this for ten years now," Wheeler laughs. "Your fans start getting into actual positions!"

Wheeler recognizes the important and sometimes capricious role that timing plays in the whole process of breaking as a band. The band doesn't concern itself with things it can't control; instead, it works on what it can: writing great songs and working hard on the road. To this end, a number of new songs are being aired on this tour, getting a final shakedown before Ash heads back into the studio. "Maybe this one will take it to a whole new level," Wheeler quips, as if realizing full well that "maybe it won't" is also a very real possibility.

But if it does, this just might be one of those shows everyone says they were at ten years from now.

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Chris Smith