TIM WHEELER throws his head back and unleashes a laugh that is hearty enough to power a high-watt lightbulb.
Known for his outrageous taste in stringed instruments and his propensity for setting them alight — as he regularly did with his trademark ‘Flying V’ Gibson guitar when playing with Downpatrick trio Ash — we have been discussing the fact that he will be playing the piano live for the first time ever on his upcoming solo tour.
The suggestion of a custom-made piano in the same shape sees his face light up, but pyrotechnics may not be appropriate for this particular tour.
As frontman of Ash, the Co. Down grunge band who conquered the world in their teens and are still going over two decades later, Wheeler and his bandmates Mark Hamilton and Rick McMurray are well-known for indie-rock anthems such as Goldfinger, Oh Yeah, Burn Baby Burn and Shining Light. Twenty-two years after forming, it’s time for something new.
Lost Domain is the 37-year-old’s solo debut and was written about his father’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, his hospitalisation and subsequent death, as well as the effect it had on Wheeler and his family.
It’s a heavy topic to broach, but the New York City resident is in chipper mood — although you suspect that he is the sort of person who is perennially in good form.
Today, in London, the floppy-fringed grunge icon of yesteryear has been replaced by a slick-haired, smartly dressed rock gentleman approaching 40, yet the boyish grin remains intact.
First things first: why is now the right time for a solo album?
“After doing the A-Z singles series with Ash [in 2009], I was interested in trying something different,” he explains.
“We did 26 singles in a year, and I was quite exhausted at the end of that, actually. I did a few film soundtracks around that time [for Stone Roses documentary Spike Island and TV mini-series Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond], and I was interested in experimenting a bit more musically. At the same time, I was thinking ‘Well, with Ash, it would be good to do a really stripped-down, rock record next’, but I had all of these experimental things I wanted to try, so I thought a solo record would be a way to do that. The songs that I was writing were so personal that it made sense for them to be on a solo record, too.”
The songs for Lost Domain began to emerge while his father was still in hospital; Medicine was started at the time he was in the dementia ward, First Sign of Spring a couple of months after he died, and Vigil was “the final piece of the puzzle.”
“A lot of a rest of the record is kind of about the journey that I was going through at the time, in the rest of my life, as well,” he says. “Once I had two or three songs, I realised that I’d have to just keep writing until it was complete.”
He says that he is happy to talk about it — it’s been over three years since his Dublin-born dad passed away — but certain memories still cause him to pause and take a deep gulp.
As clichéd as it might sound, music and songwriting acted as a kind of therapy when Wheeler was going through the grieving process.
“I think it was,” he says, nodding. “There were things that I was trying to understand, because it was very strange to see what my dad was going through… it was very shocking. Alzheimer’s is such an unpredictable disease, so it was my way of trying to understand things. Songwriting has always been a big help to me, in that way.”
It was important, he says, for the album not to be completely bleak.
“While there are songs about loss, they’re also about how much I loved my dad and celebrating the closeness of my family, too,” he explains. “There was strength during that hard time, as well. The whole lack of sleep at that time, seeing every dawn come up; you’re in a very strange place, but I shared it with my family and we were all in it together. It’s a really complex feeling. So yeah, it can be both sad and powerful, and epic and uplifting, too.”
Musically — Flying V piano solos aside — Lost Domain is something of a departure from Wheeler’s usual indie-rock fare, with the string-laden Do You Ever Think of Me?, the synth undertones of the title track and the jazzy vibe of instrumental track Vapour. A sample of his dad playing piano on the hospital ward even sneaks its way into the 10-minute-long Medicine.
“I think it was because I was working on film soundtracks around the time, and I was writing more instrumentally,” he says, explaining his reasons for stepping away from electric guitar. “I guess I was exploring different kinds of music and listening to different stuff. On something like Vapour, I ran into an old school friend in Northern Ireland a couple of Christmases ago and I found out that he was living in New York and is a total jazz fiend. So I started going out to see jazz stuff with him in New York, and it was really amazing. I think I somehow ended up writing up this piece in 5/4 time, which is not very rock,” he jokes. “But generally, I just wanted to push myself and try different things.”
Writing without his usual sparring partners Hamilton and McMurray was odd at first, he admits.
Although he got a little help from some friends who dropped into Ash’s Manhattan studio to lend a hand, most of the instruments were played by Wheeler himself.
“It was really hard structuring the songs to begin with, because Mark and Rick have always been part of my writing process,” he nods.
“They’d bring half-finished ideas into rehearsal, we’d kick things into shape and I’d know what I’ve got to go and finish. So I had to learn a new way of writing, and it was tough not having them as a sounding board. Recording the first few songs was really hard work, and it took massive amounts of concentration. I had to basically just record things into a computer; the computer essentially became my bandmate. I was really sad and lonely,” he jokes, chuckling. “But it was good.”
Ash fans concerned by the band’s recording hiatus needn’t be worried, though: there’s a new record in the works, due to be finished in December/January and released next year.
“We’re trying to keep the tracks to a three-piece rock sound as much as possible, so it’s sounding really fun,” he reveals.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be future solo endeavours, either.
“In a way, this is definitely a standalone project — by that, I mean if I do solo stuff in the future, I don’t know whether I’d come back to most of this album and play it,” he says.
“I can see myself playing some other songs, but this is kind of its own thing. I would like to do some more experimental solo records in the future, though; it could be fun. I think maybe the best thing with Ash is that the way we play together is so natural — we just click together. But I also have this side of me that just wants to mess around with synths and technology, or strings. So I think it could be good to split projects that way: do rock with Ash, and use my solo career for the weird shit.”
Wheeler recently celebrated his nine-year anniversary as a New Yorker and has no intentions of moving back to Ireland anytime soon.
But if the process of this album has taught him anything, it’s that you don’t need to be at home to feel close to family.
“It’s full of Irish people over there anyway, there’s so many it’s crazy,” he laughs, another infectious grin on his face. “I’ve always loved the city — I love the energy of it, the 24-hour-ness of it. It’s a really fun, cosmopolitan place and there’s a lot of creative energy. The subway goes 24 hours, the bars open ’til 4 in the morning… you can kind of do anything you want; you can even get Barry’s Tea, if you want.” Rock stars, eh?
Lost Domain is released on November 3. A portion of the album’s proceeds will be donated to The Alzheimer’s Society. Tim Wheeler plays London’s Bush Hall, November 4, The Deaf Institute, Manchester, November 5 and The O2 ABC, Glasgow, November 6