Shining Light was the single the band desperately needed, and even Infectious reportedly didn't hear a hit when you presented it to them! (Ivor Novello would like to have a few words with the staff at Infectious.) Was Shining Light the first song written for the album, or did you have a backlog of material?
I'd definitely had at least 6 months of writing before the song arrived and it felt like a real breakthrough. I was going through a very dedicated writing time and I turned down the chance to play "I Fought The Law" with Joe Strummer when he played Belfast because I wasn't going out, I felt I had to stay in and focus on the writing. We were in a very precarious position at the time. Of course I wish I'd taken the opportunity now but I think without that dedication we mightn't have ended up with 'Shining Light".
You gave us a pretty good breakdown of the writing of "Goldfinger" in the 1977 interviews. Tell us about the writing of "Sometimes".
I started that song in a hotel in Bangkok on the Nu-Clear Sounds tour. I'd just broken up with my girlfriend and was really depressed. It started out as a really sad slow song, probably half the speed it ended up. Anyway there was something pretty in the melody and chords and I had the repetitive "Sometimes" hook in the verse. Later on when I wasn't feeling so bad about things, I re-approached the song and realised it would work nicely faster. I remember the intro coming together when we were rehearsing at the Fortress studios in London. In fact two of my favourite Ash intros are on Free All Angels; Burn Baby Burn and Sometimes. I spent a long time writing lyrics for the whole album and Sometimes is about when things outside your control break up a relationship. With me it was a time when I didn't have much control of my life, we were on tour or in the studio all the time for a few years and it was tough to keep up a relationship which was long distance most of the time.
There was a lot of press about the writer's block you had during the Nu-Clear Sounds days. How did you overcome it on FAA?
I went back to Northern Ireland where I knew I'd written my best songs before and I tried to find what I'd had there that had worked for me before. I got into a routine of writing every day, tried to get a song every day even if I didn't think it was good. It helped getting away from the distractions of touring and London. By constantly writing it freed me from the pressure of feeling that every song I wrote had to be a "great" song or a hit, so the writing came more naturally.
You famously retreated to your parent's garage to write the album. What were the days like during pre-production?
We had fun getting together in the old derelict cottage where we'd started Ash. It was a good contrast to the madness of the previous few years. It seemed healthy setting up our own gear for the first time in a few years. I remember doing demos in my parents house too, drum kit set up in a bed room, guitar amps in another bedroom and the bass amp in the bathroom. My Mum always cooked for us when we rehearsed every Saturday for most of our teenage years, it was good getting back to that.
The years surrounding Free All Angels were extremely vibrant. What are your lasting memories of that period?
Writing in Ireland, getting over a depressing time. Fun times recording at Van Morrison's studio near Bath & the amazing mansion studio in Southern Spain. We really had a great time making the record even though we were under a lot of pressure. Great tours around the UK, Europe, Asia, Australia, The US. The Reading Festival 2001 in the tent was maybe the best gig of that time. We were on Top Of The Pops all the time. 5 big singles and some nice awards. Burn Baby Burn was NME single of the year and Shining Light won an Ivor Novello songwriting award. Most of all we had a real laugh together. I regretted that I hadn't really enjoyed the success of 1977 because I was so stressed at the time, so with Free All Angels I wanted to have success and actually enjoy it.
You're quite a studio hound these days. Did you play a part in any of the production on FAA?
Owen Morris (our producer) always generously gave us co-production credits as he felt we were contributing ideas. He says our technique on that album ended up being him suggesting something and me doing the complete opposite. I don't remember it that way. We did have a fight on Van Morrisson's lawn when we recorded at his studio. Owen was mad at me for something and wanted to settle it outside. Didn't get too bloody though, it ended up as a piggyback fight with Charlotte and either Mark or Rick involved too.
At the time I didn't know much about how recording equipment worked but I always had a lot of musical ideas, I especially loved trying to find interesting guitar sounds. We always had fun working with Owen, he talked Charlotte into shaving her eyebrows off during that session, I think you can hear it in her guitar playing!
Ten years on, how was FAA held up for you? Is there anything you'd change if you could?
Recently I listened to it for the first time in years and I really enjoyed it and felt proud, it's a really strong collection of songs. It was the first album that we made entirely using Pro Tools software. Nu-Clear Sounds was a mix of Tape and Pro Tools. Some of the performances on Free All Angels feel a little bit rigid because we were testing the editing powers of Pro Tools a bit too much. But overall it sounds like it's full of energy and melody which is what we wanted.
What were you listening to leading up to the album?
I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, of course the perennial Beach Boys and probably a bunch of Weezer. We were really into Dr Dre's 2001 hence some of the sounds on Candy.
Interview by Chad Peck of Kestrels. Read further Free All Angels interviews with Mark and Rick
Free All Angels Tour with Charlotte Hatherley
Charlotte Hatherley will be performing with the band once more for a special series of 'Free All Angels' shows
Ash will be playing some special live shows to mark the release of the Best of Ash album and Charlotte will be performing with the band once more for the UK tour. The shows will include the four piece playing the seminal “Free All Angels” Album in its entirety and a “Best Of” set.