Ash: how we made Girl from Mars

‘Before recording, the producer said “Let’s go to a charity shop and put on some women’s clothes!” We thought “This is what bands do”’

Tim Wheeler, singer, guitarist, songwriter

Mark Hamilton and I both got guitars for Christmas when we were 12. We formed a terrible heavy metal band called Vietnam, and then started Ash with Rick [McMurray} when we were 15. I wrote Girl from Mars in my bedroom at my parents’ house when I was 17.

I think there was a bit of Mars hanging over us. I was listening to Pixies, who were sci-fi obsessed. My sister is 18 years older than me and was a David Bowie fan in her teens. Our rehearsal room had been her den, and she’d written Life on Mars in huge letters on the wall. I think I also saw a film called Girl from Mars, or something, in a TV listing magazine. It was on at 4am so I never watched it, but I made my own story for the song.

I’d broken up with my first girlfriend, which was very intense, first love. I’d always been a happy child but for the first time was experiencing teenage angst, which I poured into the song. Aged 17, I was already nostalgic for those happier times. The previous summer, I’d gone on a family holiday to France. We met a bunch of cool kids and hung out on the beach, smoking cigars, which is where the line about “Henri Winterman cigars” comes from.

The first demo I did on my own sounds very much like a Teenage Fanclub song, mid tempo and jangly. When we played it as a band, we sped it up and it became more like the Buzzcocks. Live, it got a reaction straight away. After our manager discovered us and we signed to Infectious Records, they put us in the studio to record a mini-album, but specifically instructed us to not record Girl from Mars. They knew it had the potential to be a hit and wanted to hold it back until we’d left school and could promote it properly.

We eventually recorded it in Rockfield Studios in Monmouth with producer Owen Morris when he had a break from working on the Verve’s A Northern Soul. But the label and management thought we hadn’t got it quite right, so we went back in to finish it with Phil Thornalley, who’d been in the Cure and produced Torn for Natalie Imbruglia. I was finishing my A-levels when I first heard Girl from Mars on the radio. Then two days later we were playing Glastonbury. It’s been on the setlist for every gig we’ve done ever since. I’m not sure they’d let us out of venues if we didn’t play it.

Rick McMurray, drummer

I’d seen Tim and Mark playing in Vietnam at school. The singer walked off stage during the gig, so Tim had to take over on vocals. I was the year above Tim and we got talking during the school play, and he suggested I go round for a jam. By the second rehearsal, they’d kicked the other guys out of the group so it was just Tim, Mark and me. Then everything just snowballed.

We were full of energy, teenage hormones, and the excitement of being in a band. When we first went into the studio, getting a successful take meant just getting to the end of the song without anyone stopping. By the time we did Girl from Mars, we’d probably recorded 10 or 12 songs, but that one took us to another level. It was very catchy and commercial.

Recording with Owen Morris was bonkers. When we did Angel Interceptor I had my first ecstasy experience. You can hear me at the end hollering: “Whooo! Yeah, we’ve got it!” For Girl from Mars, the day started in the pub and then Owen went: “Right, let’s go to a charity shop and get some women’s clothes!” We thought: “This is what bands do.” And we definitely got on board with the idea, which was kind of fun. It was like we were wearing our grannies’ clothes. It certainly broke the anxiety of being a young band in the studio.

We did a really iconic video with ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson from Throbbing Gristle, on a freezing cold beach in Camber Sands in East Sussex, but then they made us do another one for the US MTV, which I have no recollection of whatsoever. Tim did a live vocal on Top of the Pops. I put lino on my drums to quieten them, and was playing very slightly out of time. Our parents had always warned us that very few bands get signed and only a fraction of those ever make it, so watching us on Top of the Pops must have been quite a moment for them.

• Teenage Wildlife: 25 Years of Ash is out now on BMG. The band are touring the UK from 17-27 March.

Contributor

Interviews by Dave Simpson

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