THE VERVE have split the voters ever since they appeared in '92 as The Band Most Likely To after Suede. Some loved their experimental prog-rock noise, others theought it was hippy, trippy bollocks. Now, they have more fans than detractors and, with their new album, 'A Northern Soul', they are receiving favourable comparisons to the All Time Greats. But it has been one long, mad struggle. DAVE SIMPSON speaks to The Verve about the record described as 'a diary of disaster, a symphony of pain'. Crazyheads: TOM SHEEHAN
'This is a tale of a Northern soul
Trying to find is way back home
SOMETHING terrible has happened to The Verve. You can still
recongnise the wide-eyed, cocksure, romantic , experience-hungry youths
of '92 and '93, but there's a look about them now which brings to mind
the numb expressions of those returning from the Vietnam war. When I
first meet Richard Ashcroft, he's wearing a green bobble hat pulled so
far over his face it looks as though he's hiding from the world.
Bassist Simon Jones is a sunken-cheeked apparition of his former self.
When he speaks, it's in a near-inaudible croak.
What the hell has happened to them?
"We've been through a lot of turmoil and had some great moments," begins
Ashcroft, high up on the beacon overlooking Wigan where he and school
pal Simon first dreamed up The Verve. "You can go through a lot in two
years, especially if you're fortunate enough to travel and see a lot of
places like we are. You're gonna get in some scrapes. You're gonna go
through some extreme emotions. My brain is definitely a different brain
from that of two year4s ago. Wheather or not I've been tainted by that
I don't know."
I do, and he has. And then some.
THIS is a tale of a Northen Soul; of four people who journeyed far in
order to find something, thought they'd achieved it, only to see it slip
through their fingers. THey then returned to what they thought was
home, only to find it had changed beyond recognition, and that they no
longer belonged. It's a tale of hope, madness, deceit, excess, the
cruellest betrayal and the shadows of death. And it's the tale of "A
Northern Soul", The Verve's tumultuous, Top20-bound new LP, a landmark
album that almost deserves to be placed alongside the likes of "Closer",
"The Idiot", or "LA Woman". It's a diary of disaster, a symphony of
pain. It is also, for my money, the brashed, boldest, most adventurous,
fucked up and human album of the year. Two years after The Maker put
them on the cover (in June, '92, when they were just plain Verve, before
a run-in with a pedantic US jazz label put paid to that), The Verve have
CUT to WIgan, low-down Lancashire havel, home to the legendary Wigan
Casino, unbeatable rugby team and precious lettle else. The Verve began
as an attempt to escape the fate mapped out for the band and their
peers: the local baked bean factory. Escape for the band came quickly
in the form of blissed out, star-scraping early tracks such as "Blue"
and "Gravity Grave", which were rapturously received. For a time, it
seemed that (The) Verve would even eclipse Suede, press darlings and,
back in '92, the band's closest rivals.
"'Gravity Grave' rages once more against the inescapable conditions of
human existance," wrote David Stubbs in MM, "flies in the face of
expedicency. Theirs is a precarious beauty." "A liquid delight,"
wrote Ian Giffins about "Blue". The '93 album, "A Storm In Heaven", was
But, while the praise was gushing, commercial success eluded The Verve,
partly because of the band's refusal to play the Radio One game (in
releasing nine-minute singles) and partly because they were right place,
wrong time. Back then - caught between shoegazing and grunge -
Ashcroft's adventurers were simply too far out for Britian to
comprehend. Logically, they dreamt of America, and their wide-open
expanses of sound such as "Blue" and "Gravity Grave" took them there.
But America didn't want their dream - it only wanted their sales. If
not, well, their souls would have to do...
"At the start, it was an adventure, but America nearly killed us,"
recalls Ashcroft now, wincing at the memory of to many meets'n'greets,
exhausting schedules, the chaos and egomaina of Lollapalooza, hours
spent staring at "insane TV", crazy nights with friends shipped from
Wigan. Wild times which gained Richard Ashcroft (a man who was never
backwared in comming forward, no matter how debauched or illegal the
activity) the unfortunate soubriquet, "Mad Richard."
"My problem, basically, is that I think too much," Richard explains.
"Sticking someone who thinks too much on a chrome buss and sending him
around America isn't a very good experiment. I definitely felt I was
part of an experiment of some point. But it depends what kind of
lifestyle you have. If you're taking the lifestyle you have at home
away as well, that's gonna lead to madness. Because we're 24-hour party
people. You've got to keep it going because, if the morale drops, the
gigs suffer. You can't take time off. There's a lot of bollocks
written about us trashing hotels. But for someone to get that pissed up
and pissed off in the middle of America to start that craziness, that's
how mad it gets."
It got even madder. Perhaps because, musically and physically, the
Verve flew so close to the sun, the inevitable crash landing was always
going to be tough. Amid lurid tales of Ashcroft pasasing out and
performing gigs with a drip-feed still hanging from his arm, The Verve
had to touch base. They did what the rootless often do: return to what
they perceived to be their roots, ie Wigan. Only to find no answers,
just more confusion.
"When you come home after you've been through all the madness," croaks
Simon Jones, "that's as difficult to deal with. You're drained by
America and then you come back to this 'real' environment. That's
supposed to be your life, but you don't know who you are. You don't
know whether you're the person you were on tour or the person back at home."
On the verge of schizophrenia and physical collapse, The Verve entered
the recording studio to record "A Northern Soul". Surely the worst was
behind them? On the contrary, it was only just beginning.
'In between life and death
Well, there's nothing left
You come in on you own
And you leave on your own'
LISTEN to "A Northern Soul" and the lypnotic hit single, "On Your
Own" (Number 28 with, well, if not a bullet, then at least a small
incendiary device), and the recurrent images are of terror, horror,
dread and morbidity.
Why, I wonder?
"We've always been a dark band," replies Richard, darkly. "Dark in a
way that can be quite frightening. A lot of people heard the first
takes of the album and said, 'You're obsessed with death.' Maybe I am.
I think you're a fool if it's not in you mind. My father died when I
was 11. If I died the same age as my dad, I'd only have 18 years left.
That's terrifying. So that gives you an urgency.
"I've always thought about death," he continues, as we head for a
hilltop pub. "Wheather my father's death started it off, I don't know.
I'm 23. When you get into you twenties, people that have been around
you for a long time--friends, grandparents--start gettin' ill or
whatever. You're gettin' reminders of it all the time. I don't dwell
on my father's death. That's something which happened when I was 11.
It happens to millions of kids. I'm not trying to sell a record on
that. It's not a terrible, fake American angst thing. I wouldn't want
people to think I was talking about it for altruistic purposes, cos I
don't really like talking about it, to be honest."
But whether you like talking about it or not, you father's death when
you were so young will always cast a giant shadow. However far you go,
you'll never escape something like that.
"Oh, totally, yeah," he says, softly. "These are things that happen to
you. It's as real as it gets."
I happen to mention that the night I first heard "On Your Own", a close
friend's mother claled to say he'd just thrown himself off a
multi-story car park. And that I can't hear the song without thinking
of that night, playing the record over and over again, inconsolable.
This stuns The Verve as I knew it would. Maybe I hoped they would
respect my openness and match it with their own (Page 174 of the
Advanced Rock Journalism manual: never let morality or personal
feelings get in the way of a crafty interview technique).
I asked Richard if he's had any brushes with death.
"Not really, no," he says. "I've encountered death. He[Simon]'s had
brushes with death. I've experienced it through others."
Simon, it transpires, is the only member of The Verve sitll in
possession of a driving license, and I doubt if he'll remain so for
long. The other week, he got pissed up at a party and decided to go for
a little drive along some country roads. Sensibly, he handed the wheel
to a mate. Unfortunately, his mate was just as plastered and he hadn't
even passes his test.
"It was so stupid," sigs Simon, shaking his head. "I shouldn't have
even considered it, cos he just started screwing it down these twisting
lanes. I'm going', 'Slow down, man, the road's wet!' And we spun out
and hit a tree. There was a massive drop by the side of the car. Then
we noticed that, just around the corner, there was a wrought iron gate.
If we hadn't have spun out, we'd have hit this gate at about 60 mph and
we would have been dead."
It strikes me that the only The Verve could come up with a story as
unbelievable as this. But I do believe it. The Verve are a band
who attract chaos, insanity. This is what fuels their muse and makes
their records so intoxicated and intoxicating. But they're almost
casually on the edge: driving up here today, I couldn't help noticing
that Simon's speedometer read 85mph as we hurtled through the hillside
roads, your intrepid journo cowering in the back.
Inevitably, I mention The Verve's reputation as a "drug band". "Dance
On Your Bones" (the B-side of "On Your Own") seems to tbe about
"Maybe," replies Richard, after a pregnaunt pause. "I wrote that song
about any kind of total loss of any rules whatsoever. It's about the
Devil sweeping you up into all kinds of depravity. Because he does! If
you wanna believe in Christianity, the Devil's rife in my body. He's
buzzing around my bones at the moment. He's dancing on 'em."
How accurate is The Verve's reputation as a "drug band"?
"It can be accurate," whispers Richard. "It's a way of life, but the
point is not letting anything get on top of the music."
Have The Verve had experience of heroin?
"Oh yeah," states Richard, matter-of-fact, before adding quickly, "Not
personally, but among friends."
"I'd never, ever do herion," insists Simon. "People have told me that
it's the most amazing feeling in the world. But I can't relate to
heroin. IF fucks you life up. If's just not a thing to consider."
"However beatuiful it may be as an experience, it strips people of their
artistic power," add Richard, staring me out. "It strips you of your
soul. I never want to be that...hungry for something. It's creeping
back into the music scene. It's sad. People have studied their
rock'n'roll biographies too much. Fucking sick. WHere we come from,
our estates are crawling with heroin. Like I said earlier, people were
dying around us."
Still, while America had sucked his band dry and friends were
disappering into a heroin haze or early graves, at least Richard sitll
had that thing he held most dear: his six-year relationship.
'I've gotta tell you my tale
Of how I loved and how I failed
I hope you understand
Ohhh, these feelings should not be in a man'
THE finest track on "A Northern Soul" is undoubtedly "History",
an epic, windswept symphony of strings, flailing vocals and staggeringly
bitter sentiments. Indeed, several of the album's tracks refer to some
mysterious, evil betrayal.
I ask Richard how far "A Northern Soul" is an album made by someone
who's given up on love>
"Erm...at the time..." He is momentarily stunned. "At the very
beginning of the album, I think I had."
"Not really, no. No," he backtracks. "It's just written by someone
who's sat down and thought about things. Who's gone through the classic
stage of a few weeks gettin' pissed up and goin' down to those pits,
listening to Big Star at six in the mornin'. I think...I hadn't given
up on love."
Some of the lyrics seem pretty conclusive. "I don't believe in love and
devotion"("A Northern Soul"); "I don't believe that love is free"("So It
"Well, I think you get to a point in your life where you've gotta
decide, no more bullshit," declares Richard. "Nomore lies. If someon's
telling me bullshi, I'll tell them to fuck off and if a girl's givin' me
bullshit, leave. Cos you waste a lot of time in your life in
relationships and situations that you think are right on it and they're
not. You get let down and...I think I...relationship-wise, I'd had an
easy life up to that point."
I heard that you split up with your girlfriend of six years around the
time of the recording of the album.
"Yeah, but that was over long before then," snaps the vocalist.
"Yes, but Richard, you only dealt with it at that time," Simon tells his
mate. "When we went in to do the album, that was when you dealt with
it, even though it might have been over in your head."
Richard Ashcroft stares straight ahead.
"I wouldn't give that certain person the importance of this record."
"No, but it's you dealing with that situation at that time," repeats
Simon. "Thw whole record isn't about it, but a lot of it is, Richard.
Definitely. Whether you know that or not."
Richard: "I don't know. Dave, move on. I don't want the girlfriend
thing to be a part of this piece, because it's too limited a subject
matter. Move on."
Can we talk more generally abou your philosophy regarding love?
Richard (becoming irritated): "Well more importantly, I lost a best
friend of mine as well. There was a, er, friend in the equations as
well. So that was more important than the female side of it all. Cos
that was just something that was dead. It was just some mad shit that
happened. So I lost a friend I'd had since I was five years old. Move
Are you saying that your long-term girlfriend ran off with your best
friend from childhood?
"There were loads of things going' on when I was wiriting those lyrics.
I move on.
ENOUGH digging. Tell me about the recording sessions.
"The first few weeks were elation," Richard reveasl. "Then we just
went through the emotions. To be honest, recordings the album was
fucking mad. And I take my hat off to Owen Morris [producer of "A
Northern Soul", also of Oasis' 'Definately Maybe'] cos he's such a
geezer for coming on that voyage with us.
"We used to drive around at night for hours waiting for the feeling to
come," Ashcroft continues. "Other times, we'd sit around, doing
absolutely noting'. Gettin' stoned. Sometimes we'd play Funkadelic or
Chick really loud, gettin' a club vibe in the studio. You've got to
compete with the greats.
"When we recorded 'History', Owen was cryin' by the end of it. He was
feeling everything that we were feeling. His life depended on making
this record. He's 26. That's how he is. I've told people that Owen
had a nervous breakdown, but maybe those words were too harsh. Cos if
you think of someone haveing a nervous breaddown, you think of someone
whimpering on the floor in need of sedation. He was more, like,
chuckling speakers through a plate glass windows. But Owen becamje one
of us. He thinks that we're the best band in the works. And we needed
someone who knew we were the best band in the world."
'I stand accused
Just like you
Of being born without a silver spoon'
IN an attempt to banish the dark clouds that have gathered over
the interview, I comment that "This Is Music" shows The Verve taking
steps towards a political hardline, and that this might surprise and
excite people. I mean, The Verve aren't thought of as a political band.
"It annoys me what people think of us," snaps Richard, still slightly
pissed off. "All that hippy narcissistic shit. All that came about cos
we emerged at a time of self-love, Suede 'n' all that, and that image
was something journalists put onto us. We've never been hippies."
The word is spat out like mucus.
"'This Is Music' came about after I met this guy who went to Eton. I
just realised the options that were open to him if he wanted to venture
into certain fields. He was 90 metres ahead in the race of life, purely
by birthright. And I find that really strange. So I invented a
character with which to sing the song. But it could be me, easily. Or
anyone who's been into a situation where you have to fight to get what
As someone from a working-class background, do you find, say, Blur's
neo-laddish mythologising and grey hound imagery pretty insulting,
coming as it does from upper/middle class kidsand at a time when many
traditional working-class virtues are under attack? (Hey, fun
"Totally, yeah," snaps Richard. "I don't resent the upper-classes, but
they take the piss. I remember when Chuck D first came over to England,
every one of our papers had something about Princess Di's new haricut.
And he's coming from a neighbourhood where kids are gettin' shot on the
corner. I mean, I love England. But, when you analyse it, it's totally
fucked. We've had dickheads in power for so long. The Eighties were a
terrible, greedy decade. The wrong people making ridiculous amounts of
Do The Verve believe in the notion of a protest song?
Richard: "Not really, no."
"Because they've been bastardised too much over the years. There was a
time when rock music was taken seriously, when lyrics were agents of
social change. But over the last 20 years, those words have lost their
power. You're just pissing in the wind if you make a protest song now.
These days, a riot is a protest, not a song."
But surely you can have some effect by sneaking things in--like you have
done or like Pulp did with "Common People", a quirky pop song that
concealed a real loating of certain middle/upper-class sensibilities?
"You've got to be more subliminal, yeah. Throw in a few lines that get
One of the best lyrics on the album is,
"Imagine the future/I woke up with a scram/I was buying some feelings
from a vending machine."("Life's An Ocean"). What's that all about?
"It's like a Stanley Kubrick vision of the future," Richard tells me.
"The guy has got soul but he's being suffocated by commercialism.
Products. And he's stood in the middle of all this madness. I've got a
lot of future shock in me, yeah. The song's just a future shock guy at
the end of his emotional tether."
Not autobiographical, surely?
I stare at the New Prince Of Dark Pop, the man once patronisingly called
Mad Richard, and ask, "Are you mad, Richard?"
"Maybe," he grumbles. "Maybe Sly Stone was mad. But, if I am mad, then
we are living in extremely conservative times."
"I have got conflict in my nimd, though, yeah. It's like ... I wanna
write these songs. I wanna get people to listen to them. Then I'm
thinking, 'Do they really understand them? Do they really get into
them? What level are they taking them on?' Cos I remember sittin' in
the Viper Room a few weeks ago and there was a tape on. And I was
thinkin', I don't want my music played in this club. I don't want
people with silicon tits and silicon ears listening to us.
"After nights like that, I either laugh at it or I get totally
disillusioned," admits the singer. "Life is mad. We all know that, but
you either wanna make a statement in an insane world or else you may as
well gie in and go lie on a beach."
"It's great when you do a gig and you talk to someone who's understood
exactly where you're coming from," adds Simon. "It's all worth it when
you talk to someone like that."
Given the emotional intensity and lyrical imagery of "A Norhtern Soul",
The Verve could well find themselves subject to the kind of obsessive
attention given to, say, Kurt or Richey.
"I try not to think about stuff like that," says Richard. "If you open
up musically or lyrically, you're gonna be prone to people taking it to
the cextreme. I think the more I do it, the more I'll be gettin' to the
point where someone's gonna blow me head off in New York. It's always
"Have you seen that clip in 'Imagine' where that German guy comes
knocking on John Lennon's door?" Simon pipes up. "And he's saying,
'You're speaking,' and all this. You're always gonna get crazy people
like that who assume you're speaking directly to them. And they wanna
Kurt opened up and suddelny there were thousands of people saying, "Help
me." But he was fucked up enough without needing to help anyone else.
"Exactly," says Richard, who it undoubedly, like Kurt, the Genuine
Article. These records are cathartic to the people who are making them
and then they're cathartic to the listening to them. But I'd rather be
able to play gigs and then just be back in my bedroom, and it be over
with. Cos it's gonna be an experience signing these lyrics. If I'm
true to myself and believe in what I do then I can't fake it, I'm going
to have to get into it completely. And, to get into it, I've got to go
through it all again."
I go to the bar to buy Richard some much-needed drinks. When I return
he has this to say:
"You know, we've made a great record. All I want is some respect. I
don't want to be a rock star. Living up here helps. We say 'no' to
people. FUCK off! Take the phone off the hook. no one notices start up
north. We've had the greatest rock stars in the world and nobody gives
a fuck. It's no big deal."
"I was on the train the other day and these people were stood on the
platform waitin' for me carriage to go past, wavin' and shoutin'. That
was great. It was like, 'You know who I am and you're into the records,
an' you're giving us a salute.' And I'm going', 'Yeah!'"