Saturday, May 15, 1993

Melody Maker: Lad In Space

VERVE were last year's second most likely contenders for world domination after You Know Who. At which point they threw in the works including a couple of radio-hostile nine-minute singles. ANDREW SMITH meets the willful experimentalists in Spain and talks to charismatic madman RICHARD ASHCROFT about Verve's new music - specifically, their new single 'Blue' and forthcoming album, 'A Storm in Heaven. 

IN 1982, RlCHARD ASHCROFT, VERVE'S SWAGGERING, Jagger-lipped singer, was 11 years old. He remembers that year well, better than any other, because it was when his father dies.

A long-forgotten teenage car crash had left a tiny remembrance, a little hemorrhage in the brain. A blood clot had formed remaining passive for the best part of two decades. Then it struck without warning. It happened too suddenly for doctors to do anything - Richard's father was there and then he was gone, leaving the son angry and bewildered, disturbed and frightened by the capricious of this mortal coil.

"I remember being picked up by a friend, a vicar's son," says Richard. "He took me to his house and I remember thinking, 'Right, religion's out from this day on, 'and having a serious argument with him in the car.

"That was important for me, because it hardened me, made me feel less respect for life. I know how easy it is to be wiped out in a day, how possible it is to disappear in a second. I gained on awareness of how quickly people can leave you and of how little time you've got to enjoy yourself off and have relationships with people. If he was alive, I wouldn't be here with Verve right now. I'd swap it to have him back, but I guess you can't do that."

Now in 1993, Verve has justified all that was ever claimed for them - even that which they'd claimed for themselves. And they've claimed plenty

"HERE" is a little Spanish village called San Jose, where Verve are filming the video for "Slide Away", the first American single to be taken from their astonishing debut album, "A Storm In Heaven" (in the UK, it's the windswept, vivid"Blue")

Okay, you've heard superlatives used in connection with this band before. Last year, Verve were "heroes" " a holocaust", "the best new band"..." since Suede. You may have been disappointed when you saw them live or heard the records, considered what they didn't quite match the hype. If you were smart, though, you'd have understood why we got excited. For here was a band for whom the promise of greatness was just a starting point, a band who had everything.

More specifically, Verve had fistfuls of audacity. Their second single could have charted, but they released a song that ran to nine minutes anyway because it "felt right" like that. On Valentine's day last year, they had the plugs pulled on them at the Astoria by Catherine Wheel to go onstage at 7.30, before any of their fans has arrived. They ran over time (because they thought they were worth it), the stage manager told them to get off and in retaliation Ashcroft announced that the last tune would be "a real epic". The lights went down, the singer smashed his vodka bottle and the band immediately pulled out of the rest of the tour.

"Why should be put up with all that crap?" they asked The Maker at the time. "We're always telling people we're a special band, so why should they have to see us in those circumstances?"

Then there was the night in Norwich when they left after two numbers (minds were refusing to be blown, see) even though it meant they wouldn't get paid; the time, supporting Spiritualized at the T&C, when the final number laid waste to all 25 minutes and witnesses from the business thought they'd flipped. This is what "indie" ethic used to mean: a refusal to subordinate art to business. Or, in this case, anything else.

"A STORM In Heaven" starts several miles down the road from where 'She's A Superstar" left off. It shimmers and drifts, going nowhere beautifully. At various points it puts you in mind of The Velvet' 'Venus In Furs", Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer", "Boy"-era U2, Simple Minds circa "New Golden Dream", The Doors of "The End" and the Primals' "Screamadelica". Occasionally, you might hear Television or Led Zeppelin in there

It's interesting to note that some of the bands brought to mind by "Storm" have gone on to become flabby, globe-strolling dinosaurs. Verve have this in them. The next few years will be fascinating to watch. But what matters is now. And for now, it doesn't get much better than this.

"A Storm In Heaven" is Verve as they always might have been as they are NOW: coaxing, heady, seductive as a daydream f*** on the top of a bus, a velvet-gloved hand on your thigh. A chrysalis turned butterfly. "A Storm in Heaven" is a fine, fine album. For Verve, it's year zero. The story begin here.

WE arrive to find Richard Ashcroft climbing out of the sea into teeth of an icy breeze, shirtless and in jeans, hair dripping, vine-like tangle. His face is blue and his limbs are shaking. Your immediate thought is: "get that man some food!" He's so thin. I guess he brings out the mother in us.

The fact is that America has the perfect physique for flair-wearing, but a very poor one for cross-channel swimming. Someone wraps a towel around him and he shivers barefoot up the beach. Still he smiles and purses his ample lips for Sheehan's camera. Is there nothing this man won't do for the sake of a dream? His worst, worst fear, he later explains, is failure. A brave mission for a performer when you think about it.

Last night was another matter entirely. Director Richie Smith had found a perfect location in the nearby town of Almerica, an ancient brothel- "pure David Lynch"," chuckles the singer.

"It was terrifying," groans bassist Simon Jones, who had been trying to give up smoking but got through a whole pack as he stood on the tacky, tinsel-backed stage, trying to avoid his refection in the mirrored walls, waiting for the filming to start.

"I think one of the girls fancied me," says Pete Salisbury, on an entirely different note. He's the drummer.

"Those women should have there own TV show," continues Ashcroft, who, typically, seems less fazed by the experience than his comrades. "They're stars, they can turn it on every night."

Have you been anywhere like that before?

"No. I found myself in some seedy peepshow once, just to see what the hell goes on there. I've never been to a real brothel before. It might be interesting to go once, just to see how deflated you really feel, you know, once you had your orgasm. I'll bet it's an incredible moment, once it's all over and you're strolling out there and you're exactly the same person as you were before you walked in. A completely meaning experience. That's what I've always wondered: what happens just after the act has been performed and it's all over? That split second. It must be intense."

ASHCROFT, Jones, Salisbury and guitarist Nick McCabe met while they were at college near their hometown of Wigan. Ashcroft (who was taking Philosophy, Religion and Theatre studies) and Jones had been writing songs in their bedrooms. On a whim, they called McCabe and asked him to join. This was the turning point, because his impressionistic, intricately layered guitar haunts Verve's sound, just as Ashcroft defies their spirit.

Ashcroft's first ambition was to play football for Manchester United. Fortunately, he was too slow over the first five yards. By the time he'd realized this, though, he had other ideas.

"I remember I had a careers interview when I was about 15 and I said, 'I wanna do music.' They said, 'Well, are you in a band?' and I said 'No, but I know I want to do something.' I got the classic wry smile that said. 'You're gonad be working in a factory in two years, son.' After that, I fluffed my exams and then I really started thinking about doing it.

"It's still strange," muses Verve's, er, muse, "traveling abroad maybe playing Times Square on the back of a truck and then coming back home to Wig an. You're in these insane settings one day and then the next you're=bang!-back down to earth."

VERVE accept that, in the short term, they may have been damaged by some of the things written about them in 1992. Many were waiting for the album to prove them just another group of inconsequential indie shadows, another opportunity for the music press to dust off the same old adjectives. More a page from Roget's Thesaurus n a band of substance.

"Yeah, I think people who saw us last year thought we a bit hyped, or something to do with Suede," say Richard Ashcroft.

"They were com0pletely wrong. There's a tendency for people to exaggerate your place in the world. i mean, to the vast majority of people, Verve, Suede, Spiritualized, even U2, mean nothing at all. But to me, this is everything. I think about music all the time and I'll never not believing that we can live up to anything anyone says about us."

You haven't always done that.

"I don't agree," he frowns. "Even when things have gone wrong, they've gone wrong for the right reasons. A lot of indie bands are very scared, very nervous of saying or doing something foolish. But unless you take those risks, you'll never know how high you can go. With our music, there's a lot of striving for something that probably isn't there."

THE Verve experience is indefinitely more satisfying stretched our over 50 minutes than it is over five, good though the single, "Blue",is. Verve songs are not linear constructs. If they have a commercial limitation, this could be it. The same might be said for Spiritualized or Levitation. Ashcroft accepts this, nut only up to a point.

"We're still exploring our craft," he says. "I love good pop tunes, but when you buy a single, you're stressed, because you want the A-side to ab a classic and the B-side to be as good. You want to hear immediate magic. With an album, you have time to feel your way into it, to sink into it. A lot of people said that we could have charted last year if we'd released shorter singles, but for us to do that at the time would have been lying."

Verve write by jamming, improvising. "A Storm In Heaven" was recorded in Cornwall and sometimes they'd go for five days and nights and come up with nothing, then two corkers would appear out of nowhere. The process is necessarily hit-and-miss, perhaps unfocused, certainly exploratory Verve first open, then blow, your mind.

"I just don't like tying people's imaginations down," Ashcroft explains, "because their imaginations might be more powerful than mine. Why would I limit them? To someone else, 'Virtual World' might be something far more than i intended it mean."

MUCH has been made of Richard Ashcroft's charisma, his "star" quality, his drive to be notice. Post Suede, this is far more acceptable than it was in the dark days of shoegazing. One Maker reviewer, in the course of slamming Verve, considered that, "although rock stars themselves aren't necessarily boring, people whose sole aim in life to be one most certainly are."

I wonder how Richard took this, whether it hurt? If the allegation meant anything, I reason, he'll get mad. His eyes flash for the first time, but his lips fail to quiver.

"If you give me a stage, I'll perform," he states plainly. "But as for wanting to be seen jumping out of a limo with Naomi Campbell, that's not what I want."

But you wouldn't say no?

I've got a girlfriend, thanks you. If journalists or anyone think I don't understand plasticity of the rock experience, and the triviality of it, then they won't understand Verve. But this moves us, therefore it's worthwhile/ Keith Richards threw a telly out of a window in 1969 - big deal, I don't give a f***. I think The Stones were a great band, but we're not trying to copy them. Just because I'm skinny and I've got a pair of lips doesn't mean I want to be Mick Jagger! Obviously, you get inspired when you see footage of them. They could hold an audience. But I'm not in this to become an impostor. I don't want to look and say to myself, 'You were lying for 20 years'"

How important is stardom?

"Very important. I remember the first time I went onstage, at college. I freaked out completely and people were laughing and staring. I just thought, life's too short, I don't want to be English and reserved all my life. I don't wanna hide myself in a shell. Here I am- join in if you want to and if you don't, go home. That's how I see it. Don't be afraid to enjoy yourself. I want a sense overload. Verve is an accident that went right. It's about freefall, going wherever we go.

"The thing is, Nick and the others are cutting the music and I'm just interpreting it. I'm probably 15, 16 different people during a gig, you know? Sometimes I just disappear and I wouldn't swap it for the world, that feeling of being totally elevated, totally blown away. World War III could take place around the corner, but I wouldn't hear it or see it because of those few moments of complete abandon. That's the greatest thing in the world. A lot of people think music is three chords and a strange haircut, when its so much more than that."

LIKE all good children of the Seventies, Richard Ashcroft believes in reincarnation, meditation and astrological predictions.

The latter gets me wondering: if a soothsayer were here, and told Ashcroft that Verve wasn't going to work, that this album was the best they were capable of, that the stardom predicted for him was a mirage, what would he do? Would he ditch the band and find another way to make his mark?

There's a long, painted silence at the end of the question. His brow furrows heroically/ Eventually, he speaks

"No. I'd just prove them wrong. I can't imagine that scenario. Not at all."

Funny, that.

'Blue' is released this week on Hut. 'A Storm In Heaven', Verve's debut album, is out next month.
  • Source: Melody Maker, Blue moods: Tom Sheehan
  • Kudos: Jeff Birgbauer