Richard Ashcroft and friends Simon Jones (bass) and Pete Salisbury (drums) had already played together in various Wigan bands(sometimes with guitarist/keyboardist Simon Tong, who returned to the fold for Urban Hymns) when in 1989, they heard of the quiet guitar "genius" who would really complete their lineup. If Richard Ashcroft was pilot of The Verve, Nick McCabe was to become the band's bombadier. Ashcroft had first heard the guitarist play in a college practice room and described McCabe's sound even then as "a whole other universe."
From the very beginning, Verve's onstage focus was the rolling eyeball antics of Ashcroft - yet much of that musical dynamic came fron the fingers and feet of Nick McCabe. Total Guitar Magazine first met Ashcroft and McCabe - polar opposites of motor-mouth self confidence and quiet introspection - in 1993, on the eve of A Storm In Heaven's release. In this early interview, none of which has been published before, they reflect on their music and ambition.
"This album is us just jamming in the studio, same as we've always done," said Ashcroft. We've got the freedom to do what we want, and I think that gives us the best results 'cos we're not scared - we're not scared to run on "too long", not scared to try new things. It's less contrived and packaged than a lot of music over the last few years."
The notion that Verve's elliptical approach to songwriting would yield a hit seemed fanciful in those early days - but Ashcroft and McCabe's enthusiasm for their idiosyncratic path remained unwavering. The band McCabe concurred, were "totally selfish, totally self-centred and self-indulgent - just the way it should be."
Accusations of being psychedelic hippies - hardly the sharpest of stances in the early days of so-called mod-esque Britpop - failed to bother the band. "Psychedelic bands, to me, are horrible, plastic dayglo bands - we're certainly not like that," McCabe grumbled to Total Guitar Magazine. But we can be psychedelic on one level, emotional on another. The music can work on loads of different levels.
"Our music's got a diversity that a lot of psychedelia - particularly English psychedelia, which can be a bit fey - doesn't have." Ashcroft added, "It's not as if it's just based on drug experiences. But psychedelic these days just seems to be used to describe something that's slightly strange as opposed to something that you can really enjoy with a high-grade class joint. I'm not a great fan of psychedelic music to tell you the truth."
While some saw that sound, dominated by McCabe's part-shimmering, part pulverising guitar textures, as a natural extension of the Cocteau twins-plus-Mary Chain sonics of early '90's shoegazing - the apogee of which was My Bloody Valentine's Loveless LP - McCabe insisted to Total Guitar Magazine that much of his inspiration arrived from a different direction.
"When I was 14 or so I listened to a lot of Joy Division - I loved the textures of their records. Now though, it's more John Martyn, his 70's albums in particular; that's where my textured guitar playing comes from, honestly," he explained. "And I had Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd forced on me when I was younger, and although I tend not to listen to that sort of thing now I guess it's lodged in my brain."
"I won't say that bands like the Cocteau Twins were not an influence, but that's not the stuff I really like....I like Vini Reilly (from The Durutti Column) because he could be flashy but he was really simple about it. I also like Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel who, to me condensed the best bits of Hendrix. You can probably hear all my influences in what I play, whether it's recent stuff or old blues records. It's all about sound. I think guitar players who strive for technical excellence have lost the plot, really. The whole point of the electric guitar started when Charlie Christian plugged his guitar into an amplifier to make it sound like a saxophone or whatever....and if I can press some button in the studio to make my guitar come up with a new sound, then what's so bad about that? It's like the whole idea that techno isn't "proper" music 'cos they can't play instruments - it's so short-sighted. That's surely where new music comes from."
McCabe's search for new sounds saw him go through a dizzying array of effects for the recording of A Storm In Heaven. "I love buying gadgets, and I go through loads of different setups, so what I use changes constantly," he confessed. "For guitars, my standard Strat is the one I really like, and I also have a Gibson ES-335 for a lot of the feedback stuff. I've got a Jazzmaster which I bought mainly 'cos I liked the shape....and then I found out how shit it was. It was Tom Verlaine's fault, as usual."
"My main Marshall packed in and started to sound horrible just before we recorded the album so I got hold of a Mesa/Boogie (MkIII) combo. For effects I started off with a Watkins Copicat and I used to have one of those old Roland Space Echoes, but at the moment I've got a Roland GP-8 that I picked up second-hand. It's pretty reliable, it does the job. But in the studio, it's just a case of using anything I can get my hands on - a GS-6, a Roland Jazz Chorus combo....I hooked those up after the Mesa/Boogie, and it's that which gives the great big sound on The Sun, The Sea.
"I come up with new ideas just by dribbling guitars over everything and picking out something that makes some sort of sense," he continued. "We sample stuff, loop bits I've played and it sounds great. John Leckie has actually tamed me down a bit, really. But live it's different - we never try and exactly recreate the studio sound and I think all our songs will always take on a different character when we play them live."
And for Nick McCabe, the band's burgeoning live power was already foreshadowing a harder approach to his playing; "A lot of the songs on A Storm In Heaven have three guitars on them, but they're interlocking rather than just layering and I think it's unnecessary. Live, it's an even better sound even though it's simple....so I want to get out of overdubbing. That simple blend - guitar, bass, and drums - it's the perfect one isn't it? Classic.
For their second album A Northern Soul, Nick McCabe jettisoned much of the FX overload that had characterized A Storm In Heaven. Where Verve were all blissed-out grooves and gently uncoiling guitar figures, The Verve were harder and leaner, more soulful and bluesy, and the band's improvisational powers were reaching their peaks.
"Since the last album, we've spent two years playing music every night, and that means you get a lot better," observed McCabe - though he also hinted that the band's chemistry was fragile. "When it's working it's amazing, but when it's not it's horrible. That's what's different about The Verve."
The band hooked up with Oasis producer Owen Morris and the initial sessions for A Northern Soul went supremely well. The first three weeks of making the LP were not "the best three weeks of my life" says McCabe, "we were making music and thinking about it. And then it all went nuts..."
Yet the best of A Northern Soul still grew from The Verve's protracted jam sessions: the choppy Funkadelica of the title track, the whiplash chords on "A New Decade," the strolling psyche - blues of "Life's An Ocean" and the verge of feedback wail of "Stormy Clouds." And perhaps for the first time, Nick McCabe didn't sound like a product of 80's post punk but a player tapping a much deeper seam. "I'm not trying to sound 65 years old....it's not this retrospective thing. Listen to (The Stone Roses') John Squire on The Second Coming and you can almost hear the taste barriers go up. He's become too obsessed with this idea of what a good guitar player should sound like. He's lost the plot really hasn't he? "For instance, you walk into Wigan practice rooms and you'll hear bands playing Cream songs and that. They must see it as their apprenticeship, I suppose - as if, once you're good enough to play all these other people's songs, then you're good enough to to do your own. That's rubbish. The Verve have never played cover versions. Why should we? Why not make something new?"
McCabe's central guitar contribution to A Northern Soul was all the more remarkable given that 99 per cent of it - even the roaring, distorted chords that fade into delicately-toned blues bends - was rendered in real time with minimal overdubbing. "What you're hearing on A Northern Soul is the room," he said. "We're playing the room, getting the room on tape. We wanted that feeling we get when we make the rehearsal room vibrate."
For his part, producer Owen Morris reckoned McCabe to be "without doubt the most gifted musician I've ever worked with. You can ask Noel Gallagher to play the same guitar line a hundred times and, as long as there's a good reason, he'll do it. With Nick, you've got no chance. He just doesn't want to do that."
To make his multi-voiced approach even more flexible, McCabe devised a two-tier amp-switching system for the recording of A Northern Soul; a Marshall JCM800 stack served up the guttural growl for the heavy riffs, while a new purchase, a vintage Vox AC30, delivered the more delicate FX passages when flighty whims took hold.
Guitar wise, McCabe's Fender Strat remained in service but a sunburst Les Paul replaced his once beloved ES-335 (the repaired neck of which finally expired midway through the band's '94 tour); also used were a Tokai Talbo (a weirdly shaped '80's aluminum bodied electric) for slide work, plus a Takamine 12-string acoustic and Ashcroft's square-shouldered 1970's Gibson J45 acoustic. For effects McCabe employed the Roland GP-8, an Alesis Quadraverb and a reissue Watkins Copicat. Morris then recorded his guitar with plenty of compression, but no desk EQ.
While A Northern Soul represented palpable artistic and commercial progress - "This Is Music" became The Verve's first Top 40 hit, and the album outsold A Storm In Heaven within it's first month on the shelves - the wired craziness of the recording sessions spilled over into the the group members' "real" lives. Nick McCabe was rumoured to be suffering from clinical depression and he and Richard Ashcroft, even when they weren't playing, were increasingly hardly speaking at all. In September 1995, two months after A Northern Soul was released, the singer made public his decision to split The Verve. As the Top 40 made way for "History" The Verve, it seemed, were just that.
In the wake of the split, Nick McCabe returned to Wigan to spend time with his young daughter while Ashcroft headed for Cornwall and then Bath, where he worked on new demos. By now, Simon Jones and Pete Salisbury were back behind the singer and old friend and multi-instrumentalist Simon Tong - who taught Ashcroft and Jones their first guitar chords back in Wigan - was in place to add guitar and keyboards.
Under the guidance of the first album's producer John Leckie the foursome demo'd over 50 songs, mostly of new-found chordal simplicity and everyman emotional resonance: Ashcroft even penciled in an album title....Urban Hymns. Though impressed by Ashcroft's improving songcraft, it was Leckie who had to insist that the new tracks still needed a high caliber guitar player. "The one ingredient missing," recalled the producer recently in Q, was the Mick Ronson the Keith Richards, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it."
Eventually after a few months of soul-searching, Ashcroft rang McCabe and asked him to return. While the details of the realliance are closely guarded by the band, Ashcroft was magnanimous enough to later admit; "I love Nick McCabe and I never want to be in the band if he's not playing guitar. I hope he thinks the same way about me. We just needed time to realize it."
And the rest, as they say is, hysteria. Yet for all the brouhaha of The Verve's rebirth, Urban Hymns remains less of a true band effort than either A Storm in Heaven or A Northern Soul. By the very nature of it's protracted birth, half the songs on Urban Hymns - and, notably, all the hits - were developed from the demo masters Ashcroft had prepared for his solo album: clearly, the singer could indeed write three-minute hits to order and not, it seems, "feel fake." The rest of the album was The Verve as was, as is, and hopefully will be - with Nick McCabe to the fore. Indeed, it's hard to imagine Urban Hymns' more unique moments - the heavy Zep-esque groove of "Come On," the icy, FX-swamped "Catching The Butterfly," the wah-led "Weeping Willow" - existing at all without McCabe's contribution......
- Source: Total Guitar Magazine, Michael Leonard
an exclusive article
An Appreciation of Nick McCabe
When editor of 'Guitar' magazine, Michael Leonard, contacted us to ask about using some of our Chris Potter interview in his magazine's big Verve cover story, he kindly offered to write an appreciation of Nick McCabe's guitar playing as he is a big fan. It isn't intended as a tribute to Nick or anything like that, it's just an informative look at Nick's work by someone who knows something about guitars and all the opinions expressed are Michael's own. Thank you Michael.
Ashcroft reportedly described McCabe's sound as a 'whole new universe' when he first heard the guitarist playing in a Wigan practice room before the band's formation; eight years later with the release of Urban Hymns, and despite the pair's temporary falling out in 1995 and McCabe's recent withdrawal from live appearances, Ashcroft reiterated his debt to McCabe in shaping the Verve's sound 'I love Nick McCabe, 'the singer insisted, 'and I never want to be in band if he's not playing the guitar. I hope he thinks the same way about me. We just needed time to realise it.'
On Verve early releases, from debut single "All In The Mind" to the debut LP A Storm In Heaven, McCabe's playing relied heavily on delay and chorus doubling effects to build up a formidable wall of sound. Some thought McCabe's 'ethereal' style betrayed the influenced of '80s indie legends The Cocteau Twins and early '90s shoegazing kingpins My Bloody Valentine, even the prog-rock-ish textures of Pink Floyd's veteran guitarist David Gilmour. In a rare interview, McCabe insisted his primary influences came from a much more unique sources.
'It's all about sound,' he continued. 'I think guitar players who strive for technical excellence have lost the plot really. The whole point of the electric guitar started when Charlie Christian plugged his guitar into an amplifier to make it sound like a saxophone or whatever and if I can press some button in the studio to make my guitar come up with a new sound then what's so bad about that? It's like the whole idea that techno isn't "proper" music 'cos they can't play instruments is so short-sighted. That's surely where new music comes from.'
More important than the actual technology is how McCabe uses it. At the time of A Storm In Heaven, he explained, 'the way I come up with new ideas is just by dribbling guitars over everything and pick out something that makes sense. John Leckie (ASIH producer) was sampling stuff I'd played and looping bits and it sounded great.' McCabe is well known for rarely playing the same guitar lines twice, and it is this which gives The Verve their unique unpredictability when playing live. For those who complain how McCabe doesn't jump around when playing live (hello RAFT list!) it is simply because he is often not reciting the guitar parts heard on the records but improvising new parts and textures as the songs uncoil. As well as being brave in a gig setting, this requires McCabe to concentrate on his effects and amp settings, meaning he spends much of every gig monitoring his effects rack LED readouts and altering his footpedal settings.
While the likes of "A New Decade," "This Is Music" and "No Knock On My Door" showed the heavier rock side to McCabe's playing, new directions on ANS included the wah-wah pedal driven title track (showing the influence of Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel) and the delicate bluesy bends on "Drive You Home," while his live tour-de-force "Life's An Ocean/Stormy Clouds" showed a mastery of improvising other-worldy guitar sounds. Listen, in particular, to McCabe's control of feedback (created when an amp is turned up high and the player stands close by, with the guitar parallel to the amp's speaker), and how he makes the guitar wail while barely picking the strings.
Gear-wise, McCabe retained his Fender Strat and Mesa/Boogie combo for ANS, but also introduced a sunburst Gibson Les Paul (a harder, darker-sounding guitar than his by-now now-deceased ES-335) and replaced the Roland amp with another warmer-sounding valve amp, a British Vox AC30 built in the 1960s.
While ANS remains arguably the most difficult of all Verve albums, it is perhaps McCabe's finest hour to date. He admitted that the initial sessions recording the album were 'the happiest three weeks of my life.' Then, of course, everything went horribly wrong.
Given that much of Urban Hymns was written by Richard Ashcroft alone, Nick McCabe's influence on UH is his weakest of any Verve album. On "Rolling People" and "Come" On he reprises the heavy powerchord style of much of ANS (this time, though, McCabe repeatedly overdubbed to make the sound even more huge) and elsewhere Simon Tong and Richard Ashcroft handle electric and acoustic guitar parts. Even so, McCabe's contributions often recorded after the songs were 90 per cent completed show his unique style to be intact. By now, McCabe was playing more and more slide guitar, placing the 'bottleneck' on his little finger: guitar players note that McCabe frets the strings using all four left-hand fingers, an approach more often associated with classically-schooled guitarists (though McCabe is certainly not formally trained at all!), and requires considerable dexterity.
"The Drugs Don't Work" in particular, is given a country flavour by McCabe's minimal slide guitar motifs just one reason, maybe, why The Verve have recruited renowned pedal steel player BJ Cole (who has also played with Spiritualized, The Orb and Elton John) for their current US tour.
Other standouts for McCabe on UH include the effects laden "Catching The Butterfly" (edited down for a mammoth 25-minute Verve jam session led by Nick, just as in those early ASIH days) and "Neon Wilderness" (built around one of Nick's trademark guitar loops). That said, some of McCabe's most recognizable work with The Verve from the UH sessions can be heard on b-sides in particular, listen to more delicate control of feedback and 'backwards' guitar on "Lord I Guess I'll Never Know," the jerky blues lines on "Country Song," the fluid soloing "Echo Bass," the super-heavyfuzz of "Three Steps" and the psychedelic synthesizer-like textures on "Stamped."
McCabe's sound and style has gently developed over the Verve's three albums, yet his unique signature remains the way he uses effects to build huge walls of noise, his delicate control of feedback and his ability to improvise new lines night after night while some see the latter as making McCabe an irregular live performer, it's this seat-of-the-pants aspect that The Verve will no doubt have missed when they toured without him. Either way, McCabe's contribution to the Verve's music is immense and he arguably remains the most adventurous and unique guitar player in Britain today.
For those willing to seek out artists who appear to have influenced Nick McCabe's guitar playing, the following albums are recommended. Note that these are NOT Nick's own choices, but how Michael personally sees the roots of his sound.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience:Electric Ladyland (MCA, 1968)
Practically every guitarist since the '60s owes a debt to Hendrix though, interestingly, McCabe favours Hendrix's delicate use of volume swells, psychedelic washes and soul guitar licks rather than JH's more widely-imitated proto-heavy metal wailing.
Funkadelic: Maggot Brain (Westbound, 1971) sprawling rock/soul/psychedelic masterpiece featuring Eddie Hazel, one of McCabe's favourite players.
John Martyn: Solid Air (Island, 1972) Veteran Scottish singer/songwriter who supported The Verve at Haigh Hall; his influence on McCabe can particularly be heard on No Come Down's more folky acoustic tracks.
Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti (Swansong, 1976) McCabe denies any direct admiration for Jimmy Page's mega-heavy riffing, but it's likely he's absorbed a little Zep
Joy Division: Closer (Factory, 1980) Bernard Sumner's wiry 'no blues' guitar lines are some of McCabe's favourites.
The Chameleons: Script Of The Bridge (Statik, 1983) McCabe has never mentioned this early '80s cult Mancunian band in interviews, but their heavily chorused and echo-ey guitars are something of a precursor to his style
The Cocteau Twins: Treasure (4AD, 1984) again, not an influence cited by Nick, though Robin Guthrie's 'ethereal' approach influenced many a young Brit guitarist in the early '80s. Some moments on ASIH, particularly, show an appreciation of the Cocteaus
The Durutti Column: The Guitar And Other Machines (Factory, 1987) another Mancunian cult player, Vini Reilly's reliance of delays, loops and effects pedals to build up an 'orchestra' of guitars had a keen impact on Nick's textured approach. NB:Reilly also appears on Morrissey's Viva Hate (EMI, 1988)
- Source: Archived here but originally found on The Verve's official website (RAFT) during Urban Hymns