Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Elements Of Confusion: Nick McCabe Of Black Submarine's Favourite LPs

With New Shores, the long-awaited debut by Black Submarine, out this week, the former Verve guitarist goes from teenage mainstays to recently-heard favourites in his top 13 albums



Nick McCabe is one of the greatest guitarists of his generation. The only person who might argue the toss over that proclamation is the man himself, who is often humble to the point of seeming to disregard his own talent. (Simon Jones, bass player in The Verve, once implored a guitar journalist to tell him how good he was: "I think he's the greatest guitarist around and he won't have it. Tell him he's amazing!") McCabe's place in musical history is guaranteed – as part of The Verve he inspired awe with his incredible guitar playing, somehow overshadowing frontman Richard Ashcroft's planet-sized ego. Ashcroft acted like he was the focal point, but the majority of eyes were on McCabe – how the fuck did he make his guitar sound like that? McCabe was the sonic architect of the Verve's sound and while the music the band made may have drifted from the celestial space-rock and ambient doodling of A Storm In Heaven towards the more prosaic "classic" rock sound of Urban Hymns, McCabe's fretwork was always dazzling. Never one to strive for technical excellence, his favourite guitar players are the idiosyncratic ones – Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel, Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column and John Martyn.

McCabe grew up in St Helens, Lancashire, in a family of music lovers, starting out under the influence of the records brought into the house by his older brothers. "I was lucky that there was a surfeit of music in the household," McCabe tells me, over the phone from his home in Shropshire. "There was a real diversity. My eldest brother was into Northern Soul and metal – you couldn't really have got two more polar opposites. So he had Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin records, and then all this Northern Soul. Then my other brother was a product of his time really – he was a Pink Floyd fan who was into punk."

But McCabe was soon developing his own tastes. "There were a couple of moments in time where it suddenly became my thing, rather than something inherited from my brothers," he reveals. "That became really important to me. A lot of my life I've had the younger brother syndrome, being in the shadow of… literally as well, because physically they were the sporting types. I was the runt really. So it was really important to me to find something of my own."

That something came when he got into electro music at school in the early 1980s, following that movement into Detroit techno and then Warp Records, with a particular love of Autechre. This may not be reflected in the music he has made up to this point, but he says that, "I wouldn't play the guitar the way I do were it not for the fact that I like electronic music so much."

He also discloses that he has a vast backlog of electronic music that he has made over the years that has never been released. "I always kept the two strains separate in The Verve," he explains. "I didn't want to confuse matters. Plus I've always been worried that I'm a dabbler or a dilettante or whatever and my lack of confidence has stopped me from seeing it through."

This diversity is perhaps more apparent in his latest musical project. McCabe has formed Black Submarine (formerly Black Ships) with Simon Jones, the former Portishead drummer Mig Schillace and Davide Rossi, strings visionary for Goldfrapp and Coldplay, whom McCabe and Jones met during the recording of The Verve's swansong, Forth. An initial plan for a Massive Attack-style revolving roster of singers was abandoned in favour of permanent vocalist Amelia Tucker. The heavier, rockier side of the Massive Attack oeuvre isn't a bad reference point for Black Submarine's brand of murky, string-laden psychedelic trip-hop, with elements of folk, electronica and even industrial thrown into the melting pot.

"It encompasses genres rather than switching between them I think," McCabe says of the band's debut album New Shores. "There's an element of confusion about the record that we might have tried to squash in an earlier lifetime, but now we kind of embrace it. It's more honest."

There are elements of confusion in McCabe's choices for his Baker's Dozen. It reflects his diverse tastes – Funkadelic to Steve Reich; John Carpenter to Mobb Deep – and eschews records by The Beatles, Stones, Dylan and VU that are usually commonplace on lists like this compiled by his contemporaries.

"I think everybody goes back and does their homework. We definitely did that in The Verve. You want to find all the best stuff and you want to be an expert in your field. So you go back and find all these incredible, classic records. And while it would be nice to say that you weren't listening to The Human League in 1982, and that you were actually listening to something that is now in the pantheon – the canon – I may as well be honest about it. These are the records that were important to me, the pivotal ones."

New Shores by Black Submarine is out now via Kobalt Music; below are Nick's top 13 choices

1) George Harrison – All Things Must Pass
My dad used to work on the buses, and the bits of the vinyl from the triple set turned up on the back of the bus. It went into lost property and never got claimed and he got to keep it, which was pretty fortunate for me. You know how there are certain mainstays in your life that you keep coming back to? It works several ways for me now. I was five-years-old when I became aware of that record and the atmosphere struck me really. It's a Phil Spector production and it's kind of cinematic in its sonic aurora. The use of the acoustics of the room – typical Phil Spector tricks – and coupled to those songs… it had a haunting effect on me as a young lad. I've come to realise that some of the sounds on there have become signature sounds for me. I've been informed by that, you know, how a band's supposed to sound together. It's created a bit of a problem between me and recording engineers for most of my life. Thankfully I can do everything myself now. To me, that's how things are supposed to sound. They should sound like the room they're recorded in.

The gentle wisdom of the album really has got me through bad times. I dunno if it's because it reminds me of home, but there's a lot of wisdom contained in those lines. I think George Harrison in general is quietly inspirational for a lot of people. He conducted himself with grace, for people in the dynamics of a band with rather large egos – he sets a good precedent. I can't claim to have always followed that to the letter but it's something to aspire to at least.

2) John Carpenter – Halloween (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
I grew up in the seventies – the era of the video nasty. My friend had Betamax, while we had VHS, but it seemed like Betamax had all the best horror movies. That was the time when I got exposed to quite a lot of electronic music. I was going to chuck in A Clockwork Orange's soundtrack too. It was 'Timesteps' on that that made the big impression. That and Holst's The Planets. I started to enjoy being frightened by music. My partner at the moment really doesn't understand that. She's a real soul and R&B fanatic. She doesn't get the fact that music's got to scare you.

The Halloween soundtrack gives me a knot in my stomach… that's become a mark of quality for me in music over the years. Unless it's IBS [chuckles]. It's the tension. Quite a lot of my descriptions of music have little tags like "nosebleed". Music can induce a very physical response. I developed this theory that music was analogous to physical activity. Like sneezing; something as simple as that. It mirrors the rhythms of the body. A couple of years back I got Phantasm on DVD and the music on that had a similar effect. It's clear to me now, looking back after years and years of being a music fan, that John Carpenter's stuff in general opened up another field of things I enjoyed in music. The whole krautrock thing. There's a huge element of fear in that. And John Carpenter's work on Escape From New York… that dense, heavy atmosphere. He was consistently brilliant up until about 1988 when the novelty of synthesisers wore off. They became a kind of cheesy thing. But during that era, there wasn't that kitschy element to electronic music – it was genuinely seen as otherworldly and that still comes through to this day. The best of it transcends that kitsch vibe. Like Computer World by Kraftwerk. That sounds more modern and harder than most of the electronic music being made today. It seems weird to me really – to put this ironic slant on something that still works.

3) Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
My eldest brother had Closer. I was listening to that from about ten-years-old onwards. Once I started to save money – working on a farm with my other brother, doing the milk round with him – that was the first time I had my own cash floating around and that money used to go on records. Unknown Pleasures was one of my first purchases. That was a key moment for me. It was my record. It hadn't been passed down. It was a completely new record in the household. That was me getting that experience first-hand, and it was such a brilliant record to have that with. The sleeve is another Peter Saville classic. The production on it is incredible. I know the band weren't happy with it, but to me it's a complete masterpiece. The use of space is evocative of Lancashire I think. The whole thing has this dank… I'm going to wheel out all the clich├ęs now about empty warehouses and all that, but it is familiar territory for me where I'm from. Those smashed glasses at the end of 'I Remember Nothing', and the synth drones. I think that was around the time I got my first Roland synthesiser and it was another polarising moment. Something very powerful crystallised about what I wanted to do at that point. All I was capable of doing with that synth was making this huge powerful drone sound. It pointed the way. Having that induction – sat with the headphones on late at night... Music in the seventies was full of opposites. The stuff we heard on the radio was the friendly aspects of music. I wasn't looking for that. I was looking to be disturbed by it and that's something that I haven't really lost throughout my life.

4) Various Artists – Street Sounds Electro 5
There isn't really one definitive album in that series. We were completely addicted to those Electro albums when they first came out. One of us had one album and we used to trade them between the lot of us. I bought Electro 2 and I was a bit pissed off at the time, but it's one of my favourites now. Electro 5 has got some of the best tunes on it. And Crucial Electro has got 'Clear' by Cybertron, which is amazing. Jerry Calliste, Jr. is a genius I think. He was the man behind 'Al Naafiysh' and High-Fidelity Three's 'B Boys Breakdance'. That's one of my favourite tunes on Electro 5. 'Breaker's Revenge' [by Arthur Baker] is a killer. Beat Street – the film and the soundtrack – was huge for me. I was a terrible breakdancer. Embarrassingly bad. I had a couple of moves and I could barely do those, but I loved the culture of it. UK Electro was also a key record – I found out recently that it's all by one guy.

It's perhaps easy to see this in retrospect, but there are lots of parallels between Detroit and Sheffield and Manchester. I can remember looking out at the cooling towers from my bedroom window. They were maybe two miles away. You could see a big urbanised bit to the side of it. It made the landscape magical listening to that music. I think this was probably what Kraftwerk were getting at originally. Talking about it now it seems obvious, but it adds magic to your own mundane landscape. You need that. That's what happened with Detroit techno. You've got this utterly bleak landscape and the only way to make it palatable is to lend it some kind of majesty.

I think we were very lucky growing up when we did. We had lots of momentous moments. Things are very fractured now. Back then, everybody had an opinion on something like Star Wars – especially boys, well, men now. We all have this notion that we were privy to something amazing. It's very rare now that something is that omnipresent. The whole thing with the electro scene was that it was a bit left of centre. I got a lot of stick for it at school. I can see why, looking back now. It was such a huge thing. It pushed you in a certain direction. I've grown up a bit now, but it used to be quite extreme. Y'know, like, "If you don't share my taste in music you can fuck off."

5) The Chameleons – Script Of The Bridge
I had a friend at school that was just as obsessive about music as I was. He was a huge New Order fan. He lent me a really badly taped cassette of Script Of The Bridge. At first I thought it was too dangerously close to prog rock. Around that time, I think I'd just gone to sixth form… What was great about that was meeting people of a like mind. But the place where I came from was a typical Northern small town. I think the idea was probably dawning that there was nothing there and I didn't really belong. I was stuck in my own world with no outlet for it. I spent a lot of time just wandering around and thinking about stuff, and that was the soundtrack to it really. Pissing it down in the North on dark evenings. It sounds like rain in the north-west to me now. I dunno what's good about that.

Was that the start of you thinking you might want to leave the town?
I think I felt a bit trapped. Looking back what I should have done was… If I'd had the wherewithal I should've moved to the city where things were happening. That might have been a good thing for me. I've had this discussion with a few people and they've pointed out that had I done that I wouldn't have pursued the life I did. If I'd met my own people I probably wouldn't have been so dogmatic about it. That's what you need if you're going to chance your arm in something as ridiculous as the music business. You have to be quite blinkered about it. So that sense of isolation probably did me a favour ultimately. That Chameleons album gave me hope, Mark Burgess is the only guy I've ever written a fan letter to. It was on MySpace, a few years back. I just said my life would have been poorer without your music. Mark seems to be someone who has trouble with wearing his heart on his sleeve, which is a very un-Northern trait. Because of that I don't find I can listen to it too much these days. It relates to a time in my life I'd probably rather forget about, but it's still a brilliant record.

6) Funkadelic – Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow
This was the first record I took acid to with Richard [Ashcroft]. My dad bought it for 20p in a junk shop. It was the same shop where I used to get all my pedals from. Twenty quid for a flanger and that was what the first Verve record was based on – that flanger. Funkadelic – it didn't even have the proper cover on it, it was just in a tattered white sleeve. I can remember listening to it not under the influence and thinking, "This is a bit strange!" Then my folks were away for a week and Richard came and stopped with me for a bit and we did acid. It was my first time, but I think he'd done it a couple of times. We were walking about the field at the back of my house for a bit, but then we went back and inevitably starting ploughing through all the records. Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix, stuff like that. But that Funkadelic record was the one really – we put that up against our first demo and it made our demo sound like toy music. We had a moment of revelation. Not as painful as later on, but just that we were heading in the wrong direction. That's the acid cringe – that portentous, pontificating moment. Because suddenly it was like, "Oh fucking hell, that really makes sense now".

Those first three Funkadelic albums for me define what a guitar band should sound like. They're just incredible. Eddie Hazel, he sits in the place for me where Ron Asheton does for most people. I love the Stooges but Eddie Hazel crystallised… I don't know if it's as simple as saying psychedelic guitar. He was cramming lots of ideas in. The violence of it to me is what's really appealing. It's the destructive force behind it, but maintaining a beauty about. With Ron Asheton it's all about annihilation, and I like that as well and I do indulge in that. But with Eddie there's texture and space and atmosphere. There's a big fire burning in the middle of it and it is such powerful music. That's what started my love affair with tape echo. I think I had a tape echo at that point, but I wasn't really using it that much. In fact I don't think there's that much on record that caught me using it, which is a shame. But live we were a bit more ferocious than we were presented on record and this is where that came from. I was also into EVOL by Sonic Youth at the time. That's one of my favourite records.

7) John Tavener – The Protecting Veil
This is a record that got me through quite a difficult point with The Verve. I was expecting my daughter at the time and we were recording A Storm In Heaven at Sawmills in Cornwall. It was pretty remote. We'd polished off a bottle of wine at dinner and we were smoking quite a lot as well. I just needed to go and get my head together for an hour before I went back to making the record and this was the album I listened to. I see it as a very ecstatic and comforting record. And I've played it to people since and the reaction seems to be, "This is terrifying!" But I really don't see that at all. To me it was just disappearing into something for an hour that was heavenly and ecstatic, which was exactly what I needed. I was conflicted and worrying about my future – whether I was doing the right thing. For a long time I had this feeling that what I was doing was a complete joke and I'd be exposed as a charlatan. There was a general sense of paranoia – that working class thing. Lots of people around me were saying get a proper job. My thinking on the whole thing was that it was all going to end rather badly, which wasn't really conducive to being creative. The album was a freebie from Virgin, and it had a huge comforting effect on me.

8) David Crosby – If I Could Only Remember My Name
That was a real Verve record. We all really got into that. That came to us from Steve Sutherland (Melody Maker) of all people. [The photographer] Tom Sheehan and Steve were early fans of the band and they championed us to some degree. But they dispelled that notion that people in the music industry were cynical music haters. You'd be hard pushed to find people who were as into music as they were. Tom and Steve used to send us tapes and one of the tapes they sent us on one side had On The Beach by Neil Young, and on the other was If I Could Only Remember My Name. Instantly we all went, "Oh my god, how good is that?" It became a real Verve favourite; everybody in the band was huge on that.

I think the whole record has just got this unique atmosphere. I'm sure drugs have got a lot to do with it. It's a world in itself that record. Sonically, there are some real moments of paranoia on there. It's a very powerful record. You wonder how they were capable of doing something that amazing the state they were all in. But I don't think they managed to do anything quite as good as that. It all became a bit earthbound. It really stands out in the whole Crosby, Stills and Nash canon – that one is the peak for me. It's almost like a diorama; like a little enclosed box that represents a state of mind they were in at the time, and you can look in and have a poke about, like a rock pool. It's like a little universe.

9) Autechre – EPs 1991 – 2002
I was in hospital this year and I made a point of listening to Exai and Oversteps, and Oversteps is amazing. I completely missed it at the time because I thought they'd disappeared way up their own arses. Academic music for academics. There is an element of that, I think. But those EPs remind me of walking around London completely off my head. It's the best music for that. For me, they represent coming back to electronic music after doing my homework. I immersed myself so much in the idea of the heritage of where my music came from that I missed out on rave culture and a whole scene that I belonged to, having come out of that whole electro/breakdance thing. I felt like I'd taken a wrong turn.

But coming to Autechre… What I heard in them was Sonic Youth in electronic form. You've got that whole thing of mutated music turning itself inside out. Destroying itself as well. It induced a bit of a head rush and a panic that was actually quite enjoyable. Walking around London with a huge pair of headphones on completely off my tits listening to Autechre is the city experience for me. I like the overload of it. But they are also capable of beauty – I think that's what makes them so real. I have struggled with a few of their records. Chiastic Slide was one I bought when I first moved to Kilburn and I really didn't think much of it at the time. But what's amazing about Autechre – even at that point when they hadn't become IDM gods – was you knew that you had to persist with them; that it wouldn't reveal itself on first listen. You had to dig a bit, the same with Sonic Youth. I persevered with Sister and it became a favourite after a while. Chiastic Slide is now my favourite Autechre album. You can't rely on them to just do what's expected. Picking the EPs is a bit of a cheat, but some of my favourite tunes are on them – 'Cichlisuite' and 'Envane'.

10) Steve Reich – Octet
It's simply a favourite piece of music. There are a lot of associations. I was listening to it around the time my daughter was born. She used to fall asleep to this occasionally. It reminds me of travelling around America back in the day when you had to carry around bags of cassettes and Walkmans. It's brilliant for train journeys and even now when I find myself on the motorway, Octet is the perfect listen for me. It reminds me of driving from Bath, where I lived at time, to London, to Richmond. It's just stuck with me for most of my life. Growing up we had Drumming in the house, my dad got that for next to nothing from the same charity shop. That's just repetitive patterns for a few hours, it's hard going really. If you came to Steve Reich from that idea, you'd think it was just academic music and not for enjoyment's sake and dismiss it.

I was lucky to pick up a book from a book shop in St Helens, New Sounds: A Listener's Guide To New Music, by this New York radio presenter, John Schaefer – it was like the holy grail for me. I found that book in about '91 and it was a pretty rare thing at the time in that it had measured discussion on things like Stockhausen. We've got The Wire now, for good or bad, but to find that book at the time in St Helens was amazing really. By the time I got to America I had a shopping list of things I had to hear, like Paul Dresher, early John Adams pieces, things like that. I think the common thread with things like this is that you're constantly looking for the up and down stream of things – the connections, where something came from and what came out of it; how it got finessed or improved or whatever. I think with Octet, I'm not really that interested, it's just that piece of music. It's another world in itself.

11) The Stooges – Fun House
It's just dirty rock & roll and it reminds me of good times in the van with The Verve. They were our halcyon days if you like; driving round the UK taking lots of speed and rocking the place basically. It's a good time record. It's a destructive record, but I think we probably felt like that at the time. We felt destructive. It's about not giving a fuck really. When I was digging back into the past, this was one of the treasures.

12) Harold Budd/Brian Eno with Daniel Lanois – The Pearl
I think I'd been looking for something like this for ages; something sculpted, but that manages to encompass the violent and everything in between. What I want out of music is everything really, and The Pearl is that. It's quite a dark record in places. It's easy to dismiss it as New Age. I think we're quite lucky at this point in time that people are less concerned about genres than they used to be. Even prog rock is getting a proper analysis now. I finally got around to listening to early Genesis recently and found it wasn't as disgusting as I expected it to be. A lot of music gets dismissed because of how it's tagged. But The Pearl has escaped that really, because of Eno. I was lucky living in St Helens, because it can seem like a bit of a cultural desert, but there were a couple of good resources. There used to be a really good record shop in the market that sold mostly prog rock stuff, but lots of psychedelic stuff, some of Tim Buckley's early stuff and I picked up The Pearl from there. It's amazing.

13) Mobb Deep – The Infamous
Nineties hip-hop has never been bettered for me. I kind of lost interest in the eighties when electro started morphing into hip-hop. It got a bit clunky for me as it tried to sound more real, it sounded clumsier. By the time you get to the nineties, you had a mutation of what's real. The production on The Infamous – sonically it's just genius. It's a shame some of the lyrics are so offensive as it detracts from how good the music is. It's brilliant soundtrack music – it carries on the thread for me of the stomach knot for me, from John Carpenter. I don't know why they were so quick to move on from the sound of The Infamous. I suppose the royalties thing is huge in hip-hop, now everybody buys an off-the-shelf keyboard and has a stab at it to avoid having to clear samples. But it doesn't sound the same.

It was hard to pick one. When I got ousted from The Verve in 1995, I stumbled on Tical by Method Man. That's definitely my favourite Wu-Tang record, probably because it was my first. The production doesn't bear any relation to anything I'd heard before. You could draw a parallel with Tom Waits – it's from another world really. That one needed perseverance as well. It sounds shit at first, but then it reveals itself.