15 May 1995

The Big Takeover: An interview with Richard Ashcroft and Simon Jones

Wow! What a difference a few months can make. When I interviewed The Verve members, vocalist RICHARD ASHCROFT and bassist SIMON JONES on May 15, 1995, in the Vernon Yard/Virgin Records' offices, there were absolutely no bad vibes, or clues that would've made one think, "This band won't be around much longer." However, during the first week of September, rumors circulated that The Verve had broken up. And then, there it was in the NME, September 9: Ashcroft had quit, saying only that he just didn't want to continue with the band, and had promptly gone camping in the U.K.'s West Country. Reportedly, the other three members were "extremely unhappy about the band's demise."

Starting out as a tight-knit unit, The Verve started drifting apart as the business of being in a band became a business. And they apparently had problems during the recording of their sophomore LP, A Northern Soul, one of which was Ashcroft disappearing for five days with no notice!

In hindsight, perhaps it's not so surprising that this vocalist would leave a band on the verge of possible international success, and more importantly, one of the better British bands (especially live) to emerge in recent years--after all, he was dubbed "Mad Richard" by U.K. journalists a while back. This interview suggests that Richard very easily succumbs to grand statements of intent and opinion, delivering them with a totally committed tone of voice, with no self-doubt whatsoever. It's quite possible that he simply didn't believe in the band anymore, and thus put a stop to it. We can only hope that he will rise again. As The Verve's manager, JOHN BEST, said, "I wish it hadn't happened this way, but he's only 23, and he'll do something amazing again." Go figure...

For this interview, which has to be among the last the band ever granted before their stunning bust-up, we naturally delve into the band as a functioning entity, and discuss the then-still-awaiting-release A Northern Soul.

They formed in 1991 in Northern Britain, and their debut single ("All In the Mind") was released in the Spring of '92, right around the time we started hearing from the likes of Adorable, the Auteurs, and Suede (that was probably one of the best years for U.K. band debuts in quite some time). After a couple of singles, they released a U.S.-only, self-titled, introductory EP, and then after a couple more U.K. singles ("Superstar" and "Gravity Grave"), their '93 debut album, A Storm In Heaven.

The Verve captured the ears with an all-encompassing sound of swooping guitars, repetitive, groove-oriented bass riffs, and a solid backbeat holding it all together. On top was Ashcroft, going on about stars, life, gravity, the sun, tec. They toured the U.S. in '93, and came back last year to play the second stage of Lollapalooza, for which another U.S. singles/B-sides compilation was released, No Come Down. Needless to say, all this touring had its effect on the band, as can be heard on the new album. This is what we mainly talk about here.

If at times Ashcroft and Jones come across as arrogant, and single-minded, please keep in mind that they're anything but that. They may say they're the world's best band (and mean it), but it's not what they say, it's the way that it's said. These guys were obviously committed to making quality music, and were dedicated to their art.

Alas, there were a couple of things that I didn't get to ask them about, such as their live "bootleg" EP, "Voyager One," and the lawsuit brought against them by the jazz label, Verve, forcing the addendum "the" to their name. Time just did not allow it. Hope you enjoy.

Special thanks to Richard, Simon, and especially CHARLIE AMTER at Vernon Yard for setting this up.

TB: So how long have you guys been together?

SIMON: About four years now. Since the day we first practiced.

TB: Your first single came out in 1992, right?

RICHARD: Yeah, I think so.

TB: You think so? (laughs)

RICHARD: The last few years have been a bit of a blur.

SIMON: We've been playing the music together for a good few years now, which is pretty evident when you hear the records, because we don't sound like a band who's just picked up their instruments, we sound like a band who has listened to a lot music. And we've lived a bit, you know, we can do it.

TB: What's the average age of the guys?


TB: Did you all play in a lot of bands before The Verve?

RICHARD: No, I played in one band, and Simon couldn't play bass when he joined (The) Verve. Simon could only play the bass parts he learned. And we were laughing the other night, 'cause the first gigs we played, if a song went off, he couldn't improvise.

SIMON: If I lost my place I had to wait for it to repeat itself so I could get back in my part.

RICHARD: So, we've accelerated so much to the point where we can play in our sleep together.

SIMON: The great thing is we've learned to play as a band, as a unit, instead of learning to play individually. I'll come in with these totally different styles, and we sound like a band. One sound.

RICHARD: We met our soul brothers very early on. I think the STONE ROSES said that, although the drummer left two weeks later (laughter), but I really believe that we did, and we created that within ourselves--our own lifestyle, our own little culture that we've got back home with our friends, the music we listen to. It's pretty similar to what the BEASTIE BOYS have got. They've got their own thing, their own culture, the basketball. Everything comes around, and back home it's a similar thing.

TB: Where is Wigan, where you're from?

RICHARD: In between Manchester and Liverpool.

TB: As far as playing, that was something I was saying before we turned the tape recorder on, you're definitely not from any "group" of bands, or a media-invented scene. You're like PJ HARVEY, the AUTEURS to some extent, or SUEDE. You're from the same time period but you have your own sound.

RICHARD: And basically we've done what we've wanted to do from day one; not letting anyone tell us what we should do. Not anyone breathing down our necks saying we're not doing it right--we've learned ourselves.

TB: When you guys got together, did you have ideas in your minds of what you wanted it to sound like, and it came out differently, or is it what you wanted?

RICHARD: You're searching for that music that you hear in your head, and all the time you're trying to reach that ultimate bit of music, but I don't think anyone's capable of reaching that, because once you do, then it's over. So, to me, the band that I most wanted to grow up and see, it was The Verve. It's just fortunate that I'm singing in the band. (laughter) Do you know what I mean? So, I really do believe we're a very special group. We're not involved in any kind of scene. It's very stifling, that kind of thing. It's very diluting, it's very blinkered.

TB: What lead you to the sound, though? For instance, your first album, it reminded me of the helicopters in Apocalypse Now. It's very atmospheric. You're definitely a progressive rock band.

RICHARD: Not in a bad way.

TB: I don't mean GENESIS, 1973. I mean for the '90s.

RICHARD: That's coming to terms with being a rock band in the '90s: It is 1995, and we want to make something new up out of rock music, consciously or unconsciously. We're not going to be satisfied if we sound exactly like a band from 20 years ago, and we're trying our best to rip 'em off, it's not like that.

SIMON: The thing is with this group, like I said before, I can pick up an album (by another band) and say, "Yeah, they ripped off a VELVET UNDERGROUND album." But with (The) Verve there is none of that! Critics and fans alike are in this position when they put on our record, it's like, "Woah! Wait a sec. Where does this come from?" And all I'm trying to say is that we don't know where it comes from. We don't know where this sound or this music comes from. We just pick up the instru- ments and play.

RICHARD: It's not like you can't hear other bands in us. You can definitely say, "Oh yeah, there's a bit of that there, there's a bit of...

SIMON: There's FUNKADELIC in us, there's ZEPPELIN, there's...


RICHARD: There's Floyd, but there's JOHN LENNON in us too. There's a hell of a lot of shit that's thrown in there. There's a track on the album called "Brainstorm Interlude," which is like MILES DAVIS' "On The Corner." Because we listen to a hell of a lot of shit, so where do you start? People've just got to broaden their horizons. Yeah, you've got a four piece rock 'n' roll band, but broaden your horizons, 'cause there's still a hell of a lot of shit you can do. You can get influenced by the brothers who are making great rap music, underground rap, great grooves. You can pick on their shit. You can get the rhythm to a point where, you know...I believe our rhythm section can walk up to any dance band, any heavy dance band in the world, and play better than they would. Or we can get the brushes out and get an acoustic guitar and we can do that. There isn't enough time to do what we wanna do with music. We're onto the next record--we've written almost the third album already.

TB: It's funny that you talk about bands taking very specific influences from the past, because you've been hanging around with OASIS recently, right? Didn't you do some shows with them in the U.K.?

RICHARD: Yeah, they supported us before they did anything. We did a tour with them and ACETONE from L.A. That's the only feeling of camaraderie we've had with any other groups really, because we're coming from the same background: Music, priority #1. If a phone or a chair goes out the window of a hotel, that ain't gonna mean fuck all. You've gotta have music at the end of the day. If you're going to write songs you make sure it's a strong song, you know?

TB: Are there any plans for the upcoming tour? Do you know who you may go out with?

SIMON: We want to got out on our own. We want to establish our own thing.

RICHARD: We want to go on after a DJ who plays the music we listen to back home, so a rock 'n' roll show doesn't just become this incredible escape. It also educates people as well, because people need educating, re-educating. What is great music?

TB: I'm all for that! I work in the music business, and I meet so many people who allegedly work in the music business, and they don't know shit, they don't know anything.

SIMON: Totally, totally...