01 June 1995

Wigan Athletic - Northern Soul Asylum

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 thought 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 his way back home

SOMETHING terrible has happened to The Verve. You can still recognize 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 years ago. Whether 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 Northern 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, Top 20 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 delivered.

CUT to Wigan, low-down Lancashire hovel, 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 existence," wrote David Stubbs in MM, "flies in the face of expediency. Theirs is a precarious beauty." "A liquid delight," wrote Ian Griffins about "Blue". The '93 album, "A Storm In Heaven", was also lauded.

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 shoe gazing and grunge - Ashcroft's adventurers were simply too far out for Britain 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 backward in coming forward, no matter how debauched or illegal the activity) the unfortunate sobriquet, "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 passing 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, i.e. 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 hypnotic 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. "Whether 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 called to say he'd just thrown himself off a multi-storey 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's [Simon] had brushes with death. I've experienced it through others."

Simon, it transpires, is the only member of The Verve still 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 85 mph as we hurtled through the hillside roads, your intrepid journey 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 be about heroin...

"Maybe," replies Richard, after a pregnant 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 heroin," 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. It's just not a thing to consider."

"However beautiful 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 disappearing into a heroin haze or early graves, at least Richard still had that thing he held most dear: his sexier relationship.
Didn't he?

'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 Goes")...

"Well, I think you get to a point in your life where you've gotta decide, no more bullshit," declares Richard. "No more lies. If someone's telling me bullshit, 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. "The 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 about 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 on."

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 writing those lyrics. Move on."
I move on.

ENOUGH digging. Tell me about the recording sessions.

"The first few weeks were elation," Richard reveals. "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' 'Definitely 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 having a nervous breakdown, 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 became 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 hard-line, 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 realized 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 you want."

As someone from a working-class background, do you find, say, Blur's neo-laddish mythologizing and grey hound imagery pretty insulting, coming as it does from upper/middle class kids and at a time when many traditional working-class virtues are under attack? (Hey, fun questions!)

"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 haircut. 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 money."

Do The Verve believe in the notion of a protest song?

Richard: "Not really, no."

Why not?

"Because they've been bastardized 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 looting of certain middle/upper class sensibilities?

"You've got to be more subliminal, yeah. Throw in a few lines that get people thinking."
One of the best lyrics on the album is, "Imagine the future/I woke up with a scream/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 patronizingly 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 mind, 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 go 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 Northern 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 extreme. 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 there."

"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 know you."
Kurt opened up and suddenly 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 undoubtedly, 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!'"

  • Wigan Athletic, Northern Soul Asylum, 1995
  • Written by Dave Simpson