06 October 2007

NME: World's first reunion interview, The Verve

They said it would never happen, but after all the drugs, arrests and bust-ups, The fucking Verve are back. Come On! Words: Hamish MacBain Photos: Dean Chalkley
Tuesday June 26 of this year, the morning after the after Glastonbury: NME, like most of Michael Eavis' 177,499 other now-departed guests, is lying in bed, fucking dying. The prospect of doing anything whatsoever, other than a lot of wallowing, seems unlikely, the thought of getting out of bed unthinkable. The phone rings and, not surprisingly, doesn't get answered. It rings again; same thing. A beep signals the arrival of a text and, now thinking it might be something important. we nudge over to the side of the bed to see what it says. The message contains just six words, but on reading them we're feeling higher and more alive than we did even at the peak of our Saturday night back in Pilton, It reads: "THE FUCKING VERVE ARE BACK TOGETHER'"

Given the animosity, the finality with which they imploded eight years ago (more of which in a minute) it seems unthinkable. Only after the discovery that there are six shows announced and that The Verve are actually, at this exact moment. back recording in the studio together do we believe it. The Verve! If mere mention of that name is enough to blast us out of the year's deepest, darkest comedown, that's because that's what this band were always about. See, while in the mid-to-late-'90s Oasis perfectly epitomised your closing-time buzz, The Verve were the ultimate 5-6-7am high (or just as likely .. low). They made dubbed-out symphonies, sometimes string-laden and ;i~i beautiful and euphoric and sensitive, sometimes terrifying and claustrophobic and noisy, always an experience. They conversed, both musically and lyrically, in a hyperbolic, anything-is-possible language that made most sense in the early hours like no group before or since. They had a singer who once claimed, with a straight face, that he could fly. Cynics laughed at him, at his and his band's total and utter belief in the power of music to not just make you feel good, but to take you somewhere else. They prefixed his name with "Mad", But he proved them all wrong.

"We all decided that, rather than meeting for a cup of coffee or a beer or whatever, we should meet in a studio where we can do what we do, Straight away." Now, three months on, we're sat a foot away from Richard Ashcroft. Sunglasses, spliff and self-belief all in place. he's recounting the exact moment his band started making music together again, after hearing him state in 2006 that we'd be "more likely to see all four Beatles onstage together than The Verve".

Thinking about it though, in 1997. on the eve of releasing the single that would see his band permeate the mainstream, he also told NME: "I ain't a solo artist. I was put on this earth to be part of The Verve and make sure that I can take it as far as I possibly can." Maybe it's worth remembering at this point that said song - 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' - hinged around the line, "I'm a million different people from one day to the next', but anyway...

Today he's sat around a kitchen table in a small rehearsal studio in Richmond, Surrey with guitarist Nick McCabe, bass player Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury. They're excitedly enthusing about their '90s-defining supergroup, not in terms of the past, but of the future.

"Just the social aspect would've been enough for me, just for me to be in a room with these three people again." That's Nick McCabe talking; a man who hasn't been interviewed as a member of The Verve - just as none of them have - for nine years, The Nick McCabe who left The Verve to stumble to a close without his astonishing playing in 1998, after breaking his hand in a fight with Richard Ashcroft. "I mean, we did like five days, ages back, and we had a fucking laugh, you know? We just went in there for five days and out of nothing came...'

Richard: "...,an embarrassment of riches."

Note at this point: bands finishing each other's sentences is a good sign. As is their bass player saying things like this: "I literally got out the cab. these three were already here and within 20 minutes we were playing together. It was just... beautiful. I fee1like I've never played as well in my life and hearing Pete after such a long break, he's never played as well in his life. Richard's got some amazing tunes and, for me, when I hear Nick, he plays guitar like no other person on the planet. before or since. Last night. watching him do it. he's got a lot of tracks of guitars, but the way he blends it all... he's got a pure vision before he creates. It's just amazing. That first week we did was just unbelievable."

Pete Salisbury: "You can hear it on the tape, what we did that first three days. Just the excitement of it all..."

Nick: "What we do together, there's no way that I could sit down and come up with it. I play better in this band and I think we all do, don't we?" And like only a true gang could, all the other three members of The Verve respond simultaneously and in a split second. "Yeah!"

If this suddenly reunited Verve now appear the best of friends (and, trust us, sitting in a room with them, they really do), that certainly hasn't always been the case. Even their six initial years together, between their first single (the spiralling, psychedelic epic 'All In The Mind', way back in '92) and their final McCabe-less gig were as full of drug-induced paranoia, ego and madness as they were with awe-inspiringly out-there music. plus, The Verve have already split up and got back together once before. They made it through beautiful. blissed-out debut 'A Storm In Heaven', just. But by '95 and the ecstasy-fuelled classic that was second album 'A Northern Soul', they were pushing themselves to such narcotic limits in pursuit of creating the most powerful of sounds that implosion became inevitable.

"We put much more effort into getting wasted to make music than we ever would now," says Richard of that period. "Some nights if you were in a certain state of mind, It could be pretty scary, d'you know what I mean? It was dark."

On the release of the third, astonishing single from that album, 'History', Nick walked and The Verve was over. Richard started working on what "at one point was gonna be a solo album", but realised he needed "the greatest guitarist of his generation" to play on it.

Nick McCabe re-joined at a late stage in recording what' would become 'Urban Hymns', and with two of the most ubiquitous singles of the '90s ('Bitter Sweet Symphony' and their first Number One 'The Drugs Don't Work'), The Verve announced their return and proceeded to go as stratospheric as they had always threatened to. "I remember hearing on the radio: 'And Number One. . . once again... 'Urban Hymns' by The Verve'''' Richard recounts, "and just thinking, 'WHO IS FUCKING BUYING THIS ALBUM?'"

They played a triumphant homecoming at Haigh Hall in Wigan, with Ashcroft announcing before a 15-minute version of the skyscraping 'Come On' that, "We've been saving it all up for this moment. right here, right now! Eight fucking years! COME ON'" Three months later, Nick left again and, after some festival appearances without him, The Verve split. seemingly for good. Richard Ashcroft released three solo albums (on which Pete played drums), appeared onstage with Coldplay at Live 8 and last we heard was being arrested after refusing to leave The Bridge Centre youth dub in Chippenham, Wiltshire, after stumbling in saying he wanted to work with the kids - "It was stupid of me," he explained recently. "But it was an innocent thing. It was about getting people to write music, write their own songs. Not necessarily be part of a fame school. just at a local youth club:' Nick McCabe did remixes, embarked on a couple of soundtrack projects and made music privately. Simon Jones first put together Verve soundalikes The Shining, then played bass with Irish songstress Cathy Davey. They all got married, all had kids, calmed down, were and are all fairly well-off.

Bad blood aside, they didn't really need to see each other. The Verve seemed as unlikely to reform as those other '90s superstars, The Stone Roses. So what happened? Whose hand was holding the olive branch?

Richard: "Erm..." Nick: "(Motions towards Richard! That would be you, wouldn't it?"

What prompted it?

Richard: "I'm not really gonna go into the details 'cos I can't really remember what I was thinking at that time. It just seemed like something that happened quite quickly, then I kind of voiced it to Pete and..."

Nick: "...we ended up having a nice chat for about three hours on the phone, didn't we?"

Richard: "Yeah, we had a good chat together and.. you know.. eventually I spoke to Si, Si spoke to me and that was that."

There must have been things that needed to be said?

Nick: "I think me and Si sort of arrived at the same point, mentally. We had quite a long time being angry about it. Then, once you've sort of resolved a lot of things in your own mind. you kind of realise that it wasn't such a big deal in the first place. Then you think. 'God, what went on there?' All the stuff that happened since is a little bit of a nonsense really, you know?"

Richard: "It's all bollocks anyway, we're not here to start getting on to the fucking couch. We're The Verve, we've got our lives, we've got our kids, we've got our wives. We've got our situations, but now we're prepared to... you know, there's a lot of sacrifice goes on making a record and doing the do, and we're prepared to do that. To put our loved ones in situations where we perhaps were not with them, because we know that perhaps if we didn't do it right now, we might never do it.'

Simon: "I think everything we needed to say to each other was said on the phone before we met. so that we didn't have to deal with that shit.'

Pete: "There really wasn't that much to say anyway...' But what happened to all that animosity? Richard telling NME in January of last year that he had "some serious problems with one of the guys that ain't gonna be resolved in this life". Or Nick, in his only post-Verve interview in 1999 , saying that "'The Drugs Don't Work' is up there with the best Bon Jovi record".

Richard: "When you've got strong people, strong personalities, which we all are, you're each gonna have your own interpretations of situations. But you have to understand that and get over it. The way the media works, ,. the media desperately needs a fucking story. So what's the story here? When we were doing the photographs earlier, 'Oh, Richard, you stand a little bit closer to Nick' (He's referring to instructions from NME 's art director, at our covershoot earlier today! Is that your story? Are you already getting the story with me and Nick being together?'Oh, slightly back!' (Now laughing) What. are you gonna give us fucking guns so that we can have a little... d'you know what I mean?"

Nick: "It's just a case of perspective is something you don't have at that age. It's not a soap opera. I'm not interested in making myths or debunking myths now. [f other people wanna do that go ahead and do it. [ really don't."

Richard: "Exactly. That's a perfect point. And I reiterate that. I reiterate Nick's point exactly." What of the cynics who think it's all about money?

Nick: "Well, nobody's been waving wads of cash at us."

Simon: "We've not had a penny." You must be aware of the potential, though?

Simon: "It wasn't like, 'Fuck, let's get back together and make a load of money.' That didn't have anything to do with it whatsoever."

"People who are like, 'Ohhh, look at him on the gravy train'," Richard Ashcroft spits, "Give a fuck! Those people weren't there at whatever time it was when I was in the middle playing a Vocoder singing lyrics, buzzing off this sound. None of those bands who get back together, they never make a record. They never put themselves on the line. And if you don't get this, cool. Go and watch whatever you need to watch. Go and join the medieval... put people in the stocks kind of thing [eh? - Giberish Deciphering Ed]. This is hip-hop, man. This is rock'n'roll. but it's hip-hop as well. It's hip-hop philosophy. It's like, 'We're makin' a record, man. We're The fucking Verve!"

The fucking Verve. So often that expletive is inserted into their name by both band and fans, and for good reason. The Verve were always about spectacle, about being stars to stare upwards at. In their first ever NME interview, in 1992, Richard proclaimed: "One of the saddest things that's happened to music is the death of celebration. When [ go to see a band, [ love the barrier between them and the audience. It's fair enough all that anybody-could-doit stuff. but like it when you're looking at this band thinking. 'Fucking hell I'd love to do that but [ don't know whether I could-In the modem MySpace-fixated world, though, those barriers have gone, as anyone who has had their messageboard post replied to by Pete Doherty will confirm.

Vague approval of Arctic Monkeys aside, The Verve have little interest in modem music. "I consciously seek not to find out what's happening," says Richard, "I don't give a fuck what's happening any more." Simon Jones, meanwhile, likes - Joanna Newsom. loads of hip-hop", but tends "to stay away from modem guitar bands, 'cos at the moment it's not really doing anything for me". Nick McCabe is equally uninterested. "I have periods where I have a glut of finding out what's going on," he smiles. "and then I decide I was right not to bother!"

So the question is if they are to be more than a mere celebration of times past, can The Verve matter to this generation as they did to their own?

Simon Jones is quick to respond, "If I was 16 and I heard that," he says, motioning towards the studio, I'd think it was unbelievable. you know? [ don't think that matters. I still feel 21, you know what I mean?"

"The old stuff definitely sounds like the work of young men to me," Nick concludes, "and while I love it for what it is, this one is the best record yet."

Richard: "I don't think you can get around the fact that we have changed. There have always been a lot more hedonists around in the band and I don't think that's really gonna be the case this time. We're still out to do that twist your melon thing, it's just that we can now twist your melon without having to bend our own melons to the point of snapping. It's the Aldous Huxley thing: the door's open now and it's always open..."

So much water under the bridge, so much time past. such a different context for The Verve to find themselves in now. When they first landed, they were like nothing else. and that's why they changed lives, Lots of them. After they split up for the first time, there were doubts when they reformed. but they reached a level of greatness that surpassed even what their singer could have imagined. And today? Well, they've already achieved one impossible this year, in completely vanquishing our Glastonbury comedown. What m happens next is anyone's guess....
  • NME, originally appeared 6 October 2007