25 April 2008

The Verve taking things as they come on first U.S. tour in 10 years

It messes with your head, seeing your face blown up to the size of a Volvo. A little more than a decade ago, Simon Jones got everything he wanted -- fame, fortune, his mug on billboards. And only then did he realize that he really didn't want it at all.

In 1997, Jones' band, neo-psychedelic Brits The Verve, fulfilled all the promise of a tumultuous eight-year career when its third album, "Urban Hymns," became a worldwide smash. Driven by the monster hit "Bittersweet Symphony," which sampled the Rolling Stones, the album brought the band's moody, enveloping rock to the mainstream.

But success would take as much of a toll on the band as its well-documented struggles up to that point. "The strange thing is that's all you want. You want to be that big," the genial bassist says. "We definitely set out to be massive from day one, but you don't actually dwell too much on what baggage comes with that.

"I just remember walking down Kilburn High Road in London where I lived and seeing a huge billboard with all our faces on it and it all started to become a bit surreal from that point on," he continues. "I don't think any of us were quite prepared for what was to come. I don't think anyone knew how to handle it. We all panicked in our own way."

Almost overnight, The Verve went from toiling in modest-size clubs to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, and the group wilted from the demands of being such a high-profile act, baking in the spotlight like ants beneath a magnifying glass.

"We were getting pushed, 'You've got to do this, you've got to do that,' " Jones recalls. "And we were just like, 'Well, I guess we have to do it then, that's what we're being told and we've got no experience with what it takes when you've got a successful record.'

"It was just relentless," he adds of the heavy touring demands placed upon the band. "I remember Nick (McCabe, guitarist) telling me that he was looking at his diary and crying, thinking, 'Oh my God, I can't do this.' You write these songs, but do you want to be playing them for two years on the road? I don't know. I think we all just lost it. We burnt out. We had burnt out before, and we burnt out again."

And so the band broke up, for the second time, in 1999 amid much talk of excessive drug use and frayed nerves. In the interim, Jones became a dad, hooked up with U.K. rockers The Shining and played live with pop chameleons the Gorillaz. Then he got the fateful phone call from Verve singer Richard Ashcroft last year, asking if he wanted to get the band back together again.

"I feel totally ready for it again," Jones enthuses. "We're all a bit older now, we've all got kids and more normality in our lives, whereas back then, we were all a bit more carefree and really didn't care about much apart from the music. We've got to learn from our mistakes. We've got the same management, and I think that's a really good thing for us, because they went through the breakup, they saw what happened, and they realize now that they have to listen to what we say."

After playing a slew of U.K. gigs that sold out in minutes last winter, The Verve hit the studio and recorded a new album, which is due later this year. Throughout its career, the band has been defined by taking substantial creative leaps between records. The band's 1993 debut, "A Storm in Heaven," was a sprawling, stoned-to-the-bone opus full of celestial rockers with stars in their eyes.

On the subsequent releases, The Verve would hone in on the dark, beatific, rainy day rock 'n' roll that would later make the band's members household names, always cultivating an air of mystery and suspense that engulfs their albums. According to Jones, all these traits are palpable in the band's new material.

"Making this new record, it's got essences of all the records that we've made going back right to 'Storm in Heaven' through 'A Northern Soul' and 'Urban Hymns,' " he says. "I actually think this is the best record we've made. It's got the best balance of material." The band will be debuting some of that new material on its first American tour in 10 years, which is limited to four cities and five dates, including a headlining slot at Coachella.

They're taking things as they come this time around, not forcing the issue, a fresh rebirth from a band that's long been defined by them. "It feels like starting the band again," Jones says. "I don't think we can commit to doing too much. People should come and see us while they can, you know what I mean? Knowing our history, it might not last too long."