02 August 2010

The Irish Times interviews Richard Ashcroft

Richard Ashcroft can talk you under the table on anything from psychology to Cubism to football. But he does so with charm. Life is calmer now, says the 39-year-old, more peaceful

‘Richard Ashcroft's going to kill you for what you wrote about him – seriously, he’s really angry. He’s up for a fight,” says the journalist in before me. The walk from the bar to the bedroom (where he awaits) in a VIP hotel in South Kensington isn’t that long but time enough to realize, yes, chickens do come home to roost and if push comes to shove (quite literally in this case), here is as glamorous a place as any for a punch-up with an indie icon.

Our eyes lock in the bedroom. He’s sitting at a table – zero body fat, prominent cheekbones – chain smoking. Behind him is an unmade bed; in front of him is a list with my name underlined – twice. The offending article – written back when The Verve headlined Slane in 1998 – had it that “the Verve are a second-rate band . . . Urban Hymns is a humorless drudge of an album . . . Ashcroft’s lyrics are comically pretentious and his harsh, nasal voice is profoundly ugly . . . There’s far more artistic value in a tuneful Spice Girls song.” Not much “taken out of context” wiggle room there. Except that a colleague wrote the piece, not me.

“Hi Richard, good to see you again.” I smile disarmingly. God comes to the rescue. Or rather God’s nemesis: Richard Dawkins. Ashcroft is eager to impart some information from the get-go: “I saw Dawkins speak at the Hay Literary festival – all these people there, it was like a religious revival! I’m very interested in theology and the spiritual [the word “gnosis” appears on the new album] and that spiritual search, but I’m also very interested in Darwinism – always have been.”

To illustrate his point he slowly recites the lyrics of The Verve’s biggest hit, Bittersweet Symphony: “What I wrote was: ‘It’s a bittersweet symphony this life, Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die. No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change.’ You see what I mean: it’s religion against Darwinism, or to put it better: nature versus nurture. That’s the message of the album for you.”

Said album, United Nations Of Sound , is his fourth solo album since The Verve imploded in 1999 due to “internal conflicts” – and even that was a euphemism for the fear and loathing between band members. While the previous three solo efforts, all top 10 hits, were a continuation, in a way, of The Verve’s trademark indie anthem sound, this is very different. Produced by Chicago hip-hop figure No ID (who has worked with Jay-Z and Kanye West), with string arrangements from the man who worked on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall , and engineered by a Motown legend, Reggie Dozier, it’s a homage of sorts to black American music.

“I wanted an American album because as much as I read Noam Chomsky, there’s also the clear realization that so much of our culture comes from there. The source material is just so vast,” he says. “So if you imagine me as a musical immigrant just

arriving at the Statue of Liberty with an empty hard drive and I want to fill that up with American sounds, that’s how I went about writing and recording this.”

Having toured extensively there both with The Verve and as a solo artist, he knows the country well but is still perplexed by it. “I remember being there with The Verve when I was 21. You’d get on the tour bus after a gig and there’d be a 17-hour drive to the next night’s gig. You’d look out the window of the bus early on and there would be nothing, it would be desolate. You’d go to sleep for eight hours, wake up and look out the window again and there’d still be nothing. It was the vastness of it for a guy from Wigan like me.

“And what Chomsky writes about the country is so real. We had this coach driver, somewhere in Texas, and he took a detour once and brought us to the place where he lived on a ranch. Honestly, we met people there who actually believed that the US dollar was the world’s currency – they couldn’t get their head around the fact that there were different currencies in the rest of the world.”

He got the whole album down in a remarkable 10 days in New York last autumn. “There was an Indian summer in New York and I clearly remember every day walking to the studio and from every shop window you could hear Jay-Z’s Empire State Of Mind blasting out; this was before it was really well known. It just felt perfect. And then working with a hip-hop guy such as No ID was a big change for me. The story there is that his mother and Kanye West’s mother are both teachers and very good friends. When Kanye was just starting music, No ID’s mother told him to look out for Kanye and help him along, and you see how well that turned out,” he says.

A charmingly knowledgeable and eccentric presence, the 39-year-old can talk you under the table on subjects as diverse as the interface between behavioral and cognitive psychology, Cubism and football. He’s quick to draw out a pen and write down the title of a book he thinks sounds interesting.

Like all good frontmen (John Lydon, Ian Brown, etc) he exudes a surfeit of self-confidence but is quick with a self-deprecating quip. Best friends with Chris Martin and Noel Gallagher (the latter wrote Oasis’s Cast No Shadow about him), he’s good value for money.

There have been battles with crippling depression but he’s reluctant to elaborate too much for fear he may be seen as promoting an album on the back of a “my depression hell” headline. He’s off the Prozac now, saying life in a semi-rural setting just outside London does the trick instead.

“Who was that artist – was it Constable or Turner? – that used to tie himself to the mast of a ship and go out during a storm just to get inspiration for their paintings? That’s what I feel I’ve been through – getting right into the centre of that storm. I think it’s a very good thing that someone such as Stephen Fry can go public with their depression – it was a great thing to do for him and for people like myself who have suffered. It’s something that’s far more prevalent than people think. But tell me, what is a well person? Is there such a thing as a well person?

“There is an air of calm and peace in my life now. But you remember The Drugs Don’t Work? Whenever we played that live there would be rows of grown men crying. It was almost like these guys couldn’t cry when they needed to cry, but that song operated like a pressure valve for them and it was okay for them to cry at a big rock concert. That song is so misunderstood [It’s not about drug use:Ashcroft wrote it about his dying father and the medication used to try to keep him alive] and when I won an Ivor Novello award for it, I was walking up to the stage – and really you would expect better from a serious music award such as the Ivor Novello – there were all these pictures of hypodermic needles all around the stage. Bloody irresponsible.

“But this all gets back to the power and imagery of rock music,” he says. “I really believe it to be one of the most powerful art forms in that you can have a good melody like Bittersweet Symphony or The Drugs Don’t Work which can suck people in and then when you have them, you can talk about genetics, inevitability or whatever.”

A text comes in to his phone which prompts a story about his teenage daughter. “She was listening to her iPod the other day and I asked her what she was listening to. She just gave me this pitying look of disgust and said ‘It’s on shuffle’, as if I had asked a really obvious question,” he says. “And that’s the problem, it’s all shuffle for this generation because there’s this tsunami of music out there now. It comes preloaded on your mobile phone; it’s given away with a newspaper. There are people who have never actually touched a physical piece of music – even a CD. “I don’t want to be doing the ‘when I were a lad’ thing, but we used to be like hunter-gatherers when it came to music. You had to go to a record shop, find something you wanted and physically bring it back with you.”

As I get up to leave, I realize the elephant in the room (the offending article about The Verve’s shortcomings) never made its presence felt – he didn’t bring up the subject but there’s still a steely look in his eye when he calls down the corridor after me: “Don’t make me sound too spacey”.