21 March 2011

Are You Ready?: An interview with Richard Ashcroft

Thirsty Editor-in-Chief Sarah L. Myers was a guest as Kristine Stone interviewed Richard Ashcroft for the Spectrum at Sirius XM Studios in New York. Some of Richard's answers are excerpts from the original transcript.

Kristine Stone: I was going to say Richard Ashcroft, formerly of The Verve, but I feel like you’re moving forward.
Richard Ashcroft (credit: Gregg Greenwood)

Richard Ashcroft: I hope so, yeah. Formerly of something formerly.

Kristine Stone: I just wanted to make sure when I played your record, people knew who they were listening to.

Richard Ashcroft: I’ve got to recognize my history. It’s a very big part of my life, so I’m cool with that.

Kristine Stone: Let’s talk about the United Nations of Sound. I thought it was a title for your album, and then I realized quickly, that it’s the name of your background musicians.

Richard Ashcroft: I don’t just count the guys who play guitar, drums or bass, I’m counting Benjamin Wright, the string arranger. No I.D., everyone who put in some effort into helping me make this and create this. I feel like, as I was making it, there were a lot of discussions about the way music has become so, I don’t even know if genrefied is an actual word, but it is now. The way music’s become so genrefied, put into different boxes, and this was part of the discussion as we were making the music, and I thought, “I would like to create a band or an idea where you kind of had your passport stamped once you’re in the United Nations of Sound, so No I.D. and a couple of other people would suggest, ‘we know a guitarist, he’s in town,’ and I’d be like, ‘yeah, but what’s he like? Does he really understand where we’re coming from here?’ ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. It’ll be fine, it’d be cool.’ So as soon as the guy plays his first few notes and I realize, yeah, he’s totally on it, you know, I use to say ‘welcome to the United Nations of Sound, where’s your passport?’ We stamp it. But you weren’t allowed to have your passport stamped if you’d made anything in the new soul category. There’s a few genres that you weren’t allowed to come into the United Nations of Sound, because we talked about that. Soul is soul, rock n’ roll is rock n’ roll, and there is no new soul, there’s no old soul. You either got soul or you ain’t. So that was the kind of discussions that we were having. It’s kind of Sgt. Pepper-type thing, you know. Fantasy kind of band. But they are real people.

Richard Ashcroft at Sirius XM Studios, New York
(credit: Justin Dean)
Kristine Stone: You said you really can’t describe what this album is to you, because it doesn’t fit into some genre.

Richard Ashcroft: And in a way, that’s the point of it. Because a lot of my music, that I’ve made over the years, if I even look back to say, if we look at The Verve and we look at the album. It did well, “Urban Hymns”, over here, it did well round the world. If you actually analyze that record, there is the “Bittersweet Symphony”, the big song that everyone knows is, to me, is essentially hip hop because it was written by me sampling a piece of music and building on that sample. It’s a way of writing that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for hip hop and the process they go through making records. But on the very same record you could have a country folk ballad on the same record. So I’ve always found it problematic to kind of do one great song. It would have been very easy on that record to have started making “Bittersweet” and think, wow, this is a great place to be heading, let’s just make another nine that sound like this. Or let’s just put everything, all our eggs in that basket. And I find that very difficult because me, I’ve got very eclectic tastes and I share a vision with some of the people from the history of music who really try to bring this stuff together. I’m a big fan of a guy called Gene Clark, who was in The Byrds. And I’m a fan of obviously Sly and the Family Stone, all these characters. They were trying to do, and trying to draw on a lot of different pools of inspiration and that’s what I’m trying to do. So it’d be difficult for me to say yes, it’s this and that and the other. Which then brings difficulty when you’re trying to promote it and people playing it on radio or whatever, because it doesn’t fit under any particular category, but essentially that’s why I did it. I didn’t want to make a record that you could pigeonhole really easily.

Songwriting, and how hip hop inspired “Bittersweet Symphony”

Richard Ashcroft: "It’s hip hop because for me, because I would never have thought about looping a small fragment of music and then creating something much bigger out of that and I would never have approached that way of writing I don’t think without being influenced by the guys, some of my heroes from that genre. I would never have gone there. I probably would have stuck to trying to craft songs out of my acoustic guitar, which I do enjoy doing as well. But often in life, you know, the thing you do well, it can bore you. And you want to go off and do something different and try different ways of expressing yourself. I do find, I think on my next record, after this, I’m going to go back to a traditional writing way. But at the time, I’m just, I find it too easy, if that sounds arrogant, but it’s true. I find writing acoustic songs too easy."

Kristine Stone: So you arrange all the instruments, all that music.

Steve Wyreman and Richard Ashcroft
(credit: Gregg Greenwood)
Richard Ashcroft: Well, on something like this record that’s why again I named it United Nations of Sound because a man like Benjamin Wright, who arranged the strings, I mean, this guy was doing strings for The Temptations, The Four Tops. This guy did Michael Jackson. So I’m a bit, I’m not in a position really where I can completely dominate the writing process with him. And that’s why I feel like it was more of an ensemble effort, because I gave over that responsibility to Benjamin, and just
had a half a dozen late night calls from England to him to LA, discussing the music and how quickly we had to do it, so I gave over a lot to him on the strings and let him create and be himself. I think he was (able to get into my mind). I think he understands where I’m coming from and certain things when he’d play, I’d be able to reference them and say, yeah that reminds me of a particular era or a particular band, and he’d say yeah.

Kristine Stone: One of the great things about this record is not one song sounds like the other, yet the first time I played “Are You Ready?” I said, oh yeah, that’s Richard Ashcroft. So there was enough of you that was still familiar.

Richard Ashcroft: That’s why again, I think a lot of people’s work these days. I’m not talking about everyone, because a majority of records you get like I say is like a xerox copy of the big single or two songs that get played a lot and the rest are just pale imitations where, when I look back on some of the other albums I’ve done, I really try and make those songs as individual pieces like little movies within themselves, you know, so they can stand alone on their own and they represent maybe a different emotion or a different feeling from the song that came before that could, they can stand alone, you know. The last song in the album to me, “Let My Soul Rest”, is one of the heaviest tunes I’ve ever written. And I’ve been banging, I’ve got carpel tunnel syndrome, which I think is brought on...A lot of, when you’re a first time parent, when you hold a child you do a lot with the hand you know? My overuse came along not long after my first son, but I play the piano, I’ve never been taught to play. I’m also incredibly double-jointed, but I play with this weird claw finger thing. I’m pretty terrible, but I’ve been hammering that song out for like four or five years.

The experience of working with No I.D.

Richard Ashcroft: "I didn’t go into the studio in New York with No I.D. and have this major plan. I had a few samples, I had a few classic songs that I’d written on the acoustic and on piano. And I just bring them out on a daily basis, whatever I thought would be exciting to work on that day. I’d say, ‘what about this.’ A song like “She Brings Me the Music”, the ballad, that was recorded when No I.D. was asleep and he came in the studio and heard it finished. What was interesting was on the outro, if I’d been working with anyone else we’d probably just put a standard drum kit on somewhere, or we might have brought the drums in earlier, but you hear that, and you hear these claps and these big bass drum come in at the end and it’s such a surprise you’re not expecting. And that’s, rather than looking for these big beats everywhere, it’s those little subtle twists that I think made the experiment of working with a guy like him worthy. Just those little odd moments where this ballad gets to almost its conclusion then suddenly no, you’ve got these bass drum and these claps that only someone like him would bring to the tune, you know? I never would have thought of doing that."

Kristine Stone: Do you enjoy playing “Are You Ready” in a simpler version?

Richard Ashcroft: That’s the first time I’ve ever attempted it because it was a song that, again, came from an old Bee Gees b-side, with an amazing outro that I’d always wanted to loop up, and that was one of the loops that I brought over to New York with me. So again that was a song that had been built around a loop, so I had to ring the guitarist actually to find out what the chords were. I didn’t even know what the chords were. This tune I sampled, I can’t even remember...it was a b-side from like 1968 or something like that. It’s real old, no one knows it, but the (Bee Gees’) big hits were sensational - “Saturday Night Fever”. Good forever. Those songs will live forever.

Kristine Stone: In “She Brings Me the Music” you say “I love this town”, but you’re leaving. What town are you talking about?

Richard Ashcroft: New York. What I wanted to try and get in that tune was the feeling of being here a very short time and also there’s people walking in the wrong way, the energy of the city, and I spent a lot of time, before I go in the studio I walk everyday, which is what’s so great about the city, you can just walk and walk, walked through the Italian quarter where they were having their big annual celebration which was fantastic. I love that. Grab something to eat from there, then off to the studio, and it was about my wife, and I was feeling at the time I wanted to create something for her. I think that’s the thing about New York. There’s a sort of selfishness in the visitor, the visitor has a real selfish attitude to New York in a sense. We drop in and we fly out, you know. It’s different to when you’re living in a place full time, dealing with the day-to-day, what people in New York deal with. But for us, it’s like a fantasyland. Playground.

Richard Ashcroft
(credit: Ricardo Robles)
Inspiration behind “She Brings Me the Music”

Richard Ashcroft: "I wrote it for her. She brings me the music. My wife is the most important person, other than my children obviously, in my life and has been a great inspiration to me. In a way, I was a bit of a caveman when I met her. It’s an ongoing process. It’s going to take a long time. I’m not fully out of the cave, you know. I’m still prone to go out and bash a few elks and get the fire going with my loincloth on! But she introduced me to a lot of good things, and she’s also dealt with the kind of shit that you get if you’re married or in a relationship with someone who’s had any level of fame. Because my wife was a musician when I met her, she played with a great band Spiritualized in England. She was the keyboard player. She’s been a woman in the music industry her whole life pretty much and believe you me, to be a woman in the music industry is not the easiest place to be and it still isn’t. I’ve got great respect for her. But we find it now easier. We travel with our children, my children are with me in New York. That’s why I think that song came out, because, actually that was the longest I’d been away when I recorded this record, from my son in ten years. I missed him for seven days, I’ve been out of his life for seven days since the day he was born. Seen him every single day up until I recorded this record. I’d gone out of my way to keep us together. He was in New York City when he was four weeks old, under a table in a restaurant! That guy’s been everywhere, although he doesn’t remember much of it. Sonny, he’s the oldest. And Cassius."

Discussing “Bittersweet Symphony”

Richard Ashcroft: "Try and find the Staples Singers’ song called “The Last Time” and check out what date that came out and see who the author of that song is and you’ll find they say it’s a traditional song. And then check out when the Rolling Stones released the song called “The Last Time” a few years later. And guess who wrote it, folks? Jagger and Richards have suddenly written a traditional song. All people need to know about “Bittersweet Symphony” is the sample kicks in when the drums come in. So all that lovely, beautiful thing that sucks you in at the beginning, there is no sample actually there. Which is interesting, because by the time the sample kicks in the world was already sucked in and interested, you see. I think in life you’ve got to look back and you’ve got to say, what did it do? And it actually opened up a tremendous amount of doors for me. I’m still here now talking to you, promoting a record, I’ve been making music now since I was 20, as a professional musician or whatever you want to call it, with a contract or what have you. So that had a massive impact and it also opened up a lot of other songs for people to hear."

Kristine Stone: “Song For Lovers”, that’s a little bit older tune?

Richard Ashcroft (credit: Gregg Greenwood)
Richard Ashcroft: Yeah, that’s one from my first solo record called “Alone With Everybody”, which I stole from a Charles Bukowski poem title. Songs for the lovers, it again goes back to me and my wife’s love affair. I remember hearing a Joy Division tune in a radio, I was tuning the radio and I actually heard, I was waiting for my wife to come home and I dreamt up an idea of creating a song for the lovers. I say, “DJ, play a song for the lovers.” Meaning this song. Meaning a song that can be the backdrop for all that anxiety that takes place when you’re about to embark on a love affair that you know is a serious love affair, something that can go really deep and isn’t just a one-night situation. It’s something that’s going to lead to fifteen years of marriage, folks! I was supporting her band. I saw this girl jump off the stage with these boots on, this beautiful little skirt. I’m like, Wow! Who’s that? She’s gorgeous. And I’m just so lucky that she was intelligent as well. Such a bloody bonus, guys out there! You really should go for that. But I was very fortunate. People should check out her band, she doesn’t play with them anymore. I probably ruined that! They have an amazing album, “Ladies and Gentleman We’re Floating in Space” and it’s a wonderful record and in England it still tops a lot of the critics lists every year. And that came out in 1997, I believe.

Discussing critics and England’s reaction to his records

Richard Ashcroft: "Critics are, certainly in England, they’re barely ever on my side. Unless I do something that, again going back to “Bittersweet”, the beauty of that came out of the trap so fast. Everybody just had to play catch up. Everybody was my friend again. Up to that point, I was known as “Mad Richard.” And they dropped that. Funny, with success they dropped it. But I actually got crazier the older I got. I was actually quite sane when I was a kid. I’m actually scared when people are positive to me now. I’m so used to negativity. I love the fight. That’s what it’s all about, the battle. Seems people die young, we always get this - I mean, if I’d died ten years ago I’d be on a 12-year-old’s t-shirt all around the world now. But I’m still here. And that’s what it’s about, you see. I’m 39, I’m going to carry on the best I can, I don’t want to die. I’ve got responsibilities, but I also believe that’s the message to send out. There’s so much nihilism out there that the idea of packaging suicide like it’s something, some seductive thing that we should look at. I think it’s cynical. It’s really, really cynical. The industry’s always done it. There’s a certain period in our lives where you’re very vulnerable to that. I felt it when I was going through my early teens. We’re all really vulnerable then. I’m completely against that, so that’s what the press don’t like about me. What did I do? I went out and wrote my own music. I sold millions of albums, and married a beautiful woman. I bought a couple of beautiful houses. I’m still alive. I’m still rocking. It’s like, where did it all go wrong you know? Where did it all go wrong?"

Richard Ashcroft
(credit: Ricardo Robles)
Discussing how success has changed his life

Richard Ashcroft: "What it did do for me at the time, it allowed, I bought this place where I got this little wood. And I’m still waiting for somebody to boot me off my own land. Get out! What are you doing there! It’s an extraordinary thing. I think if anything it bought me time. That’s the biggest thing you can buy yourself if you become successful. Diamonds, gold, cars, they don’t give you anything but time - time to think, time to work it all out in your head. That’s very important. Money allows you to go to auctions and rub people’s noses in it who believe that you shouldn’t even be in there! I can barely play the piano. I bought the most beautiful piano you’ve ever seen at this auction and it just destroyed people! They were so devastated! What is that working class Wigan dude buying this German thing that, I can’t even describe the fucking thing. I just know it’s beautiful. That’s what it’s about. That’s part of the rock n’ roll thing is the pink Cadillac, and essentially hip hop and that culture got it later than rock n roll. John Lennon painted his Rolls Royce psychedelic in 1967, when every other Rolls Royce in London was black and it was driven by people who worked in the city or a diplomat or whatever. Working class people didn’t do that. I still enjoy that. It’s the people who believe that that BMW is the center of their universe. I don’t know if the class system is the same in America, you’ve got enough trouble as it is without a class system, but we got it in England.

But back to the material thing. I had this beautiful Mercedes, stacked headlights, 1971, the business this thing was. I loved filling that thing up with my hair everywhere, just got up. I know that guy with his BMW 6-series, with his golf clubs in the back, and his slacks on, I know he thinks that BMW is the missing piece of his jigsaw. And I just like coming down and scrambling the whole thing up, like no man. Buys you some freedom, and it buys you a lot of fun to wind people up."
  • Source: Stay Thirsty Media, Courtesy of Sirius XM
  • New York, NY