23 March 2011

Richard Ashcroft on His New Album & the Right Time to Play “Bittersweet Symphony”

Musically speaking, there are two Richard Ashcrofts. There's the Messianic frontman of on-again, off-again Britpop champions The Verve, and then there's Richard Ashcroft the solo artist, a gifted singer-songwriter who has quietly amassed a more-than-respectable body of work.

His latest project falls somewhere in between. RPA & The United Nations of Sound is both the name of Ashcroft's new album, and of his new collective, a group of musicians who helped the 39-year-old singer compose and create an eclectic new record that contains elements of the melodic rock Ashcroft is known for, as well as notes of soul, blues, and even hip-hop.

Ashcroft’s most notable new collaborator, in both reputation and contribution, is the hip-hop producer No ID, who’s worked with Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Rihanna. The result of this worlds-colliding pairing is an instrumental rock album that relies heavily on programmed beats.

On Monday afternoon, Ashcroft showed up to the Sirius XM headquarters in midtown Manhattan, to play a set of his new songs—including the lead single ”Are You Ready”—with nothing but his acoustic guitar, a reminder that in his purest form, Ashcroft is a songer-songwriter in the most classical sense. We had the opportunity to sit down with Ashcroft after his set, and found that he loves to talk, able to go off on highly impassioned and opinionated tangents with just the slightest push. Here he is on the recording of his new album, why he prefers smaller shows to stadiums, and the right time to bust out his mega-hit, “Bittersweet Symphony.”

You’re either known as Richard Ashcroft from The Verve, or Richard Ashcroft, solo artist. This seems like something in between. Which one is it?

It’s both.  It’s a solo project where, halfway through the making of it, the idea of the United Nations of Sound came into my mind, purely because it felt like the contribution from everyone, and what we were doing was so unique, that it needed a title. And whether it be the guitarist or the string arranger or the drummer—some of the stories they were telling me, about all the people they’ve played with, and the way they were treated—even though these guys are magnificent musicians—a lot of musicians out there are treated like crap. America’s got a tremendous wealth of talent, and you can kind of go, Okay, if you don’t want the gig, there’s another 400 guys who do. Also, there’s a lot of fear in the industry. Certainly Steve the guitarist, I think he was pretty scared of me at the beginning. But I think he really enjoyed that openness that I brought to the whole idea of recording. Because the industry has changed a lot. It’s very clean now. Everything is so fucking clean.

How so?

Well, everything. Whether it be the recording process, how people talk to you, how the guitarist, or the drummer, or the session players would communicate to someone like me. There’d be times when someone might go on tour for six weeks and never speak to the person they’re playing for.

Have you had that experience in the past?

I’ve never had it, because I’ve always been in charge of my ship, and I would never treat my crew like that.

Are the musicians who recorded the album with you the same ones you’ll be touring with?
Yeah, other than the drummer. I’ve got a different drummer, because the majority of the drums on the album are just beats from No ID.

This is the first time you’ve recorded without Peter Salisbury, the drummer from The Verve.

Yeah, you’re right.

Did that have anything to do with the fact that a lot of the drums on the record are programmed?

Yeah. But I made this decision, I went to No ID for beats more than for production. I don’t really need a producer. I just wanted someone to collaborate with, and essentially what he gave me were beats.  I might have used Pete if I’d been in England. But it was interesting for me to see what was happening in the States, and what kinds of musicians there were. And I was shown things, like pictures on phones of lads playing the drums in church, who are six years old. And they’re phenomenal, and they’re all waiting for their spot in that church, and most of the guys who are playing with me on this record all come from that church background. It was interesting to see the wealth of talent this country’s got, it’s astonishing.

But where it gets them, and what they have to do to get a livelihood, it’s a lot to get to that point. Like I said, you could be treated like shit by the main people. As far as my guitarist Steve is concerned, something like “Are You Ready” is the first time he’s really let go on a record. What was interesting was that No ID had never met him, and it was such a mad few days in New York, that Steve now has been making records with No ID for the last 14 or 15 months since that week. Because when he played the guitar bit on “Are You Ready” in one go, he went to the toilet, and No ID went into the corridor and said, You’ve got to come to L.A. to make some records with me. So there was a lot of creativity that came out in that week. It powered different people off in different directions.

How did you hook up with No ID?

I’ve got a great guy in New York, and I talked to him about different people, but he kept coming back about No ID, so I just went for it. I met No ID in the control room of Chung King studio, he was really late. Someone had already lied about where he was on the phone. Some guy just made up some fucking tale about how his house had been robbed in Chicago. I said, He already arrived so you’re bullshitting me. So you can imagine, I’m like what the fuck is going on here? I don’t know you, and your house has been robbed in Chicago. And then it turns out you don’t even got a place in Chicago.

So you guys got off to a rocky start?

Yeah! Not rocky, but it got off with me like, What the fuck’s going on? There’s some fucking funny moments, man. Funny, funny moments. There’s a lot of shit that I’ll never really go into and that will never be talked about. You know, there was some shit that needed to be done. There’s the odd Michael Corleone moment.

Michael Corleone?

My alter-ego is Michael, yeah? When something needs to be sorted out, so there was the odd time when Michael reared his ugly head.

Was there a time when you were more Michael and less Richard?
(Laughs) That’s right! I try and keep Mr. Corleone as far away as possible. But you know, any basic driving through London can spark Michael. Michael can rear his ugly head out of nowhere. It’s a big part of me, but I try to control it, because I have got a temper.

When you play at the Bowery Ballroom, are you going to play “Bittersweet Symphony”? Is that something you still play?

It’s interesting. What’s really funny about this, is that we were doing the tour in Europe with the United Nations of Sound, and I hadn’t played it for the whole tour.  And then DW the bass player, on the last show in London said, “Uh Richard, we’d love to play that song.” They love that song. And to be honest, from where DW is coming from, it’s probably my only song that he knew before he met me, definitely. And it’s the only song any of the hip-hop guys know, so they really want to play it. I’m like, Alright, we’ll play it, but I guarantee you there will be someone who says, “Oh Richard, you see that review about the gig, going on about how you’re playing your old shit?” I said, don’t worry about it, we’ll do it, and sure enough, it was great. Of course, two days later, I got in contact with DW and said, It happened, mate. The reviews are all like, “He’s living off former glories.” But that’s the innocence of what it’s about, really. You’re doing it because DW wants to play “Bittersweet.” So okay, man, we’ll do it. It ain’t about me going on there fearful of not playing that song. I’ve got songs that are equally as powerful, just not as well known.

You played it at Live 8 a few years ago, and I guess when you’re in front of 100,000 people, you have to play it.

Well, it’s great to have something like that in what I call my artillery, and certainly at a festival. I look at some bands who play festivals and think, You haven’t got the songs. You shouldn’t be in front of that many people, because you can’t create that complete united feeling that 100,000 people need to feel. So when you’ve got one of them in your back pocket, you’ve gotta use it, man. Because people gotta feel like they can sing that thing back to you, and I’ve never been one for shortchanging people.

My mum went to go see Neil Young years ago, and it was when he was in his vocoder period, and David Geffen sued him for not being “Neil Young” enough. And she just wants “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Old Man,” and I remember her disappointment that he hadn’t played the songs she loved. But that tune itself carries so much of a story behind that, that it’s more than a song.

And as someone who has played in front of 100,000 people, how do you feel about playing these smaller shows? There’s Richard Ashcroft who has that legendary rockstar status, but here you are promoting this new album, playing smaller shows. Do you enjoy that?

I think any musician will say that when you can feel that front row near you, it’s great. You’ve got to understand that with most of these arena shows, most of the musicians are wearing fucking headphones. There’s no sound being emitted on stage—dead stages, dry stages. Most of their sets are based around the lighting guys’ decisions, yeah? It’s like Coldplay. I love Coldplay, I love Chris, he’s a good mate, but when they play “Yellow,” you better believe those yellow balls are going to fall at that point, every single night. And it’s great for the audience who didn’t go to Chicago the night before, and they can hit them yellow balls. But what it means as a musician, is that the idea of improvisation, and actually feeling free and loose and making every night a different night—because we’re human beings, we’re not robots. I might have had a shit day, and I don’t want to shit on the audience, but I want to communicate the feeling. And if you’re waiting for the yellow balls to fall from the roof, you can’t do that.

You sing about New York often, and clearly you have special affinity for the city. How often do you come?
Not often enough. I looked into trying to get somewhere here to love, but I thought London was expensive, shit! I can probably afford something along the Willy Loman line. But I’d love to come and live here at some point, when my kids are a bit older.

Your new album is filled with religious and spiritual imagery. Are you a spiritual person?

Yeah, definitely. I love the imagery, and I love the sense of being born again.

Is this something that’s developed in you?

It’s constantly developing. It’s a narrative for the rest of my life, what I can make a connection with. What I can decipher through these thousands of years of hearsay. What interests me about Christianity is how something so simple can be so abused, and can I draw out the root of that. So I end up reading the Nag Hammadi library, and things like that. I’m into all that, but I would never say I’ve got a fixed spot. I’m open. I love Charles Darwin and Jesus Christ, and I love Johnny Cash and Lil’ Wayne. We’re all one, and that’s the important thing.

Richard Ashcroft’s performance and interview will air on The Spectrum, Sirius channel 18 and XM channel 45, on Friday, April 1 at 12:00 pm ET and will be rebroadcast on Saturday, April 2 at 4:00 pm ET; and Monday, April 4 at 1:00 pm ET.
  • Source: Black Book, interview by Ben Barna