02 April 2011

Richard Ashcroft on His 10-Day Album

Richard Ashcroft's hair hasn't changed since he appeared in the "Bittersweet Symphony" music video that premiered in 1997—an amazing feat for any 40-year-old man. He doesn't seem to have aged at all, actually, since his appearances in magazines 14 years ago.

Ashcroft, the former lead singer/songwriter for The Verve, was in New York to perform in the US for the first time in three years. Promoting his first solo album in four years, Ashcroft performed at the Bowery Ballroom and was accompanied by The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On a very wet and rainy Monday, we caught up with him for breakfast at the Crosby Street Hotel, shot a few portraits, and discussed his perspective on the music business and the production of his latest record.

AARON STERN: You worked with producer No I.D. (Ernest Wilson) and composer Benjamin Wright on your new album, United Nations of Sound. How did the three of you come together?

RICHARD ASHCROFT: No I.D. was a name that kept cropping up. I had a good friend in New York, and I talked for a number of years about trying to find someone to bring a different flavor to what I do, and a number of names were mentioned, but his kept coming up. I was aware of his work with Common, and I knew Kanye (West) had name-dropped him quite a few times in songs as a big influence, and that was enough for me. The first time I met No I.D. was in the studio, and we went straight to work. We didn't have any bogus meetings or phone calls; we met in the workplace and got to it.

Benjamin, when I mentioned putting some strings on, was mentioned by a guy in the studio called Kevin. He thought Benjamin would be great for it, and it turned out he was. He is a fabulous person, incredibly talented, and I just feel very honored to have had that experience of recording strings at Capitol Studios [in] LA with Benjamin. It was an honor, I will never forget it.

STERN: I read somewhere it took only 10 days to record; that seems unusually fast.

ASHCROFT: The bulk of the album was recorded in 10 days. Then there was another seven or eight days in LA where we did some strings and extra overdubs. Then a few days in London—so in reality, we're talking a month. Essentially, though it was a fast process, it could have been quicker, as far as I'm concerned, and perhaps should have been; but that's just the logistics of having people with full diaries and on different sides of the planet. I was having 12 conversations about strings at four in the morning every other day, and then things became difficult when it came to mixing; but essentially, it was a quick record. I would love to record even quicker. I think it's what we have to do now; the business has changed. There is no camping out in a residential studio for a year pondering the snare sounds. [laughs]

No one cares anyway, you know, that's the thing. You can find the greatest sound of all time and someone's going to squash it down to a tiny little earphone anyway or play it through the computer, and that is a big thing people have to think about now. There will be a time when sound improves massively, in the way we consume it. I'm wondering, when that happens, are people going to be exposed? I do believe a lot of tracks have been made right now with the mindset, "You know no one listens to music properly anymore anyway, so who gives a shit?" I believe that is why hip-hop and R & B have been successful over the last x amount of years; it's one of those few sorts of genres that come across successfully through a computer or headphones because it is minimal within the track. You hear the kick, you hear the snare, you hear the bass, you got the vocal on the top, but if you are trying to do something complex, deep, or rich, then forget it. Most people don't even realize you have to get rid of a good portion of the track to get it into a file.

STERN: I was watching the Bruce Springsteen documentary The Promise, and he mentions that after he put out Born To Run, there was an immense amount of pressure to release a second or even third album within a year or you would be considered a "flash in the pan." That isn't the case now; artists like The Strokes, Band of Horses, and yourself all take four to five years in between records. What do you think has changed?

ASHCROFT: So much has changed, even pre-Bruce Springsteen. The pressure on The Beach Boys or The Beatles to come up with a hit, where every couple of months there would be a new single out, and most wouldn't be on albums. Even though it must have taken a toll on people's nervous systems to write new music, it propelled music forward at such a rate that we never actually repeated the move from, say, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to The White Album, was only like four, five, or six years... we have never seen music change so radically in such a short period of time since then.

What happened in the '70s was albums and concerts began making a hell of a lot more money, and then the suits got involved. Everyone should read Mansion On The Hill, which pretty much explains what happened to the music industry. A lot more was being wrung out of albums; it could have a duration of two years, at that point. The band would be off touring, making a hell of a lot of money, and the album could sell for a long time. That pretty much stayed till the late '90s.

I can't really explain why it takes too long, but I do believe the record companies have got something to answer for why certain artists take so long in between records. If I was a painter, I would have hundreds of finished and unfinished canvases in my studio, waiting for people to see, and it is the same with my music. I've got so many pieces of music and songs waiting to be heard. You can take the Prince approach and just put them out, but that sort of engulfs people and swamps them in your stuff... they can't cope.

As we know, attention spans worldwide now are decreasing by the day. I don't believe people listen to albums like we used to do. Albums were seen as one piece, and the whole thing would be played. Kids don't play the whole album anymore. Kids don't even play the whole track. You're lucky if your whole song is listened to before someone skips to something else. I think release dates for bands are definitely going to come back to once a year because the album is going to be the supporting tool for the tour, and they need something to hang that tour around. The tour hasn't been booked to promote a record that they are going to sell a few million copies of. They're going to make their living by playing live—because no one buys music anymore, folks. [laughs]