26 October 2016

Coney's Loft: Q&A with Nick McCabe

The Verve remain one of the most important and enigmatic bands in British rock music history.  Their first two albums; A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul positioned the band outside of the bluster and tumult of the Brit-pop era.  They fashioned their own place as a progressive and experimental musical force that refused to be shaped by anything other than their own creative ambition.  A refusal to compromise both, inside and outside the band was one of the major driving forces behind their success and ultimately, their demise.

A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul were recently remastered and re-released to much critical and commercial acclaim. These albums are both very different to each other but are masterpieces in their own right.  In a wide ranging interview, we talk to Verve guitarist, Nick McCabe about the legacy of these two albums, his thoughts on the success and downfall of The Verve, the relationships within the band and whether he ever foresees a reunion.

Q. Hello, Nick.  How are you and what are you up to today?

Today? Saturday is family time – my son does various activities so I’m catching up while he dances, gyms and recites.

Q. The Verve’s first two albums A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul have been recently re-mastered and re-released.  How did this come about and what and who was behind the decision to do this?

Unbeknownst to me they had gone out of print so they were due a reissue at some point anyway. The band’s friend Jonathon ‘Chas’ Chandler (and my one time Kilburn flat mate along with Simon Tong for the year-plus I worked on Urban Hymns 97-98) is now directing reissues for the label. Fortuitous and necessary. The catalogue changed hands several times in the dismantling of the Virgin label. We needed not only a friendly face, but someone who would handle the project in a sympathetic manner. Chas is an absolute music fiend as well as a good guy; the results bear this out and I couldn’t be happier.

Q. In reference to the love and critical acclaim bestowed on these re-mastered albums, you stated on Facebook that you ‘couldn’t even get arrested in Wigan pre-1997’.  With new generations discovering these works and older generations coming back to them have you been at all surprised by the passionate reaction to them?

I half am, half of me is pleasantly gratified. The notable thing about my experience on social media is that the 1st wave of Verve supporters stayed with us. That feels really good, and given that I know a good chunk of them personally by now I’m supremely happy that our legacy is in their hands. Oddly, and I really didn't see this coming, those albums have aged well; much better than I’d foreseen, hopefully new audiences will discover the band in its different ‘spirits’.

Q. How pleased are you with the results, what involvement did you personally have with the re-mastering process?

I would have been keen to be invited into the mastering process, as it was I didn’t receive test pressings. It’s one of my fields now as it goes, so maybe I could have contributed technically as well as ‘proof read’ segues, sequencing, etc. Philosophically I learned my lesson a long time ago: delegate, enjoy your own work, don’t fuck with the pros, they generally know what they’re doing ;-) Best results are attained from people when you invest trust in their abilities, right?

Q.  You said in the run-up to the release of, Forth that a lack of (music) technology (access and actual) prevented and frustrated The Verve from reaching their full potential.  What advancements are there today that you believe would have enabled you to explore your sound further and how would these be manifested in the first two albums?

Stuff that we take for granted now – non linear editing – specifically for a band whose MO is improvisation – if you’re waiting for ‘magic’ to happen, well sometimes you want to condense the flow of things. Analogous to editing a movie, you’re looking for tension and release and composition with a band is different to sitting down at a piano or guitar in that the materials gel best momentarily. Once I saw Pro Tools I recognised it as a key tool for a band like the Verve – Can had 2 track tape, modern improvising bands get that same ‘post composition’ facility but with the added after-the-fact ability to revisit mix, balance etc.

On another level, the so called democratisation of music has had some benefits in that labels no longer insist on the ‘momentous’ album cycle and enforced spunking of loads of money in pursuit of hits. Not that that scenario has a direct influence on Black Submarine for example, but having seen both sides of the fence, I’m far happier in less bombastic settings with good gear, capturing PERFORMANCES, rather than FIDELITY. If you can manage both – great, and hopefully we do these days.

Q. Do you believe the two re-mastered have been improved through the re-mastering process?

I can’t say, since I haven’t received mine yet. The UK post is not all that. I had hoped to have heard them by the time I tackled questions.  I had seen and verified artwork long before release, sadly not the case with the masters.

Q. A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul are two very different sounding albums and have both been cited as masterpieces.  Can you please explain the progression of the band’s ‘sound’ between the two albums, what inspirations and influences were at play and what do you believe the differences to be?

I think of A Storm in Heaven as a cinematic record. I was just talking about David Lynch’s approach to film probably being massively informed by his musical background. Ambiguity, non linear flow- all that stuff is lauded in cinema but listening folks seem to have a problem with it in music, but it is the stuff of the writing process and you can post-compose narrative into it or choose not to. I guess we were young enough and sufficiently headstrong to completely sidestep the issue and make something to our taste. It’s pretty realist as it goes, but it’s painted on a big old canvas. It’s the work of young men. I can only say now as an older chap that it stands up well.

A Northern Soul is the next step – we (I?) had the sense we’d exhausted that layered, exploratory approach and I think there was a feeling of the 2nd record being important in our legacy. Owen Morris’ [producer] “let’s get real” sort of clicked hugely with me. Everything I was listening to, plus all the real life stuff, expressing properly in the “band’s voice” i.e. the specific combination of how those four people interacted, were all important things to document.

Q. If you were to choose a personal favourite between the two albums, which one would it be and why?

I always think it’s A Storm in Heaven but, if I ever find myself playing Verve riffs (and I try not to ;-)) it’s always A Northern Soul. They’re both, as you say, different records, and you need ‘em both hahaha.

Q. The Verve were known for their free flow musical expression.  Indeed, you once said that you cut down 80 mins of music into one 5 minute pop song.  What was the music writing and recording process in The Verve for the first two albums and how would you write and create the songs?

Speaking for myself, I was always looking for the non-obvious hooks that, “did something” emotionally, unemotionally, abstractedly?  – a motif or something to grow things out of, and most of the time a couple of fractures would be good material to build music from. Sometimes I ‘heard’ stuff, e.g. This Is Music in its whole, I was nowhere near a guitar. Other times we did what I guess composers do with paper – recombine, re-spin, additively, subtractively, and then sometimes you find this little pocket of wtf and it explodes in your face in a good way. It’s a very addictive process and you have to avoid the natural urge to control it too much, especially now we have the tools to sort the forensics after - have the fun first! Forth had so many of those moments.

Q. Owen Morris, in reference to working with you on A Northern Soul said you were the best musician he ever worked with.  It is clear through what you have said over the years that you were burdened by a great deal of self-doubt.  On reflection, were do you think this came from, do you believe it to have been a hindrance or a help to your work ethic and your creative process?

Firstly, while that’s very kind of Owen, I’ve always thought it was a kind of qualifier to the ‘pain in the arse’ comments that always followed hahahaha.

Self doubt however I think is VITAL to any creative process. You can’t just assume “me -good, my work –brilliant”, you have to take stock at some point, assess the material you’re working on, find its flaws, find its strengths. There is a mind-set that follows the “don’t look down while you’re on the tightrope” maxim but I really never believed that was any healthier than my tack.

In a pre-Pro Tools world, recording A Northern Soul was like debuting a play at the Old Vic that is neither rehearsed or even completed yet you’re expecting to get the performances right first time.

Sorry to labour the film analogy, but if you’re looking at someone like Lynch, he knows that you can revisit all the interesting stuff amongst the gaffs in the editing suite and subsequently he’s open to unforeseen events taking the narrative to new places while shooting.

That sort of process is a complete nightmare when you have no editing suite and you’re all in different states of chemical compromise. Best policy? Try not to upset the majority even though you’re still grappling with ‘quality control’.

Q. You are often credited with creating The Verve’s ‘sound’.  Can you tell us how you started off playing guitar, what music you listened to growing up, what artists or types of music have influenced you the most?

I started playing out of bloody-mindedness - “I can do this” - when I was about 15 years old. I had an SH101 and a Watkins Copycat before that and that’s what I did first of all – soundscapes. Guitar was something I wanted to have a crack at, but once I started I got my usual tunnel vision and had it pretty much as I wanted it in about two months. I haven’t really improved since, ha. I deliberately devolved it in some ways ;-)

[In terms of creating the ‘sound’] I backed down from trying to dominate The Verve early on – I’m a natural control freak but I had to let The Verve be what it was – it’s what we’re great at as a species – collectivity. So, no, I’m not sure about that, other than me occupying the mid-range where your hearing is most sensitive. I’m the “sore thumb”. I like in guitarists what I like in singers – broadness, no binary happy/sad nonsense. I couldn’t tell you how much music has influenced me – it would go on for pages and there are so many people I admire, but funnily, producers are probably a bigger deal to me than musicians, I suppose we’re in the era of sound worlds, and there’s still uncharted territory and new combos. I suppose the things that have had a big effect: Norman Whitfield, 4AD -obviously Robin Guthrie, Hendrix, Martin Hannett’s bullying of post punk bands, Richard Thompson & Tom Verlaine, Vini Reilly for mapping out the anti rock guitar land, Eddie Hazel, Holger Czukay/Can.

Q. The ‘break ups’ of the Verve are well documented and always seemed to come when you had created great momentum.  Is this ever a source of regret for you and on reflection, do you think you were all able (at such a young age) to cope with everything that came with being in a successful touring and recording rock band?

The “break ups” aren’t so much documented, more like exercises in PR. I have no regrets other than not learning to assert myself in the midst of overt ‘maleness’, I brought my ‘youngest brother’ syndrome into another group of alphas and succumbed to politics yet again. It’s clear now to everyone (I hope) that I never left but was instead ousted. Had I been more self possessed that wouldn’t have happened. The problem of being deferential is that you’re more subject to politics, plus you’re also really likely to get wound up by the pressure to continue deference.

Q. In terms of yourself and Richard Ashcroft - there are so many great bands that have thrived on the tension between the two ‘figure-heads’ of the band e.g. The Beatles, The Stone Roses, The Smiths, Oasis and (of course) The Verve.  These tensions are (invariably) a double edged sword – do you think The Verve could have been the band they became without the ‘tensions’ between the members of the band and (looking back) do you think that the ends justified the means?

Simian hierarchy battles – always end up the same – two boss monkeys come to blows, the gang goes their own ways hahaha. What I’ve come to see is that when it ceased being myself at the centre of tension, it rotated to all the other members. Sometimes A&R have it sussed – there would’ve been strife whatever, better for sanity’s sake to quarantine. Do I think it was worth it? DEFINITELY. The shows, the music – that’s all that matters.

Q.  Some of your recent work has focused on Black Submarine in which you have worked with Simon Jones as well as Davide Rossi - who you worked with on Forth.  How did this project come together and can we expect any new material in the future?

I met Davide at Britannia Row on Wandsworth Bridge Road while we (Tim Bran, Simon and I) were editing Forth. He’s a very interesting guy and we got talking, I invited him to work on Forth and saw his incredible workflow. We kept bumping into each other at festivals while he was part of Goldfrapp’s touring band and committed to working together again. Obviously he guested with the Verve live – we had something special and I would have liked the Verve , if it had been allowed to continue, to factor him as part of the chemistry.

Black Submarine is part fulfilment of the promise, part like minds and old friends finally putting something healthy together, and for me sort of peace-making mission with ‘the life’. New Shores is (currently) the record I would like to be remembered by. Black Submarine album 2 is a dark despondent affair. I’m making peace with that being the way of things. Can’t do the full gamut all the time.

Q. You recently finished a MSc. in Music Technology.  There have been other prominent musicians such as Radiohead’s, Phil Selway that have returned to education to progress their music.  What was behind this decision, did you enjoy being a student and what has it brought to your music?

Well, it was a legitimisation of my lecturing position initially, but it’s probably one of the most satisfying things I’ve done with my life. Creating music yields no concrete successes that you can’t unravel with a bit of late night negativity, but I’ve always wanted to formalise the skills I’ve acquired over the years. So I got the opportunity to do that, and to immerse in Musique Concrete/Acousmatic music, something my band members used to take the piss about, play about (disrespectfully) with serialism, do some basic electronics work, those kind of things. Plus acquiring skills in mastering, surround sound, more Max MSP programming, and general musical adventures. I loved every minute of it.

My mixing is definitely improved, my sense of potential is through the roof, and I feel all kinds of avenues opened up. I’ve managed to get over some of my musical hang-ups also.

Q. You recently posted a video of you playing Lucem’s custom ‘McCabe’ model which, (for anyone who has enjoyed your music over the years) provoked both a sense of profound pleasure and a ravenous appetite to hear more.  What plans do you have for the future?

That’s an incredible instrument, Graham Skimming is creating amazing guitars. I’m watching his progress with fascination.

I have several instrumental albums that just need sequencing and mastering and I’ll release on Bandcamp. Earlier this year I played on eight tracks of Callum Beattie’s debut album, due next year. FSOL/Amorphous Androgynous feature my guitar playing and a rake of tracks – watch this space. I’ve contributed considerable amounts of material to Emit Bloch’s various enterprises. Shadowparty’s record comes out soon featuring myself on a few tracks. Nihilists first single has gobs of my guitar on the A side and some more discreet stuff on the B. More Black Submarine eventually. Field Theory archives to go up at some point (Mig Schillace and myself’s improv work from pre Forth to present day). More from Natalie Kocab and Michaela Polokova I hear. More ploughing on in the labs on the vast bank of solostuff. More lectures, more tuition.  And I’m for hire: guitar, electronics, mixing, mastering, producing.

Q. Finally, the question that you have never had put to you and one which would get me beaten by a desiccated elk skull should I fail to ask it - any hope for a Verve reunion?

I have never said no, not even to touring Australia/New Zealand in 2009. I would say ask Ashcroft, but I think of late he’s pretty clear about it being a “no”.

Thank you for your time, Nick.

Thank you!
  • Source: Coney's Loft, By Elliot Jessett