27 March 2017

Richard Ashcroft on His Next Act, What Happened With the Rolling Stones, and What Spinal Tap Got Right About Rock ’n’ Roll (Nearly Everything)

Photo: Getty Images

Richard Ashcroft is back. In fact, the former lead singer of The Verve and the songwriter behind “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” “The Drugs Don’t Work,” and a host of other anthemic tunes that defined a certain era a score ago is in the midst of an ongoing world tour. It has been nine years since the group's last record (last year he released the solo project These People). In advance of his stop tonight at Manhattan’s Terminal 5, we rang him up at his London home to catch up on what we’ve missed.

What the hell have you been doing for the past six years? I’ve read reports that you’d given up smartphones and were living off the grid.

We all have a different idea of what it is to be “away.” People don’t do something on Instagram for a few hours or a few days and they’re worried about it—try coming back after six years and see if people remember you! I’ve never stopped being creative, but my kids have been growing up and going to school and I think if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity to be with your family—not that they think I’m an amazing dad or anything. . . I know a lot of men who’ve had regrets about their chosen vocation estranging them from their families in order for them to provide for their families—a kind of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman thing. That play had a big effect on me—Arthur Miller and Orwell and a few other writers gave me a big understanding of what I’d do with my life.

Is it a weird feeling to be coming to the U.S. this time given recent events in, shall we say, the “ongoing national conversation”?

It’s a great time to be coming to America, because I feel the record can really make sense now, even more so than last year. It’s not about politics—music should transcend that. Music is about getting in touch with that human side, realizing that we’re one and the same. You don’t go to a concert for politics—you go to smash the cage that’s around us; you’re going for a show.

Do you think music today is really capable of achieving those kind of grand ambitions?

There’s a great question that I can’t really answer, but it has to do with how many true human voices there are out there that are talking about the world we actually live in today. It’s not about protest records—it’s about putting a mirror to yourself and the time we’re in. I still look to hip-hop and electronic music to take up that mantle, and the genre has done a good job of reflecting that, but I’d really like the rock world to accept that challenge again and take it to a fresh new place. It’s not 1970-something anymore; Jimi Hendrix died a long time ago, and we’re still spending too much time listening to dead people.

I see the way Drake approaches his career musically, and that’s the healthiest thing for me, I think—just release things when they’re ready, and get out there and play when you want to. I have the ability, if I want to, to go anywhere in the world with just six strings, and I’m very fortunate to be able to do that.

You’ve changed your look rather drastically—goodbye, long-haired poet; hello, skinhead radical. Why?

Part of the excitement of shaving my head—and yeah, the skinhead look comes with a lot of baggage, but I like to play in opposites—and wearing a gas mask and this Swarovski-crystal-embedded jacket is that I want to take rock ’n’ roll to another level. I’ve also got some crazy leather jackets with mirrors and strange things on them—kind of like Scarface meets Alain Delon. We’re in this very safe spot now where people like to cover the bases—sonically, musically, style-wise. I’ve always wanted to bring the barriers down in a human way, with soul. There’s millions of people who want something other than being divided from their neighbors—there has to be something beyond that very tiny mental construct that someone else has given us from birth that we seem to have to abide by. But I’m looking forward to being back and in it again.

I understand that you’re playing a few Verve songs on this tour—which ones, and why some and not others?

The songs that I wrote for Urban Hymns—“Sonnet,” “Lucky Man,” “The Drugs Don’t Work,” “Velvet Morning”—are my kids, and that’s why I play them. I also don’t like not being around for a few years and then, in front of the few people who have remembered me, say, “You know what—I’m not going to play that song that you love.” We’ve got enough to deal with in life without dealing with some petulant artist like that. As for “Bitter Sweet Symphony”—all those legal wrangles still don’t take away the hours I put into it in the studio to create an incredible piece of pop art.

The legal battle—essentially, the Rolling Stones threatened to sue you for sampling a kind of easy-listening cover of one of their songs, yes? Or is it too complicated to explain?

It’s fairly straightforward, really. Allen Klein, the former manager of the Rolling Stones—he’s dead now—owned a company called ABKCO. ABKCO owned the rights to “The Last Time,” by the Rolling Stones. Andrew Loog Oldham, an earlier Rolling Stones manager, did an orchestral version of “The Last Time,” which we sampled. But what’s interesting is that the Staple Singers also did a song called “This May Be the Last Time” a number of years before the Stones did it, and guess what? It’s got the same lyrics and the same melody. But the Staple Singers said it was a traditional song, which means that over many years it’s been passed along through churches and whatever else—like when Simon & Garfunkel did their arrangement of “Scarborough Fair.”

It’s an amazing story: It starts with black musicians, the Staple Singers, doing a traditional song. Years later, the Rolling Stones in London are being locked in a room by their manager and being told to write something original and coming out with “The Last Time,” which is remarkably similar to the Staple Singers. Then we flash 30 years later to a guy in a flat in a town called Bath. I had found the Andrew Oldham record in Manchester, but all I had in Bath was a Dansette, and I just kept playing this little bit where everything kicked in, and the possibilities just seemed incredible. After working on the song for two years on and off, it was finally completed—but when we went to clear the rights, Allen Klein told us that nothing could be sold until I signed away 100 percent of the song. So I was forced to sign “Bitter Sweet Symphony” away for one dollar—including the lyrics as well. I was held to ransom—I don’t know how much I’ve lost, but it’s a huge sum of money.

I had this small flat with my wife, and I smashed my fist through about two doors, proper-like. In hindsight now, though, I think it’s a great movie—something I could see winning Sundance. It’s not made yet, but I want to take it all the way back to the Staple Singers and follow the song’s genesis all the way through to recording “Bitter Sweet” on an SSL desk in London. At a certain point, the people who have control over that song will have to make a moral decision.

It’s almost a self-fulfilling thing with the song’s lyrics, though. I mean, if you’re saying this is what life’s about, you’d better believe it—you’d better feel it. You’re not going to just sing about it and be a rock ’n’ roll star and make loads of money without dealing with the reality that there’s vipers and snakes and vampires all around trying to suck your blood.

I’ve found, though, that if you do manage to make it through a period like that and maintain any kind of sense of self, you can be a lot stronger in the second part of your life. I’ve been married for a number of years to a beautiful wife whom I adore, and I have two lovely lads. But all the clichés of This Is Spinal Tap came true—Spinal Tap didn’t have the success, but everything else in that movie turned out to be exactly right.

How old are your kids?

17 and 13.

Do they know that their dad is a rock star? Do they care?

 I think they care, but it’s not like I’m some old rock dad picking my kids up from school and they’re saying, “Next time you come, can you stop wearing that leather waistcoat and doing that sign of the devil.” [Laughter.] They know a lot of classic tunes and contemporary stuff as well, and over the last decade, a lot of families have been going to gigs and festivals together, and it’s kind of broken down the barriers between generations. Every once in a while I’ll catch my son listening to “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” It’s like when I discovered The Graduate or something like that—it’s easy to forget that you’re not the first one to discover some of these things. But the fact that my son is listening now to what I was doing at Olympic Studios 20 years ago…that’s just amazing.
  • Source: VOGUE, by Corey Seymour