29 August 2017

Urban Hymns at 20: DiS meets Nick McCabe

Urban Hymns, The Verve's legendary breakthrough album, turns 20 next month. Released on 29 September 1997, Urban Hymns was the band's third long player, and was recorded amidst band tensions between October 1996 and May 1997 that had already resulted in them breaking up after 1995's second album A Northern Soul.

Having initially reformed without guitarist Nick McCabe in the early part of 1996 before welcoming him back into the fold in January 1997, it went onto become their most revered body of work. Spawning three top ten singles including a number one in 'The Drugs Don't Work', Urban Hymns has sold over ten million copies worldwide and is regarded as a landmark of the Britpop era.

In a rare interview with DiS, McCabe talks us through the making of the record and subsequent split, their short lived second reunion in 2007, and the numerous projects he's working on at this moment in time.

DiS: Urban Hymns is 20 years old in September. It doesn't seem that long ago to me. Is that the same for you?

Nick McCabe: It doesn't really, no. I think that's a function of getting older though, really! It's unfortunate isn't it? I'm still about 16 in my mind. It's a funny one because people ask me all the time whether I listen to it much and I don't really. It's part of the ongoing process of making music. I don't make any distinction between being 14 and playing with an echo tape and synthesizer. It's all part of the same story. I've got used to those time spans being talked about but the shock's gone out of it so it really doesn't feel like 20 years ago. 20 years is a long time but that's not how it seems to me. I remember making most of Urban Hymns as well. I read a Robin Guthrie article where he talked about when he stopped all his monkey business and couldn't remember anything afterwards. Yet while he was in the midst of it he could remember every minute. For me, there's certain bits that are etched on my mind whereas other bits are quite foggy.

When the songs for Urban Hymns first started coming together, you weren't part of the band. How did you become involved and what influence did you have on the way the album was shaped?

That's right. The songs that became Urban Hymns started towards the end of A Northern Soul. The jams and that kind of stuff. 'Come On' was really old even then. That dates back about a year before A Northern Soul. 'The Rolling People' as well. They'd both been in gestation for a long time. 'The Drugs Don't Work' was written during A Northern Soul. It went through a couple of lyrical changes. I'm pretty sure it went "The drugs don't work they make ME worse at the time". I think Richard (Ashcroft) was finding his feet as a songwriterin a way he'd never entertained being before. Probably watching the Oasis phenomenon sky rocket he thought I fancy a bit of that. We were in a different world to that at the time. It was probably quite a difficult move for him to pick a guitar up in the first place; it was all new to him. So by the time I'd been sacked and then reinstated, they'd recorded most of those songs several times with different producers. Some of them were great, and there's a couple of things that got ditched which were amazing. For example, there's a version of 'Song For The Lovers' that's really nice and delicate. It was almost a disappointment to me what Richard did to it for his solo record. The version they did before I rejoined was almost like The Las or a Byrds tune, really refined and delicate.

The songs that ended up on Urban Hymns were really quite static when I first heard them. Had they been as amazing as they were when I finished with them I might not have been asked back! But it was one of those things where I knew what I had to do as soon as I heard the demos. Musically, I was in a confident state where I knew what I could bring to the party with them. They were quite obviously unfinished. The Lindsey Buckingham aesthetic was a bit of a touchstone for me in that when someone presents you with a bunch of songs it becomes your job to interpret them in some way. I first heard them at Simon's (Jones) house. When I came back to the band I was sofa surfing and I stopped round at Si's. I was out quite a lot of the time but then we'd come back late at night and listen to what they had. I remember him playing me everything one night. I'd heard rumblings from friends of mine in Wigan who'd somehow got hold of in progress tapes and I think they kept quiet because they didn't want to hurt my feelings. There was a bit of me that didn't want it to be too good because nobody likes to be dispensable. So I was quite satisfied when I could hear exactly what I needed to do to bring the songs to life.

The first two Verve records A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul were written by all four members of the band whereas Urban Hymns was predominantly written by Richard Ashcroft. Was there a different dynamic making that album to what you'd experienced previously?

That's a contentious point because this is his revisionist slant on it. If you want to talk about what songwriting is per se they originated with four chords on an acoustic guitar, but if you want to talk about the music that was created around them that's a band construction. It wasn't that much different from the processes that went into the earlier records. We all developed ideas on the spot and things happened additively. The same thing happened with Urban Hymns, so every bit of music you hear - all those different parts that make up the record - they weren't products of Richard's mind. We dressed the acoustic guitar and the voice. So I'm not particularly happy about that revisionist version of events because I know what my part was in making that record. A lot of those tracks bare his name because we had a manager who encouraged that line of thinking at the time.

Did that play a big part in the breakdown of your relationship with Richard?

There seems to be this impression that we were always fighting but if anything that's the inverse of what the situation was like. What generally happened with the band from day one until the end was that nothing ever got talked about. There were never tensions as such but there were unresolved issues so if there was any kind of spark to ignite, anything vaguely explosive, it created this huge powder keg that could go off at any time. What finally finished the band was one incident in 1998. That's a whole story in itself.

What happened?

Basically, I had glandular fever and was advised by our management to visit a private GP who said I should take two months off. Then somehow I got coerced into going on tour anyway despite me saying it's the least wise thing I can do at this moment in time. Because I was so ill I was also self-medicating; by the time of the tour I was an absolute wreck and we only got one date into it anyway. I was a mess all day but managed to play this blinding gig and made a flippant comment when we came off stage. "Well amazingly that was a really good gig." Richard exploded and threw a beer bottle at my head so it all kicked off and that was the end of the band from that moment really. Previous to that, I've said elsewhere that our relationship was probably better than it had ever been from day one. Richard in particular was on good form for the whole of that year. I don't think he could have made a record like that had he not been in the state of mind he was, open and generous of spirit. It comes through on the record. That's what people connected with. And he was very easy to be around in those days. More so than on A Northern Soul. That album marked the point where everybody went a bit nuts and wanted more apart from me.

So by the time of Urban Hymns, both Richard and Si had come back from the brink ego wise. They'd learned some humility which they probably didn't have around the time we were making A Northern Soul. The chemical intake probably had a lot to do with that as well. They'd mitigated that somewhat by '97. By the time we'd finished making the album the common thread through it was dysfunction. We were a bunch of people who were unwilling to talk about things. I say a bunch of people but I think Richard more so than the rest of us was never forthright or assertive enough to lay out his case about what it is he needs. What then happens is you get these unresolved issues and people get shoved out. It could be me one year, Si another, then our management gets ditched via a phone call so you have this accumulation of problems that by the time he wants to revisit an area it has become poisoned ground. It's a little bit too easy to say it was down to tensions; it was more that we were in the machine by then and anybody that tried to put the breaks on fell foul of the framework around it. I view the whole history of that band as being the fall guy for what basically were just PR stunts really. It's irritating, but its less irritating than it used to be.

Do you think if that incident hadn't happened on that tour The Verve would have carried on and continued making records?

It's very hard to say but a couple of days after Richard rang me on New Year's Day in '97 to say he'd made a record that was obviously turning into a Verve record. And that it wasn't The Verve without me and he was going to go solo so would I come back? What happened after that incident was they went on tour anyway. They took B.J. Cole with them then got to the last date in the States and Si and Pete (Salisbury) found out about a minute before going on stage that it was going to be their last American date forever basically. Richard had been sorting out a solo contract and he'd just signed it. He'd signed up for a commitment of albums as a solo artist and ostensibly that was the end of The Verve. So what you can say to a certain degree is they'd been sorting that out all the way along. How long they'd been sorting it out who knows? I look at the year I was away between A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns and think the record company was overjoyed to see the back of me. That was the reason they piled £2 million into the band. They thought they were getting this superstar unhindered from the prog rock associations which they probably saw as some kind of issue for the band. Retrospectively, those first two albums set the scene and in their minds they probably thought they wouldn't get a difficult record in the absence of me. In my mind that's something they were conceivably angling for from day one.

How do you feel about The Verve being lumped in with Britpop by some people?

It's a double edged sword. It's something I find really funny but also a bit tragic. It also served us well, by virtue of our association with Oasis. They were our support band in the early days. I heard their tape and decided we were going to take them on tour with us. But very very quickly they just eclipsed us so it went from them being our mates to them dropping our names. Had that not happened there'd have been less of an audience for Urban Hymns. I don't necessarily think of them as a Britpop band either. Or at least they weren't then. Maybe they came to personify it later on but at the time I thought of bands like Sleeper and Menswear as Britpop. I've changed my opinion of Blur over time because Damon Albarn has emerged as a genius, which no one would have expected back then. It's a weird one. I saw a post on Facebook recently saying it's not that different to Schlager in that it was just safe music for white folks. It's a bit disappointing really because the other faction of Verve fans will say we got them into Can and Funkadelic and I love hearing that because that's what our mission was about first and foremost. We were all just digging for music. We wanted the best and it was hard to find a lot of obscure stuff back then pre-Internet. That's what got us through years of no success. We only did it because we loved it in the first place. Watching the effect Britpop had on music in general, turning it into some kind of armchair football manager, it's just puntersville. It's not what I wanted for this band and it hindered us as well as giving us the break we needed.

The band got back together in 2007, released Forth the following year then broke up again in 2009. What pre-empted that reunion?

Forth is another soapbox of mine. I think it's the best record we made and if we'd carried on from Urban Hymns and made a flurry of records in between that and Forth I think people would have a different opinion of that album. It's fairly close to A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns but compared to A Storm In Heaven, it may as well be a different band. Also, we were very young when we wrote those first three records, and we were very young for our age as well. We weren't just numerically youn, we were mentally young too! Backward in a lot of ways. Forth's the most natural thing we did and it's the least mannered of our records as well. It was also a joy to make it for the most part. I've got my own potted theories on why halfway through Richard decided he didn't want any part of it anymore. I don't think it was personal reasons either. I think his habits had changed and therefore his mindset changed. He'd obviously slipped back into old habits.

I just remember laughing most of the time making Forth. We used to have tequila every Wednesday and I remember seeing Chris Potter's face drop every time he saw it come out! Amazing things came out of it; 'Love Is Noise' came out of a tequila night. Lots of strange things happened on that session and when I look back retrospectively, the writing was already on the wall. We'd all be saying we should get a studio so we can record in it any time then Richard would send Pete in to pass on the information that we do realise this is only a temporary arrangement. We just thought it was Pete being Pete at the time, getting the message garbled or something. But obviously, there was an agenda at work from day one. As time wore on, and Richard's state of mind changed, he got less and less comfortable with the project in general; it was to all intents and purposes doomed. There was a time when we played the Roundhouse where Si and Richard had this almighty argument and that was it. It was the same situation that we had back in 1998. This almighty shitstorm happened and there was no coming back from that and we didn't.

The year that it all came unstuck the last time is the one I jokingly referred to as the year I learned to squint. Several things happened to me personally that I just had to reinterpret as being for the best. It managed to erase the history for me, reframe it in a way that I felt we wrapped it up as best we possibly could. We finished at V Festival and it was absolutely pissing it down. I remember walking around with Si and we congratulated each other because we'd made a point of it. It had become so difficult by then that we were just going to try and maintain our sanity and do the best we could. It was a shame we finished in a way because I don't think we ever played any better than we did on that tour. Everything work wise was a success but the personal aspect of it was hideous. By the time we finished V in Stafford we were glad to have got through it really. People's attempts to sabotage it didn't work. The band was too important to us to allow it to slip into something resembling a sham.

Do you see The Verve ever playing together again?

I don't know if there is much appetite for ever doing it again. I've always had this situation with Pete where I've wanted to play with him again. Every time The Verve's finished I've said to him let's go and do something. But that's politics because he's known Richard will be calling him up but that's not an issue any more. I'm able to play with Pete again now and what's great about that is every time we play together new things happen. It's still there really. That's the exciting thing about every time we've reformed. We've never reformed for the sake of it. We genuinely feel a magic being together. Personally we're all very different people but when we play together it's something else.

You recently played a show with Pete, Martin Blunt from The Charlatans and Denise Johnson at Kendal Calling. How did that come about and will there be more shows and maybe even a record in the future?

We've been talking about doing stuff for ages. Me, Si, and Pete met up at Jodrell Bank because it's a midpoint for us geographically now. We were just chatting about what we should do, but Si's really hard to pin down with his other commitments so it's not really become a practical reality yet. So Pete said he had this drum clinic thing. He has this knack of taking simple information and making it seem more complicated than it is which turned out to be that thing for Tim Peaks at Kendal Calling. In my mind I was helping him out doing a drum clinic until about three days before when he said actually it's not really a drum clinic! It's this other thing. At first Si wasn't available for it so we just did it with me and Pete which sounded amazing on its own. I had some gadgets rigged up so I could just fill in for Si and play guitar at the same time. Then at the eleventh hour I got a phone call from Pete saying Martin (Blunt) would like to get involved. I did something with Martin and Jon from The Charlatans a few years back. It was everybody from the band bar Mark and Tim basically. They did some music with Bob Geldof's wife Jeanne Marine which was really good so I know those guys from that and also my other half because she's worked with them. So I said let's just check it works first so we booked half an afternoon in and it was fine.

Then we bumped into a guy there who said he'd been talking to Denise (Johnson) that afternoon. I had another chance meeting with Denise when I was working on the Shadow Party record. It's the two new guys from New Order and Devo, Tom Chapman, Josh Hager and various other people. I was playing guitar for them and I just bumped into Denise for the first time and hit it off with her straight away. She's just the nicest person you're ever likely to meet. So I'd been toying with the idea of what I could do with Denise for a long time now and I always thought if we were gonna do any Verve tunes they'd have to be completely different. The idea of getting some mod guy in to replace Richard's not appealing to me and when I heard her sing some of the bigger, evil things that we used to do it worked really well. Plus when she came and did 'The Rolling People' she'd literally only heard that tune for the first time. She didn't need anything on paper to remember the lyrics either which was amazing. She just blew us all away, so I'd like to do some more work with Denise. I think it would be really easy and of a high quality as well. It would be like family too. One thing we did learn from Forth is no matter what's happening on the periphery you need to make sure you keep your sanity. I used to always make a point of going out and doing normal stuff when we were touring A Northern Soul instead of staying backstage and getting stoned. As fun as that is for a couple of years its the undoing of every band eventually. Everyone I've kept in touch with through working in music are all fundamentally nice people and that's so important. You need to be able to function

Tell me about the Shadow Party record? How did you become involved in that?

It's a social media thing really. I got chatting to a couple of those guys through Facebook and they invited me to go down and meet them. Which I did for coffee one day. It was the first time I'd met them face to face and we've been friends ever since. It just so happened they were making a record with a lot of different people and asked me if I'd like to be involved. Steve Perry from Journey is on it alongside loads of other bizarre and interesting people. I'm part of a cast of thousands! It's an ever revolving door. I've done seven tracks with them now. I've played so much on the record I didn't actually realise how much came out of it. I've also been working with Emit Bloch on some new tracks as well. We have about two albums worth of material ready to go.

When are the records coming out?

Shadow Party just got signed to Mute so that should be out any time soon. The Emit Bloch stuff I'm not really sure about to be honest. He was talking about making it a gallery release for a while so he's still formulating his idea what to do with it. I think he might have been with Mute himself at one point? I guess it'll come out when it comes out. I did some stuff with Amorphous Androgynous and Future Sound Of London last year that's steadily dripping out. There's some more in the pipeline there. I'm doing some stuff with Stella Grundy. A live slot for her. I don't know which dates I'm doing yet because they got put back. It was originally supposed to be August and now they've been rescheduled for September. I literally play on one tune off that album so whether I just do the one spot in Manchester is probably most likely. I'm just waiting to find out.

The last time you spoke to Drowned In Sound in 2011 you said Black Ships were the best band you'd ever played with. Do you still stand by that statement?

Yeah, I still believe that to be the case. We had to change the name to Black Submarine and we put out an album which I'm guessing you haven't heard?

I haven't.

It's the one album I'm most proud of. It's the album I'm happy to leave to the world if I die now. It came out in 2013. It was one of those records where I thought I couldn't give a shit if this doesn't sell because I know its the best thing I've ever done. That set of people, we were like family as well. It's difficult really with that band because we came unstuck logistically. Just the cost of going on tour. We toured with Echo And The Bunnymen a few years back but then once (Ian) McCulloch got up to his tricks we started to see dates being cancelled all over the shop, so very quickly ended up in a £5k hole which finished us financially. So now we're quite reluctant to address Black Submarine as a live band any more. There's loads of stuff in the tank. But given that Dav (Rossi) lives between LA and Copenhagen, then the rest of us are all quite dispersed around the UK; Amelia's (Tucker) just moved to Devon, I'm in the Midlands, Si's (Jones) up in Chester and Mig (Schillace) is in Bristol so it costs us a fortune to meet up in the first place. Then getting Dav over for gigs immediately adds a few grand on top of that. What I've been looking at is doing small formed versions of gigs where whoever's available comes and does it. But I'm not sure how I'd feel as a punter seeing that? If you've paid your money you really want to see the full band. So I'm sat on a big vat of material not really knowing what to do with it and Dav's really busy at the moment. I've carried on working sporadically with Amelia for the past couple of years, so there's quite a lot of material that's just me and her. There's other full band contributions as well, but with regards to touring that stuff there's only really three of us that want to do it now. It's difficult really so I might not get to reinvent what that unit is.

Are there any other projects you've been working on recently?

I've been trying to unblock my entire back catalogue. Even before I picked up a guitar I always had sound making gadgets which I used to record. Most of my time is dedicated to making electronic music. I've got vast amounts of the stuff and it's what I do with every bit of free time I get. So I've set myself a task of unblocking it and making it coherent. In some bizarre way it will represent all the different kinds of music that I've made from the bath time ambient stuff to the more evil side of what I do. But I'm reluctant to let any of them out before they're all ready to go. I'd like it to all come out at the same time so people can be equally confused by it! It wipes the slate clean as well, because I only picked up the guitar out of bloodymindedness really then ended up playing it for twenty odd years. So I'd really like to readdress the balance with that. I'm planning to put out five albums simultaneously through Bandcamp. Then after that it's going to be a continual flow of stuff. The problem I have is finding time to actually revisit everything. I've mastered two of them and have three more to go. Because there's years and years worth of material to choose from it's about cherry picking what I have rather than overthinking it so it's quite a big task. But then while I'm doing that I'm still writing and recording new material as well, which is good but not exactly addressing the blockage either! Bandcamp is great as well because it's easily accessible and you can treat it like an archivist's platform as well. I wanted an outlet for the jam stuff I've done over the years with The Verve as well and Bandcamp would have been the perfect avenue for that. It's great because you can take your time about how you present stuff. It's the format I was waiting for.

It's certainly given artists an opportunity to get their music out there which 20 years ago they may not have been able to do.

A couple of people have said to me put it on vinyl. Do it properly. But I don't want to do that because essentially what I've been doing is keeping a diary of music. Also, people would come to it with expectations but it's not about big tunes. It's about mood.

Are there any new bands you're especially proud of currently continuing the legacy which The Verve left behind?

I do a lot of work lecturing in academia these days so tend not to listen to that much new music unless I'm in the van. I've been listening to a lot of Amon Duul II and King Crimson quite a lot recently. I'm a creature of habit when it comes to music. I listen to my music a lot while I'm making it. I did this thing in Manchester a few years back with Damo Suzuki and Jeff Wootton, and a lot of people came up to me at the gig to say thank you for influencing me. I had one of those moments that was like - oh my children are beautiful! Exit Calm and Maupa are probably the two bands whose albums have blown me away in recent years. They were the best things I'd heard in ages. It's difficult to keep up to be honest. I can't think of anyone else off the top of my head.

What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?

Don't! I watch musicians on You Tube quite a lot and I see this continual thing of people who are genius virtuosos and they've taught themselves. The case almost permanently is that they're working during the day and making music is their passion. Yet that's where the interesting stuff is coming from. In some ways I feel it's a huge tragedy because these are the same people that can't afford to take months off work and go on tour. They've made something really brilliant but when it comes to the practicalities of going out there and supporting it, they can't. My advice would be you have to follow your own compass. The only thing that will get you through doubt is knowing that you're true to your mission. When your confidence is low you need to be able to say to yourself I'm doing the best I possibly can. That can be enough to get you through sometimes. The one thing that everyone has got and can use if they choose to is authenticity, so you can tell when somebody is doing something that's authentically their own, even when they've been influenced by things