01 September 2017

The Verve's Nick McCabe reflects on Urban Hymns 20 years after its release

The inimatable guitarist also speaks in detail about The Verve's split, the magic of the early years + his restless creative spirit

The Verve’s Urban Hymns turns 20 today (September 1) and it remains one of the most extraordinary albums of all time.

It was the band's third album and followed the excellent, more psychedelic first two albums A Storm In Heaven and A Northern Soul. The combination of Nick McCabe’s guitar wizardry with frontman Richard Ashcroft’s block chords and goosebump-inducing lyrics is at the heart of the masterpiece.

Cuts from this album such as ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Sonnet’ and ‘Lucky Man’ are known by even the most fleeting of music fans. The more concise nature of the song structure and universal themes in the lyrics brought along the kind of mainstream success that's rarely repeated by a guitar band from the UK. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Oasis and The Verve can all be held in the same breath. They are, ultimately, one of the greatest bands Britain soil has produced.

Unfortunately, as soon as Urban Hymns was released, existing cracks in Ashcroft and McCabe’s relationship widened, and the band soon went to ashes. Ashcroft marched forth with a solo career before briefly reforming The Verve in 2007. To this day, since their formation in the early 90s, they've only managed four albums and a reunion looks very unlikely.

In a revealing interview with Gigwise, Nick McCabe goes into specifics of being sacked from the band not once but twice. He talks about getting Urban Hymns companion material blocked by Richard Ashcroft, on making music in the early days, Ashcroft’s “bloody-minded” genius as a lyricist, and how success bended his approach. Discover this and more below:

Gigwise: How are you? I’ve heard from a friend that you’re working on some new releases?

Nick McCabe: I am, I’ve got five projects to get out on to Bandcamp. Before I took up guitar I used to mess about with synths and tape machines, and there’s a huge archive of that stuff. It’s what I do from day-to-day really. I very rarely pick up the guitar. I took it up just to see if I could and just stuck with it. I thought, if I put a small chunk of ambient stuff, or whatever, it would confuse people. Instead, I’ll just confuse everybody with a broad sampling of what I did so I’m putting it all out together.
Great to hear. Will this be the first time you put something out under your name?

It will. I was going to put of it around the time of Urban Hymns reissue ... Because at the time of Urban Hymns coming out, what I thought we should be doing is diversifying the sense of the band. All the jams that we did back then are the missing CDs from the boxset actually… Anybody who’s come all the way with us from A Storm In Heaven probably still wants that stuff.
You mentioned the extra information that isn't quite out there. I remember in an interview I found on Reddit you said there is a track called ‘All Ways Are Maybes’ and that it’s “the best thing you ever did.”

Yeah! See, there is this CD… But I'm really pissed off about that because everybody okayed this extra CD of new material from the time of Urban Hymns, and ‘All Ways Are Maybes’ is one of the last things we recorded in that batch of sessions. It was recorded at Metropolis studios and I think it probably pointed the way to what we would have done next, had there been a next.

It got lost and then Chris Potter went and unearthed it and everybody was really ecstatic about it. Then Richard came in - the very last guy to come and input into the boxset… and he vetoed it instantly. I was fucking furious.

It runs counter to his narrative. I think he’s so wrapped up in this notion of Urban Hymns being his solo album and the existence of that CD probably rankles with him. It proves he was in a band who were prolifically creative at the time, so...

I did get a sense about that side of Richard – you mentioned at some point in an interview that he was in his own film. I see that as always pursuing his ideas and not necessarily in the most courteous or compassionate ways.

I think that’s pretty much it. That’s a generous way of looking at it… I don’t think he’s ever really changed that attitude and that attack on life really. He said that openly many times: ‘I’m in my own movie’. It’s a drugs thing as well. I think Richard’s core philosophy is if he chooses to do something within a certain framework that is his reality. He’s written his own script and he’s living by that script for better and for worse, and so other people don’t tend to feature very much in that script unfortunately.

It’s quite an alienating thing if you’re close to someone like that?

It is. The net result is that one of the other band members - who I won’t name - ended up having to go for counselling because of that. It’s basically a personality disorder, it’s not something that’s easy to deal with.

You were sacked from The Verve in 1995 and the 1997 reformation didn’t last. What was the reason for the demise of The Verve each time?

In 1995 I got sacked for straightening out – I’d stopped smoking as well. I went and got a course of Prozac to sort my head out because I had a daughter to bring up and in that process of getting me head straight...  I wasn’t doing late nights any more and they were at the time as they’d just moved to Manchester and I was bringing a kid up. I was generally an embarrassment to the band from their perspective. I got a phone call from Richard saying, ‘I don’t want to do it any more - that’s the end of the band'. Then he went and reformed it later on with everybody but me.

So I had to chew on that for a year and thought about having to see The Verve on MTV without me in it, and I had to ready for that moment. By the time I did get invited back I probably prepared myself for it really. I lost the burden of dignity back then. I became very blasé about it. My relationship with the mother of my daughter also fell through in 1995. So I went out and did what most 25-year-olds were doing. I went out and got wrecked all the time.

What happened the second time you split with The Verve? Wasn’t it during a tour in France that it happened?

I told them I wasn’t going on that tour. On [manager] Jazz Summer’s recommendation I’d been to see a doctor and he did all the blood test on me and found I had glandular fever. I had it a long time and I was caning it at the time. The doctor said if you carry on working you’re going to have a problem dealing with it so for next two months at least you need to cancel tour.

I told the band I had glandular fever and that I was really fucked but they managed to talk me back into it. They both individually came around to me - I was at my girlfriend's at the time - and I saw the practical reality of it and went on tour. But I was an absolute cabbage.

By the time I got to the south of France I was in a right old state but still managed to do a blinding gig. But I think Richard had just had enough at that point and ended up throwing a beer bottle at my head, to which I fucking exploded! So I don’t think anybody had seen me explode before then. Despite nobody getting hurt, it was unpleasant for them to realise they’d been sitting on a powder peg and I was capable of that kind of anger.

That particular night rather than kicking the shit out of anybody – which I felt like doing - I went into another room and threw things about for a bit. That was it really. Because we weren’t that kind of band that did big arguments he couldn’t face me really. There was some element of bad consciousness as well.

When did they say we need to go separate ways?

It was never discussed. I just remember having phone calls. [Bass guitarist] Simon [Jones] was living in North London and Jazz Summers used to phone me every day. He was basically trying to get me to flip out and say, ‘I quit’, but I never did. They went on tour anyway without me when they came back I got the story from Si that Richard had sorted out a solo deal and made the announcement on the last day of the American tour. He was going solo and that was the end of The Verve.

When the announcement in 1999 came there was no discussion, it was just left dangling. It was actually a relative at my Nan’s funeral who said, ‘I just heard your band split up on the radio this morning’ and nobody had been in touch since to say anything. I had given up on it really. It’s just one of those things the sort of sense of betrayal that made be shelve it initially all together.

Getting back together must have been a surprise?

It was [Drummer} Pete [Salisbury] that did the phone call later on. I can’t help but think after the incident where Richard stormed through the youth club, there must have been a discussion in the camp to the effect of, 'your solo career is finished now. Let’s do this for a bit and see if that makes any repairs to the situation.'

I have never really had in my mind to not go back to it. I’ve got way too much invested in it. It’s been my life really. Doing that thing with Pete the other week, I went and played with Pete for zero pounds.

Pete’s been doing an amazing job with The Charlatans.

He’s gone from being someone who just started playing drums when we first got signed and he’s a fucking monster now. He’s one of the greatest drummers in the UK probably.

You had a post-punk ethos at the start, like learn on the job?

We were all like that. I missed that everyone is so accomplished these days, which is nice to hear, but a bit of soul inevitably gets lost with that as well.

The early stuff feels deeply expressive, and effortlessly taps into beauty. I imagine you were all skint and wholeheartedly committed?

It is that cheesy and that romantic really, and we did live for it. We were driving around in Si’s knackered Ford Fiesta and listening to tunes, or I used get the 320 bus from where I lived with my folks to Wigan all the time, and I was constantly thinking about this thing we were creating. But it’s quite difficult to sort of put that into context now because I don’t think music is as important now as it was to us then. It was our culture and we took it deadly serious; we were in vacuum really.

We’d go down to London and get slightly patronized by the Camden cockney-centric as the Northern boys who were slightly wet-behind-the-ears. And it sort of strengthened our resolve and dependency of what we did. I think those moments when you’re creating something bigger yourself and the four of you, a lot of musicians will talk about this feeling of the music coming through you and it was definitely that feeling.

It goes without saying that Richard’s lyrics are an outstanding aspect of The Verve. He’s very much saying what he thinks and feels.

Richard’s strength as a lyricist has always been in his brutality, really. Some of the lyrics are painfully honest. I think he learned a profitable but damaging lesson with Urban Hymns; if you turn your own personal narrative into a universal narrative you might have people connect to it, but you lose the honesty of your own thing.

Maybe this has been a cross for him to burn in later years. He does censor himself. I’ve actually seen him censor himself on Forth and had the discussion with him saying, 'you need to go with what the initial lyric was really'.

Was he more free-thinking before?

I think he was more bloody-minded and had less to lose. He was sort of pragmatic and by the time he got to Forth he had a wife and kids, he couldn’t be revealing with darker corners of how he looked at stuff. One of his really amazing gifts is to be able to sing his feelings and make it into music there and then; we saw that time and time again and some of it could be disconnected from his train of thought. I look back on the lyrics on the first two records and I don’t hear hippy-dippy gobble-di- gook, I hear some brutal honesty.

If you look at David Lynch nobody has an issue with that, they accept that it’s that non-linear style. Richard is the master of that. I think in a lot of ways he’s turned his back on that and he’s aware of how much it reveals of his own subconscious. Forth is a lesson in frustration in that some of his best lyrics didn’t make it to the record because they were just too close to the bone really. There was no talking him out of it. There were bits that he wanted sanitizing and that’s what happened.

It must be mental knowing someone with that lyrical ability? We just hear a part of his full ability.

It’s moments… the records don’t do it justice. This is the funny thing talking about records specifically... to me it’s a continuum really. From messing about in my bedroom at 14-years-old with bits of gadgets, to now, and all the stuff that’s in between... the records are just the artefact. Just watching him progress and that sort of magic, us three people watch music come from nowhere…

Was The Verve improvisational throughout?

The thing about Urban Hymns was most started on acoustic guitar with voice. We’d learned to harness it by then rather than being this wielding uncontrollable process.

Remastering it, so many people will hear the detail in it. It is very psychedelic and inventive, and sonically very refined and interesting to hear.

The instructions I was given was to fuck it up. My kind of mission was to make thing a feast for the ears whether that meant being multi-layered or being gripping in a linear fashion. I was always keen to make sure you got something new out of it every time you went back. And though I'm not sure, when I’m asked to describe what kind of music I made, I always do comeback to psychedelic and cinematic, but in some respect it’s selling it short as I’m basically providing enough detail for myself…

How do you communicate with Richard’s singing through your guitar?

One of my techniques is to undermine what he’s doing. When he’s playing these lovely block chords - that’s against my ethos, that, really – so I will play stuff to negate the effect of that really.

Richard once conceded in a televised interview with MTV that if you take one piece of the Verve puzzle out then it all falls apart. Do you think he would have anticipated what a brutal mistake it was to take you out?

I don’t think he was capable at the time of thinking in terms of the kind of social ecology of a band. And that’s ultimately that’s his big failing. It’s funny because he’s a brilliant chess player but he doesn’t move the heads and think of the consequences. How he interacts with people… it probably started with me, but eventually he got a cast of thousands of people, whether he pissed off members of press or his own crew.

What did you do in the time between getting sacked the first time and getting invited back?

I was actually fairly relieved. The first thing I did was shave my head completely bald. It was like shedding a previous life. I thought, at least I’ve not invested fuck loads of years in it and I’ve got to struggle back to normality again. So I went and enrolled on an electronics course and was going to become a sparky. I had a daughter at the time. I was spending my time between my folks and with her. My now ex, Ellie’s mum, got a council flat in Wigan and by doing that she then forfeited her support network.

I had to become the live-in dad then. That free agent aspect, relying on the parents, those days immediately finished. I had to pack in the course to be a live-in dad. A few months later my ex decided she had had enough and told me to leave. It was the usual story, she was trying to get some kind of reaction but I thought this is it and got myself a horrible little bedsit and reconnected with the friends I put on backburner whilst I had been a live-in dad.

I was 25 at the time and I was young for my age. I wasn’t ready to be a dad at that age. I was suddenly gifted back my freedom. So began doing demos for the band Witness. Ray Chan [guitarist from Wigan band Witness] was a friend of mine.

And you were a year older than the rest of The Verve?

I was there a year before they arrived I had already set up my band then I’d heard Richard singing and invited him to be in my band basically. But Ray Chan got his thing together with Gerard [lead singer of Witness].

I happened to sell Gerard my four-track tape machine whilst I had been living at my ex’s and this little jigsaw came together. I ended up being their engineer, if you like, and then introducing them to Tim Vigon who signed and managed them for a while.

And all the way through that I had a tape machine [to create his own material]. I have just for the tapes back from that year actually. I was misguidedly still sending things to Virgin thinking they might be interested. It was electronic dark ambient stuff. It’s electronic. I’m an ex-breakdancer. Electronic music is part of my culture really.

Great! I look forward to seeing the new releases on Bandcamp.

In the meantime, The Verve's reissue - without the CD with 'All Ways Are Maybe's' is still an impressive thing to have - a must for any fan