- 11 Sep 19
To celebrate his 48th birthday, we're revisiting Dave Fanning's classic interview with Richard Ashcroft. In this wide-ranging interview, originally published in 1995, Ashcroft talks about drugs, The Verve and his solo album, Alone With Everybody.
DAVE FANNING: So, Richard Ashcroft, it's definitely the solo album is it?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: It is. A frightening prospect. The name my mother gave me, not the name I dreamt up.
You have ideas for all these songs, so you say a choir would go well on that, get them down here. So and so would be good on the guitar . Is that the way it s done?
It is when you've got the opportunity to do that. I always envied the fact that John Lennon wrote Instant Karma and all of a sudden he was in Abbey Road Studios at the click of his fingers. Phil Spector was down there cooking up a classic track. And I always envied that, especially when I didn't have the opportunity to be able to utilise the studio or the imagination I had. It's a money thing. Can you afford to pay for the amount of musicians you may need to make an album like this? That's not necessarily to say an album recorded like this is the be all and end all and the only way you can do it. The next record I might record in two days. But that's the way it has been, yeah. If I wanted vibes or harp or dulcimer or whatever, we found a way of getting it down there and on record.
So you don't miss Splash Studios, then?
Splash Studios, Wigan. No (laughs). But I realise how important it was in the embryonic stage of any band. There needs to be a black hole. The great thing about that place was it offered us the opportunity to create our own club, our own diversion from boredom. That's what music is for a lot of people at first. Creativity is a way of focusing the mind on something other than the wall or day-time TV.
OK. The way you're making this album is it a liberating or a daunting experience? Or is it just album No.4?
In some respects it s a simple step. I don t want to sound like a cliché but it's a natural step for me, a natural transition making this next record. I wanted to utilise more of a studio like I'd done on Urban Hymns. The difference between Urban Hymns and Northern Soul is that we'd gone further into the process of making a record, rather than jamming it, writing it and going in and doing it. Chris Potter had come on board and even now technology has changed from the point when we made Urban Hymns to the end of this record. It's changed within that period drastically. Which is not to say that you should go over the top and laden the tracks too much or be over-produced. The point was for me that so many bands after Urban Hymns stuck a string section on something that was realistically a piece of shit in the first place. And to try and make that into diamonds with a string section was never going to work.
Noel Gallagher would admit that Be Here Now made that mistake exactly. But having said that there s no harm making it sound how you want to make it which is what you're doing now.
It's up to me. It s my vision and me trying to get close to that. And the chaos involved in trying to get there. And the way that the thing you had in your head will never quite happen. It's going to sound a little bit different from what you had imagined anyway. My inspirations have been people like Brian Wilson and the making of Pet Sounds where there s a purity to the song in its very essence. There has to be a purity to a track. There has to be a universal quality in it if I played the track to you now on an acoustic guitar. But beyond that, the world s your oyster. It's up to you then, and your imagination.
What about making mistakes? Is there ever anyone in the studio with you when these songs are being made to perhaps curb your worst excesses?
No. I m my worst critic anyway. I m trying to make music that can be majestic. It can have grandeur without pomposity. If someone started playing a 42-note guitar solo at one point, I d be straight on the case. That situation s never going to happen. I come from a different aesthetic. I come from a different side of the tracks. So it s not going to happen that I need someone . . . I don t believe I need that. I have people around me anyway. It could be my wife. It could be Chris Potter. I m going to listen to what they've got to say. But the way my records are made, they don t get to the point where we say look that section there s utter bombast . Cos that s not the way they're made.
What's it going to be with this album live? Is it going to be Richard Ashcroft and friends?
I don t know. It'll be Richard Ashcroft and the components it takes to make the live experience an intense, powerful, enjoyable celebration. It'll be whoever the people are that it takes to do that. But I've not met some of them yet.
The point is I've asked a couple of questions there, none of which got the answer The Verve , so there's no question you will go out with them. You're Richard Ashcroft now and The Verve's gone.
Without a shadow of doubt. That's it. That s the reality. That's been the reality throughout the whole process of making this record.
You once played at Madison Square Gardens with Oasis, and performed three or four Verve numbers solo. Afterwards you said: 'I felt pretty alone out there'. So how alone do you feel now?
I felt alone out there but you also have to look at that statement and ask was that statement driven by a little bit of fear or was it driven by a guy who wants to reassure the other band members that we re all totally important and as one. This is a band and I m not going off here thinking I'm fucking Elvis. We re a group. One statement can mean a lot of things in hindsight when you look back on it and I think all those emotions are going on in a guy s head when he s out there alone and he s written the songs and he comes from a band who have shared songwriting through jamming and what have you.
Speaking of Elvis, you weren't watching Viva Las Vegas before you wrote Money To Burn were you?
(Laughs) The atmosphere of it when I got it down and the groove we got . . . I mean, John Lennon said himself he had a period when he d do a track and he'd be Len Orbison or someone. He used to name this character, this fusion of his interpretation of Roy Orbison. And it s been like that since time began. You take a certain chunk of inspiration and it morphs into your own personality and it becomes you. It s infusing the spirit of these people rather than just taking it wholesale. It s infusing the spirit of, like, the purity of Elvis s performance when he was saying something universal with a celebration within it. Really it s like trying to bring together heavy psychedelic, country, hip-hop, blues music and rip it into the future as well.
Is it nice not to be the leader of a band now? Is it nice to know you're looking after just Richard Ashcroft?
Yes. I think bands run their course. Bands are things made of the dreams of 15, 16, 17-year-old guys, girls, whatever. And in reality it's very difficult to maintain that relationship when people bring other things to the party and your baggage grows over the years. I've said it before that with bands it s either the dollar or fear that makes them continue for another 10-15 years. It's one of the two.
But didn't you actually break up the band twice before?
No, that's your perception.
OK, you didn't break up the band. The band broke up.
The first time I would definitely say that I was the guy who vocalised 'this is outrageous, I'm not involved in it for a while, whatever'. The second time different people made the decision for me.
The first time round it was a personality thing. You want to get rid of Nick and the nice way to do it is break up the band and when Nick is gone, reform the band.
That s a naive and crude way of putting a very complex human situation that goes beyond me being able to discuss it or analyse it this second now. It's what goes on in your life when you close the door and stop this interview and you're with your wife, lover, your family, the very inner workings of your life. If I was to try and get that out of you now and for you to analyse it, it would be very difficult. And not only difficult, you d feel like you were discussing people that shouldn't be discussed in front of millions of people. You'd feel like you were selling them. And I still feel like that even though we've been through our ups and downs, I can still look back to us playing in Splash Studios and I still, no matter how I feel about them personally now, I still feel like I'm not the guy who's going to say 'his fault, he's a wanker, he's a tosser'. Because that takes everything away from what we've achieved. It's up to them. If they want to get personal . . .
When you get involved in band break-ups and it becomes a public event, it s more embarrassing than anything else. It's melodrama yet within the core of it there s personal problems and it s heavy, but beyond that there's wars and famine and death and disease going on on the News and then suddenly you see someone's left The Spice Girls. That doesn't mean to say that people who d bought tickets for us for festivals in Europe and were waiting for us to arrive weren't totally let down and understandably thought what is the problem with these people. We love these tracks and they are soundtracks to our lives and we wanted to relive this experience with this group and we've bought into this . I was aware that we d let people down but I was also aware that it felt like the clichés that put you in to an episode of Spinal Tap.
So, in general, what happened to you isn't really that much different from any other band we've ever heard of?
Not even bands it s relationships, life. It s only when you ve come through it you see sometimes how unrealistic you might have been in facing the truth and reality. That s what I mean by other bands that seem to continue with amazing longevity. There s a few key bands perhaps that don t come under the banner, but a lot of the time it is the fear of what it would be like without the gang thing and big cheques being wafted in front of people s faces.
Has writing the new songs been the catharsis you've been looking for. Has it worked, your art?
I don t know whether it completely works. I do what I do and I enjoy making music. I enjoy making records. So I did the thing that every guy in my situation does, they go straight back into whatever they do. Straight back into work and it takes that part of your mind off dwelling on shit. If you've got that opportunity, use it.
There's a song on the album called You On My Mind . If I said these two names first came to mind when I first heard it, would you say, great or hold on a minute there ? Glen Campbell and Burt Bacharach.
Yeah. I'd be honoured to have those names associated with my music.
Dave from Hut Records said something along the lines of you wouldn't get the first Verve album unless you had the albums that influenced it in your own collection and really knew them . What influences are we talking about here?
For me music started happening a bit later in life. Some people it seems were listening to great music when they were in their mother s womb. For me it was a lucky twist of fate and peers behind every band there s always the guy who s stealing money to get records and bring them back to the group to turn you on. And then the people who get turned on go on to make the music. I had a lot of that going on. At the time of the first band it was The Smiths and earlier on in my life there had been characters in the 70s I admired, like Neil Young. I also enjoyed what I d now consider shite pop. I think I enjoyed as a child the immediacy of good, old-fashioned faceless pop. When I got to about 15, 16 a whole new wealth of music flooded through. And those years before we made our first album were really our education as far as musicians and listeners and appreciators. And once you start making and start becoming aware of the mechanics of being in a band or being a musician, you suddenly start hearing these tracks that you've heard on one level in totally different ways and your appreciation goes further. You re looking for the essence of these people. You re not looking for the riffs, the style, the look, you re listening for the essence and why they re connecting with these people.
Because you didn't have older siblings you couldn't raid their record collections. But you do have two younger sisters, so is there any very bad disco or something you d like to confess a fondness for?
I love the Bee Gees, definitely. But no, my main motivation in life was playing football. That s what consumed my time until a few key points . . . music was the soundtrack to life but I wouldn't go out and buy a new single every single week. It was there but it wasn't truly in my life.
You got George Best to collect your Brit Award. What age were you when he was happening?
He was probably playing for Luton or somebody.
He was well gone from Manchester United.
Yes. I was born in 1971. It does' t mean to say that you can t get inspired by someone who wasn't of my generation. I went to the Bobby Charlton Football holiday school when I was a kid and someone working for him said Georgie Best was a dickhead or whatever. I remember hearing that and thinking you've turned me right off this straight away . Because there s an essence of Georgie Best in all of us. He personified true art, true expression and a lust for life. You can say now it had a negative effect on his career, perhaps. But at the end of the day he was Georgie Best and who are we to criticise? He did it. He scored those goals.
You've other heroes too like Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. Why them?
They've got a natural ability and a hunger to want their work to have some value. And they've also got total natural ability. They have presence and tap into something that 99% of actors can t do. They touch on areas that make them truly great. Do you know what I mean? Like any of these people who just have slightly more than the rest of the pack.
When you were at school and they asked you what you wanted to do, did you say football or a rock n roller?
Music at that point. I said I want to be in a band and it s the classic thing of who s in the band . And I d say I don t know who the band is , so it s cue laugh, big discussion. But when I attempted A levels and left the A level exam and they managed to get hold of me, this teacher said I've got a nephew who s in Soho. He s an artist and he s out on the streets, he s poverty-stricken. It s got him nowhere . And I was thinking at the time this is too clichéd for my cheap film biopic . It s almost too obvious. Why don t you just say go for it, you re going to be the biggest rock star in the world .
And presumably Wigan offered a limited opportunity in that regard?
I think I had no other choice but to leave Wigan due to my own personal shit. But if you've got an opportunity to see the world and experience other things, you've got to embrace that. That s not to say that at certain points when you are on the other side of the world, and you haven t got a network of family around you, you don t sometimes think that old town had a lot to offer .
Your mum had a job as a hairdresser. Did you hang around there at all?
I used to go there every Friday chips, battered mushrooms and gravy in the tiny staff room.
And a different haircut every week?
A different bizarre haircut that went wrong every week. Elvis one week, so black it was blue. White another week . . .
After the death of your own father when you were eleven, was your stepfather, with his interest in, and writings on, alternative beliefs, a big influence?
I suppose he was on his early days of his own trip so that was definitely an influence. Discussions on the power of the mind and visualisation. Any truly great sportsman would probably admit when they've just won the gold at The Olympics, that they d won it 10,000 times before in their mind. They'd smelled it, tasted it and felt exactly what it was like to break the world record or score a goal in the cup final. In the early days I spent a long time formulating what was going to happen in my head, and when it does happen when you do sell 7 million albums and you've not compromised in the process of making that record and it s a total result only then can you look back and say I might have visualised this, that and the other, but there was a tremendous amount of luck, timing, madness, strange twist of fate along the way to get us there . So it s a dual thing. There s a sense of power that the mind has to make situations or turn cogs, but as far as being able to control it, no it s out of your control.
Would the price have been too high if you'd tried to sell even more records, by touring worldwide?
The price would have been too high, yes. But again it s your perception of what achievement is. It s true. People lose sight of it. I even lost sight of it for a day when the record came out. Song For The Lovers was on the radio. Suddenly it had gone from five people in the studio to ten million people who had heard it in the first day. What s wild about this kind of art form if you want to call it an art form, which I would is that rather than a painting bought for £50,000 and hung in one guy s lounge and five of his select friends can drink champagne and look at it, this is something that s consumed by 10 million people. The vultures eat it too and you can feel like you re a carcass by about 3 o clock in the afternoon. But it s still the best art form to be involved in. I love it.
In Rome, wasn't there complete chaos with people following you around?
There was a funny moment when I was in the shop looking over the Steps. I didn't need to be in the shop, but there s a law in Italy where they can t hassle you on a premises. So we were diving in and I was thinking success gives you the money and the keys to the world to be able to travel and see these beautiful cities, but when you get there you can t go out . But I can t imagine it will be so crazy this time and if it is I'll probably have to rethink the situation. But that was just the sudden burst of emotion from people. I was known as Lucky Man in Italy. People didn't shout The Verve , they shouted song titles which was amazing. That showed the strength of the tunes and how they re beyond me. It was wild. It was funny and intense. I d gone there for Kate s birthday. It was intense, but you get on with it.
You refer to a local hill, Ashe's Beacon, in This Is Music , and seem to recall a moment of epiphany up there.
We used to sneak up to Ashe's Beacon for a smoke. As a child my mother used to take me up there. It looks over not only Wigan and Manchester way, the other side it looks over Skelmersdale, a new town, to Liverpool, Blackpool and beyond, the full works. It was just this one particular night that became like a metaphor for me and probably Simon as well, when I did say to him when we were looking out on the lights, one day the majority of those people are going to know who we are, and what we re about. We re going to make it happen .
And you also said it'll take three albums . Which is pretty correct. Although, your first two albums were fine and successful in their own way.
That s good. Like Mohammed Ali, like a boxer, when he says he s going down in six, he puts him down in six. It s great to be vindicated in that way. I really meant that people s perceptions had to turn to a point where they were really ready for Urban Hymns. Because Storm In Heaven and Northern Soul were a process of defining what we were trying to do. My songwriting capabilities were growing with each album. So was the musicianship within the group. We were ready by Urban Hymns and people were ready for that album.
Is there any way you could be disappointed that Northern Soul was not massively successful?
Yes, in the way that you can feel disappointed for Big Star, Television or Patti Smith. But the strength of all those artists has lived on and they ve influenced me and there s so many albums that went on to sell millions that will never influence anyone. So I m quite comfortable with the amount . . . I was frustrated that Northern Soul could have had another life if we d carried on playing five or six months after the band had split up and really woken people up to it. There was a lot of flag waving going on at the time. And we were around at the opposite end to that. It was Britpop time and we were running against that in a way. I don t think people were ready for it. It s all part of the story isn t it? You can t have it your way all the time. There s always going to be one great lost rock n roll record in your collection.
And Northern Soul is it as far as Richard Ashcroft s concerned?
Yeah, until one of my next few albums bombs!
Epiphany moments again. Can I suggest one? Chelsea Hotel, New York, flatbed truck, going down the street, making the video. Was that just 'wow, this is ludicrous, but it's great'.
Yes. That was exactly what it was like. It was ludicrous but fantastic at the same time. A psychedelic experience. It was bizarre. First time to see Times Square and we were jamming. We weren t miming. We were doing a video but we didn t even play the song we were doing the video for. So we got the opportunity to scream and howl and make music that was bouncing off these skyscrapers. It was the first time we d been in Times Square. It was mind-blowing.
And then there was the Chelsea Hotel all the history . . .
The Chelsea Hotel was amazing. The guy who runs it is the son of the original owner and he was asking why we hadn t plugged the amps in the room.
So he's well used to madness?
And you can go to the Paramount Hotel down the road and spend x thousand amount of dollars more and you leave an empty water bottle next to your chair and you re almost physically escorted out of the hotel by two six foot two, solid jawed, white-teethed guys. I actually said to Room Service could you bring me a sandwich please, and could you get somebody ugly to bring it up? . Everybody s looking for the film director and the big break. There s all these perfect staff in this hotel and it s very false.
The other side of the American rock dream must be playing Lollapalooza at two in the afternoon when it s boiling hot and nobody gives two damns about you. Can that be good for you?
Physically and mentally it s not good for you. But if you come out of it a few years later it s a tremendous experience. I was just riding through America and I was really enjoying it. It was mad. We d be playing at 2 o clock in the afternoon and I was still up from the night before with the guys who were setting up the stage. I was the only musician awake at the time, living it and having a great time. Until I got totally dehydrated and ended up in hospital. Next gig we played the next day my legs were like lead. That tour was a unique experience for me. I think it was the last of its kind, because physically I wouldn't be able to do another tour like that.
Were you surprised about the reaction to the Bittersweet video?
It was an inspired idea and look how it worked. It was amazing.
It was an incredible insight into the power of video. That's what turned it into the event it was the video more than the record. But I've just done a video for Songs For The Lovers . I think it s a piece of British film. It s a piece of art. There's an opportunity in video now to be as strange and leftfield as you want to be with the music.
That's why this video I've done now is a short film. It s unlike anything else out at the moment. Things happen in it that don t happen in videos these days the silence for a start. It stops twice. I only mumble the lyrics when I m eating a sandwich and drinking a cup of tea. The other line that I sing is not even in the record and I've got my back to the camera.
And did you spend millions on it?
No, certainly didn't!
A favourite album?
That's impossible. What's Going On by Marvin Gaye. It affects me mentally and physically. It works both ways. There s a statement within it. It s political without being preachy. It s spiritual. It s all things that music should be for me personally. It should be cerebral and physical and should have some meaning and worth and timeless quality to it.
Do you think you've reached a high point with some of your own songs?
Yes. I've reached a point that would've surprised me at the age of 19, 20 without a doubt. Seven years later. Someone was teaching me how to play a guitar chord nine years ago. That s what it s about seizing the day, grasping the opportunity, letting it flow and seeing what happens. And then having the courage to say The drugs don t work and putting it in a song. Nobody had said that in a song. But sometimes I think the thing that s driving you is beyond you. That s why before you go on stage in front of 120,000 people at Slane Castle you ask yourself how did I get here ? And that s the thing inside you that sometimes writes the tunes.