I had my Ipod on shuffle. All of a sudden strings welled up, sentimental and epic. Then Richard Ashcroft’s voice came on, sounding as though he had the ten commandments in his arms: “I wander lonely streets…”
The song was “History,” off of The Verve’s “A Northern Soul.” That record preceded their one US hit, “Urban Hymns,” which contained “Bittersweet Symphony.” Ashcroft’s gaunt face, with its high cheekbones and Alpine Adam’s apple, graced the cover of Rolling Stone and some other magazines. Then The Verve broke up and they were gone.
The Verve sound like they are playing their music on the edge of a cliff looking into the void. Richard Ashcroft was a kind of tour guide of the apocalypse, or salvation, depending on your disposition. His voice, then and now, is oddly religious without being at all preachy. He’s a stoner messiah. His first solo record, two years ago, was maimed by a desire to be cheerful that sometimes accompanies the separation from the familiar.
With his second album, Human Conditions, the storm is back, except Ashcroft has built a house in which to weather it. He’s no longer wandering in the wilderness, but rather kicking around the living room, or lounging on a sofa. He always had a good dollop of the crooner in him, but now he sounds like the Bing Crosby of Britpop. And it sounds good. His new record is emotional, cinematic, challenging; his new sound is similar to the Verve’s “Wandering lost in the storm, rock.” But now with an umbrella.
Human Conditions was released at the start of 2003 and generated not a peep of excitement in America, and the following Q&A with Ashcroft never ran in the magazine that assigned it. But in honor of the shiver I got from those opening chords of “History,” here it is. I was particularly interested in his description of his life in the aftermath of his dad’s death, when he was eleven years old.
RICHARD ASHCROFT ON NIHILISM, FATHERHOOD, DISOWNING PSYCHEDELICS, AND WORKING WITH BRIAN WILSON
Thomas Beller: When the Verve was starting out, you were known as Mad Richard, and you were associated with psychedelic drugs. Then you came out with "The Drugs Don’t Work." Where are you now on the subject of acid and other hallucinogenics, and music?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: The Verve recorded their first record on acid. That’s not something that I would advise for most people going into the studio for the first time. But it’s a personal thing, depending on where you are in your life. Some people can drink two pints of beer and become a psychotic ass, and someone can have fifty and be fine.
Thomas Beller: But we’re not talking about beer.
RICHARD ASHCROFT: Acid was really cheap. And it was a cheap way into another reality. It’s quite an extreme experience, especially if you are slightly vulnerable or imbalanced. But anyone who preaches about the positive aspect of any drugs, it’s just boring. I think it’s quite horrifying the amount of people who have burnt out and lost their mind, the acid causalities. The same is true of cocaine, just the amount of empty promising, the amount of bullshit. Looking back at the first psychedelic era, nothing came out of the revolution.
Thomas Beller: So you’re not into that anymore?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: I feel a disillusion with people who are doing metaphysical experiments, who are deeply into meditation, who suggest that they have these incredible powers, and yet at the same time their family or their relationship is breaking down. That’s what I found, and I got disillusioned. I think the mind can change molecules in water. I can believe in that. But I also think there is a life to live as well. Let’s make something solid. That’s why music is my prayer, my meditation.
Thomas Beller: What was your state of mind when you were working on your new record?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: I wanted to be less ambiguous, I didn’t want to be nihilistic, and I wanted to put a record out there that had a sense of hope, a sense of hope because of my tribe, my tiny grain of sand.
Thomas Beller: What’s your tiny grain of sand?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: My son. I was traveling through Europe, England, and Japan, when I was writing the record, and my child traveled with me. I had my 30th birthday on 9/11 with my child. For anyone around the world with an ounce of feeling in their bones it was a huge moment, and it was weird because a lot of the songs I wrote beforehand seemed to reference the event somehow. "The numbers, palaces of fortune in the sky…" whether I was visualizing big corporate towers because I was thinking about the way we’ve always built these huge dominating symbols or what, I don’t know. But a lot of the lyrics are about the vulnerability of being a father. And then I’d then get off a plane and be met by some guy I never saw before and think, "who is this guy picking us up in the airport? Is he drunk or on drugs? Does he realize my boy is the Dali lama?"
Thomas Beller: You once referred to making a Verve record as Apocalypse Now. What movie comes to mind with Human Conditions?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: A David Lean movie
Thomas Beller: Bridge over the River Kwai?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: More like, Lawrence of Arabia.
Thomas Beller: How did Brian Wilson end up singing back up on Nature is the Law?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: That came about through a daydream of mine in the studio. Dennis Wilson’s record "Pacific Ocean Blue" was a big influence on me, and I came out of this dream and said ‘Wouldn’t it would be great if Brian Wilson could sing on the track?’ Everybody thought I was a complete twat for thinking that he would. A few days later, someone told me Brian doesn’t know who I am, but he liked the song. He did it in LA when I was in London.
Thomas Beller: Did you tell him what you wanted?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: Grasshopper doesn’t give advice to the master, man. Nature is the Law is about man’s arrogance, about the endless building of railroads, and I was hoping to have some sort of Aaron Copeland thing as a coda. So when the tape comes back the next day, Brian’s done one of these chants at the end. He’s got the guys building the railroad, he’s got the chants: "oh ah oh ah!" Different age, different part of the world, different period, somehow a unity; and in a song that isn’t a pastiche of the beach boys! He must get a lot of tapes asking him to sing on songs that sound like the beach boys. So that deep chant thing at the end was Brian. Basically he just connected with the tune, and went down and did it in a day.
Thomas Beller: There’s an inspirational quality to your singing that sometimes veer into the oracular, like you’re a soothsayer. It’s been there throughout the early Verve jams and in songs like History, Bittersweet Symphony, Lucky Man, but now that you’re solo it’s really prevalent.
RICHARD ASHCROFT: It’s an instinctive thing; I wanted to make people feel like people feel in a church. And there was the connection with the times I’d had in clubs, times when I danced or jammed until I felt transcendental. When I started writing songs that had more shape to them, I still wanted to put that feeling into them. It’s that anti-nihilism thing I couldn’t stop thinking about. Ultimately, I’m on a tightrope between one person feeling immersed in the music and feeling good, and someone calling it crass and writing it off, because the more clear the songs become for the writer, the less mysterious it can be for the listener. Some of my songs are like conversation. I’m obsessed with Bonnie and Clyde. I’m obsessed with Willie Loman.
Thomas Beller: How did your father dying at age 11 effect you?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: I swallowed a lot of it. I went to school the next day. I started masquerading as a comedian; the teacher called me The Cancer of the Class… I’m thinking of calling my next album that. I got taken on a lot of boat trips. These other dad’s were doing it because my dad had died, and after three depressing trips on the boat you finally say to your mum, "Look, make sure they don’t take me on the boat again because the boat is making me more depressed!" My reaction was to make people laugh, be a joker, it’s a release. It’s a defense for the fact that we are totally crushed. You don’t have the imaginary rock that everyone else seems to have, that being a father, though today I suppose you’re a freak if you do have a father to come home to.
Thomas Beller: Had Spinal Tap effected you in any way, in terms of being a Rock Star?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: Some of the old innocent things don’t really work anymore. If you pull up in a fancy car that freaks out the guy that sees a Rolls Royce as a status symbol, it works. But it’s an old carcass. Ultimately, the odd trashing of the room for some people, I can understand it, the ground hog day repetition, day after day repeating of the same emotions, it would make anyone insane. People are making reality TV shows about ten people trapped in a room. You want reality TV. Ten people on a bus six weeks going around America. From the moment you wake up, Spinal Tap pretty much got it down. And when you get a cold sore, that’s just the end! Whenever it’s getting close to that, you want to steer it as far away from it as you possibly can, but eventually, any establishment is going to want a rock and roller that doesn’t smoke. Rock and roll died in 69′ you know what I mean? And someone like me what the fuck am I doing trying to exist in this world? If it wasn’t for seeing Goddard’s 1+1 by accident when I was 14, I would never have been a musician. I was up late at night watching this thing, I thought ‘Ah man that looks like a great job!’ But it only happens when you ‘re recording it or playing it live, the rest is just shite!
Thomas Beller: When the Verve first broke you were associated with Oasis, I saw you open for them in Earl’s Court in 1996. Do have any contact with the Gallagher brothers?
I played big concert with them a month ago and it was scary.
Thomas Beller: Why?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: Because I was playing in front of fifty thousand pissed people waiting for Oasis! But they got into it. Ten years before we were playing before 200 people. It’s amazing that it doesn’t matter what we’ve been through – Me, Liam, Noel – as far as their scene and their pressure, more insane than mine. I don’t think we knew what the stories were going to be, but the fact that we can still talk as though it was ten years ago and still have our dreams for the next songs and the next album, it’s that hunger, it’s a rare thing.
Thomas Beller: How’s the new record going in England?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: If I had put on fifteen stone and Kate had left and me and I’d almost OD’ on smack, then this record would have been received very well in my country.
Thomas Beller: How’s life without the Verve?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: It’s been interesting, losing my tag, my logo, the Verve, whatever that is they become corporate tags. Ashcroft. I’d love to have been Presley. I’m rock and roll. I believe I’m punk rock. People might say what the fuck? I don’t necessarily mean how you sound on guitar. All these things are an expression of something that should be just instinctive and raw: Patty Smith had it, John Lydon had it, Liam Gallagher, Kurt Cobain, George Clinton had it.
Sometime it takes a lot to control things. It takes time to learn how to overstate things? It takes time to synthesize things and have the courage to synthesize things that could be so easily misinterpreted if someone is not on the tip. But musically, I think there is more of my own personality in some of the guitars and the bass lines; with the earlier records I was more of a conductor, I kind of used my lyric as brush strokes, they weren’t necessarily statements. With Northern Soul, the lyrics starting hitting me and hitting the people around me. The lyrics and my voice would start to come out in the mix. When I first wrote "History" grown men were fucking weeping and that’s the way it was, and that was they way it was with the people around me and what we were living. Human Condition is almost like a Northern Soul for me as a solo recording artist. I’ve made a record with little whispered things coming out the speakers you might not hear for six months. It would be such a buzz if someone actually goes that far beneath the surface, but if someone actually wants to take this film apart and go into it, you know what I mean, all the records that have stood the test of time. Like with Brian Wilson’s "God only knows." It’s there for you for the rest of your life. Within that song is something timeless. I’m not saying all my songs get to that point, but for the people who get into it, there are things in it subliminal that are there to be captured in a year’s time and two years time. I’ve got this big feeling of urgency right now. I want to get out as many songs as I can. I want people to see the next trip, emotionally, sonically. I want to try and tackle another one in a year’s time; I want another album in a year’s time. I’ve got a lot of music coursing through me at the moment; I need to get it out of me.
Thomas Beller: "Human Condition," as a title, is pretty ambitious.
RICHARD ASHCROFT: It’s not like Human Condition is the Bible. It’s ten fragments of my conditions. It’s the condition of someone who has got something beautiful going on in his life, and if I am going to put anything out into the world it has to have some kind of substance.
Thomas Beller: So you’re not Mad Richard anymore?
RICHARD ASHCROFT: I wouldn’t say I was mad mad mad. I’ve seen mad people. I’m not mad. But I’m close.