Broken bones, broken relationships, and heat exhaustion can't dampen the spirit of the Verve. The follow-up to their classic A Storm In Heaven debut album should win them even more disciples.
"America freaks me out," confides Richard Ashcroft, the Verve's charismatic frontman, amidst the hubbub of a trendy Manhattan diner in the meat-packing district. "New York brings out the best in me. It brings out the devil in me."
After a plate of mussels and countless vodka and oranges served by a staff of multiracial transvestites, Richard, quiet bassist Simon Jones, and an entourage head crosstown to an East Village bar to meet Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Mar and to keep the good times rolling. Meanwhile, drummer Peter Salisbury and guitarist Nick McCabe are in L.A., where the band will shoot a video directed by Jake Scott, Blade Runner auteur Ridley's
At the bar, Richard commandeers the jukebox, selecting several American soul classics, some Dusty Springfield, some Gram Parsons. "We don't listen to anything but the cream of music," Richared states, stressing the importance of bands knowing musical history. Although animated and earnest when discussing the artists he respects-Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, John Lennon, Neil Young, Sly Stone, George Clinton and many more-Richard will often assume various amusing personas throughout the night. By about 3 a.m. Richard is dancing to T. Rex with a senior citizen wearing a "#1 Grand- father" t-shirt.
The next day, he reports groggily that things a bit homoerotic. Apparently the geezer had no idea he was cavorting with the singer of a band with designs on being the biggest in the world. The Verve have experienced some heavy shit over the last two years, stuff that would cripple less driven groups. Salisbury broke his foot, McCabe had his hand broken by a bouncer in Paris, Ashcroft collapsed from excessive heat and alcohol in Kansas City during 1994's Lollapalooza. Members got married, became parents, fell in love, orgied in suburban Detroit. And Richard's long-term relationship ended. The latter seems to have influenced much of the new LP A Northern Soul (Vernon Yard), although he says he's completely over it now.
"Each song is a northern soul going through different emotions," Richard says. His band hails from Wigan, located between Liverpool and Manchester in northwest England. "I hear this character all the way through the record; pretty pained, then elated, then arrogant. All facets of that personality are a northern soul. That's what I am."
The events of the last two years lend A Northern Soul "a far greater sense of reality," Richard admits at Vernon Yard HQ between bites of a cheese sandwich that "could give Homer Simpson a cardiac." "There's nothing like a few lessons in life to make whatever you do in art that much more substantial."
A Storm In Heaven featured lyrics rooted in mysticism and escapism. In contrast, the new album's songs bear a more personal stamp. "It was a very big escape from when we first formed the group," Richard recalls. "Now it's a kind of melting pot for overt emotions, which makes recording sometimes scary and a lot of times exhilarating. When someone's singing straight to the point about what's going on, if the guy means every word, people are gonna connect with it and it will become more accessible. I want the Verve to be the biggest band in the world because rock and roll will will be dangerous again if we are."
When the band emerged in 1992, they gave people a dose of psychedelia that could move mountains and emotions. Even when the Verve rocked they did so with exquisite grace. Songs like "Man Called Sun," "Gravity Grave," "Feel," "Butterfly," and "Slide Away" have been some of the most thrilling conduits to bliss this decade. Bathed in a mystical sheen not unlike Spiritualized's sacred psych, the Verve's music has a more visceral, organic feel than their British counterparts.
The Verve recently moved to Manchester but most of their existence has been spent in Wigan. Richard contends that their isolation has proved beneficial. "Practicing in a dungeon in Wigan for this record that we just made, you're devoid of any kind of fashion or thought of 'This is what we should be doing.' I've got so much respect for a band that goes into a studio and plays the music they hear in their heads rather than what they read in a magazine."
Ashcroft decries formula in music, lambasting groups that mimic "MTV bollocks. We're ruled by chaos anyway," he pronounces, "so how can such a fine art be done to a formula?