According to Oasis's Noel Gallagher they're a 'a bunch of space cadets led by Captain
Rock.' According to guitarist Nick McCabe their new LP contains, 'some of the best music
I've ever heard...by anyone.' Is The Verve's space guitar rock about to go stellar?
Sausages on sticks? SAUSAGES ON STICKS?! How fuckin' rock'n'roll is that?' Richard Ashcroft, The Verve's Heathcliffian singer/strummer, is less than impressed with his PR's idea of a press junket. What happened to bowls of cocaine? Whither the '70s rock dream? Poor old The Verve; this is exactly, they suggest wearily, the sort of shit they have to deal with all the time. First it's the getting up at 9.30 ('You can see why The Beatles split up,' muses bassist Simon Jones), then it's the photo shoots, now it's the sausages on blimmin' sticks.
'No wonder we went a bit mad on Lollapalooza,' sighs Ashcroft, glad to have survived last year's travelling indie circus with nothing worse (!) than a day on a drip. 'If you could get us a room full of instruments, a PA and a bit of draw, then we'd be in there jamming... Instead you wake up in a car park outside some superbowl stadium 25 miles from anywhere, where there's nothing to do but drink. It would get to anyone, that.'
The antidote, as ever with The Verve, was playing. And playing. When Lollapalooza ended, the band retreated to their Wigan rehearsal room and plugged in, tuned up and flipped out into that parallel universe wherein the Verve song resides. And the result is A Northern Soul - a record whose deep, dark funky rock makes their actually rather lovely '93 debut A Storm In Heaven sound almost limp. The Verve essence remains - swirling guitar arpeggios, grand rock themes, sprawling structures - but it's warmer, denser and more powerful in every way. Ashcroft's found an affecting folk-rock warble at the top end of his vocal range, the rhythm section swim around the beat like two old blokes from New Orleans and guitarist Nick McCabe... well, McCabe's tapped into a voodoo mainline that even his staunchest admirers could not have predicted. The title track sounds like Funkadelic in exactly the same way that Primal Scream don't and, yes, maybe the word 'soul' isn't such a bad one after all.
'It's turned out something of a soul record,' claims McCabe, 'but when we went in we had no preconceived notion of what it was going to sound like. We just went in and played... and that's when you know you're playing really well, when you don't have to think about it. There were three weeks during the making of that record which I'd have to say were the best I've ever had in my life.'
'The' Verve's recent titular addition (the US jazz label Verve objected to their use of the name last year) seems suddenly fortuitous. They are The Verve - not just any old Verve, or God save us, Verve UK - and that nominal brashness seems to have rubbed off on the band themselves.
'We're coming from Funkadelic, from Gram Parsons, from Can, from... Roy Orbison and Miles Davis!' declares Ashcroft. 'I'm very mixed up in my head between groves and song- writing, and I want to get a beautiful balance. We want the rhythm section and the guitars to go off on it, but underneath for there to be a solid, soulful song. If we can manage that perfectly that'll be the best for me.'
Perhaps the most charming thing about The Verve is the respect they have for each other as musicians - respect which turns to awe when you mention Nick McCabe. 'He won't have it,' whispers Simon Jones, 'But I think he's unbelievable. Tell him. Tell him he's fantastic.' Owen Morris, producer of A Northern Soul and Oasis's stunning Definitely Maybe rates him as 'without a shadow of a doubt the most gifted musician I've ever worked with', and when it's revealed that the record's thundering riffs and inconceivably deft and delicate curli- cues are simultaneously rendered by the guitarist in real time - and enhanced by practically zero overdubs - it's not hard to see what he means.
'I haven't a clue where his genius comes from,' boggles Morris. 'But at the same time he's a complete and utter nightmare, ha ha! He'll never play the same thing twice. Now you can ask Noel Gallagher to play the same guitar line a hundred times, and as long as there's a good reason for him doing it, he'll do it. But with Nick you've got no chance. But that's what he does, y'know?'
The softly spoken McCabe hasn't had much in the way of luck of late. In April a triumphant gig supporting Oasis in Paris turned sour when an overenthusiastic Gallic bouncer turfed the Verve guitarist out of the venue, via a flight of concrete steps. The result: a broken left hand. His mitt encased in a gauntlet of plaster, McCabe couln't play for a month. 'If the doctor had only left one finger free,' McCabe smiles weakly, 'I could have put a slide on it.'