Hipsters wearing bell bottoms and center-part hair are swaying ecstatically to Verve's electric trance music while snake-hipped, pouty-lipped singer Richard Ashcroft writhes under the colored lights on the stage of Hollywood's Whiskey-A-Go-Go. Welcome to the '90s?
In any event, England's latest darlings are living up to the hype of this sold-out event, along with the critical accolades surrounding their mellifluous American LP debut, A Storm in Heaven. From the dreamy, feedback-tinged "Star Sail" to the airy, hypnotic "Slide Away," Verve's live show underscores that album's gently psychedelic cacophony, the aural equivalent of sleepwalking. Guitarist Nick McCabe alternates between spacy well-placed notes and chordal washes of sound. Bassist Simon Jones and drummer Pete Salisbury provide the steady backdrop for Ashcroft's otherworldly stage presence, as his ecstatic ardour all but turns his audience into Peeping Toms. Not to mention Ashcroft himself. "When it was all going on, I was in a corner of the room, looking down and sort of laughing at myself," he explains the next day, sitting crosslegged on a couch in the Virgin Records artist lounge. "It's such a surreal setting you can't help but get a kick out of being involved with it. It's like being involved in this ridiculous movie."
Mystically couched phrases permeate Ashcroft's conversation as well as his music, a sensibility some might find precious but which seems to spring from a genuinely spiritual point of view. The death of his father when Ashcroft was 11 prompted what he calls a "live life to the fullest" epiphany, while his stepfather is a Rosicrucian--"an adherent of a 17th-and 18th-century movement devoted to esoteric wisdom with emphasis on psychic and spiritual enlightenment," according to Webster's. Ashcroft's worldview includes offhand references to astral travel and seeing auras. "I've done all those things," he says. "You've got to concentrate but not be aware of any of your preconditioning, not listen to what your mind says.
"I've been daydreaming since I was 12 or 13 about music, and I treat daydreams as important as visualisations, which is an important part of meditation. If you want something, you visualise it, see it, smell it, touch it, walk around it. Before Verve, I played with Nick, and at end of one gig, for some reason, I just completely freaked out and started rolling on the floor. All these kids were staring at me, going, 'What a wanker--what the fuck is he doing?' But I couldn't help it."
And a star was born, albeit one from the unlikely incubatory of Wigan, a smallish burg in the vicinity of more famous musical hotbeds Manchester and Liverpool. "It's not that small, but it's small in terms of having any social nightlife or gathering," Ashcroft explains. "It's great if you wear patent leather shoes and drink 19 pints of lager; you'll have the time of your life." The members of Verve eschew the shoes, but do indulge in social drinking and the benefits of other non-prescription drugs, which seem to have some bearing on the group's swirling, hypnotic sound. "We are really serious about the band, but we're also relaxed. We don't have set practice times, we just get together and jam and try to mould a song out of it. The actual construction of the songs is really natural. It rolls." It's an approach that's met with success since Verve released their initial EPs in England in 1992. (Melody Maker has since written about the band so much it might as well be their official house organ.) Before their record deal, however, Verve's members spent several years on the dole. "I got my flat repossessed about five months ago," Ashcroft recalls. "I owe the landlord about 3000 pounds and my phone was turned off before that. I'm terrible with finances.
Now a mature 21, and in the throes of fan rapture, he can still cast a sober look at the future. "What the hell do you do when it all ends?" he ruminates. "We've got another 10 years only, probably. Once a song hasn't gone a bit further than the last, once we've hit a plateau and can't go any further up the mountain..." He manages a wry grin. "That's when we'll sledge back down into obscurity."