The shamanic Richard Ashcroft fronted one of the most iconic – and successful – bands of the ’90s, The Verve. Then he went solo, then disappeared. After six years in the wilderness he’s back – and he’s pumped, finds Mark Beaumont.
When rock stars disappear into their wilderness period, they might barricade themselves in remote drug shacks, suffer breakdowns in expensive celebrity rehabs or backpack around the world saving endangered mealworms. But few go as off-grid as Richard Ashcroft.
“I didn’t have a mobile phone for four years,” says the conductor of ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, choirmaster of The Verve’s 10 million-selling ‘Urban Hymns’ and rock’s eternal cosmic question mark. “I’d become a slave to it,” he says. “The amount of times you find yourself wondering why you just opened that mobile device up. Are you actually doing anything or is it just a habit that’s out of control?”
Six years on from his last major interview and with barely a handful of solo acoustic shows under his belt since he stopped touring 2010’s critically maligned (but quite intriguing) rap-rock fourth album ‘United Nations Of Sound’, Richard is bursting out of the woods like a wolf attack. He arrives at this west London photo studio as if fresh from lobbing Molotovs – hair shaven, eyes shaded, scarf across his craggy features and jabbering like an enlightened monk finally breaking his vow of silence.
He is, after all, released from years of self-imposed solitary confinement in Josef Fritzl’s idea of a recording session. His brilliant new album ‘These People’, a slice of classic Verve song craft with modernist electronic touches, was pieced together in his home basement studio in bursts over the past six years, in between “being a dad and living a standard-ish kind of life with dogs and school runs”. Having discarded the distraction of his mobile, he tinkered at length with “new old keyboards”, learning new crafts and trying reinvent the looping melodicism of ‘Urban Hymns’. “With all the studios closing down, record sales hit massively, the whole industry changing, I had to re-evaluate how I could still create these super records,” he explains. “So [album track] ‘Out Of My Body’ is in the mould of ‘A Song For The Lovers’, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, going right back. It’s a proper old-school record made with modern technology and old stuff to create something you’ve never heard before.”
“I feel like I’m number one again, like I’m born again,” says a lyric in the title track. Is this a comeback album?
“I don’t feel like it’s a grand return. That’s that sense of knowing when you’re through the storm. I’ve lost friends who weren’t able to see it through those darkest points.”
Were you disheartened by the critical mauling of ‘United Nations Of Sound’?
“When you don’t have the band backing you up, people will take shots at you because they see you as weak. It’s very Darwinian. They see a solo artist, a guy who was in a band, as a fawn with a slight limp, when I’m actually stronger now. For a period around ‘Urban Hymns’, The Verve became a juggernaut and suddenly you’re the Emperor’s New Clothes. Once you leave that, people try to get in a few shots. I’m not vengeful, but a couple of people over the years have overstepped the line.”
What happens then?
“It goes straight back to the playground. Like, ‘If I ever see you, man, beware, because your name is etched there and I will find you one day.’ Years ago in a live review, a guy was almost threatening to put a bottle to me if he saw me in a bar. Unfortunately for him, I found him. He understood when he met me that you don’t idly make threats to someone like me. You might be able to do it to Chris Martin but not to me. A lot of the hate and negativity has been a great fuel for me. Unfortunately for my critics, with every negative ounce of frustrated sweat they put into that piece, it’s like wind in my fucking sails.”
Have you lost faith in the industry?
“Oh yeah, I’ve got no faith in it whatsoever. It’s sold itself up the river, stabbed people in the back instead of trying to create a good, solid British music alternative. Turn left for Cowell, turn right for this. The mainstream consumed our culture.”
But surely the monster success of ‘Urban Hymns’, alongside Oasis, helped drive alternative into the mainstream?
“But we do it better. You can get as many songwriters in a room as you want for your new talent show contest winner, it’s never gonna sound like a great Noel Gallagher song sung by Liam, it’s never gonna reach ‘Live Forever’, it’s never gonna be [Verve song] ‘Lucky Man’. We know that.”
Do you feel responsible for the current glut of singer-songwriters?
“I’d rather blame it on Neil Young. I’d hate it if I had anything to do with empty anthems. A lot of stadium rock now looks like the lighting guy wrote the song. But it’s a great time now to be a young songwriter because the tech allows you to have your own little record company, do your artwork yourself. Let the talent do what it does and we’ll always have great musicians in this country.”
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Noel Gallagher recently said he’d be interested in making an album with you. Would you do it?
“It’s a great compliment for Noel to say something like that, and in the future who knows what might happen. I wish things like this would’ve happened years ago. Even the guys we had a bit of friction with, I look back and wish them luck. If I hear [Pulp frontman] Jarvis Cocker on the radio it gives me a good feeling. He’s waving a flag for culture from that time. We’re not stopping.”
Historically, when Richard Ashcroft would babble to the press about astral projection and feeling like Jesus, he was nicknamed ‘Mad Richard’. The tag still lingers thanks to a reportedly distant attitude that derailed the 2007 reunion of The Verve, and the afternoon in 2006 when he was arrested for turning up at a Chippenham youth club in a ‘dishevelled’ state, offering the kids £10,000 and the chance to write songs with him. But Richard, like so many other crap-cutting rock’n’roll truth seekers, has been dismissed as another quasi-spiritual rock crackpot. Instead, thanks to the determination of this self-proclaimed “clear thinker” to read around every news story for alternative viewpoints and not be “spoon-fed” media narratives on pivotal world events, ‘These People’ sweeps around some very real, very dark modern issues. Tortured nights, barbaric riots, lost friends, media lies, oppressive governments, global intolerance; this is perhaps the only album about the ongoing collapse of civilisation that wouldn’t ruin a Tinder hook-up.
“Over the period I wrote this record we’ve lived through incredible times,” Richard explains. “Highly contentious wars were going into the pot; grassroots movements turning into semi-revolutions; Tahrir Square [centre of the Egyptian Revolution riots in 2011]. It was kicking off all over the globe, people being divided. Pepper spray everywhere, tear gas.
“Whether it’s something to do with Syria or Ukraine, we, the people of this country, are being treated like fools. We no longer believe in the political process. We don’t believe in Punch & Judy democracy. I don’t believe in a left/right paradigm. I’m no activist – it’s not a political record – but scratch the surface of some of the stories presented as facts over the last few years and you come to the conclusion that we’re being played on a big level. That’s why one of the opening lines on the record is ‘Don’t go looking for your Watergate’. There was a time when a whistleblower would have a Hollywood movie made out of them. Now someone who tries to tell the world of political or corporate misbehaviour on a massive level finds himself on the run.”
Discussing the sorry state of the world with Richard is like standing in the eye of a tornado of ideas; reach out and grab a random soundbite and it makes sense, but it all spins by in a dizzying maelstrom of stream-of-consciousness pontification. Syria, political smokescreens, the NHS, “fake news”, Big Pharma and internet spy-trolls… you can only tune in to Radio Ashcroft and try to decode the ciphers.
“There’s a lot of pressure on people, young doctors,” he says. “It’s all coming to a head. The Ponzi scheme is about to burst. When you build stuff on things that aren’t real then it comes falling down. People are dealing with stuff that would have been deemed fantasy – madness that was part of movies has become a reality. We’re getting news of an earthquake three seconds after it happened on the other side of the world. I don’t think we were wired to empathise with the world’s grief – we were wired to empathise with our tribe.”
So how do you feel about that ‘Mad Richard’ tag these days? He shrugs. “Great. If this world hasn’t made you semi-mad then you ain’t living in it. [When I got that nickname] it was my youthful exuberance being misread. I don’t believe in a new-age movement; I’m not a hippy. Maybe at the time I believed I could fly. I still believe. It’s a long way back down. I’m not going fucking anywhere.”
Do you feel any kinship with Kanye West? “Yeah. If you really, truly believe in something, you’re on fire and your tongue rolls at the same pace. A lot of his outrageous quotes, I believe, come from that. At The Verve’s first ever gig I said that we were gonna blow this local band off the stage. It was only in the local Wigan paper and they rang me to ask why I was being so aggressive. I just went, ‘Hey man, it’s like boxing. I’m just trying to sell a ticket.’ That side of my personality has always been there and that’s why I’ve been labelled arrogant. It’s not that – it’s because I see this as combative. I’m in a fight. It’s not all lovey-dovey, huggy fantastic. This is music, man. This is serious shit.”
These are but edited highlights, cupfuls of a torrent. Music’s mainstream “imposters” are providing “a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox”. The NHS is “designed to fail”. Our cities consist of isolated souls “moving kinetically around each other but in this silent dance of non-eye-contact”. We’re “on the last potential period of the human being as we’ve known it; this might be one of the last human records”. Richard Ashcroft is a raging brainstorm with no interlude. He’s back to share some of his wisdom. But is he back for good?
“I’m always in the wilderness. I’m always struggling to find something that stimulates me,” he says. “When you’ve been to the top of the mountain, where do you go? We have no barriers. There are no genres now – forget genres, forget it all, forget what you think you should sound like, forget it. Just tap into that spirit and do what you feel is right.”
And as suddenly as it arrived, the Radio Ashcroft signal is lost. This rare breed of enlightened rock motormouth is gone, mind whirling, still fighting, forever bereft of shadow. Off to hike back up the mountain.