Richard Ashcroft talks about his new all-star project and why this really is the end for The Verve.
Bitter sweet success
Much like his music, a conversation with Richard Paul Ashcroft quickly expands into a freeform voyage to the outer limits of the astral perimeter. Back with a new musical identity following the third and final collapse of his planet-conquering band, The Verve, the 38-year-old rocker riffs through interviews like a virtuoso jazz player. He leaps from Warhol to Picasso, Marvin Gaye to Coldplay, football to fatherhood, often talking in vast and shapeless rambles, rarely drawing breath.
A survivor of the great Britpop crash of the late 1990s, the singer-songwriter born in Wigan, near Manchester, has had an uneven decade since. At times he seemed caught in one long, downward spiral from chart-topping, intergalactic rock superstar to domesticated, polished, prematurely middle-aged folk-pop crooner. When he reformed The Verve for a third time, three years ago, it felt like an admission of defeat. After the band split again, last year, history seemed to be repeating itself as farce rather than tragedy.
And yet, here comes Ashcroft again, bouncing off the ropes with his most ambitious musical reinvention yet, RPA & the United Nations of Sound. Recorded in London, New York and Los Angeles, the group's eponymous debut album is a wide-screen rock 'n' soul affair packed with seasoned hip-hop and R&B musicians. It was produced by the sometime Jay-Z and Kanye West collaborator Dion "No ID" Wilson, and engineered by the 70-year-old Motown veteran Reggie Dozier, whose Grammy-winning back catalogue includes extensive work with Marvin Gaye and Steve Wonder. The string arrangements are by Benjamin Wright, who arranged Michael Jackson's Off the Wall.
All legends, and pretty big shoes to fill. "Completely," Ashcroft says in his grainy Lancashire burr, "but I would never ever compare myself to any of them because you can't. But that's the joy, you know, Picasso's interpretation of a master was completely his interpretation. In a way it's a similar thing: I'm good at what I do, but I don't consider myself a master at it." "I consider some of those people to be literally Mount Rushmore types, in a musical sense," Ashcroft says. "But actually aiming for Mount Rushmore is what it's about, and enjoying the process."
Recording under the United Nations banner helped Ashcroft draw a line between this new musical vehicle, his three previous solo albums, and his work with The Verve. But the singer insists the new name reflects the collective spirit of the project too. "Through the recording process, even about five or six days in, it felt like everyone had a certain amount of empathy for each other," he recalls. "There's a massive spectrum of ages involved in this record, and backgrounds, but essentially music is the thing that binds us together. It's more than just me and people tinkering away in the shadows. We are coming from different places yet heading in a similar direction. So I felt that these guys, this thing, this feeling deserves its own title."
Ashcroft has a reputation for spiky arrogance, but he is softer and warmer in conversation than his "Mad Richard" media caricature suggests. There is sensitivity behind his swagger, and an almost childlike lack of guile in his self-aggrandising babble. However, he accepts the charge of possessing a big ego. "I just think it's inevitable," he shrugs. "When you go onstage, the process of getting you from the dressing room to the stage is all about ego. Life's about ego. So for someone to talk about my ego, as they are writing their piece about my ego, I'm wondering what they're doing with their ego? it's a fascinating subject."
The singer also insists that he kept his ego - and his tongue - in check during The Verve's various break-ups, instead of stooping to temptation by publicly attacking his estranged bandmates. "In the 1990s, when we were probably one of the biggest bands in the world, it would have been very easy for me to do what would be standard procedure now the world over: to talk trash and save my face. But I couldn't do that because of the people involved, and they've got lives. So ultimately, because you leave it untouched, people are obviously going to make their own opinions up of why certain situations arose."
The reunited Verve split for the third time last year after touring the world for one last lap of honour and topping the British charts once more with their patchy 2008 comeback album, Forth. The fall-out was bitter, with the guitarist Nick McCabe and the bass player Simon Jones accusing Ashcroft of using the band to relaunch his solo career. The singer wearily confirms The Verve have now disbanded for good, although he said much the same after previous splits.
"What is it about?" he sighs. "Am I just a rat in the same tunnel pressing the same button? How many times do you need to get electrocuted to realise that the button's going to fry your nose? Looking back after a little bit of time, I can't believe what we actually did - festivals in Japan, Coachella, Glastonbury. Again, things aren't perfect, but The Verve and me, we reflect life. We're not marketing men, we can't do it perfectly. Life's not like that."
However strained relations may have become with his former schoolfriends, Ashcroft now has plenty of famous fans right across the musical spectrum. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, for example, made a guest appearance on his 2002 solo album, HumanConditions. The singer has also worked with the Chemical Brothers and UNKLE, and recently collaborated with the prolific Hollywood composer Thomas Newman on a track for the forthcoming Matt Damon thriller, The Adjustment Bureau.
Ashcroft also remains on good terms with both Liam and Noel Gallagher, talking up the collapse of Oasis last year as a positive opportunity for both brothers. "It's exciting, because Liam's writing songs as well," he nods. "There are not many bands where you get two songwriters going off and doing new stuff, so it's quite good for the fans. Who's going to be the first maniac to call Liam Noel and Noel Liam, in an interview, because it's going to happen??"
A more unlikely celebrity friend, perhaps, is Coldplay's Chris Martin, who introduced Ashcroft as "the best singer in the world" when they performed The Verve's Bitter Sweet Symphony together at the Live8 mega-show in London five summers ago. Ashcroft has also toured with Coldplay, and does not share the disdain that some rockers show towards Martin's wholesome, family-friendly image. "His drive is immense," the singer says. "If Chris was an athlete he'd be a gold-medal winner, seriously. People underestimate him. As a songsmith, he's a great writer of songs that people want to stand and sing back to him. All I can say is I've toured with the guys, and all of them individually have been really nice towards me, my wife, my family, my kids. I can only go on a human level. I think they are a much less homogenised thing than a lot of bands."
Ashcroft has admitted in the past to having a depressive personality, and to taking the anti-depressant Prozac. He recently praised the actor, broadcaster and author Stephen Fry for going public over his own battles with depression. "Yeah, it was good thing to do, for him and other people who've suffered from it," the singer says. Pressed on the subject, Ashcroft seems cagey, but admits he has had problems in the past in the lulls between creative periods. "I don't want to sell a single record on the back of anything," he explains warily. "It's far more prevalent than most people think. My thing is, I've yet to meet a well person. The spectrum is unbelievably wide, the triggers for depression and manic depression."
The boggle-eyed astral traveller of Britrock is a more earthbound soul nowadays: a family man with a wife (the former Spiritualized keyboardist Kate Radley), two young sons and a grand house in the rolling greenery of Gloucestershire, in western England. But he bristles at suggestions that he may be mellowing into middle age as the mundane demands of marriage and fatherhood dim his passion for epic, preposterous, stargazing music.
"I live in the country, I live in London, I just do what I do," he shrugs. "Of course, fatherhood fundamentally changes a lot of your life, but it enriches you too. You join one of the biggest clubs in the world, you have empathy with a billion more people, on a lot of emotional levels. You can have all the warnings and descriptions you want, but until you've actually been there you don't know. Am I any different than I was? I hope I am. I hope I have learnt a little bit."
United Nations of Sound is released this week.