Woah-Ho Heave-Ho: Former Verve Men Set Sail In The Black Ships
, July 12th, 2011 11:17
Former members of The Verve have reunited in the decidedly psychedelic new band The Black Ships. Dan Wale cracks a bottle of champagne across their bows
"We didn't want a singer in the band," says Simon Jones, leaning forward from the beaten leather couch on which he's sat, resting his deceptively youthful-looking head on one hand. On Jones' left is his bandmate, electric violinist and sometime singer Davide Rossi: "We didn't want a singer in the band," Rossi re-emphasises, "because we've been stuck with singers all our lives." That's done it. Wicked laughter erupts from the other three members of The Black Ships. "Pull!" announces Jones, while Rossi attempts to retract his statement:
"Because... because it is another finger in there that we don't want," he clarifies. But for Nick McCabe and Jones, whose former band The Verve combusted time and again because of the fractious relationship between them and singer Richard Ashcroft, there is a clearly presented opportunity to take aim at the man who is perceived by many to have consistently held the existence of the band at the mercy of his own whimsy. In a show of genial restraint, though, both McCabe and Jones sidestep the issue. "Stuck with Goldfrapp!" emphasises Jones, still amused - referring to the band with which Davide has had a ten-year association.
The essential conundrum of The Verve was a commercial/creative one: four Wigan school friends who somehow graduated from sprawling psychedelia in the early 90s to become a mega-selling band-of-the masses by 1998. It was this tension that tore them apart, for the last time in 2008. Yet this allowed The Black Ships to be formed, as Davide Rossi was originally teamed with McCabe and Jones as string arranger during the recording of The Verve's Forth.
"It was so obvious that it worked, really," says McCabe of the meeting of minds. Alongside sessions in Copenhagen, The Black Ships have steadily self-recorded and produced an as-yet unreleased full-length album, and in a flurry of recent activity also made available the Kurofune EP. It's intended as a self-contained capsule - not strictly in tune with the material scheduled to appear on the less esoteric long player.
The format of the band appears to be the four of you as a hard-set musical unit, with vocalists brought in as desired. Is that right?
Nick McCabe: It does away with a few issues, really. With one singer you have to pace yourself around what variety you can bring to that singer. You might not have these notions of up-tempo tunes - because we never really did - but you start pacing. You've only got so much dynamic to explore with the one voice, the one identity so we don't really have to think about things like this. We've just got collections of music and it happens to work together because the identity of the music is vastly different from thing to thing: like you might have something that's incredibly violent; something that's incredibly beautiful; and then you can let your imagination run rather than [being stuck with] a formatted thing. I mean, we did explore a couple of ideas of using the one singer and having a tailor-made batch of music to fit them but we've just arrived at this accidentally.
Davide Rossi: It seemed right to be doing it this way. Gorillaz do it this way, Massive Attack do it this way, where they have guests. We're just trying to find a way to do it differently; we're a rock & roll band, basically, so it's putting us in a different scenario altogether.
Mig Schillace: It's also that thing about the way the four of us record and everything else around it - it's almost like a collective in a way with the people around us who we get to come in.
DR: The first two big sessions we had were between December 2008 and February 2009. After a while we started to give some stuff out to singers, personal connections who we thought could come back with something. First of all, very few things were coming back, and I could hear a song here and there so I just started to carve a song out of this jam, using all the original elements that were there already.
MS: The thing with the singers is that on the next record, it could be a different setup again. For us it's about the four elements.
DR: We already have songs for the next one. To finish off what I was saying: I started to cut songs and had about four or five myself, then this girl Amelia [Tucker] came back with a really strong song and then suddenly things started to happen. She's going to feature on three songs. And Charley (Bickers) came back with a couple of things. I think we're going to have about nine or ten songs. It's something I've never done so that takes some time to get used to. Everything came out pretty organically out of necessity, somehow. We talked before about having big names as we all have contacts, but we found that actually working with people who were relatively unknown was more challenging - or interesting.
NM: Essentially it's friends and family. The Charley thing is because it's only really him that got back to us. I was doing Charley's record and just by proximity he volunteered. We had a couple of people, fantasy football style - we thought 'Wouldn't it be great to get Neil Young!' or whatever - but it didn't work out that way.
Simon Jones: It seems a bit too much of an easy route.
DR: It is. This is easy and complicated at the same time. For instance, the gig [performed four days prior to this interview at King's College London] served a purpose; we could see where we were at and what needs to be done. It was a prototype. We're open to changing direction rather than imposing one.
Why is it that it's taken so long to work up to playing live and releasing material? There was a willingness, in certain sections, to believe that The Black Ships would never reach this stage.
DR: If you think about it, any band needs to be given the time to find their own voice, to find the right songs, and that usually takes two to three years. Of course, the music is released and it's like, 'They've just come out', when actually they met when they were sixteen and now they're 20 or whatever. In fact the release of the EP was the result of us meeting again in February - the beginning of starting to feel like 'OK, now we're starting to get things done.' We started to rehearse and we said 'OK, we're going to get a gig', then as the gig approached we thought it would nice to release something so that everything came together in a more concrete sense.
MS: The thing needed time to breathe and find its own voice, and personally I'm really pleased it took as long as it did.
NM: If anything, we feel like we're being too hasty... [laughter]
NM: Oh, we've rushed it again!
Is that just the quest for perfection, though?
SJ: It is a quest for perfection.
NM: I'm not sure it's perfection we're after.
SJ: Well, our idea of perfection. Not polished perfection. Perfect imperfection I always call it…
Is that not a contradiction?
SJ: It is a contradiction, yeah.
Closely related to Eno's idea of there being no such thing as a second take?
SJ: Exactly. We're not a polished band but there is something we're looking for.
So the recordings primarily took the form of extended jams that you would then return to. This is the way that the two of you often worked in The Verve, isn't it?
NM: It's a method that seemed to work very well. We're not a 12-bar blues band. I don't know whether it's a certain kind of focus we have but it's a really good way of generating ideas. I'm a firm believer in the idea that what happens in that room is that moment's [adopts hippie affectation] ‘magic'. Otherwise you're always trying to play catch-up and recapture whatever you got from that idea when it was special to you – the thing that made you pursue the idea in the first place.
You can lose sight of that very easily once you're focusing on details. I think because we're fearless about it we don't worry about things sounding polished at an early stage. Mig and myself have worked together like that previously as well, and with Dav getting onboard, it was sort of liberating for Mig in a lot of ways, to kind of have the formula chucked out of the window.
MS: It's about having the freedom to express yourself really, with someone who's like-minded.
DR: The truth of this thing that we are doing? I don't know… but I work with other bands, and no-one else that I work with uses as much of the original recording with so few overdubs. It's first takes. It is what it is.
SJ: That's the essence of the music we make.
NM: It's because there's a truth to it. When it comes out naturally, and it's not forced, and you haven't staged it, it's more credible to me. I can hear mannerisms in other people's music. When I try and replicate something I've just done, the thing that was true a minute ago is now a load of wank. It's the spontaneity, we're not making classical music here, at its root it's rock music.
If you polish it, and spend too much time on it - and this is why I insist on working with the raw materials – it's gone, because that original was the right one. That's the true one. Everything else is just posturing, really. And I can hear it other people's music, I can hear that they've done 20 takes.
Will it be hard to shake expectations? The Verve associations will naturally draw a group of people who will want that in some form, won't it?
SJ: I don't think so. It's like being in a new band. That only counts for so much. I think people are under the impression that it helps in a massive way but ultimately, this is a new band.
The Kurofune material is weighted towards instrumentals, whilst at the recent show at King's College a lot of the material featured vocalists. How will the album break down?
DR: This album that's nearly finished is very much song-based. Generally speaking that's how I see it - unless we change our minds.
NM: We're making a pop record, really. The show's quite representative of how the record sounds. The idea with Kurofune was to leave it open. To say, 'Here's a taste of where it can go in the future' rather than spell something out along the lines of, 'OK, get ready for some big pop tunes!' We're setting out our stall in quite an obtuse way, really.
MS: Also, it's having the freedom to say, 'Well, we could do that', which is quite enlightening – the fact that that you can go, 'Do you know what? It's a fucking great track, let's put it out.' It stands on its own but those three tracks together just work so well.
When you listen to The Black Ships it's very difficult to pinpoint influences, and yet at the same time you get the feeling that here's a bunch of people who have a lot of reference points...
NM: It's funny because Forth, for all its ills... I think me and Si, particularly, feel we've come out the other side of that. You know when you do become obsessed by the backwaters and tributaries of music, you kind of get stuck there for a little bit, and by time we'd got to Forth we'd digested everything and started to create our own thing. Whereas previously we'd always been a little bit overly aware of how much our influences were coming to bear on what we were creating.
Was that referencing of influences deliberate?
NM: Probably sometimes, and quite a lot of the time there was a conscious effort to avoid those things that we were obsessed with. For Richard, I think, there was a certain degree of validation in things having a heritage. Si and myself have found something informed by all that but it's a non-issue now, really. Rather than owing something to anybody else, we feel like we're making something that is individually ours.
So how far do you want to take it? Do you still have ambition in the same way that you used to?
NM: We have an ambition, yeah. We want it to be successful, like, we're not doing this to…
You want it to be heard.
NM: We want it to be heard, and I think probably from our experiences of the kind of bands and ventures that we've been involved with before, we got a specific idea of the kind of success that we want with this. It will take time to achieve that. We want something a bit more satisfying than what we've had previously, I think. And if that means that we're not absolutely enormous then so be it. But we do want it to be heard, we're not making difficult music here.
Some of our methods might be a bit odd but it can be appreciated by everybody, I think. So we need to give it the proper due care and attention so that it does reach people. I think quite a lot of what we're doing here is trying to redress things that we see as errors in the way that things were done. I want to be making music at 60 years old. I don't wanna be like fucking Keith Richards - I want to retain some dignity with it. But it's got to function as a business at a certain point.
MS: I think if any band turns around and says they don't want to be commercial, they're lying. If you want to be able to live your dream then you've got to be able to afford to live.
NM: I think my mentality is that there aren't really concessions to be made to being commercial because collectively between us there's enough that we have very 'pop' minds anyway.
DR: I love tunes, you know? We have our sound and our sound comes from long jams but I think we will produce great pop songs...