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Baker's Dozen

Elements Of Confusion: Nick McCabe Of Black Submarine's Favourite LPs
Joe Clay , March 11th, 2014 09:21

With New Shores, the long-awaited debut by Black Submarine, out this week, the former Verve guitarist goes from teenage mainstays to recently-heard favourites in his top 13 albums

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Nick McCabe is one of the greatest guitarists of his generation. The only person who might argue the toss over that proclamation is the man himself, who is often humble to the point of seeming to disregard his own talent. (Simon Jones, bass player in The Verve, once implored a guitar journalist to tell him how good he was: "I think he's the greatest guitarist around and he won't have it. Tell him he's amazing!") McCabe's place in musical history is guaranteed – as part of The Verve he inspired awe with his incredible guitar playing, somehow overshadowing frontman Richard Ashcroft's planet-sized ego. Ashcroft acted like he was the focal point, but the majority of eyes were on McCabe – how the fuck did he make his guitar sound like that? McCabe was the sonic architect of the Verve's sound and while the music the band made may have drifted from the celestial space-rock and ambient doodling of A Storm In Heaven towards the more prosaic "classic" rock sound of Urban Hymns, McCabe's fretwork was always dazzling. Never one to strive for technical excellence, his favourite guitar players are the idiosyncratic ones – Funkadelic's Eddie Hazel, Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column and John Martyn.

McCabe grew up in St Helens, Lancashire, in a family of music lovers, starting out under the influence of the records brought into the house by his older brothers. "I was lucky that there was a surfeit of music in the household," McCabe tells me, over the phone from his home in Shropshire. "There was a real diversity. My eldest brother was into Northern Soul and metal – you couldn't really have got two more polar opposites. So he had Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin records, and then all this Northern Soul. Then my other brother was a product of his time really – he was a Pink Floyd fan who was into punk."

But McCabe was soon developing his own tastes. "There were a couple of moments in time where it suddenly became my thing, rather than something inherited from my brothers," he reveals. "That became really important to me. A lot of my life I've had the younger brother syndrome, being in the shadow of… literally as well, because physically they were the sporting types. I was the runt really. So it was really important to me to find something of my own."

That something came when he got into electro music at school in the early 1980s, following that movement into Detroit techno and then Warp Records, with a particular love of Autechre. This may not be reflected in the music he has made up to this point, but he says that, "I wouldn't play the guitar the way I do were it not for the fact that I like electronic music so much."

He also discloses that he has a vast backlog of electronic music that he has made over the years that has never been released. "I always kept the two strains separate in The Verve," he explains. "I didn't want to confuse matters. Plus I've always been worried that I'm a dabbler or a dilettante or whatever and my lack of confidence has stopped me from seeing it through."

This diversity is perhaps more apparent in his latest musical project. McCabe has formed Black Submarine (formerly Black Ships) with Simon Jones, the former Portishead drummer Mig Schillace and Davide Rossi, strings visionary for Goldfrapp and Coldplay, whom McCabe and Jones met during the recording of The Verve's swansong, Forth. An initial plan for a Massive Attack-style revolving roster of singers was abandoned in favour of permanent vocalist Amelia Tucker. The heavier, rockier side of the Massive Attack oeuvre isn't a bad reference point for Black Submarine's brand of murky, string-laden psychedelic trip-hop, with elements of folk, electronica and even industrial thrown into the melting pot.

"It encompasses genres rather than switching between them I think," McCabe says of the band's debut album New Shores. "There's an element of confusion about the record that we might have tried to squash in an earlier lifetime, but now we kind of embrace it. It's more honest."

There are elements of confusion in McCabe's choices for his Baker's Dozen. It reflects his diverse tastes – Funkadelic to Steve Reich; John Carpenter to Mobb Deep – and eschews records by The Beatles, Stones, Dylan and VU that are usually commonplace on lists like this compiled by his contemporaries.

"I think everybody goes back and does their homework. We definitely did that in The Verve. You want to find all the best stuff and you want to be an expert in your field. So you go back and find all these incredible, classic records. And while it would be nice to say that you weren't listening to The Human League in 1982, and that you were actually listening to something that is now in the pantheon – the canon – I may as well be honest about it. These are the records that were important to me, the pivotal ones."

New Shores by Black Submarine is out now via Kobalt Music; click on the image below to begin scrolling through Nick's choices


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Mar 11, 2014 2:25pm

Sounds like a guy with eclectic tastes, which I didn't expect from knowing his work with The Verve. Good stuff.

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Star sail
Mar 11, 2014 9:15pm

This was a revelation. Full of interesting stories about records that I now look forward to checking out. Always the best thing about this excellent series. (Nick, your music has been a huge part of my life since I - somehow - managed to get into a Verve gig at the Jericho Tavern aged 15.)

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Mar 11, 2014 11:16pm

Seems a nice lad

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Mar 12, 2014 11:34am

Love Nick's guitar playing so much; 'Reprise' from A Northern Soul still gives me goosebumps after about 1000 listens ;)

Nice to see shout-outs for Autechre and Mobb Deep as well...

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Mar 12, 2014 12:37pm

In reply to autechrejambo:

This, totally! Just an astonishing piece of music/guitar playing/alchemy!

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Mar 12, 2014 1:11pm

Great to read about someone's obvious love and passion for music, made me want to check a few things...thanks.

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Mar 13, 2014 10:16am

Sometimes I google 'Life's An Ocean - Jools Holland 1997' to be reminded of the moment when everything I knew about what guitars could and should do was irrevocably changed. This man is a genius in the true sense of the word.

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teddy dogs
Mar 22, 2014 7:29pm

Love Nick's descriptions of why these albums mean so much to him. Can't wait to check out a lot of this stuff.

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lisa m. washer
Mar 24, 2014 8:07pm

I would be the first to comment on nick and simons jones talent as well. My god simon soooo good looking back the and talented and still is. And nick as well,. Too bad richards ego got in the way or who knows the verve might still be together,. I will buy the black suberine c. D. When it comes out look forward to it lol lisa m. Washer

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May 24, 2014 12:32pm

Fantastic interview. Some of the greatest guitar lines in British rock from the 90s come from this guy. There were supposed to be deluxe reissues of A Northern Soul and A Storm In Heaven but it takes all 4 members to sign off on it. Imagine the studio outtakes! Also there was talk of a live Verve record release.

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