Legendary guitarist Nick McCabe talks about his new band, The Black Ships, consisting of members of Portishead, Goldfrapp and The Verve, their unique approach to recording, the state of the record industry and what went wrong with Richard Ashcroft. The Black Ships recently played their first gig, a sold out show at King's College and released their first recording, the 25 minute epic, Korufone EP.
DiS: Congratulations on the EP, it has an interesting structure, starting with the vocal track and then breaking down into the more experimental instrumental stuff.
NM: Yeah, we don’t want people to be horrified when we do this in the future really. One of the things that happened with the Verve was that a large section of the fan base had come to see us live post Urban Hymns.
DiS: Like everyone at Haigh Hall (The Verve homecoming gig, to a sell-out forty thousand crowd).
NM: Yeah, exactly, going, “What the fuck is this shit”.
DiS: There has always been two Verve’s, especially out here in the US. Those that think The Verve is “That angry guy walking down the street singing Bittersweet Symphony”, and then there are those that obsess over the bootlegs of Gravity Grave.
NM: Yes, and it’s difficult because that never really got reconciled. This time we are keen to avoid misconceptions from day one.
DiS: So from the start you are releasing something more experimental and less commercial so people don’t expect a rock n roll album?
NM: Well the album is a collection of songs, but the idea was not originally to write songs, per se, so we found ourselves in the middle of having eighty pieces of music to turn into songs.
DiS: Some of the slow dark heavy grooves remind me of the last three songs on A Northern Soul, with Davide Rossi’s (of Goldfrapp) violin on top.
NM: Yeah, when we met Dav it just seemed obvious really; it was the logical next step. I quite enjoyed it when Tongie (Simon Tong, former Verve Urban Hymns era second guitarist). I changed my role considerably. I actually have got a penchant for Fleetwood Mac and AOR, in amongst all the experimental stuff; I do have a taste for really good pop music. I embraced that for a while, and then queried it later, as you are probably aware. I’m a little bit disappointed in the reception Forth got (The Verve’s 2008 come-back album), but I can understand why, it did go off course towards the end. It’s the typical story you get from bands when they are signed to major labels, certain aspects of control get usurped. I thought I was making another kind of record.
DiS: It would have been nice to see that album live.
NM: That’s the major pitfall of that record, it was ready to go live but for whatever reason Richard (Ashcroft) didn’t want to do it. We were ready to go but then it didn’t happen and people felt snubbed, which maybe bred negativity in the press towards the album.
NM: During that period though, Si and myself were pretty prolific. We had played together not as The Verve, just a year earlier, just the two of us working on new material. So we had reacquainted with what we could do, and we are to all intents and purposes a team, Si and myself. I had already forged that relationship with Mig (Schillace, The Black Ships drummer, formerly of Portishead), and then when Dav got on board it was like, “oh, wow, look at this!” It was serendipity, we ended up with four people with different personalities and different backgrounds, but we all clicked musically, with a rampant passion for playing again. It was always difficult with the Verve because it seemed that it got to the point that rehearsals were reduced to a functional preparation.
DiS: I saw you out here in SF before Coachella (headlining in 2008) and you basically played a greatest hits set. Was that your decision?
NM: It would be lovely to pass it off as someone else’s decision but that’s not the case. Obviously we have to clear a lot of things through Richard. So in isolation when we were rehearsing we had A Storm in Heaven and A Northern Soul ready to play, and quite a lot of b-sides too, which is why my pedal board grew to that ridiculous size. But it would have been delusional to think we could play the main stage at Coachella and not play 'Bittersweet Symphony' without getting fucking tomatoes thrown at us.
DiS: So with TBS, do you just walk into the studio, press record and play for hours, and edit it down later?
NM: Pretty much, that is the process. It’s something that I trust now. Pre-meditating jams never really works. They key thing is to keep recording all the time. Everything we’re recorded will find some kind of outlet somewhere. Just picking up instruments will instantly get something and it’s exciting. We don’t ever go back and play the songs again; there would be something kind of fake about that.
DiS: That’s pretty unique these days, not many bands do that. That was also the case with the early Verve stuff, and you’d look around at all the other bands out there and wander why they weren’t doing the same thing. Is it frustrating for you, as producer, trying to edit it down afterwards?
NM: I wear too many hats, there’s no doubt about it. The first sessions were recorded in Copenhagen, we got a decent drum sound but the instrument sounds were pretty shit, but the performances had something about them. But the more you play with them and edit them you get a paler version of what you originally had. I come to the conclusion recently that for all the fidelity in the world, if you haven’t got a good performance, you haven’t got a fucking recording.
DiS: That’s what Neil Young says.
NM: I’m a big admirer of Neil Young; I can definitely see him getting that. If there’s no magic there it’s not going to do anything for you. And I’m sure musicians of a certain caliber can manufacture magic. But for something that is essentially crude rock n’ roll, you’re better off just to capture that initial spark, and nowhere better does that happen than when you are creating the thing in the first place. You hear each other play and your minds become kind of melded, like a fucking Vulcan mind meld (laughs).
DiS: So, literally the first time you hit those notes, or hit that pedal, that’s being recorded and that’s what stays on the record, and it’s never played again?
NM: Yeah, and if you do go back to it, it needs to be extrapolation rather than making things sound pro, which is a completely misguided way of doing things. And when you see bands do take after take after take, you can see the soul dripping away. Being in a studio with a singer getting more and more weary, inevitably you come back to the first take. Richard was Mr. One Take King; his first take would always be great.
DiS: The exception would be John Lennon recording endless takes of 'Twist and Shout' until he’s so angry and raspy, then that’s the good take.
NM: Well that’s shows that it just a state of mind really, if it takes anger to get you into the zone. Anyway this method and a method that works for us. The editing is a chore, but I kind of enjoy it. I get to put the white coat on.
DiS: Did Charley (Bickers, guest vocalist on the Korufone EP opening track) write the lyrics and melody to 'Rain Down On Me'?
NM: Yes, he did. This is like the second phase. After having this huge body of music, just letting everyone free at it.
DiS: His vocal line is great, it reminds me of Jason Pierce.
NM: I actually had in mind Greg Dulli (of The Afghan Whigs and The Twilight Singers) for that track. I was in discussion with him about doing it, and I ended up playing guitar on the new Twilight Singers album (Dynamite Steps). It was supposed to be a quid pro quo scratch back situation, but Charley being the greedy sod that he is got to it first. We had a fantasy football mentality to it, like, “alright, who can we get, we’ll give Neil Young a ring!” because Dav played with Neil Young recently
NM: Yeah, it’s one of his more treasured moments. Neil’s obviously a hero to all of us. But then we found ourselves surrounded by friends and family, my daughter Elly sings on one of the songs, which feels good. Even though we are making what I consider to be epic and grand music, at the core it’s made by human beings. The band feels like family now anyway, with the amount of time and discussions we’ve had together. I’ve known Si for 22 years now.
DiS: That’s a long time...
NM: Yeah, it feels like really nice team. The rehearsal we had the other night (Before TBS sold out debut gig at King’s College Student Union), was the first time we had all of the guest singers there together. It was really sweet to see everyone getting on.
DiS: It seems like there’s a lot of good will towards the band. How’s the album progressing?
NM: It’s shaping up really nicely. Si keeps saying that it's 87% done. (laughs)
DiS: You’re still at 87%?
NM: I’d actually say more like 89%. But really, I’m just about to get cracking on it again now. Some songs just need a good mix. One song needs a restructure. But we’re are really on the home run now.
DiS: So no more recording?
NM: Well, I actually recorded some more guitar yesterday. I can’t resist tweaking. It’s addictive.
DiS: That’s the problem when you’re writing recording and producing your own thing, it’s hard to let it go, like Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds
NM: Even though these tunes have been floating around for the last two years some have changed radically in the last few months in rehearsal. I don’t feel like I’ve lost my objectivity towards it. I suppose that it helps that I’m not off my tits anymore (laughs). It’s been easier to maintain concentrations. And it’s fascinating to see how little diversions things take as the songs evolve.
DiS: It’s funny how you talk about that little spark, when you press record and play something for the first and last time, and it's there, but then there is this wake of perfectionism that comes on the back end. The front end is so raw, in the moment, and then it turns into something forensic.
NM: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. I used to joke about it being like picking the carrots out of vomit (laughs). But different people work in different ways. The day that I was mixing 'Northern Rock' (track 3 on the Korufone EP) Amelia (Tucker, guest vocalist) sent me an email with a slinky Nina Simone vocal on it and it sounded great. So on the day I’m finally completing something it takes a left turn. But it’s actually more exciting than frustrating. Songs take on many lives of their own.
DiS: Because you don’t have Richard there, and you’re not off your tits, does thing feel more personal to you? And are you more nervous about its release? It’s your baby.
NM: It’s all of our babies. Charley jokingly called me the ringmaster the other day, which I think is a fair summation of my role in The Black Ships. I have my will that I want to impose on the band, and luckily it’s in sync with everyone else. We don’t argue, but we discuss all the time, which is actually knackering. After three days of chatting with the boys about a song, I’m worn out. I’m actually not really concerned about how it’s received, I want it to reach as many people as possible, but without sounding arrogant, I’m convinced of its worth. I always remind myself that if I like something, somebody else will. And although it’s obvious, the first person I need to please is myself. I think sometimes people forget that, and I know I have before. But there’s a lot of work to do, I actually like handling the visuals as well which is something I’ve never done before, but I’m absolutely loving it. But I’m so busy. People ask me “Have you heard any good music lately?”, and I’m like, “No” (laughs). I’m either chasing my little boy around changing his nappy, or I’m working on this. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
DiS: It’s a labour of love.
NM: It is, yeah. Me and Si were playing some friends some of The Black Ships tunes the other day and we both said, “This is the best band we’ve ever been in!” And that’s the genuine feeling; there are so many moments that are better than anything I’ve ever done before. There was a lot of compromise involved with The Verve.
DiS: Maybe more so later on?
NM: But even in the early days, as young men, we didn’t really have a clear picture of what we wanted to do, and you can’t at that age. For every point of pride in that band, that I can count as a victory, there’s always some memory that spoils it, how we botched it up. The only problem now is working out how to conduct business in this new climate. It's weird putting out music and thinking, “Why isn’t the whole world downloading it? It’s free!”
DiS: We are in a strange time when free music is available, I’m sure it will change again in 5 years.
NM: It’s all so scattered. There are various websites that you have to wade through to get to music that you like. It’s so decentralized. One of the things I bang on about is the lack of a curator, a figure like John Peel who was a fulcrum for new music. I suppose you have Zane Lowe in the UK but there really isn’t anybody who can cast shadows, there is no character a large as John Peel. And in the eighties we had independent labels that you could trust like 4AD and Factory. You knew what you were getting. By having those houses of music you trusted, it made it easier to direct yourself to new records. There’s just so much music now, everybody’s got a computer in their room, everyone’s banging tunes out and it's great but live music will bite the dust and it will take a couple of hardy souls to make sure original music is still made and we’re not forced to go out a watch horrible covers bands.
DiS: That’s pretty pessimistic. It’s pretty bad in America too.
NM: I remember in the early days of the Verve when we first toured America, after being subjected to regional radio in England, listening to a Morton Feldman piece on New York radio sounded great. Although there is lot more happening on the airwaves in London now, but it’s very fragmented.
DiS: You went through a lot of record industry bullshit when you were quite young, it must be nice to doing what you are doing now and just put it out there.
NM: Yeah, of course it is. And the greatest thing is that when something comes out, one, it’s not been fucked with and, two, nobody's been telling me they want to fuck with it. One of the worse things about releasing eight minute singles with the Verve was that every step of the way someone was on your back about it. You’d still do what you wanted to do but you’d have to spend all your time defending your corner. In retrospect I understand now that if you have got people working for you and they have a certain remit to sell your music for you then you have to make their jobs a little easier. But we were young and hard headed enough not to give a shit about that. Now I’m looking at this situation and thinking that this isn’t particularly difficult music, this is music everybody can enjoy. I’d like it to reach a lot of people but I’m still not willing to compromise. Having said that I’ve got a three and a half minute edit of Rain Down On Me, should anybody want it. And it actually works.
DiS: That’s songs a single, I know that’s not the way you’re going but it’s got a swagger to it.
NM: The edit is a faded three and a half minutes, and at that moment it fades it’s a satisfying piece of music. It would work on the radio but I’m trying to not let that become the focus. I think it highly unlikely that we’d get on to any of the radio stations over here anyhow; they’ve got agendas that we don’t fit into. So we’re going to carry on doing what we’re doing, and there’ll be no concessions to FM. It think that’s the problem for most alternative bands, whatever that means, is that radio is so formatted. So young bands go, “OK, this is the format, this is what we need to do”, so they adhere to the format, and the format gets narrower every year. It’s sad. And there’s nowhere for it to go, so someone needs to go, “You know what, let’s just start again and rip up the format, because it’s just got a bit boring.”
DiS: It’s like that band The Big Pink, I once heard an early demo of theirs and it sounded great, and then a year later I heard their big single it was so overproduced and dry, and they’d just followed the numbers and sold some records, but it sounded bad.
NM: That’s what happens now; young band gets record deal, goes into Star Trek studio with SFL desk and has to make an expensive sounding record. And the record company goes, Oh brilliant they’ve made an expensive sounding record, so we can put money behind it and make it a hit. If you are playing the game then you make the people that work for you very happy, and they get on board and work their arses off for you. Plenty of talented bands have gone by the wayside because they have stuck to their vision too firmly. But that’s what we’re stuck with. Alternative music in the UK is kind of over really.
DiS: It’s the same here (in the US).
NM: Everything has splintered of into niches upon niches and we’ve only got ourselves to blame. It’s not enough to be away from the mainstream, we have to be away from each other as well. We’re losing sight of the main thing, and it’s about quality first and foremost.
DiS: The Verve split for the first time after releasing A Northern Soul, which sounded like a band at their creative peak.
NM: It's funny hearing people talk about A Northern Soul like that, because at the time I had a few issues in my life. I was quite severely depressed. And I thought we were completely backed into a corner. I don’t think I would have been capable of playing the game at that point because I felt like everybody had it in for me. As it turns out, I was right.
DiS: It’s remembered well critically, and rightly so, it sounds like a band making a mature complex record later in their career like The White Album. Do you ever listen to it?
NM: I tried a while back but it needs to accompany half a bottle of red wine or whatever, and I don't do that anymore. (laughs)
DiS: How are you going to release The Black Ships album?
NM: We’re not young and idealistic anymore, well, maybe we are idealistic but we’re not young. What would be really nice is some benevolent organization gives us Carte Blanche to give us out own imprint, and leave us alone to carry on with it. But, realistically, we may have to go it alone. I don’t think we are going to make any cash from selling records, but given the opportunity anyone who comes to see us live will see that…Oh god I’m starting to sound like Richard Ashcroft now, sorry…that we (adopts thick Ashcroft impression) we are going to shit on everybody from a great height, live. But we are really really good (laughs), sorry.
DiS: Beyond you and Si being great musicians, the band is also quite unique.
NM: And it's real, it’s not manufactured, and it’s true, and we believe in it. I’m forty this year and I’ve heard a lot of music in my lifetime, and this is what I’ve been waiting for. I only make music because I feel like there’s a void where a specific sound should be.
DiS: You said back in 1999 that you would like to release a 25 minute piece of music, and do it on your own terms, and it seems like it’s finally happening.
NM: With the all the frustrations of The Verve, Si and I always talked about having a second stream of music that we would release every month, so we could release all those improvise pieces of music like “Stamped” (Urban Hymns era B-Side).
DiS: That would have been interesting...
NM: But it was marketing man’s nightmare. We’d always get slapped back down when we mentioned it. It’s like with the visuals thing. I always wanted to do the visuals for The Verve, but it never happened. I just see possibilities everywhere. For the live show I created an hour long piece of ambient music that plays with the visuals between songs. I go to sleep every night to it. I’m thinking about releasing it. Nobody is there to say “No” basically (laughs). I’ve committed most of my life to making music, but I need to make sure that there’s some kind of business brain involved somewhere.
DiS: A lot of people consider you one of the best guitarists of the last twenty years. Do you think if you were more of an eccentric more people would recognize that?
NM: I think of myself as a pretty appalling guitarist really. (laughs) I’ve got a very narrow range and I’m happy like that. I play what I want to hear, and I’m not about to start rocking out on stage.
DiS: Probably for the best
NM: The ethos through everything has to be to do whatever best for me. I’ve played in the States a few times where people have shouted “Move!” (laughs, puts on mock English gentleman’s accent)”No, I’m very happy here thank you”
DiS: Are you going to tour?
NM: It’s bit of a tall order to ask people to come and see you play when they haven’t heard a note of music. I recognized that a couple weeks before the gig, that’s why Korufone got released when it did. But we are itching to go, so we will have some more confirmed dates soon.
DiS: How is it producing yourself?
NM: I’ve had to defend that already though, someone said “Nick’s too modest, he shouldn’t be producing his own guitar” what do they think I do? Look at the mixer and say ”ooh I’m a little bit too loud again”. I mix for the band not for me, the faders go where they should go.
DiS: You’ve probably produced more records than you’ve played guitar on at this point anyway, starting with The Beta Band back in 1997.
NM: I was recording before I ever even picked up a guitar; I’ve been working with a four-track since I was 14 years old. That’s what started me playing guitar in the first place, synthesizers and tape machines.
DiS: Where did all the delay (guitar effect) come from?
NM: I had a Watkins Copycat, a Roland SH-101 and a four-track. That’s why I don’t play without delay, I just doesn’t sound right to me. Every since I first picked up a guitar there’s been a Watkins Copycat in the corner.
DiS: You mentioned earlier you liked it when Simon Tong was playing with you, but you were always able to create that raucous noise on your own.
NM: Well this is the problem really. I don’t like playing guitar on my own, I feel like I’m covering too much ground, not very well. The dissonant notes, which are more interesting to me. Playing triads doesn’t speak to me. Major is happy, minor is sad…they don’t make me feel either of those things. There's more interest for me in single notes.
DiS: Absolutely, you used to pull in notes over Si's bass line that would not necessarily be in the chord, but just implied. Even if it’s just feedback, you can get so much from that over playing G Major or whatever.
NM: Yeah, it’s bit of a balancing act, where it stops being music, and stops being pleasing. That’s where I like it. AC: Yeah it needs to be a little bit evil and a little bit dark.
NM: Yeah, sometimes I get it right.