How bizarre it all really is. Here's a band that was for all intent dead and buried just two fine and savvy albums into its career. A band that promised so much yet seemed implacably determined to impale itself upon its own internal dilemmas.

You get that with characters, big strong, lean characters like singer/songwriter Richard Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe. Men who - alone - would be the focus on any other band. Leaders, strong-willed, creative and with definite visions splendid of their d-chord in the thunder of rock. And that's not to demean or underestimate in any way the place and impact of bassist Simon Jones and drummer Peter Salisbury. Backline and backbone.

Their debut, A Storm In Heaven, was an ambient, spacey, psychedelic gem: not bad for a first stab by a bunch of lads from Wigan. Lots of big open atmospheres, lilting melodies that rushed and rolled rather like gentle waves caressing the groin of the shore; then just as the seduction seemed complete a brief, intense pounding would erupt on a squall of guitar and rolling thunder, and a maelstrom of boiling energy would embrace the passivity and render it helpless to the plunge and fury. The Sun, The Sea and Slide Away spring readily to mind.

Yes, A Storm In Heaven was aptly titled and did very nicely. Its successor and big brother, A NorthernSoul, was a much different affair. The Verve upped the wattage; bluff, blustering fat rock songs that shed the ethereal cloak and into the mystic of their predecessor and strode down the footpath with a reality bites sharpness and structure imbedded in the beat of their footfall and Ashcroft's pointed lyricism.

On Your Own, This Is Music and History were particular splendours: mean, lithe, beasts of songs that whipped and whirled and stomped ... the future was as palpably intriguing as it was disgustingly full of that old cliche 'potential'. Yes, The Verve were poised to be anything. An intense, brooding, darkly qualitative inspector of the human rant and rave to survival. They called Ashcroft, 'Mad Richard', but forgot that in madness there is a clarity of thought, sight and vision that sometimes borders on genius.

In his case it did. Not that it looked like it in 1995 when The Verve, rent asunder on the turmoil of Ashcroft and McCabe's personal bile, split seemingly shattered for good. Emotion is a hard mistress and her cost is often high.

So there we all were, sitting around bemoaning the loss of yet another great 'could have been' and making up silly stories of 'what might have been'. Time passes, Brit music does some weird limbo and splits itself in half: dance music wriggles out of its techno coma and swallows Portishead's Bristol sound whole; trip hop begins and ends over night and everybody invents about a hundred new names for sounds that come and go almost weekly - but the dark, gas light, icicle works of Geoff Burrows and Beth Gibbons' original vision are enough to instil a new mood; at the other end of the spectrum somebody trips over a bunch of old punk records, realises that the UK will never get a punk and ska revival like the US is experiencing through the almost comic caricatures of Green Day, Rancid and friends. What to do then? Marry it to electronics, of course. The result at its worst extreme is something painful and stupidly obvious like The Prodigy; at its best it's the whirling, stomping all hands to the turntable Chemical Brothers who ended up sounding remarkably like post-hippie space rockers, the oft-lambasted, but much loved, Ozric Tentacles. The Chemicals get to sell the records, the Ozrics get to wonder about fate.

Meanwhile, the other half is getting on with business. At its very earthiest, down in the motherlode, Britain has always been a nation of songsmiths celebrating, anguishing over, pointedly observing, wryly reporting and sardonically concluding the very way of life from the pit to the palace. From that core and history - that has its greatest vein in the '60s beat, pop and rock orgasm when Britain swang like the pendulum do and its songwriters matched quills and ink smears word for word, sentence for sentence, ditty for ditty with their Transatlantic counterparts in the big revolution - fresh young men and women began taking up the legacy and embarking on their own peculiar journey for the Holy Grail - a decent song.

All of a sudden, Brit rock and pop that was a droopy dangle of a dying limb, sprouted great bunches of sodding pulsating '90s bloomers and the land was rich with song again. And competition breeds hardy varieties determined to outlive and grow beyond its original limitations. For every Oasis press release and front page story, another song was writ in determined belief that the time was right and rock - albeit in its latest disguise - could reclaim the throne the pallid, emotionless, techno pretenders had usurped.

But Wigan is a droll and grimy place; the kind of knee deep in mundanity and depression fish and chip town that fosters not only the need to escape - and there are many ways of escape - but a certain hardiness of spirit, an ability to endure, a blunt realism that becomes a stoic philosophical heroism. And that is the haemoglobin of The Verve.

They did endure; they overcame; they pulled back together the strings and stretched nerves and came together on a ocean of Ashcroft's deepest confessions and delivered Urban Hymns, not so much a record as a testimony to life, to taking it, wearing it, going through it, and surviving it. Lyric and music so rich and full of raw emotion that it threatened to swamp its listener and add them to its burgeoning banquet of 'you and me' pictorials, exquisitely rendered and heartachingly honest.

'Mad Richard' was mad no longer: The Verve, as he promised, had become the greatest band in the world. Most of the critics agreed with him. Most paid due homage. The Verve were no longer the question mark or the cliche. They were the statement and the definition.

THE iZINE is particularly proud to present this interview with Richard Ashcroft and Simon Jones in three parts: simply necessary because of its extreme length. Unusually for us, it's run as question and answer format. You'll understand why when you read it. This then is The Verve in their own words in late '97.

RA = Richard Ashcroft SJ = Simon Jones

Let's pick up the story after History? (The last official single culled from the A Northern Soul LP before splitting in September 1995)

Basically I've said it before in the press, there is no answer that is going to explain it to anyone that we don't want it explained it to. So, the band split up for the reasons that we can't go into but after History what happened was we put the single out and every member of the band was told what was gonna happen and we all went into a period of mourning. I went offf on holiday and, as I said before, I heard History on the radio two days after we split up the band.

When I heard it the first time on the radio I was looking at the ocean in Cornwall and that was a moving experience. basically, from then on, we went on and I gave them phone calls to write songs, "Let's get just ... let's keep doing some things, just to fill the time, and it would be great if ... there's no point in stopping dead, you know. That is an impossibility actually, so .... the reason things happen is because they had to happen this way. I had to write songs, we had to go in and recreate from ... make music because we don't know how to do anything else. We are terrible at doing anything else, basically.

SJ: We've never done anything else ...

Were there any over-riding lessons you learnt from that period?

RA: You've got to learn sympathy for other people, I think; to be in a band you've gotta learn to ... basically have empathy with people. Basically, I became older in that two-year-period and I became ... whatever a man is. I definitely made the transition from late teens, early twenties, to 25, being through a lot of shit, I think. I experienced a lot of things. It gave me the mindset to look back and say that in this situation and that I could have done this or that or whatever.

But the main thing for me was to have music, stage, shows, the whole feeling when your band is working and doing it, and out there and music being out there. How much I actually missed it and how much I needed to do that.

SJ: For me personally, no matter how traumatic it was, breaking up and actually recording all the solo and touring after that, I wouldn't change a thing. I definitely feel older through the experience and without that experience we wouldn't have got back ... If we carried on we wouldn't have got the feeling we've got now ... Everyone is totally into what we're doing. we came to a point which wasn't 100 per cent and we weren't holding high about what we were doing.

So without going through what we've been through we wouldn't have what we have now, which is special. We lost something along the way; being older now we can look back and think 'we won't let that happen again'.

RA: I think, the next time obviously the band splits up will be the time the ban splits up. And you gotta be realistic about it and that time ... But what's gonna happen now is we gonna use that time and ... We are already thinking about the next records. I've gotta dictaphone with me, I'm on the next phase - the higher side of creativity; as a band we are just all thinking about our next steps and how to go into this business and how to come out smelling good. And how to come out with your visions and ideas being seen, not someone else's idea of what you should be.

It does entail releasing more records than the band has been doing over the past few years and it does mean that record company's gotta keep up with your creativity and your creative output, rather than the other way round. It's giving the power back to the music makers, the artists, the people who should have the fucking power. But, over the last 30 years, they've abused that power and record companies have now taken them for what they are.

So all that period was a great period for thinking and now its kicked off into this I've gotta lot better insight into what and how to get this band the way it should be. Two years is a long time to think about things and I've got a lot of good ideas in that period. How to deal with people and how to get across that we are the ones in power, we are the ones making this incredible music; no-one's got the right to tell me how many records I should be making over x-amount of years.

Basically all they should do, like any great record company before, is that if they believe in somebody and that somebody says, "On this night I've gotta a song and I need to record it, get a studio", they need to get a studio booked. There doesn't need to be blue tape and, like, bullshit, you know what I mean.

Get back to that respect when John Lennon could ring up and go and record Instant Karma in the night, Phil Spector and all that. People knew something was going to happen, so he's gonna have the studio.

SJ: We're gonna do it on our own terms, we gotta do it on our own terms like that or we're not gonna be happy. And we'll end up with the band breaking up again if we can't do it the way we wanna because we're gonna be frustrated any other way. We don't have to do eveything we are told to do, we do it the way we wanna do it or people in this band ain't gonna be happy. That's gonna be a problem.

RA: That's really exciting to get people to start re-thinking the way they do things in every walk of this business. It's like rethink that decision you just made because I don't agree with it and the reason I don't agree with it is I'm the fucking source. You know what I mean, I'm the band's biggest fan. I know what this band should be doing. I mean I'm seriously contemplating not doing any interviews for a couple of years because there are few bands and few musicians who are capable of doing that kind of thing and actually meaning something.

I think I've got some things to say but I've noticed over the last few interviews how this journalism is a very low ebb. I've not got Hunter S. Thompson or whomever to interview us, or Stanly Bowin in his prime, or whatever, these great writers who had insights into musicians and why they make music or whatever.

These people are long gone and I've not seen this generation's set of writers. Maybe they don't write for music press, maybe they write books or whatever. I don't where they are. So to me it would be a good time as well for us to step out of print until there's somebody out there who's good enough to fucking write about the band. I'm not interested in being involved in some comic book tabloid journalism because it's just wasting my time. I could be thinking about other things.

We are one of the few bands who could say "Right, no more interviews for two years". And all our fans would understand because they know they'd get more records, basically, and better records. It all seems so simple ...

To page 2/2 of URBAN TIES