From the moment I first heard those searing guitars on debut single Everything Flows, I was sold on Teenage Fanclub. And although I find it difficult to comprehend this, it’s now been a quarter of a century since their first crossover success, the Bandwagonesque album.
By 1997 they had two more big-sellers behind them, their place at rock’n’roll’s top table secured by the Grand Prix and Songs from Northern Britain long players, again perfectly showcasing those close harmonies and irresistible hooks, the band having toured with Nirvana (and touted as Kurt Cobain’s favourite band), Radiohead and REM, and making five UK top-40 singles.
Fast forward a bit and – six years on from their rightly-acclaimed Shadows album – 10th long player Here is out in a fortnight, giving me the excuse to track down Ontario resident and TFC co-founder Norman Blake, who was enjoying a cuppa at his parents’ home in Glasgow before a long day of rehearsals in the old country.
“It involves a lot of songs we’ve completely forgotten how to play since we recorded them, and we haven’t done a proper tour for almost six years now. We recorded the initial backing tracks nearly three and a half years ago, so you really have to go back, take them apart, try and remember them. But it’s going well – we’ll get there!”
Slow going when you consider they released five albums in the first six years. Then again, this LP was recorded in Provence as well as band-mate Raymond McGinley’s base in Glasgow, then mixed in Hamburg and mastered in London.
“We like to make it all more of an adventure. Being in a different environment can be very inspiring. Raymond found this fantastic studio in the south of France with a really amazing EMI desk I believe the (Rolling) Stones recorded a couple of things on. It’s kind of sad that a lot of these big studios are fairly inexpensive now. There just isn’t the work. But that’s great for us – we get to work in amazing places.
“We came back to Glasgow almost two years ago and carried on, then almost a year ago were in Hamburg, mixing. It’s been ready almost a year but our US label, Merge, had to re-schedule a release. And after five years, what’s another year?”
And there was me thinking that was Ireland’s Eurovision success Johnny Logan. I decide to let this lie though, instead mentioning Norman’s transatlantic move to Canada, nearly seven years ago.
“Modern technology keeps everyone in touch. That and cheap flights – that transatlantic flight is my commute to work! With the internet, communication’s easy. All we really have is a five-hour time difference.”
The tour’s North America leg in October starts in Toronto. Is that close to home?
“Yes, one hour west. I’m going to be able to enjoy having no jetlag, whereas the other guys will be a bit tired for the first couple of days.”
The new album will be available in Europe and North America on vinyl, digipak CD, digital download and even limited edition cassette.
“We’ve always had vinyl releases – even in the lean years when it seemed that format would disappear. But I too was really surprised – talking to the people who manufacture our records – that kids are buying cassettes again.”
Norman, aged 50 and with a daughter back home ‘coming up to 21’, remains a vinyl man though.
“Absolutely. Analog recordings are straight from master-tape to disc – everything else is pressed from there. It’s a better listen and a better experience really. You’ve got the 12” artwork, an inner sleeve with the lyrics … there’s really nothing like it. And the act of turning over to play the other size is a pleasurable experience.”
That’s true, and as it happens I can still recall my mate Alan playing me A Catholic Education all those years ago on vinyl. That takes me right back. And now, 26 years on, Here will be the third album on their own label, PeMa. I’m guessing there won’t ever be another big company like Columbia – where they were after Creation, making Howdy! in 2000 – behind TFC then.
“I wouldn’t imagine so. We’re at a stage now where although there’s a little more work on the administrative side, it’s better to be in control of the music we make. And there are now companies that can do the ‘fulfilment’ side of all that. In terms of advances, you have to pay it back anyway. We pay for the recordings ourselves. There’s a risk in that, but you’re in charge and no one’s saying, ’We love it, but there’s no single’!”
As it is, there is one anyway – the super-catchy single, I’m in Love. Do you think that first release off the album is pretty much indicative of what we’re about to get?
“I think so, although it takes some shifts. The first few songs are classic Teenage Fanclub, but then we put the brakes on a bit, get a little more exploratory. We’re always aware we’re making a Teenage Fanclub record, and as there are three of us writing it wouldn’t make sense if one of us started bringing techno songs to the studio. That’s not going to work in this context. In some ways that’s a strain, but I think there’s a certain sound Teenage Fanclub have that we want to retain.”
That said, there’s a track on the album, I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive (one of many highlights I’d add, after my first three listens to Here), which has been described by Norman as having elements of ‘kraut-folk-rock’.
“There is! It goes into this metronomic, long outro.”
The band’s previous platter, Shadows – itself following a five-year break – was seen by Uncut as ‘the sound of a great group ageing gracefully’. But aside from that and Here, which LP is Norman most proud of?
“I think for me personally it’s probably the Grand Prix album, because that’s when I met my wife. Also the Songs From Northern Britain record.”
It’s been 22 years since Norman met Krista – originally from Canada, hence his later move – while she was working at The Manor recording studio in Oxfordshire, the former home of a certain Richard Branson.
“Yes, she was the housekeeper there, at the studio where Tubular Bells was recorded.”
Indeed. In fact, I still picture the original boss on the roof there, as he was at the beginning of a memorable 1980 BBC documentary about XTC recording Towers of London there, the owner at the time described by the narrator as ‘rock’n’roll’s merriest millionaire’.
“Well, my wife tells a great story from before I met her, about how she was walking in the gardens one day and saw this guy in a dark corner, having been told about this prowler, a local guy. She thought, ‘I bet I know who this is’, walked down, and it was Branson. He introduced himself and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind. I used to live here. I’m Richard.’ So they went up to the house for a cup of tea!”
Talking of name-dropping, the promo video for I’m in Love was recorded in and around Edwyn Collins’ studio in remote North East Scotland. It looks a nice part of the world too, and suitably remote. And it turns out that TFC have got to know the inspirational ex-Orange Juice frontman – who famously fought back from two cerebral haemorrhages and aphasia – well.
“Edwyn’s a good friend and an amazing guy. What happened to him, the way he dealt with that, and his recovery is absolutely inspirational.
“Edwyn and his wife Grace had a studio in London, but after a few years decided to return to Scotland, and the house where he lives was his grandfather’s. It’s in this sleepy little town, and it’s beautiful. And I think we were only the second band to record there, after Hooton Tennis Club. It’s a great spot.”
The afore-mentioned new single includes those revered TFC luscious harmonies, but with a smoother sound than the original fans might have expected if they’d lost touch with the band over recent years. Put it this way – if Norman’s opener on Shadows suggested Belle and Sebastian with edgy guitars, this LP’s first track brings to mind The Divine Comedy with six-string presence.
“Oh right! Okay. Well, that’s interesting, yeah!”
So are you mellowing as a band these days?
“I think we’ve always been fairly mellow. Satan – that’s about as thrash as we got!”
Oh yes, that gloriously-noisy 81-second track after sublime opener The Concept on Bandwagonesque.
“It’s got so much energy and it’s down to the drummer to keep that going! No disrespect though – all our drummers have been fantastic – Francis (MacDonald), and before that Paul (Quinn) and Brendan (O’Hare).
“But we’ve always been honest, writing about what happens in our life. We’re never going to write a front-page headline and create a story around it.”
I tell Norman I can’t believe it’s 25 years since Bandwagonesque and another since their grungier debut, A Catholic Education, was first getting back-to-back plays in my car. Which of those did he think was closest to the record the band first wanted to make?
“It’s difficult, we were listening to all sorts then, and with the first album were big fans of Sonic Youth and also influenced by the (Rolling) Stones’ Exile on Main Street. But when we met Don Fleming, who produced Bandwagonesque, he remarked how everyone was doing that sort of grunge thing, and we should focus on our harmonies, as no one else did that. That was very influential in the direction of the band. And then of course we started listening to Alex Chilton and Big Star.”
They were also rediscovering The Beatles around then, with mentions too at that stage for the likes of Badfinger, The Beach Boys and The Byrds, the latter’s influence soon standing out, as it does to this day.
“Yeah, I think with those broad musical tastes all those things will be an influence. It also takes a bit of time to establish your own. Initially, you’re the sum of your influences. And if you’re lucky enough to be around for more than three albums, then you’re probably starting to define your own sound.”
Bandwagonesque, their debut for Alan McGee’s Creation label, was recorded at Amazon Studios, just outside Kirkby in Merseyside, in barely four weeks, yet went on to sell half a million copies. And soon after, that studio operation moved into central Liverpool and became Parr Street Studios, where there was another TFC link later on.
“We actually went to Parr Street when we were mixing extra tracks for the compilation album for our Creation/Sony deal, recording three songs there. That was a great experience too.
“With regard to Alan McGee, I don’t think we’d actually signed a contract with him by then, but he was paying for the studio. He was a great guy. Theoretically, we could have sold those tracks to the highest bidder. That was the amazing thing about Creation – Alan put his own money in, took risks.”
I heard that Mr McGee rates that album alongside Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless as Creation’s finest moments. Yet it appears TFC’s success wasn’t something he banked on when signing them.
As tour manager Chas Banks put it on the sleevenotes to the 2002 Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds compilation, while the band has changed over the years, they always ‘held on tightly to their core understanding of just what Teenage Fanclub was and is about’. Is that about right?
“I think it is. Chas knows us better than most. But we’ve only gone from album to album, tour to tour. There’s never been a grand plan. We’ve been making it up as we’ve gone along for 27 years! If we ever got to the end of the recording process and said, ‘These aren’t very good’, difficult as that would be, I think we’d bin them.”
There’s also an element there of you impressing yourselves before looking to impress your public.
“Well, it’s not massively lucrative to be a musician these days. You have to really enjoy it and have to want to make albums. Also, it’s 10 albums now, so we’d hate our last album to be a turkey! And hopefully, we’ve maintained consistency.”
They certainly have, and as early as 1991 they were more or less in charge, co-producing their records. So I guess the way the music industry has gone these past 25 years has worked in their favour as true independent spirits.
“Yeah, and what’s amazing about music now is that anyone can make it. Most young people will have access to a computer and recording software. All you need is a microphone and instruments. The hardest thing is that there are so many people out there now, it’s difficult to be heard, and there’s no money in it, so labels are unwilling to put money forward for bands to tour. It’s much harder to establish yourself.”
Alan McGee also mentioned how in time – and pretty quickly – you proved you had three top songwriters. And as with the earlier albums, Here offers a ‘textbook representation of democracy in action’, with four tracks each from Norman, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley. That’s quite a rarity in itself, isn’t it?
“I think that’s been a strength for us. You’re not reliant on one person to write the material. We’re talking 10 albums, so around 120 songs upwards – a tall order. We’ve been lucky enough to share that burden. When we make an album we bring around six songs then try to whittle those down, focusing on around four. There’s definitely friendly competition too. When someone brings in a great song, you feel, ‘Wow, I’m really going to have to up my game!”
At this point I mention a recent Steve Lamacq BBC 6 Music radio interview with The Undertones, which suggested that – despite winning contributions from band members over the years – they still tended to look first to John O’Neill when it came to writing new material.
“Actually, I love The Undertones too. Absolutely brilliant, brilliant songs. I’ve met them a couple of times. That was a thrill, being such a big fan as a kid. They’re good guys and still out there too.”
Ah yes – a man after my own heart. Meanwhile, the latest TFC press release talks of an ‘almost telepathic musicianship’ between Norman, Gerard, Raymond and soundman David Henderson. Furthermore, drummer Francis MacDonald joined more than a decade ago, while keyboard player Dave McGowan has featured on two albums. So I’m guessing they’re a good fit too.
“Yeah, they are. I think that just happens over time. You find the musicians you enjoy working with, lock in, and stay together. We’ve been very lucky, although Dave’s with Belle and Sebastian too, so unable to rehearse this week – he’s off to the far north of Sweden. But he’s an amazing musician and it’s great to have him.”
Seeing as we’ve mentioned Belle and Sebastian there – and Norman is a good friend of Stuart Murdoch, for whom he passed over his duties as Rector of the University 0f Glasgow in 2001 – let’s talk a bit more about both bands’ home city and its music scene. Norman previously played with Soup Dragons front-man Sean Dickson and fellow Glaswegians BMX Bandits, and when Teenage Fanclub started out they were part of a scene of their own making, along with the likes of The Pastels, Primal Scream and The Jesus and Mary Chain. So was there a keen sense of competition among those outfits?
“I suppose there was. It was certainly inspirational. When we started there was a club called Splash One that Bobby Gillespie and some of his friends started. A lot of people met through that. I think they put on the first Sonic Youth show in Glasgow, and great bands like Wire and Felt. So you got to see these incredible bands and hear this amazing music. I think a lot of Glasgow musicians formed and focused around that scene.
“Also, certainly initially, record label people were deciding to stay put rather than go to London, which helped the Glasgow scene go from strength to strength. Many incredible bands have come from this city, and within 25 or so years it’s been seen globally as a music city.”
It certainly took a few years to get from Norman’s earlier band The Boy Hairdressers – described by Stephen McRobbie of The Pastels as an ‘idiosyncratic take on ‘60s baroque pop’ – to a Teenage Fanclub we would now recognise, and make proper headway. Was Gerard’s arrival the major catalyst?
“I think so. For the first record I think I wrote more or less all the songs, but very quickly everyone was contributing and part of the dynamic. There were no barriers to anyone writing, no captain. It wasn’t ever my band. It very quickly became our band.”
And do your Glaswegian roots keep you grounded about your worth as musicians and songwriters?
“I’m sure they probably do. I’m staying at my parents’ house at the moment, and my Mum’s not going to let me get too much up myself! We’re always kind of grounded here.”
The feeling I get from past interviews and comments from those who have worked with Teenage Fanclub is of a hard-working, committed band, but also one involving a group of good blokes, and friendly with it. And the band’s back-catalogue, continuing success and Norman’s amiable and honest nature in this interview confirmed that notion for me.
There’s plenty of talent there too, and Grammy-winning producer David Bianco, again for the 2002 compilation sleevenotes, talked of a ‘helping hand guiding the sessions for Grand Prix’. Have there been moments over the past three decades where it’s come naturally and others where you really had to work at it?
“There are definitely periods when it’s more of a struggle to write songs, but if that happens we just take our time. We never make a record until we’re ready and everyone has songs. I don’t think we’ve ever felt under too much pressure, other than personally.”
I didn’t get to see Teenage Fanclub live until January ’92 at Southampton University, 50 miles down the road from my Guildford base at the time. And then there was another truly memorable outing at The Forum, London, in late ’93, in the period leading up to the release of Grand Prix. Was that whole period a bit of a blur to Norman? After all, big things were happening for him at the time.
“It kind of was. We did a lot of back-to-back tours in America, and all these amazing things like going to Japan and playing with Nirvana. It was very intense, but I wouldn’t change it – an amazing experience.”
All these years on, the band remain live favourites, as suggested by their September sell-outs in Bristol, Islington, Edinburgh and Manchester, with more shows already sold out for the following 17-date UK leg from mid-November (after their return from North America). But will Norman and his band-mates be re-decorating venue dressing rooms for old time’s sake, copying their unlikely anti-rock’n’roll antics from all those years ago?
“That was at the Riverside, Newcastle. I remember we were talking about how horrible the dressing room was, with all that graffiti on the wall, asking our manager to phone the promoter and see if he could buy some paint. We did it, but as it turned out we couldn’t sit in there because of the toxic fumes from the freshly-painted walls, so didn’t really get to enjoy those pristine dressing rooms.”
The main UK tour runs from a November 15th opener at Inverness Ironworks through to a date in Dublin and two sell-outs in Glasgow in early December. For full details and much more on the band’s forthcoming antics, head to http://www.teenagefanclub.com/ or follow them via their Facebook and Twitter pages.