No big moves to London or even Liverpool for The Coral, it seems, an outfit perfectly happy with life on the Wirral, 22 years after their first fumblings at getting a band together.
As keyboard player Nick Power, at home in Hoylake painting his stairs when I called, put it, “We’re still all pretty much based in and around the area, or within a five-minute drive.”
In fact, Nick tells me they never moved away, even at their commercial peak around the time of second LP, Magic and Medicine, a 2003 UK No.1 and one of nine top-20 albums in all.
I briefly side-tracked him there, revealing how I was editing an official history of fellow prime Wirral export, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, whose formative gigs included church hall shows in Hoylake.
“I think they were from the same area, and there are quite a lot of old halls and things like that round here. It’s almost like a retirement village.”
Thankfully, there’s no retirement plan yet for The Coral, who last month released Move Through the Dawn, recorded at Liverpool’s Parr Street Studios and produced by the band with Rich Turvey. Their second LP for Ignition, it reached No.14 in the UK, and is seen by the band as the second chapter in the story of ‘The Coral Reborn’.
After 2010’s Butterfly House album, a group whose members went from being at school to being on tour with Oasis with hardly a moment to contemplate it all, took five years out to work on other projects, an experience Nick saw as ‘like going into Castle Greyskull. The outside world was a scary place.’
They finally returned, recharged, with 2016’s psychedelic, riff-heavy Distance Inbetween LP. And now they’re back with something completely different, showing off their proven pop potential as well as their superior songcraft. Perhaps, like their lauded Merseyside neighbours and inspiration, The La’s, ‘The melody always finds me, whenever the thought reminds me.’
Before we got on to that though, we carried on talking about those Wirral roots.
“It’s sort of like a tradesmen’s town.”
I told Nick I have a friend now base din Western Australia who hails from just off Birkenhead Park and always told us he was actually from ‘rural Cheshire’, although I’m not sure we truly believed him.
“Even to Liverpool, we’re the ugly ducklings of the area, like.”
Talking about the importance of his roots ahead of the new LP’s release, Nick wrote (I only found these quotes afterwards), “We live by the sea. When you go to New Brighton on the Wirral peninsula you hear Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ in the arcade, or on the waltzer. I went the other day and they were playing Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘Break On Through’ by The Doors. It’s a great timewarp to be in.
“People do grow up on Love, Captain Beefheart and Floyd up here, which might have something to do with people congregating in bedrooms, smoking weed and doing acid. Liverpool is not affected by fashions and as a result has its own roots music, its own jingle-jangle quality.
“I used to think of Merseybeat as a swearword, but I like it now. And we’re all still in The Wirral — I live on the road behind James (Skelly), Paul (Duffy) is behind that, and Ian (Skelly) is up the road — so we’re pretty tight-knit. We haven’t bought mansions in LA. Not that anyone has offered them. I think you hear that in the music.”
When we spoke, I’d only heard a few tracks on the new LP – something since remedied – but of those, first single, ‘Sweet Release’, plus ‘Eyes Like Pearls’, ‘After the Fair’ and ‘Reaching Out for a Friend’ certainly impressed. It’s fair to say The Coral still know how to write a hell of a song.
“Yeah, nice one! That’s what we try to do, really. The album that preceded it didn’t particularly have anything on it like that. We wanted to come out, do something more besides, like Pink Floyd or Hawkwind.
“I think people were probably expecting us to do that again. But for better or for worse we always recoil from that and end up doing the opposite. I think we’d probably be more well off now if we’d have just done what people expected us to do, but it’s not in our nature to do that.”
I can see that. I think of fellow Wirral musician, Elvis Costello, getting the impression he could always write great three-minute pop if he wanted to, but it never interested him most of the time. And there’s an element of that about The Coral. You have your quirky moments and then out and out classic pop moments like ‘Pass It On’, a timeless staple of many of my in-car compilation CDs back in the day.
“Lovely. Yeah, we always turn away from the production techniques of the time, so I don’t think they date badly. And there is a sort of timeless element to some of those recordings.”
The band have cited Phil Spector’s ‘70s work with The Ramones and Dion as influences on their latest batch of songs; ‘albums that brought a big sound while still holding onto a sense of innocence’. Meanwhile, lead singer and main songwriter James Skelly also cites early Bob Marley, ELO and the Traveling Wilburys as inspirations, while a simple lyrical and philosophical theme runs throughout: ‘trying to find something real in a world that seems more artificial by the day’.
But above all else, they’ve looked to make an album ‘in service to the song’, going ‘back to pure melody’, seeing Distance Inbetween as ‘extreme in one way’ and Move Through The Dawn ‘extreme in the other way’.
“If you are a fan of ours,” Nick added, “You don’t want to hear the same album all over again. I love well-written songs as much as I love Faust or Can. To write a simple song, and make it sound like something a four-year-old kid whistled on the way to the bus stop, is not easy. That’s what we’ve tried to do.”
Founded in 1996 by friends Ian Skelly (drums) and Paul Duffy (bass), practising in school, lead guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, Ian’s older brother James Skelly, and rhythm guitarist Lee Southall soon joined a band initially known as Hive.
Two years later, Nick joined, but had always known them, sitting in on their ‘praccies’ while in another band, their schoolroom sessions followed by those in Ian’s bedroom, the fledgling outfit then using connections to jam elsewhere, such as the basement of Hoylake pub Flat Foot Sam’s.
Soon, they graduated to the Liverpool circuit, including a residency at the Cavern on Sunday afternoons, playing ‘three gigs a day to three Japanese tourists’. And in time, Alan Wills heard them, offering to manage them and even form a record label, Deltasonic, around them. The big time quickly beckoned.
These days The Coral feature my interviewee, the Skelly brothers, Paul Duffy and Paul Molloy (covering for Lee since 2015), and somehow it’s been 20 years in the frame for Nick, who also contributes guitar, organ, piano, melodica, harmonica, backing vocals and lyrics.
“I know! It’s becoming scarier every day, how time speeds up and your sense of time runs away with itself. I remember going through my 20s thinking I’ll do whatever it is I need to do tomorrow. Time seemed so slow. But now I can almost see my hands changing in the light.”
While they remain far removed from the heritage circuit and gloriously ‘now’, I told Nick the first single from the album, ‘Sweet Release’, was more about glam rock urgency for me, reminiscent of a Sweet song, spanning the decades.
“Yes, that’s kind of what I was trying to do with that, actually.”
I also hear something of latter-day That Petrol Emotion there too, not least the riff, leading to this scribe filling Nick in on a band he somehow missed, explaining how they were around just a tad too early to get the attention latter, lesser bands did amid BritPop fever, despite paving the way in many ways.
“I think with every great scene, there are bands ahead of the curve who don’t necessarily make it. Even in my generation, bands like The Strokes, who thought of themselves as the best. Then there are bands like The Killers who get on that and go to the top.”
So where do you see The Coral on that scale? You had that very high-profile period around the time Magic and Medicine built on the success of your self-titled debut album.
“I don’t know. I probably saw us as outsiders.”
Which is probably a good thing.
“Yeah, it is. Revisionists now kind of write us out of everything. It started with The Strokes and The White Stripes, and then The Libertines came along. But we were out there with The Strokes.
“It’s the same with (Echo and) the Bunnymen. All Bunnymen articles are stand-alone articles, but when it’s written about the collective (scene), they always seem to get written out. But I suppose you choose your own fate in the end.”
That took us briefly on to that particular legendary Liverpool outfit, not least as I was about to speak later that day to Ian McCulloch about their new album, prompting Nick to talk a little about Mac and Will Sergeant.
“I’ve had some amazing nights with McCulloch, one of the funniest fellas … but there’s been times when I’ve wanted to punch his lights out as well!”
Getting back to The Coral’s more commercial highs, you always had that ability to mix things up, go for the unexpected, and right from the start, it seems. Despite the more poppy songs, you’d still offer a little more off-kilter material too.
“Yeah. I thought that was the only way to break through at the time. There was this weird thing with Liverpool bands, a hangover from The La’s. People wouldn’t touch Liverpool bands for ages, so at that point in your career you’re going, how can we escape? What do we have to do to get signed or break through and get people to listen to us?’
“And it was that sort of obscure side of the ’60s and that weird stuff we got into. You’d just do whatever’s most original to get attention. Even though we gravitate towards that music naturally, you’re doing whatever you can, in that Springsteen way.”
Part of the reason you did break through was thanks to Alan Wills, his Deltasonic label putting out your first six studio albums. He certainly championed your music … and not just the more commercial elements. Not so many would have seen or understood your potential.
“Alan was a massive part of that, and was even an outsider on the Liverpool scene. He was this fella with massive enthusiasm and really strong opinions, but no one really took him that seriously. But an outsider like that, they’re the visionaries and they’ve got nothing to lose. He was massive for us.”
Many of the record companies around at the time would have said, ‘That’s not a single,’ to something like your debut release, ‘Shadows Fall.’
“Yeah, and he’d encourage us to do all that. He got me into so many good authors and so many good film directors, like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, and stuff like Leningrad Cowboys, all that alternative stuff.
“He was just so giving. He’d just give it to you, like ‘take that home, listen to that.’ To each band member. He said to me, ‘Read this book by Sam Shepard, and it’s my favourite of all time. Motel Chronicles. I’ve still got the copy and it’s one of the most important things that ever happened to me, giving me that book.”
That took me neatly on to Nick’s own writing. When The Coral had their hiatus and his bandmates went off to explore solo music projects, production or Jame sand Ian’s Skeleton Key label, he looked to his publishing interests. Is that where he is now, between the band and his writing projects?
“Kind of. There’s a tour diary that’s out with this album, and I’ve had really good feedback from. So yeah, I am between the two really. I’ve tried doing poems and monologues, I’m not sure about novels, but there’s some sort of in-between space that can be filled.”
That new publication, his third, is Into the Void, Nick’s first-hand account of the recording, release and touring of the Distance Inbetween album, ‘a memoir on life in The Coral after that five-year break’.
As the band press release puts it, as ‘an insight into the band experience, from dealing with fights at gigs to trying to sleep in a cell-like Travelodge bed to capturing a moment in time on an album before moving on, it is as essential as it is entertaining’. Included are tales of shared rehearsal space with a swingers’ club, and wandering Los Angeles in search of The Castle; the legendary former home of Bela Lugosi where Arthur Lee and Love wrote Forever Changes.
In short, the band see Into The Void as underlining ‘the special thing The Coral have, of being a band forged of friendship and a shared love of cool music, books, films and ideas’.
Does Nick now think he might be in a position at some stage to write an insiders’ biography of the band?
“Not anytime soon. The band thought is that we just need to keep it current. We’re not about looking back at the moment. We’re not into the legacy artists. We’re not there yet. We’ve still got a lot to give. As long as I’ve got the chance to do it, I’m gonna do it because the opportunity’s there and that’s what I love doing.”
When major success came The Coral’s way around the time of the second LP, did it all come a bit too fast for you to properly enjoy the experience?
“At some point, yeah. After that we all took a year off. We were all just teenagers and had to become adults in the midst of it all.”
Is that ultimately why Bill Ryder-Jones moved on in 2005?
“It’s a tough one with Bill. I can’t really speak for him. But we never had a great infrastructure for touring. It was always wild. Sometimes you look at other young bands and they’re really well organised. That’s how you’ve got to do it. I think we were put off touring a bit because we did it so ramshackle.”
Was the album Butterfly House about starting again in that sense?
“Pretty much. It was a case of, ‘can we do it without Bill?’ But I think that was more about the end (of part one of The Coral’s story). Distance Inbetween was about starting again, and I do enjoy it more now. It’s just … I don’t know … it’s just better to be in. It’s debatable if we’re better as artists. That’s for other people to decide, but I’m just loving it.”
Well, it sounds pretty good from where I’m standing, and I think perhaps that hiatus period you had as a band helped strengthen you as a creative unit.
“Exactly. You go away and get a lot a stuff of your system. When it was just us in the band and that’s all we had, everyone in the band would be trying to put their whole year’s-worth of experience into a guitar line. Sometimes you’ve just got to sit back and allow a song to breathe. We’re a lot more laid-back in that respect.”
On a similar point, James Skelly – the eldest, but still only 20 when the band got signed – said, “We had the best attitude on the first album, when everyone was going in the same direction. Sometimes tension does make for great tunes, but it is hard to make a cohesive album when the band isn’t functioning as one. Usually Ian and I will be in the studio and the others sit behind us, slagging off everything we’re doing. And once they stop slagging it off, you know you’re onto something.”
And Nick added, “When we started out it came so quick, and we were so young and hungry, that we didn’t question anything. But by our mid-20s, we thought: what are we doing this for? So we took a break. People did solo albums.
“Everyone was spreading their wings, hanging out with other artists, getting a different perspective. It was hard psychologically and financially, especially as we’re not qualified to do anything else, but it was enriching creatively. We looked outward rather than inward.”
James added more on the band’s recent direction change too, revealing, “We’d pretty much written a whole other album in the style of the last one. Distance Inbetween was well received, and it would have been easy to go in and do the same thing again.
“Then we booked the studio and had a revelation: we had to go in the opposite direction. We had to write three-minute songs, all the fat trimmed off, hardly any solos. I mean, I like the War on Drugs and the Arcade Fire, but does your shortest track have to be over five minutes long? It seemed that three-minute songs had become unfashionable in guitar music and they needed reviving.”
Talking of pop sensibilities, going right back to the beginning, we mentioned The La’s, a band I still hear in The Coral’s music. They at least sound like they were a major influence. Were they, Nick?
“Yeah. You couldn’t really get away from them. There was a point where we had to do something really drastic to not sound like them in those early days. Because everyone did and no one stood out for not trying to sound like The La’s.”
Hence you going down a more psych-rock avenue?
“I think so. When we moved to Liverpool, we met loads of other bands on the Zanzibar scene, and everyone knows them. So it was a case of getting into other stuff like The Teardrop Explodes and all the Nuggets stuff, The Doors were massive for us, and Echo and the Bunnymen and all that.”
On that first single, there was something of a Specials ska feel.
“I think ‘Ghost Town’ was the greatest single ever. Never been bettered. Jerry Dammers is one of my favourite writers. And songs like ‘Stereotype’ … brilliant.”
It’s fair to say The Coral proved influential too. Early tracks like ‘Goodbye’, for example, seem to pre-date lauded later acts like Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, not least with their harmonies.
“Definitely. When they came out, that was one of my favourite periods of music, that year, with so much of the things I like – weird sort of Christian or Quaker music mixed with The Beach Boys. I fell back in love with music around then.”
I’m not sure if it’s just about geography, but there’s definitely a Liverpool identity to your sound, and not just because Ian Broudie co-produced four of your first five albums.
“I’m massively into the theory of geography and how it affects music. It’s psychography almost, the way it influences you. The thing about us and Liverpool bands, it’s in your blood, the way you construct or sing a melody, the product of living by docks and freighters, all that.
“Then on the Wirral we can see the Liverpool Docks clearly. I can see them from my house now. But I can see hills as well, and we took from Super Furry Animals and Gorky’s as well, so it’s a weird mix of Welsh psychedelia and Merseybeat almost.”
He mentions Super Furry Animals there after a brief chat about my previous interviewee Gruff Rhys, Nick claiming, ‘He’s like a British jewel in the crown – he’s a fucking genius!’ And talk of ‘90s’ Welsh outfits reminded me of seeing Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci support Catatonia at Llangollen in 1999, with ex-Pale Fountains frontman Michael Head also playing, early in his second spell fronting Shack. Was Michael another key influence on The Coral’s song-craft?
“Yeah. We met Mick Head a few times when we were 15 or 16, and he was great, another big influence. Yet he’s only starting to get recognition now. He was really unfashionable back then. But he’s such a good writer. It’s like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, some of it!”
You’re right, and long before Shack I loved The Pale Fountains’ 1984 LP, From Across the Kitchen Table.
“Yeah, and he’s always been a really positive fella, with no real ego about new bands. He’s a true artist.”
The other band I haven’t mentioned so far who seem to have walked a parallel path with The Coral is another Liverpool outfit, The Zutons. Were you close to them?
“At the time we were, and Russ (Pritchard) plays bass with Noel Gallagher now (The Coral were on the bill with Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds in late May, on the back of eight dates supporting the Manic Street Preachers). We know everyone, yeah … all good.”
The Coral’s eight-show October run starts at Newcastle’s Riverside Club (Wednesday 3rd), and heads to Birmingham Institute (Friday 5th), Leeds Beckett Students’ Union (Saturday 6th), Sheffield Leadmill (Sunday 7th), then Bristol SWX (Tuesday 9th) and London’s Koko in Camden (Thursday 11th), before ending at Liverpool University’s Mountford Hall (Friday 12th) and Manchester’s Albert Hall (Saturday 13th). Is it always good to play hometown gigs … or at least Liverpool?
“Ah, great, yeah … apart from family ringing you every five minutes to get backstage!”
Suddenly remembering who you are?
But you still really enjoy playing live as well as in the studio, I guess.
“Ah, I love it, and it’s so much more of a live set now … and has been for years.”
For ticket details of all The Coral’s forthcoming live dates and more on new album Move Through the Dawn and how to get hold of Nick’s Into the Void book, head to www.thecoral.co.uk. You can also keep in touch with the band via their Facebook and Twitter pages.
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