Living with it
Whilst you won’t find them eschewing the roots on which their sound was first built, The Charlatans are unequivocally unafraid of treading new waters. In an era that is seeing their formative contemporaries currently booking commemorative tours after years out of the game, The Charlatans are returning with their twelfth studio effort to date; the impending Modern Nature.
That’s not to say it has all been plain sailing, however. Theirs is a twenty-five-year career that has seen the tragic and untimely death of Rob Collins and Jon Brookes; two integral Charlatans, and also witnessed a fleecing accountant who, well, didn’t do any actual accounting – eventually leaving the band with a £2 million bill.
Still, the post-millennial Charlatans continue to stretch and broaden their soundscape. The band’s recent lead-in, new album singles Talking in Tones and So Oh stand as something of a celebration and a testament to this. The sultry, eastern twangs of guitar highlighting the former – pitted against the soaring drive of the latter, which nods to the unforgotten classics of pre-millennial Charlatans.
Refreshingly, speaking to the group’s longstanding leader, the perma-youthful Tim Burgess, you won’t find yourself journeying down the ‘rock frontman’s’ égoïste. He’s happy to flittingly move between current music he indulges in, as well as influences he has drawn from across a wide-ranging musical spectrum. Throw in the ups that a slew of top ten singles and numerous number one albums imaginably bring, with the poignancy of losing close friends and band-members, and what is left is a group who are like no other. Thankfully, in light of everything, they are still doing what matters most.
Matthew Liam Fogg: Modern Nature is the first Charlatans album following your recent solo album Oh No I Love You. How was it getting back in to the studio as a band?
Tim Burgess: A lot has happened since the last Charlatans album and it just felt right. We did the Albert Hall concert to celebrate Jon Brookes’ life and, after that, it felt as if we were all ready to go back into the studio, as a group. It had been kind of fragmented previously, even with Jon around. He wanted, more than anyone, to get things going – so we’d do it, but back then we could tell it wasn’t really going anywhere. Things only started, for real, around this time last year. I’d like to think there’s a strain of Oh No I Love You in there, but I’m just one person in a four-piece band.
MF: Did it take a lot of mental effort to get back around to record your next album considering all that happened?
TB: The record took seven/eight months in total. I knew we were going in to make a record and I thought it might take three or four. If you think about it, it would be quite overwhelming to think you were going in to make a record and it was going to take seven or eight months from day dot. It would be like, ‘fuck, I don’t know if I can do that’. We had no songs at all. We had a few things knocking around that none of us were one hundred per cent happy with, but we started small and somehow just built it up. We gave ourselves three months; which eventually became seven months, but it was fine going through it, once we had started.
MF: I’ve read that a gut feeling was that after that show at Albert Hall, Mark [Collins, guitar] believed it was perhaps going to be your last ever one…
TB: Well, that was actually the first time I heard about it, from the same interview, and I thought it was quite sad really. Mark played guitar when I was touring Oh No I Love You and I’ve generally seen quite a lot of him over the last few years, but I never knew that.
MF: In an era of reunions and commemorative tours, are you glad you carried on through it?
TB: There were times, you know. We did six albums on Beggars Banquet. The driving force was to never have to get a proper job. We’d had a few number ones but we didn’t have any money. After Rob (Collins, former keyboardist) died, I did think there was a possibility we were going to split up, because I just thought he was such a genius. You know, he was the main songwriter. Part of my life experience was getting over that, which personally took me a long time to get over – but as a band it was a much quicker process. We had to keep going, the band’s life had to go on. That was the only time I’ve ever thought of giving it up, really.
MF: There’s quite a difference in direction from Talking in Tones to So Oh, the first couple of singles taken from your new album. Do you try and avoid re-treading old ground, musically?
TB: We do generally and purposefully try and not go down the same path. I like soulful music, punk, disco; all sorts. We started recording with a song called Keep Enough, and it felt like a sort of Curtis thing.
MF: In your book you talk quite extensively about the specific influences certain people and certain aesthetics had on certain Charlatans albums. Were there any specific influences musically, or surroundings that helped shape the new record?
TB: With Wonderland we recorded in LA and it’s quite dark, despite the fact that it can feel quite an uplifting record. LA is a bit like that – bright, but with an undercurrent that can be really quite dark. With Up to our Hips, The Charlatans and Telling Stories they were all recorded in Wales – they all sort of bleed into one another for me. I always forgot what songs are from what. I think with Modern Nature – well, in the last five years I’ve moved from LA to a warehouse in Seven Sisters. I wrote a book and then an album in Nashville and since then I’ve moved to the beach in Norfolk. Out there it’s really flat – North Sea, the beach, it’s quite nature-y. I was really enjoying the English countryside and I’ve just had a little boy… so with him being born and with the death of Jon, It was all about coming to terms with life and nature and how powerful it can be.
MF: Being in a band constantly evolving their sound, is there ever any negative reaction from those that might have followed you during your twenty-five-year career and still want the 90s-era Charlatans? You know, ‘play the hits’…
TB: I think if you support and believe in someone or something, you know, you might like their stuff early on and go off it for a bit before coming back. It might be a case of not liking a certain record but still liking a band generally. For me, personally, I don’t think about that in regards to us at all. I think about Manchester United right now; their brilliant 90s period and their recent drop and their current steadying out. It’s looking pretty good again. It’s just life really; everyone has good times and bad times, times that shape them and times when you’ve got to really dig deep. We’ve all been through it. The whole band have been through some tough times in the last five years and regardless of outside opinion we just wanted to make an optimistic record that represented the way we wanted our lives to be.
MF: Is it a strange feeling knowing you have been such a big part of people’s lives in that way?
TB: I suppose we have been a big part of certain people’s lives. We’ve been together for 25 years. Sometimes it doesn’t sound a lot, but then you think of it as a quarter century and think ‘fuck!’ I don’t really question it though. I don’t think of much at all until I think about it, you know.
MF: On the first page of your book you state – ‘I’ve probably had even less of a plan than most.’ How does it feel coming up to album number twelve in light of that?
TB: I wanted to make a record, I knew that much. I knew I wanted to make a record without knowing where the next note was coming from, different from the more traditional route, you know; say if Mark was to pull out his secret stash of chords and start laying down the guitar. I didn’t want it to be like that, I wanted to be hanging off a note and not know where I was going and for it to sound like I hadn’t heard it before. I think it’s there. Obviously there are going to be certain traits of the band – and we were very happy for it to sound like The Charlatans, but I wanted it to approach it differently from the onset.
MF: From someone who has been involved in the music industry for 25 years now – and also being quite active in music circles outside of your own band, how have things changed over the course of the last 25 years?
TB: Well, head of record companies used to live in million pound flats and have cocaine in the ashtrays. Now things are just run off a laptop. More people are scraping a living, but it’s better. It’s better because there’s greater value on the music, not just inflated bank balances. My friend Peter Gordon was part of The Kitchen in New York, in the late 70s and early 80s and he’s made some of the greatest records around I think; with the likes of Arthur Russell and Laurie Anderson. He’s always had a day job.
MF: I have noticed you’ve kept it quite close knitted in terms of whom you have worked with in the industry. You mentioned Beggars Banquet earlier, but I also read you made an early switch to begin working with Heavenly in terms of publicity…
TB: Well I’ve known Jeff and Martin at Heavenly since 1993 and at the time a different company was doing our PR. Martin asked us how much we were paying for it and it was costing us £20,000. He said they’d do it for £10,000 so we agreed. But, it wasn’t just the money, you know. It was just that whole sentiment and environment. They knew us better than anyone else. We worked with them after Up to Our Hips up to Tellin’ Stories and we are still friends with them to this day.
Modern Nature by The Charlatans is out 26th January.