Believe It: Teenage Fanclub Are Better Than Ever
Hadn’t given much thought to Teenage Fanclub in, oh, a dozen years or so?
Didn’t even know if they were still around?
Never heard of ’em in the first place?
Then, pal, you are missing out.
Truth be told, for all the hoopla the Glasgow outfit earned upon the release of Bandwagonesque in 1991, they never really mattered all that much to me back then. I thought they were good, not exceptional. It wasn’t until Songs From Northern Britain came out six years later that I really began to appreciate them. Of course, by that point, their sound had refined itself from the cranked-up, seemingly shambolic and at times distractingly smirky power-pop they’d built their reputation on, and settled into an astoundingly stirring sort of jangling, melancholic, occasionally acoustic folk-rock, lush with strings, brass and piano. It was a shift, I later discovered, that really had begun on the previous record, ’95’s Grand Prix. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic revelation, and I (and they) have never looked back since.
Now wisely signed to Merge Records in the United States (they record for their own PeMa label in the UK these days), Teenage Fanclub’s two latest albums – 2005’s Man-Made and the brand new Shadows (out June 8th) – continue in that gentler, emotionally affecting vein, but if anything they are even better. I can’t decide which I prefer, but I’ll wager a box-lot of Catholic Educations on this statement: They are the two finest albums the band has crafted to date. Groups playing such rich, breezy, chiming and heartfelt pop songs are a rare treat, and you’d do well to give them a proper listen.
They still do pretty well in Great Britain, and in fact when I touched base with vocalist and guitarist Norman Blake a few weeks ago he was in Glasgow rehearsing with the rest of the band – guitarist/vocalist Raymond McGinley, bassist/vocalist Gerard Love, drummer Francis Macdonald and keyboardist Finlay MacDonald – for a slew of live dates over there. It’s not as easy for them to assemble as it once was, being that Blake now lives with his Canadian wife in Kitchener, Ontario. But on the other hand, it’ll come in handy next time the band comes over for a North American tour (likely September or October, Blake estimates), “’cause we can get a couple of days at my place to rehearse.”
An exceedingly friendly chap, 44-year-old Blake and I discussed, among other topics, the band’s longevity and chemistry, the death of Alex Chilton and some of the other music that’s made him a fan – as a teenager, and as an adult.
Stomp and Stammer: As bands get older, they always seem to take longer between albums. When you started out, Teenage Fanclub albums were one or two years apart. Then it was three, and now it’s five years between albums. In your particular case, why the longer gap?
“You know, fifteen years ago I could run a hundred meters in about 16 seconds, ha ha ha! I think, what we do is we’ll make an album, and then we’ll tour pretty extensively, and then we just get in each others’ face. So we tend to skip the end of the touring period and say, ‘OK, let’s take a year out, and then we’ll reconvene.’ And then that year becomes two years, or two and a half years. But myself and Gerry, we’ve been playing with The Pastels, and done lots of shows with them in that interim period. We do other things. I toured with Daniel Johnston in the UK about a year and a half ago. It was part of a band that was put together by Jad Fair that was myself and Jad, James McNew [of Yo La Tengo], Mark Linkous and Daniel Johnston. And I also made a record with Euros Childs, from Gorky’s [Zygotic Mynci]. Raymond’s been producing some records. So we’ve been doing other things.”
What you’re saying is, you’re probably busier than ever.
“I really do believe that, actually. I think one thing that comes with age, is that you realize that you really have to make best use of your time. I’m not being dramatic, ha ha! You realize how much you’ve got, and accept it. I just think we’re all aware of that. And it’s not like being a musician’s a job anymore. Of course, it is a kind of job, in a way, but it’s just something that you do. We’ve gotten to that point. This is just what we do. And, eh, speaking for myself, I don’t really have any other kind of hobby. If I’m not making music, I like listening to it, I like buying records – that’s still the kind of thing that obsesses me, you know, and I enjoy recording other people, and just different things. I still find it very inspiring. I still like buying new records, and I’m fortunate to have a friend that runs the Monorail [Music] record shop in Glasgow, and when I go in there he’ll say, ‘You’ll like this…’ I do my best to keep up with what’s sort of happening. I think there’s lots of great music happening – I think we’re in a really good time at the moment.”
I certainly think Teenage Fanclub is in a good time. You seem to be every bit as inspired, probably more so than you were 10, 15, 20 years ago.
“I suppose part of the reason for that would be because there’s three of us [Blake, McGinley and Love] writing songs, you know. When you think about most bands, they’ll have one main songwriter. And ten albums in, that’s 120, 130, 140 songs. And it’s difficult enough to write five or six! And maintain a certain standard. And so I think we’ve been fortunate in that we can share the pressures of that. So what we do is, we each bring five or six songs to the studio, and then we’ll record all of those, and then pick four [each] for the album. And maybe it’s the fact that we don’t make too many albums.”
Can you talk about the transition in the band’s sound, from noisier, louder, more ramshackle rock ‘n’ roll to gentler, janglier, dreamier, almost folk-rock?
“Well, when we were younger, we were huge fans of Sonic Youth. And in a way, we were trying to sound like Sonic Youth, like a lot of bands were at that time. But then as time went on, we started learning about other people like Bert Jansch and Pentangle, all these older British folk artists, and we really started listening to more of that. We just discovered a lot more kinds of music.”
A few years ago you did some shows performing all of Bandwagonesque. That whole thing’s become a major trend, getting bands to revisit a fan favorite in its entirety. What do you think if that?
“I’m not really fond of it, honestly. I’d rather hear a band do its new album, y’know?”
The follow-up to that album, 1993’s Thirteen, was titled after the Big Star song. Obviously, lots of people here were shocked and saddened by the news of Alex Chilton’s death. Would you care to comment?
“I was in Canada, and I got a message from my friend Jason, and all it said was ‘Alex is gone.’ And of course, I knew what it meant. Yeah, I was stunned. I think he was only 59. But we were lucky enough to befriend Alex, you know, and do some shows with him, as his band, and recordings. So we knew Alex the musician, and he was really an amazing, brilliant guitar player. He would show you a chord, and I’d say, ‘That’s a great chord!’ And he would say things like, ‘Carl Wilson showed me that once.’ Ha ha ha! He had some great stories. And he had great taste in music, too. He would turn you on to great records. And I turned him on to some good tunes, too. We did a split single with Big Star – Alex and Jody and us, all playin’ together – and it was released by the NME. We did a song by The Olympics, called ‘Mine Exclusively.’ Which Alex chose. And then we did a song called ‘Patti Girl’ by a band called Gary and the Hornets. I always liked that song. So yeah, great taste in music, and a brilliant musician. And it was amazing, with me being in North America, the wave of reaction over there. It was incredible, you know. I think, ironically, Alex would’ve sneered…well, maybe ‘sneered’ isn’t the right word. But maybe chuckled to himself about it, you know. I can’t imagine that was Alex’s thing, you know – a massive homage and whatever.”
So Big Star was as big an influence on Teenage Fanclub as everyone makes out?
“Oh, without question. We really loved it. Not only the first two records, and not only the third one, but actually all of Alex’s solo material. Like Flies on Sherbert – amazing record. It comes from a really dark place, but it’s just incredible music.”
I think more people were surprised by your Jad Fair collaboration, Words of Wisdom and Hope, that came out in ’02 on Alternative Tentacles. Can you tell me how that all came about?
“We’d known Jad for a long time, and really through The Pastels. Jad came over to Glasgow to record with The Pastels, and I was playing with the band at that time, and met him then…And so it kind of just happened. We improvised all the songs, all the music. We’d record something, and see if Jad had lyrics that would fit it. He’d open up this little notebook and say, ‘Oh, I may have something…’ He always had something! I think at that time Jad had a couple of records out on Alternative Tentacles, and they were really keen to do it, so that’s what happened. I love that we were on Alternative Tentacles.”
You were a Dead Kennedys fan?
“I totally was, yeah. I was a young teenager when those records came out, when punk rock was happening. Buzzcocks, Dead Kennedys, all that kind of stuff I was into.”
What are you into nowadays?
“Well, I still like that music, and the first Wire LP, and the Mekons’ ‘Where Were You?’ But you know, I went to see the Dum Dum Girls the other night, and that was a lot of fun. I also really love that Avi Buffalo track – ‘What’s In It For?’ That’s just an incredible song! Really brilliant. I’m really interested in the American bands at the moment who are influenced by the Glasgow music scene. There’s a band I was briefly in called The Clouds that are namechecked by a lot of newer…Crystal Stilts, those guys are really big Clouds fans. I love that people are discovering that music. I love that these kids in New York, Brooklyn, are really into this music from Scotland from 20 years ago. It’s quite exotic, in a way. In the same way that I heard the 13th Floor Elevators, and I thought that was really exotic. ‘These guys are from Austin, Texas?’ Amazing, you know. I love the idea of being able to be turned on, in that same way, by music from 20 years ago in Glasgow. I can really identify with it, you know.”