“Just got myself a cup of tea, woke up a half an hour ago and feeling pretty good. A lovely morning here in KItchener, an hour west of Toronto, named after Lord Kitchener (it was called town of Berlin up till 1916)". We're in the middle of a heatwave at the moment; this is the calm before the storm. Right now it's quite nice, but it will get crazy hot.”
This is Norman Blake I am talking to, an honorary member of the C-86 generation, who along with the likes of The Wedding Present, The Soup Dragons, and long forgotten gems such as Stump, The Mackenzies, The Shrubs and Age of Chance, spearheaded this much-loved indie guitar scene that generally didn't take itself too seriously. While Teenage Fanclub came along a little too late for the legendary C86 cassette compilation, Blake was very much part of that ‘scene’, having been in a band with The Soup Dragon’s Sean Dickson, pre-C86, called The Faith Healers, the pre-Teenage Fanclub Boy and Hairdressers group, as well as joining and writing for BMX Bandits, remaining with them as a member until 1991. With such luminaries as Kurt Cobain calling the band the best in the world, and Noel Gallagher saying they were the second best (after Oasis, of course), only helping their cause, Teenage Fanclub developed a large fanbase, won acres of press coverage, and released critically lauded and commercially successful albums, culminating in Songs From Northern Britain, which reached number three in 1997. Good memories run long and deep it seems, for it was only last year that Dave Grohl, ex-Nirvana, asked the band to support his Foo Fighters at Old Trafford, eulogising about them on stage, too. Indeed, Teenage Fanclub's 1991 album Bandwagonesque was voted best album of the year by Spin magazine, beating Nirvana's Never Mind in the process.
Blake has been a resident in Canada for the last seven years, living with his Canadian-born wife, and dealing with the alternately harsh winters and hot summers; one minute shovelling snow, the next wilting in the harshly humid heat. "The winters can be horrendous. The last two have been full on. We live in a corner house, so we are responsible for clearing the snow off the sidewalks next to our house. You can wake up in the morning, possibly with a hangover, you have to clear four feet of snow and a channel around the house. I feel myself cursing us making the move on those occasions. But, I call the folks every weekend, who live in Scotland. 'What's it like today? 'It's pretty grey today. It's been raining'. It's nice to have the definitive seasons here. A total change of wardrobe."
Teenage Fanclub grew out of the short-lived, Glasgow band Boy Hairdressers, whom guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley played for, before roping in bassist Gerard Love, following a chance meeting at a Dinosaur Jr gig. Mixing the jangle of The Byrds alongside Big Star’s big rhythms, with a pinch of the west coast-meets-The-Zombies vibe and Neil Young rootsiness, their harmonious and upbeat songs are appealing, mixed with a slacker guitar sound much in the vein of the aforementioned Dinosaur Jr, and also My Bloody Valentine.
“For the first record (A Catholic Education) we were really into Sonic Youth,” says Norman. “We also listened to Exile on Main St. It's a great album. Somebody has just lent me the Nicky Hopkins book (And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man) which I think will be really good. A lot of people we knew around Glasgow were making demos, and sending them to labels, and having them sent back, and they would make more demos. We just thought ‘let's make a record and put something out there’. It was done on a shoestring budget, and – this is true – Raymond's neighbour had passed away and left him a fridge and washing machine, which he sold. And with the money we booked some studio time, this place called Pet Sounds in Glasgow. We didn't have much time, had to do everything quickly. I took the songs to Stephen Pastel (whose The Pastels were one of the original C86ers), and he sent it on to Gerard Cosley of Matador, which was just starting, and he gave it to Dave Barker who had a label called Paperhouse. And they put it out. Just a few months later without having made a demo, and with an album out in the UK, we were getting press. That was a good way of doing it. It also meant we had to move on and write more songs. It was the wise thing to do.”
Initially, Teenage Fanclub were a much darker proposition than they are now, with the exception being the lead track, ‘Everything Flows’, a song written by Blake, and the key song from which the band developed their subsequent sound. Now, with the upcoming release of their 10th studio album, Here, the band’s continuing upward trajectory of hopefulness and optimism reaches its zenith with songs such as ‘I’m In Love’, ‘Thin Air’, ‘Live In The Moment’ and ‘Connected To Life’, breezy numbers that ride along that west coast vibe with big guitars, strong melodies and gloriously melancholic harmonies. “I think it’s a reflection of us as people (referring to the general upbeat nature of the record). We are a fairly optimistic group of people. There's always a bit of pessimism, but I hope that the music and lyrics are a reflection of us and our personalities. We don't tend to write stories or a narrative; we write in a somewhat cryptic way, but that reflects our personalities and what is going on in our personal lives.”
The album title and the accompanying artwork is also a good indicator of these worldly generalities: “My wife (Krista) was in a thrift store, or what we call a charity shop back in the UK, and she found a set of these panels; we don't know where they came from, there was no artist's name. They must be pretty old, the fifties or something. It's basically a Canadian landscape. I don't think it's Niagara Falls; there are so many falls and beauty spots here, it could be anywhere. We took a detail from that and she also suggested the name of the album, which seemed evocative with that image. The guys loved it. I think it was an amateur artist, I don't think we’ll ever find out who painted it."
“With Here you would think of it being a specific place, but of course the album was made and recorded in various places; France, Germany, Canada and the UK. It also talks about us being around, we're still 'here'. Maybe contentment. It's an evocative word.”
It’s been six years since their last album, Shadows, the gaps increasingly growing between releases (it was five years between the Man-Mad and Shadows albums). What’s been happening in the interim? “I’ve been working with a couple of other people. I made an album with a guy called Euros Childs, who was in Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. They toured with us back in the day. Me and Euros made an album around the time of the last Fanclub record (under the name Jonny), and we toured with that. And then I was in Norway recording a band called I Was A King, with Robyn Hitchcock (co-producing), and they they've got a drummer, an American guy called Pat Berkery, who was also with The Pernice Brothers. He mentioned that Joe Pernice lives in Toronto. We had also toured with them way back, so I got in touch, and we decided to start a band, The New Mendicants. We put together an album, then toured with that. We then started making this record about two and a half years ago. Initially, we were at a studio in the south of France, which has a great old vintage EMI desk. We did an initial recording there for three weeks, and then for one reason and another – I’m over here, inertia, I don't know! – it was eight months before we got back together at Raymond's place in Glasgow. I would go back and forth, then came a break, more inertia, doing some DIY, fixing up my place. So that took precedence. We finally got together in Hamburg last year and mixed it there. So it's been a long time in the making. It's getting longer between albums. That's something we should change if only for financial reasons. I feel like a part-time musician at the moment, but that will change when we’re out on tour."
Initial reaction to the forthcoming Teenage Fanclub tour dates has been phenomenal, with many dates long sold out, including two end-of-tour dates in Glasgow, and Brighton’s Concorde 2. They’ll also be playing at the much loved End Of The Road Festival in early September. “It's going really well. It may be the case of absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or maybe it's people thinking, 'you know, these guys are getting on a bit, they may not be around much longer’. But, it is very heartening to see people buying tickets. You just never know; it's a very fickle business. The LP is being received very well; Mojo and Uncut have written great pieces. And we're happy with the LP. We left Hamburg thinking we had made something worthwhile.”
One of those rare survivors in this devilish world of music, Teenage Fanclub may have benefited from the jangle-then-grunge fads of the late 80s and early 90s. Yet they’ve never ridden the coattails of the prevailing winds of fashion, ploughing their own course, and keeping hold of a sometimes fanatical fanbase through the years, as well as constantly adding younger newcomers to their music, discovering the band for the first time in this age of the internet, a factor which has helped to see the revival of many bands from the pre-digital age. There is also an obviously strong bond between the three writers in the band, epitomised by their democratic approach to songwriting, which nowadays involves them writing equal amounts of songs for each album. “It was a gradual process,” says Norman about this evolution. “On the first record, it was just me and Raymond, Gerry (Gerard Love) didn't write for that record. But from album two or three it's been fairly evenly split. From Songs From Northern Britain that became the way that we did it. We thought we could make better quality albums by sharing the songwriting duties. I see it as a strength for us. If a band had been around as long as us, and they had one writer, they would have had to write 120 or 130 songs by now. That's a tall order. Some people can do it, who are absolute geniuses. But there aren't many of those.
“I’m here, and I see the guys when I'm over there, but we don't hang out. I don't think we ever really did. But, we have a good musical bond, a symbiotic relationship, knowing what everyone else is doing, this thing that gives us that sound. Groups are always about dynamics between the individual members, and every relationship is unique. We hit on something good and we were lucky, all musically compatible. I think a part of that is that we are politically compatible, we have similar views.”
With the three core members now in or around 50 years of age, it must seem comical to a newcomer, to find out your band is named Teenage Fanclub. “I may be on a plane or something, and someone will ask, 'What do you do'? 'I'm a musician’. Oh, really? What do you have, a band? “Yeah”. What are they called…’? We weren't teenagers when we started, we were already in our 20s, which has always been a little ironic. But I think the idea for the name came from the time when there were lots of pretentious names for bands, things like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who I happen to like actually. 'Let's have a name that is really dumb, that doesn’t mean anything'. Like Spandau Ballet, a nonsense name. But like Sonic Youth, which is a really good name for a band, that name becomes the group of people and the music.”
Read our review of their new album: http://brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/12-music/1729-teenage-fanclub-here