To be making great music 25 years into your career is a rare thing. Most bands fall off a cliff eventually, or at best fade away, creatively speaking. Not so Tindersticks, who have never released a sub-standard album, nor anything that sounds dated. And so it continues with the recent release of their tenth studio album The Waiting Room, another work that apparently arose out of little in the way of ambition, according to two of the band's main protagonists, frontman and baritone singer Stuart A Staples, and keyboardist David Boulter, who along with Neil Fraser, remain the core of the band that began life in Nottingham in 1991.
"I think we have never made music to be famous, or to achieve anything really," says Boulter, rather nonchalantly, and who has lived in Prague for the last 17 years. Perhaps this helps to explain their status as one of the most intriguing and unconventional bands of recent times; a band who make intimate music that subtly reveals its layers of sophistication; warming yet with much darkness, sadness and melancholy within their soul. And all the while, there is a stillness, a peaceful quality to their work that once immersed can feel like a tonic for weary souls.
Initially called Asphalt Ribbon, the band re-christened themselves Tindersticks after Staples found a box of matches with that name on a Greek beach. "(Making music) was something that came from music being the only way you could express yourself," says Boulter. "When it takes over your life from having to make a living from that, it fractures it. You're not really sure how you are supposed to do that. It means when we do make music we do discover things. We're always trying to push ourselves, that surprise you in some way."
After 2012’s The Something Rain, Tindersticks were diverted by other means of expression; the electronic soundtrack to Claire Denis’ art house film Les Salauds; the commissioned, and sombre soundscapes for Ypres WW1 museum in Belguim, composed to accompany visitors as they make their way through the institution, and the ‘Singing Skies’ art project and book (which marries Staples' lyrics with his artist wife Suzanne Osborne's 'sky' paintings). There was also the belated 20th anniversary celebrations, coming a year late, but which eventually arrived in the form of a studio album – a reworking of tracks from their back catalogue – and a European tour. A retrospective interpretation, it was according to Staples; "Moments of coming to terms with our past, being released from it." While Boulter says it achieved much for the band; "It acknowledged we had been around for a long time, and I suppose as the core five people (drummer Earl Harvin, bassist/keyboardist Dan McKinna, Boulter, Staples, and Fraser), that the band are at the moment, it felt very powerful. Playing the old songs as a five-piece it felt they had finally found a home. It was also a pat on the back for us."
Like a gravitational force, Tindersticks finally got around to working on new ideas. "We all live in different places in Europe," says Boulter, "but we generally spend every couple of months at Stuart's place in France. He has an old farm building which he's turned into a studio. With this album we started with myself, Stuart and Neil, to see what ideas we had."
"Gradually the songs began to surface and show themselves," says Staples about The Waiting Room. "From abstract ideas (‘Were We Once Lovers?’, ‘How He Entered’) to more traditional structures (‘Second Chance Man’, ‘The Waiting Room’)." Describing the music making process for Tindersticks as "le chien chanceux," which is also the name of his studio, Staples expands on this by way of alluding to the history of the band's music making; "We started off in a very unconscious and very insular way of making music. Gradually, we became more aware of reality, more aware of the industry, more self-aware. then self-conscious. This created maybe a thing that should have finished us off, and maybe finishes off a lot of bands and artists. It’s pretty hard to deal with that stuff, and somehow, not without great pain, we’ve worked our way back to a point where we’re able to make music in an unconscious way again." This is the modus operandi of Tindersticks, nowadays. They'll do it when it feels right, when they're ready, but with no grand strategy or plan and not before. Artists not products.
"I remember the earlier days better than the middle period when everything just took over," says Boulter. "We still had this punk attitude. Growing up in Nottingham, the goal was to make a piece of vinyl and get it played on John Peel, and we didn't see beyond that. What was confusing was when we did go beyond that and made albums, had success, had to tour. It became this different kind of machine. Luckily we survived that and now we're doing it in our own way. We're not just geared to making and selling albums; we do soundtracks and projects which keeps us fresh."
An artistic triumph, The Waiting Room also benefits from the appearance of Savages' Jehnny Beth on the brooding ‘We Are Dreamers’. "You can rob us / You can trick us / Peer over our shoulders and steal our ideas" goes the song before the voices lock together for the rallying cry; "This is not us / We are dreamers!" And then there's the post-humous appearance of Lhasa de Sela on the drunken, playful, regretful ‘Hey Lucinda’. Prior to dying of cancer at the age of just 38, two of their collaborations had previously been released, but this song had not yet found a home. 'It didn't fit in with the record we were making at the time," says Boulter. "We then tried to do it again on the next album, and it still didn't fit. We gave up on it. We thought it would be some piece of music on its own, like a single. But when we started making this album we put together every idea we had on a playlist just to see what worked. ‘Hey Lucinda’ stayed there to the end," he says. "Lhasa de Sela was a great artist and singer but, more importantly, a close friend and creative ally," says Staples. "It has taken a long time for me to be able to return to this recording and, hopefully, to do justice to the song we both wanted it to be."
As well as their off-piste excursions into afro-beat on 'Help Yourself' and the Curtis Mayfield meets David Bowie gentle soul-funk of 'Were We Once Lovers' their on-going soundtrack work is exemplified by their take on the theme song from the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty, a track that leads the album off, as well as a couple of other instrumentals that dot the album."When we first moved to France," says Staples, "I had this great folly of buying a grand piano. It’s a lot of real estate for one sound. But I was so excited when I got it. It was set up in our living room. I watched Mutiny on the Bounty and found myself afterwards finding the melody. It’s never left me, those few notes. When we were working on this album. this melody came back to me, and I played it for the guys. It took half an hour. It doesn’t surprise me that the band can make something so beautiful, so quickly.”
The band have now also incorporated film within their live presentation. All The Waiting Room's 11 tracks have had accompanying films made by various film-maker friends (including Claire Denis, Christoph Girardet, Pierre Vinour, and Gregorio Graziosi), including a couple by Staples and Osborne, which are included in the deluxe versions of The Waiting Room, as well as being shown as part of their forthcoming 'cine-concert' tour, which includes a date in May as part of Brighton Festival. "Stuart was invited to be a judge on a panel for a short film festival in France," says Boulter. “He saw some of the short films that he connected with. To some of them we said, 'we like what you did, can you do something with that'? But in general we said, 'here's the music, we don't necessarily want a narrative or for the film to tell a story. We want you to react in your way to the music', and that is what they did. Now that we have done a few shows with the film as our backdrop it's strange that they seem to connect. In the end it feels there is a story that runs through."
Living in Prague, a city that survived almost intact the ravages of WWII, must help to inform Tindersticks' music? "I initially came here in the early 90s, not long after the revolution, when they rejoined the west," says Boulter. "My wife is Czech. I was getting a little fed up with the cost of living in London. (In Prague) everything was decayed, trapped in the past. That was one of the things that really appealed to me. Now, it's a modern European city, similar to others. It's very beautiful, you can walk around the city centre and find things that you didn't know was there. It's full of surprises, and I still like it.”