Always one of the most likeable of rock bands, Teenage Fanclub are, it seems, also one of the most democratic.
Here, their first album in six years, continues a recent band tradition of all three songwriters – Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley – sharing equal space with their songs.
“We’ve done that for our last few records,” explains 50-year-old Blake from his home in Southern Ontario where he’s loved with his Canadian wife and family for the last seven years. “It’s just a way of working that we’ve settled into after all these years.
“We like to think that individually by focusing on four or five songs hopefully it means the quality of the songwriting can be maintained, certainly to a decent standard.
“I think that’s actually been beneficial to us over the years, in terms of making albums. I don’t think we would ever want to release a record if we didn’t think it worthy of having the Teenage Fanclub name on it.
“With many bands there may be one songwriter who after ten albums you’d be looking at them writing maybe 120 songs – and that’s a bit of a tall order for us mere mortals. The Bob Dylans of this world, and the Tom Waitses, guys like that, can do it but there aren’t many people who can do that.”
Blake good humouredly puts the lengthening gaps between Teenage Fanclub albums 27 years into their career “partly down to inertia on our part”. But, he adds, it’s also down to preparedness. “We only really get together when we think we’re all ready to make an album,” he says.
“A couple of years ago we were invited by our American label Merge Records to play at their 25th anniversary [festival] in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so we came over and did that having not played together in a while and we also did a show at the Summer Stages in New York City and I think we enjoyed that so much that afterwards we got chatting and inevitably the discussion came round to making an album and everyone was up for it and felt ready to do it again.
“That’s what happens with us, that partly explains the gaps because if all of us aren’t feeling ready and don’t have the songs then we won’t do it.”
With Blake based in Canada and the rest of the band still living in Scotland there are logistical issues to be surmounted when recording, but he doesn’t see them as major obstacles with the availability of “pretty cheap flights”.
You see so many bands who’ve been around for a long time and historically the last few records aren’t very good and we would hate for that to happen to us.
“Actually the internet has changed things quite a bit,” he reckons. “I think in the past if I was over here it would be even harder to get together. Your only way of communicating would be by phone back then, but now you have email and Skype and it’s easy for me to keep up to speed with what’s happening in the UK. I look at the BBC website, The Guardian or whatever.”
Financially, he concedes, “it’s not the best thing” to leave five or six-year gaps between albums. “We should really be getting together every couple of years, but sadly,” he chuckles, “that’s just the way it works.”
In between the cycle of writing, recording, promotional work and touring Blake says he manages to stay in touch with Love, McGinley, drummer Francis MacDonald and keyboard player Dave McGowan on everyday matters. “I’ll often find myself emailing one of the guys about a DIY problem I’ve got,” he says.
“We’re not hanging out with each other all the time in the way that you would as a young band, it’s more of a little gang when you’re kids, but we still stay in touch and we’re all friends still. There wouldn’t be much point in making music with people that you didn’t get on with, that wouldn’t work for us at all.”
A creeping awareness of mortality and the importance of friendship dominates the new record. Blake puts that down to the way they work.
“I think in terms of the writing a couple of things happened,” Blake says. “We tend to write and record the music first, we’ll probably put down a melody but there won’t be a fixed lyric. We tend to all work that way.
“What will happen is when we get to the studio for the vocal sessions we’ll all still be writing the lyrics during that session so as you’re listening to someone else putting down a lyric you’re probably picking up on the themes subconsciously and sometimes consciously, thinking ‘That’s a good idea’ and you maybe word it slightly differently. That allows us to have a theme going through the record in terms of lyrics.
“Also,” he adds, “we also tend to write about the same things. We tend to write about life and how we experience it. I’m 50, Raymond’s going to be 52 in February, Gerry’s almost 50, if you’re writing about your life you start to become a little more aware of your mortality. When you’re 20 you’re invincible, it’s so far off that you’re not even thinking about that, so lyrically you’re just writing something completely different. It’s inevitable as older artists the themes are going to be focused on mortality.”
The song Hold On could be seen as an ode to enduring spirit of the band itself. Blake can see the analogy but is cautious about not looking too far ahead.
“There’s always a worry when you’ve been around for as long as us not that your music’s irrelevant but you see so many bands who’ve been around for a long time and historically the last few records aren’t very good and we would hate for that to happen to us,” he says.
“We want to be able to look back and have a good body of work. I think so far we’ve done that. We very well may make another record but there’s also the chance that if we listened to it and thought it was a turkey that would be it.”
Blake associates some of his best memories from the last 27 years to making records. “I met my wife when we were making Grand Prix, she was the housekeeper at the studio, so that was a great thing for me,” he recalls.
“But other things that are amazing are some of the people that we’ve played with. When we made Bandwagonesque [in 1991] we did the Nirvana Nevermind European tour so we got to know those guys pretty well and we got to witness that phenomenon, that was incredible, just seeing when they released Smells Like Teen Spirit and the album going from being nothing to a massive record, that was amazing.
“We also toured with Radiohead on the OK Computer tour for North America. They’re a great bunch of guys and we had a really great time doing that, and again just watching a band at the height of their talents. Radiohead were fabulous and it was an incredible tour. We toured with Pixies as well. Getting to travel, getting to Japan, all great memories, really. I feel very privileged to have been able to experience them.”
Here is out tomorrow. Teenage Fanclub play at The Leadmill, Sheffield on November 17 and Leeds University on November 20. For details CLICK HERE