Music interview '“ James Skelly of The Coral: '˜We wanted to challenge ourselves'

More than half a dozen albums into a career, the urge often comes for artists to tinker with the formula.

Thursday, 4th October 2018, 9:00 am
The Coral. Picture: Ben Morgan

For James Skelly, frontman of The Coral, the desire to switch it up surfaced with the group’s eighth record, Move Through the Dawn.

If the Hoylake rockers have spent the better part of two decades perfecting a strain of psychedelic indie and country indebted to the sounds of the sixties, then the 38-year-old wanted to tip his hat to his formative childhood influences taken from the shelves of the seventies.

“It was more the result of me wanting to emulate the stuff I’d grown up with, like ABBA and Electric Light Orchestra,” he notes. “They’re multi-layered creations that come on big; comparatively, our sound is small in comparison.

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“It was something we’ve never done properly before, building layer upon layer so we thought that we’d try it.

“We wanted to challenge ourselves; in the end, it almost became like a competition to make it as much as an opposite to our prior records as we could.”

Has it presented new challenges for the band in their live shows? “Yeah, a few. We’ve got my brother [Ian] playing additional guitar on some of them, so that they don’t sound too far away from the record.

“On the album, where we’ve double-tracked it, the layering is quite subtle; it still sounds like a single guitar in parts, albeit smoother.

“Adding the second layer live helps us keep that quality on stage though, which is all to the good.”

Skelly and his bandmates are highly satisfied with the end result regardless though – the singer describes it as the best album that they’ve put out for years and cites Eyes of the Moon as arguably “the ultimate Coral song” in his personal breakdown – and feel buoyed by the reception that has greeted its release.

“The fans seem to love it and that’s the main thing for us.”

Is there anything that has surprised him with the reaction? “Everyone really seems to love Sweet Release,” he ponders. “I honestly thought Reaching Out for a Friend would be the bigger of the two. For some reason, that took me unawares.”

The group imminently embark on a UK headline jaunt of their own, following a spring and summer of support slots and festival gigs.

Skelly admits that the feeling of open-air shows on a stacked bill never gets old for him.

“It’s great. You get to play to loads of people who wouldn’t normally come and see you, and you can convert them. I like the challenge in a way. I like the element of just rocking up without a soundcheck and playing, especially when it’s sunny.” Any favourites this year? “Eh, they’ve all been good. They all sort of roll into one when you play them one after the other. I’ve enjoyed all of them.”

Such slots are approached in a similar manner to their gigs such as those with Manic Street Preachers earlier this year, as opposed to their upcoming solo run. “You’ve got to condense it all together, when you’re out supporting a bigger band or at a festival. It’s really a greatest hits show; you have to approach it in a different manner. With your own performance, you can take the crowd on a little journey, with all its own ups and downs and dynamics. We do a sort of big jam in our encores but you can’t go and do that in a 40-minute set; that would kill it.”

One particular stop in Yorkshire on their jaunt holds special significance for Skelly. “The Leadmill, in Sheffield, was where we played the first professional gig of our careers, after signing our first contract. It’s still one of my favourite shows to date. They’re all going to be great gigs in these venues though; so many great bands have passed through so you’re aware of the legacy before you. But at the same time, people have paid good money to see you; you’ve got to be focused, up there, on delivering a great show for them that’s worth it. You just focus.”

The landscape The Coral now inhabit – almost as elder statesman – is unrecognisable though to the one they emerged in almost twenty years ago though. Streaming dominates physical sales and rock music is comparatively missing in action from the charts. Despite the shift in the popular paradigm, Skelly feels that perhaps guitar music has lost the urge of yesteryear now. “I think some guitar bands don’t have the drive anymore. I think grime has the drive now; where it comes from a working-class place. Guitar bands don’t seem to have the same anger or drive in a way. They need that to bust through to the mainstream though, because they haven’t got anything else.”

The Coral play at Leeds Beckett University on October 6. Move Through The Dawn is out now.