TEENAGE FANCLUB By Louisa Williams
For the Scottish band who, in 1989 declared: "Every picture that I paint doesn't capture you" on their acclaimed debut, 'A Catholic Education', eight years, five albums and numerous tours across the globe since, have given them 'A World Education'. Babbling about people who, and places that have helped mould Teenage Fanclub across the years, guitarist (and one of the frontmen) Norman Blake marvels at how often he strays from the topic at hand. However, his musings show an acute interest in details and emotions attached to his descriptions which make him a captivating storyteller. These days, Teenage Fanclub have the picture just right.
The sleeve artwork of the quartet's latest offering, released earlier this year, 'Songs From Northern Britain' also captures a certain spirit. Scenes including a peaceful beachfront, a wide landscape and the blue-green meeting of treetops to the sky, are testimony to Teenage Fanclub's fascination with beautiful things. "And not so beautiful things" Blake adds quickly. "The guy who took the photographs is a guy called Donald Milne, who's a fashion photographer from London, he does photos for 'The Face' and all those. He's really an ace guy, he's a really talented photographer and it just happens, he's Scottish aswell.So we jumped in the back of a van with a case of beer and drove around looking for interesting things to take a photo of", he adds with a chuckle. And they got more interesting as you drank more beer? "Yeah, they did actually", Blake confesses. "But we found a lot of interesting things and had a really fun day. And we had a large format camera which took really amazing photographs, actually I'm going to get them blown up for my new flat when I get it!"
'Songs From Northern Britain' whispers of an ease that is complimented by the soothing art. Pacing guitars and thuddingly steady rhythms make a strong underlay for glorious, anthemic melodies in both the vocals and lead guitar lines, and for possibly the first time, Teenage Fanclub are able to deliver an album without pressure or prior expectation. The two albums preceeding, 'Thirteen' and 'Grand Prix' had created a slight slump for the group, not in public reception or in success, but within the band's walls. "It wasn't actually the album, or the songs as such that we weren't happy about, it was more the process", Blake clarifies their concerns with 'Thirteen'. "I think it was about eight months to make. We started making it in Glasgow and I think we recorded it in bits of songs and ideas. I think the touring part was a relief, we got into the songs again and we enjoyed that. That tour was brilliant, it was just great fun playing in Australia in the sunshine and hanging out with The Ramones and The Breeders", he says of their billing on 1994's Big Day Out. Then, somewhere before the recording of 'Grand Prix', drummer Brendan O'Hare cracked the boundaries of the original lineup. "We had a bit of a fallout with Brendan which was all very horrible", Blake says, admitting that this caused a lot of stress. "But I'm glad to say that we're the best of buddies now, and his new band are playing with us. They're called Microcosmica. He's been playing with a group from Glasgow called Mogwie and they're doing pretty well", he lightens the mood, excited when I guess what a Mogwie is. "You got it, yeah before they become Gremlins they're Mogwie or something. Yeah well he's been doing that", Blake says, obviously proud. Settling in with Paul Quinn for 'Grand Prix', it seems the connection is strengthened on 'Songs From Northern Britain', his second album with the band. "Well we spend a lot more time talking about football! That's probably the main aspect of Paul coming in. But you know, Paul's a different kind of drummer. Brendan came in all over the place but it sort of worked, you know? Whereas Paul's more, sort of... rigid. Paul's more into playing the drums, Brendan was always wanting to play the guitar, which is fair enough, he's a good frontman, he fronts the band he's playing with".
After their disappointment with the recording process during 'Thirteen', the 'Fanclub were determined to create an album they felt content with. "Well I think with Grand Prix, we sort of knew that we had to make a good record and I think we put a lot of work into the pre-studio part of t, you know? Because we never really practised that much. Well that's not quite true, before we made our 'Bandwagonesque' album, we had rehearsals in a place near where my parents stay", Blake drifts off to reminisce. "And it was this kind of mad place where we just had these little bits and pieces of equipment and we rehearsed a lot in there. In fact Brendan ended up living there! It was this room that we blocked up the windows and there wasn't any light or anything like that. We'd end up sleeping there after we'd come back from the pub! Yeah, with Grand Prix, I'm sort of getting off the path", he laughs, "we did a lot of pre-studio work and put a lot into that so it was quite simple to record. In fact, we went in and recorded the songs mostly live and then overdubbed the vocals and that was really about all we did with that album. Whereas 'Songs From Northern Britain', we spent about two weeks before we went into the studio and didn't do much at all", he compares. "We basically did quite a lot of it in the studio, it was fun doing that, there's a lot more instrumentation on this album. So we spent a lot more time overdubbing and putting mad instruments on it". Was this experimentation planned? "It kind of just happened, we hadn't really worked things out before we went in but we had ideas for it. We didn't really feel under as much pressure because Grand Prix had been received pretty well", Blake admits.
'Songs From Northern Britain' also boasts a marked change in the lyrical viewpoint of the three main songwriters, Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley. Could Teenage Fanclub be growing up? Always a steady theme in previous albums, love and relationships between people seem to have taken a mature turn, with song titles including 'Can't Feel My Soul' and 'I Don't Wan't Control of You', and lyrics like: "Everyday I look at a different face / The feeling's getting stronger with every embrace". "Yeah sure, well I guess I like great songs like Jonathan Richman and his songs trace his life, not all the time, but a lot of the songs are about him and his life and I kind of like that way of writing songs", Blake agrees, "it's the thing that appeals to me. I don't know about Gerry, I don't know if he feels comfortable writing about himself", he wonders. "But I quite like doing that. I suppose over the years different things happen to you and that reflects in your songwriting. It's good, you can have a boring year and you can make boring songs, but maybe I'll have an interesting year next year and it'll all be very interesting!" He laughs. "Three out of four of us are married. I'm married, I've got a two year old daughter. Raymond's married to a laywer, she specialises in forensic law. She did this thing for her thesis, she translated all these Scottish court records from like 1740 or whatever, she's got some interesting stories from the past!" he chuckles over possible song topics.
After being completely impressed by both his track record and work on 'Grand Prix', the band chose producer David Bianco again. As Blake describes Bianco's versatility; "from Rod Stewart to Henry Rollins, from Mick Jagger solo records to Frank Black records", it's not hard to see how he helps draw out Teenage Fanclub's particular talent; the elegant harmony. Back in the sixties, groups like The Beach Boys and The Beatles topped the pops with their glorious harmonies, but is sweetness as saleable these days? "I've no idea, it just depends. We're not all worried about having major hits, we'd like to have successful records. With this album we had, funnily enough, the highest entry in Britain, at number seventeen with 'Ain't That Enough', which is one of the songs that's got all the harmonies on it", he explains humbly. "It's just something that we can do, it's something that we know we're good at and we can work quite well. Some bands are good at mad guitar solos, we're not quite well at doing that kind of thing. Other people are good at making dance records, we would make terrible dance records, the dance floor would be empty!" Blake suggests comically.
And if you think you've cracked the Teenage Fanclub touring pattern, you're probably right. "Yeah, we always do, we always come out at this time of year! We plan our albums and touring just so we can get to Australia in December", Blake confesses that he loves the sun and the atmosphere. The band are then hoping to return home to plan their seventh album; "We'd like to do it quite soon, we're planning to maybe get into the studio in maybe January or February". So the question must be asked, and Blake seems unoffended in replying: "Well who can say? As long as we still enjoy working together we'll do it and you never know, lots of things can change. I'm sure we won't last forever, Steve McCollough says 'Nothing ever lasts forever' and he's probably right. We'll just keep doing it as long as we like it and maybe at some point we'll all feel like movng on. But for now, we're happy doing this!"