> Interview: Norman Blake talks about new Teenage Fanclub album Endless Arcade - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Norman Blake talks about new Teenage Fanclub album Endless Arcade

For a band with a reputation for being quiet guys who get on with things, there’s been considerable upheaval in the Teenage Fanclub camp since their last release. Although perhaps not as much as many other acts, they’ve suffered delays, and there have been some line-up changes. However, with their new album Endless Arcade they still sound and feel like the act you’ve known for all these years.

SNACK caught up with Norman Blake to discuss nice vinyl, Bosman signings, labours of love, and getting through this.

Photo credit: Donald Milne

How are you getting on?

Not bad, hanging in there, but a bit frustrated that we aren’t touring. We’ve been sitting on this LP for a while; it was done quite a long time ago. We’ve postponed the tour dates a couple of times now. That’s frustrating as we would love to be out playing the songs. Also, importantly, it’s how we earn a living. It’s frustrating not to do that, but I cannae complain too much. There are people in worse situations, in terms of musicians, too.

We were lucky we did get to finish the LP before the initial pandemic hit. I believe Camera Obscura were booked to go into a studio, and unfortunately they had to cancel. So our timing was pretty good in terms of recording.

You can do an album by social distancing. It is manageable – you just have to be careful. We mixed the album in Raymond’s [McGinley] house in Glasgow. We wore masks. It’s a bit crazy being in your bandmate’s house with a mask on, but you have to do it.

I suppose you do what you have to do to make it work. We were lucky enough that all the recording was done before, so it was just mixing. As long as we didn’t sit too close to each other, it was all right.

Before lockdown, the only time a band member was in another band member’s house while wearing a mask was when Pete Doherty robbed Carl Barat.

That’s good, aye, you’re right!

Raymond and yourself both have six song writing credits on the record. Was this added pressure for you?

I don’t think it was too much. It was only two extra songs each. As a songwriter, you always have little bits of ideas floating about. Even when it was the three of us writing, and we had four songs each on the album, you’d always have a few others. You need B-sides.

As sad as it was that Gerry [Love] was no longer there, there was a freshness with Dave [McGowan] on bass and Euros Childs coming in. Any change, you have to try and take the positives from it. I think we all felt invigorated about making music again. All the ideas came pretty easily. It didn’t seem a problem, happily. It ran smoothly.

Was there a compulsion to write a broader range of songs?

I just write songs, flesh out the ideas I have. The way we write, it’s always been classic in the terms of verses, chorus, solo. That’s what we do, and we’ve never veered away from that. That’s partly down to there being three of us writing – you write for the group, not the individual. You want the album to have a sound, not do anything radically different from each other.

Say for example I came in with a song. I’d play it on guitar, and then I’d ask everyone to come up with a bit. Maybe in the past the writer might have directed the song, but we didn’t do that this time around. We’d arrange it as a band. Hopefully that gives it a broad sound but homogenises it all together. It’s a different dynamic. It’s not a million miles away from what it was, but there was a determination to do something good. Well, you always want to make something good, but with the change in circumstances, there was more determination to do that.

You’ve worked with Euros before. Has he slotted in well?

He’s an easy-going guy. We’ve known him for years, and I’ve played with him. He’s not a difficult person to be around. He shares a similar sense of humour with all of us. He’s unassuming, he gets on with it, and he loves playing. He’s also prepared to try things, which is really good, having a go at difficult harmonies without it being an issue.

So that’s all been brilliant and he fits in great. If we’d gone with someone who hadn’t played with us, it might have been different. He’s part of the family.

One of the best Bosman signings a band could make?

That’s a very good way to put it. He’s a star striker!

Photo credit: Donald Milne

The album was virtually finished pre-lockdown, but it’s inevitable it will be viewed with current times in mind, won’t it?

Yeah, a lot of people have said the songs sound as though they were written during the lockdown. It’s funny, because none of them were. They seem to resonate in the current situation. It’s interesting, but it’s a coincidence. I suppose there is quite a bit of melancholy in the air, and nostalgia. Maybe because of the situation, people’s senses have been heightened.

Mind you, on ‘I’m More Inclined’, there’s the lyric ‘I could live in isolation’, which even I could pick up on!

Totally, and that line is purely coincidental. I wrote that song two years ago.

Good songs make people feel and connect. Is there any music which has resonated with you in the past year?

I’m always looking to pick things up. I got the new Jane Weaver album the other day. I’m a bit too long in the tooth for staying up to date with contemporary music. That’s an inevitability of getting old. I go back to things I liked in the past. A 55-year-old bloke shouldn’t know who the hottest bands in Glasgow are!

Recently, I’ve played Sonic Youth’s Sister a lot. I’m always happy to hear something new; I’m just not very good at finding things! Oh, I got the new Stereolab release, although that’s a compilation. And an old pal of mine, Lomond Campbell, I got a few of his things recently.

Do you think Mogwai getting a number one album raises the bar or gives new hope/impetus to the Scottish music scene?

It’s great they’ve done it, and I’m really pleased for them. I see Arab Strap are doing quite well too. That’s great people are making a concerted effort to place these artists into the charts. It is dependent on who else is out in the week you release music. Our last record got into the top ten, and if we could do that again, it would be amazing.

What Mogwai have done is great. They’re a big band, popular and well-known globally. Scotland has been great for music in the past 20 years. Chemikal Underground, Rock Action, it’s been really good, it’s thriving. There’s a ton of stuff out there, with Scottish bands being popular all over the world. When people talk about Scottish bands, they see it as being a bit special.

Teenage Fanclub have a huge following around the world, and you’ve a strong following in Japan. You’re loved there, aren’t you?

Japan has been great for us. For some reason we do well there. We’ve always been able to go back there…it’s been ten times at least! It’s a great place to go and play and visit. I feel fortunate to be able to go there, and hopefully we can get back soon.

There’s a Listening Party for the new album, are you looking forward to that?

Yes, that should be great fun. I’ve done a few of them, and it’s brilliant that he [Tim Burgess] has done this. Hundreds of records, and it’s still ongoing. It’s a lot of listening, and Tim has listened to all of them.

It’s a great idea, and it’s a nice way to turn people onto music. It also generates a lot of streams for a band. Even though it’s tough to make money from Spotify, it helps. And you have people listening to music, supporting bands and new music.

Record sales are still going up, although nowhere near what they were, but more and more people are interested in buying vinyl. There’s some nice-looking pieces of vinyl around nowadays. Hopefully that will continue growing.

It’s always nice to buy an LP. It’s a nice artefact, and you get a wee bit of artwork in your home. You see people spending money on a record and it’s lying against a wall or wherever you put it, and it’s good to look at.

One of my friends got a record player at Christmas, and I told him he needs to buy a Now Playing stand, so he can show social media what he is listening to.

There you go, exactly. There is also something about reading the liner notes. That’s something I remember doing when I was young. When you think about Spotify, there isn’t really any information. You’re just listening, but you don’t necessarily know much about the record. If you buy the record, you have somewhere to find information without going online.

It’s a more immersive activity isn’t it?

You have to pay attention to flip the record over. There is a process involved with vinyl. I have discovered music on the streaming platforms, and it is great if you’re a kid. If someone mentions Miles Davis to you, you can go and listen to all the records there and then, it’s all there. When I was young, you’d hear about things, and you’d have to go to a shop and buy it, or go to a mate’s house. Now, it’s all there to listen to, anytime you want.

It helps people find new music, and these people will always buy new music.

You’re right. At times I’ve listened to a stream and if I liked it, I went and bought the LP. I still like having the albums.

Spotify claims that people buy records after checking songs out, and that they help to build live audiences. But that’s not for them to say is it?

They should be paying artists properly, but this is the case now. It’s why it’s important the live sector is supported right now.

We’re all hoping this will be over soon, and we get venues open. It’s going to be tough to organise it all again; a lot of people tour around other jobs, and that is hard to arrange. Also, if you’re not making money from playing live, you need a job, and that stops you from touring. The good thing about bar work, generally, is you can get time off. But of course that’s gone now too.

It’s a labour of love being a musician. I cannot think of any musician who’s in it for the money…there must be easier ways to make a living.

Creation Stories [the Alan McGee film directed by Nick Moran] will be publicly available by the time this issue comes out. Have you seen it yet?

I’ve not seen it yet. I know it premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival. I meant to watch it but I completely forgot! It’ll be interesting, because I know so many of the people.

Joe Foster, Dick [Green], Alan; they guys, that’s the bit I’m looking forward to seeing, how their traits are portrayed. I think Bobby [Gillespie] features too. I’ll find that amusing, because I know them.

It’ll be good to see how they’re captured, and how their personalities are shown. I’m sure it will all be exaggerated. I spoke to Duglas [T. Stewart] about it, and he said Edward Ball is in it, someone’s playing Ed. Dan Treacy as well. That’s a big part of Alan’s story that people don’t know, The Television Personalities, and how much of a fan he was. It’ll be interesting to see how Dan is portrayed – he’s quite the character.

Do you have a story or viewpoint on Creation that hasn’t been shared, or that is unlikely to feature in the film?

Do you know what I always thought was brilliant about them, about Alan and Dick Green? They were making Loveless [by My Bloody Valentine], Screamadelica [by Primal Scream], and Bandwagonesque. We were all in the studio at the same time, making those records.

They weren’t released yet, Dick and Alan re-mortgaged their houses, took out massive loans to invest money in studio time for those records. It was a big risk; if they records flopped, they’d have been done. Massive debt. They had faith in the artist, and they were artist friendly too. They let you do what you want. They didn’t try to dictate how the record sounded; they were happy for you to deliver music.

They brought a lot of great music. Everyone knows about Oasis, but they put out Felt albums, Super Furry Animals – loads of other great music, tons of great stuff. They came through, and won through adversity. Early on, the music press was pretty scathing of them; they thought they were a bit of a joke. Of course, Alan and Dick had the last laugh.

As you say, if they are remortgaging their home, that’s not a business decision, that’s a labour of love.

They believed in us, they loved to do it, being part of the music business. Alan is a bit of a Malcolm McLaren [Sex Pistols manager], an Andrew Loog Oldham [Rolling Stones manager]. He’s great, a proper character. You don’t really have people like that in the music business any more. You don’t have these people who have a touch of madness about them. We always got on great with them. We were lucky to be there, really lucky. It was good timing.

It’s been more than 30 years since you started Teenage Fanclub, and you were talking about A Catholic Education [the band’s debut album] on Twitter recently. Are you a nostalgic person?

I played that album the other night; it’s not something I do very often. I think it’s masochistic to listen to your music. I’d rather listen to other people’s music. I just thought I’d see what it sounds like. You don’t listen to your records; you make them and then you put them out for other people to listen to. It sounded better than I thought it was going to.

It’s funny that music, made by that wee guy, I’d have been 22 or 23 when we made that. Those wee guys are way in the past, and it’s interesting to hear how different you sound. We sounded like a young band, with enthusiasm, and it was a bit rough and ready. It was all right…it had its charms for sure. Occasionally I’ll listen back, but not too often.

Were you listening to the album because you wanted to, or looking for ideas for the setlist?

I just fancied listening to it. There were moments when I thought we could play that one again, we could play all of them. It’s always good to shake the set up a little by playing something you haven’t played in a while. It makes it interesting for us too. We want to challenge ourselves a bit, work out some things we haven’t thought about for 30 years.

Do the line-up changes provide you with a chance to do something different as well?

It definitely does. That’s been a motivation too. When we did the reissues, we had to learn all the songs again because we played all the albums. That was quite an experience. That was the last thing Gerry did with us too, it was a funny way to end that, playing all the songs we worked on together over the years. Paul Quinn was there, Brendan [O’Hare, former drummer] was there, everyone who had been in the band was part of it. I don’t know if I’d want to do something like that again. We’ve had our fill of album tours.

Any thoughts on releasing a book or documentary of the band?

I don’t know if it’s an interesting enough story. My memory is too bad; I’d have to make it all up. Mind you, that’s what people do anyway, isn’t it?

Absolutely, create the headlines and paint themselves in a better light.

Exactly, no, we’ve been approached a couple of times about doing a book, but we always thought, ach, who cares about us? There are things that have happened. We met Little Richard; that was pretty good. The thing is, many of the stories are just little anecdotes, but I guess that’s what rock ‘n roll autobiographies are, a series of anecdotes, and making it look like there is more there than there really is! Big text and a lot of pictures.

What’s your favourite cover version you’ve played or recorded?

That’s a good one…I’m not sure what the answer would be. Maybe ‘I Heard You Looking’, a Yo La Tengo instrumental we used to play live a lot. That was one I liked doing, partly because I played bass on it. That was unusual for me. We’ve done a lot of covers over the years. We had to, because of the formatting wars in the 90s. That was when you had to have about 25 B-sides, so we did loads of covers.

I’ve long thought we should do a compilation of those. You never know, maybe at some point, we’ll do that. I suppose some songs are unavailable, things that were only released on the 7” single, they wouldn’t have made it to Spotify or streaming services. So, I suppose there are things out there which are unavailable in digital form, and perhaps those things could be collated somewhere, you never know.

Are you counting the days until the live shows?

We can’t get together to rehearse at the moment, but we are looking forward to doing it. It’s what we do, and I really enjoy playing with those guys. Even just having the sound of playing live in a band, I’ve missed that sound. The fact we’re being creative, and the camaraderie, all hanging out together, meeting people and going to different places. What a great thing to do.

I cannot be doing with the idea of complaining about going to new cities. I love it, I really do. Waking up and having a cup of coffee in places like Auckland, and going, ‘wow, I’m in Auckland, this is amazing!’ You never get tired of that.

There’s talk of a new album following on from Endless Arcade.

We’re going to try and keep rolling on. While we’re feeling creative, we might as well keep working on stuff. Also, if we can’t play as many shows as we would like at the moment, we might as well use the time to do something else. We’re recording demos at home, and when we get together, we can put down some new tunes. It’s always good to have more material to play live.

Endless Arcade will be released on 30th April via PeMa

Read our review of Endless Arcade

Main photo credit: Donald Milne

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