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Interview: Teenage Fanclub Reflect On Their 30th Anniversary

Interview: Teenage Fanclub Reflect On Their 30th Anniversary

Interview by Jerri-Rae Leef / Photo credit: Donald Milne / Thursday 14th February, 2019 4:25PM

Thirty years after their formation, Scottish alt-rock figureheads Teenage Fanclub are coming to New Zealand for the first time ever, and peeps are excited for this Monday's headline show at Auckland's Powerstation. With their entire catalogue being re-issued on vinyl, the band is back on the road and still killing it 10 albums in. Jerri-Rae Leef had a chat with singer/guitarist Norman Blake about songwriting, the early days and how they’ve managed to keep their cool as a successful band.

I know you guys share the songwriting in the band, and I’m interested to know what approach you take on a personal level and how you then combine that with the other band members to create a cohesive sound.

Yeah, okay well I’ll go back way to the start. When we made our first album, we got a little Tascam Portastudio thing and made some rudimentary demos which were very, very basic. And we thought, ‘oh we’ve got an album’s worth of songs here!’ At that point in Glasgow people were making demos and sending them off to try and get a deal, but we thought that wasn’t really a good way to make music. We thought, why don’t we just get the money together, make an album and see if we could persuade someone to release it you know, then just move on and do something else? So we came up with a few songs and then we formed the band. We made the first album and I’d written the songs on that. Then the second album we thought we’d open it up to everyone. We thought, why don’t we all just write. After that we had a bit of a falling out with (drummer) Brendon O’Hare, which has all been resolved now. Anyway there was a change of drummer as Paul Quinn came in. It was myself, Jerry and Raymond that were writing songs. We just fell into this weird way of doing it, you know, different people, dynamics, and different ways of working. The way it worked is we would all bring about five songs and we would work on them. They’d be completely written by the person and we’d bring them into the studio and everyone would work on arranging it. So that’s kind of the template we used all the way through the band. It works for us. That’s basically how we’ve worked up to this point.

Does that take a bit of the pressure off, having three writers?

When you’ve been around as long as we have, you know, 30 years this year! If you have one writer having to write 12 or 15 sings for each album, and that’s 10 albums for us now, you’re looking at 100 songs. It’s difficult to maintain a standard you know!

Totally! I’m interested to know how you find self-producing vs. working with an outside producer, and how you think it affects your sound?

We’ve generally self-produced with one major exception. We met Don Fleming through a mutual friend and because we made the first album ourselves, we thought it would be interesting to work with someone with a different perspective and a different take on things, and Don was great. We were a young band so he encouraged us to do our thing. I think we were trying to be Sonic Youth at the time. We were focusing on the noise and I remember Don saying, "You guys can all sing, I’ve heard you singing. Why don’t you do that? Try some harmonies?" He encouraged us to go down that path and it became a direction that formed what became our sound. So that was interesting working with him.

The second time we worked with a producer was our Grand Prix album. And the reason we did that was because our previous album was self-produced and I think we kind of lost the plot. We went to the studio with 40 songs, I mean 40 fragments of songs, and we spent months in the studio and it took a long time to get the album together. We eventually did, but we thought next time it’d be better to have someone cracking the whip, someone who could pull it all together and make it more cohesive. We worked with a guy called David Bianco, who sadly recently passed away. We toured with the Pixies way back, and Charles Thompson invited us to the studio and we met David Bianco and he produced that album for us. I think we just needed someone to help us focus. But that was really the last time we were with a producer per se, you know. We made an album with John McIntyre (Tortoise). John was mostly engineering that album at his studio in Chicago, which is sadly no longer there. Generally, we’re kind of doing it ourselves. I think by this point we kind of know what we’re doing you know.

I’ve heard that Grand Prix was your favourite album, particularly as it’s around the time you met your wife and you had a child together. How does having a family change the rock n roll lifestyle you’d been in since a young age?

I don’t know if we were ever particularly really rock n roll. We’ve had our moments you know. We’re not the band that’s chucking furniture out of a hotel room you know. On the rock n roll debauchery scale we’re only about 10%. I mean it changes a bit with a family. The upside is you can’t do it for too long.

You guys recently released a bunch of your albums on vinyl. How did that idea come to fruition? Why now?

Well it was the Creation period albums that we are re-issuing. A guy called Julian Fernandez at Sony in the UK (Sony inherited the back catalogue) approached us and said we’d like to reissue these and of course we were really happy. Some of these albums were going for quite a lot of money on Discogs and eBay and stuff, so to have the opportunity to have them was something we had to act on. So we had them all remastered at Abbey Road and we helped generate the artwork, as a lot of the artwork was lost. We were just happy to have them out. We’re actually going to reissue our entire catalogue. First we’re reissuing our first album. We made an album with Jad Fair from Half Japanese. We’re going to be reissuing that. For the first time ever we’re going to have our entire catalogue available on vinyl so that’s exciting of us.

You guys did a tour with Nirvana at the time they were just breaking out. What was that like? Must have been insane!

It was amazing! Yeah we did the European leg of the Nevermind tour and we’d known the boys just through touring. They were really great guys and it was amazing to witness that phenomenon, to be around the scene when it went from nothing to a massive, massive thing. Kurt was a lovely guy, he was troubled and all that, but he was a really nice guy. They were just kind of normal young guys. It’s funny, we did a show with Dave Grohl a couple years back and I hadn’t seen him for years. That public persona he has is genuine. That’s what Dave is like, he’s just a nice bloke. But that was an amazing experience to witness. The other thing we had, we toured with Radiohead for the North American OK Computer tour, and it was amazing to witness that too. We’ve tagged along with some amazing artists and we’ve been lucky enough to witness these things.

You’ll be here in NZ in February, are you looking forward to it?

Yeah we’ve never been to NZ before! Very much looking forward to it. I was a big Flying Nun fan, and I know it’s a beautiful country so yeah I’m really looking forward to it.

What does touring look like for you now compared to the early days when you were in your twenties? Is it much different?

The first tour we did in the UK, I remember we went to my flat in Glasgow and we dragged the mattress off the bed, chucked it in the back of the transit van with no windows. Then we all piled in the back of that and rolled up to the venue, chucked all the gear out and then slept in the back of the van after the gig. That would be the main thing. I mean we stayed in travel lodges so the low end of the scale... but we don’t sleep in the back of a van anymore. That’s the biggest thing that’s changed. But it’s still great fun to tour. It’s an amazing thing, most people don’t get to do that in their day to day life or whatever. Most people are working and have to stay in one location, whereas what we do takes us all over the place. It’s great and if you lose the appreciation of that then you’ve kind of lost the plot.

10 albums in 30 years… very few people manage to stick around for even half of that. How do you think you guys managed to do that so successfully?

We’ve always had a great relationship between the band. It’s a good dynamic. But I think also we didn’t overwork it. We only make albums when we feel that we’re ready to make one, so that makes for large gaps between albums. I think we’ve never forced anything. I think possibly also we’ve never been a massively big band, we’ve never really been in the spotlight and scrutinised or whatever. I could imagine that would be quite a lot to deal with if you’re very successful artist. We’ve always kind of been in the background doing our thing, but I think mostly it’s been a nice dynamic by the people in the band.

UTR is proud to present Teenage Fanclub's first ever New Zealand show, happening on Monday 18th February at Auckland's Powerstation with support from The Roulettes.


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Mon 18th Feb
The Powerstation, Auckland

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