Hi Kelly, how’s festival season been treating you?
It’s been great, yeah. We’re bouncing back and forth to Europe, finishing off the festivals. So we did the V Festival, T In The Park and Rock En Seine in Paris, and we’re off to Lollapalooza Berlin on Sunday.
You first played V Festival in 1997. It must have changed a lot since then?
As a band, we’ve always just been trying to concentrate on the songs so it was quite nice to headline the V Festival this year. To be on a bill with people like George Ezra and Ellie Goulding – very current acts on their first or second records – and for there to be 15 or 16 year old kids in the front row, discovering ‘C’est La Vie’ and ‘I Wanna Get Lost With You’ for the first time, was quite cool. We’re always trying to win over new fans, really, so that the music remains relevant within newer audiences.
You first came to prominence during Britpop, when the mainstream was very receptive to guitar music. Have you notice that that’s changed a lot?
I don’t think the reception has changed from a public point of view in a live context, but I think it’s changed with radio playlists. But then it always does, you know? At the end of the Britpop thing – when we released ‘The Bartender and the Thief’ – I remember the charts were full of S Club 7. It goes around in cycles: at the minute, there are a lot of songwriters and a lot of people with songs featuring other people. Again, that’s another thing that I guess the band’s proud of really; that our songs are still making a big impact, and that they still fit in amongst new bands and artists that, to be honest, we don’t really know a lot about.
So for the benefit of anyone yet to hear Keep The Village Alive, what can they expect?
Well it’s our ninth album, and with every record we try to do something slightly different. I think it’s a very uplifting album, and the title ‘Keep The Village Alive’ is in keeping with that. It was something that used to be said in the working men’s clubs back home when people were shouting out to keep the community alive. It’s positive – a statement of high spirits. The title came after the album, so it’s not really a reflection of the writing, but the sentiment is the same.
This album wasn’t a case of going into the studio to make an album: it was a series of recordings that we then selected the biggest, most impactful songs from, that worked well together. It’s a bit like a mixtape really; every song’s quite different in style but they all make you feel good. And it’s the type of record that, when it finishes, you want to put it on again.
Were there any musical reference points at all?
The songs for Keep The Village Alive and Graffiti on the Train were all recorded and written over a period of about two years so, it was an ongoing, ever-changing situation. One day it could be a Tom Waits record, the next day it could be the George Ezra record, or a Sex Pistols record, or an Otis Redding record, and there was quite a bit of Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac too.
If all the songs for the two albums were written during the same period, how did you differentiate between the two sets?
I think Graffiti On The Train is much more orchestral and lush in its arrangements. ‘C’est La Vie’, ‘Sunny’, ‘My Hero’: all those tracks were ready for Graffiti but they didn’t quite fit the tone of the record. ‘C’est La Vie’ was much too uplifting and fun, compared to tracks like ‘Catacomb’ and ‘Violins and Tambourines’. Graffiti is a bluer, more moody record, and this is more of a sunny record, I guess.
You worked with Jim Lowe once more on Keep The Village Alive. What is it about his approach to production that you like?
Me and Jim have been producing records together for about 10 years now, and I can bring an idea into the studio and suggest what I hear in my head, and Jim’s very good at interpreting how I articulate that. Also, he’s very fast and I’m very fast so we work really well together. There’s kind-of an unspoken language between us, but I guess it’s more about being able to communicate what you want to communicate with each other in a quick and smooth way.
I mean, I made Keep Calm And Carry On with Jim Abbiss – who did the first Arctic Monkeys album, and who’s worked with Kasabian and Adele – which was a good experience as well. But what tends to happen when you work with a producer is that they give you five or six week windows and then they go off to another job. What me and Jim [Lowe] have is the freedom of starting a record, stopping a record, coming back to an idea; which is quite a nice thing sometimes, if you’re disciplined. If you’re not disciplined then it becomes an overhanging f***ing mess, really. (Laughs) But we’re quite disciplined going back and forth, finishing the work.
We tend to use different mixers as opposed to different producers. So Craig Silvey mixed this record, who did the recent Florence + The Machine record, and Noel Gallagher’s record, and the New Order album. It’s good to work with someone who isn’t so close to the record, and who can give it their own little twist.
Your approach to lyrics has always been very narrative-based. Could you tell us more about some of the stories on this album please?
Well ‘C’est La Vie’ was inspired by the screenplay I wrote, which is about two young lads trying to figure out where they belong in their small town, and being excited to leave their small town to find where they belong elsewhere. But the reality is that you need to find out where you belong inside, really. When you’re 18 or 19, you think breaking out of the gang and finding your own track in life is the hardest thing in the world to do. So yeah, it’s a rites of passage story.
‘My Hero’ is a song about an old uncle of mine who was a war veteran. He was a very funny guy. He missed the chance to see Al Jolson entertaining the troops, because he went off for a fling with some Italian woman. (Laughs) So, yeah, there’s a variety of tales on the record.
The stories are always very rooted in your upbringing.
Yeah, well I think when you are a writer – or a painter or an artist or whatever – you always look back to a certain point in your life, and it’s normally those core memories from when you’re 13, 14, 15 and you’re discovering certain things for the first time, forming your first impressions. I grew up in a very small town and I had lots of older brothers and my dad was a singer, so I was always around all the characters in working men’s clubs. Because of that, I was listening a lot to other people’s stories, and I guess I’d taken in a lot of information at quite a young age
Is there anything you’ve learned about yourself in the making of this album?
I found it quite hard to let go of this album. It was quite a hard to finish it, and I don’t know if that was because I was surprised of the success of the last record. With the last record, we didn’t really care what anybody thought and made a very different record, and it ended up getting played all over the radio and becoming a platinum-selling record, which was the f***ing last thing we ever expected. With this album, we did want to make a really strong record. So I don’t know what I learned really, other than I’m just getting used to letting go.
As per Graffiti On The Train, you’re releasing Keep The Village Alive through your own imprint. Can you tell us about the decision to found Stylus Records please?
Well Stylus Records came about partly by accident. We were on Richard Branson’s label V2 Records for about seven albums, and then they decided to sell that to Universal. We didn’t have much choice where we were going really, so we were put onto Mercury Records. It was great when they released Decade In The Sun, our greatest hits record. But then when we started to make our own studio record, we didn’t really feel a great sense of musicality there; it was all about numbers and figures and statistics. I mean, that’s fabulous for a greatest hits record, but when it comes to new music it isn’t that important.
We ended up working with Marcus Russell and John Leahy – who work at Ignition Records with Noel Gallagher – by chance, really. They allowed us to do what we wanted to do, with their imprint as a backing, which allowed us the freedom to make the records we wanted to make.
You’ve been together for 20 years now. Do you have any celebrations planned?
Yeah, we’re just trying to figure it out, really. I mean it’s 20 years and nine albums, so we’re not going to let it go by, though I’m not quite sure what we’ll do yet. (Laughs) Possibly a new record to mark the occasion, but definitely some big outdoor shows to celebrate it all
Looking back on when you started the band, how have your motivations for making music changed?
I don’t think our motivation has changed – I think our drive is still the same. We’re a band who actually like each other – we still like going out and getting drunk together. That’s a bonus, because most bands f***king hate each other. (Laughs) So yeah, it hasn’t changed a great deal to be honest. There’s a bit more life-juggling going on, but generally the part of the band that we do we go out and have a good time, we play the best show we can, and move onto the next, you know?
Are there any outstanding ambitions?
The ambition is always to continue doing what you’re doing, and moving along and growing, but I haven’t got a flag in the sand that I want to play this venue or win a Grammy or anything like that. To me, it’s just about discovering new parts about myself that I never knew that I had really, whether that’s through working with different people, or going to different countries or whatever. As long as I keep developing and changing, I’m happy.