OUT OF THE SHADOWS Teenage Fanclub

The Scottish band’s three
songwriters talk about their roots and influences, their unusual collaborative
process and their first album in five years.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“Sometimes you wake up and you want to be Link Wray and
other days you wake up and you want to be Burt Bacharach,” says Norman Blake of
Teenage Fanclub.

 

Blake is one of the band’s three songwriters, the one who
wrote “The Concept” and “Mellow Doubt,” and he was wrestling with a question regarding
the essentially cool thing about his more than two decade old band, how they
combined some of power pop’s prettiest melodies with blisteringly loud guitar
distortion. The song in question, the single “Hang On” from 1994, starts in a
firestorm of feedbacky soloing, then resolves into a verse that has some of the
Byrd’s knack for easy, closely harmonized tunefulness.

 

“We never really planned anything, we just did what came naturally,”
observes bass player Gerard Love, when asked the same question by email. “I guess
we all
really liked the energy of distorted guitars
matched with a catchy melody.”

 

Role models? Inspirations? “Husker Du were probably the best
around in the late 1980s, but we were also really into things like Dinosaur Jr,
Jesus and Mary Chain, early My Bloody
Valentine, Half Japanese, Beat Happening and
Sonic Youth,” says Love. “Growing up, just about everyone we knew liked
the more melodic side of punk; The Buzzcocks, The Undertones and The Ramones
were all massive in the west of Scotland.”

 

The song “Hang On” is 16 years old now, but Teenage Fanclub
is still at the task of balancing exquisite pop and noisy exuberance. They may
be, on the margins, a little bit more serene on their ninth album Shadows (Merge), than in the days when they opened Nirvana’s Nevermind tour. Still,
odds are that all three songwriters wake up, now and again, on the Link Wray
side of the bed.

 

Teenage Fanclub emerged out of Glasgow in the late 1980s, formed in a
fertile pop-infused post-punk scene encapsulated on the NME‘s classic C86 compilation and represented by bands like Orange Juice and Fire Engines.

 

Both Blake and Raymond McGinley were already playing
together in the Pastels when they started a new band called Boy Hairdressers. “We
made one record and then broke up,” says Blake, “but we decided that we wanted
to keep making music.” The two of them were too broke to record until
McGinley’s neighbor passed away, leaving him a refrigerator and a washing
machine. They used the money to make a cassette recording of what would become A
Catholic Education
, their first album as Teenage Fanclub. Through Stephen McRobbie of the Pastels, they got the record
to Gerard Cosloy, who agreed to put the record out on Matador.

 

“That’s pretty much how the band started — from making that
cassette,” says Blake.  “I think we made
the record before we had played any live shows. Why wait around?”

 

The band went on to achieve success in the 1990s with a
string of releases on highly regarded Creation Records and a major label deal
with Sony in the U.S. Kurt Cobain was a fan. Liam Gallagher named them the
“second-best band in the world.” “Ain’t That Enough” from the 1997 Songs
from Northern Britain
became the band’s biggest hit, reaching 17 on the UK
Singles Chart.

 

Songs from Northern Britain was the band’s commercial
peak, but they have continued to make music. Their ninth album Shadows,
released this spring on Merge Records followed the same collaborative process
as their earliest work, with all three songwriters – Blake, Love and McGinley –
bringing in songs.

 

“We write individually but whoever writes the song will
produce and oversee the studio construction of it,” Blake explains. “So, for
instance, if Raymond writes a song, he’ll come in with his song and then he’ll
play his song and then he’ll have a basic idea for an arrangement and then
we’ll listen to it and express ourselves and then it will develop from there. So
we write individually but the songs can develop and change once we’re in the
studio.”

 

The songs come to the studio with their basic structure
intact. The actual writing happens away from the boards, in a variety of
settings. The single “Baby Lee” for instance, was written by Blake at a
songwriter’s workshop in honor of the poet Robert Burns.  

 

“What they do is they have eight musicians who are based in Scotland,
and each day you peel off with a different person or a group of people and you
write songs,” Blake explains. Four days into the workshop, after writing
intensely all week, Blake woke up with the melody for “Baby Lee.”

 

“I went walking with a guy called Ziggy Cameral, who plays
in a band called Phones, they’re part of the Fence Collective, and a woman
called Sue Mangal who plays with Vashti Bunyan, and we wrote the lyrics
together in about half an hour,” he adds. Blake played the song at the
workshop’s Friday night closing, then again, from time to time, when he played
solo acoustic sets. When work began on Shadows,
he pulled it out again “and the guys said, ‘Yeah, that works, let’s have it.’  So that’s how that song came about.”

 

Love’s song “Sometimes I Can’t Believe in Anything,” which opens
the album, came from an entirely different place. In the months leading up to
the recording sessions, Love had been spending time with his large extended
family. “When we were away, in the middle of nowhere, recording, I was thinking
about home a lot; what home was and what it meant to me,” he says. “Lyrically, ‘Sometimes’ is about those brief
moments when you’ve felt completely satisfied in your position, you want for
nothing, everything is exactly how it should be and life is utterly beautiful.”

 

“I wanted the music to be really open and simple,” he added. “I
think there are just two chords all the way, with a suspended bass note through
the verse which, I think, gives it an air of clarity, maybe a sense of
purpose.”

 

McGinley’s “Today Never Ends,” arose, by contrast, from
contemplation of the past. “I’ve
always thought about the past,” he says. “I think it’s a result of me having a
good memory, and the older you are the more past there is. But I’m aware that
contentment comes from what you do today, not from past experiences or planned
future activities, hence the ‘Today Never Ends’ thing.”

 

The
song took much of its shape in the studio, in collaboration with shadow Fannie
Dave McGowan. “This song is a good example of the creative process,” he adds. “We’re
in the studio discussing how to record this song. I say to Dave, ‘What do you
fancy playing on this?’  Dave says, ‘Pedal steel?’  I say, ‘Yeah,
okay.’ And that’s it.”

 

“To
me creativity is as much about letting things happen as it is about having
pre-planned ideas. There is no right answer. If we’d recorded the song the
following day Dave might have said ‘piano’ or whatever and it would have been
completely different,” says McGinley.
 

One factor that influenced the way that these songs came out
was the simple fact that Teenage Fanclub was recording in the UK this time. Their last album, Man-Made, was recorded in Chicago with John McEntire.
They simply couldn’t bring all their instruments and equipments with them, so
the record had a stripped down sound to it. This time, they loaded a full truck
of instruments and hauled it all to Leeders Farm in Norfolk.

 

“We had, particularly, lots of small electronic keyboards, as well as
the usual array of electric and folky stringed instruments and a couple of nice
new shiny glockenspiels we picked up in Cologne
on the last tour,” says Love.  

 

“We thought, we’ve got all this equipment. We should use
it,” Blake remembers. “So we had many, many more overdubs on this record and
more harmonies going on.”

 

“I’ve
always says that it’s often the case that rather than being the result of
meditative sonic pontification, the sound of a record is defined to a certain
extent by which instruments you have lying around, or which pieces of gear work
when you switch them on,” says Raymond McGinley. “You know, ‘Oh, the vox organ
isn’t working, let’s use the Casio…’ or whatever. We had more musical ‘stuff’
around this time so the arrangements are more dense because we could play with
that stuff.”

 

Closer
to home, the band also had access to long-time collaborators like Dave McGowan
or folk fiddler John McCusker, who created all the string parts.

Yet while the album has its own distinct feel, Love says that it’s part of a
continuum. “I think all our music is part of the same
story, so in a sense everything is a continuation of day one. It’s a slow
evolution. I think our tastes have broadened through the years, and although
we’re still very much influenced by the same things, we have a deeper awareness
of textures and subtlety and I think our records have become richer as a
result. I think we’re better players now, but I imagine our earlier records
have more energy.”

 

Meanwhile, Blake recognizes that, even if the band isn’t on
a major label anymore, even if its commercial success is modest, he and the
other members are lucky to still be making their “minor songs in a major key,”
as he sings on “If I Still Have Thee.”

 

“I was thinking about our place in the world, that line came
to me,” he recalls. “I think we’re lucky that we’re still making records. We’re
touring. I’m standing in a lovely venue in Edinburgh at the moment. We get to do that.

 

“But you know, in the overall scheme of things and life in
general, a band doesn’t really mean very
much at all
. So yeah, it’s about that.”  

 

 

[Photo Credit: Donald Milne]

 

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