Q&A - Teenage Fanclub
Imagine if you had to pick a country out of a hat and only listen to that nation's output from then on. You'd be happy with Scotland wouldn't you? From Orange Juice to Aztec Camera, via Cocteau Twins, The Wake and newer bands like Spinning Coin - they're a melodic bunch the Scots.
Formed in 1989, Teenage Fanclub's Byrdsian jangle pop didn't deliver mainstream success but Belshill's finest have an enviable back catalogue including 1995’s Grand Prix and 1997’s Songs from Northern Britain. Like bandmates Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, Bassist Gerard Love is a prolific songwriter, and his 2012 mellow mood piece 'Electric Cables', recorded under the 'Lightships' moniker, is an unmissable Gorky's esque treat. Sit back as we chat to Gerard about all things music, football and the music press' 'Scottish Beach Boys' comparisons.
Q: A group with two songwriters, let alone three, rarely endures the ego management and in-fighting that comes with containing multiple creative forces for as long as you have. Is there anything in particular to which you would you ascribe your longevity?
A: We were never old mates or the best of pals but we always to got on well, we work well together and we give each other space, which is important when you spend so much time in each others company. When we started, the whole point of the group, apart from making music, was to get off the dole, escape the system and do our own thing. In those days, the thought of mainstream chart success was madness, the best you could hope for was self-sufficiency, an off-road type of success where you existed on your own terms, in your own bubble. You didn’t expect that you would ever be seriously rewarded for your endeavour, and so making enough to get by would be the ideal. Within this context, the ego doesn’t get too carried away and you can see maximum value in the collective effort. I’m not saying we’re an ego-free zone but I think we all recognised early on that we relied on each other in order to make the thing work.
Q: As a bass-playing songwriter, I suppose once a song is complete, apart from the structure, it's handed over to everyone else to fill in the detail. Was taking the guitarist role while making the Lightships album a welcome challenge in this regard?
A: Absolutely. Bass provides broadstokes and structure but it’s difficult to influence the character of a recording, the texture, and the detail. I love playing the bass, I love the role of the bass, but sometimes it feels like you’re at a distance, the mid-ground rather than the foreground of a photograph. Early on in Teenage Fanclub, I would always suggest riffs and chord structures when I started writing songs. I would always record demos playing rudimentary guitar, and then I would allow Raymond and Norman to interpret the parts and expand upon them according to their own styles and tastes, but as time went on it would begin to frustrate me a little. I started wanting to move away from big chords in favour of arpeggios, to a lighter feel, and it would sometimes be difficult to have someone else play this the way you wanted it to be played.
With the Lightships record, I wanted to be directly responsible for the feel of the guitars, the feel of the record, and so I passed the bass over to someone else. I had never really recorded much playing six string guitar so I was a bit freaked out when we started doing takes - I was, at best, a bedroom guitarist, a demo guy. It was a good learning curve for me and I feel I’m a better guitar player as a result. I’m still pretty rubbish, though a slightly better level of rubbish.
Q: You've been lauded by artists like Nirvana and Oasis and dubbed the 'Scottish Beach Boys' or 'Scottish Byrds' historically in the music press. Do you think reference points like this are a good gateway for people to discover bands or do they prevent the music from being enjoyed in and of itself?
A: I can understand the function of these tags and no doubt it has helped provide compass points for people interested in what type of music a band might play, but yeah it’s annoying because ultimately you want to be accepted as your own thing, on your own terms, and within your own context because that’s where you’re at your strongest.
Of course, everyone has been influenced by something else but no two people ever do the same thing exactly the same way so there is originality in everything. In our case, Big Star was a compass point, it was a direction of travel, but we were operating in a different era and with a different outlook and with a different set of characters with completely different experiences. We were rough and ready and completely different as musicians. There was, no doubt, a detectable Big Star flavour to some of the music we made, but some journalists would have you believe that all we were was a carbon copy, a facsimile, and that was annoying because we felt that there was an originality in what we did.
Being influenced by things is different than trying to only copy them. Thankfully, if you hang around long enough, and continue to make music, then eventually you emerge from the press stereotype like the beautiful swan in the fairy tale.
Q: Which bit of praise has meant the most to you personally?
A: I guess one that springs to mind was James Kirk, the original guitarist from Orange Juice, a real cult hero in Glasgow, who said some nice things to me about Sparky’s Dream when I first met him. That meant a lot.
Q: Glasgow seems quite similar to Liverpool, in the respect that everyone who's involved in the music scene seems to know everyone else who is, with the same people popping up in different bands all the time. What does it mean to have that 'support network' of sorts?
A: Our generation in Glasgow was very co-operative, I don’t know if subsequent waves of groups in the city supported each other in the same way. In those days, the early 1990s, there were only a few pubs and a few clubs where musicians would gather so inevitably you would get to know everyone on the scene.
Everyone was very active at the time so there would always be opportunities to co-operate and collaborate, have a beer, talk crap, go to the foam night. We became fairly successful fairly quickly so we bought loads of equipment and would be happy to lend so-and-so an amp or a guitar or a bass player or a drummer if they were in need. We had a lock-up/studio in Motherwell for a couple of years and a few groups used that to rehearse or record demos. There was a low bullshit threshold in the city so a dim view was taken of people who acted too much like pop stars or egomaniacs.
For a few good years, the scene was healthy, music-driven, bullshit-free, outward-looking, almost socialist in nature. It was strong and a lot of fun. That still continues to this day for our lot, but the opportunities are becoming fewer and further apart.
Q: My favourite of your songs - Sparky's Dream, Ain't That Enough, Star Sign to name a few- , to me, have a real feeling of optimism and exuberance about them, almost to the point where it seems like they're revelling in themselves as songs. Would you say that that is a place from which they've came or is it sometimes a form of escapism?
A: The music I listen to is music that carries me away rather than say, for example, a 32-verse history of something worthy and obscure, with no chorus and no detectable melody. I listen to things in different languages, more often than not I have no idea what the song is about but I am somehow able to engage with the melody and the spirit of the composition and therefore be affected and changed by it. I would say that all music is escapism to an extent, but it has to be somehow rooted in humanity or a common experience that will allow it to communicate something to the listener, or be identifiable as an expression of commonality - otherwise it would be difficult to relate to, and lack artistic value.
The songs I write attempt, lyrically, to express something universal, about the human condition or the human experience. I do like to over-saturate the colours in the songs, push the harmonies a bit, make things really poppy and exuberant if the basic idea is able to hold it. I don’t know what makes certain types of music more attractive than others but I guess it has to be in the fine balance between invention and familiarity, eccentricity and logic.
Q: Rangers are back in the SPL, have you missed them?
A: Football-wise, I’ve found Celtic’s domination a little boring. I was always happier when Celtic was the underdog, the alternative to the system, the club that played the best football but for one reason or another didn’t get the results they deserved. For sporting competition and for the big game, Scottish football needs Rangers back - but as a citizen of Glasgow, I have to say that I’ve loved the last few years where the Celtic/Rangers dynamic hasn’t been so visible on the streets. It is a massive part of Glasgow’s history but it can get truly ugly and I have to say Glasgow is a better city without it. In the last few years I’ve been more inclined to recognise the common ground between myself and my fellow citizens and, with the reintroduction of the “Old Firm” game, I feel we’re on the verge of taking a few steps back.
Q: That moulded plastic football on the cover of Thirteen. Ever had one blasted at your thigh on a cold day? Usually combined with a knee full of gravel as you fall to the ground in pain.
A: I remember the old moulded Mitre Size 5 was a stinger on a cold day - no pain no gain!
Q: Is it true that Jad Fair (collaborator on 2002's Words of Wisdom and Hope) won't tune his guitar properly because he thinks it's 'dishonest’?
A: Jad likes to be primitive in his art and he probably sees an honesty in not tuning the guitar, and not engaging too much with technology as a solution, but I don’t think he considers those who do tune as sell-outs or as being in any way dishonest. He’s a very live-and-let-live type of guy, not confrontational in the least.
Q: What were you listening to at the beginning of Teenage Fanclub? What were you listening to while making the Lightships record?
A: At the beginning of Teenage Fanclub : Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Husker Du, Big Star, Beatles, Byrds, Rolling Stones, Go Betweens, REM, some soul, some reggae.
Lightships : Rogerio Duprat productions, Tom Wilson productions, Charles Stepney productions, Impressions, Roky Erikson, Jorge Ben, Terry Riley, some soul, some dub.
Q: Where can I get a copy of 'The King’?
A: Just tape a random band in a random rehearsal room any day of the week, and there you go - you’ve got a copy!
Teenage Fanclub play:
Feb 22: Zaragoza Sala Oasis
Feb 23: Madrid La Riviera
Feb 24: Bilbao Kafe Antzokia *SOLD OUT*
Feb 25: St. Malo La Route Du Rock Collection Hiver at La Nouvelle Vague
Feb 26: London Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Mar 16: Solana Beach Belly Up Tavern
Mar 17: Los Angeles Teragram Ballroom
Mar 18: Pioneertown Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace
Mar 19: Santa Barbara Starry Nites Festival
Mar 21: San Francisco Great American Music Hall
Mar 23: Portland Wonder Ballroom
Mar 24: Seattle Neptune Theatre
Mar 25: Vancouver Rickshaw Theatre
Mar 27: Brooklyn Warsaw