All the way up to 11
If only they’d split up, Britpop originators The Charlatans could be doing the business with a big comeback. Eleven albums, side projects, solo records, autobiographies . . . We’ve never stopped doing the business, Tim Burgess tells LAUREN MURPHY
IF THERE IS one thing that Tim Burgess is good at, it’s being prepared. He’s at home in London, a Judy Collins record spinning on his turntable and a mug of coffee in his hand, when the phone rings. Despite being pre-arranged by his manager, my call comes as a surprise. “She’s a bit forgetful sometimes,” he sheepishly explains. Nevertheless, the amiable Charlatans frontman is quite happy to shoot the breeze for a while: there is, after all, a lot to discuss.
“Be Prepared” is an adage that has served Burgess well over the past two decades. He has navigated a lengthy career through some strange and interesting turns. Apart from fronting one of Britpop’s biggest bands, he has worked with people such as Joaquin Phoenix on his hip-hop album, formed a short-lived supergroup with Carl Barat and others, and invented a sham cereal for Kellogg’s called “Totes Amazeballs”.
Now 45, Burgess has officially been a member of The Charlatans for more than half his life, although there was a period of time when the singer’s relocation to Los Angeles led many to believe that the end was drawing nearer for the band.
Now he’s back living in London full-time, but that doesn’t mean that his love affair with the US is completely over. His fondness for Americana and artists such as Gram Parsons has been well documented, but his forthcoming solo album Oh No I Love You (due out in September) takes that affection to third base, collaborating with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner for the follow-up to 2005’s I Believe.
You wouldn’t think there’s any link at all between The Charlatans and Lambchop,” he admits, “but from the very first time I heard Lambchop, I started to incorporate their influence on me into The Charlatans stuff. I think the very first one for me was a song from Us and Us Only called The Blonde Waltz, so I’ve been a fan since we were making that album. I first met Kurt in London around 1999 or 2000, and when I met him again, he was in Manchester doing a solo tour. I went backstage to say hello and he was just on his own in a van, so I carried out some of his equipment with him and we were just chatting away. I said: ‘We should write a song together!’ and he said: ‘Okay – you write the music and I’ll do the words’. We would meet throughout the years and keep talking about it, and I’d mention it again and he’d say ‘Yep, it’s on my to-do list’.”
The chatter came to a head last year, when Burgess decided to bite the bullet and travel to Nashville to finally get the collaboration done. “I kind of sprung it on him,” Burgess recalls with a chuckle. “I said: ‘Look, I’m going to be here for about 10 days and I’m gonna be writing – will you help me out?’. So he said ‘OK, I’ll do the words and you do the music!’ – exactly the same thing as he said 10 years ago.”
Wagner’s proficiency as a lyricist was something that Burgess had no qualms about.
“I was really at a moment in time, really caught between two worlds,” he says. “I’d just left Los Angeles – and a marriage – and I was moving back to England and London, and starting something very new in a relationship. So I was very happy, but also quite reflective at the same time. I was definitely at a crossroads.
“And Kurt knew this, and I was writing music with him in mind, while he was writing the lyrics knowing everything that I’m going through. It was a really lovely collaboration, a very subtle one. And I used some members of Lambchop for a few of the songs, so essentially, there is a lot of Lambchop in there, with me singing.”
Having a creative outlet for his solo material could well be one of the secrets of The Charlatans’ longevity. The band have released 11 albums to date, with no breaks, splits or even temporary hiatuses during that time. Given their status as Britpop idols, does he ever feel like they’ve missed a trick by not going away and coming back for a money-spinning reformation tour, like many of their peers have done?
“People do say that to us all the time – Oh, if you’d split up and come back you’d be doing better business’, whatever that means,” he says. “But if you look at bands that have split and made a comeback, all the time they’ve been missing, we’ve been playing. So I think it all evens out, really.
“Bands like Blur, or The Stone Roses or Happy Mondays or whatever – while they’ve not been around, we’ve been doing two hundred gigs a year. I mean, I’ve enjoyed the path we’ve taken, whether there are certain should-bes or shouldn’t-bes [that arise] from us continuing. I always thought the only reason to split up should be if you really can’t get on with each other, or it’s complete musical differences, or . . . I dunno, if the band just combusts. And that just hasn’t happened.”
Of course, with a lengthy career also comes plenty of stories. Burgess joined the pantheon of rock stars with autobiographies earlier this year, with the publication of Tellin’ Stories, the title of which was taken from the bands 1997 album of the same name.
“Oh my God,” he groans theatrically when I broach the topic. Bored by talking about it already? “No, no – I love it. It’s the best book I’ve ever written,” he deadpans. “To be honest, I’m not actually a huge reader. I kind of say in the book really early on that I’m more of a magazine kind of person. I also say in the book that you can stop reading right now if you want to, because it’s a warning, you know? I had to learn on my feet, but it’s come out pretty good, I think. People seem to have liked it. Certain people in the band were interested – and I’m sure slightly concerned, too – so I had to keep telling everyone that there’s nothing to worry about. And it ended up being mostly about New Order, anyway. I reckon Bernard’s [Sumner] gonna be happy, though . . .”.
A new solo album, an autobiography; such things usually signify the bookending of an era, but Burgess has no intention of renouncing his role in The Charlatans just yet. There’s a bit more touring to do before the summer’s end, including a run-through of Tellin’ Stories at Castlepalooza, then the solo touring begins in earnest. Next year, however, will see the band regroup for their 12th album.
“Whether it’ll be completed next year or not, I’m not sure, but I’m really looking forward to it,” he enthuses. “It’ll be a big project, but it has to be great. It has to be better than great. But we’re all pretty happy at the moment. Everyone’s still really enjoying playing gigs, so the only thing you really have to concentrate on is the order of the set. But getting together for an album and being creative and working it out . . . well, it’s gonna be big. It’s got to be really big.”
The Castlepalooza Music Arts Festival takes place in Charleville Castle, Tullamore, Co Offaly, from August 3rd-5th. The Charlatans headline on Sunday, August 5th