One problem about calling your new album Keep the Village Alive, as Stereophonics are finding out, is having the village take you up on the offer. On the day I meet singer and guitarist Kelly Jones and bassist Richard Jones – the two founding members of Stereophonics – the group are in a BBC News headline. Cwmaman Institute, the Victorian-era working men's club in the village they grew up in, and host to their earliest gigs, is six figures in debt and likely to close.
“We’ve written to Stereophonics but haven’t heard back from them yet,” the chairman of the trustees is quoted as saying. “We’d be pleased if they said they could help us.”
“I only found out the club was closing down the day before yesterday, from my mother,” says Kelly Jones. “A lot of the places back home, they’re slowly decaying. Every pub in the village has gone, pretty much. It’s why the album is called that, because all these small places have been forgotten.”
Stereophonics have given significant sums in the past to Cwmaman community projects, and speaking to the Joneses it’s clear that social issues and a sense of place are important to them. It informs their songs, their message and their behaviour as people. They both have houses in the village and return often, although Kelly’s main home and the business of Stereophonics as a kind of giant cottage industry (with their own studio and label) is in London.
“I don’t know how much can be done,” says Richard, a very gently spoken man, in contrast to his 1950s greaser image. “It’s things like pubs and clubs, that are real community things, so no matter how much money you put in to keep something afloat, if it’s not getting people in there . . . You can’t force people to go into somewhere and spend money.”
In this post-Bono age, there’s a feeling that celebrities can wave a magic wand and sort out the world’s ills. It’s absurd, but it underlines Stereophonics’ position. No longer the young, hot, blue-collar pop-rockers who racked up a string of hits in the 1990s – a less sneery, more sincere adjunct to the swaggering behemoths of Britpop (they weren’t buying, just looking) – they are now music marathon men at the same phase of their career as the likes of the Who, Status Quo and the Rolling Stones were in the early 1980s.
“Everybody thought they were only going to make one record then say goodbye,” says Kelly. “I remember the Who in ’82 and Status Quo in ’84. When we got signed [to V2 in 1996] we didn’t see it as the be-all and end-all, we saw it as one step on the ladder, and people like the Stones and Bowie and the Who took us on tour. So, to see them, on tour [still], doing what they do with the energy they’ve got – it does give you a seed in your system thinking, Well, if you keep putting out good work, there’s a chance you could do this as long as you want.”
Building a lifeboat
Stereophonics are in a good position to ride the long-tail of 1990s mainstream success into the sunset. They still fill venues and headline festivals around the world. What has changed is less their music – although Keep the Village Alive is beautifully produced and has energy, warmth, variety and restraint in fine balance – than the music industry. They were among the last to get a serious bite of the UK chart cherry in the days when album and single sales were meaningful and the record business viable. They built a lifeboat before the ship began to sink.
"I think Dakota [in 2005] was one of the last singles to be released before downloads were eligible for the [UK] chart," says Kelly, "and thankfully we had a number one single with that. After that, I've absolutely no idea what happened to the industry."
“Not being ‘old’ about it all, but you do see CDs going down and down,” says Richard. “We did the iTunes Festival in 2004, I think, and that was the first time bands played for Apple. We did one of their stores in London and then iTunes took off and the record business didn’t know how to deal with it, really.”
Stereophonics have dealt with it by keeping calm and carrying on. While it is, as Kelly says, “a job”, with frustrations such as having to wait a year from the completion of this album until its release (because they know they aren’t “big enough” to release in the fourth/Christmas quarter, and personal commitments ruled out the second quarter of 2015), the passion is still there.
“I think the fire’s burning brighter now than [for a while],” says Kelly. “This album now, and the last album, I think we’ve found a new stride. We’ve now got our own studio and we haven’t been going in to make albums [as such], we’ve just been recording songs and songs and songs and then picking the ones that we feel work best together and making albums out of them. Making music is more exciting than making an album in six weeks with a certain person [producing]: it’s like going to work every day.
“The thing with us, we’re a band that still likes each other,” says Kelly. “We go to the pub after rehearsal, come back to my house, listen to vinyl records: Leadbelly, Bowie, Neil Young, Chuck Berry . . . I guess whatever you listen to, what ends up rising to the top is the honesty and all the other stuff that’s ‘of the time’ or ‘of a scene’, there’s only an element of that stuff that ever lasts. That’s why the likes of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke last: they tell the truth. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it?
“We’re a band that’s come from a very small town: there’s one road in and one road out. There was nowhere to go. All we wanted to do was make music for people like the people from where we lived – the guy driving the van, the bloke cleaning the windows, the girl in the hairdresser’s. We’d write music for those people. It was never about celebrities, it was never about fame. It’s about people.”
I’m struck by how likeable and how relaxed these hardened road warriors are as they pioneer an indefinite path across the vast uncharted region of the vestigial, crumbling 21st-century music business. Do they never lose their tempers? “Not with each other,” says Kelly. “It’s a force to be reckoned with . . . but we’re all on the same side.”
- Keep the Village Alive is out on Stylus