Teenage Fanclub: ‘We’ll keep playing as long as we’re enjoying it’
Norman Blake on the band’s 10th album, made without bassist and founding member Gerard Love
Teenage Fanclub: (left to right) Raymond McGinley, Norman Blake, Dave McGowan, Euros Childs and Francis McDonald. Photograph: Donald Milne
Some musicians have spent their unexpected downtime over the past year writing their next opus, concocting plans for world domination or perhaps even learning a new instrument. Norman Blake has lived a comparatively simpler existence over the course of the pandemic.
“I’ve just tried to pour my energy into other things,” he says from his home outside Glasgow, apologising in advance for his loquaciousness and explaining how he’s already had four cups of coffee this morning. “Some people are doing jigsaw puzzles, aren’t they?! Well, I’ve been building electronic equipment – I’ve built some compressors in the past, and I picked up a couple of synthesiser kits recently, so I’ve been doing stuff like that. I like cooking and I’m staying with my folks at the moment, so I go out every day and do a little circuit of the shops. And I’ve been doing lots of walking. Actually, believe it or not, I’m 55 and I’ve started doing the Couch to 5k, just trying to keep in shape.” He pauses, as if suddenly coming to a realisation.
“Maybe I could learn to play the guitar a bit better,” he concedes. “I’m hopeless at doing solo stuff. Raymond’s great at that kind of thing, but I could maybe try to get my guitar-playing chops up a bit.”
Blake – who gives Dave Grohl a run for his money in the “nicest man in rock” stakes – could afford to indulge in some leisure time, considering that his band Teenage Fanclub had more or less finished recording their 10th album by the time lockdown first struck last year. It has been frustrating to have Endless Arcade’s release delayed, but his return to Scotland after a decade in Canada proved fortuitous. It meant that he could work with the aforementioned Raymond McGinley – his co-writer and co-vocalist in the band – during the mixing and mastering process early last year.
This time, however, there was one notable absence in the studio. Endless Arcade is the band’s first album without Gerard Love, the bassist and founding member of Teenage Fanclub who departed after 29 years in 2018, due to his unwillingness to continue touring. Considering his huge impact – he penned some of the band’s undoubted classics, from Sparky’s Dream to Ain’t That Enough to Don’t Look Back, bringing a unique melodic pop sensibility to their sound – his exit could have been a death-knell for the band. On the contrary; the album is a triumph, a slow-burning thing of beauty and one of their best records in recent years.
“We didn’t feel so much that we had ‘something to prove’, but I think we kind of felt reinvigorated in a way – and I think that kind of happens when the situation changes in a band,” says Blake. “It was great when Gerry was in the band and we had many great years together, made lots of music together. But we couldn’t agree on a touring schedule, and he decided to leave. And that was fine but we were very keen to keep making music and keep touring. So at that point, we were thinking, ‘Well, what do we do?’ ”
The band’s long-term keyboardist and guitarist Dave McGowan ended up taking Love’s role on bass, while new member Euros Childs, formerly of Welsh indie band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, was drafted in on keyboards. Blake had previously collaborated with Childs on their side project Jonny. “We toured together with Gorky’s years and years ago, and me and Euros became fast friends and we have been for a long time. And personality-wise, he’s a really good guy; he’s a great musician and a great singer, but he brought his own style of playing to the whole thing.”
Blake says he hasn’t seen Love “for a while”, but they have exchanged messages. “But that was how we communicated as a band in the past, anyway; we weren’t all like The Monkees living in the same house,” he chuckles. “We’ve never been like that. But it’s all fine and we wish him well. As far as I’m aware, he’s working on some new music so that’ll be good. I’m not sure when that’ll come out, but Gerry will be back at some point, I’m sure.”
Although this is the first time that Teenage Fanclub have lost a founding member, it’s not the first time that they’ve had a change in personnel. Blake chooses to look at the injection of a “different energy” positively, noting that the “spirit in the band” was upbeat during recording. The buoyant mood is certainly audible on record, but on the songs composed and sung by Blake it is tempered by a blatant melancholy streak. Lyrics such as “endless lonely hours saw you drift away” from Home and “my world is upside-down, I’m lost, don’t know what to do, you’re so far away from me” from Living with You, are difficult to brush over and he admits that he went through a separation from his Canadian wife in the process of making this record.
“As a songwriter, you’re always thinking ‘what am I gonna write about? What do I have to say?’ So my life sort of flipped around a bit, and I wasn’t expecting that to happen,” he says. “As sad as it was – and it’s been a couple of years – it did give me something to write about. And it actually was cathartic. I know that’s a word a lot of people use, but it really was. I’m not the kind of person to go to therapy, but for me it was quite therapeutic to write about how I was feeling, and that sense of loss. And it’s funny, because it wasn’t easy to write the songs but now that they’re there, I can sing them and it doesn’t bring back memories of what happened in my personal life. They came quite easily for me, and I think I’ve found it really difficult in the past to write lyrics that I felt were sincere – but I felt I was able to do that, this time.”
With Love’s departure from the band, songwriting duties were split two ways, instead of the usual three; Blake and McGinley have six songs apiece on Endless Arcade. Even so – and despite his personal circumstances colouring his lyrics – Blake doesn’t feel that it necessarily impacted the record or made it any more cohesive. Rather, he says, the way that they recorded this time had a bigger influence on how the album sounds.
“I actually think that was always a strength that we had – that there were three of us writing,” he contends. “I’ve always thought that if you have one person tasked with coming up with all the songs for a band, and you’re 10 albums in, that’s like 120 songs, or whatever... and it’s difficult to maintain that. But the way we approached recording it, I think that helped homogenise the sound. In the past, years and years ago I would maybe direct things a bit more: ‘Maybe the drums could do this particular fill’ or ‘Can you play this part on this bass?’. As the years have passed I’ve realised that I kind of prefer when you play people a song on the acoustic [guitar], and then allow them to contribute – because you’re working with really talented people with great ideas. But it is a craft; songwriting and being a musician is a skill that you hope you get better at. We’re not reinventing the wheel with Teenage Fanclub; we do a kind of similar thing – verses, choruses, solos. But we try to say it in a more eloquent way each time.”
With that in mind, he reveals that Teenage Fanclub have already begun writing new material and are thinking about recording it soon. Ten albums is a landmark for any band, but does Blake think that they have another 10 in them?
“Oh god, it’s been 30 years so that would take me to 85... I don’t know about that!” he guffaws. “All sorts of things could happen before then. But we’ll keep playing as long as we’re enjoying it. I think we’re happy to keep exploring this, because we enjoy working together, too. There are certain periods in the trajectory of a band’s career where people aren’t interested because you’re not particularly new anymore. Then I think you reach a certain point where people accept that you’re gonna be around for a while, and that’s fine. So we’re happy to just go along with things. If you enjoy something, why stop?”
Endless Arcade is released on April 30th