Telling it like it is
Get ready for the big rock 'n' roll face-off: Mr Writer and Mr Pop Star have been thrown together into a tiny cubicle in the Clarence Hotel, and the crowd outside are just waiting for the fur - and the music press cliches - to fly.
In one corner snarls Kelly Jones, lead singer with Welsh boyos the Stereophonics; in the opposite cowers your humble critic, waiting with trepidation for Jones to force-feed me my own words. I know I've dished it out on a regular basis, but I'm sure as hell not looking forward to taking it back.
The bone of contention? Why, of course, it's the Stereophonics' new hit single, Mr Writer, a slinky sideswipe at "lonely" music journalists, and the flagship track off the band's new album, Just Enough Education To Perform. "Mr Writer/Why don't you tell it like it is," goes the song's refrain; then Jones intones: "I'd like to shoot you all." Looks like he's come to bury the hacks for not praising him, and I'm here with knives out to deflect those accusations of back-stabbing. Stand clear, everybody - this could get very messy.
Oh, all right, why don't I tell it like it really is. It's the morning before the Stereophonics's sold-out gig at the Olympia Theatre, and Kelly Jones is in relaxed, easy-going mode, slouching in the snug of the Octagon Bar and dressed in casual denims and T-shirt.
With its American white oak panelling, the snug resembles a sleek, open-plan confessional, with Jones - the archetypal pop sinner - doing the standard promotional penance. Except he's looking far too laidback, and seems to be relishing the prospect of going mano a mano with the pop musician's traditional enemy. Hmmm, this is in severe danger of getting decidedly cosy.
During the course of our chat, Jones admits to a few rock 'n' roll sins, some merely venial, others that would be considered mortally offensive by musical snobs. For instance, he's got a soft spot for classic West Coast rock, as evinced by Stereophonics's songs such as Have A Nice Day and Nice To Be Out; he feels a certain kinship with redneck rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, and he has no qualms about touring on the back of hoary old warhorses such as Aerosmith and The Black Crowes.
Jones is a bad boyo all right, but there's worse: a blasphemous disdain for the doctrines of indie, a heretic hatred of Britpop's sacred cows, and a schismfomenting dislike of fellow Welsh rock gods, Manic Street Preachers. All things considered, Mr Writer gets off pretty lightly here.
Jones has just recently returned from an acoustic tour of the US, where the Stereophonics's star is definitely in the ascendant. Accompanied by the band's bassist Richard Jones, touring keyboard player Tony Kirkham and new recruit Scott James - former guitarist with The Montrose Avenues - Jones opened for Atlanta's finest sons, The Black Crowes, and even joined head Crowe, Chris Robinson for some onstage duetting. Drummer Stuart Cable stayed home and played golf.
"The Black Crowes were doing an album launch, and their new album is on our label, V2," Jones recalls. "I got to know them when we were doing the Aerosmith shows a couple of years ago. I didn't know I was going to be onstage with them until I came into the dressing room and someone said: `Oh, you're doing Twice As Hard.' I said: `Yeah, I haven't sung it for six years, but I'll have a go'."
The band's detractors wouldn't be surprised to hear Jones is hanging out with unreconstructed rockers such as Steve Tyler and Chris Robinson. One critic dismissed The Sterephonics' music as "meat 'n' potatoes rock", an epithet which has stuck to the band like stale shepherd's pie. Growing up in the small town of Cwmaman in South Wales, Jones and his mates didn't exactly spend their youth listening to jazz improv or ambient soundscapes. Rock 'n' roll, punk and heavy metal was the staple diet for the teenage Stereophonics, and it fashioned the band's straight-shooting attitude to their craft.
"At the end of the day, more people eat meat and potatoes than eat caviar or couscous," Jones retorts. "We make music for people who work. I don't want to make music for art galleries or avant-garde people, I just want to make music that appeals to real people. And if that comes across as meat 'n' potatoes to the NME, to be honest, that doesn't really bother me. When I do a gig, and I look out and see how many people are happy listening to what we do, then that's what matters."
Not that the Stereophonics are content to dish out the same old home-cooked recipe on their third long-player - originally titled J.E.E.P. until a certain car manufacturer took offence at the acronym. Just Enough Education to Perform has a breezy, West-Coast feel to it, inspired by Jones's fascination with Neil Young, but it's also got a heartland of soul, thanks to the influence of Stevie Wonder. Songs such as Lying In The Sun, Watch Them Fly Sundays and Everyday I Think Of Money may not be particularly funky, but, says Jones, they have a certain "vibe" or atmosphere.
THE album may not be bristling with the spiky political passion of another Welsh trio, Manic Street Preachers, but Jones believes J.E.E.P. is a more honest, organic take on rock 'n' roll.
"When we went into the studio, I knew we were capable of lots more stuff," says Jones. "We were only on our third record, and it takes time to develop. I can hear things in my head that I can't even do yet, so it takes time to get to that stage, and I think that we've improved with every record we made. We've expanded what we do and we've put our step forward. You can only do that in an honest way.
"We could just as easily have made a Beck record or a Fatboy Slim record and just get in a load of drum machines, and be hip and cool 'cos everybody's doing it. Around the time we were making our second album, everyone was putting string sections on their records, and I knew that in five years' time they'd regret ruining the songs with a stupid, daft string section. Some of them worked, but I don't think The Beatles whacked strings on I Am The Walrus because it was trendy at the time. I think they did it because it sounded f***ing top. I think you should just do what the song needs. If it's a simple song, just leave it - people will get the message. A good idea is a good idea, you can't tart it up any more."
While Jones is reluctant to pick a fight, he plainly doesn't buy into the Manics' "4real" front. Not for him that outfit's penchant for sloganeering in song - he prefers to write lyrics about everyday characters who pass through his peripheral vision, and who don't live their lives by manifesto.
"I think the Manic Street Preachers tried too hard and for too long to still be this pan-political band, and it just wasn't washing any more. They sound like Rush - they're just quoting from books and the words don't even scan. And I think it's only now that they've woken up and realised, yeah, we have gotten older and we have gotten fatter and we can't be doing this any more. And it's just embarrassing. I never wanted to do that - I never wanted to sing about changing the world or whatever, I'd rather do it from a people's point of view than a political point of view.
"People arguing about what's happened on the news is more interesting than people watching the news, because at least you get an opinion about something and it could be funny or it could be angry - or it could be sad. At least you're getting a lot more emotion than just saying this happened today, end of story."
The songs on J.E.E.P. are populated with ordinary people going about their everyday lives - but sometimes you wish that the characters weren't so damned unremarkable. Have A Nice Day is about a taxi driver in San Francisco who complains about everything under the sun - we've all met him at one stage or another and wished we had an ejector seat button.
Every Day I Think Of Money is about a man who drives a security van, and dreams of one day stealing the money stashed in the back of his vehicle.
"I saw it on the telly, and I wondered what it would be like for this person driving around with a hundred grand in the back of his van," says Jones. And Caravan Holiday does exactly what it says on the brochure - which hardly leaves much room for the imagination to move around.
His songs may not exactly reach for the stars, and he may not particularly want to change the world, but the small, soft-spoken frontman freely admits that he'd certainly like to rule the world.
"You know, you can knock bands for trying, and you can knock bands for not trying, but people like U2, REM, Madonna, they're always trying to keep one step ahead of themselves, and I respect that a great deal, because you're gonna f*** up sometimes, but at least you're trying. And there's a lot of bands who don't try and they get complacent and end up going backwards. They go from Wembley Arena back to Brixton Academy back to The Forum and back to the Bull & Gate. It happens all the time.
"You can get up there, but you've got to stay exciting to stay there. When we got signed the only thing we wanted to do was to be like those bands, bands that changed every two or three albums, bands that were successful in every country. I didn't see the point of being one of those cool indie bands that was popular in Camden. That didn't interest me at all. When we signed our record deal, we wanted to be the biggest band in the world."
Whether that happens or not will depend on whether Jones's new songs can strike a universal chord in the same way as previous Stereophonics anthems, such as A Thousand Trees, Local Boy In The Photograph or I Wouldn't Believe Your Radio.
JONES may have found that taxi driver in Frisco fascinating, but in the end, he doesn't really tell us anything of lasting interest. Mr Writer, on the other hand, has grabbed the headlines, going in at number five in the UK charts, and getting hackles up among the UK music press corps. According to Jones, however, Mr Writer is merely a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek tirade, and any journo who takes it seriously should remove that large ballpoint pen from their rear end.
"It's just one of those songs which I can't believe how much it's been blown out of all proportion," says Jones. "That's all that song was, it was a comment on just another environment or another character that I've met, like the taxi driver or the guy in the bar or the beggar I've met on the street.
"It wasn't about one particular writer or article, it was just, you know as well as I do, there are a lot of people in your gig and in my gig who are just there for the fast lane. It could even be about me. Just because I said in one interview that it was about journalists, they just went mental and slagged me off in as many papers, and I'm, like, I rest my case.
"You can dish it out, but if you can't have a little bit of it back every now and again, then grow up. I'm having a laugh; it's sarcasm for me."
Still, it's hard to hear lines such as: "And then you go home/ With you on your own" without feeling a little twinge of indignation at the inference that music journalists have no life. OK, we may well be a bunch of bitter, lonely bastards, but Jones is quick to point out that pop stars are often lonely too. "We go back to our f***ing hotel rooms, mate!" He should know a bit about being alone - he's recently broken up with his longterm girlfriend, whom he had been dating since they were both teenagers.
"If we hadn't gotten signed, it probably would have happened back then, but we stuck it out for the time I've been doing this, and rarely seeing each other . . . We both grew up together from around 15 or 16, and we both just got to the point where it's not really happening any more, and you know, I'm seeing somebody else and she's seeing somebody else, and we're both happy.
"It was just one of those things which came to the end of the game really. There's a big compromise to be made, but I do think it's very important to have somebody, because otherwise you just go off into weird places where you don't need to go. In a lot of ways, it's the greatest life there is, but in a lot of other ways, the flipside can be shit."
Just Enough Education to Perform was released yesterday on V2 Records.