Teenage Fanclub: “Hopefully we’ll know when to call it a day”

Scottish quartet Teenage Fanclub notched up a dizzying range of personal highlights early on in their career: recording 1991’s instant classic Bandwagonesque, playing Saturday Night Live in the thick of grunge and earning an outspoken fan in Kurt Cobain.

But their biggest milestone arguably happened this year, when they released their 10th studio album. Here is just as streamlined as its title, the sound of four sterling songwriters falling into place once again for elegant, romantic guitar pop that still sneaks in flashes of distortion between the sighing strings and harmonies.

It’s the first Fanclub album in six years, and the band are heading to Australia next year for their first headline shows here since 2005. Norman Blake, who shares vocal and songwriting duties evenly with Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love, chatted with FL about the band’s journey over the years. For those of us keeping score at home, it’s no surprise that after that early burst of fame, these perennial underdogs are still quietly thriving after a quarter of century together.

FL: How has the band’s working method changed over the years? Or has it just consolidated?
Norman Blake: 
Yeah, I think the latter. We’re influencing each other – you’re picking up on the themes that the other guys are writing about. Also, the fact that we’re from a similar age and similar background and similar views and beliefs. I think that helps glue the records together.

With so many years between albums, what happens to the rest of the songs you write?
Well, like most singer-songwriters, I tend to have a number of ideas on the go at any given time. But a lot of them are fragments. You may have a verse or a chorus or a lyric. And of course I work with other people too. Sometimes you’ll come up with an idea where you think, “This isn’t a good fit for Teenage Fanclub.” A few of those ideas I used with the album that me and Jad Fair [from Half Japanese] made last year.

Have you and Euros Childs been working on your side project Jonny?
We have, but not for a little while. Euros was over maybe two years ago and we wrote a lot of songs together. But we both went off doing other things, so there’s a plan to get together after the Teenage Fanclub touring and record those songs. We’ve got a bunch of songs ready to go.

You played Bandwagonesque in full for its 15th anniversary. Would you do that for any of the other albums?
Y’know, we were asked to do it in London and we did that. We maybe did it one more time and then thought, ‘You know what? That’s enough.’ We don’t feel as though we’re a nostalgia act, because we’ve never broken up. I’ve got no problem with bands re-forming, but playing new songs just feels like what we should be doing. Because that’s what we do every few years: we make a record.

Of course, if someone made us an insane offer to play one of those records, we’d probably consider it. You’d be silly not to.

“The longer you go as a band, you start to worry, “Are we about to make the turkey?””

Do Teenage Fanclub still play a lot of older songs live?
Yeah, we try to play something from all the records. Because our recent US tour was such an intense trip – it was 11 shows in 13 days, with these long drives – by show three we ended up sticking to the same set. We’re playing for an hour and a half, so you’re talking about 24 songs.

When you play the old ones, do they more reflect how you sound now?
I don’t know, because for me it’s masochistic to listen to my own music. I don’t go back and look at us playing on YouTube. It’s painful. But something like ‘Everything Flows’ – we wrote that more than 25 years ago and I’m sure it was much sloppier than it is now. But not massively different. Playing songs from [1995’s] Grand Prix for 20 years, we probably settled on a live version about 15 years ago. And it probably sounds pretty similar to what we’re doing now.

But it’s still fun playing the songs, and you still try to play them to the best of your ability. If we were playing all the time, we’d maybe become jaded with it. But because we haven’t done a global tour in about six years, they’re all sounding pretty fresh and enjoyable.

Have you noticed your vocal register change over the years?
That’s an interesting question – one I’ve never been asked. I’m losing some of the higher register, inevitably. I do a lot of the high harmonies, and they’re more of a strain now. But my technique’s better, so I can get there. And I think as your voice gets older, you get more of a richness in the middle and bottom. I prefer my voice now to the weedy 22-year-old voice that I had.

On this album a few of my songs are quite low. ‘I’m In Love’ is very low for me, as is ‘Live In The Moment’. I can feel that when I’m singing them. Probably the only one that would be in my normal range is ‘The Darkest Part of the Night’.

A few of Raymond’s songs, like ‘Steady State’ and ‘With You’, feel almost ambient in their arrangement. They drift along without filling up the space too much.
Definitely. I think he consciously left that space … Raymond’s songs have the fewest overdubs. People spend a lot of time separating instruments, but we set up in the same room as a full band. The microphone’s got enough rejection that it’s easy to do that. Also, there’s something about blending microphones together when there’s a bit of spill from each one – it makes it sound really good.

When things are slower with a lot of space like that, you really have to get the groove right to make it work. Those are the hardest things to do. So we spent quite a long time doing the takes.

This is your 10th album. Does it feel like a milestone to hit double digits?
I suppose it does. I always think about Felt doing 10 albums in a decade and then breaking up. I thought that was really cool. We never had a grand plan – there may be another Teenage Fanclub record, there may not be. We’ve never thought beyond the last bit of touring.

You never know what’s going to happen, especially after this amount of time. The expectation is that people will lose interest: ‘Another album from them?’ But people seem to have engaged with this record, which is great.

I think we’ve just found ourselves here all this time later, like “How did that happen?” The longer you go as a band, you start to worry, “Are we about to make the turkey?” I think so far so good. But hopefully we’ll know when to call it a day.

Here is out now through PeMa/Warner. Teenage Fanclub tour Australia in March, including Golden Plains.

Wednesday March 8 – The Triffid, Brisbane QLD
Friday March 10 – Taronga Zoo, Sydney NSW
Saturday March 11 – The Corner, Melbourne VIC
Sunday March 12 – Golden Plains, Meredith VIC
Monday March 13 – The Corner, Melbourne VIC