The Here and Now: Interview with Teenage Fanclub
The Skinny meets Norman Blake in Glasgow to discuss Teenage Fanclub's impressive pop trajectory
Few bands stick around long enough to release ten studio albums. Fewer manage to reach that milestone while remaining both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Teenage Fanclub have never been a massive selling group, but they do have a knack for producing the right record at the right time. Their breakthrough, 1991's fuzzpop masterpiece Bandwagonesque, elevated them from cult Glasgow act to "the best band in the world," in Kurt Cobain's opinion. Four years later, when the UK was in thrall to Britpop, they released Grand Prix, an unrivalled collection of power-pop that blew away the pretenders.
Timing is everything. Yet Here, album number ten, arrives in September 2016 more because of circumstance than plan. "We were ready to go last year, but we had a delay in scheduling because our label in America, Merge, didn't have a slot for us," reveals Norman Blake, guitar player and one of Fanclub's three songwriters/lead vocalists. "We thought we may as well wait till they had one. So it's been sitting ready to go for a while now, but at last we're here!"
Blake, along with bassist Gerry Love and guitarist Raymond McGinley, hails from North Lanarkshire. The trio, who have been the core of the band since its inception, came together in the fertile Glasgow independent music scene of the mid-to-late 80s. It was a time that also spawned BMX Bandits, The Pastels, The Vaselines and Primal Scream. They may have shared a love of The Byrds and Big Star, but it's worth noting Teenage Fanclub started life as a far heavier and chaotic band than the polished pop perfectionists we now know.
Still, from the first bars of I'm In Love, the opening track and lead single from Here, you know you're listening to the band fondly known by fans as the Bellshill Beach Boys. It takes time and a lot of effort to sing harmonies in such a seemingly effortless way, and Blake explains that the band always leave the vocals til last.
"We tend to take away the tracks with fragments of ideas for vocals. Whoever is singing the lead will put down a placeholder. Then we take the tracks away to have a think about it and start to write lyrics. This time we reconvened at Raymond's house in Glasgow, then over a period of a couple of months we wrote the lyrics as we went along. A lot of the themes are similar, and that's probably because we were listening to what the other two were doing and picking up ideas. I think its quite cohesive lyrically, which you wouldn't expect from three different writers."
It was while recording Bandwagonesque in the spring of 1991 that the famed Fanclub sound developed. "Don Fleming, our producer, heard some of our demos with us harmonising," Blake says. "But before that it wasn't really something we did. Our last record didn't really have any harmonies at all. Don told us no one else really did harmonies, and we should really work on them as a way of helping us stand out – you have to remember this was the early 90s."
The result was tracks like The Concept – still a live favourite today – and its uplifting three-way harmony coda. In an age of auto-tune vocal effects, simple harmonising remains an endangered beast; the next generation of Glasgow bands like TeenCanteen, with whom Blake has collaboarated, may be seen to be ploughing a lonely furrow in that regard.
Distance and quality control
Back to the present: while Love and McGinley remain in Scotland, Blake has been a resident of Kitchener, Ontario since 2010. His big flit across the pond took place shortly after the band finished recording Shadows, their last album before Here. Despite the move, there was always an intention to reconvene. "I think because of email communication, and all the rest of it, it's been easy to keep in touch. I don't think we've ever presumed the band will always be around – we just take one record at a time. There could be a day when two of us suggest getting together to make a record and one says, 'I dunno if I want to do it anymore'. And if that day comes, that's fine, and we'll move on."
Another key to Fanclub's success is quality control. Blake insists the group would never sanction a release just to provide an excuse to tour. "You never quite know at the start how the record is going to turn out. After all these years, you're never sure if it just won't be there anymore. I think for us, if we got to that point, if we made a record and got to the end and listened to the whole thing, and didn't think it was worthy of putting out, we wouldn't do it. That would cost us money – but we're aware we have a good legacy in the way our records have been received. I would hate for the last thing we released to be a turkey. If we record again, and the material isn't good enough, that would probably be it."
But fans need not worry. There's every chance we'll see an 11th Fanclub record. "I think if we're all still alive, we'll give it another go," laughs Blake. "I think we'll get to that point again. We enjoyed making this new record and we're excited about touring again, as we've not done it in a while. Like most musicians, our hobbies are all music related. I like playing records and playing guitar. So going out on tour for me is great – I get to play music and visit record shops."
Teenage Fanclub play Liquid Room, Edinburgh on 6 Sep and Gorilla, Manchester on 7 Sep