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Pastures new: The Charlatans' journey through tragedy and their Belfast return

The Charlatans' keyboard player Tony Rogers tells Chris Jones how the band has supported each other through tragedy and are now looking forward to a Belfast return

Published 24/04/2015

The Charlatans
The Charlatans
Famous five: The Charlatans with Jon Brookes (centre) in their line-up

On The Charlatans' last visit to Belfast, they played a rambunctious, hit-filled set in Falls Park as support to the Happy Mondays. It was a beery, party atmosphere for a Sunday night gig but, as keyboard player Tony Rogers reveals, that gig was during a dark time for the band, whose drummer Jon Brookes was gravely ill with a brain tumour.

"I remember it very well," he says from his home in Wicklow, where he has lived with his family for more than a decade. "We'd just got news that Jon had gone back into hospital and it wasn't very good. I hate to say this, but we were used to getting news, up and down - he'd gone into hospital or he'd come out - so it wasn't too much worry beforehand, but afterwards we got the news that he'd slipped into a coma. He did come out of it but I think he died about 10 days after we did that show."

Though fans were aware that Brookes was ill - his place on the drum stool was taken by Pete Salisbury, formerly of The Verve - there was no indication during the show that anything was badly amiss. But then The Charlatans, stoical to the last, are no strangers to tragedy. Rogers joined the band in 1997 after the death in a car crash of Rob Collins, whose Hammond organ was always central to their sound, and in 2001 he had a health scare of his own when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Rogers underwent surgery and extensive treatment and went on to make a full recovery.

"We're a gang, first and foremost," says Rogers in his strong Black Country accent. "And when we're together we dig deep and support each other so there's never a real unhappy moment. When we're on stage, whether it was with Jon or without Jon, we're always happy. It's where we seem to belong.

"I joined the band over 18 years ago and it was the first thing that attracted me to the band, and Mark (Collins, guitar) said the same when he joined. You pull together. Pete Salisbury plays with us and he says, 'I love the way you guys work. You're there for each other and you've got this gang mentality', and that's what it is. It's about the band. The name of the band is stronger than any one person in the band. The band is there for everyone. So when we do go and play, we play for the people but we're playing for each other as well."

The Charlatans are perhaps best known for their heyday in the 90s, as a slightly more cerebral counterpoint to Manchester bands like the Stone Roses and, later, Oasis (they were lumped in with the Manchester scene despite being from Cheshire and the West Midlands). But although their live sets are still full of 90s hits like The Only One I Know, One To Another and North Country Boy, they are far from a heritage act. They return to Belfast to promote their 12th studio album, Modern Nature, which saw their return to the top 10 of the UK album charts following its release in January. But Rogers says that after Brookes' loss and despite the setbacks they had overcome in the past, carrying on wasn't a foregone conclusion.

"We didn't know what we were going to do, to be honest with you," he says. "I don't think any member of the band felt like carrying on, and I definitely didn't. Jon was a neighbour of mine. His house backed on to mine for 10 or 12 years and we had more of a relationship than just the band - we were mates. The only thing that was going through my head was that Jon was always adamant that the band would always carry on. He always said to me, 'This band will never let you down'. It was only when Jon died that I really realised what he meant. The band is there looking after everyone.

"We did a special event for him at the Royal Albert Hall, a big celebration of Jon's life, and we got a few guests - Liam (Gallagher) and James Dean Bradfield and a few other people - and we had a great, great night. That sparked it all off again: this is what it's all about. This is what Jon lived for. To be on that stage and to churn out songs and to pick everybody up. That gave us a good kick up the arse to go and start thinking about not just what we wanted, but what Jon would have wanted and what was right for the band."

The band entered the studio in January 2014, five months after Brookes' death. By that point they were ready to record something that could be seen as a fitting tribute to him. "We weren't going to make a morose, mournful record," says Rogers. "Even though we were mourning for Jon and we were hurting, we were pretty sure that Jon wouldn't have wanted that. He was so happy all the while. He was the entertainment at every single gig we did. He'd fire everybody up. We did Slane Castle with the Rolling saw their return to the top 10 of the UK album charts following its release in January. But Rogers says that after Brookes' loss and despite the setbacks they had overcome in the past, carrying on wasn't a foregone conclusion.

"We didn't know what we were going to do, to be honest with you," he says. "I don't think any member of the band felt like carrying on, and I definitely didn't. Jon was a neighbour of mine. His house backed on to mine for 10 or 12 years and we had more of a relationship than just the band - we were mates. The only thing that was going through my head was that Jon was always adamant that the band would always carry on. He always said to me, 'This band will never let you down'. It was only when Jon died that I really realised what he meant. The band is there looking after everyone.

"We did a special event for him at the Royal Albert Hall, a big celebration of Jon's life, and we got a few guests - Liam (Gallagher) and James Dean Bradfield and a few other people - and we had a great, great night. That sparked it all off again: this is what it's all about. This is what Jon lived for. To be on that stage and to churn out songs and to pick everybody up. That gave us a good kick up the a**e to go and start thinking about not just what we wanted, but what Jon would have wanted and what was right for the band." The band entered the studio in January 2014, five months after Brookes' death. By that point they were ready to record something that could be seen as a fitting tribute to him. "We weren't going to make a morose, mournful record," says Rogers. "Even though we were mourning for Jon and we were hurting, we were pretty sure that Jon wouldn't have wanted that. He was so happy all the while. He was the entertainment at every single gig we did.

"He'd fire everybody up. We did Slane Castle with the Rolling Stones and other big festivals here in Ireland, and we'd fly in and get a minibus. The minibus would always have a mic at the front and he'd be the tour guide for the whole journey. He'd be doing quizzes.

"So for us to make this record, we had to put Jon into our thoughts and think, 'what sort of record would Jon want us to make?' He wouldn't want us to be all morose and upset, he'd want us to make a happy, full-on record. We started it in January but we knew we had to make a summery record, to feel happy. Which is a hard thing to do, it was freezing! But I think we managed to pull it off, and put a bit of happiness and soul into the music."

Rogers has spent 18 years as a member of The Charlatans, and although the bond with his bandmates is clearly strong, he says that he still struggles for acceptance among some die-hard fans who still compare him to his predecessor Rob Collins. "I knew I was going to get a bit of stick from the fans and every now and then I still do," he says. "There's a few comments. Not malicious ones, but there is an element that will say The Charlatans will never be as good as they were when Rob Collins was there. You know what, I'd probably agree!

"Of course I can't replace Rob and I always said that. He's still a massive part of the band, live or dead. You can't take that away. The Charlatans' sound was Rob. I was very fortunate to be able to play his parts. All I was hoping to do was add a little bit more, to see what I can bring to the group and see where we can go from here."

That attitude has stood him in good stead, through seven albums and nearly two decades.

It's now 25 years since the band released their debut album and unlike most of their contemporaries, they have never split up and reformed again. Despite the passage of time and the passing of two core members, the "gang" that is The Charlatans just keeps on going.

  • The Charlatans play the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Festival Marquee, on Saturday, May 2. For further info log onto www.cqaf.ticketsolve.com

Belfast Telegraph

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