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Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake: 'If the band was bothered about making money, we would all be plumbers'

As Teenage Fanclub get ready to release their long-awaited 10th album - entitled Here, Norman Blake, one of the Scottish act's three songwriters, tells Andy Welch why there is still plenty of life in them yet

Published 26/08/2016

Time warp: Teenage Fanclub
Time warp: Teenage Fanclub
The original line-up

Rock 'n' roll. Such an evocative phrase. What do we think of when someone says it? Sex, drugs, youthful rebellion, private jets filled with groupies, and the odd TV thrown from a hotel room window...

Of course, not every band can behave like Led Zeppelin - their private jet had a fireplace in it, which raises more questions than it answers - and as music has moved online, riches have gone, and the wild behaviour with them.

"We've been rock stars," says Norman Blake, who's now 50. "What a shame!"

His day job might involve being one of Teenage Fanclub's three main songwriters and de facto frontman, but today, with the help of some YouTube tutorials, he has a new ambition.

He's installing a kitchen sink, and all he wants before having to leave for the band's tour is to have hot and cold running water and no leaks.

"There's no money in the music business any more, so maybe I should've been a plumber?" he deadpans.

Blake now lives about an hour outside Toronto, with his Canadian wife, Krista, and daughter.

He says he and Krista (they met when the band were recording their 1995 album Grand Prix; Krista was working as housekeeper in the manor house studio they were using) decided to move to give their daughter a chance to connect with the Canadian side of her heritage, as they'd lived in Glasgow for her first 14 years (Blake's from Bellshill, just north of the city).

"It's very easy to keep in touch with the rest of the band," he says.

"Certainly a lot easier than it would've been 15 years ago, and all we really have is a time difference to navigate, but video calls make catching up and working very easy.

"To be honest, general inertia as we get older is a bigger problem with our work than location."

Teenage Fanclub, or the Fannies as they're affectionately known, formed in 1989 and released their debut, A Catholic Education, the following year.

Something of an anomaly in their catalogue, it wasn't until their second and third albums, The King and the seminal Bandwagonesque, that they really found their signature, jangly sound.

But for the arrival of Oasis at their record label, Creation, obliterating everything in their path, they might have seen out the Nineties as one of the UK's best-loved bands, releasing a handful of modern classics such as Grand Prix and Songs From Northern Britain.

They toured with Radiohead and Nirvana - Kurt Cobain regularly referred to Teenage Fanclub as the best band in the world. Liam Gallagher went as far as calling the Fannies the second best band in the world, "second only to Oasis".

Blake looks back on those days with great fondness, although he says actually listening to the band's old records would be "masochistic".

"I derive much more pleasure listening to other people's music. I'm overly analytical of ours.

"We had a great time in the Nineties," he adds.

"Touring with Nirvana, we were genuinely witnessing a phenomenon. I might not listen to our albums, but I look at the opportunities those records afforded us and it's amazing.

"Those albums are great statements of who we are, with a lot of brilliant memories attached."

The band's forthcoming album, Here, is their tenth. It follows six years after previous record Shadows, which in turn came five years after their eighth, Man-Made.

Prolific is not a word one could associate with Teenage Fanclub, then.

"We honestly didn't know after Shadows if we'd make another," says Blake.

"We know we would only make a record if we were all feeling it, and if we have the material to do something of quality.

"We toured Shadows and then had some time off.

"Our label in the States, Merge, had a 25th birthday party, so we got together to play there, and it was only then we got chatting about making another record."

Even after the decision had been made, it took some time for the writing, recording and mastering to happen.

"Financially, it would be worth our while making one every few years, but then if we were bothered about money we'd be plumbers anyway. The main thing is we're ready and we have songs," Blake adds.

"Hopefully there'll be a next album, and that this will all happen in two years rather than five, but I wouldn't hold your breath."

Not allowing Teenage Fanclub to fizzle out with a whimper, as many bands of a certain age do - with nostalgia tours followed by a new album no one wants to hear, and eventually the members calling it quits - seems to be the main thing.

"I'd hate that to happen to us," states Blake. "If we'd got to the end of recording Here and we thought it was a turkey, we wouldn't have released it, and I think that would probably be that.

"Fortunately there are three of us writing, so there's not so much pressure on any one person, and it also helps maintain a standard, which helps with the band's longevity."

He believes, despite the industry's obsession with the young and the new, there's a place for older bands, and, while they once may have sung with a sense of hope and youthful enthusiasm, they can now fill their songs with tales of experience, and awareness of mortality.

"We can write about that, and there's an audience that wants to hear it. Look at New Order and The Cure, making new records and touring, they're not about nostalgia."

For what it's worth, Here is a beautiful album, full of the Beach Boys-esque harmonies and jangling guitars the Fannies are so known for. There's a breezy quality, which probably belies just how difficult it is to make something sound this effortless.

"That's just what happens when you play with people for such a long time," says Blake. "It becomes very intuitive, and we don't think about it too much.

"Our sound has developed, but we're not a band that changes radically from album to album.

"We're still using the same guitars and amps we have for years and years, yet we have carte blanche to do whatever we want.

"We're in a really good place - we've never made a ton of money, but we take a wage from the band, we're happy with what we've achieved and we're all very grounded as people.

"The only thing that matters is whether our new music is good enough to release, but really, we have nothing to prove."

Teenage Fanclub's 10th album, Here, is out on September 9. See www.teenagefan club.com for more details

Belfast Telegraph

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