Wirral heroes The Coral played a show in Birkenhead earlier this year, two long decades since last performing in the town at spit n sawdust rock staple Stairways. ‘Is it still open?’ James Skelly enquired from the stage at Future Yard, a fresh faced venue three years young. Times move on and changes happen, bring both endings and new beginnings, life altering events in between. That night in May just gone James, Ian Skelly, Nick Power, Paul Duffy and Paul Molloy played to a Coral ‘hardcore‘ as James observed, a room of dedicated, familiar faces, couples with a babysitter booked — the show wrapped up by 10pm, this band knows its audience. The band were comfortable playing from 2021’s number two album Coral Island, along with the older music cherished in teenage and freedom years. Observing the scene, it occurred a natural response was to come over a little sentimental about that record already.
This Friday two albums Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show and Sea of Mirrors hit the shops and doormats. The final music to be recorded at Liverpool’s Parr Street studios, as it happens. The temptation to record at Parr Street the final time, one imagines, brought with it a sense of nostalgia. The offer too much to resist, and putting a full stop at the end of a chapter? What was the full appeal?
‘One, to get out of the house,’ James jokes. It was the end of lockdown, after all. ‘Two, it was “look there’s no one booked in, it’s all closing down, do you want to do some recording, what have you got.” We didn’t really have anything, so we were writing songs on the day. We took away what we had, pretty skeleton versions then embellished them from there. We came away and realized we had two different albums.’
Does he view Parr Street as just bricks and mortar? Having worked so often in there, and created much as both artist and producer.
‘It was great, it was something special at the time,’ comes the firm reply. ‘But we’ve got a new studio now, Kempston Street. Maybe Parr Street closing down was the kick up the arse we needed.’
The Coral have been going for 25 years, he estimates. ‘Longer, probably.’ We ponder on the band’s longevity. Sure, departures are acknowledged but a consistent path is largely trod, with no major dramas. ‘We recognize we’re part of something special,’ he analyses. ‘In a way you’ve got a duty to do it if you’re lucky enough to be involved in something where the collective is bigger than the parts.’ Fair point, and Wirral is a funny old place, much to wonder about and tell. In their work The Coral, alongside Half Man Half Biscuit, reflect life on the peninsula, and create worlds from vivid imaginations. Coral Island for one took us on a surreal trip to a mystical funfair in a seaside town. Nearby New Brighton, maybe, but off season in an alternate reality. Possibly.
It’s either brave or foolhardy to put out two albums the same day, but in the world of The Coral rules exist to be broken, or at least stretched. Holy Joe is a curiosity, the gateway drug between Coral Island and Sea of Mirrors, the latter the ‘main record’ as James describes it. With Holy Joe, he and Ian’s grandfather pulls on The Great Muriarty’s boots and suit once more but takes on the role of an old-style disc jockey, spinning colourful yarns and murder ballad tunes. Listening to it reminds of overnight wireless radio shows in rural America long ago, respectable folks asleep and safe in bed, medium and longwave getting to the parts even here in 2023 flashy FM and digital don’t concern themselves with. The night shift workers, the insomniacs, and mischief makers up to no good.
‘We had the idea to do a Coral Island radio show. It was more a case of “what haven’t we done?”. We haven’t done a soundtrack or orchestral album, we haven’t done a country album so Holy Joe was our version of a country album in a way,’ says James. ‘The rule was someone had to die in every song. We were crowbarring deaths in left right and centre. Pretty much the whole album, someone gets murdered or someone dies. Everyone’s doomed in every song, put it that way. Like he says at the beginning it’s drifters and sinners. wandering this mythical landscape. I prefer the myth than the reality anyway.’
It feels like a time machine.
‘Yeah, but to a time that doesn’t exist. The myths of things, I would prefer to exist in those places.’
Country-tinged as it is, there are traditional leanings, the Nashville lap steel on ‘Hotel’ and dream-like ‘Long Drive to the City‘ adding a gothic vibe. ‘It’s not the dirty word people assume,’ he says of country music, listing old favourites and new. ‘I’m a fan, obviously Hank Williams, but I like it when it gets a bit psycho drama like George Jones and Tammy Wynette , it’s almost a country version of Phil Spector. I like the hick stuff, into the slick stuff, a lot of the new outlaw country like Charley Crockett, Sierra Ferrell, Colter Wall. They’re taking back the proper country from the rock with a fiddle.’
Both of the new Coral albums have guests from outside the immediate circle. John Simm’s northern tones tell ‘Drifter’s Prayer‘ from the point of view of a summertime carny working the carnivals and fairs, and looking back rose tinted at a follow your nose life well lived. ‘He came to our early gigs so we spoke to him then. Nick’s kept in touch with him. He was up for it, he could picture this carny and he got into the character and we were, “we’d better write some music to go behind it!”‘
Holy Joe is available in physical format only, nostalgia seeping through again and carrying a sense of old fashioned romance – in the broader sense – in part at least. Takes us to a time before Discogs and online stores killed off the pleasures and pain of delayed gratification. ‘That should still exist – once it’s gone it’s gone ,and you have to buy it off someone. You have to search for it. That still has to exist in music. Not everything should be so available.’
Reason two was to make clear Sea of Mirrors is the main album, on which we find The Coral in a more reflective mood.
‘It was written mostly in lockdown so it was kind of, “how did we get here?” I’d turned forty and was looking back and thinking, “how are we ever getting out of this”. There’s probably an apocalyptic undertone.’
Viewing the creation of the album through a soundtrack lens, songs were written through the perspective of a lead actor, but telling stories from the here and now. ‘Looking back on his life you can take a distance and in a way it became more personal then.’
You’d said this is a concept album but surely all albums are a concept?
‘If the concept is to not have a concept it’s a concept in itself,’ he laughs. ‘It helps you hang your hat on something when you’re trying to finish it and put it all together.’
Sea of Mirrors comes from a script written by Nick, an old movie theatre style poster created by Ian, and a spaghetti western documentary. ‘Someone on it was saying a lot of directors weren’t Western fans. They were just using the genre. Some of them would use it to make a horror movie, a comedy, a political movie. Just because it was a popular genre of the time. The idea of using a genre and bacterizing it.’
The short instrumentals – ‘The Actor and the Cardboard Cowboy‘, ‘Eleanor‘ and ‘Almeria‘– serve as sorbet refreshers and give it a ‘soundtracky feel’.
‘Themes you return to, to pull it together. Once we had four or five songs we turned it into a soundtrack idea. I like the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, the way it has themes you come back to. It is a soundtrack but it’s also memorable, it’s got songs on, catchy. Even the Ennio Morricone ones have themes you can whistle or remember.’
”Cycles of the Seasons’ is glazed with superb psychedelic strings, ‘late 60s unhinged easy listening’ arranged by co-producer Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas, Stereolab, Micordisney). It was the first song they worked on and made them realize common reference points. Far Away Worlds has the harmonizing from The Sundowners, reminiscent of the full Stilton easy listening of the period. ‘Cycles of the Seasons’ is glazed with superb psychedelic strings, ‘late 60s unhinged easy listening’ arranged by co-producer Sean O’Hagan (High Llamas, Stereolab, Micordisney). It was the first song they worked on and made them realize common reference points. Far Away Worlds has the harmonizing from The Sundowners, reminiscent of the full Stilton easy listening backing vocals of the period.
Foot tapper ‘Wild Birds‘ has elements of under appreciated torch singer Gene Pitney; an artist of creative depths; the mainstream pop star who when listened to with fresh ears seems wired and to ready to lose it. On the verge of hysteria at any point. ‘It’s that David Lynch thing. I think Brian Eno said he never understood the song Blue Velvet until he saw it in the film and that Frank might murder someone to that song and he understood why that song was brilliant. David Lynch changed perception of that type of music. After that there were so many scenes where that weird easy listening songs from the 50s or 60s would be part of some cathartic, violent scene. There’s something about those two things that draws me to Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole where there’s a juxtaposition in it that I like. I’m always looking for that record. Sometimes you can’t find it and have to make it yourself.‘
‘Dream River’ is beautiful and mellow, cinematic. ‘Sean did that intro himself it reminds me of Sunset Boulevard, that was the one that took the longest to get right. and when we had to write the lyrics we had to redo a three part harmony!’
Listening to ‘North Wind”, one picture a part gun slinger strollin’ into a movie set, past his peak but full of bravado still.
‘He’s typecast in movies now, he’s old. Once he was a serious actor and now he just rides the north wind. And he turns up for the same B parts in the same B movie every time. I think everyone feels like they get there. Once you’re forty or whatever, that’s who you are now.’
Do you really believe that?
‘I don’t know. But that’s what sometimes you think “Is this it? You are who you are?” And I actually find that quite a good thing. Some people don’t. I’m glad I am who I am now. What are the other options? I’m fine with this.’
There was talk these two releases might be the final Coral albums.
‘It feels that way. I mean the way you have to do an album, and what you have to put into it. The promotion. It’s full on. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to put something out, might just do it in a different way. In this way, at this time, it’s tempting. It’d be a good way to leave it wouldn’t it.’
Is 12 a good number? It seems uneven to me.
‘It’s a good album to end it on. It feels like that.’
You’ve got Love’s Johnny Echols voicing the Sea Of Mirror’s sleeve notes on an exclusive Rough Trade flexi-disc.
‘I love his voice, he’s got one of them jazzy LA voices,’ says James. ‘We basically employed him as a session musician. It sounds brilliant. Someone should get him in a film.’
On ‘Oceans Apart‘, Sean suggested actor Cillian Murphy join in the spoken word fun. He’d worked on the Peaky Blinders’ actor’s first movie. ‘I just got an email off Cillian Murphy saying I like The Coral I’ll help you out if you want. We had a chat about different things, who the character was and I sent him the track and the liner notes and he came back with that. It just fitted perfectly. We listened to it in the studio and all did a sigh of relief, it’s done.’
What would you have done if it was shit. If he dialled it in? Awkward.
‘Why would it be shit? He’s one of the best actors in the world!’
You know when you said earlier, working on Sea of Mirrors you asked yourself ‘what haven’t we done’? What haven’t you done? Any thoughts?
There’s a pause. ‘I’d have to think more…we’ve done a lot.’ Another pause, and sigh. ‘What haven’t we done I’d still want to do?’ More silence. Then, ‘an actual soundtrack. For a film that exists.’ Another pause. ‘A film of Coral Island, I reckon!’
More to ponder on then, for them and and us. More Stetsons and poncho and spurs in the future, or dodgems and one armed bandits? Or something quite different? The Coral don’t know themselves, as yet. But they will. We like the idea of that. How reassuringly Coral.
Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show and Sea of Mirrors are out on Friday 8 September via Run On Records in association with Modern Sky UK.
Photo credit: Simon Cardwell