The Charlatans have just released their career-spanning compilation and box set A Head Full Of Ideas through Then Recordings.
Tim Burgess has never been one for sitting still. I know this from the many frenetic performances I’ve seen The Charlatans put on over the years. Despite that, it still took me by surprise, a little, when Tim chose to do this Zoom interview whilst walking through the Norfolk countryside. And very nice it looked too. Tim’s a very focused man these days, a clean living father and highly amicable. A far cry from the hard-drinking party animal of the 1990s. Those were Different Days…
God Is In The TV: It’s one Hell of a legacy, your discography. Does it FEEL like more than 30 years since you started?
Tim Burgess: Some days, yeah! And some days it feels longer. But then there’s moments, memories, that just feel like they happened yesterday. And then, obviously, there’s stuff that happened yesterday that I can’t remember… But yeah I remember the early days with great fondness and excitement. I mean, we were all so excited to be in a band together, we all felt like, you know, like, if you fall in love, and you just know that you’ve been waiting for that for your whole life… Well, that’s just how it felt.
GIITTV: And I guess when ‘The Only One I Know‘ hit, that must have been one of the most exciting moments of your life…
Tim: It really, really was, yeah. Because we all enjoyed the song. We went to record ‘Polar Bear‘ as a follow up to ‘Indian Rope‘, and when we got to the studio, there was a fax from Beggar’s Banquet there saying “We think you should record ‘The Only One I Know’ because the crowd always go crazy when you play that song!” So we thought “Yeah, well, ok, that’s fine – the songs are all as good as each other!” so we recorded that instead. I remember being on tour to support the single, but hearing it, you know, we were in the van, and we just heard it on the radio, and every time we’d stop at a service station, we’d get back in the van and it’d be on again! And then we were in Smash Hits, and all the lyrics were printed in there and we were on posters. We hadn’t even done interviews, but there were just posters of us in all the magazines. It was mad! It was so exciting, and I felt so good about it.
GIITTV: When you hear the old recorded songs now, does it bring back memories every time you hear them?
Tim: Yeah, I mean it’s different live because no matter how much the song is part of the past when you play it in the present, it kind of has a different feeling about it. And they all still sound – songs like ‘Sproston Green‘, I just think they still sound really fresh, even now. But the recorded versions, when I listen to them, I just think…how well we recorded them! It was all on tape, and we were a band who didn’t really have much money to spend in the studio, but we just had all the songs really tight, you know, we were young, everything was so fast and frantic, and it was just so much fun. And we were working with Chris Nagle, who I admired – his name was on pretty much on all the Factory sleeves – so that was exciting too.
GIITTV: And away from the studio, The Charlatans are a phenomenal live band. I first saw you on the Between 10th and 11th tour at Nottingham Royal Concert Hall and was blown away, which is no mean feat because there aren’t many bands capable of doing that, but you had everybody up on their feet dancing. And every single time I’ve seen you since, you’ve absolutely smashed it again. If someone tells me they’re going to see you for the first time, I always tell them I envy them because they’re about to witness one of the best gigs of their life. I sometimes wonder if I might have built you up too much and ruined it for them, but every time, without fail, they come back and tell me you were even better than I’d told them you would be. I always wonder if, over the years, you’ve learned how to deal with all the different types of crowds – if you have certain techniques for each…
Tim: Wow! That’s amazing. So anyway… We had to, kind of have an imaginary kind of Alex Ferguson approach…
GIITTV: What, tap your watch?
Tim: (laughs) Well, not just that. It’s just that you can win right at the end. And ‘Sproston Green‘ always wins it for us. But, you know, some crowds are really up for it from the beginning, and some take a little bit of time, and sometimes, in my head, I imagine it’s like a game of football and halfway through the set, it’s a draw. And then we’ll drop ‘One To Another‘ and we’re like “Ah, ok, now we’re 1-0 up!” then by the time we’ve done ‘The Only One I Know‘, it’s usually 2-0 and, well, I’m just making it up now, aren’t I?
GIITTV: (laughs) Be my guest! Now, It’s probably fair to say you led a pretty hedonistic lifestyle at the height of your fame. I remember in the ’90s I used to collect autographs and was trying to get my Charlatans CD signed. I’d got the rest of the band already but you were nowhere to be seen. And then I saw you being practically stretchered out. You did not look in a good way! Now, I must admit I haven’t yet read your autobiography, so apologies if you cover this in that book, but when did all that change for you? What was the catalyst?
Tim: You know, it’s mad because, while I don’t disassociate myself from it, there’s definitely a big distance between me ‘now’ and me ‘then’. And it’s not even by choice really, it’s just that this is the lifestyle I live now. It’s just me. This is me now. It just feels so odd, and hard to figure it all out when I look back, you know. I know there are loads of people who are drug addicts or have drink problems that need counselling or whatever, and I look at that time in my life and admit that I probably was addicted, but I realised it and thought it was probably wise that I don’t go down that route again. But saying that, since the day I gave up, I’ve never missed it. And I feel really lucky about that because I know there are a lot of people who do. But at the same time, I won’t rule anything out. When I decided to stop, I did it with an open mind. I thought it would be better for me musically – music was always my major love- and I think that partying got in the way. But saying that, I had a great time too. To try everything in order to keep the songs flowing, it’s like you’re in that trapping – if it is a trapping – or maybe it’s a romantic way of looking at writing songs. To experience different highs – and you know we experienced a lot of lows – would maybe make the better writing. Whether it does or not, it doesn’t matter. I know that at the time I was skinning up, it was making for worse writing. It really was. Because I thought the state I was in – the state that you saw me in, in Birmingham – was gonna be good on record. And it wasn’t. So, I think it took me a bit of time to get my mojo – if that’s the right word – until I found Zen and happiness. I was so ramshackle and up and down before that, that I guess people had to watch what they said around me sometimes because they didn’t know who I was going to be at that moment in time, whether it was ‘happy’ or ‘grouchy’ or whatever, and I just didn’t want to do that anymore.
GIITTV: You touched a little on the shattering lows. How hard is it to – and in fact how did you manage to – rally yourself around after such horrific events? I mean, your most commercially successful period in terms of chart positions and probably sales too, was with Tellin’ Stories so you probably had to do a lot of promotion for it at a time that, I imagine, you wouldn’t have felt much like doing it… (NB – Keyboard player Rob Collins died in an accident during the making of the album).
Tim: Well, we had to keep his name, you know, at least for that album, because he’d put so much into it. And we had to talk about it because it was his record as well. I mean, there were some amazing things written about us at that point. It was bittersweet going on tour, playing the biggest dates we’d ever played, with him not being there. It was weird every night because we’d have samples of his voice, so in the wedges, I’d hear him and look around and see if he was there. And of course, he wasn’t. But there have been lots of times like that, where Rob has kind of made himself known, even though he’s not here anymore. He was a very, very, very important part of the band’s history and I love that the revised sleeve of Between 10th and 11th now has him playing in front of, like, thousands of people in DC, and, you know, that’s what he made happen. He taught me to sing, in many ways, too. I think I’d been coasting up to that point and then ‘Can’t Get Out Of Bed‘ came in and we needed to really rip it up, so he went in first and showed me the way it really had to be. Then I followed, end everyone said it was the best I’d sounded. But it was a lesson, you know? So yeah, when I think about him, I do get really nostalgic.
GIITTV: What’s struck me over the years is the diversity of the songwriting, especially around the time of Simpatico with its dub reggae leanings. And then you followed that with the stunning You Cross My Path, which might even be my favourite of your records. Have you ever been cautious that you might perhaps alienate some of your core audience or do you think most of them get it when you try new things?
Tim: I think people have definitely followed and trusted what we do, and I think they’ve been right to trust us. I think Wonderland was pretty extreme stuff, and I think Between 10th And 11th was pretty extreme for some people. We completely dismantled everything that we had, we changed a band member, and Rob felt that he’d done everything, really, on the first album, you know. He’d double-tracked every Hammond line, every solo, backed them up, with his harmonies…and the next album, we were just ready for some guitar. And when Mark came in and took over from John Baker, he brought with him lots of ideas – lots of ‘hot licks’! That was really encouraging. And I would say that the production on that album is probably still my favourite production of any Charlatans album. Flood did an amazing job. We chose him because of a great record by Pop Will Eat Itself, a great record by New Order, and he’d just done Achtung Baby and Violator! So that was pretty amazing. It’s still our biggest album in America.
GIITTV: I imagine that probably has something to do with ‘Weirdo’…
Tim: Yeah, that was our biggest hit in America. As a single, as a sound, it’s just an amazing thing.
GIITTV: And what a first line that is! One of the best first-lines in any song, ever!
Tim: (laughs) It’s just my deadpan sense of humour. I hope most people got the tongue in cheek humour of it.
GIITV: One of my favourite albums of last year was ‘I Love The New Sky‘, which reminded me of Dennis Wilson‘s Pacific Ocean Blue in places. I think I loved it because it felt like it was brimming with positivity, which was refreshing after about 5 years of a very negative mood in UK society, largely because of the divide caused by the Brexit vote…
Tim: Oh wow. Well, there’s certainly Beach Boys harmonies involved in some of the songs. I mean, I’ve definitely listened to Pacific Ocean Blue a LOT, but I wasn’t listening to it specifically at that time. And also, thank you very much! And I’m very excited to say that I’ve just finished the follow-up, pretty much the same people, and I’m really high on that. There are certainly elements of the new album that are equally – if not more – positive as the songs on I Love The New Sky, and there’s some that are just really romantic.
GIITTV: Your Twitter Listening Parties are hugely popular…
I’ve been doing them for a long time for The Charlatans records and my solo records, maybe 8-10 years. I did my first one when I had 10,000 followers, and I’ve done each one about 10 times. So when it was first mentioned that there was going to be a lockdown on the 23rd of March last year, I mentioned to my now 120,000 listeners “Shall we do a listening party?” and it was going to be Some Friendly. Then Alex from Franz Ferdinand said “Oh, I love that record! I bought it when I was 17!” and then the penny dropped – that he should use my platform and talk to his fans, and I should retweet and together, it would be bigger as one thing. And then Bono said “Oh yeah, I’ll do one!” and then so did Dave Rowntree and Wendy Smith, and all of a sudden we had a week! And I thought that the pandemic would last for three weeks (laughs) so I made it my goal to have three weeks of listening parties, to plan it, and announce them all, and have it all ready to go as this really solid thing. So we had Lloyd Cole, Prefab Sprout and even Slow Readers Club and just loads of bands who always seemed to comment on my Twitter feed. Stephen Morris from New Order I always ask, and he always says yes; he’s so lovely…
GIITV: You know, I think that’s what I like so much about You Cross My Path, because it has a bit of a New Order vibe about it, doesn’t it?
Tim: Oh, definitely. Almost embarrassingly so. What I was doing – and I’ll take both the glory and any accusations of copying – was learning how to use Logic, I worked it out myself in about 2007 and I’d never really used anything like that to write songs before. So everything was like three chords and Logic, and, you know, New Order are brilliant at doing songs with three chords, as The Cure are too. So yeah, those were the humble beginnings of that album.
GIITTV: Did you find yourself appreciating certain albums more that you hadn’t previously paid much heed to?
Tim: Oh, totally. I’m so proud of the listening party, and I don’t use the word ‘proud’ very often, but I’m so proud of what people put into it. And you know, people always ask me “Who are your dream artists?” and I do have a few, but for the most part, for me, it’s whoever wants to do a good listening party. I wasn’t ever a fan of Spandau Ballet, not because I didn’t like their music, but just because I wasn’t THERE. I maybe heard some of their stuff on the radio, but then one day, I got phone calls from Ian Astbury, Roisin Murphy and then Gary Kemp, and all of those three have been hugely influential to me over the course of the listening party, because of what they’ve wanted to put into it. Roisin has done so many amazing listening parties, you know, everyone’s a winner! And with Gary, I just got to learn so much about the making of that album, of who he was and where he was at – he was seventeen and his mum and younger brother were the only people he could share the songs with – they were all written in his mum’s council flat. And with all this background, I just became a fan, instantly. Gary’s ace.
GIITTV: It’s been four years since Different Days. A Head Full Of Ideas feels quite conclusive. I’m kind of hoping it’s not too final and that there’ll be a new Charlatans album on the way in the not too distant future. Are you working on anything as a band at the moment?
Tim: Not at the moment, but I feel – and am hoping – that this album is like a full stop from a former life, and then we can, like, get back on it. I think we’re all still into it, we’re all still friends, we’ve all enjoyed doing this, and we had a 30-year celebration on Zoom! So it’s like we’ve really tidied up the house and can start a new life! But yeah, I’m up for it. I’m seeing them all on Saturday so I’ll mention it to them then!