Feeling Strengthened: The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess Interviewed

Val Siebert talks to Tim Burgess on the eve of the release of the new Charlatans album Modern Nature

Quite unfairly youthful for a man of 47 – particularly one whose neural pathways have been well-trodden by a cornucopia of substances – Tim Burgess is a new father these days and not far off being a decade sober. He practices transcendental meditation, makes Fairtrade coffee and even writes books. But no matter the change or new achievements he’s racked up over the years, he has never wavered from his best-known post at the helm of The Charlatans – the band who have now been together for more than 25 years and are on the verge of releasing their twelfth album.

Comparatively and unapologetically nice to one another, The Charlatans certainly set themselves apart from virtually every other group to saunter out of the Madchester scene. They survived the drugs, the egos and the overwhelming ambivalence to new material from part of their original audience who just want to hear those loops from the first record again, thanks. They lasted without so much as an ‘official hiatus’ despite being plagued with more than their share of trials along the way, from clichéd label bust-ups to the untimely death of two of their members – albeit occurring more than 15 years apart. The former being the sudden loss of keyboardist Rob Collins in a car crash shortly before the band were due to play Knebworth in 1996, and the latter being the death of drummer and founding member Jon Brookes after a lengthy battle with a brain tumour less than two years ago.

Yet somehow the band’s latest effort, Modern Nature, the first Charlatan’s album without Brookes, lifts where life has punched holes. The record is sunny and laced with hope, not to mention full of new ground covered. There are brass sections, electronic bloops and bleeps aplenty, gospel harmonies and soaring, uplifting major key changes that feel like the sun rising to blink at you through the palm trees. But it also isn’t without its poignancy. Included as a bonus track on the deluxe version of the new record is a track called ‘Walk with Me’, featuring Jon Brookes both on drums and as lyricist, with words written from a hospital bed and sung by a choir of children gathered from the school where he was a teacher. The resulting tape was handed to the band after Jon’s death and handled with the lightest touch the grieving members could muster. Because, if there is one thing that the band have always had head-and-shoulders over the rest, it’s that they are as much of a democracy now as they ever were – even with one member not present to vote.

Typically for them, the new material sounds invigorated, fresh and challenging. For many long-time fans of The Charlatans, it’s mind-boggling that the experimental side of the band is often overlooked in favour of focussing on the common root they shared with the other bands of the scene that birthed them. They are ‘baggy’ no more, ‘Stone Roses-esque’ even less and have covered enough genres over their 25 years to have Paul Weller turning green with envy. And with Modern Nature, the fans of the evolving Charlatans as they should be known will find plenty to engage with and then some.

We catch up with Tim over sparkling water and slices of lemon at a Hyde Park hotel. Between the messy blond mop he’s continuously pushing out of his eyes and his incredibly oversized woollen jumper, Burgess’ appearance is a perfect match to his childlike bubbliness. But what’s even more endearing is the genuine affection and respect that comes across when he speaks of his bandmates, even when looking back over the rougher sections of the road they’ve travelled.

When you look back on all the years, over these 12 albums, do you see a progression or do you see them more as individual moments in time?

Tim Burgess: A bit of both really. The first album was just a really innocent record, we just acted on our instincts and I just think it was a very pure record, then I think we diverted from that. Then at some point I think there was some sort of progression period where we had three or four albums that sounded kind of similar, grew from the same idea. So a bit of both. Since then we’ve tried to do different things and sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t.

When approaching the start of Modern Nature, what were the initial steps you took as a group?

TB: Well we tried to make the record a couple of times. We tried to get things going with Jon, who passed away, before we ended up making it for real. So we had a few false starts with it. I don’t really know what we were going for, but it wasn’t happening so much. He really, really wanted to be involved in it – and he is involved in it, but he just wanted to be. But then after he died, in a weird way it gave us sort of a starting point in a lot of ways. We’d done a few things before, but for the most part it really started after he died.

So did it still feel like a full group effort?

TB: Yeah it did! I mean, I didn’t think that he had to be around to be a part of it. In a lot of ways it was like beginning again. It’s a hard one, but I was hoping that if there was anything that cropped up that we felt was either too forced or contrived or whatever, we’d stop and start again, just kind of sit and allow things to happen. Start small and then let it grow without trying to push it in any direction. That was the idea. It grew slowly and then it became what it was.

You used three different drummers on the new material. Was there any conscious effort to keep from having just one?

TB: I thought it was just an opportunity that we’d never had before and might not ever have again…

Was it a matter of having someone to collaborate with or did you already have something and think ‘Oh this guy would be good for it’?

TB: I always wanted Stephen from New Order and it was a good opportunity to ask him. When Jon first became ill, I called Stephen to see if he’d help out and he said yes and of course I was thrilled, but I don’t think he realised how much I’d want him! Because we talked about a tour and that kind of stuff, so, he was there, which was amazing, but when we got into the studio it just became a bit more realistic to ask him to come to the studio because he lived quite close. And then Gabe from Factory Floor, you know, I shared a flat with him when I was living in London and we became friends. Then Pete Salisbury, we’d been using him on tour so he came along and played as well.

There was one tune, ‘Trouble Understanding’ that I thought sounded very New Order, so I thought Stephen would be ideal. It doesn’t actually sound like New Order at all, but there is a track on Low-Life called ‘This Time Of Night’ and it had something about it that reminded me of our track ‘Trouble Understanding’. Stephen had no idea what I was going on about but I was just asking him to be himself.

The album actually sounds quite sunny and optimistic! What would you attribute that to?

TB: Oh I think so too! Well we started writing it in winter and it was freezing and the idea was – and I know I said we didn’t want to try too hard – to try and think about the summertime when we were writing the early songs. So that probably contributed. But I don’t know… I have to be careful not to mention my little boy in every interview, but he kind of arrived around the same time Jon passed away, so there was this whole cycle of life thing happening. And, without being too harsh about things, it’s sort of like the seasons, the changing from winter to spring. There is a sadness but an optimism as well. I thought that Jon was part of it and my son and all these things helped me us see things for what they really were.

Musically you are talking about the things you were able to bring in and add, but was there anything missing without Jon? Aside from his physical presence of course.

TB: He definitely contributed more to things than just playing the drums. If I was ever stuck I could sit with him and ask questions. But, he’d probably just say ‘more cowbell’.

So it was just the ‘mood’ that stopped it from progressing before he died?

TB: Well Jon had been ill for more than three years, since Philadelphia in 2010. We’d played some shows with Pete from The Verve on the drums. We stopped and did a few demos and tried to record with Jon when he was in remission for a year, played some great shows, but then you know…

Were there times you actually booked into the studio with him?

TB: There were times when we booked the studio, yes, and there were times when he came when he shouldn’t have.

What if fans are looking for Jon specifically in the new material, where would they find him?

TB: There is one song that he is playing on, called ‘Walk With Me’ and he kind of wrote it himself really. He wrote the lyrics, and he got some kids from a school where he used to teach to sing it. His idea was to present it to the band as a demo, so he played the drums and he wrote the lyrics in hospital, got the kids to sing it, and we were given it after he died. Tony and Martin knew there was a song – whether or not they’d hear it, I’m not sure – but Mark and I didn’t know at all. How we could contribute to it became the difficult thing. We mixed it, added music to it, I just did backing vocals to these kids, and it sounds great. The lyrics are about mortality I think, pretty dark stuff as he was writing it in hospital.

The Charlatans have been some incredible survivors over time, having to come back from a lot of different challenges. Which do you think have been the hardest to come back from?

TB: Well, Rob I suppose, our keyboard player, when he died. That was traumatic.

And sudden.

TB: Exactly, a very different death from Jon’s death. And he was the main writer in the band as well. So we had to go and try to learn to write songs. I don’t know… I mean our story seems a little bit punctuated by these incredible things that we had to get over, but we’ve been around for a quarter of a century and I think that’s pretty nuts – and not tragic at all.

What’s most incredible is that you all have been able to get along for that long.

TB: Well that’s it! We pulled into here [Double Tree Hilton Hotel, Hyde Park] last night and I think we also stayed here in 1990 back when it was the Thistle hotel, and you know, things just still feel the same.

Well what is it about your bond that has helped you weather the years together?

TB: I don’t know! We always thought that if we looked after the name then the name would look after us. I think what is the key really is that we all have ideas of how things should be in our heads that don’t always fit with each other, but when we put them all together, there’s this certain empathy for each other’s ideas, which makes it work in its own way. There is just always a point where it can meet and it can work. Martin and I have this really odd relationship, because he is quite opposite to me. And that sort of attracts me and pushes me away in a way as well. But I’ve really enjoyed working with him on this record, and there have been times when I haven’t really enjoyed it, but, we’ve done it. After 25 years there is always going to be the odd hairy moment.

Being such a ‘together’ band, how do you keep from drifting apart with your solo projects in between?

TB: Well I don’t know, the solo work just seems to happen at certain times. I was living in Los Angeles for 12 years before coming back to London and I always wanted to write with Kurt Wagner who is a friend of mine. And just at this moment for whatever reason there wasn’t anything going on with the band and so I just asked him if he was up for doing anything now and he was! And we got to work right away. That moment just made itself known.

So you don’t sit down with the band and talk it through when these things come up?

TB: No, not so much really. I just go off and do it. There are so many times when we aren’t really together, and I like to do stuff.

What about the initial decisions when actually coming to record a new album? Especially when you’re one man down…

TB: After Jon died we all just sat in a room and said ‘Alright, what DO YOU like?’ and we played each other stuff by other people and that. Whereas there are times when you have something and somebody doesn’t say something and you all of a sudden think ‘Oh they don’t like it’. Just the four us sitting there, coming up with stuff. I like that. It’s almost all by committee at first. The past couple of records it’s been kind of easy for people to leave the room whereas, I’m proud to say, on this one we all sat on it together. Lots of stuff had happened, as it always does to people over five years or whatever. With the exception of Jon’s death, which we all shared, everyone had their own personal stuff happen, good and bad, just life. But I think we were all in a really good place.

How did you give the album a first listen – once it was mastered and everything?

TB: Hmmm… Well I don’t know whether I’ve actually done it yet. We’ve not put it on vinyl yet and that would be the final listen. The listen after there is no going back! I do this thing called Tim Peaks which is all about coffee and the proceeds go to the David Lynch Foundation. We actually have it on at festivals like Field Day, Isle of Wight etc. and I drove from Norfolk to Festival Number 6, which is like one length of the country away, and I listened to nothing but The Charlatans’ new album on full blast. That was pretty intense, but I really enjoyed it! That was probably the most I’ll ever enjoyed it. I was on my own.

Do you sing along with yourself in the car?

TB: Oh! Uh… No? [LAUGHS] Not really… Well maybe a line or something. I mean, I’d be happy to. But I think I was more into the way it was making me feel. One song called ‘Let The Good Times Be Never Ending’ was the song I listened to the most. It’s six and a half minutes with a disco beat; in my head I wanted it to sound kind of New York-y, it’s very dancy and was great in the car at full blast. And actually Luke [Turner of tQ] texted me and said he thought that one does just what it says on the tin and I took that as quite a big compliment. It took a lot of time to make that one. Martin brought in the bass line and said "This is the best thing you’ve ever heard" and I was like "Okay!" and it was just the sound of him playing bass (laughs), but because of that he got it finished into this six and a half minute thing, just from a bass line! When I listen to the album, the first thing I hear is actually the bass guitar! It’s big and booming and just as prominent as the lead vocals.

Modern Nature is released on January 25 via BMG

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