“Once You’ve Arrived, You Have Nowhere To Go”: Tindersticks Interview

Stuart Staples tells JP O'Malley about their soundtrack work with Claire Denis and the rejuvenation of Tindersticks

Tindersticks are the type of band you’d expect to come across in a smoked filled wine bar at 4am, so meeting Stuart Staples – who’s busy rehearsing all week in London for his upcoming show at the Southbank Centre – does feel a little strange. This month, Tindersticks will release a box set of all the music they have composed with French film director Claire Denis over the past 15 years. Staples says he is a little nervous going into this latest project, which will see the band play live music to various images of Denis’ films they have worked on.

Whereas Tindersticks’ music seems to concentrate on lost love, lament and tragedy – mainly concentrated around Staples sombre and romantic lyrics – the soundtracks they have produced for Denis’ films differ slightly.

Rather than following the personal or exploring the self, the soundtracks skip along, to match the scenes of Dennis’ striking mastery of the moving image, providing a backdrop to just some of the themes she explores in her movies: exiles, immigrants, sexual transgressives and alienated urban dwellers, who thrive on the margins of society.

Staples, soft spoken and extremely polite, says it’s good to be back into the thick of London life, taking a break from his quiet French rural home.

Why did you decide to bring out a box set of your collaborations with Claire Denis?

Stuart Staples: It just felt like a time to wrap it all up, really, and for us to devote a bit of time to it. When we were making the music for 35 Shots of Rum and White Material it was kind of fitting in between tours, fitting in between making albums. All this work over the last 15 years has a relationship, and is a complete piece of work.

How did the collaboration with Claire come about in the first place?

ST: We didn’t know much about her. She came to say hello after we had played a concert in Paris. She was writing Nénette et Boni, and something in our second album connected with her. We met, and we got on, and decided we would make the music for the film. To meet Claire, and see her work up to that point, and get involved in Nénette et Boni, it kind of cemented something for us.

How does the process of making music for her films work?

ST: I think it’s a blessing and a curse. The hardest thing, and yet the most rewarding thing, is that she doesn’t say anything. If she has the film in French she has the script translated for us, [then] when it’s finished we get the odd image dailies and then a rough edit. I think the way Claire works with everybody is that she wants to collaborate with them; she wants to know how her film makes us feel, and what we think of it, before she will say anything. It just means that you are really starting from scratch, I guess. It’s a very satisfying experience, because you’re not just filing boxes for people, you are not being a facilitator – it’s a conversation.

How does the ideas behind the soundtracks start to develop?

ST: The understanding of the film to a certain degree starts with the script and that kind of provides knowledge of when you actually start the film. The images provide the music to a certain extent, but the script provides a depth of understanding.

How does making music for soundtracks differ from making Tindersticks records?

ST: In Tindersticks we spend our lives working, exploring our own world, and I think working with Claire [has] given us a reason to take a left turn and go somewhere else and be inspired by something external.

And I think from that, it seems over the last 15 years that actual movement changes us, and when we come back to our own thing we’ve got a different kind of headspace. But it’s just fundamentally a kind of reactive process, whereas when you are working on your own stuff, it isn’t a reaction – it’s more trying to draw something from deep within you.

Most of the Tindersticks songs are word heavy, so I’m guessing that it must be a difficult process for you as a songwriter to work on soundtracks…

ST: It is really different for me. When I met David [Boulter], a long long time ago, before the band existed and we started making music together, the thing that was strong between us was this kind of opposition from where we came from. I was so into songs, and he was so into soundtrack music, and I think those two things coming together had little sparks of something interesting, and that’s how the band almost started, really. I think when you work in a band everybody’s got their own aesthetics and that’s kind of the exciting thing, that collision, so for me, I kind of have to change my songwriting.

Because you’re not much of a musician are you? You just play very basic guitar?

ST: [Laughs out loud] Cheers! I think when a song comes for me, it’s like maybe a couple of lines and a melody, but at that moment I understand it, totally. Even though I don’t know exactly what form it’s going to take, I understand what it holds within it. That then can go on for me to find more form in it, or it can go straight into the band to see what they kind of take from it. And sometimes that’s just singing, other times it’s worked out on a guitar.

I think translating that into White Material, the last film that we did, it was putting the guys into the studio with basic ideas. I suppose with White Material, Dave came at it from a very musical point of view, and I started working on that film in more of a soundscape, more to do with a feeling, and not to do with a melody, and Dave came at it with a more melodic way. And we came together and found a kind of middle ground.

Out of the four films you have worked on with Claire Denis, what is your favourite one?

ST: They’re all different in an approach, in an instrumentation way of thinking about it; I think the easiest one to work on, in a nice sort of way, was 35 Shots of Rum. The way Claire made that film kind of had a flow about it, from writing a script, to filming it, to editing it, whereas, say, White Material was a battle from start to finish. I think I’m a bit nostalgic about the first film.

Your last record, Falling Down a Mountain, seemed to be a bit more uplifting than some of your previous records. Would you agree with that?

ST: I think you can’t help but write songs to show where you are at that particular moment – what you’re going through and what you’re feeling. For example, people think about our second album as being a real kind of downbeat miserable record, but to us there was lots of joy in making that record. I think at the time we were young and we lost friends that were really close to us, and I hear it in all of those songs, that anguish – but the music was a real joyful experience for us to make. That sense of joy has always been part of what we do, even if you put a record on and think, wow this is pretty down. I think there has always been a sense of discovery in our music.

Were you happy with the final result of Falling Down a Mountain?

ST: There is a lot wrong with Falling Down a Mountain, but I think the thing I believe in about it – more than anything else – is that sense of discovery it’s got. The way we made that record was to just go see where we go with these ideas and chase them with whatever direction they pull us in. I love the individual moments but I’m not sure if the patch works hangs together like I want it to hang together.

Would you say you are less miserable than you were as a younger man?

ST: I don’t think I’m more or less positive than I have ever been in my life. But your life changes and different things happen around you, and different things make you want to write songs; it’s got to change. You can’t stay in the same place writing songs about the same things, because your life is changing all the time. When you’re writing songs, I suppose you are trying to get to the nub of something, and even if on the surface you are kind of dealing with grief or whatever, that doesn’t mean that you are dealing with it deep down. The songs, in a way… looking back, they kind of help you get to an understanding or to the point of something.

Is songwriting cathartic to you?

ST: I suppose there is an element of that to it, but I hate the idea of it being only that. I suppose I just think that if I didn’t write songs, or make things in some way, I’d just go a bit crazy. But I hate the idea of it just being a therapy session. Making music with people you have a deep admiration and trust for, it’s fun.

What were the reasons for the split of the original Tindersticks?

ST: I don’t think it was about personal clashes. I think we kind of ran out of conversation. We felt like we had achieved something that was stuck in a space, and I think on our sixth album we all wanted different things; we didn’t say, ‘Okay, that’s it’; we just said ‘Let’s take some time off and see how we feel’. And that time lasted for three years, and then when we got together again as a three piece it felt like an obvious way of going forward, but it was never a big clash.

After 12 years of making albums and touring, it takes its toll. I think now it feels like we are at the start of a journey again rather than arriving somewhere. I think in 2003 to 2004 we felt like we arrived somewhere, and that’s a kind of death really, the arriving – [because] there is nowhere to go.

Did you ever thinking of quitting music at any stage?

ST: Yeah, I did. Well, I don’t mean stopping making music altogether, but maybe getting out of a certain kind of industry around it. Making music is simple, but as soon as you put that kind of industry around it, it can become complicated if you let it. After 2003 I didn’t think I would go on stage again, and I didn’t for two years.

What did you do in those two years?

ST: Sat in my studio messing around, making a couple of solo records. Now I kind of have romantic visions of that time, because as soon as the band got together it kind of took over my life again. But I did have four years of relative freedom – not that I don’t have freedom now, but not that kind of weight of industry, the kind of politics about a big group of people, moving it forward.

You live in France now, why did you decide to move there?

ST: I don’t have a romantic vision of rural France or anything, I just wanted more space. Looking back it was just about change in our environment. For me and my family I think we all just felt a bit hemmed in around the streets of London. The change has been good – I don’t know where it will lead to. I don’t think I will be there for the rest of my life but just the actual change, after being in London after 17 years, was quite liberating. I think if you want space you have to go to the countryside, and I didn’t want to move to the English countryside – that would have been too easy – there would have been no sense of adventure from that. Our lives would have just wound down from it. Moving to a different culture, it just makes you feel more alive.

You’ve talked about the ridiculousness of rock & roll in the famous ‘Ballad of Tindersticks’. Is there a sense of you in that song becoming something you always didn’t want to become?

ST: I think just losing the plot… losing the point. And maybe that song helped us come back from the brink a little bit. In a way it was almost like needing to say that to myself, and to the people around me. I think our first two albums were made in an untainted, pure kind of way. Something happened to us and I think it was within us.

What do you mean by untainted?

ST: Well, when we started on our first album we were 26, 27; up until that point, for 10 years, we’d been making demos, sending them to record companies, trying to get people to like us. We had – as all young bands have – a desperation to be liked by the powers that be, and when in 1990 when we had been doing this for so long, we just decided to do it ourselves, and we made our own records in our kitchen, and made our own sleeves, and sold 7" singles.

By the time we got to making our first album we didn’t care about the industry, and the music was made from that basis. I think, with a certain kind of success, no matter how much you pay no attention to it, it still has an effect on you. What happened to us then externally was that our small record company got closed down by the big record label that owned it, we got shifted to Island Records, and for the first time took an advance, and became professional musicians. Within that, there was a whole different world of expectation around us. I think that really affected our third album, Curtains. ‘The Ballad of Tindersticks’ was a kind of moment of self realisation.

The excess of drink and drugs that you talk about in that song, how deeply did you guys as a band fall into that?

ST: I don’t think we fell into it as deeply as other people did, and how far people can go into believing in that kind of life. Even to enter into that life as a band for us, even in the slightest sense, is a great betrayal – for how you feel about why you make music and what you’re looking for, to let that fall away a little bit is massive. I wouldn’t say that we became this model for hedonism, but even just to have your head turned is kind of enough to make you think what you are doing and why you are doing it.

The lyrics on Tindersticks albums in general, are they all based on real life events, or do you find that you are acting through the songs? Are the lyrics meant to be taking literally?

ST: All the songs come from a deep real feeling. How they end up being the words and the music around that is not literal. But what you are trying to do when writing something is just to hold that feeling within it, and not to make it explicit or immediately understandable what that is.

How much does the poetry you read influence your lyrics?

ST: I’m more interested in poetry now, but when I started I couldn’t help but be influenced by poetry so I stopped reading it. But now I’m more sure of myself in a way, so I’m happy to read poetry. But before, I decided to shut myself off from that, to find my own way I suppose.

How long can you see Tindersticks continuing for?

ST: I think the reason we exist now is the strength of the relationship between myself, David and Neil [Fraser] that existed before the band started. And when the band fell apart I think that belief in each other, a shared sense of right and wrong about making things held the band together, and if that cracked, the band wouldn’t carry on.

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