This article originally ran as a cover feature in the Herald Arts Magazine in December 2016, under the heading AIN’T THAT ENOUGH…
The transatlantic rock star’s life is one of rampant hedonism. Take Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, who recently visited his native Glasgow from his adopted home in Ontario. “I arrived and went straight to the Horseshoe bar, and had a quiet pint,” he reveals. “It was nice.” And after that, did the man behind Nirvana’s favourite band lurch into a night of debauchery? “Actually, my mum phoned and gave me an ear-bashing about half-past six. I stay with my parents when I come over. She was like, ‘Are you coming home? You’re not in the pub are you? Your dinner’s ready’. I’m 50 years old, but that was that. I got on the train and went back to Bellshill.”
Teenage Fanclub have been one of our best-loved bands for over 25 years. Two of the group’s core trio – Gerry Love and Raymond McGinley – hail from Motherwell and Maryhill respectively, but TFC were always aligned with fabled indie scene The Bellshill Beat, thanks to Blake’s connection with the town, and the intertwining musical lives of Blake and local cult-pop trailblazers Duglas Stewart (BMX Bandits) and The Soup Dragons’ Sean Dickson, who’ve made music together since their teens. Among other incarnations, they played as The Boy Hairdressers, whose debut EP was released by Stephen Pastel’s 53rd and 3rd label, and whose number included current drummer Francis Macdonald. (Their fifth member is keyboardist Dave McGowan, who also plays in Belle and Sebastian).
Over quarter of a century since their 1990 debut, A Catholic Education, Teenage Fanclub have bounced back with their tenth album, Here – a UK Top 10 – which was variously recorded in Scotland, Hamburg and Provence. “Yeah, there’s some irony in the fact that it’s called Here, when it was recorded in so many different places,” Blake says with a laugh. “There is no ‘here’”.
Here, perhaps, is a state of mind. The band have long explored our sense of place and direction in their songs, through a cosmic cartography of head and heart that spans their 1990 debut single Everything Flows, 1991’s Guiding Star, 2000’s I Need Direction, and Here’s hazy-pop epiphany It’s A Sign, among others. Their charms are bright and universal; their music as evocative of 1960s American pop (The Byrds, The Beach Boys) as contemporary Scottish indie rock. If you can’t pin them down in location or time, perhaps that is no accident: Teenage Fanclub make their music anywhere but home.
“We always like to go to a location that isn’t Glasgow to make records, because I think the environment that you’re in influences what you’re doing,” says Blake. “And when we record, we like it to be an event. We like to go somewhere that we’ve not been – to a new studio, with different equipment. This time, we went to a place in the south of France because they had a really amazing old EMI desk. And also, it was in Provence. It was beautiful. Lots of cheese and wine. That’ll do,” he laughs. “Same with Hamburg, we liked the equipment they had, and Hamburg’s a city where we’ve always had fun. It feels special when you get out of your regular environment, when you’re not clocking off and going back to your own bed. When we made Thirteen , we did it in Glasgow, and it just took forever. I think we got too comfortable because we were at home. We decided we’d always get out of town after that.”
Here is also borne of several places in time. “We recorded the backing tracks in Provence about three-and-a-half years ago,” Blake recalls. “Then we all went our separate ways. I went back to Canada, everyone had a bit of DIY to do at home, so we all got on with that. Usual domestic stuff. Then maybe seven months later I flew back over, and we recorded the vocals at Raymond’s, and then we had another break before Hamburg. We like to do things and then take a step back, and have a look at what we’ve done. You just want to take your time.”
If Here’s lovely, unhurried songs have the sense of being given room to find themselves, then so too do the album’s themes of contentment, resilience, looking forward, looking back, getting on, darkness, light – and the shadows in-between. Often, it’s a love letter to the unsung pleasures of our day-to-day. As is traditional for TFC, Blake, Love and McGinley wrote four songs each, but the all the tracks on the album reinforce each other, and rekindle their past work – not least their recent balmy power-pop single I’m In Love (“It feels good when you’re next to me, that’s enough”), which echoes 1997’s beatific serenade Ain’t That Enough. (“Here is a sunrise, ain’t that enough?”)
All three compose melodies in advance, but their approach to lyrics is rather more ad-hoc. “We all kind of write our lyrics in the studio,” Blake offers. “We’ve always done it that way, so we probably influence each other as we’re writing. I think that helps consolidate the record and homogenise the themes, to give it a sound that’s us. But also, we’re all of a similar age, and I suppose people of our age have the same concerns. Mortality. How you’re going to pay the mortgage. Classic things like that.”
For all their geographic perambulations, much of Teenage Fanclub’s aesthetic and history is embedded in domesticity. The vocals for the new album were laid down at McGinley’s home, and rumour has it that their 1990 calling card, A Catholic Education, was funded by the proceeds of some white goods left to McGinley from a kindly old neighbour. ”That’s absolutely true,” says Blake. “It was great – although it was a shame the lady had passed away, of course. She left Raymond a cooker and a washing machine. Or a fridge and a washing machine. A couple of large white domestic appliances anyway. That’s how we made the album.”
Their breakthrough LP, meanwhile –1991’s euphoric grunge masterpiece Bandwagonesque – was bankrolled by Creation Records’ Alan McGee, who remortgaged his house to cover the costs. He’s largely aligned with Oasis and The Libertines these days, but it bears recalling that in the 1980s and early 1990s, McGee and Creation offered huge support to myriad seminal Scottish acts, including The Pastels, BMX Bandits, Primal Scream, The Jesus and Mary Chain and Teenage Fanclub.
“Alan was amazing for us,” Blake offers. “Creation invested in their money, and time, and faith, in bands like us and Primal Scream when no-one else was willing to take a risk. While we were making Bandwagonesque, Primal Scream were making Screamadelica, and My Bloody Valentine were making Loveless. Creation remortgaged their houses to fund those records. And they had no idea if they were going to be successful – they could have bombed, and they’d have lost all of their personal money.
“Actually, do you know, I don’t even think we’d signed a contract when we were making Bandwagonesque,” continues Blake. “But Alan was paying the studio time. In theory, we could have made that album and said, ‘Thanks a lot Alan – see you later!’” he laughs. “It was amazing for us, to have his faith and trust like that.”
You wonder if we’d be here now had Raymond McGinley not inherited a washing machine; had Alan McGee not remortgaged his home. You wonder if Teenage Fanclub would have had the time and space and faith to keep making their glorious, heartening songs. You wonder if Blake would be sat on a tour bus, travelling to sold-out venues, trying to find the words for a record that faces up to loss and mortality, that ventures into shadows and darkness, that illuminates older loves and lives, and celebrates new dawns and new days and first lights. Here is a sunrise.
Related articles: Teenage Fanclub, Here album review, The List magazine, September 2016