Interview: Kelly Jones on the new Stereophonics record, writing for Amy Winehouse, and aligning music with film

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tereophonics have long managed to straddle a fine line between post-Britpop like “Local Boy in the Photograph,” from their 1997 debut Word Gets Around, and the more guitar heavy rock of “Vegas Two Times” off 2001’s Just Enough Education to Perform. What have kept the Welsh trio difficult to pin down into any one classification though are tracks like “Dakota,” off Language. Sex. Violence. Other?, which was quite possibly one of the best pop rock songs of 2005.

‘Phonics singer and guitarist Kelly Jones guides the group with his innate ability to weave a cinematic quality throughout the band’s compositions. Never has it been more apparent than the latest release, Graffiti on the Train, which has not only spawned the hits “Indian Summer” and “We Share the Same Sun,” but developed concurrently with a screenplay of the same name that Jones hopes will go into production next year.

Vanyaland caught up with the frontman on the eve of the group’s first American tour in five years, which kicks off tonight in Philadelphia and hits Boston’s House of Blues tomorrow. He was eager to talk about his film inspirations, moving at a languid pace musically, and Noel Gallagher’s eyebrows.

Michael Christopher: Welcome back to the States, it’s been a bit since you guys have been back here.

Kelly Jones: Yeah, I think the last tour was 2008. We didn’t come for the last album, we moved from one label to the other and it was quite complicated. But we’re happy to be back now and the album is something to be proud of and we’re looking forward to playing shows and playing it to the people.

What do you look forward to most about touring here?

We’ve been doing three, four months of European festivals an in Australia and Japan – it’s been a great summer. It’s been very sporadic how long we can play; some nights it’s 45 minutes in Holland and an hour the next night in Germany. What we’re looking forward to about the States is the opportunity to do a full set, an-hour-and-50 to two hours every night and delve into the catalog of eight albums and change it up every night and really work on the show.

The last two Stereophonics contrasted quite a bit; you had the guitar driven, glossy production of Pull the Pin (2007) and then the more stripped down Keep Calm and Carry On (2009). But it seemed like on the latter, you were a bit unsteady, whereas Graffiti on the Train feels extremely focused, it’s got a feel almost like Word Gets Around.

Yeah, it feels like a debut album to me as well. Keep Calm and Carry On was the first time we tried a different producer [Jim Abbiss]; I learned a lot on that record and a lot of it didn’t come off the way I intended but some of those songs worked out great. On this album, I guess the main change for us all was we took a year or two off touring, which we hadn’t done in 16 years. We build our own studio and we went into work every day and decided not to think about radio, not think about TV, not think about a record company and we didn’t really give ourselves a deadline; we didn’t care how long the record was gonna take – we just made music every day. It was such a nice way of making music.

“Indian Summer” is the most immediate song the band has done since “Dakota,” but it was actually a song you had tucked away for quite a bit.

Yeah, I didn’t really have it on the album, which goes to show what I fucking know [laughs]. It was a GarageBand session which I’d opened on my laptop like three, four years ago really, and it was just a melody on there. I had never even gone back to it and I found it when we were recording and the chorus came very quickly but we didn’t really think much of it and then some people from the record company heard it and were like, “What the fuck’s that?” And they wanted to lead the whole campaign with it. I mean, I never knew “Local Boy in the Photograph” was a single; I just kind of make the records and I think I’m so close to these songs I don’t know what’s what – you know?

“Been Caught Cheating” is a really interesting track. It’s got that Muddy Waters/“Mannish Boy” feel to it with the club setting crowd kind of cheering you on in the background.

I’ve always loved blues music; I had older brothers always playing that kind of stuff and always had a bunch of Lead Belly records and Muddy Waters and I would listen to that while driving back and forth to the studio. For that song in particular, I wrote it about three years ago after reading a piece about Amy Winehouse, and I’d met Amy a couple of times and I knew she’d wanted some songs. I just wrote it, I never discussed it with her, and I thought she’d be great at singing it. She never got to hear the song, and one night I played it for the band, they loved it, and we did that song in just one take. We thought it was a good light moment to mix up the intense songs on the record.

You lyrics have always painted very strong visuals, and it’s no secret that you’ve got a keen interest in film. While recording Graffiti on the Train, you were also working on a screenplay with the same title. Will they be companion pieces?

In an ideal world, yeah. What happened was the whole concept [for the song] came about after I caught a couple of graffiti artists who climbed over my house to get to the train behind my house. It really inspired some sort of train of thought, subconsciously, as to why these kids would take so much risk to leave a mark on the world and I invented this story about a guy painting the train every morning so his girl would see the messages as she went to work every morning on the train. And then he proposed to her on the last message and like a kind of Shakespearean tragedy he fell from the train on the same day.

That was the catalyst for the screenplay really, about two best friends who ended up leaving their small town and going on a journey. I guess a lot of things on the record deal with fear and fearlessness and struggling to get through this journey that they’re on and come out the other side better people.

You’ve always been toying with film, like if you look at the video treatments for Language. Sex. Violence. Other?, how they all tie in together. Do they feed off one another in fueling your creativity?

They do, they do. I just see myself as a storyteller really, and I’ve always been very descriptive in my music and I guess I’ve always had this urge to combine the two and scratch this itch really. I’ve always wanted to make films and directing the videos for this album was an amazing experience and I hope it goes on to become something bigger.

What were some of the films that inspired you visually and thematically while growing up?

I loved a lot of Kubrick and a lot of Robert Altman films with the dialogue. I love a lot of French movies and Italian and obviously all the big ones; the Scorseses. I was always surrounded by stories and older brothers and a dad; I was nine years younger than everybody, so I was always listen to these older people have all this dialect between one another. I guess I’ve always been surrounded by these scenarios happening.

Shifting gears, there’s been a lot of talk this week about Oasis possibly reuniting next year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Definitely Maybe. You’re friends with those guys — you see it happening?

I find it very unlikely. Noel is in a good place with his solo stuff, I know he’s been working on a bunch of new songs. I don’t think Liam is having a very good year personally; or the Beady Eye thing isn’t really going well I think because the guitar player [Gem Archer] fell down the stairs and fractured his skull. I think they’d love it to come back together at some point, but there’s an olive branch or two to be felt first before that could ever get off the ground. I think everybody would love it to happen – people love the band, but I think Noel is enjoying his experience at the minute and I’m sure it’s a bit more peaceful for him as well [laughs]. Good luck to both of them, they both want to do their own thing and I’m sure one day, when the bank grows low, they’ll be back.

You’ve been mates with Noel for a while, having collaborated with him a few times in the past. Has it ever been settled who has the bushier eyebrows between the two of you?

[Laughs] I think he’s definitely got the bushier; mine are blacker. We’ve never discussed eyebrows, weirdly, we should’ve I guess – you know? You’re right – there’s a lot of hair going on there.

STEREOPHONICS + THE WIND & THE WAVE :: Friday, September 20 @ The House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St., Boston MA :: 7pm, all-ages, $27.50 :: advance tickets :: v:list