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Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake looks forward to the band’s next chapter

Interview: Blake talks 'Bandwagonesque', hip-hop, Boston, and Gerard Love's departure as the Scottish alt-rock band play The Paradise on Monday

Photo Credit: Donald Mine
 
 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Teenage Fanclub’s formation, and in those three decades, the Scottish indie tunesmiths have proven themselves unparalleled at crafting heartfelt guitar-pop gems in the classic tradition of bands like The Byrds and Big Star. Though the group’s consistency has always been one of their primary virtues, they recently weathered a major change with the departure of founding bassist Gerard Love, who had split singing and songwriting responsibilities with guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley.

Vanyaland called up Blake back in late January to talk about the band’s current tour (which stops by the Paradise Rock Club on Monday, March 11), Love’s departure, and memories of collaborating with De La Soul for the Judgment Night soundtrack.

Terence Cawley: Do you have any memories of Boston and the gigs you’ve played here?

Norman Blake: We’ve always had a good time playing Boston, but I’ve also got some Boston connections because I personally worked with Joe Pernice in a band [The New Mendicants]. I’ve stayed there at Joe’s folk’s place when we toured, and he always takes me to Fenway; he’s a big Red Sox fan. In terms of playing, we’ve always had good shows there. We did also buy a mini-Moog in Boston about 25 years ago, which we still use in all of our recordings. I think we got it for 400 bucks; it’s probably worth about $4,000 now.

This tour will be your first without Gerard Love; how does the band plan to adjust to his absence?

Obviously, we’re all very sad that he didn’t want to come on this tour. Having said that, we’ve brought in Dave [McGowan], who’s played with the band for about 20 years now, and he’s going to be taking over bass guitar duties; he plays bass with Belle and Sebastian, as well. Also, a good friend of mine called Euros Childs is going to play keyboards; he played in a band called Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, and we’ve known him for a long time. We have a lot of songs, and we won’t be playing all of Gerard’s songs, but we’ve made 10 albums and we’ve got tons of stuff. So we’re going to have to adapt and it’s going to be different, but we’re really sort of looking forward to it and we’re going to try to embrace that. Hopefully, it will in some ways reinvigorate us. In fact, we even have some new songs already, so we’re just moving on with it, and it all seems to be going really well so far.

Your last tour with Love was last fall’s Creation Years tour, during which you played albums from your classic ‘90s run on Creation Records in their entirety. What was it like revisiting the first half of your career in such thorough detail?

I think over three nights, we played something like 75 songs; some of them we had never played since we made the albums, and we had to learn all of them. What we did for the tour is we had everyone who had played drums on the albums — Paul Quinn, who played drums on Grand Prix, Songs from Northern Britain, and Howdy!, came along, and Brendan O’Hare, who played drums on Bandwagonesque and A Catholic Education, was there too — and of course, our current drummer [Francis MacDonald] was along for it. So it was great fun, and in some ways, for what were supposed to be Gerry’s last shows, it was a nice way to finish. There was a really good feeling in the camp, and everyone got on really well. It was interesting, and there was a lot to learn, but I think we pulled it off. People seemed to enjoy the shows.

Did the nostalgic theme of those shows heighten the melancholy of knowing they were Love’s last with the band?

I mean, it did in some ways, but Brendan came along and he really lightened the mood, because he’s a bit of a prankster. I don’t think it was too melancholic, you know? I think we sort of got on with the business of actually playing the songs. It wouldn’t have been Gerry’s style; he wouldn’t have liked the attention of any big show of emotion. So yeah, I guess there was some melancholy there, but mostly it was positive, and the spirit in the group was really good.

Have you heard the Bandwagonesque cover album Ben Gibbard released in 2017?

I did, and I like it very much. We were really flattered that Ben would do that. Ben’s a friend, and we’ve known each other for quite a few years, so we were really flattered that he decided to take that on as a project.

What do you think it is about that album that has caused it to resonate so deeply with listeners to this day?

I think it was the first album that we made that had success in the U.S. A Catholic Education had been on Matador, but we moved to DGC, I think because Sonic Youth were there and Nirvana had moved there. So of course our profile became bigger, and I think people just sort of connected with that record. It’s hard to quantify that and understand why people pick up on a certain album, but that’s certainly the one that put us on the map in the U.S. Maybe that’s why particularly in the U.S. it resonates with people. We’re still playing songs from it now all these years later.

In the U.K., maybe the Grand Prix album is a little more loved. We always just keep moving on, making new ones- in fact, we’ve just been recording. But yeah, Bandwagonesque was very successful for us and allowed us to tour the world. We got to Japan, which we had never been to before, and because of the success of the album we got to visit there, so that was great. We have very fond memories of making it.


One song of yours I’ve always loved was “Fallin’,” your 1993 collaboration with De La Soul for the Judgment Night soundtrack. How did that come together? What was the process of working with those guys like?

We were approached by the people who were putting the soundtrack together for the movie — they were putting together rap artists with alternative artists — and someone suggested that us and De La Soul would be a good fit. So we both agreed to do it, and a few weeks after that, they flew over to Manchester where we were recording, and I think we were there for two days. They put down a beat, and then we sort of just made up some parts and they just wrote the lyrics, I got a Tom Petty sample on there, and boom, that was it. It was a lot of fun doing that, because we’d never really done any sort of collaboration like that before. Of course, we never played it live, but we did end up flying to Chicago and making a video for it with those guys, and they were really nice guys. We got on well, you know? Of course, we hadn’t known each other before we went into the studio, so you never really know what’s going to happen, but we hit it off with them. We were certainly very pleased with the way it came out, so it’s always nice to hear that come on the radio from time to time.

Had you been a fan of De La Soul’s, or of rap music in general?

Yeah, I was; I guess the 3 Feet High and Rising album had been real successful. It’s a great album, you know? I suppose it was that their style of rap was much softer and gentler than — you know, Public Enemy had been real big, and a lot of rap music had been like that. I suppose it’s just a different sort of style and spirit, and whoever was pitching the bands for the soundtrack thought that their style would work with ours, and I think it did.

Do you ever get the urge to do something a little more experimental like “Fallin’” again?

We did an album with [Half Japanese frontman] Jad Fair that was completely improvised, and I’ve made subsequent albums with Jad. Generally, Teenage Fanclub probably will do pretty much what we’ve always done, but I’ve worked on other projects, primarily the stuff with Jad, and that’s a lot of fun because with that I can pretty much improvise again. I’ll send Jad things, he’ll send things back, and I’ll just put some other things on top of that. We’ve had a lot of fun and we’ve toured that a few times, with me and Jad taking turns on drums and then guitar.

I guess because of the way Teenage Fanclub operates, it’s probably always gonna be song-based; we’ll go outside of the band if we want to experiment with musical styles. It’s still song-based, but I made an album with Joe Pernice, and of course every songwriter has a different approach to making music. If you work with someone, you always learn something new from them, which you can then maybe incorporate into your writing, as well. It’s always good to work with other people. In terms of experimentation with the band, I don’t think we’re gonna make a jazz-funk record or anything with Teenage Fanclub. I don’t think anyone’s gonna want to hear the Teenage Fanclub jazz-funk LP, anyway [laughs].

I read that you’ve been living in Ontario for about a decade now?

Yeah, that’s right, I moved there about eight years ago. I’m in a place called Kitchener, which is about an hour west of Toronto and about an hour and a half east of Detroit. My wife’s Canadian; we lived in Glasgow for the first 14 years of our daughter’s life, and then we moved here almost nine years ago. So I’ve enjoyed that; it involves quite a bit of flying back and forth because I’ve got to come work with the band, but that’s fine. Of course, the Internet has made communication easy; everyone’s just an email or a FaceTime call away. All we have is the time difference, that’s the only problematic thing, but as long as you work around that, it’s all totally fine and the band can still operate.

How does the music/art community in Ontario compare to the one you grew up with in Glasgow?

I’ve gotten to know some people, but not that many. I’ve gotten to know the Broken Social Scene people… I know the guys in The Sadies, [like] Mike Belitsky, who was in the Pernice Brothers with Joe, and Joe Pernice is now based in Toronto, so me and Joe are good pals and we hang out quite a bit. Other than that, I’m not in Toronto so I don’t really know the scene in Toronto. There’s a very small scene in our town but nothing really much, and Toronto’s about 60 or 70 miles from where I live, so I’m not there that often. Other than Joe or Mike Belitsky, I’m not really up with who is good in the Toronto scene at the moment. I’m a bit out of touch in that regard.

Your last album, Here, came out in 2016, and it sounds like you’ve got a new album in the works; is there any chance that Love would continue to play a role in the writing and recording process even though he’s done touring?

Right at this moment, no, but I would never say never. This band is fluid, but right now, this touring lineup has been recording. It’s been great bringing Euros Childs in, because he’s got a great voice and he adds a different sort of color to the music as a keyboard player; stylistically, he adds something new. Dave’s bass playing is different to Gerry’s, so that adds something new as well. We’ve always seen ourselves as a contemporary band; as much fun as it was playing those reissue shows and playing the albums, I think our main focus has always been on trying to create something new.

The band’s been around for 30 years and we didn’t break up and reform; it’s been an ongoing project. Over the course of the last three or four albums, there’s been a significant gap between each of them, five or six years, and I think I like the idea of recording and trying to make albums more frequently.

I always think of Yo La Tengo; every couple of years, they’ll have something new out and they’ll tour it. It seem like a good cycle and a good way to do it, so I think we would like to get there if we can. So that’s why we really wanted to start recording and moving into the new phase of the band, trying to embrace that and be positive about it. We were just in Hamburg, and we recorded some songs and were really happy with them. I think we’re going to be playing them live, so that’s going to make it a little different — some new things for people to hear.

TEENAGE FANCLUB + THE LOVE LANGUAGE :: Monday, March 11 at The Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., $25 :: Live Nation event page :: Advance tickets