With a career spanning twenty-five years, The Charlatans have become something of an institution. Having initially emerged during the Manchester-orientated "baggy" scene at the tail end of the 1980s, they've outlived every subsequent genre and movement since. Continually pushing the boundaries and changing their sound with every record, next January they'll release their twelfth long player Modern Nature. Their first since the untimely passing of drummer Jon Brookes, it sees them reunited with associate and producer Jim Spencer, who last collaborated with the band on 2008's You Cross My Path. Here, frontman Tim Burgess talks to Drowned In Sound about the making of the new album, the band's headline tour scheduled for early next year, his label O Genesis and recent collaboration with Grumbling Fur.
DiS: What are you up to at the minute?
Tim Burgess: I've got a couple of days off and then we're shooting a video next week.
DiS: You recently picked up an award (2014's "Q Heroes") presented by Q magazine. Do you value awards like this as a show of appreciation and recognition for what you and The Charlatans have achieved over the years?
Tim Burgess: I think it was well deserved! I don't know how much it means in the grand scheme of things but it was great to get it. I presented a couple of awards and that was an honour, so to receive one must mean something. I presented one to John Cooper Clarke who meant a lot to me when I was younger and then I also presented one to Dionne Warwick which meant a lot as well. 'Walk On By' and 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose?' are two of my favourite songs so it was a real pleasure to meet and present her with an award. And both of them were thrilled as well. Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert from New Order presented our award to us and again, they're one of my favourite bands of all time so all in all it was a good day.
DiS: You recently signed to BMG, which is a part of the Sony Entertainment group. How did that come about?
Tim Burgess: We started work on the new album pretty much after the concert at the Albert Hall for Jon (Brookes) last October. It helped me move on a little bit. I don't want to speak for the rest of the band but I think it was the same for them too. Jon's illness was over quite a long period of time and we made attempts on making the record - mostly because he wanted to be involved in the album - before he died. So, after the show, we decided to go into the studio and start working on the new record. In a weird way, it helped us get back to some kind of normality. Once we started writing and got into it we thought it sounded pretty good, so we let our manager listen to it. She said that she wouldn't play it to anybody then she did, and from that BMG became really interested. It was fantastic because their main guy Thomas was really enthusiastic about the four tracks he heard. He asked for more and so we made more.
DiS: Do any of the songs on the record date back to when Jon was still alive?
Tim Burgess: He played on a couple of tracks but didn't commit them to record. We practised a few of them with Jon on the drums and we had MP3s and stuff like that. There's one song ('Walk With Me') that's going to be a bonus track on the deluxe edition of the album that he presented to the band.
DiS: The first single from Modern Nature, 'Talking In Tones' was released in September. Is it representative of what the rest of the album sounds like?
Tim Burgess: It was one of the first tracks we recorded during the first sessions for the album in January and also one of the four BMG initially heard. Is it representative of the album? Yes, I think it is although it doesn't particularly sound like any of the other songs on Modern Nature either. It stands alone but fits in really well with the album. For some reason it reminded me of 'With No Shoes' from Tellin' Stories when we first recorded it. That was the opening track on Tellin' Stories and I thought this should be the opening track on the new record.
DiS: Are there any more songs off the album that are earmarked as future singles?
Tim Burgess: Yeah, there's a few. There's a track called 'So Oh' that's coming out in December. It has a similar feel to 'Talking In Tones'. The whole of the album was done in a very relaxed way. At times we've really stretched certain aspects of our sound like on Wonderland which was inspired by Californian soul or You Cross My Path which was heavily influenced by New Order. This time, we decided to look each other in the eye, concentrate on making something really small and just see where it goes in that by all of us being in the same room we could acknowledge whether we like it or not. It's quite easy for someone not to be around and someone else play their part in the studio and then when that person comes back and hears it, decides they don't like it for some reason. It's easy to blame someone else when you haven't played much of a part yourself. So with this album all four of us were present throughout the recording sessions.
DiS: You worked with Jim Spencer on Modern Nature for the first time since 2008's You Cross My Path. What made you choose him to produce the album? What did he bring to the recording process?
Tim Burgess: Big Mushroom Studios where we recorded the album is our place. It's also where we rehearse as well as a recording studio, and is the sort of place where everyone can just sit and not leave the room. Not have to rush around doing everything. If you're in a studio with other people it's easy to become distracted. Whereas here, we were very much left to our own devices. Because we weren't in any kind of a rush it was a good place to record. Also, by having no time restrictions it meant we could bring in and try out some new equipment. Jim is a good person to work with because everybody gets on with him. We all talk to him on a one-to-one basis in private as well as within the group. He's one of the gang really. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what he brought to the recordings but then you could say that about all of us individually. Jim's presence probaly kickstarted the whole process, and that gave us the impetus to see it through.
DiS: You worked with three different drummers on the album; Pete Salisbury, Gabe Gurnsey and Stephen Morris. How did that materialise and will all of them be involved in the live shows at some point?
Tim Burgess: Pete will be playing with us when we go on tour, but when we play the Albert Hall in Manchester next March, all three drummers will be under the same roof so you never know. Maybe something great might happen that night? I'm sure how comfortable everyone would be but I think it should definitely happen. Gabe and Stephen just popped in a couple of times to see how we were getting along. So I asked Stephen if he fancied coming down and playing on a track with us. It was great watching him work. He'd worked with Jim Spencer before so everything kind of fell into place. When we made Wonderland, Jim Keltner came along to play drums on a couple of tracks and I remember Jon was really buzzing about that because they both ended up playing on the same track. On this occasion, Jon was really keen that Pete took over from him while he was recovering from his first operation. We had a tour booked and Jon suggested Pete. So I gave Pete a call and he said yes straight away without really knowing the magnitude of the dates we were doing. But Pete was happy to do that, and he's continued working with us ever since. With this record, we thought it would be good to get a few other people on board who Jon liked and we were all fans of. Factory Floor are one of the best new bands around, and they're like part of our extended family now. Nik (Colk Void) is doing the artwork for the record and also did the video for 'Talking In Tones'.
DiS: There's other collaborators on the record too. The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan contributes strings to one song while Melanie Marshall and Sandra Marvin, who've worked with Kate Bush and Dexy's Midnight Runners' Jim Paterson also appear. How did you end up working with them?
Tim Burgess: I asked Sean after he did some bits for me on my last solo album. When we started making the album I made a mental note that if The Charlatans ever needed any strings then Sean would be the best person to provide them. So we sent him the one track ('Keep Enough') and he came back with this perfect stringed arrangement that we all liked. It's that simple really. Having him in mind was certainly the starting point for all the other collaborators. He's done stuff with Paul Weller and the Beach Boys and fits in with what whoever he's working with is feeling at the time.
DiS: The title was inspired by Derek Jarman's diaries. Have you read them and are you a fan of his work?
Tim Burgess: I knew of him through The Smiths videos that were on The Chart Show and The Tube when I was younger and also films like 'Jubilee' and his work with the Pet Shop Boys. I got to know more about him through Chris and Cosey from Throbbing Gristle doing soundtracks to some of his work. Simon Fisher Turner, who's done a remix for 'Come Home Baby' off the album did a lot of scores and soundtracks for him as well. The album title came about after the record was finished. I went down to London to see my friends Grumbling Fur as we were recording a song together ('Lightinsister') for their new album. I'd never worked them before but I'm a big fan of their music, and we were just doing something when this Isaac Newton moment happened and a book fell off the racks onto my head. People had been telling me how this house was haunted. It's very ornately decorated with stuffed animals on the wall, kind of like what you'd expect a typical quaint old English house to look like. It's a really wonderful place with a nice atmosphere in the centre of Wood Green but yeah, apparently it's haunted. I don't know what to believe but it fell on my head anyway! There were a couple of songs on the album at this point called 'Nature 1' and 'Nature 2', so when 'Modern Nature' fell on the floor I thought it would make a great title for the album. I picked up the book and knew that had to be the title of the record. I just kept repeating it to myself and thought what a great way to find out! Usually, anyone's enthusiasm for something like that is considered a bit questionable so I was quite nervous about telling everyone that I had this title, but everyone loved it straight away.
DiS: Staying with Grumbling Fur, will you be working with them again in the future?
Tim Burgess: Oh yeah, definitely. They've done a remix of one of my songs, 'Oh Men', which should be out before Christmas. It's on a twelve-inch called 'The Oh Men Remix Project'. Chris And Cosey are doing one, Stephen and Gillian are doing one, Peaking Lights are doing one. It's going to be a five-track twelve-inch EP or mini-album - whichever you want to call it - On O Genesis. Grumbling Fur did a remix of 'Talking In Tones' and they've also done one for the next single as well, so it's kind of ongoing with them. They also played with us at The Garage and they'll be playing with us at various shows throughout the tour. I just really like being with them with is always a good recipe for making music. I think that's why The Charlatans have stayed together so long. Martin (Blunt) and Mark (Collins) are great people to be around, and Tony (Rogers) too. He's been with us over ten years now.
DiS: Will there be a follow-up to Oh No I Love You?
Tim Burgess: I've got to aim to try and get a few things out. The reaction to Oh No I Love You was pretty positive. I think people just saw it for what it was. Even though me and Kurt (Wagner) had been planning it for years, the collaboration itself didn't take long. He's someone I'd like to work with again. I'd like to go back to Nashville and record with Mark Nevers. Will that be the next one? I don't think it can be. I think I have to do something different. I fancy doing more stuff with Peter Gordon, who I recorded 'Oh Men' with in New York at the moment.
DiS: You commemorated the 15th anniversary of Tellin' Stories by playing the album in full at various shows. Will you be doing something similar for Up To Our Hips, which celebrated its 20th birthday earlier this year?
Tim Burgess: I'm not sure to be honest. It hasn't been mentioned. It's not like any kind of diss towards that record. It just hasn't been talked about. I do like the album and it's certainly a fan favourite.
DiS: Will there be any more Tim Peaks events in the future?
Tim Burgess: Yeah, for sure. This summer we started off at Field Day and then did pretty much every UK festival right up to Festival No. 6 in September. Tim Peaks was everywhere this year. We had Sleaford Mods on our stage at the Isle Of Wight Festival. He was actually on his honeymoon when he played for us as he'd only just got married that weekend! Terry Hall mentioned them from the main stage and we had them playing for us in this little tent, which was pretty great. East India Youth played for us at Festival No. 6, Grumbling Fur too. The Seahawks played for us at Kendal Calling and Tim O'Brien from Jodrell Bank recorded it live with Jim Spencer. Tim made a collection of space sounds which Jim processed and put onto a record which came out in August on O Genesis, and that all came from Tim Peaks this summer.
DiS: Do you envisage things becoming even busier next year?
Tim Burgess: There was one weekend this year where we had it at two places - Kendal Calling and Camp Bestival - so it couldn't really get much busier than this summer to be honest, but yeah, bring it on!
DiS: Do you still have the same enthusiasm now about making and discovering new music as you did twenty-five years ago when The Charlatans were just starting out?
Tim Burgess: Definitely. I've got the label and Tim Peaks stuff keeping me busy now as well as The Charlatans. With O Genesis, we put everything out on MP3 and then we do a limited edition run of vinyls for each release as well. We did 500 copies of the Inspiral Carpets single for Record Store Day and we don't really want to do any more than that. We've just released an EP by this new band from Liverpool called Drohne who we're really excited about. They remind me of Peaking Lights. Then there's another band called Hot Vestry who we're working with as well. They just opened up for The Pop Group on some of their UK dates. I am as enthusiastic about discovering new music without a doubt. The Charlatans album was a big thing to do compared to a lot of the other stuff I'm involved with. Producing bands is a big thing too but if I'm producing an EP by another band it can be finished within two days. Whereas with The Charlatans album I expected it to last three months and it actually took about seven. And that was with me and my girlfriend and my little boy living in the studio the whole time we were making it!
The new single ‘So Oh’ is out on December 1st.
The Charlatans tour the UK in March 2015, calling in at:-
3 Bristol O2 Academy
5 Manchester Albert Hall
6 Manchester Albert Hall
7 Leeds O2 Academy
9 Hull University
10 Glasgow Barrowlands
11 Glasgow Barrowlands
13 Wolverhampton Civic Hall
14 Leicester O2 Academy
16 London Roundhouse
For more information on the band visit their official website.