Stereophonics: Adventures in stereo

Stereophonics sell millions, even though critics pan their derivative style. Clare Dwyer Hogg meets the pride of Wales
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The Independent Culture

Two figures are enveloped in the large white sofas of a London hotel lobby on a Saturday afternoon. They are two thirds of the Stereophonics: the singer, Kelly Jones, and the new drummer, Javier Weyler. The bassist, Richard Jones, recently a father, is attending to a "family crisis".

Two figures are enveloped in the large white sofas of a London hotel lobby on a Saturday afternoon. They are two thirds of the Stereophonics: the singer, Kelly Jones, and the new drummer, Javier Weyler. The bassist, Richard Jones, recently a father, is attending to a "family crisis".

"Not a serious one," says Jones, who, at 30, is looking altogether neat and tidy, with his short hair waxed into place and not a trace of anything as dissolute as a hangover. "There was something he couldn't get out of and he only knew this morning." Jones is used to the interview circuit. He's been dealing with questions since 1997, when the Stereophonics first album Word Gets Around came out.

Weyler, his Argentine companion, is less up with the scene. Up until July last year, he was the assistant engineer at a recording studio in Fulham where, two years ago, he'd worked on the Stereophonics' last album, You Gotta Go There To Come Back. Little did he know that when the original drummer, Stuart Cable, left, he'd step into his shoes. "He was making us tea and drumming at the same time," supplies Jones. They both laugh, but Cable's departure wasn't quite such a relaxed affair.

Jones is polite about the circumstances in which Cable left. Official statements cited his dwindling commitment to the band he helped found: there were rumours of tension within the group, and he eventually left a month after the domestic release of their last album. "It's relationships, you know," Jones says. "In any relationship you always get a weird period for a while - it's just the way it is." He shrugs.

Jones is closing the door on that avenue of conversation, but it's like pretending not to see the elephant standing in the middle of the room. Jones hasn't seen or spoken to his old friend since he left. For a band that grew up in the same small town in Wales, had a covers band in their teens, were one of the first signed to Richard Branson's V2 label in 1996, and made four albums together, two years without any contact is a big deal. "The Stuart thing was nearly two years ago, " Jones says casually. "We kind of left that where it was and just tried to think about the future rather than the past." It's the nice way of saying "no comment".

Thinking of the future meant using Steve Gorman, the former drummer of the Black Crowes, on tour, and then inviting Weyler to join the band on a permanent basis. Weyler speaks passionately about the band, explaining that his involvement was happy coincidence, but a natural progression in what he'd been doing anyway. He is no Pop Idol wannabe. "It is weird, but it feels right so I don't question it too much," he says. He wasn't altogether prepared for the media circus surrounding a successful band, however. "If you're thinking about that at the beginning then you're in it for the wrong reasons," he says."

Jones encourages this view. "Great press is always as dangerous as bad press, because you start believing it," he says. "And if you're getting slagged all the time, it keeps you hungry, keeps you wanting to fight for something." And the Stereophonics have certainly had enough to keep them hungry: British music critics have given them a hard time almost from the word go.

They were Best Newcomers at the Brits after their second album and hailed as the next big thing but - as is its wont - the NME jumped off the bandwagon almost immediately, slating them for being too much like The Faces, and the backlash began.

The slight Jones, sitting placidly in the white denim jacket he bought in Japan, is apparently impervious to negativity. "I've been reviewed by a British journalist for a gig in New York that I haven't even played," he says. "So I won't take anything that seriously." The pain must also be somewhat eased by album sales. Their last three albums have reached number one, and they have sold more than seven million records. "I just do the songs, do the gigs, and have a great time. I judge things literally from what I see in front of me," Jones says.

He especially likes playing for an audience who don't know the band, as he did for five weeks last year when the Stereophonics supported David Bowie on his American tour. "We wanted to do it because we have played major US cities, but we hadn't toured middle America before," Jones explains. "You'd walk on stage and no-one would give a toss, but at the end of the set there'd be a standing ovation. You can actually feel that you're winning people. I started to get a buzz out of that," he grins.

They have high praise for Bowie. "I don't know what he's been like in the past but to us he was amazing," Jones says. "He watched our soundchecks and dedicated 'Life on Mars' to us one night. He was top. And we played a five-a-side football match with him. He presented the trophy."

Their glee at this story is palpable. "We lost," Jones says. "Well, it was a 'you need to lose kind of thing,'" Weyler laughs. "We beat U2 though," Jones reminds him.

Playing footie with David Bowie and U2 is a far cry from his roots in Cwmaman, South Wales, but Jones maintains that he doesn't feel that he's a long way from who he was. "Wales is where I was born and that's who I am and where I got my morals. But I live in London because that allows me to do this kind of job and be creative. And it's close to the airport."

He feels no inclination to say where he stands on Welsh devolution, or on politics generally. "We do care about things but we don't take a particular action," says Weyler, stepping in quickly to generalise the conversation. This level of diplomacy is maybe part of the reason they haven't endeared themselves to the critics: the line between public and private is firmly drawn.

"You don't have to show everything you do to everybody," pipes up Jones in defence of his band, who, unlike their Britpop rough contemporaries have never courted the media much. "Being slated or praised for your music is one thing, but being slated or praised for being you when they don't really know who you are is a different issue."

"I mean," he continues, "you come out of a club and your girlfriend's 50 yards in front of you, so obviously you've broken up. She could be going to get the car!" He shakes his head. He did split up with his girlfriend of 12 years around the time that he was writing You Gotta Go There To Come Back, but aside from the obvious emotion in the album, that was done very much in private, too. He's adamant that it's the best way. "Some people go out on the town if they've a record coming out, and have a lot of pictures taken," he says. "We've never really sold records that way."

But he has much to say about the forthcoming album, Language. Sex. Violence. Other? The first single, "Dakota", has been getting a lot of radio-play, and the general consensus is that it doesn't sound like the Stereophonics, which is why many people seem to like it.

"I think it's cool that people say that," says Jones. "I've had the best reaction for a long time: I quite like the uncomfortableness of it. I played it to friends who didn't know what on Earth it was, and even I didn't know if I liked it." He stops. "In the past I always tried to make records to please my older mates and then I realised I never did that in the first place, so why should I do it now?" There wasn't, he says, a plan to do something "different" with this one - it just happened. "It was a very natural process," Jones says. He co-produced the album with Jim Lowe, and wrote all the songs. "While I'm on tour I record songs on a Dictaphone whenever they come. I didn't realise that I had so many until I listened to them one day." They finished touring on 8 July and by 23 July were in the studio - with Weyler on drums - whittling down the 18 potential songs to the 10 that are on the album.

Language. Sex. Violence. Other? eschews the blues and soul influences of the last album, veering instead into rock'n'roll with electronic beats. The band say they wanted it to be more upbeat, which it generally is, although the snaking thread of cynicism throughout doesn't fit easily with the reality of these two unimposing band members.

The rather unwieldy title comes from Jones's fascination with classification. "Every movie in every language covering every subject is broken down into those three categories," he says. " It offers a question mark. Is that all we're interested in, or is there something else, you know?" He stops to think, then reels off a list: "Body language, foreign language, bad language. And sex could mean gender or just sex. I love having a title where you can interpret it and make up what you want."

The ownership of language is something the band have struggled with before - they wanted to call Just Enough Education to Perform by its acronym JEEP, but they were foiled by Daimler-Chrysler, who claimed the word as their intellectual property. There's a defiance in this new collection of songs which ties in with this: something about a reclaiming of ownership and direction. Critics can criticise, but fans are still following them around and buying their records. And for this band, that seems to be enough.

'Language. Sex. Violence. Other?' is released on 14 March on V2

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