Teenage daydream

They've been dubbed 'the band that invented Travis'. But, as Teenage Fanclub's new album makes all too clear, their music is in a different class. And they're funnier. Steve Jelbert shares a joke with them
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"It was years ago when Alan McGee was still into drinking and we all got steaming," recalls Norman Blake, Teenage Fanclub's effective leader. "Alan said, 'All back to my flat', and we looked at his records and someone said, 'Alan, you've got some total mince here', all of which he'd got for nothing. So it was like, 'Let's chuck 'em all out of the window'. We threw hundreds of albums out. He lived by the Thames. You looked out the next day and the river was covered with vinyl. It was brilliant. It really was."

"It was years ago when Alan McGee was still into drinking and we all got steaming," recalls Norman Blake, Teenage Fanclub's effective leader. "Alan said, 'All back to my flat', and we looked at his records and someone said, 'Alan, you've got some total mince here', all of which he'd got for nothing. So it was like, 'Let's chuck 'em all out of the window'. We threw hundreds of albums out. He lived by the Thames. You looked out the next day and the river was covered with vinyl. It was brilliant. It really was."

The nicest men in pop involved in a yobbish display? All the more strange when you consider that when McGee, the former boss of Creation, heard of the arrest for vandalism on a cross-Channel ferry of his then new charges Oasis, he allegedly said, "I've been trying to get Teenage Fanclub to do that for years". But the Fannies dismiss the belief that band membership gives licence to behave appallingly.

"There's nothing more pathetic than somebody in a band trying to behave like somebody in a band," says Raymond McGinley, the guitarist, a man who once wrote a song called "Verisimilitude" ("rebellion is a platitude") which neatly dissected the entire concept of rock'n'roll authenticity. "I think I was feeling a bit self-conscious about feeling self- conscious," he now admits when asked about the lyric.

The Fanclub's sixth (or seventh - there's an ongoing debate about an early contractual requirement) album, Howdy!, is released on Monday week. It's a brilliant record of course, an exemplary lesson to anyone on how to stay relevant without jumping on whatever bandwagon is deemed fashionable. "Dumb Dumb Dumb" is a gorgeous minimalist ballad which drifts into your head like you've dreamt it, while the honesty of McGinley's "My Uptight Life" ("all my life I've been so uptight, now it's all alright") is striking. As he says, "If you can't display some vulnerability, or something about yourself, there's no point doing it".

It's still gently suggestive, melodic guitar pop of course, the sort of stuff that critics adore and the general public ignore. Or they used to, but fellow-Glaswegians Travis made Britain's bestselling album of last year, and they're not a million miles from the Fanclub in style.

"There's a quote in the NME calling us 'the band that invented Travis'," says Blake, "but we can't really see that they sound like us. I guess the similarity is that they're a guitar band from Glasgow."

They don't have your harmonies, though.

"We could get rid of the harmonies," offers the band's quiet bassist, Gerry Love. McGinley takes it further. "We could find out the public's true feelings on harmonies. Perhaps they don't like them."

"The Flying Pickets spoiled it for harmonies," Love ripostes. McGinley agrees. "They actually damaged the harmony industry." Blake is more phlegmatic. "It'd be nice to sell more than we do. There's not much we can do about it really."

Hardly bitter men then, more old friends who are still surprised to be getting away with it after so long. They've toured with just about every band on earth it seems, and offhandedly mention just how much fun Radiohead are, or how they played with the long defunct, perpetually influential Pixies. Blake, in fact, has spent much of the year filling in on guitar with Welsh wizards (literally - they've even posed in the robes) Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, another relationship started on the road. Highlights included a slot at Belgium's tellingly named Dour festival.

"We had to spend all day there as the tour manager wanted to see Motörhead. There were these bizarre Belgian rap groups, all with American accents but still talking to each other in their native tongue. They must have to live it," says a bemused Blake.

Such an eye for absurdity must have kept them going. Unaccountably, the Fanclub are big enough in Norway to tour there for a couple of weeks, though the list of towns on their itinerary seems to dry up after "Stavanger, Tromso, er..."

"It's our 'prime territory' actually, per capita. Have you noticed that in Scandinavia generally, people just barge into you at the bar?" Blake asks.

"Chewing tobacco is coming back in Norway because you can't smoke anywhere," adds McGinley, apropos of nothing. Then they're off again, explaining how Wilco's Jeff Tweedy is an inveterate tobacco-chewer and spitter, and how Norwegians eat brown cheese ("which we thought was fudge") on their waffles.

Did they ever think there was a point when they were going to crack it big time?

Love speaks up. "The only time we thought that might happen was around Bandwagonesque. Spin magazine said it was the best record made by white people in 10 years. Of course, the journalist was from Glasgow and used to play in Orange Juice." More laughter all round, though their relationship with Geffen records in the States, then riding high with Nirvana, was fractious, to say the least.

"We knew that their success had nothing to do with the record company. They pressed 20,000 copies of Nevermind because they thought that that was how many they were going to sell," says McGinley, "You can't get too involved thinking about that stuff." He shrugs.

"A record is a year's work, then you go along and make the video in one day, and it's no big deal. Eventually you realise that those things do have some relevance," says McGinley. "There was one video with a scene in a record shop where records were thrown around, and someone at Geffen apparently saw it and said 'those records aren't cool enough'. They reshot it making sure they had Never Mind The Bollocks in there."

He pauses. "Like you're going to redeem a video with a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks."

They're serious about their work, though. As Blake explains: "Of course we'd like to be successful. It's insulting to say we wouldn't."

They are a bit bloody-minded though. Grand Prix, of 1995, not a few peoples pick as the best British album of the Nineties, generally eschews memorable titles, preferring such chaotic, work-in-progress efforts as "Neil Jung", "Discolite" and "Sparky's Dream". What was all that about?

"I think we just titled the whole piece: the music and the words equals 'this'," says Love, in an impressively feeble piece of self-justification.

"I got that Sparky's Magic Piano LP," explains Blake. "I got it for my daughter."

"Your daughter wasn't even a twinkle in your eye," points out Love, accurately.

"I think I bought the record in anticipation of having children then," Blake replies, defending himself to more laughter.

They just aren't like other bands. Their estimable manager, Chas, is confined to a wheelchair; their guitar roadie offers tea and cakes rather than E and coke at unexpected moments ("It's much better than having rock'n'roll conversations"); their celebrity fans apparently include Coen Brothers regular Peter Stormare and, yes, Phil Collins. Blake even enthuses about how he played George Harrison's ukelele - "It's a proper George Formby, it really sounds nice."

Now if they could only get back on the radio... "Radio 1 won't play us, but Radio 2 think we're a bit..." Blake pauses. "Dangerous!"

Great songs, great band, great comic timing...

'Howdy' is out on Columbia on 23 October; the single, 'I Need Direction', is out on Monday

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