Teenage Fanclub: Tunes help you sing more easily

Teenage Fanclub, the melodious Scottish band, have teamed up with Jad Fair, the cult US musician and artist. James McNair hears how an unlikely collaboration became a triumph
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The Independent Culture

In the art deco surrounds of Glasgow's Café Gandolfi, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub has ordered the first of three cappuccinos. When he smiles in greeting, I notice that he has very good teeth for a Scotsman. This probably has something to do with his Canadian wife, Krista, who works at a local dental practice.

Part of the songwriting trio responsible for the Fanclub's esteemed, Byrdsian jangle, Blake proves to be an attentive interviewee. But while we're chatting about how he named his daughter, Rowan, after a girl who went missing in the cult horror film The Wicker Man, something distracts him. I turn to see a child's pushchair wobbling fit to topple. Norman leaps up to alert the owners, then shares a joke with them when it transpires that the pram is empty. This is exactly the kind of behaviour one would expect from Blake: if Travis have a reputation for being nice, Teenage Fanclub's is near-saintly.

The Fannies – as the more ribald like to call them – will fulfil contractual obligations to Sony Music with a vocal-harmony-doused "best of" later this year. Today, though, we're here to talk about Words of Wisdom and Hope, their album-length collaboration with the cult US artist and musician Jad Fair.

Surprisingly, neither Blake nor his fellow Fannies Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love sing on the collaboration. Instead, they provide vibrant Hammond organ, piano, guitar and mandola, while Fair takes the microphone. The spartan backing vocals on the record are done by Katrina Mitchell, the drummer with their fellow Glaswegians the Pastels.

"For me," says Blake when quizzed about his involvement, "not singing was part of the album's appeal. That difficulty with listening to your own voice never leaves you, and we've always preferred listening to other people's records. This is almost someone else's record.

"One of the great things about working with Jad", he continues, "is that he's not judgemental, close-minded or cynical about anything. For someone of his age, I think that's pretty rare. Most musicians become more inhibited in the studio, but he'll just perform – make noises, sing about Superman in a high voice, or whatever – without worrying what people think."

Born 47 years ago in Coldwater, Michigan, Fair has recorded more than 50 albums with Half Japanese, a left-field guitar outfit he formed with his brother, David, in the mid-Seventies. Until marrying recently and settling in Texas, Jad had all his worldly possessions stashed in a storage locker, and spent much of his time travelling around the world in search of inspiration. In his art, his influences include David Hockney and, as is evident from his paper cuts, Henri Matisse. His favourite musicians include Bob Dylan, the Stooges and, not so evident, Louis Armstrong.

Fans of Half Japanese albums such as 1989's The Band That Would Be King have included Blur's Graham Coxon, REM and the late Kurt Cobain. Just before his death, Cobain even went so far as to say, "If people could hear [Half Japanese's] music right now, they'd melt." Not everyone has been so smitten, and Fair's belief that tuning guitars is antithetical to the spirit of rock'n'roll may go some way toward explaining why Half Japanese have remained a cult act.

On Words of Wisdom..., the guitars are reassuringly harmonious, and Blake's contention that Fair has made the album his own rings true. Fair's performance is refreshingly full-on, his joyous, free-flow lyrics and odd, Lou Reed-meets-Emo Philips vocals have prompted reviews that have been either ecstatic or scathing, but not indifferent. "Even when people don't like me, I think they enjoy not liking me," Fair maintains when I talk to him. He's anything but garrulous, and comes across as shy but friendly. I wonder if exhibiting his paper cuts, paintings and photos, coupled with the recording of five or six albums a year, has left him with little extra to express.

Fair, Teenage Fanclub and the Pastels go back. One of Fair's paper cuts featured on the cover of the Fannies' 1991 single "Everything Flows", and shortly after that came the self-explanatory album Jad Fair and the Pastels. It was while Fair was staying with the Blakes in Glasgow a year or so ago that he and Norman began to discuss the current album. "We were playing Scrabble," says Blake, "and because Jad's really competitive and he knows Scrabble dictionary words like 'qat', he was winning. We just decided to record some songs for the fun of it. At that stage we didn't know if we'd put anything out."

Fair was in town to exhibit at the aforementioned dental practice (which doubles as an art gallery), and when Norman got up each morning he would find Jad working on a paper cut or maybe scribbling in one of his lyric books. "The funny thing is that, after you've spent a bit of time with Jad, you notice the things you've done together cropping up in his lyrics. One morning we were watching the Disney version of Robin Hood with Rowan. There's a reference to that somewhere on the album – But I forget where."

Lyrics are undoubtedly Jad Fair's forte. At times, you can almost hear him follow his stream of consciousness, and his love of horror movies often results in Dracula and the like cropping up in the most unlikely settings. On current single, "Near To You", for example, he works himself into a hugely entertaining lather, maintaining "I'd let Dracula drink my blood/ I'd let a zombie eat my arm/ If I just could just be near to you!"

"Going into the recording sessions", Fair tells me, "I knew I wanted to do all love songs. My own favourites are "Love Will Conquer" and "Power Of Your Tenderness". The message, he says, is that "Love has the power to defeat the monster. It's stronger than Dracula."

Fair's lovey-dovey lyrics and bespectacled appearance might have led some to cast him as something of a wimp, but if Stephen Pastel is to be believed, he's actually rather handy with his fists. When I ask Fair about him supposedly dispatching an aggressive heckler with "expert Karate moves", he gives little away, however. "I'm not one to back down to heckling if it does happen," he says. "My time on stage is exactly that. It's my time and no one is going to take it from me."

Back at Café Gandolfi, Norman Blake is being summoned by his mobile. Our respective caffeine buzzes now have us talking across each other, so it's probably a good thing. The news, it seems, is that a London Teenage Fanclub and Jad Fair gig has been confirmed for 22 April as part of The Barbican's Only Connect festival. Heckle at your peril.

'Words of Wisdom and Hope' is out on Geographic records on 18 March

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