The Charlatans: Present imperfect

The Charlatans' Tim Burgess and Mark Collins tell Gulliver Cragg how getting it wrong is a tribute to Dylan
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The Independent Culture

"The Charlatans have not split up," Tim Burgess announced on stage at the Islington Academy, London, last week. You'd have thought it would be unnecessary - the band's name was on the tickets, after all. Yet, once again, rumours of a rupture have been rife.

"The Charlatans have not split up," Tim Burgess announced on stage at the Islington Academy, London, last week. You'd have thought it would be unnecessary - the band's name was on the tickets, after all. Yet, once again, rumours of a rupture have been rife.

For some reason, every album The Charlatans have released has been greeted as an unexpected return. Even their second, Between 10th and 11th, had the feel of something that almost didn't happen. The keyboard player, Rob Collins, was facing a prison sentence; the band themselves were disappointed with the record, and critics panned it. Burgess laughs at the idea of a re-release: "What, with a load of different songs on it?"

Yet this subtle, understated album saw The Charlatans bridge the gap between the Madchester and shoe-gazing scenes, incorporating the indie-dance and baggy clothing of the former, and the latter's celebration of apathy. And so things continued. On 1994's Up to our Hips, they sounded like an old-fashioned indie band about to be washed away by Britpop, but the following year's The Charlatans took its cue from Oasis. ("When Definitely Maybe came out, I thought, 'This is what we all need,'" recalls the guitarist Mark Collins - no relation to Rob.) It was powered by pounding, riff-driven rock, which Rob Collins's Hammond organ singlehandedly rendered more interesting than anything the Gallaghers could muster.

But then Rob Collins died in a car crash, and it looked as though The Charlatans were finished once again. The group's reaction to his death, however, is now the stuff of legend. Refusing to cancel a single concert (they were booked to play Knebworth three weeks after the accident), they issued a statement that read more like defiance than grief: "There will be no change. We are fucking rock."

"You take the punches and you lay down the hits," is how Burgess sums it up. "It's a strength." That's why we find him and Mark Collins sitting contentedly at the Islington Hilton, 15 years and almost as many setbacks later, talking up their eighth album, Up at the Lake.

They don't look like the fringe-tastic pretty boys of indie any more. Actually, Burgess looks rather odd. Podgy of face and with badly dyed, smoothed-down hair, he could be working in a fairground. Collins, meanwhile, looks every bit the journeyman rocker, prompting me to ask whether The Charlatans plan to carry on until they're as old as The Rolling Stones. Burgess's response is intriguing. "One of the reasons the Stones can carry on is because they're an incredible success, and with success comes comfort," he says. Comfort seems an odd choice of word, but it reveals The Charlatans' unusually high level of self-conscious insecurity. Perhaps this stems from their early days in Madchester, where, as Burgess puts it, "we felt like latecomers to the party."

What he and Collins are most proud of right now is having played the new album live in its entirety. "I feel very confident about it," says Burgess, "and I don't always feel 100 per cent confident. But that all of the band feel comfortable enough to play the whole thing live: it's like - this is our statement, this is the work that we've done for this record, and there it all is, and, er, hopefully they'll like it. It will be regrettable if they don't, but whatever - we rock!" The attempt to sound cocksure at the end of this somewhat apologetic ramble is peculiar, and Burgess giggles in acknowledgement.

Yet Up at the Lake is nothing if not a confident-sounding record. Returning to a sturdy pop-rock sound after the soul inflections of 2001's Wonderland, it's a straight-down-the-line collection of catchy songs, and exudes a determination to entertain. Arriving less than nine months after Burgess's solo LP, to Collins's avowed surprise ("I knew we were going to make another Charlatans record, but I didn't know when"), it feels like it was created in a sudden rush of enthusiasm. Indeed, Collins and Burgess wrote most of it in a 10-day stint on Bodmin Moor.

One of the album's highlights, however, is a darker moment: "Blue for You" is The Charlatans' first recorded tribute to Rob Collins, as Burgess immediately acknowledges. "The whole song is about him. I mean, it's very simply about him: there wasn't anything that's gonna affect or embellish his character. We just miss him, and I thought it was about time we faced up to it."

Burgess claims to have "got more and more into" his lyric-writing as time has gone by. "At first, I just wanted the words to fit in with the groove, but then I started writing about specific things. Though I've also been quite critical of it." Whatever he says, some of his most effective lyrics were in the band's first hit, "The Only One I Know". "That was about me, walking up and down the stairs, and thinking that I'd come to take myself away from the life that I was living, which was mundane and humdrum, into something more like you see on the TV."

It's not hard to imagine the young Burgess wanting to emulate people he saw on TV. One often gets the impression that The Charlatans are fans first, musicians second. The pair talk about their trip to Bodmin Moor in terms of the records they took along. The Charlatans don't just wear their influences on their sleeves - the music they admire inhabits their every recording, lyric and perhaps even conversation. They make a positive virtue out of nicking from other people.

"You get stuff out of books, you get stuff off records, and now and again you actually think of something original," Burgess jokes. "But I don't think there's anything on there that's stealing, I think it's passed on. If you took the same chords and wrote the same lines, that would be cheating. But you can bring in elements of all the things that keep your life interesting." Melodies from The Stones, Wings and Carly Simon can be discerned even on first listen to Up at the Lake. Yet The Charlatans have made eight strikingly diverse albums, all of which have a sound that is distinctly their own. The key is probably in the mixture. Burgess cites Curtis Mayfield, New Order, David Lynch and Bob Dylan as influences on Up at the Lake - quite a variety.

References to His Bobness are now a constant with The Charlatans. The guitarist has got the bug, too, emulating the live version of "Isis" from Biograph in his intro to "Blue for You". I wonder how many points I get for spotting that. "I don't know whether it's a game," says Burgess, "but it's definitely something I hope people will notice. It's just there to give people pleasure, and twitch their brains a little bit... To see if I get caught... I don't think Bob would ever do anything about it, though; he got a lot of his early stuff from Woody Guthrie." "He's openly paid homage to a lot of people," agrees Collins. Both of them should know - they're studious Dylanologists.

Talk of The Charlatans' Dylan obsession has lately taken on a special significance. For there is one date on their forthcoming British tour that might have been "fixed" for them by Sir Jimmy Savile: they're supporting Bob at the Finsbury Park Fleadh on 20 June. Like true fans, they find the prospect of meeting their hero at once exciting and nerve-racking. "I don't know whether I'll attempt to approach him," says Burgess. "I'm not counting on it." "Just rugby tackle him from behind," jokes Collins.

Burgess talks with genuine enthusiasm about Dylan's recent live form. "He's adapted every song in his back catalogue into sounding like the rest of the stuff that he's doing today. It all sounds like it's off Love and Theft." The Charlatans hope to do something similar on this tour. Burgess sang "A Man Needs to be Told" in a full voice (rather than falsetto) at the Academy. Collins informs him he "thought it sounded quite good".

"Sometimes we've tried doing old songs, and we sound like a covers group," Collins continues. "But if you let the differences shine through, then it becomes unique again." Burgess remembers that "back in the day, people who were recording me used to complain that I could never sing the same thing twice. But I read somewhere that Dylan was like that, and I found that quite inspiring."

Dylanesque imperfection has been a keynote of The Charlatans' career. Every album, including Up at the Lake, contains some mistakes. Yet they also contain some of the finest moments British rock has produced in the past two decades. One reason for this is that - unlike most so-called indie bands - The Charlatans are, as Collins puts it, "just not miserable bastards". They never forget that rock'n'roll is supposed to be fun. "I couldn't be happier, to be honest with you," says Burgess, as he often does in interviews. "Got my lady upstairs, band are good, playing with Dylan, moving hotels..."

If they wanted to sound like Starsailor, with whom Collins has played, and who are perfect within a limited range, they probably could. But every Charlatans record audibly yearns to achieve something greater. "I look up to Dylan so much that I could never see myself being as good as that," Burgess admits. "But you have to aspire."

'Up at the Lake' is out on Monday on Island. The Charlatans' UK tour starts at Keele University on 22 May