The Coral: Dreaming of this

The Coral tell Steve Jelbert why the 'past-it' likes of The Charlatans and Primal Scream had better get out of their way

Young bands aren't what they used to be. For a start, they're not really young any more. Once, a year of an art foundation course was quite enough college time, thank you very much, but the likes of Radiohead and Coldplay (and Suede, back in the day, but more of them later) have set a bad example in finishing their degree courses before hitting the rock highway.

And they certainly aren't expected to know more about music than the hacks sent to gather their every word. One French interrogator was so offended on receiving the answer: "Because I'm magic," from The Coral's singer and leader, James Skelly, when he asked how they knew so much history, that he stormed off, spluttering: "You 20-year-old fool!" But even two albums into their career, the most recent a British chart-topper, most of The Coral still seem to live at home with their families. How else can their fascination with the curious teen soap Hollyoaks, set in a Chester largely inhabited by cockneys, be explained?

"It's on at the time we get our tea when we're at home - half past six," explains the wonderkid lead guitarist, Bill Ryder-Jones, just 20 and the youngest member of the band (although the token old fella James is only three years his senior). "It's like looking at a car crash. They pull it off, though, even if the acting is shit."

Conversation with The Coral effortlessly slips from discussion of sounds as disparate as Captain Beefheart and Outkast to reminiscences of children's television. Why, the guitarist Lee Southall still has tapes of old episodes of Crackerjack. "We still watch them," says the bassist, Paul Duffy. "You watch them years later and you see them for what they are. I was stoned and watching CD:UK, and the lads from S Club 7 were on, and you could tell they'd just had a spliff."

"If you want to make a successful young pop group split up, just give them a spliff," advises the drummer, Ian Skelly, James's brother. "The realisation of what they are will make the walls come down on 'em."

"They'll get into 'serious' music. Like Sting," adds the recently acquired seventh member, the percussionist and former factotum John Duffy, another brother.

The Coral aren't rock snobs in any way, mind, ("Boybands or whatever all have their place"), although they're undeniably opinionated at times, but they certainly do like a smoke. Not for them the jittery highs and grubby comedowns of powder. They prefer it natural, the green green grass of home. James loves Watership Down so much, he envies the rabbit lifestyle. "I wish I could live like that, kipping in the grass. I'd rather go there than the Co-op, but sometimes you just have to go to the Co-op," he says, to general assent from his bandmates.

From the Wirral to the world, the group have already seen a lot more than they could have ever suspected when they formed while growing up in Hoylake, a town known for a championship golf course and a preponderance of old people's homes. They've had their football stolen by a family of Texan hillbillies, seen a man who was standing beside them man stabbed in Amsterdam ("Just in case the super skunk isn't sending you paranoid enough"), and been confronted by scary Japanese fans snapping them with their watch-cameras. All in all, they're not all that keen on travel.

"I like visiting America because it's off its head, but you can eat the food. Japan's just off its head," says James.

"We had beans sent over when we were there," confesses Bill. "That's a big problem with us, eating abroad. I reckon Coldplay must have a team of catering researchers when they go anywhere."

"I reckon they're more cultured than us and they eat that food," offers James.

"We need someone to tell them out there: 'These lads are from a small town near Liverpool, there isn't much culture, so make sure there's a load of bland gear, and plenty of vinegar if they want it spiced up,'" suggests Bill. "Irish bars saved us in France," admits Lee.

For all the small-town, youthful talk, don't make the mistake of thinking that the Coral are unsophisticates. Their second album, Magic and Medicine, outdid the success of their Mercury-nominated, self-titled 2002 debut, and their brilliant evocation of all the pop music you've ever heard, from Sixties garage rock to beautiful, faintly countrified laments like "Don't Think You're the First" and the Top Five hit "Pass It On" are anything but crude, sounding timeless rather than retro and attracting buyers who wouldn't normally touch anything tainted with a hint of "indie". When describing the album's creation they even allude to the famously tortured sessions which produced Trout Mask Replica by the band favourite Captain Beefheart, supposedly created by literally locking his musicians away on a limited vegetarian diet until they were ready to play it.

"It was our two-week, pussy Trout Mask, only we had Heinz beans not soya beans," says James. "It was 'Tip Irn-Bru on his foot and give him a sticky foot', rather than trying to kill each other on acid."

"We'd like to get our own studio in the future, but no one's behind the idea. It'd be so good," moans Lee, presumably desperate for a real clubhouse.

"Everyone knows they'd never see us again if they did. We're actually not allowed because some good art might be made which might challenge somebody," laughs James. "Our manager and record company'd like to keep us in society."

They certainly work fast. The New Year promises another new record, a 30-minute mini-album - another fortnight's work - provisionally titled Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker. The tracks I've heard vaguely evoke The Fall, Sonic Youth and Eminem's "Stan", yet still sound like The Coral. They are nothing if not eclectic, and of course, hard-working. "It's about the time you're given," muses Ian.

At times it's easy to forget that The Coral are a big draw. How many nationally successful acts are quite so amusingly scathing about their chart peers?

"When I hear Travis or Coldplay they're like a toaster or a kettle - commodities for your kitchen. Dido's for housewives and David Gray's for taxi drivers. I hated him until I heard a cabbie singing along and I thought 'fair enough,'" says Ian. "If he's gonna get you there quicker 'cause David Gray's on, leave him be," reasons John.

"Primal Scream have got walking sticks and crutches. Forty-year-olds like that and the Foo Fighters take up the space for young bands like us," adds Paul.

As for The Charlatans and Suede, James really hates them. "I'd love to annihilate those bands. Instead of playing us, Top of the Pops played Suede and they looked about 88. They're old and they're clogging up the charts. The worst thing is ... the singer's going to start a solo career." Some veterans escape his opprobrium, Blur for one: "They keep doing good stuff." But the American singer-songwriter Ryan Adams gets the hardest time of all. "He said: 'This is my druggy suicide record.' [of his recent Love is Hell album] How mad is that? No one wants to make a druggy suicide record. If it happens, it happens. He's a queg."

Let's not forget Bruce Springsteen fans. "The kind of people whose neighbour has built a fence three centimetres into their land and it's killing them." He's a bit more forgiving of the man himself. "He's great for Chrimbo presents, isn't he, old Bruce?"

Even The Coral come in for some stick from James. "I wish we didn't have to tour Magic and Medicine really. If I'm honest it's not that enjoyable to play live. I saw us on Jools Holland, and if it wasn't us I'd have fallen asleep." He's overstating his dissatisfaction here, as they sounded terrific later that night to a sold-out and rowdy Glasgow crowd, who cheered loudly and threw their pints appreciatively.

Old farts in the charts aren't the only things on this young man's mind. "Our last few videos have been boss, but MTV don't want ravens in graveyards and a fella with no head," he says. The band disown their earlier clips, such as The Wicker Man tribute which accompanied the hit "Goodbye". ("The girl dying in the wicker man was supposed to be a wild forest-witch bitch," says keyboardist Nick Powers, "but we just got a stupid cockney lapdancing wannabe model.")

James's take on fame culture is rather original too. "[Entertainment today's] just about ambition. Be ambitious about making a great album or being a footballer instead. Don't just be ambitious about being famous. There's a fat lad in every disco like Robbie Williams wobbling his fat arse and miming to The Rolling Stones, and the girls are having it!" he complains. "Same with Ross from Friends - now there's geeks, twat hats, everywhere. With tasty birds!"

This is fine, often linguistically inventive stuff of course. Young bands should be like this, sometimes blustering, sometimes insecure, always contradictory, always a gang. As Ian points out: "All my favourite bands, the best bands, were really young - Love, The Beatles, the Bunnymen. We always knew what we were going to be. There's a lot of better stuff out there, but people like the things which go with bands. When members leave it just becomes a business, like REM or the Manics.We had a gang thing and we might still have it."

They respect music's history. Although the "Cosmic Scouse" label often applied to the endless supply of stoned Merseysiders annoys them ("Now that's insulting even with inverted commas. Get it out!" protests Nick), they're aware of local traditions.

"Liverpool needs the myth," says Nick. "It's a melody thing, while Manchester has an attitude that runs through all the bands."

"Liverpool bands have always tended to be more reclusive, which is why it's got this cosmic mystical thing," concedes Ian.

"It's more romantic. There are pure metaphors in the lyrics, lots of starry skies," adds Nick. Noel Gallagher once claimed Oasis intended to finish off the job Lee Mavers' ill-starred The Las had started, presumably with the power of "attitude", but it seems that it's The Coral who've succeeded, almost by accident. But what else could they do? "The reason we're in a band is because there's fuck all to do there, but when we go home there's still fuck all to do there," says Bill, "But you can't form another band, can you?" He's got a point.

'Magic and Medicine' is on Deltasonic; The Coral play Brixton Academy, London SW9 (08700 600 100) tonight and tour to 20 December

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