"We are all of us in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars," is the Oscar Wilde quote rock musicians keep coming back to. Chrissie Hynde used it to great effect on The Pretenders' 1981 hit "Message Of Love" and it has also inspired the title of the Cosmic Rough Riders' new album, The Stars Look Different From Down Here. "The title came fairly early, from Oscar Wilde, obviously, but the song came last. I didn't finish the lyric until the very last hour of recording but it turned out well," says Stephen Fleming, the Cosmics' singer and guitarist, about the closing track. "Some gutters are deeper than others, though; much filthier," quips bassist James Clifford.
It's Sunday evening and we're eating a Chinese takeaway above the studios of Clyde 1, where the Cosmics are taking a break from doing a live session on Billy Sloan's radio show. Fleming, Clifford, the drummer Mark Brown and second guitarist Paul Docherty play two short sets, and even put up with Sloan's joshing about how glum they look on the album cover. "Fair cop, guv. We don't look very happy. We're not very photogenic," admits Fleming, who is pencil-thin and has a look of John Lennon about him. "The picture was taken at the Val D'Oro, Glasgow's oldest chip shop. It's a great place with all the original fixtures and fittings from the Fifties. It looks amazing, like a little time warp."
Formed in Castlemilk, a "pretty poor" area of Glasgow, in 1998, the Cosmics have been compared to fellow Scots Teenage Fan Club and Travis, and used to wear their Sixties influences - the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds - on their sleeves.
"We started off as an acoustic band and went through a few dreadful names," recalls Fleming. "We saw a poster of a girl wearing Lee Rough Rider jeans and a poster for the Cosmic Wheels Club, and the two just came together. The name seemed to sum up the sort of music we were playing at the time: psychedelic, acoustic Americana. But we've sort of moved on somewhat," stresses the frontman.
"If you listen to all our albums, you can see the trajectory of a band going from acoustic roots to something that's much more rock'n'roll. We made a Sixties album, then a Seventies album and an Eighties record or something. We're nigh close on the present but we've still got our feet firmly in the past," expands Fleming, who took over singing duties when Daniel Wylie left in 2002, following the group's breakthrough album Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine, and the Top 40 singles "Revolution (In The Summertime)" and "The Pain Inside".
"He's off doing his own thing and we're doing our own thing. We weren't worried it wouldn't work," says Fleming, who wrote the bulk of Too Close To See Far, the 2003 follow-up, but now shares songwriting with Clifford and Brown. "We all throw ideas into the mix and they're only the seed for what will become a song. The three of us have been playing together since 1994. When you find that chemistry between people, you stick with it. We play together because we enjoy it. We certainly don't do it to be cool or to sell loads of albums."
Still, the word-of-mouth success and 70,000-plus sales of Enjoy The Melodic Sunshine meant the Cosmics were the second biggest act after the Hives on Poptones - Alan McGee's post-Creation imprint - though they opted to release Too Close To See Far, on Measured Records, their manager's label. The Cosmics are now signed to Korova, the Warner Music subsidiary with the illustrious past (Echo and The Bunnymen). "We recorded the album before we knew what record company it was going to be on," Fleming explains. "We could have put it out ourselves but we like the people at Korova. Nick Stewart, who heads the label, has quite a track record. He signed U2 to Island."
Coincidentally, the Cosmics supported U2 on a couple of dates and have beefed up their sound, adding a Who-like climax to "Because You" in their live set and sounding like The Beatles circa Revolver on the opener "It Is I". "The changes did happen organically. We've always been heavier live than in the studio so, when we got to Spain, we decided to let ourselves go and cut down on the harmonies," reflects Fleming. He stresses how important co-producer Paco Loco, who has made albums with Golden Smog, Steve Wynn, the Jayhawks and Josh Rouse at his Puerto Santa Maria studio, was to the project.
"It's a performance album. Paco is just nuts. He comes from left field, constantly. He will pick up your guitar, your amp, and throw them across the room and record that. He did that in the middle of 'Love Won't Free Me' and that was the take. Gary Louris of the Jayhawks was around and ended up playing on 'Fight'. We recorded that on Christmas Day.
"It's interesting, when we were recording in Glasgow, the songs were summery, sunshiny. We went to Spain, worked in a really creative environment, five minutes' walk away from the beach, and this album became quite dark lyrically," muses the frontman. "It's pretty much about the ups and downs of being in a relationship. As you grow older, as you hit 30, you certainly have a different view on life. A long-term relationship can be completely dysfunctional. That's what 'When You Come Around' is about. You can't leave but you also can't stay. She left me," sighs Fleming who is now in a new relationship.
"A lot of our songs have fairly dark lyrics but tend to still be optimistic, like a hand on the shoulder to say: 'You know, everything's going to be all right.' You make music to connect with people but, for me, it's a very selfish thing as well. It's a therapeutic thing, it exorcises demons. I wrote 'Don't Get Me Down' around the old Glasgow saying: we're here for a good time, not for a long time. Have as much fun as you possibly can. While it lasts."
'The Stars Look Different From Down Here' is out now on Korova Records