Tim Burgess: The lonely one I know

The Charlatans have released a dark, introspective ninth album. Their singer, Tim Burgess, tells Nick Hasted the new mood is down to his solitary, anxious, alienated lifestyle in Los Angeles
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Tim Burgess is sitting nervously as the rain spits down through the grey, Berlin morning outside. He is considering things that are worse than death: his hatred of humanity, the fragile future of his band, The Charlatans, and the desperate loneliness that inspired their latest album.

This would be a surprise, unless you've heard the album, Simpatico, which draws on dub reggae and New York machine-funk to create a brooding mood akin to The Specials' "Ghost Town", splicing the pure dread of the London bombings and Iraq with an equally intense personal fear. "The record's really genuine. More than you can imagine, really," Burgess hints. At a point when he has already confessed so much, you wonder what he's holding back.

From a distance, he has always seemed the most optimistic of souls, a wide-eyed dreamer, impossible to bring down, while The Charlatans were in many ways the most loved Britpop band. In part this was because even a catalogue of disasters, including the temporary depressive breakdown of the bassist Martin Blunt; the imprisonment as an accessory to robbery, then the death in 1996 in a car crash, of Rob Collins, the organist central to their sound; and the theft of £250,000 by their accountant, seemed only to strengthen them. Collins's death inspired their finest hour, Tellin' Stories (1997), and its attendant singles, "One to Another" and "North Country Boy".

Seeing them surge through such songs live at the time was one of the most thrilling communal rushes in pop. They had already survived the "Madchester" scene of 1990, after all, where their first Top 10 hit "The Only One I Know" had made them its number three band, after The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. They have outlasted those two. This is partly because of a talent for reinvention, proven on Wonderland (2001), on which Burgess essayed an unexpected Curtis Mayfield falsetto, and now on Simpatico, which is as good as anything they've done and one of the better ninth albums in anyone's career.

Burgess is wearing a long, grey overcoat and staring out at the rain when I arrive at his record company's German office. He is newly arrived from his adopted LA home. "I was really trying to look like David Bowie this morning," he smiles, "in his Berlin period. I thought I'd dress up for you." He's intensely likeable and wants to be liked, nervously taking his shades on and off, then leaving then on as things get personal.

"Doom and dread, yeah," are his first words on his new record. "I did think about the video for "Ghost Town". And the dread in it came from genuine fear - about life, and the band, and everything. I don't feel that everything always works out great. "When the Lights Go Out in London" was written about 20 minutes after we found out all our friends were all alright, in London, after the bombing. I was in Palm Springs, with Mark [Collins, The Charlatans' guitarist]. We had no specifics of time; we were eight hours away. Same with 9/11. I woke up at four o'clock LA time, turned the TV on, and there was an image of the Pentagon. The Charlatans were supposed to be in New York. It's a miracle that we weren't, actually. I'm not really genuinely savvy with politics, so it would be dangerous for me to pretend to be. It's just dark times, isn't it? You don't have to be a politician to say how you feel."

The record's making contributed to its mood. "It's like Wonderland, but with rain," Burgess considers. "Wonderland smells of the darkness, to me. I know it sounds really trippy. But it was made on Wonderland Avenue in LA, which is quite dark anyway, historically. A lot of songs on Simpatico were recorded in Reading, where it rained a lot. I used to really like walking out in it, every day, staunchly, into the woods, to get drenched."

"When the Lights Go Out in London" and "Architect", Simpatico's finest songs, suggest fears far greater than a little English damp. Both see Burgess contemplate dying in the night, clinging to his loved one and promising they'll stay alive, a mixture of deeply moving defiance and sweaty panic attack. "I was feeling death was following me quite a lot," he admits. "And I did feel quite scared by it. A really close friend of mine, who when I first met my girl in LA was the only person who thought it was a great thing, died while we were making this record. So did the bass player in a really great punk band I loved called The Leonards, Tom Paine. And he was only a year older than me. So I felt that death was quite close around me. It started getting on top of me, really. I think... it's good, death," he says unexpectedly. "Death is not the worst thing that can happen."

"I don't really have panic attacks," he continues. "But I do lie awake at night. I do have the fear, and I do have the dread. And normally at night, I think about the craziest stuff. The thing about dying in bed came about because I kept thinking I would turn over and see Jim Morrison. I thought, 'That's pretty weird...'"

A moment later, Burgess chooses to reveal that the defiance of fate that makes "Architect" one of The Charlatans' most movingly bittersweet moments has another, equally startling layer. "I'm wondering whether to admit," he hesitates, "whether it's about defiance over the death of a friend, or the death of the band. People can see it like that. I ensured that if we didn't write this record, it could've been the death. The last record [2004's under-performing Up At the Lake], a lot of people didn't like and didn't think we cared enough.

"It's kind of weird," he says, arriving at the point. "Everything seems to come on top of me, in a lot of ways. I was thrown off to a lake somewhere, and had to write a song, inspired by Friday the 13th, or whatever. I just felt in a really difficult place." Did he feel forced to write that record, I hazard? "I'm going to regret this, but yeah." Who by? He withdraws his voice as far as possible from the tape, and murmurs: "The rest of the band."

There's a sense of disgust on the new album, on songs such as "For Your Entertainment", depicting Burgess as a marionette dragged up to perform by "parasites", which suggests he was hardly happy in his work this time, either. "'Parasites' isn't usually in my vocabulary," he agrees. "But it's better to have hate in lyrics than keep it on your mind. That's about a friend that's worked with the band ever since we started, and I feel he's totally done me down. But fortunately he's leaving. So he must have got the hint. I was genuinely disgusted by a lot of stuff. I feel I've not been represented as well as I could have been. What do you expect me to do, for your entertainment? Do you want me to slit my wrists? And I think there's a line saying, 'try not to die' - for art, and for popularity, and for love."

Burgess, it transpires, spent much of Simpatico's gestation isolated, day after day - alongside his LA girl, presumably, although she barely seems present as he thinks back to lonely times. "For a lot of it, I was just left on my own," he says. "Solitude can sometimes be the happiest place in the world. But on this occasion it was quite desperate. I was out in LA without anyone to bounce it off. But when I found someone to bounce it off, everyone thought I should just leave it the way it is. Because it was so desperate. Mark Collins, my writing partner, when he visited me, proudly left things the way they were. He's coming over to Berlin tonight, actually. I really miss him."

Burgess's favourite film, Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in America, a 1920s gangster's four-hour opium death dream, played through Burgess's head as he stewed in LA, as did Donnie Darko, another film about fearful, time-warped extinction. Mostly, though, he relied on more familiar friends. "I was in my room, a small room with loads of records," he recalls, "the greatest records that you can imagine, with an acoustic guitar. I'd got a huge picture of Joe Strummer and myself, both doing the thumbs up. I thought, okay, that's pretty inspirational. I got a load of Gram Parsons records, The Damned, Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, LCD Soundsystem, The Clash's "White Man in Hammersmith Palais", Bob Marley's "Crazy Baldheads". And Sandinista. That's my favourite Clash record. I was listening to it, because I couldn't sleep, last night.

"I think I bring a lot of my isolation on myself," he considers. "I don't really go out in the day. I stay at home and look through e-mails, touch the world through the web, and write songs. It's not loneliness, but separation. And concentration. You know in those really bad films, when you see a person surrounded by books or science? Well I'm surrounded by records, and I have time to dwell on them. That's not a bad thing, really. For making records. For personality it might not be the greatest. Apart from my girl, who's helped me through everything, I didn't really feel like I needed to talk to anybody. I was going out at night, but that's normally bullshit. I just talk stupid and raise hell. I normally play stuff when I get in, about 4 o'clock in the morning. I dance with my dog, a Yorkshire terrier, and I'm sure he gets really upset. But in the daytime, I found solace in Sandinista. And it's a really political, dark record. And that is where I'm at."

It's an angrier, more awkward, but also more artistically obsessed man than the flaky image Burgess has projected through the years. Was the sunny optimism that always used to beam off him just a front, then? Or have the regular body-blows to him and his band finally floored him? Has life not proved to be quite as sweet as he thought?

"Oh, no! I hate everyone!" he excitedly blurts. "People really piss me off more than ever." Simpatico's "City of the Dead", which I'd assumed was about Baghdad, or London after the bombs, is actually, it transpires, about Burgess's adopted home, LA, the place he went to find paradise. "It's about the Capitol Records building!" he explains. "The city of the dead made so much sense when I looked at it. When I go up to the top of the hill where I'm very lucky to live and I look out on LA, it's the most beautiful thing in the world. But when you move into it, it's full of jerks. I guess I'm just getting older. I can't help it. But there is optimism in the record. Mostly in the instrumentals..." For all the alienation that Burgess feels (he dates his "mean period" back only five years, before which he says his public lust for life was real), his reward is in the grooves of Simpatico, another brave new step by a band which otherwise would have died. How would he feel if things hadn't worked out? If they'd settled for just "another Charlatans record"?

"It would break my heart," he says, firmly. "And everyone knows I can be a little... easily breakable now and again. But with Simpactico, I put absolutely 100 per cent into it. Every single song, I just knew they were going to affect someone's feelings. I had quite a nice little smirk on my face when we finished it, actually." As he does now, sitting across from me. Is that pride? "'Fuck you' pride, actually." He seems to have earned it.

'Simpatico' is out on 17 April on Sanctuary; The Charlatans' single 'Blackened Blue Eyes' is out now