On Monday, the finest band in Britain release a sixth studio album that's been heralded as a rediscovery of their roots after two records that took them off their beaten track. Radiohead? No, not Radiohead. A six-piece from Nottingham, Tindersticks arrived like moody manna from heaven in the Nineties, with three double albums of sweepingly symphonic, small-hours ruminations on trouble and desire. They were The Bad Seeds, Leonard Cohen and Lee Hazelwood at a permanent lock-in, with Ennio Morricone's orchestra as the bar band, and they sported the scuffed suits to prove it.
Then they took a sharp turn in 1999, with Simple Pleasure. A single album, it pushed their previously faintly mooted Seventies-soul leanings to the fore. The suits went to the cleaners. Casual clobber and smooth grooves were in.
They pulled it off brilliantly, too, though it was a risk, given how fully formed their Tinderschtick had been. Peaking with 1997's Curtains, their first three albums scaled giddy heights of ambition. Live benchmarks were set with orchestral shows and a so-sue-me highbrow residency at London's ICA. They had a near-hit with "Travelling Light", in which the lead singer, the baritone-voiced Stuart Staples, duetted with The Walkabouts' Carla Torgerson to weepingly good effect. Even so, they were, and still are, a definitively "pure" pop band, untainted by any kind of scene, sniffy about commercial aspiration and openly wary of bad or good press. Their fanbase revered them in turn: if you were looking for lush, this lot were tougher than the rest.
But problems were setting in, as Staples readily points out. "With Curtains, we got to a point where we had nowhere else to go," he says jovially, bearing precisely no resemblance to the gloom merchant of common repute. "Everyone had fallen into roles in the band, which no one felt good about. We had to look for something to break that, so we did the opposite of what we had done before, by making a concise record."
As for what their fans made of Simple Pleasure, he wasn't unduly concerned. "It sorted out the wheat from the chaff," he says, rumbling with laughter. "We felt we'd always made records in an adventurous way and that would be enough for people to follow it, do you know what I mean? And that a change would be a good thing."
"I think we were even worrying that people were going to get sick of us," adds the band's violinist, Dickon Hinchcliffe. "We were excited that people would go, 'Yeah, this is great', because it's so different from our last record. Maybe we were naive, but it was kind of a surprise when some people didn't go for it."
There's a slow-burning, tactile tenderness and warmth to the album that makes it a good answer to those who still think the Tindersticks are merely arch-miserabilists. "Well, they obviously haven't heard Simple Pleasure," Staples laughs. "I think light has always been important to our music; it just comes out in different ways."
More changes followed. Dropped by Island records not long after Simple Pleasure, the 'Sticks were swiftly snapped up by the independent label Beggars Banquet. The move proved liberating. "Oh, definitely," says Staples. "It's a different world at Beggars. It's not so much about getting encouragement as taking away the daily fight of working with people who have no idea what you're doing. You're working with people who love music, which makes everything really simple. With our first album, we signed to a small label [This Way Up] at a time when we had people chasing us who we wanted nothing to do with. We didn't want any money; we just wanted to make a record. And major companies don't like that, because they want you to be in debt. Then This Way Up was swallowed by Island, which was fine for a while... but then Island got swallowed by Universal, and we ended up stuck with the people we were running away from."
Since signing to Beggars, they've barely stopped moving. In 2001 alone, they released the impeccable Can Our Love... album (a minimal masterpiece), a soundtrack to the Claire Denis film Trouble Every Day, and a limited-release live album culled from that year's residency at the Botanique club in Brussels. They also undertook a borderline-insane orchestral tour of Europe, ambitiously rehearsing string sections from each city for each show. Then another curve ball struck, which, in typically Tindersticksian, diamonds-from-rubble style, recharged their music.
"Al [Macauley], our drummer, left half-way through the tour," says Staples. "He was confused and exhausted - to play our music, you've got to feel it, and to feel it every night is asking a lot. If you don't, you get nothing back, and if you have a few days like that on tour, you've got nothing to hold on to. We had to decide to carry on, and we had to find something in ourselves about what we were doing and why. Everyone had to push themselves. And everything changed: we found strength together and individually, and when Al came back, he came from a different angle, and the music was different because of it."
Hinchcliffe and Staples give the sense of a band almost reborn on their new album, Waiting for the Moon. They're on their first UK tour since Curtains, which recently saw them break new ground by playing the first rock shows at London's Royal Court theatre - a connection emphasised on the album's "4.48 Psychosis", in which Staples recites lines from the play of that name by Sarah Kane (who was a fan of the band, apparently) over fractious guitars.
They're opening out, too, despite being very much a band who move in their own world. Hinchcliffe recently composed the score for Claire Denis's film Vendredi Soir, strengthening their ties with the director. The new album also features a duet with the Mexican-American singer Lhasa de Sela on "Sometimes It Hurts", a future single that recalls the band's earlier duets with Torgerson, Isabella Rossellini and Bong- water's Ann Magnuson. "I don't know what it is about the duets; they bring out the country in me," Staples laughs, adding shamelessly: "I think it's something to do with 'Islands in the Stream'..."
The album is no backward step, though. The warm soul of Can Our Love... lingers, and for Staples, the similarity to their first album is less in its sound than in a kind of spontaneity. "I think the album's very close to what we are," he says. "It's about having the confidence to turn up in the studio without a plan, without any sense of 'What are we trying to do?' The first record wasn't tainted by an audience or anything; it was so subconscious. I think we tried to find that again in the people we are now.
"I don't think we could have made the new one without the last two," he adds. "We became a band again on them. But this one is about believing in a moment. The songs are all first, second or third takes, and in that situation you don't have any choice but to not think. Be yourself. If you feel something, react to it and believe in it, and whatever happens after that is irrelevant, really. You've got this voice, this sound: let it happen, don't feel the boundaries of it. It's about accepting that between us we've got something special."
'Waiting for the Moon' is released on Monday on Beggars Banquet