When the going gets tough...

The Charlatans have worked through death, illness and embezzlement and yet they still produce great albums. Fiona Sturges asks them how they do it
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"I don't suppose this is where Geri Halliwell gets ready, do you?" asks the singer Tim Burgess, a sneer spreading across his face. It's Thursday evening, and we're at the Riverside Studios in London, the new home of Top of the Pops. The Charlatans are waiting to perform their new single "Love Is the Key" and are eyeing up their dressing-room with a collective look of distaste. There's no mirror, no table, not even a chair to sit on. Just a wobbly clothes rail and a sink clogged with cigarette butts.

The production team are behind schedule as usual, and Burgess, who has been drinking all afternoon, is a little the worse for wear. So far, the highest point of the afternoon has been the diminutive Kylie Minogue scuttling past the doorway in a tidal wave of glitter (it's surely no coincidence that Burgess later takes the stage with a sparkly smudge on each cheek). But under the circumstances, the band are in good spirits; always a surprise given their official status as the unluckiest band in pop.

Anyone who's made even the briefest acquaintance with the Charlatans and their music will know that they've rarely had fortune on their side. There have been minor set-backs, the sort that afflict most bands, such as the sudden departure of their guitarist, John Baker, after the release of their first album in 1990, the chart-topping Some Friendly. But there have also been major catastrophes: the nervous breakdown suffered by the bass player Martin Blunt in 1991, the keyboard player Rob Collins's four-month jail sentence for his involvement in a bungled raid on an off-licence, and the fraud committed by the band's accountant, which left them £300,000 out of pocket.

And there has been tragedy, the magnitude of which might have prompted a lesser band to call it a day. In 1996, Collins, the man whose Hammond organ shaped the Charlatans' sound, was killed in a car crash while driving up to Monmouth, where the band were recording their fifth album, Tellin' Stories.

But the Charlatans are also known as a band who don't give up easily. Just three weeks after Collins's death, the remaining members – Burgess, Blunt, the guitarist Mark Collins and the drummer Jon Brookes – went ahead with their opening slot for Oasis at Knebworth with Primal Scream's Martin Duffy on keyboards. It was a stunning performance, made all the more moving by the legions of weeping fans. It's a tribute to the band's dogged acceptance of all that has befallen them that they've lasted so long and, with one or two exceptions, have produced a series of magnificent albums along the way.

"I suppose it's because we've never been able to assume anything, that we treat each album as if it were our last," reflects Blunt, who has abandoned the dingy dressing-room in favour of the studio terrace overlooking the Thames. "That's an attitude we've taken all along, because you never know what might happen. There's still the passion there. We've tried hard not to become jaded or cynical."

It was after the release of Tellin' Stories that things seemed to look up for the Charlatans. They left the independent Beggar's Banquet for the comparative bright lights of a major label. Their first album with Universal, the stridently titled Us and Us Only, was hailed as a triumph. Since then Burgess has married and moved to Los Angeles and claims to be "happier than I can ever remember". The band now have their own studio, known as The Big Mushroom, in Cheshire, and they've made a new album, Wonderland, a work of rare warmth and energy that looks set to outshine even its predecessor.

Yes, things have been going rather well for them. You might say too well. Given their track record, it doesn't seem surprising that disaster has struck yet again. Three months ago, a matter of hours before a low-key gig in Wrexham, Tony Rogers, the keyboard player drafted in to replace Rob Collins, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was operated on within weeks and has since completed a gruelling course of chemotherapy.

"It's knocked him for six," says Blunt. "Now and again he gets really sleepy. He said last weekend that he didn't know whether to throw up or tear his own head off. But he's in a positive frame of mind and, since he's had the treatment, hopefully that'll be the end of it."

Blunt, who is tall and burly but has a gentle voice, is an avuncular figure. He strikes you as one of the band's more sensible and down-to-earth influences. Burgess says that Blunt is the only person in the world, aside from his wife, whom he'll allow to boss him around.

Burgess himself is a charismatic presence – the trademark shades rarely come off – even when he's half-cut, though from time to time it's difficult to know what he's on about. One minute, we're talking about his new singing style; the next, he's extolling the virtues of US daytime television and Danielle Steel.

When I remark that life seems to agree with him in Los Angeles, he leans forward conspiratorially: "They all thought I'd never come back. When I told Mark that I was moving, he said, 'You can't.' I said, 'You moved away, and you had a bunch of kids. Did I ever tell you what to do? If you say to me I can't, I'll leave you for ever.' "

Thankfully, it didn't come to that, though Burgess now maintains that his relocation has helped to push the band forward.

"I was trying to bring everyone out of their shell, and out of their Manchester cool. Everyone here's stuck in their ways," he says, gesturing to his friends. "I wanted to wake them up. I just wanted them to know how great they were, and how much more they could give. Me moving away made them realise how important the Charlatans were."

Whether that accounts for the band's stylistic leap is debatable, though Blunt admits that there was a need for change.

"The last album had a solemn-ness to it that was really unintentional," he reflects. "None of us minded, but it did come across as quite dour. So we thought with this album, 'Let's put the funk back in.'"

It's true that Wonderland is one of the band's most uplifting and life-affirming records to date, and it's not just because of the funk; since the release of Us and Us Only the Charlatans have evidently developed a liking for soul music.

"We've been listening to a lot of early-Seventies American soul albums, like Curtis Mayfield's Superfly," confirms Martin. "I think most bands have to change and develop if they're going to survive. I think every now and then you've got to throw in a curve ball."

This soul streak is most discernible in Burgess's vocals, which have been transformed into a curiously seductive falsetto.

"I have been in love with a Nashville band called Lambchop," says Burgess, by way of explanation. "I've seen them live and I have all their records. Their singer, Kurt Wagner, through his falsetto, taught me about Curtis Mayfield, and that was it really. We had a song called 'A Man Needs to Be Told' that we never finished for the last album, and I thought to myself, I'm going to do it like Kurt."

Blunt doesn't acknowledge the Nashville band's influence so readily. "Lambchop? No, not for me. I prefer pork chops."

It's with characteristic perversity that when the odds are stacked against the Charlatans, they go and produce their best work. But underneath their easy-going exterior is an ambitious band with an eye on making their fourth No 1 album. Have they ever felt like throwing in the towel?

"Me? Never," states Burgess.

"Sometimes, at about 7 o'clock in the morning when you've been up all night and you think, 'Everything's my fault,' " admits Blunt. "But that's only been on a couple of occasions. I wouldn't be anywhere else, and I certainly don't think of us as the unluckiest band. If the people around you still believe in you, and when you put on a gig and it's sold out, you certainly don't feel like the unluckiest band in the world."


'Love Is the Key' is out now. The album 'Wonderland' (Universal) is out on Monday