The last gang in town ...

The Tindersticks considered splitting for a while. But after much band-analysis, the six decided that sticking together made perfect sense. Nick Hasted asked lead singer Stuart Staples to explain
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The Tindersticks' first, self-titled album showed the direction the band were heading. Steeped in the squalor and dislocation of a Nottingham group's first months in London, a Derek Raymond novel confined to the bedroom and bar, it had a sweep of styles so giddy its lyrics were almost irrelevant, a collage of Lee Hazlewood and Spanish strings, Nick Cave and Sixties pop, a 77-minute statement of intent from a band who didn't expect it to be bought, who knew they could be gone tomorrow. Their second album, self-titled again, added orchestral depth to more varied songs, none more adventurous than "My Sister", an eight-minute biography of a cursed, crippled woman, bursting, like the album, in a dozen directions at once, to show still more furiously what the Tindersticks could do.

In the two years since, the band have released a soundtrack album, Nenette et Boni, almost broken up and played every song they've ever recorded in a week at the ICA. And they've made a third album, Curtains. It no longer shakes with ambition. It's no longer filled to the seams. It's a record that drags you in, that can't quite be pinned down. It's as if the Tindersticks now know who they are. "It feels like the end of what was in our head when we started making records," Stuart Staples, singer and main lyricist, says simply.

Sitting in a London coffee bar, Staples is friendly and convivial, if a little nervous, not at all like the bedsit miserablist of music press myth. It's Curtains, it seems, that has brought his happy face to the surface. "It's the first record that I've been comfortable talking about in a confident way," he admits. "I don't think anyone in the band thinks that they're very good. We all believe in what we're capable of as the six of us. But individually, I don't think anyone's got any confidence in what they're doing."

It's the Tindersticks as a band that fills Staples' conversation, a six- headed creature that in his head seems less a band than a mystery, a musical essence that, if he ever gets to the bottom of it, would dissolve on the spot. It's this essence that he thinks is at their new record's heart; this essence that he's eager to explore in the fourth album. Listen to Staples and the Tindersticks are less sensitive grumps, more the last gang in town. "There's something indefinable that comes about when six people come together. I'm glad we toured with a string orchestra for a while, but having 35 people on stage takes away from the chemistry between us. I'm more interested in becoming ourselves in the next record. It's going to be stripped down more, to six parts that fit together, or don't. We're always one step ahead of ourselves, what we're trying to do is one step beyond what we're capable of. If we relied on things we could do, it would be too easy."

Curtains' lyrics are certainly a step beyond anything Staples has attempted before. On songs like "Buried Bones" and "Bearsuit", there are hints, from a man noted for songs of squalid sexual obsession, of the sort of long relationship he's actually in (he's been married with children for years). Staples denies he's ready to write about the pleasures of a quiet night in. "I think those everyday moments run through everything. But the only way you get near something is to go around it. I've never been attracted to prosaic words. It's only recently that I've even realised that I write about extremes. Even when extremes are dark, they make you know you're alive."

The nearest Staples will probably ever get to the mundane realities of his life is Curtains' "Ballad of Tindersticks", a seven-and-a-half-minute journey into the numb heart of the band on tour. By turns exhausted and exasperated, funny and scary, it shows a band comforted and cosseted till their brains could hardly breathe. "Everyone knows what goes on in the music business," says Staples, "it's no big thing. The song for me is about us being sucked into it and starting to believe it. You go away on tour and you're in a really false environment. You hang out at the most expensive restaurants, and in the end all you want is a bag of chips. I could slip into playing myself, or playing other people's idea of me. It's easy. It's not unpleasant at the time. The song's to do with the six of us losing something for a while. Being something we're not."

That tour was a symptom of wider problems, tensions that the band refused to face. Last November, as they struggled to complete Curtains, they almost shivered apart. Staples, at least, considered calling it a day, until they talked their problems through. Could he really have given it all up? "We wouldn't fight to hold it together if we weren't excited about what we are capable of doing. Having come so close to actually walking away from it, I had to find out what I wanted to do, and why. It made me think of people I've known who've been bricklayers and they've wanted to stop, but they end up going back to it because it's what they do. That's not what I want to do with my life."

It's hard to imagine Staples not fighting to keep the Tindersticks together, to keep their unique, shifting art in motion. Near the interview's close, he's talking about the place of music in his life. "There's just something so open to music that I don't get from movies and literature, and that becomes harder to find. I have problems at the moment trying to listen to music. It's like Pulp Fiction: you don't walk away with anything, it's a distraction, and that's supposed to be enough. I find myself putting Al Green on again because I believe in it, it lets me think what I want to think, it lets me feel a certain way." He could be talking about the Tindersticks, and the essence of their music he must hope they'll never reach.

The Tindersticks play the London Palladium on Sunday. `Curtains' is out on This Way Up/ Island