The Bluetones don't belong, and they don't care, they tell Nick Hasted
When The Bluetones marched into Mexico, they thought of many things. They thought of the Westerns they watched as they made their second record, trying to set its mood, of the cavalry skirmish in Major Dundee, the murderous slaughter at The Wild Bunch's close. They thought of the Mexico they'd imagined on tequila benders across London. They thought of the real Mexico as it revealed itself around them, from the sprawling poverty of Mexico City to the sleaziness of Acapulco, and the bandit police riding the highways in between, as they tried to shoot a pop video. And they thought of themselves. The Westerns wouldn't stop unreeling in their brain. They would call the new album Return to the Last Chance Saloon. It was who they thought they were now. Loners, riding into town.

It's not hard to see why the image would appeal. Since they appeared with their first single "Return to Splendour" in 1994, since their first album went to Number One, The Bluetones have never quite belonged. The album they've come back with is gracefully melodic, uplifting. Maybe that's why few critics have taken it seriously. As Britpop's new guard start to age, The Bluetones are back with the movement's old challenge. Why can't we be happy? Why can't we be pop?

Guitarist Adam Devlin agrees the band are outsiders. "It's because we've always been reluctant to follow the path," he considers, over the blast of Bluetones rehearsing a room away. "We're not celebrity people. We don't do the things other pop stars do. We get a bit of a hard time for it, too, we'd get ridiculed as awkward and dull. We can live with that. It's just that we don't hang around with Christ Evans, we don't put our songs on commercials, we don't go on compilation albums. It's a cut- off point we've got. We're not willing to whore ourselves. It comes with a bit of a price."

The Bluetones are outsiders without mystique. The lyrics on Last Chance Saloon point to others breaking down, wanting to change the world. The band play on regardless. "Some artists do want to change the world, and are actually stupid enough to think they can," Devlin marvels. "We're not an apathetic band. But we don't get angered about the things that we're supposed to, as serious young men. We get angry when The Simpsons is cancelled because somebody's died. So maybe our agenda's a little bit different."

It's the perspective of people who know they're comfortable, and want to stay that way. When The Bluetones' music consumes them, they stop. "I look at Robbie Williams on TV sometimes, or all the time now, because he seems to be on every day," Devlin muses, "and I wonder. I just wonder what happened to him, and his friends. He's got a desire to fulfil everybody's agenda, to please everybody, to be everywhere at the same time. Every now and again, we step back and say `No, I want to do nothing. I want to stare at the TV blankly. I want to see my mum."

The rivals who've grown up in their absence don't seem to have mums. In Last Chance Saloon, The Bluetones are faced with Spiritualized, Radiohead and the Verve, bands who won't crack a smile as they draw their latest masterpiece. Typically, The Bluetones can't be bothered to fight. "It got a little bit claustrophobic last year, didn't it?," is all Devlin will say. "The seriousness was suffocating. I quite like some of those records - I love the Spiritualized record. But we're not that uptight. What we do is very simple. We make pop music"

It seems to be assumed now that every album has to be traumatic, and every interview has to catalogue it. Devlin doesn't see the point. "I guess you can look into somebody's eyes, and tell if they're really in pain," he says coolly. "Even when people are, you get a bit tired of hearing it, after a while."

Does he think there's a dignity to keeping things inside? "Perhaps. It's definitely something Mark [Morriss, The Bluetones' singer] became aware of. He's wary of wearing his heart on his sleeve so much now."

Last Chance Saloon's best song, "If ..." (the next single) ends with a mighty "nah-nah!", then heads into the saloon itself. "A smoke, a drink and a ponder, can work wonders," Mark Morriss sings dreamily. Does Devlin think that might be the simplest solution to the problems of his tortured contemporaries ? "It's not a bad solution, is it ?" he says happily. "Yeah. Why not?"

`Return to the Last Chance Saloon' (Superior Quality) is out this week. `If...' is out on 20 April. The Bluetones' tour begins on 15 March at Norwich University of East Anglia.