Like any fan of Portishead, Tool or Dr. Dre will tell you, all good things are worth waiting for. That well-worn saying proves vehemently true with Tellison, who seem to be developing a pattern, keeping us waiting four years between each successive record.
Thankfully, Hope Fading Nightly is not just a ‘good thing’ but a truly great album, one that given the passage of time is surely destined to become a classic for those who like intelligent indie-pop underdog anthems.
In an exclusive for The Independent, Lead Vocalist and Rhythm Guitarist Stephen Davidson gave us an exclusive track by track rundown of the new album.
"01 Letter to the Team (after another imperfect season)
In many respects, I'm the manager of Tellison. I answer the e-mails, I send the invoices, I book the tours. Managers ought to be culpable. If things go wrong or fail over and over again managers are the people to point the finger of blame at. If Tellison were some other business I'd have been fired a long time ago. It isn’t and I haven’t though. But I do feel pangs of guilt that are pretty strong from time to time. I somehow force these three poor men to drag themselves all over the country with me and play songs in small, dark, sticky rooms to very few people. Their wives and girlfriends miss them terribly. They all get in trouble with their bosses for skipping out on work. Yet I keep asking this of them and I probably will keep doing so. Until one of us dies or someone wrestles control of this thing away from me. In the meantime, in this song, I thought I'd fess up and resign. Both as a form of catharsis for the terrible, crippling guilt I feel some nights when the wind is right and I can’t sleep. Try to do the honourable thing in defeat at least. For your notes: an imperfect season is a season in which a team loses all of its games. A kind of achievement of failure to achieve. We wanted this song to start the album because sometimes it can be great when a record starts not with a roar but with a hush, a far-off something whispering to the listener that something intimate and special is about to happen.
02 Helix & Ferman
Named from Nabakov's 'Despair', I wrote this song just after I was kind of forced to move to London. I had no job and spent my time going to other people's house parties and mostly having a terrible time. We played a few shows, including one in Southampton at the storied Joiners. Afterwards we drove home and I sat in the back of the van panicking that I had no prospects or plans and couldn’t help but place a huge amount of pressure on myself to somehow amount to something. In what I now see as a misguided attempt to cheer myself up I decided to read everything Hemingway ever wrote. It didn’t cheer me up. At all. It was a bad idea. This song for some reason feels to me like a sequel to The Wages of Fear opener Get On. It links up with Letter to the Team... too in the obsession with failure stakes. After writing a whole bunch of mid-tempo, mid-twenties, chugging rock songs I was desperately trying to write something faster, to blow the cobwebs away, like The Weakerthans seemed to be able to do with very little effort. I was drinking red wine because I thought it was healthier than drinking beer. Also, oddly, for some reason the bridge lyric reminds me of Dory from 'Finding Nemo' saying 'Just keep swimming'. I find that line just terribly, throat-tighteningly sad.
Boy is one of Pete’s. Pete is the other singer in the band. He’s terribly good. When I heard the opening riff for this song I knew we had to turn it into a Tellison song. It’s just barely not a Hold Steady riff and it’s wildly satisfying to play. Pete seemed very reluctant when we first started working on this song. To the point that I’m pretty sure we demoed it in his absence with me just singing nonsense over the top as we worked out the parts. This is the road we went down, with some small success, with the song Gallery from our first album, Contact! Contact!. Sometimes Pete doesn’t appear to realise when he’s written something great. Although I’m really a fan of everything he writes. Usually we all gang up on him and force him into agreeing to let us use some excellent thing he’s written and he stubbornly concedes when he can see we won’t leave him alone until it’s done. He likes a quiet life. Lyrically this song reminds me of Help! by The Beatles. Go Pete!
I wrote this in the small town of Gullane on the East Coast of Scotland. It was, I think, the first song written for the album. The London Olympics were going on and, once again, I had no job and decided to spend a month on my own in a creaky old house by the sea. The plan was to work on songs, maybe go jogging in the mornings and emerge after four weeks with a new lease of life and a whole new album ready to record. Instead I wrote one song, went for one run, cooked a frankly decadent amount of macaroni and cheese and spent every night terrified that this ghost my big sister claimed to have once seen there was about to jump out and murder me. I kept a badminton racquet next to the bed. This song is a simple confession and I guess an implicit apology. I’m a wrecker, I wreck things. It’s a bad thing to be and I regret being it.
05 Rookie of the Year
Perhaps my favourite genre of film is motivational sports drama. Here’s how they go: a rag team of unlikely misfits gang together and, against all the odds, win! Or: a misunderstood also-ran somehow proves all his critics wrong and, against all the odds, wins! Or loses but somehow wins a deeper moral, spiritual, personal (etc.) victory. Those films are moreish. Real life isn’t like those films so much. Maybe Yeovil Town’s 2012-13 promotion run to the Championship. But that’s quite the exception and it didn’t work out so well in the long run. Anyhow. I was watching a lot of Friday Night Lights (the TV show - though I’ll happily discuss the movie’s merits too) and thinking about the tragedy of excelling early and then never excelling in the same way. The spotlight of glory moves on so quickly, in so many walks of life, and leaves all these people quietly, resolutely getting on with things. Just keeping swimming. The final lines are about that intangible something beyond units of measurement, the romance and beauty and inexpressible magic that goes on when someone does something well.
Henry was out of town and I was house-sitting for him, guarding the paintings, lighting fires and eating a lot of takeaway. I'm a big fan of detective genre fiction. I'd just finished reading all the Sherlock Holmes stories and went on a kind of genre binge through Chandler to Auster and Warren Ellis' Gunmachine and somewhere along the way came up with a few lines that eventually grew into this song. Detective fiction seems essentially melancholy. I love the idea of being so consumed by your work that you abandon all interest in or need for a personal life. The cliché of a detective with an empty apartment and an ex-wife holds great comfort for me somehow. If only I could be that person, care about nothing at all except the work, the chase, be on the trail of the thing that might fix everything. I wrote the second verse walking up and down Columbia Road in London one January evening. I knew I had to write it - we were about to record the vocals - and I’d read that Scott Hutchison (of Frightened Rabbit) writes lyrics whilst walking around rural Scotland so I thought, on my way home from work, I’d give it a shot. It took forever, it was raining. But we got there in the end via some clumsy referencing and a stolen John K. Samson lyric.
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07 Tact is Dead
Like a sucker I actually believed the people who told me I’d be ok if I was polite and good and worked hard. It didn’t occur to me that this was probably nonsense until embarrassingly late on in life. Working enough poorly paid, demeaning jobs with no prospects or the respect of those above me finally drove home what a fool I’d been. I was so cross and sad and embarrassed...it hurt and it still hurts really. It’s easy and seductive to feel like that and sometimes, usually trapped somewhere underground like a rat, I think of the line, 'A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure', and I want to die or cause someone somewhere some terrible pain for letting all this happen. One day I got home from some dreadful tube journey and this song just appeared whole. Lyrically there are nods to Woody Allen, Fitzgerald, Conrad, Melville and a few others in there. A bunch of (mostly dead) old white guys. Really it might as well just be a sign saying 'Go and read ‘Bartleby, the scrivener’'. But it’s a relief to play live and sing those words and some people seem to feel the same. I’m angry and sad and I don’t know how I’ll ever afford a house and I bet Hidem Brook is doing just great. I hate that guy.
I know nothing about the stars really. Orion is the only constellation I could point to and know what it is. When they're out I look up and there it is, familiar and reassuring. I used to walk to and from work in Cambridge looking up at Orion but I’d never looked into where the name came from. Then, when I moved to London, I went for a checkup and the nurse had a hard time finding a vein to draw blood. Afterwards I sat, with an aching arm, in an almost empty bar in Paddington basin and wrote the words to this song in fragments and finished it off when I got home. I ripped the chorus out of one song idea and the bridge out of an old demo from around the time we were writing The Wages of Fear and there it was. Musically on this song, we spent ages trying to be Frightened Rabbit and then all of a sudden everything sounds bizarrely huge and almost heavy. The joys of drop D. Andy Jenkin (who produced the album) and I would listen to the choruses in this song, with the vocals off, in the tiny studio where we made the album and think to ourselves that we might just manage to make a record after all. And we did.
Translating roughly as 'troublesome' in Japanese. This song is another Frankenstein's monster. I'm a huge fan of the band Land of Talk from Canada. They released an EP and two albums and then basically disappeared after the singer got throat nodules. Which is a terrible shame. I kept trying to write a song like Some Are Lakes from their similarly-titled first album and then realising I'd just re-written their song over and over. To the point where we started recording a song called Owl Creek Bridge during the Wages of Fear sessions and eventually abandoned it because, guess what, it was that Land of Talk song again. Then one day, out of nowhere, the rhythm guitar part just appeared whilst I was playing guitar in the spare room of my sister's flat in West London. We bolted on the old chorus and bridge from Owl Creek Bridge and suddenly the song worked and, perhaps more importantly, was no longer a straight Land of Talk rip-off. Lyrically this song comes back to ideas of failure although they're framed here as partly inevitable. Drawing on the works of Theodore Dreiser, Ambrose Bierce and personal experience, the theme is then teased out past the American literature angle to discuss that American idea of the pursuit of happiness. I always thought that by making happiness such an explicit goal you're more likely to recognise, and be brought low by, the failure to achieve it - chasing happiness invariably makes you sad. Bierce's short story executes that bittersweet sucker-punch excellently, what better way to honour him.
Another of Pete's. Another where I heard the demo and knew we had to record the song. It's a privilege and delight to be in a band with a songwriter you think is great. Imagine getting to go on stage with a band you really like. That's how it is for me and Pete's songs. I have no idea what this one is about. Lyrically it seems to discuss the redemptive quality of love, specifically how another person's love for you can save you from that all-too-familiar knowledge of yourself. But I have no idea really. We don’t tend to discuss this stuff in the van. Musically we were going for the layering up of different tones to create waves of texture that smash into the listener, a little like that first Arcade Fire record. Then Richard Snapes, who was playing third guitar for us when we recorded Hope Fading Nightly, came up with this great droning lead part over the chorus. Often this is the way we end up writing a Tellison song. We'll have a simple rough song idea and start off processing it as though it were a song by another band and then, through our flawed attempts to rip off someone else, we end up with something which sounds like Tellison. It's a kind of creeping-up-on-ourselves style of songwriting.
11 My Marengo
By this point it’s all feeling pretty hopeless right? Ten songs and counting about failure and being sad and blue. Named for Napoleon's horse this song is, oddly, a relatively positive one about dealing with suicide. Super cheery. I guess this album veers between ideas around just giving up and ideas of resisting, keeping on swimming. Lyrically this song presents both viewpoints side by side. On the one hand you could give up, on the other you could strive (valiantly) despite the seemingly overwhelming reasons not to. Napoleon named his horse Marengo, after the battle of the same name, to remind him that, though things might seem totally futile, there's no such thing as a lost cause. Over the years as a band we've cultivated a kind of humorously bleak outlook. We joke about and think of ourselves as also-rans, as a band that had, and failed to capitalise upon, a brief and tiny chance of relative success. Yet we're still going. We write songs and meet up and play music together. We still try. So in a way this song is that stubborn refusal to give up. If all you can do is be defiant then at least be defiant.
I feel a lot of pressure to end a record well. It's the last thing someone hears and you want it to resonate and hopefully mean something. Our last two albums have ended with sad, Pedro The Lion-style songs. On this one we didn't want to pull the same trick. I love the last two Hop Along records dearly. I'm in awe of that band, those performances, that songwriting. Tsundoku started out, almost as a formal exercise, as an attempt to write a song in that Hop Along headspace. To try to deliver something at first seemingly jagged to the point of being almost uncomfortable that eventually reveals more and more of itself and rewards repeated listens whilst trying to channel a livewire emotional rawness and (again hopefully) be satisfying and impactful. Clearly I'm not Frances Quinlan and we aren't Hop Along. But here's what comes out when I set off with a hastily copied version of what their songwriting map might look like. Lyrically the song is about unhappiness, feelings of futility and anger and disappointment, much like Tact is Dead, just channeled in a different, less defiant direction. Writing lyrics is a cathartic process for me. Putting negative thoughts and anxieties together into a formalised structure somehow helps me, to an extent, rid myself of them. The opening and closing lines of this one refer to the idea that there's peace in accomplishing small tasks. The title is another Japanese word, 'the act of often buying books but never reading them, letting them pile up instead'. All those overlooked possibilities, all those unfulfilled potentials."
Tellison kick off a 10-date UK tour at St Pancras Old Church, London on 18th September. Hope Fading Nightly is released through Alcopop! Records on 18th September.
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