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Interview: Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub)

25 September 2023

Photo by Donald Milne

Delving into the enigmatic title of Teenage Fanclub’s eleventh full-length album, Nothing Lasts Forever, co-vocalist and guitarist Norman Blake assures me that contrary to its foreboding name, this release has no ties to the conclusion of the band that he formed with Raymond McGinley and former member Gerry Love in 1989. Fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief as Blake discusses the evolution of the band’s sound and the positive perspective that fuels their latest work.

With their previous album, Endless Arcade (2021), penned and recorded amidst Blake’s personal life challenges, this new offering reflects a brighter outlook, born from his resilience in the face of adversity. Teenage Fanclub’s signature folk-rock sound, drawing inspiration from the ’60s Laurel Canyon music scene, continues to radiate warmth and solace. Blake and McGinley’s harmonies, supported by longtime members Dave McGowen on bass and Francis McDonald on drums, along with relative newcomer Euros Childs on keyboards, who joined the band in 2019, form the heart of this enduring Glasgow musical institution.

I became aware of Teenage Fanclub after Spin Magazine bestowed the album of the year honor in 1991 to Bandwagonesque over Nirvana’s revolutionary Nevermind. I remember thinking, “Who is this Teenage Fanclub band and how can they possibly have put out a better album than Nevermind?” I quickly discovered the answer and Bandwagonesque became an integral part of the soundtrack to my college years.

NORMAN: There’s an interesting thing. I always see people talking about the Spin piece saying, “You’re giving Bandwagonesque the album of the year?” I always like to point out to people that I think the album reviews editor at Spin at the time was a guy called Steven Daly, who was the drummer in Orange Juice, a very famous Glasgow band. So, I don’t know if Steven had some influence, I’ve asked him and he said he didn’t but who knows?

I bought Thirteen (1993) and Grand Prix (1995) as well when they came out. I’ll admit that I don’t think I was mature enough of a listener at the time to understand Songs from Northern Britain (1997). It was not like the things I was listening to at the time. But, it’s since become one of my favorite records you’ve done.

NORMAN: I think you’re being very generous there because I think that there are many people who are not keen on that record and many others that we’ve made. And that’s always fine because you can’t expect everyone to like what you do or for it to resonate with them.

We’ve never been too worried about that and we’re never going to chastise anyone if they say that they’re not keen on the band. That’s absolutely fine because it’s just the way things are. I don’t like everything I hear and I can’t expect everyone that hears our music to like it.

Do you feel like that album was the one that got you settled into the kind of band that you wanted to be going forward?

NORMAN: Yeah. I think the way bands operate is when you start a band, your first couple of records are generally the sum of your influence because no one really arrives fully formed with definitive ideas. So what you do is there are things that you like and you sort of imitate them or try to emulate them. And then eventually when you’re working together as a group of musicians, you create your own dynamic and you start to develop your own methodology.

I suppose with the first record, A Catholic Education (1990), we were listening to Exile on Main Street, Sonic Youth, that kind of thing. We were also fans of bands like Love and Buffalo Springfield, ‘60s music from the U.S. and, of course, the Beatles. But we liked all these other things too and I think you can hear that in the album if you’re aware of it.

At that time, when I met Raymond, we were hanging out in his apartment, and we were making the first album. Raymond had the Stax reissue of the double Big Star compilation album with #1 Record and Radio City. I was aware of Alex Chilton as a solo artist and liked Like Flies on Sherbert but wasn’t as familiar with Big Star. You have to remember that Big Star was really not that well known at the time.

Moving into the Bandwagonesque period, we started listening to those Big Star albums a lot. When we were making that album, the producer, Don Fleming, who was in Gumball, said to us, “You guys are good at harmonies. You should do more of that because not everyone can do that. You should really play to your strengths.” We took that and moved in a more melodic direction.

Did you ever go through a period where you felt like you were writing more towards the expectations of your record label or your audience than writing the kind of songs that you wanted to write?

NORMAN: I think we’ve always quite stubbornly done our own thing and I think it worked out well for us. You never listen to your own records, because that’s masochistic. You get pleasure from listening to other people making music. Sony reissued quite a few of our older albums, the Creation-period albums, so we had to listen to them for the masters and make sure we were happy with those. I think we can listen back to everything that we’ve done and not cringe too much. There are no radical departures in terms of the style. We didn’t try and incorporate some trip-hop and anything like that because, here’s the thing, we couldn’t do it. we’d be rubbish at that. We’ve developed over the years and I think we’ve developed as musicians, but it’s not a million miles away from where we started.

I know the Endless Arcade album cycle was an interesting one because you had it finished before Covid, it was scheduled to be released before Covid happened, and then Covid happened and it got delayed. Do you feel like you’ve said everything you want to say about Endless Arcade or do you feel like it’s been lost in the shuffle because of the last couple of years?

NORMAN: It was very frustrating at the time because normally what happens is it’s all scheduled so that the day of release you’re out on the road somewhere, you’ve just started a tour and the album’s released and that’ll help generate ticket sales for the tour. With Endless Arcade, we got good reviews. It was the first album that we made without Gerry being in the band so the lineup was different. We were happy that it got good reviews but unfortunately there was a big build up to release day. Release day happens and then the next day, boom, nothing, it was kind of over. And then we had to twiddle our thumbs and wait until the pandemic was over. We did eventually get to do some shows around the album but much, much later.

Is there anything about Endless Arcade that you haven’t talked about and want to get out there?

NORMAN: I think we’re really happy with that record. It was a sort of transitional record in many ways, especially for me because I split up with my wife at that period. I’m happy to say we got on really well, it’s all fine, but there was a period when I found myself alone. Making that album, writing the songs for it, helped me deal with what was going on emotionally. I’m appreciative of having the opportunity to do that. It’s cathartic. It’s a good way to deal with what’s troubling you by writing it down. People say write things down anyway but writing it in song form really helped me.

It’s funny because, of course, we played the songs live. There’s quite a lot of emotional content in there and people have asked me if it’s difficult to sing those songs. What happens is, after a while, they just become songs. You’re not really relating to the lyric in the same way that you did when you wrote it, so you can perform them without getting emotional.

I think we were really happy with the way the record sounded. It was the first album that Euros Childs had played on. Euros has been a friend of ours for a long time; people may know him from Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and he’s a great solo artist as well. Euros brought his thing. Dave McGowan, who plays bass with the band, we always thought of him as being the new guy and we realized he’d been in the band for 15 years. Dave previously played keyboards but now he’s predominantly a bass player, that was his thing. I think the bass parts are really interesting on that record and really good.

It was really good to make the record, we had a lot of fun making it, it was with a great experience. We recorded in a place called Clouds Hill in Hamburg, it was a great studio, so the whole experience was a positive one.

You come out of a relationship and then, all of a sudden, we hit this period where everybody has to stay home and be cut off from people other than their immediate family. Was that difficult?

NORMAN: It was. I’d been living in Canada and so I came back to Scotland. My folks are still around so I moved into their place. I stayed with them for three years because, of course, the pandemic hit and there I was. It was difficult to buy a new house or rent a new place so I just stayed with my folks and looked out for them for a bit. I just had to tough it out for a couple of years.

Nothing Lasts Forever seems to balance emotions. “It’s Alright” sounds positive. “Tired of Being Alone” is not so positive. On your scale of happiness, do you tip more towards “It’s Alright” or “Tired of Being Alone”?

NORMAN: I think I tip more towards “It’s Alright” at the moment. But it’s funny, I think there’s a thing where your emotions are always sort of in flux. Generally, you have a sort of equilibrium but when you’re writing songs on an album, you’re not writing them all at once. You’re writing them over a period of time, so it depends where you’re at mentally when you’re writing the song, when you’re looking for material, because we write about and our life experiences and ourselves. We don’t write narratively so it really depends on where you’re at emotionally. I think “It’s Alright” was the last song that I finished for this record.

“Middle of My Mind” is the one I keep returning to. Are there keyboards and synthesizers that I hear on that song?

NORMAN: There are and that’s Euros. Me and Raymond have played the same guitars forever. He’s got a pre-CBS 1963 Fender Jaguar, which he bought in 1980 for about 200 pounds. They go for crazy money now, but he still uses that same guitar.

The first trip we did to the U.S., the first trip out west, we picked up a Fender Deluxe at a place in California. We use that on every album. We try other amps, but we go back to that one. That’s the sound.

In terms of Euros and the keyboards, when we walked into Rockfield Studios, where we recorded the bulk of the album, Euros had a look around and there was a Fender Rhodes piano sitting there. He said, “Well, this album I’m going to do on a Rhodes piano.” And that’s what he did. Mainly he played on that. I also bought a Moog Opus 3 because I’d always wanted one. And I think during the pandemic I sort of kept looking online and I eventually found one. It’s a string synthesizer but it also does brass and organ sounds. A lot of the sounds on the album came from that.

Going back to what you were asking, yes, there are some unusual synthesizers on there.

When I was growing up, my parents really liked the Alan Parsons Project and while I don’t think “Middle of My Mind” sounds like that band, it does have a little bit of a prog feel.

NORMAN: Yeah, sure. I know that Raymond, when he was younger, he really liked early Syd Barrett but he was also into the later Pink Floyd stuff. He really liked Yes, the early Yes stuff. So we are partial to a bit of prog. All of us. I think Euros likes a bit of prog too so I totally get where you’re coming from.

You always begin with some of your influences but even as you progress, you’re still always picking things up, sometimes subconsciously. I think about “Everything Flows,” the first single we ever had, I remember one day listening to the Beatles’ “Glass Onion” in horror and hearing “here’s another place you can go / where everything flows.” I had unwittingly lifted the lyric for a song title. I thought, “Oh, right, that’s where I got it. Wow.” You can sort of unconsciously do that as a musician. You’re always picking things up and the things that you’re listening to probably creep into your music.

With the comeback of vinyl, sequencing is really important. You’ve got two first impressions – the first song on Side A, “Foreign Land,” and the first song on Side B, “Falling into the Sun”.

NORMAN: I was talking to Raymond recently and we’re usually quite fastidious in terms of checking the text on an album, looking for typos and that kind of thing. And Raymond noticed one that we’d done recently, I can’t remember what album it was, but it’s a fairly recent one. The track listing on side 1 was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 but on the other side it was 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and it shouldn’t be. You would do that on a CD but you wouldn’t do it on vinyl because there’s a track 1 on side 2. We still think about the album as being two sides and each side should start with track 1.

The title of the album is Nothing Lasts Forever. It made me wonder if you were talking about the band?

NORMAN: I think Raymond had come up with the title and we got chatting about it. Initially, we thought it’s quite funny, a band who’d been around for 34 years putting out an album called Nothing Last Forever with the full intention of making more music after that. We actually had this conversation about how actually nothing lasts forever so there is a literal statement of fact. Nothing lasts forever. It is open to interpretation, but it’s got nothing to do with us thinking that we’re winding things up.

It’s the sort of title a band that’s been around a long time would shy away from. It’s almost like saying, “Look, we’ve been around for a long time and we’re older guys, we’re older people now, we’re still here.”

We were thinking about press photographs. You obviously have to go through that but sometimes you think, “Oh dear, look at that. Oh my God.” We have to spend an afternoon doing photos, here we are, all in our late 50s. I’ve seen some bands who have gone out on tour again, maybe touring an album that they put out 25 years ago, and they use old press shots. We don’t want to do that. We want people to see, warts and all, this is the reality of us now.

Tell me about the album cover. Is there anything to be interpreted by it? Is there some sort of message you want it to convey or did you just like the design?

NORMAN: The guy who did our last cover, Huw Evans, who is H. Hawkline, we just asked him to come up with an idea because we really liked what he did last time. He’s a creative fellow so he suggested that for the new album. He’s one of those people that when he sends us stuff, we generally like it immediately. I suppose there is something about looking in the mirror. It doesn’t reflect forever.

He had a great idea which we’re not going to do because it’s too expensive. You know those mugs that have the text that doesn’t appear until you put hot water in? It would say “Nothing Lasts Forever” and then when you take the liquid out, it disappears.

I’ve heard you mention that, when it comes to touring, you’re not a nostalgia act. You’re anxious to play the new songs.

NORMAN: We play a much longer set than we did in the past. We play about an hour and 40 minutes so we’ll play lots of old things. But, we’re very conscious of what we want to play. We did some shows in Ireland a few months back and we were sort of counting up the songs from the new album that we’ve got coming out and the last one and I think we did eight songs from our two more recent albums. But there is a thing, when you do new songs, there’s always a kind of uncomfortableness. Raymond was talking about this recently and I said, “Well, we had that when we recorded the Bandwagonesque stuff. We’d been playing A Catholic Education songs and then all of a sudden we turn up at a show and we’re playing the new stuff.” Raymond’s got a great memory. He said, “I can sort of remember looking out at the audience and looking at all these quizzical faces thinking, ‘What’s going on here? What is this that they’re doing?’” All of the songs are at some point going to be new so you just have to push through that. It’s important for us because we’ve never broken up. We’ve been going for 34 years. It’s important to us to make sure that people are aware of that and that’s why we’ll play a lot of new songs.

Because alternative rock was becoming a thing in the ’90s, I remember labels putting together a lot of mis-matched tours with bands that were nothing alike. Did you have any tours like that?

NORMAN: We didn’t have any tours like that. I remember coming out one year, we were on Geffen at the time, and they said, “It would be great if you could come over and do these Christmas acoustic shows across the country. There’ll be six shows with some other bands but just really stripped down, just a couple of guitars.” I think we weren’t particularly keen on the idea, but we wanted to be on good terms with the label. We came over to the U.S. to do this. I remember showing up and we were there with two acoustics and a mandolin. Everyone else had shown up with their acoustic guitars, but they were plugging them into amplifiers, and they had drums. That wasn’t so much fun. We also played in San Francisco and were on immediately after Tony Bennett. The upside of that was that we got to meet Tony Bennett.

You also did a collaboration with De La Soul for the Judgement Night soundtrack.

NORMAN: That was great fun. We were approached about doing a track with a hip-hop artist. We thought that could be interesting. And they came back and said, “We’d really like you to do it with De La Soul.” We were up for that because we really liked the music that those guys were making. We were making Thirteen at the time and those guys flew over to Manchester. We spent two days together and it was kind of awkward with each other at first. We said, “We’ll try and just come up with a sort of backbeat” and we put something down and then those guys got to work on it. Cut to like a month later and we find ourselves in a school in Chicago making a video for this track. It was a lot of fun. I really, really like that track a lot. I think it still sounds good. It was a great experience, De La Soul were really nice guys.

It’s no secret that many bands have cited Teenage Fanclub as an influence. Do you ever listen to any of those bands?

NORMAN: If I get the opportunity to hear them, I do. It’s funny, when I’m at home, I listen to this channel here in the UK, BBC Channel Radio 3. It’s all sort of classical music so I’m not listening to a lot of music like ours.

I tend to not buy records. I’m 58 in October. I like listening to music, but I’m not going to the record store. When I was a kid, when I was in my early 20s, I would be in the record store every couple of days and hanging out with all the guys. But, you know, it’s not for me, it’s for other people to be doing that now. It’s for younger people to find that exciting. But I do hear things. Something I could recommend, we’ve got some Norwegian friends, a band called I Was a King and we toured with them last year. A member of their band is a woman called Selma French and she’s a sort of Norwegian folk jazz artist. She has a really great album. So that’s fairly contemporary, but I wouldn’t like to pretend that I’m up to date with everything that’s going, which I quite like.