TEENAGE FANCLUB: LOOKING FOR SUNSHINE
illustration by kelly abeln
While other bands were busy trashing hotel rooms, hiring stylists and indulging their assorted vices, Teenage Fanclub were pouring their Scottish hearts and souls into their music. In 1991, a year of legendary competition from the likes of Nirvana’s Nevermind and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Bandwagonesque scored the top spot on Spin’s best of the year list, and their most recent album Here reached number one on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, about 25 years after Bandwagonesque earned that honor. There’s zero artifice with these guys, but they don’t take themselves too seriously either. This is sweet, melodic rock ‘n’ roll made with love by master craftsmen at the height—not the decline—of their powers. I had the pleasure of chatting with the “nicest man in rock” Norman Blake about the glories of creamy cheese, creamier mature voices, and learning Beach Boys guitar chords from Alex Chilton. Do nice guys finish last? Or do they have the last laugh? Teenage Fanclub will perform for two nights at the Teragram Ballroom on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27. This interview by Donna Kern.
Uncut called you ‘the nicest man in rock.’ Do you have a secret wild rock star side? I doubt you’ve ever destroyed a hotel room, but…
Norman Blake: (guitar/vocals) No, I’ve never done that. The reason I’ve never destroyed a hotel room—well, I wouldn’t actually. Here’s the thing: it costs money. It’s going to cost a lot of money to replace that furniture, and I am from Scotland, right? But, no—that’s like a stereotype. But the other reason I would never do that kind of thing: somebody’s going to have to clean that up, and it’s not the person who owns the hotel, you know what I mean? It’s somebody who’s getting paid really shit money. So to me it’s not very rock ‘n’ roll to leave a fellow human being your mess to clean up. To me that’s deeply uncool. That’s why I’ve never done it. And it came as such a stereotype, all of that stuff. Spinal Tap is such a well-observed film, actually. We all got a great laugh out of it, but you know what? It’s all based in truth. You see those things happen all the time when you’re on tour. Maybe not to the same extent or as extreme as portrayed in that movie, but I’ll tell you what—not far off that.
Have you ever demanded anything sort of ridiculous on a rider? Maybe when you were on the Nevermind tour?
Norman Blake: I really can’t think that we have. Don’t get me wrong—we like to go and have a good time. We like to party from time to time, although the most unusual thing in our rider would be: we like to eat Haribo. Do you know the Haribo?
I love Haribo, yeah!
Norman Blake: Yeah, they’re chewy, you know? They’re delicious. We always get those. Here’s the other thing—most bands don’t realize that they pay for the rider. The rider costs the band money. It comes off the settlement at the end, so before the promoter pays you, says, ‘OK, here’s the money,’ and of course the rider costs $350 and the band don’t realize that they’re paying for that. If you want all blue Smarties and M&Ms in a bowl, it means that someone has to buy like 50 boxes of them, go through them all, separate all the blue ones, chuck them in the bowl and then chuck the rest of them away, which means you’ve had to pay for all of those M&Ms. See what I’m getting at here? It’s just going to end up costing a lot of money.
Very practical of you!
Norman Blake: I don’t think we’d get anything too outrageous. I remember in the past, you used to be able to get cigarettes—not that any of us smoke anymore. But in the past when everyone smoked they would give you cigarettes on the rider. You would never get that now on a rider. Health and Safety would not be having that.
You hail from Scotland, where the national animal is the unicorn…
Norman Blake: I had no idea! [laughs]
…And there’s a long tradition of heartbreaking lament songs. Scottish myths and melancholy have nurtured so many legendary musicians. How does your Scottish heritage influence your music?
Norman Blake: I’m sure it does in some way because of course you grow up with some traditional music around. When I grew up I listened mostly to pop music and you know, punk rock. I liked the Clash, so that’s not particularly traditional, but of course, in the background there is always local music happening anywhere that you live. And of course you’re always to some extent going to be influenced just through osmosis, by hearing it, by being around. And traditional music generally has a reflection of local culture. With Scotland, people will sing about the weather and the hard life that they had and how tough life is and whatever—melancholy and very dark winters. Although conversely, in the summer in Scotland, it’s light until midnight and it’s very beautiful, but yeah, there is this whole other side to the Scottish tradition. That definitely seeps into your music. You can’t help it.
Now, I read the Sydney Morning Herald—and they may not be experts on this—but they said, ‘Glasgow has always looked to Los Angeles rather than London.’ Do you think that’s true? Have you found more inspiration in California music?
Norman Blake: There is something in that … Maybe because it’s so cold people are looking for sunshine, you know? People like to aspire to have something that they don’t. So, for instance, that is romantic to a Scottish person—the notion of California and like gunning down the highway in an open-top car, and the beach and of course the music of the Beach Boys, whatever, all their songs. There’s a whole sort of spectrum of music from California, but yeah, there probably is something in that that is romantic to me. I do meet people from sunnier climes and even people from California, who have a romantic notion of the Scottish highlands or Scotland because of course it’s different. We all think something that’s opposite to our own environment romantic because it’s not something that we’re used to and it has an appeal for some reason. There’s a lot of sunshine music [that] comes from this kind of dark dreary place. I mean, don’t get me wrong—Glasgow’s not always like that. It’s a very vibrant city and there’s a really great art scene. It was an industrial city up until the latter part of the last century, but now it’s a kind of thriving metropolis. A lot of people come here to shop, and there’s lots of restaurants and bars and lots of museums and art galleries. There’s lots of stuff happening. But there still is a kind of darkness and a melancholy thing that pervades the city.
For the last 10 years you’ve been living in Canada, where the national animal is the less majestic beaver and a recent effort to declare a national bird ended in an uproar—it could not be chosen. How is Canada treating you and do you have any thoughts on what bird best represents your adopted country?
Norman Blake: I would say the goose, it’s the Canada Goose, isn’t it? They’re very vicious birds, actually…
Right—I don’t know if it’s a good representative!
Norman Blake: Yeah, I didn’t realize that until I thought closer. It’s not a very vicious country, is it now? But no, Canada’s really nice. I like it a lot. I’m kind of immersing myself in North American culture. It’s amazing to me now that I’m—because where we live—I’m like about one hour drive from Buffalo and about an hour and a half from Detroit, so we can easily scoot down into the U.S. I do that on a fairly regular basis. Other than being a musician, I go down and travel—I like the United States a lot. I’ve had a lot of good times there, and there’s such a lot to see, you know? So that’s exciting because of course you think living in Europe, OK, pretty easy to jet off to Spain or France and whatever—and that’s all amazing, too—but at this point in my life it’s nice to discover a new continent, and have a look around!
You’re actually heading out on an epic world tour. I heard that you once played some kind of goth festival in Belgium where the crowd turned on you. What happened and why were you playing a goth festival?
Norman Blake: Oh, yeah—I don’t know! I would say, sometimes these things happen and you turn up at a place that you’re kind of not … there’s been some error by the booking agent or who knows? It was a long, long time ago and I remember we were getting booed by the audience—which is fine. I mean—I think—they’ve paid the money. They can boo if they want! But Brendan—our drummer at the time—saw otherwise. He jumped out from behind the kit and started shouting at them, you know? We didn’t play in Belgium again for three years! [laughs] No, I’m joking. But it was quite funny. These people were heckling and he thought he’d give them some back, which I don’t think they were expecting. So the rest of us just stood in the background watching him berating the audience and then the set ended at that point and we all walked off. But yeah, I guess these things happen, you know? I also played in front of a gang of skinheads once with my friend Duglas in a band called BMX Bandits. These were real horrible guys. I don’t know if you’re aware of BMX Bandits but they’re a pretty soft group in a way—they’re not like a hardcore group or anything like that. But Duglas, the singer, decided that we should stay and play the Dead Kennedys song ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ which we did. We had all these skinheads sieg heil-ing us at the front of the stage, but we felt that we had to do it, and we got away with it. And we weren’t just going to run off the stage at the end of it—we were going to need a plan, you know? I mean, I think we fucked off before they fucked off. Still, you know the Nazi punks did fuck off. We told ‘em.
You’ve said one of your favorite parts of touring is visiting record shops because you collect garage 45s.
Norman Blake: I do, yeah! It’s getting harder to crate dig now because what happens is people find them and then they take them out and put those ones online and don’t have them in the stores. But you can still find little things. I remember the best period for buying vinyl was the point when we were told CDs were much better than vinyl—you know, that was the new format and therefore there was no point in having vinyl anymore. You may as well sell it all. We were touring the U.S. at the time, and of course, I remember coming back with trunks of vinyl, really great things, you know, like loads of soundtrack stuff, the soundtrack from the Girl from U.N.K.L.E., things like that. We bought lots and lots and lots of albums and 7 inches for not a lot of money at all. In fact, I remember we were in Florida—myself and Gerry [Love] from the band were crate digging in Florida and he left to have a cigarette and I was in there crate digging. I came outside and he said, ‘Look at that.’ ‘Oh yeah, there’s a big plume of smoke going into the sky. What’s that?’ ‘It’s the space shuttle. I just watched it take off.’ ‘And you didn’t come in and tell me?!’ Oh, no. It was the only chance I was going to get to see the space shuttle launching, you know? He was just out there looking. ‘Oh, there you go. There’s that thing there.’ By the time I’d gone out, it had gone. I could see the plume of smoke, but there was no discernible space shuttle to be seen.
Aw, he should’ve told you!
Norman Blake: He should’ve come in, you know? But I guess he wanted to finish his cigarette, huh?
Over the years, you’re written some powerful odes to love. Has the way you approach love songs changed? You’ve been married for around twenty years, and this might be a bigger question about love and how it grows and changes, but…
Norman Blake: I try to be more honest in a way. I think when you’re younger you’re a bit … I think when I started writing songs, the Bandwagonesque songs are—for me, they’re kind of different because they were little stories, little narratives. Like, invented. Of course, you’re always learning. What is a song? What’s this song about? What am I going to write the lyric about? At that period, I would generally start with a musical idea and then I would have to think about the lyric and now I have to kind of try to think of those things in tandem. But I think that the easiest thing to write about is your own experiences, right? And that’s what I try to do more and more. There was a period when I kind of wrote … I think it’s the Man-Made record or it’s Shadows, one of those. Man-Made, I think, is when my lyrics went a bit more abstract there and I was trying to do something different. But terms of writing songs, I like trying to be honest because I look back at the songs that I’ve written that I think are honest, and I don’t cringe, you know? That all happened, that’s real, that’s how I was feeling. I get some satisfaction from that. It’s almost like you’re kind of documenting your life. But I think my life is pretty much probably very similar to just about everyone’s life. So maybe people can relate to that in a way? Hopefully people can relate to it and maybe say, ‘Oh, that guy’s had that experience and that’s how I feel.’ I just try to be honest. I’m glad that we never wrote anything … I can’t imagine writing a big bombastic song like Nine Inch Nails or whatever, and here you are like 30 years later trying to sort of be that person.
I know! Having to perform that!
Norman Blake: That would be thoroughly depressing.
Your last album Here reached number 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart about 25 years after Bandwagonesque did the same. Why do you think this album has resonated so much for your fans?