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. 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. Teenage Fanclub will perform for two nights at the Teragram Ballroom on Feb. 26 and Feb. 27. This interview by Donna Kern." /> L.A. Record


February 22nd, 2019 | Interviews

Norman Blake: Do you know, I have no idea—it’s one of those imponderable questions. All you can ever do as a musician is try and make the best record that you can. You try to be as honest as you can in terms of the writing or whatever, but you never know. Sometimes these things just click and it resonates with people or something like that. I don’t know. For some reason that one did and people picked up on it. I think we’ve been pretty lucky generally through the career of the band. I mean, here’s the thing: I’ve never listened to our own music. It’s the last thing I want to listen to. It’s masochistic to listen to your own music. Yes, great—you get pleasure from listening to other people’s music, but to your own, no, no, no, never do that! But we had to listen back to some of the records because we just did a tour where we were playing five of the albums over three nights—but I think I can say we’ve been fairly consistent. Now that’s maybe partly down to the fact that there have been—up until recently—three songwriters, and maybe we took a bit of time between each record, so we never made an album until we felt that we had enough material to make something that was good. I think if we got to the end—and of course at this point in our career we pay for the recording of our own records—I honestly consider if we got to the end of the recording process and we didn’t think it was good enough or we weren’t happy with it, we wouldn’t release it. We would just take the hit on the money. So maybe it’s a bit of quality control. But I don’t know. I think it’s an imponderable. I’m really not sure. But sometimes I think an album will just resonate with people—it’s that the timing’s right or something like that.
I do feel like 2016 was an intense year kind of around the world with the U.S. election and Brexit, There was a lot going on…
Norman Blake: It’s all ramping up still, isn’t it?
Yeah. It’s such a life-affirming, love-affirming kind of album. Maybe it was something that people really needed in that moment.
Norman Blake: Perhaps you’re onto something there. I think music is an escape for all of us. I’m a person that, for me, if I’m feeling depressed, I really don’t like to listen to music, but some people if they’re feeling depressed, if they’re feeling down, music can really get them out of a hole. I’m the opposite—I don’t like to listen to music. But I find music very life-affirming, and so I get a lot from listening to music, as does everyone. I see what you’re saying. I think there’s something with it, you know—you’ve got politics and all this madness that’s going on in the world. I actually fairly recently left social media about a year and a half ago or something. I originally had Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and I got rid of all of it, and removing that quarter from my brain was actually one of the best things I did. It was difficult initially because I was so used to looking at my phone, you know? Don’t get me wrong, I love the global communication now … the aspects of social media, [and] a lot of people from all over the world talking to each other instantaneously. That is amazing. I remember pre-the Internet. I’ve been going to Canada—my wife’s Canadian. I remember going there 26 years ago and I would say, ‘OK, well, I’ll see you guys when I’m back in a month.’ I would maybe call once to Raymond, and say, ‘What’s happening?’ And he would say, ‘Not a lot!’ Now you can email or you can Skype, all that stuff. That’s completely changed the world in that sense, and it’s great. I’m off on a tangent. I’m sorry. I had too much coffee this morning.
Oh no, that’s OK! I mean, I agree with you. I don’t have Facebook. I feel like social media can be sort of bad for your mental health. I mean, studies have shown that, right?
Norman Blake: Yeah. I think some of the witch-hunts that I’ve witnessed on there … and actually, of course—which was proved to be true—the Russian bots influencing your election. That’s all factual, it happened! There’s no question about that. That aspect of it, and the sort of … pack mentality. Those aspects I find really depressing, and so I just had to go off it. I feel better for it because I’m back to doing what I used to do. I get up in the morning with my cup of coffee. I like to do the Guardian crossword. I like to read about what’s going on, and then I like to read books. I feel much better after that.
What are you reading right now?
Norman Blake: I don’t know if you know the English playwright Alan Bennett. Do you know him? He wrote The History Boys, which is one of his famous things. And he’s written The Lady in the Van, a lot of memoirs. He’s an amazing guy. I’ve been reading a lot of his things recently. But right now, someone gave me a book yesterday which I’m almost finished. It’s a fairly funny book: This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor. He’s a British sort of comic now, a guy called Adam Kay. It’s about his years as a junior doctor in the hospital. Someone gave me it yesterday and I’ve almost finished it. But I’m a voracious reader. I’ll read anything. I also recently read a guy called Robert Littell, an American novelist. He’s kind of like the American John le Carré actually. He’s written a couple of amazing books. I mean, I pick these books up in thrift stores! This one’s called Young Philby which is about the British Russian spy Kim Philby and it’s a kind of semi-fictional account of his life. He also wrote a book called—it’s not called The Firm, is it? [it’s called The Company—DK]–about the history of the CIA and the structure of it, as a novel. I’m always looking for something to read. I jump back and forth between novels and you know, like biographies. And my kind of fetish is rock ‘n’ roll biographies because they are generally—generally—rubbish, but entertaining because you know it’s all complete lies.
I love rock bios! I love them.
Norman Blake: I picked one up in the thrift store yesterday and it’s Aerosmith in own their words. I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be fun, and it’ll be nonsense.’ But I read recently the Pete Townshend one which is pretty interesting. His is good. You get ones that are fairly decent reading. It’s reasonably well-written. And Townshend did write it himself. The fun ones are the Aerosmith ones, but there are ones that are a bit more insightful, you know? I read Miles Davis’ autobiography recently cuz I picked it up for a pound at a thrift shop and that’s amazing. A lot of expletives in it—I didn’t realize. I mean I knew Miles Davis liked to swear, you know, to cuss, but he swore a good bit more than I thought he did, going by this book. That’s a fascinating book, actually and he’s a really interesting guy and really smart, you know, and really brave, but really troubled as well. He goes into absolute detail about everyone, and you know there’s no holds barred. Which is really, really good—he’s very, very honest and you can feel that he’s being totally truthful which is amazing.
When I was researching for this interview, I couldn’t believe how the British press in particular would write about your sweaters or your haircuts instead of the music. You’ve spoken to out against what you called fashion bands in past interviews, but I know that you covered ‘Personality Crisis’ by the very glamorous New York Dolls for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. What place do you think fashion has in music?
Norman Blake: I would say the New York Dolls are camp, high camp. And I mean, I love the New York Dolls and I love that. So yeah, I think it does have a place. You think of someone like David Bowie. Fashion was a very large part of his thing and I love David Bowie. I probably wasn’t talking about people like that, but I suppose—that wasn’t what we were about. We were more about getting together making music. But I think maybe this thing about the British press focusing on that is … you’re talking about a time where you had the NME every week and the Melody Maker every week and Sounds every week and they had to fill it with something, you know?
Yeah—maybe they ran out of things to talk about!
Norman Blake: They’d invent a new genre every couple of weeks—grebo and you know, whatever, all these different genres would be invented. And a lot about those would be fashion. You know—of course that is fashion. These new things would be invented every few weeks because they just had to fill it. That maybe changed around the time that the British music magazines or papers got serious, when things like MOJO and Uncut appeared. MOJO’s amazing—still is amazing, actually. They would have large retrospective articles about bands. It’s very informative. They would go into detail and it wasn’t so ephemeral and superficial. ‘What were Pink Floyd wearing in January 1972 or whatever?’ I guess that that the British music press grew up then a little bit, you know? I mean, a lot of the music I love is fashion, too. You think of the Sex Pistols, punk, the Clash … Punk rock was fashion. Street fashion. But I think the whole thing about it was that they knew they were going to have to fill it with something every week so it just kept going. If you look back, it was funny. We were just in the studio in Hamburg and they had a lot of old NMEs from the early 90s and late 80s, and they’re full of bands that were on the cover and then disappeared a few weeks later. ‘Oh, you remember them? Wow, where are they now?’ It’s very informative.
You had the opportunity to play with some legendary fellow musicians. I wanted to talk to you about Kevin Ayers, who I love. I know you got to play on his final album The Unfairground and you’ve hinted that you might have some stories about that experience. What was that like for you, and was he an inspiration?
Norman Blake: I’ve got a few. There’s one I probably can’t tell! But no, Kevin was very interesting. His manager got in touch with us actually and myself, Euros Childs and Bill Wells—I don’t know if you know Bill, but Bill’s a great classical musician. We all played on the record. We met Kevin in Glasgow. He came into the studio and we got to meet him and hang out with him for a few days. We were fans as well, and it was a great experience. I mean, I think he was going through a hard time. I think he was boozing a lot. He was definitely a troubled soul, but there was still the spark there. You could see it. He was enjoying being creative again. It was interesting to just see him [having] been through so much
And you also of course famously worked with Alex Chilton. I know he was a big influence for you.
Norman Blake: Alex was great. Someone had sent him a copy of Bandwagonesque. It was definitely influenced by Big Star. We listened to a lot of things when we were making those records but we championed them and I guess at that time they weren’t very well known. People didn’t talk about Big Star. I think it sort of piqued Alex’s interest that we liked them and he came to see us in New Orleans. And for some reason we hit it off—he liked us a lot. We got on really well. We were a bit irreverent, you know, and I think he liked that. He saw a bit of himself in that, and we got on really well and we ended up playing shows with him in Glasgow and hanging out quite a lot. We became good friends. And it’s amazing looking back at that because when we met him … I think he’d just turned 40 at the time. I remember thinking he was a kind of older guy—he was only 15 years older than me but at the time that was a big, big gap. But he was really amazing. We really learned a lot from him because … well, he had great taste in music. He was a great musician. I remember he showed me this chord—I thought, ‘Hey, that’s an amazing chord,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, Carl showed me that.’ He was talking about Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys. Like, ‘Oh, OK—well!’ He had some great stories about touring and hanging out with Dennis Wilson. He told me that he was hanging out with Dennis Wilson at Dennis Wilson’s place when Charles Manson was there with the family. And you know, Alex was so cool. He said one morning Manson came in the room and pointed at Alex and said something like, ‘Hey, you,’ you know, ‘Go and get the milk!’ And Alex just looked at him with a cigarette and said, ‘I don’t think so,’ in that Alex Chilton way. I think Manson was like, ‘Uh, OK’ because Alex would not take that—‘I don’t think so!’ Still love that. He was good fun to hang out with, and later he came to Glasgow quite a lot and made quite a lot of friends here. And there was a great love and appreciation of what he did here, you know? There was a definite lack of bullshit around us which he could relate, and I think that’s what he liked about us. We’ve got some recordings that we made with him that we need to mix and release—I think some of it’s online. There are live shows that we did in Glasgow that are available, but there’s also some recordings that we did that we have tapes for that we really need to get mixed and put out there because he’s playing some of our songs and we’re all in the rehearsal space and it’s quite a lot of stuff and so it’s good fun. And it’d be nice to get that out at some point. We’ve just never got around to it, so we should do it.
How did Teenage Fanclub avoid the pitfalls that sank so many of your idols and your peers—addiction, depression, burning out—and not only did you not self-destruct, you’ve been going strong for three decades and you’re still married. How’d you pull it off? And how do you want your band to be remembered?
Norman Blake: Well, just to be remembered would be a good start, wouldn’t it? Because of course you have to remember that 99.9 percent of the world’s population have never heard of us, and never will. But that gives you some perspective really. I don’t think we ever get carried away with the kind of, ‘Yeah, you know rock ‘n’ roll! You’re gonna be millionaires!’ We never thought that. We had a certain level of success, but not too much, you know? Maybe some people get carried away with the success and then that passes on then to their ego, and they have a certain level of expectation. We never did that. I think we’ve always been happy with realistic expectations that were hopefully the album will chart and some people will buy it and we can get to go on tour. We didn’t really hang about with … there wasn’t really a kind of junkie scene in Glasgow. The junkies in Glasgow are in the housing schemes. I think people didn’t do heroin in Glasgow because it wasn’t being associated with the Velvet Underground [but rather] associated with like really poor working-class people—the places that we came from, you know, and that’s something you escaped from and didn’t go into, you know what I mean? There wasn’t that kind of scene here. And maybe again just down to the individuals. I think Brendan who was in the band had a bit of a thing with addiction, which I think he’s kind of through, but it’s just not our style. Never been our style. Don’t get me wrong. We can have a drink and there’s been many a hangover on the tour. Oh there’s been some really painful ones, too—but we’ve always made it to the next show. We’ve taken enough time away from the band and away from the whole rock ‘n’ roll sort of scene to hopefully remain reasonably grounded.
One of the band’s three singer-songwriters—your bass player Gerry Love—left the band. How has that affected the group’s morale and vibe? Is the door open to ever record with him again or are you just kind of playing it by ear?
Norman Blake: Sure—I think we’re playing it by ear and never say never. But no, I think what happened was we had some dates coming up and Gerry, he just didn’t want to do them. We spent six months trying to persuade him to do these shows because everyone else wanted to do them and he’s just, ‘Look, I can’t face another trip’ and there was nothing we could do. Then a few more months passed and we thought, ‘Well, maybe Dave could play in the band,’ who plays bass with Belle and Sebastian. You know—Dave’s the new guy. Of course it’s sad in some aspects because it’s the end of an era, but at the same time, we’re looking at the positives. We’ve got lots and lots of songs that we can play. We’ve brought Euros Childs who’s a very good friend of mine. Euros is in the band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. He’s now in the band playing keyboards and Dave is on bass, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve replaced Gerry because Dave has moved on to bass. And we’ve just been in Hamburg recording. We’re working on new songs. If there was going to be any sort of melancholic moment that would have happened on those last dates that we did, but we got through those. By the time we got to the end of that, people were aware that Gerry was going, so hopefully that helped to soften the blow. And we’re playing on, and why not, you know? Because we still want to play live and I like that we’ve been rehearsing lots of songs. We always try to split up between three of us when we play live. That means there are lots of songs that we just never play live. So myself and Raymond have been looking at things from the back catalog that we rarely play or have never played, and we’re going to play some of those things. It means we have to kind of re-jig the set a little but that’s okay because you know in some ways we’ve kind of been doing the same thing for years. Now we can play more things from the first record, so we’re trying to look at it as an opportunity to do something that’s fresh. And we’ve got new songs, so we’re going to play new songs. We’ve always seen ourselves as being a contemporary band. We didn’t break up in the 90s. We didn’t reform to do reissue shows. Although we did those shows because Sony asked us if we would play the five albums to help promote that and we said, ‘OK, that’s good. They’re putting them out, we can do that,’ and it was fun. But when we got to the end of that, I think we felt, ‘OK, well that’s enough, we’ve done that.’ We’d rather be playing the new songs, and a lot of older ones too, but we like to put new material in the set and look forward. That’s what we’re doing.
You have been playing for 30 years. Some people see rock ‘n’ roll as a young person’s game. I saw headlines when I was reading about you—like, ‘Still Life in the Old Dogs Yet’ which … ugh, made me cringe. But you’ve said you find yourself increasingly listening to music by the over-40 set. Can you recommend some older artist that kids today should be listening to?
Norman Blake: Actually since I’ve been living in Canada, I’ve got a neighbor, a guy who lives fairly near me—a guy called Ron Sexsmith. Ron and me have kind of become friends because he lives quite near me and he’s a lovely guy, but I saw him play a few times recently and he’s just a brilliant, brilliant live artist. His voice has matured and it’s really beautiful and creamy, and you know, the arrangements of the songs are amazing, the band are brilliant. And that’s someone … that’s just the years of work that he’s put in. You think of musicianship as a craft. If you’re a craftsperson, that you get better at that, right? And eventually the hands give up because you’re too old, ultimately, but we just have this idea that people get better, artisans are better. You always think of old Italian craftsman, carving or whatever. Well, you know, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll that you’re not allowed to do that, yeah? There’s some kind of cut-off point. But I suppose there are tons of artists. I mean, I also went to see Paul McCartney two years ago in Toronto and the show was incredible. He looked great and there he is playing that little bass that he had with the Beatles in Hamburg—you kind of think, ‘wow.’ And he played for like an hour and a half before he even had a sip of water, you know? Look, anybody who’s been around that long is going to be worth seeing because you only probably get to still be playing live if you’ve got something about you.
I’ve heard you can also talk for hours about cheese. Have you ever tried casu marzu, the cheese with live maggots in it?
Norman Blake: Actually I was just mentioning that cheese. I’ve not tried that. Here’s the thing, this is the thing I don’t know—do you eat the maggots?
I think that you might…? I don’t know!
Norman Blake: I’m aware of that cheese. I wonder, do you scoop? Do you work your way around the maggots and scoop out the cheese and then spread that, or just squish the maggots into the toast or whatever? Your cracker? Because I think I would possibly give that a go because I do like the cheese, and I will experiment with cheeses. I like blue cheeses. A lot of people don’t like blue cheese, but I really like blue cheeses.
I do too.
Norman Blake: I like a Stilton. There’s actually a great Glasgow cheese store—a cheesemonger called Mellis and they have amazing cheese. You go in there and they wear like white lab coats and they put white Wellington boots on and hairnets and all that kind of stuff. They have some industrial strength cheeses there, some pretty toxic stuff. Actually some of them, you know, they’re pretty live—since it’s a blue cheese. It’s the cheese that if your friend is having a baby, you don’t give them this cheese. You don’t give that to pregnant women because some of this cheese is pretty—it’s unpasteurized. But there are some amazing cheeses you can get there. That’s a great cheese store. Of course, at holidays I always take my parents there. At the holidays there are massive queues outside the place to get little bits of cheese before coming home for the holidays. So yeah—I do like a bit of cheese. I’m always prepared to experiment.


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