The Charlatans U.K. Persevere in the Aftermath of Tragedy

Jon Wiederhorn
Writer
The Charlatans U.K. photo courtesy of thecharlatans.net

Ever since their 1990 debut album, Some Friendly, went to No. 1 in the British charts and broke them into the alt-rock market in America, the Charlatans U.K. have persevered under conditions that would have destroyed most other bands — including the deaths of two founding band members (keyboardist Rob Collins, who was killed in a 1996 car crash, and drummer Jon Brookes, who lost his life to a brain tumor in 2013). Despite such tragedies, the Charlatans U.K. have continued to make timeless, melodic pop/rock songs occasionally tinted with melancholy but more often swirling with euphoria.

Surprisingly, the band’s 13th studio album Different Days wasn’t just enjoyable for them to write, but was also good fun to record. Soon after the band members decided they were going to work with more than one drummer on the record – so it didn’t look like they were trying to replace Brookes – various guest musicians offered to help out, and before long, they had who’s-who of British rock marching in and out of the studio. Members of the Smiths, the Jam, New Order, and the Verve all pitched in to create Different Days, which is the best album the Charlatans U.K. have released 20 years, locking into the same upbeat groove as 2015’s Modern Nature but incorporating more contagious refrains and memorable hooks. In addition, maybe in part because of all the guest musicians, the band explores more musical terrain this time, confidently dabbling in funk, electronic pop, anthemic guitar rock, and downtempo R&B.

Yahoo Music sits down with frontman Tim Burgess to discuss the album’s creation and the band’s tumultuous history.

YAHOO MUSIC: In an era of political turmoil and personal upheaval, it’s a little surprising how spirited and uplifting Different Days is. Were you striving to make an upbeat album, or is that something that happened with the excitement of having so many great guest musicians involved?

TIM BURGESS: No, I’m a pretty positive person. I wanted to do an album with a lot of positivity. It like’s a chance to appreciate what we have, regardless of what monsters be out there. I think that we need to keep our friends close…

And your enemies closer?

I don’t know. These are scary times, but we’re not a political band. Also, I live in the country now in the middle of the woods. I have a 4-year-old son. He wakes up at 5 in the morning every day. I’m not complaining. In my little world, that’s a positive thing. So all these things that are going on in my little bubble exist outside this place that’s possibly negative — very probably negative. Me and my partner turned a little boy into something so pure and simplistic and precious, and that’s what I think the theme is on this record. It’s about our small world, which becomes our big world in the band. The album starts off with the theme of a small bubble and it just kept getting bigger and bigger, with guests and things that start to unfold.

Like 2015’s Modern Nature, which featured several different drummers hired to fill in for Jon Brookes, various drummers contributed to Different Days — but so did a number of big-name guest musicians. How did that transpire, and was this a more enjoyable album to make than Modern Nature?

Well, Mother Nature was, like, much more difficult because after Jon died [of brain cancer] in 2013, we all grouped together making the album and thinking about him. He wanted to play with us when he was ill, but he wasn’t well enough. We didn’t make music of any significance while he was sick. We tried a couple of times, but it didn’t work out. But after he died, we made Mother Nature with him in mind and it helped. It was therapeutic, I think, even though it was emotional as well. We toured it around the world, and it took very positive responses, so that helped make something very tragic into something more positive. And we all felt like Jon would have wanted that.

From the start, did you want to up the ante on Different Days, as far as the special guests went? There are even spoken-word parts from crime writer Ian Rankin and Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.

Everything evolved naturally. Instead of replacing Jon for Modern Nature, which didn’t seem like a valid proposition, we used different people. Stephen Morris has been a friend for a while. Obviously, everyone knows him from New Order and Joy Division. He played with us for [the Modern Nature track “Emilie”], Pete Salisbury from the Verve did five songs, and Gabriel Gurnsey from Factory Floor played on four tracks. Pete plays with us live, so he’s the first person that we thought of to play drums when we went back in to make Different Days. But while the songs were being written, I just kept thinking about Stephen. The songs had tightness and a crispness that I thought Stephen would get very naturally — not that Pete didn’t get them, but Stephen’s got a lot of experience and has been responsible for some of the best songs ever written. So I sent the songs to him and he responded quickly. We did four songs quickly with Stephen and then went back to writing. One day, they brought [New Order keyboardist] Gillian Gilbert with them and she played stints on one song, and then all of a sudden the guest thing started to come into its own. We started to think about it like directing a film and casting different people for all these parts, so I thought about all these people I knew.

How did you know the Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, who plays on three songs?

I knew him when I was still in school. He was, like, two years older than me, which is kind of weird because he inspired a generation. Everyone knows who he is, but I didn’t actually meet him until 1999. I’ve always felt like he could have played on any of our records because we get along so well. But we’ve never recorded anything until now. I saw him a couple of months before he came to the studio and I told him what we were doing. He said, “Oh, what, the studio over in Northwich, [England],” and he said he’d come over and have a cup of tea. That was kind of at the point guests started dropping by. Johnny came over, we played him a track, and he stayed all day. He’s on “Plastic Machinery” and the interlude piece “The Setting Sun.”

Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe joins Marr on “Plastic Machinery.” How did Anton get involved?

I’ve known Anton for a long time. He used to be my DJ partner in Los Angeles when we were young. I lived in Los Angeles for 12 years, and we got into trouble quiet a lot there. Now he’s in Berlin. We’ve been doing a lot of file sharing and remixes for each other. We have a great working relationship.

What kind of trouble did you get into in with Anton in L.A.? 

I just remember us DJing together. I would always speed the records up, then he would slow them down and we would have these little conflicts over that. We each had out own motivation for the speeds we were playing the music at. He’s a slower guy naturally and I’m more hyper.

Paul Weller is another icon on the record. He co-wrote “Spinning Out” and played piano and background vocals. It seems like you know everybody!

It’s funny, because Paul called me up once in 1993 to congratulate me on the song “Can’t Get Out of Bed” [from the album Up to Our Hips.] I’d never met him, obviously. I’d grown up with his songs; he was huge in England from ‘77 onwards, when I first started getting into music. So it was quite the moment when I first picked up the phone. We played lived together a few times over the years and I always wanted to write with him. I finally asked him about five summers ago, but it took a while to get together, because I think it’s important to do something really good when the time is right

A full 25 years have passed since you released Between 10th and 11th, which was a pretty important album for you; in the States, it demonstrated you weren’t a one-hit wonder. Were you under a lot of pressure back then?

That was a claustrophobic time. Our first album was a smash all over the world, and it just was crazy. After that album, we decided to release a session of EPs and transition from what we were to what we were about to become — in our minds, anyways. So, when we got to the recorded part of it, we only had fragments of ideas and didn’t have many songs. We made the record in six weeks with producer Flood, who really helped with the sound. He gave a solid foundation to any of the songs that he felt were built on twigs. We used a lot of electronics, which we wanted to move into anyway. So the songs were more electronic than most of the songs on our first album, Some Friendly. When we released it, a lot of people who liked our first album were in tears because they hated it. I remember coming to America and all the people from the record company at RCA were really not sure if it was as good as the first album. That was disappointing to us in many ways, but as a record, it really stood the test of time. Now people can look back on it and say look at how strong it is — especially songs like “Weirdo,” “Ignition,” and “The End of Everything.”

Another great song is “I Can’t Even Be Bothered,” which doesn’t stray that far from what you did on Some Friendly. Were you under a lot of strain during those sessions? There were reports that guitarist Jon Baker left the band and bassist Martin Blunt had a nervous breakdown. Was everyone overwhelmed by the success of the first record, and did that success leave you in a haze of self-indulgence?

We were all into Ecstasy on the first record. But we were more into smoking grass for the second record. We had very, very early mornings and very late nights. Everything was going all the time. That’s where the craziness came from.

Your fifth album Telling Stories turned 20 years old in April. That was your most commercially successful record to date. Why did it eclipse the sales of some of your other records?

I don’t know. It’s such a different sound. More rock. Maybe that had something to do with it.

What was going on when you were making that album?

[Keyboardist] Rob Collins had just come out of jail. He was arrested for assisting an armed robber. He drove the getaway car and they got caught and he we went to jail [for four months]. It was very crazy. Very rock ‘n’ roll.

Tragically, he died shortly after that, when he crashed his BMW. Police reported that he had been drinking before the accident and wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.

It was crazy a crazy time. I didn’t get over that for a long time, especially in the beginning. He was the main songwriter, the leader of the band. He played the most visible instrument in the band, which was the Hammond organ.

How did you find out about the accident?

The police came to the studio. Rob had been following us in a car. We lost him at a light. There were a lot of roads leading up the studio. When he didn’t show up, we all thought he had gone for a cigarette. But he was upside-down in a field.

Was it difficult to finish the record after that?

We were all in the studio. [Guitarist] Mark Collins and Jon left to go away for the weekend, but came back the next morning to find out if it was real or not, and to see what was gonna happen next. There were photographers and reporters outside the studio. We had to make a statement. It was a bit weird, all of it, and hard to believe. There were lots of phone calls coming into the studio. We didn’t know what to do. Then we were offered to play Knebworth as the special guest of Oasis. That was before Rob’s death, and our publicist called and said, “You still gotta do it.” And we couldn’t work out how we were gonna do it. Martin Duffy from Primal Scream stepped forward and said he wanted to help us out. And from that moment, probably just 24 hours after Rob died, people were just offering help for us to continue as a band, and I think that’s one of the things that kept us going.

Did Rob’s death, or Jon’s death, ever make you think about calling it a day and breaking up the band?

They were horrible moments, but I’m not the giving-up kind of guy. So it doesn’t register to me, to be honest. Whether I think about it every day, or whether it’s only crossed my mind once in my life, I don’t think it matters. I just live and I write, and people want me to make records, so I keep doing it and I just don’t think about giving up.

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