Q&A: Teenage Fanclub
By Daniel Kohn on July 12, 2010
Since they’ve been together for over 20 years, five years doesn't really seem like a long time for alt-rock veterans Teenage Fanclub. Emerging from the Glasgow C86 scene in the late '80s, Teenage Fanclub is one of the most respected bands in the world, with support ranging from Kurt Cobain to Ben Gibbard. The Glasgow natives’ new album, Shadows, is the band’s first album in five years and was released on May 31 on Merge Records. Recently, FILTER caught up with Fanclubber Norman Blake to find out the secret to the band’s longevity, how they choose their live set, how they recorded that epic Judgement Night collaboration with De La Soul ("Fallin'") and why Sonic Youth is Blake's favorite band to share a stage with.
After making music together for 21 years, what's been the secret to the band's longevity?
Norman Blake: Probably the fact that there are three writers in the band. With most bands there'll be one writer who has to write 12 to 14 songs for each record. To my mind it's difficult to consistently write that amount of good songs over the course of a dozen albums. We've shared this burden and hopefully that's allowed us to maintain a decent standard.
The music business has changed dramatically since you guys started, how has this affected the band?
I suppose it's affected us in much the same way as it's affected most bands, we sell a lot less records than we used to. We have our own label in the UK/Europe now and have a deal with Merge for the U.S./Canada. We have no dealings with majors now and haven't for some time. That situation probably applies to a great many bands nowadays.
What is the typical writing/recording process for the band? Was recording Shadows different or did you stick to the same formula?
We pretty much always arrive in the studio with the music and will then write the lyrics while we're there. We arrange the songs collectively but the person who wrote the song will direct proceedings. We've done it this way for a while now.
With three principal songwriters, how do you guys decide what songs to play live?
When we have a new record we like to play as many songs from that as we can. On our recent UK tour we would play seven of the twelve. We'll fill the rest of the set out with mostly singles and popular album songs. Normally we'll change the set from show to show, but on our last tour we didn't.
What was it like to work with acclaimed artists like De La Soul and Jad Fair? In what ways did they influence you?
It's always great to work with people who come from a different musical area than yourself. With De La Soul we recorded some looped drum, bass and guitar parts and they created the rap and dropped in the Tom Petty sample. With Jad, we improvised the music for each track swapping instruments between songs. Jad would then scan his notebook for a suitable lyric and then overdub his vocal (generally in one take). Both ways of working are very different to what we would normally do and allowed us to explore new areas of creativity.
Outside of Glasgow, what city has been the most supportive of the band?
That's very difficult to answer. Maybe London or Tokyo. We tend to get a good turn out in both cities.
Did you know you are Death Cab For Cutie lead singer Ben Gibbard's favorite band?
I didn't know that we were his favorite band. That's nice to know. I've met Ben and he's a really nice guy. We correspond from time to time. We almost toured with Death Cab For Cutie a few years back but it didn't happen for one reason or another. Shame as it would have been fun. They are a band that we as a band like.
Also, what did it mean to you guys that Kurt Cobain consistently called Teenage Fanclub "the best band in the world"?
I don't know if he actually said that. I know that he loved the Vaselines very much. I was there the first time that Kurt and Eugene met. It's a moment I'll never forget. We toured with Nirvana on the Nevermind tour, which was just an amazing time. I thought that it was so cool when they took Jad Fair on tour. Anyway, we'd gotten to know them through our Olympia (K) connections. They were a great bunch and Kurt was a nice guy. Such a tragedy.
Of all the bands you've shared the stage with, who is your favorite to play with and why?
Sonic Youth are always great to watch. Never seen them have a bad show and I'm always amazed that they can so easily translate that recorded sound to a live context. I think I've seen them about thirty times now. I love their records so much.
What are some of the lessons of the trade that can be passed along to the up-and-comers?
Ooh! I'm not sure really. Don't sign anything without reading through it thoroughly and don't tell journalists that your band is the best band ever, because they're not :-)
Of all your moments on the road, what was the most memorable moment show?
We played at the freak show in Coney Island in 1989. The show was set up by our friend Kim Rancourt, who was in "When people were shorter and lived near the water". We also played inside a gas tank in Switzerland. Very echoey. F