Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley on how new album Endless Arcade fell into place, their creative processes, and their forthcoming UK tour plans
Over the course of their career Teenage Fanclub have always inspired love and loyalty in large volumes among their fans. So the widespread acclaim that greeted their latest album Endless Arcade, released earlier this year, came as no major surprise. Yet, even by these standards, the reaction felt warmer and more universal than usual, certainly in critical/press circles.
The positive response could partly be a simple appreciation that, after existing for over 30 years, they are still making music. It could also be partly related to a sense of relief that after the minor turbulence of Gerry Love leaving the band in 2018 they’ve found a new formation that has allowed songwriters Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley to move the band forward.
In the end however, it’s hard to look past the surge of affection being due to the sheer quality of the songs on the new album. They sound instantly familiar but also arrive with a renewed freshness and quiet sense of evolution, partly due to the personnel in the band being rejigged after Love’s departure (long term keyboard player Dave McGowan moved over to play bass and former Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci frontman Euros Childs was drafted in on keyboards and backing vocals).
We caught up with Blake and McGinley to talk about how the album fell into place, some of their creative processes, some of their previous memorable live shows and their plans for their forthcoming UK tour.
How has it felt to get such a positive reaction to the album?
Norman Blake: “It’s been really great. You never know what to expect when you make an album. You hope it’s going to be something people will like but you never know until it’s out so we’ve been really pleased by the favourable responses.”
Raymond McGinley: “Going away and making a record, it’s a self indulgent thing but in a good way. When you do it you’re not thinking of people’s reactions. It’s always really great when people say they’ve liked this thing that you’ve done, we don’t take that for granted. We don’t assume people are going to like a new album just because they’ve liked things we’ve done before. It’s just really frustrating for us at this point in time for us not to be on tour. It feels even weirder than I thought it would.”
Blake: “Normally after you put a record out you’re thrown right into the live shows and you get a chance to see how the audience engages with the songs and we get a lot of pleasure from that as a band. It’s one thing making the record, that’s really satisfying, but we also love the satisfaction we get from playing the songs live. Other than two of these songs we haven’t had a chance to play these songs live at all. We’ll be changing that at the start of August though so that’s exciting.”
Their socially distanced warm up show in Cardiff sold out within hours of being announced and they have a festival appearance lined up at Green Man before their UK tour begins in September. As we talk it becomes clear they’re really looking forward to playing the songs live.
Blake: “Definitely, we’ve only really played these songs together in the studio and the rehearsal space but that’s different, you have headphones on and you haven’t got a monitor and so on. It’s slightly daunting in that it’s been such a long time since we recorded them and I’m not entirely sure what I played in some of the songs so there’s going to be some homework involved!”
When they get such a warm reaction to a new album does that inspire them to write and play more?
McGinley: “At the moment we’re gagging to do all of that. We almost feel a bit greedy to be both currently recording and going on tour. For the last album we did a bit of touring when recording, but we don’t usually do that but it went pretty well so we’ll see how it goes. As we get into playing more shows maybe we’ll look into doing some more recording as well. As we haven’t been on tour you end up sitting around playing the guitar and coming up with ideas so we do have some new things that we’re working on.”
Blake: “We like making a record, then touring, then making another record. Obviously this is what we do for a living and we’re really happy about it but we’re aware that you have to work as a musician. You have to put that effort in, especially nowadays given there is less money in making records, so you have to tour. We’re lucky in that we enjoy what we do, there’s loads of people who have jobs that they don’t enjoy.”
McGinley: “We’ve been lucky to have been able to do what we do for a long time but what has happened over the past year and half has made us feel particularly bereft at not being able to tour. When it is taken away it does leave a bit of a hole in your life.”
A lot of the songs on Endless Arcade have an effortless quality to them. Do they find it gets easier to write the longer they do it?
Blake: “Sometimes you can overthink writing, quite often it’s just about putting that bit of effort in. Obviously, Gerry left before we made this album, and he was a very big part of the band, but Raymond, Francis, Dave and myself have been playing together for a long time so there’s a synergy there and we know how to play together as a group of musicians. Then, we brought Euros Childs into the band and he has fit in really well. We know how to put things together in terms of arrangements and how to work in the studio.”
McGinley: “I think we try to do things instinctively as much as possible as opposed to coming up with too much of a narrative on what we’re doing. We try to immerse ourselves in the details of the musical expression. We don’t say too much to each other but everyone in the band’s input on this record has been great. Euros adding those counter melodies and keyboard things that he does have been great.
“On those things, we just sit around and start playing and he just comes up with those ideas. We’ve never been a band that sit around and discuss everything, we like to let things happen. Also, I think on this album when we started making it, it hadn’t been long since we had been on the road so we were quite relaxed. Sometimes you can make a record and you’ve been away from other people, on your own thinking about songs then suddenly you’re in a room with someone else but it was different this time.
“We had been around each other for some time in the lead up to that so it felt natural. We try to trust each other and trust ourselves. The thing we probably find hardest to finish is writing lyrics for the songs.”
It almost feels a little surprising to hear that as one of the album’s strengths is the lyrics and the expanded vocabulary that features (the songs talk of feeling forlorn, suffering from malaise, leaving this great dominion, sliding into synergy and riding into infinity). Do they actively pursue finding new language and new ways of expressing themselves?
Blake: “I suppose you are looking for words that sound good together. In a way you’re sort of writing poetry but you’re also looking for the rhyme.”
McGinley: “Also, if you can find something that rhymes and feels like it’s a good word to use at the same time there’s a power that comes from that. There’s an emotional reaction that people have to words that scan and rhyme and have a rhythmic quality about them regardless of the meaning but getting all of those things to happen to your satisfaction is the difficulty. There’s only so many permutations that work so sometimes you’re led by structure or the limitations of language but those are good things.”
Blake: “Sometimes you come up with a line that’s really simple. On our last LP, Here, I had a song called I’m In Love and the main line is just that and I remember writing that and it just felt like those were the right words for that music. The best thing to do is not overthink it too much.”
McGinley: “I sometimes come up with lines spontaneously and think that I’ll change it but then I end up making peace with it. That happened with Everything Is Falling Apart. You find yourself singing something and somehow you manage to make sense of it, it’s not a conscious process.”
Blake: “Words in songs are different to words in prose. Sometimes I’ll look at a Bob Dylan lyric, and I love Dylan, but it doesn’t read as well as it sounds in the song.”
Some of the songs have a certain sadness to them but they also feel really joyful and upbeat musically, with Warm Embrace being a good example. Is that a balance they were aiming for?
Blake: “I think subconsciously it might have been. Some of my songs are quite sad on this record. I might be down but I’m not out. On Warm Embrace I think I initially came up with the music first before the lyrical ideas followed. My headspace might not have been the happiness of places but again it was a case of finding things that fit with the melodies. When it feels right you just have to go with it.”
A lot of the new songs feel more personal, more first person than ever. Is creating music still their default way of processing their thoughts and making sense of life?
Blake: “Yeah, I think the easiest thing to talk about in songs is yourself and your life. We don’t really write narrative songs so much these days, maybe we did in the past with the likes of The Concept but we write about life experiences, the world and how we experience it. That can take many forms and it’ll change from album to album depending on your own personal mood. You might be having a great time in your life or you might be having not so great a time in your life.”
Looking back, thinking about shows you’ve played in the past over the years, have there been any shows they’ve played that are particularly memorable or stand out in any way?
Blake: “We’ve played with some big bands. We toured with Nirvana on the Nevermind tour and to witness that phenomenon was amazing. We also played with Radiohead in America on their OK Computer tour and that was great. I suppose in terms of playing shows ourselves, the first time we played CBGBs was amazing as that was a legendary place. Playing places like The 100 Club and Whiskey A Go Go was unbelievable also, something we couldn’t have anticipated.”
The band went on a tour of Asia just before the pandemic arrived. Those shows must have been pretty special?
Blake: “Yeah, we’re pretty lucky in that we do relatively well in Japan and we’ve been going there for years. The first time we went there was the first time I’ve really experienced culture shock. You land in Tokyo and there’s a different pace and there’s all the neon signage and bright lights. The first time we went there there was very little English.”
McGinley: “That’s the general thing I’d say about travelling these days, you see and hear more English than you did 25-30 years ago. The world is a smaller and easier place to navigate and sometimes I think there’s a bit of a downer to that as well. When we started touring it was a case of just getting in the back of a van and I loved the away-from-home-ness of that. We’d never look back on that as being the time we played the so-called “toilet circuit” or whatever. Some of those places we played in 1991 were crap but it was a brilliant experience.”
Blake: “In that time we set out with road maps, there were no phones. You waved goodbye to people you lived with and wouldn’t speak to them for weeks. And there’d be no tweeting about it! You were just out there, living it and that was good fun.”
McGinley: “Playing in Japan is really good as the audiences are really enthusiastic but they tend to really listen. It’s almost as if you could hear a pin drop. When we first experienced that it was great. I also remember the first time we played in Spain with Nirvana. We went back later and the first show we played on our own was in Valencia and we didn’t really know how it would go. We thought we hadn’t sold any tickets but when we went on stage it was packed and everyone was singing along. I remember everyone singing along to What You Do To Me at the top of their voices and us looking at each other thinking ‘this is amazing!’. It’s still the same when you’re on stage now and you feel that connection with the audience and we feel really at home with that. It feels natural to us to be somewhere different every day.”
Have they started to think about setlists yet for the shows coming up?
Blake: “We’ll obviously try to play quite a few songs from the new LP each night, hopefully we’ll play all of them over the course of the tour. We’ll try to change it around a bit and play something from each record. The great thing about being around forever is you have a lot of songs to choose from! We’ve never really gone away, we’re not a heritage band. We’ve always made albums and toured them and we’re doing the same this time. We did a tour a few years ago when five of our older albums were reissued on vinyl by Sony and we played them in full mainly as a thank you to them and to help them in terms of promotion. That was fine but generally we are always looking to work on something new, on the latest thing and play those songs. I think the way we did it having (former drummers) Paul Quinn and Brendan O’Hare on drums was good fun but that was definitely a one off.”
McGinley: “I think it’s good when those things are rare enough to be special events. It’s easy to slip into becoming a facilitator of other people’s nostalgia as a heritage band but we’ve always tried to resist that. I can remember touring Bandwagonesque and playing songs like The Concept and Alcoholiday for the first time and you see the audience looking uncertain, wondering what it is. Everything you’ve done has been new at some point. It’s not necessarily what some people in the audience want to hear. I think you need to keep moving forward otherwise it’s kind of all over.”
Do they have a favourite song by the other that they enjoy playing live?
Blake: “I enjoy playing quite a lot of Raymond’s songs. We started playing It’s A Bad World from Songs From Northern Britain recently and I really enjoyed playing that. It’s a song we haven’t really played very often. I really like the groove and the drumbeat is a bit unusual.”
McGinley: “Alcoholiday always feels really good to play live. I think everyone in the band has a fondness for a certain mid-tempo groove (they laugh). It’s a similar situation with The Concept, that gets even slower as it goes on. Those songs are always good to play live as you can feel your way into them.”
Having spoken previously about what Euro Childs has brought to the band since joining do you ever see a scenario where he might write songs under the Teenage Fanclub name?
McGinley: “I think in the band anything is possible and we started the band that way. We have to be respectful of Euros as he’s a serious artist in his own right.”
Blake: “Yes, to quote Edwyn Collins, the possibilities are endless.”
Blake’s optimistic line here (which refers to the first thing Collins said after waking from a stroke-induced coma in 2005) feels an apt way to close the conversation. The impression gained is of a band looking forward with confidence, energised and excited by the creative possibilities of the future. It’s not something that can be said of all bands into their fourth decade of playing. As McGinley sings on the album’s title track, “Don’t be afraid of this endless arcade that is life”, and right now, as an unofficial band motto, it feels hard to think of anything else more relevant.
Endless Arcade by Teenage Fanclub is out now on PeMa. The band tour the UK in September, full details can be found here.