On new album Distractions, being inspired by political events, how his songwriting has changed over the years and some of his favourite Tindersticks albums
Recent years have been productive for Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples. In 2018 he released his experimental solo album Arrhythmia, while 2019 proved even more fruitful with the arrival of his soundtrack to Claire Denis’ High Life film and the 11th Tindersticks album, No Treasure But Hope.
The imminent release of Distractions further extends this creative streak and sees the band widen and refresh their sound in places while remaining true to their instincts and their past. We begin by talking about how No Treasure But Hope, a lush and sumptuous album that bore many longstanding Tindersticks hallmarks, fed into Distractions, which feels like a band challenging themselves.
“Making No Treasure But Hope was a really great experience but the nature of it was that everybody was in their secure space,” he recalls. “Earl was playing his drums, Neil was playing lead guitar and so on. Even though everybody was pushing themselves in writing songs there was an element of finishing that album that left me with itchy feet. In the years before No Treasure But Hope I made the soundtrack to High Life, Arrhythmia and Minute Bodies (a soundtrack to the science films of naturalist, inventor and pioneering filmmaker F Percy Smith). I learned so much about making music in different ways and after finishing No Treasure But Hope there was something else I needed to find.
“Man Alone is exciting for me as I didn’t want a narrative you could hold on to. I wanted it to be passing thoughts and feelings along this journey”
“From that came the starting point for The Bough Bends (the closing track on Distractions). I made sketches of ideas before I left to go on tour because I didn’t want to forget the feel of it. Halfway through the tour we had to pack up and go home due to the pandemic and I found myself with time to go back to these ideas and things started to evolve. We didn’t set out to make a radically different record but there was something about No Treasure But Hope that for this album I needed to be in a place I hadn’t been before musically. The previous few years of making more experimental music fed into it and maybe these two things came together. It was important we were together and everyone got a chance to empty their ideas”.
That different musical place is nowhere more evident than on the experimental, improvisatory opening track Man Alone (Can’t Stop The Fadin’) which features a markedly different sound to what many would associate with a Tindersticks track. A restless, looped vocal intertwines with a prominent bassline and electronic percussion over the course of 11 minutes. How did he end up writing such a different sounding track?
“When I made the first sketch of Man Alone I just used the instruments I had around me, a bass guitar and drum machine. I wasn’t expecting what came out to play such a big part in the finished song but some things just stuck. We tried different approaches and it gradually evolved and became more refined but I think a lot of what came out of the initial time I spent on it survived. In those situations you’re just trying to satisfy something you’re looking for, to capture a feeling that is inside you. In the end it was quite a defining and iconic moment in making the record”.
It might be a striking, unexpected beginning but there’s still much on the album that will strike a chord with longer term fans of the band. Two pieces on the album, I Imagine You and The Bough Bends, feature spoken word elements. They might not be quite as narrative as memorable tracks from earlier albums like My Sister and Chocolate but hearing Staples deliver the lines in this way feels like one of the more familiar aspects of the album. Is that spoken word element something he particularly enjoys or feels is well suited to the band’s music?
“Maybe it is those things but it just feels natural to us. With The Bough Bends, I was working on the music so much and I left the vocals until the last minute. Like a lot of the album it was done in a moment, in one take, then I spent a lot of time afterwards scratching my head trying to figure out what it was going to be. I don’t really think too much about whether the words are sung or spoken.”
Some familiar ideas occasionally crop up in the lyrics also. When he’s writing songs does he find himself naturally gravitating towards certain themes?
“I think you just are who you are” he laughs. “Sometimes it would be great if we could change that. I think you’re just interested in certain things and you just try to find new ways within that to feel excited or engaged. For me, Man Alone is exciting as I didn’t want to write lyrics, I didn’t want a narrative you could hold on to. I wanted it to be passing thoughts and feelings along this journey. On The Bough Bends I felt like I was in a different space even if the song has similar sentiments to what I’ve sang about in the past. I felt I was exploring them in a different way this time.”
“The George Floyd killing made me think about the situation I felt as a young man in the 1980s with Thatcher and Reagan and all the racism that was around then”
Reinterpreting the songs of others has been something Tindersticks have done throughout the course of their career and Distractions features three covers, all of which arrive with fascinating results, no more so than on You’ll Have To Scream Louder by Television Personalities. Staples describes how during a weekend of early 2020 he found himself with the track going round his head. Within hours he had laid down the bones of the track that would eventually appear in full on Distractions.
“I think there was a weekend in May or June where we had all been locked up for so long and the George Floyd killing had recently happened. It just made me think about when I was young in the 1980s and the situation I felt as a young man with Thatcher and Reagan and all the racism that was around back then. All of these things just really affected me. My generation felt that we had changed things but to be here now, it feels as though maybe there was an element of complacency. You think battles are won but that incident showed these kinds of battles are just ongoing”.
For a band possibly better known for writing about the minutiae of personal relationships and the finer points of human emotions, was it unusual for him to be creatively inspired by something so political?
“It does happen occasionally. Maybe in the past I haven’t wanted to speak about what has inspired certain pieces of music but even a song like No More Affairs on the second record to me very much comes from a place from in the early ’80s of growing up during the Aids epidemic and the way that affected me. That was the starting point of that song, I wanted to make it as romantic as possible but that was the start. I was a lot better at ignoring the world when I was younger and concentrating on what I was interested in, but that increasingly becomes harder as you get older.”
The other two songs covered on the album are A Man Needs A Maid By Neil Young and The Lady With The Braid by Dory Previn. The latter feels like an especially interesting choice. When did he first hear her music?
“When I was at school I had an inspiring English teacher at the comprehensive school I went to and he was always interested in what people were listening to. I lent him a Joy Division album when I was about 15 or something, and he came back and said I think you’d really like Dory Previn. I think from that moment I started to dip in but maybe it was 10-15 years ago when I first got into her music properly. We’ve tried to record that song a few times over the years, and it’s been the same with the Neil Young song. A Man Needs A Maid has got quite a country-like structure and it proved difficult to find a way to break it out of that. Both of those songs have had a long gestation to them and it’s a relief now to have them recorded”.
“I was a lot better at ignoring the world when I was younger but that becomes harder as you get older”
Tindersticks have covered quite a diverse range of artists in the past (most notably on If You’re Looking For A Way Out by Odyssey, Here by Pavement, and Kathleen by Townes Van Zandt). How do they decide what ends up being covered? Is he looking for something that fits some kind of Tindersticks aesthetic?
“Maybe I do feel that without realising, but it’s not really scientific, it’s just something that gets inside you. When I think back to when we covered If You’re Looking For A Way Out by Odyssey, my relationship to that song was such a strange one. I was this little punk at the school disco waiting for this pop music to finish so the music that I wanted to dance could be played but even in those times you’re taking in so much and I didn’t even realise how powerful that song was and I just found myself singing it one day. Then it was a case of seeing if we could do something with it.”
The album also features Tue-Moi, a piano-led song inspired by the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris’s Bataclan. Staples says he had to find the courage of his convictions to sing the song, both due to the subject matter and the fact that the lyrics are in French.
“With writing songs I find that even if you don’t have the words you usually have the core of the song that you understand. From that you have to find this language, find this way of making the song exist. I’ve played concerts at the Bataclan so many times and I have these memories that are like snapshots. I don’t remember every concert I’ve played but I have such a strong memory of being in that place. That made it feel so close and added a real weight to it. When you have the barrier of not writing in your own language the song can’t flow. I had to sketch it in English then I worked with my wife and some French friends to help it go to where it is now. It was a long process.”
Has the way he has written songs changed much over the years?
“In a certain way it has changed a lot. I used to maybe think about a song or feel a song and be desperate to find it and I’d get my guitar and go and lock myself away to work on it. One of the things I have learned is to have a kind of trust in that, if I feel something or if I’m drawn towards something, I’ll be able to find something within that, to have confidence in that process. I’ve realised that if i do pick up a guitar and try to figure out what this song is I can make that song smaller without realising it. By having such a long relationship with the band I can leave the ideas and as soon as I feel that they are tangible I’m happy to present them in the loosest way possible. Even if I know how I would play them, I’d like to know what these guys are going to do with them before I say ‘this is what it is’. I think that creates a more interesting conversation and if things aren’t happening we can go away and think about things again and find out where it needs to go.
“I’ve played concerts at Le Bataclan so many times and I have these memories that are like snapshots”
“I learned that from working with (film director) Claire Denis as well. When she presents a film to me she never tells me what kind of music she wants, she wants to see how I feel about it first. That allows her to learn something and gain something. I think that approach can make music broader and more mysterious.”
Distractions is the band’s 12th album. Looking back, are there any Tindersticks albums that he’s particularly proud of?
“I think that The Something Rain is a very special record in terms of what all the songs add up to and the feeling inside of what was going on at that time. I’m also very fond of Simple Pleasure and Can Our Love, but to me they’re not as strong as The Something Rain. That album really achieved what it set out to do. When you think about albums it’s hard to predict what it is going to be and whether you’re going to capture the thing that you’re looking for. I’ve got a love for everything we’ve made, but in the past I’ve probably been critical of Waiting For The Moon even though it’s got some of my favourite of our recordings on it, songs like My Oblivion, Running Wild and Sometimes It Hurts. Across the album it didn’t feel like it had a collective strength, but maybe that’s because we as a band didn’t have a collective strength. There are some great moments on The Hungry Saw and Falling Down A Mountain but on The Something Rain we found a cohesion and a place to push on from”.
The renewed confidence and focus re-established on The Something Rain can be traced all the way up to Distractions. It might not grab headlines, and at seven tracks long might feel a different structured album to a lot of their others, but it’s still undoubtedly a valuable addition from a band that continues to quietly thrive.
Distractions by Tindersticks is out on 19 February on City Slang. Further information can be found here.