When SPIN caught up with Teenage Fanclub songwriter Norman Blake in February to discuss the band’s new album Endless Arcade, the world was in a much more uncertain place than it is today. Prospects on when and how live music would be coming back were still marked with doubt. But Blake, as always, radiates with positivity for the days ahead. Even as the long-running Scottish band faced its biggest shake-up.
With it being their eleventh album and first since 2016’s Here, there is a seismic shift that will be abundantly clear to longtime fans. It’s the first Teenage Fanclub release without longtime bassist and songwriter Gerard Love, effectively dismantling the three-pronged songwriter attack they have been known for throughout their 30 plus years as a band. Now, the lion’s share of the songwriting duties have been divided between Blake and lead guitarist and songwriter Raymond McGinley.
With this departure, the material that both Blake and McGinley brought to the table for Endless Arcade finds these seasoned songwriters looking at their lives with a sense of mortality. But while lesser writers may tend to overwhelm listeners with lyrics that can seem overwrought when dealing with these issues, the simplicity and pop mastery that these two have been able to achieve with hard work has allowed them to distill them down into its most unflinchingly direct presentation possible.
“I don’t know if you get better at songwriting as such,” Blake says of the band’s strengths as time has marched on, “but you certainly have a better understanding of what techniques work for you as a musician or a writer and you can hone that. It’s a gradual thing and I know for a fact that I’m a much better musician than I was when I was 20.”
Songs like the McGinley penned title track and Blake’s “I’m More Inclined” and “The Sun Won’t Shine On Me” radiate with wisdom, with the band sounding relaxed and assured as ever before. That in part is due to the revamping of the band’s lineup in the absence of Love. The band has welcomed new members; longtime touring guitarist and keyboardist Dave McGowan has shifted over to bass duties while Euros Childs of the Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci has joined the band on keys.
For now, Blake seems to be regaining his footing both with the band and his personal life amidst the world falling apart. After spending the last decade or so living in Canada, Blake decided to make the move back to Glasgow just before the pandemic hit to have a closer commute to the office so-to-speak so that the band could put the finishing touches on the long-gestating self-produced album. At the time of our conversation, Blake had been living under the same roof as his parents for the first time since he was much younger. According to him, it has been a pleasant experience thus far. “It’s been fine actually. We give each other a lot of space. I’ve been living in Canada for almost 10 years so I didn’t get to see much of them,” he says.
In our conversation with Blake, we discuss Teenage Fanclub’s fantastic new record which is out on April 30 on Merge Records, the future of the band without Gerard Love, and the chance encounter he had with Little Richard that needs to be in the Teenage Fanclub biopic.
Sadness is always there in a Teenage Fanclub record, but with this album there is a tremendous sense of longing and looking back at life with a new perspective.
We’re both in our mid-to-late 50s now. I think we just try to write what we experience in life. Maybe there is a sort of general melancholy about getting older. Inevitably, as you get older you tend to reflect on your life. That’s not to say that we feel as though that we’re coming to the end of our lives or anything like that! I think we try to write a bit about our life experiences and what we are going through at any given time.
Some of the lyrics in there are about my personal relationships. I won’t get into too much detail, the last couple of years haven’t been the greatest time in my personal life. I guess if you’re trying to write honestly, you have to put some of that into your songwriting. I’m happy to say that I’m feeling a lot better. But when I was writing the songs I wasn’t in a particularly great place in my personal life. So that would explain my songs. Raymond would have to explain his own.
I think, like you said, there has always been a strand of melancholy in our music. I don’t know whether that has something to do with living in the West of Scotland in Glasgow. With the way things are here, I’m not entirely sure. There’s a lot of grey skies here, a lot of poverty. Glasgow is a great city, but it has the highest drug deaths in all of Europe. It’s the city with the highest per capita drug deaths. There is a “darkness” to this city, too. So maybe we reflect some of that in our music.
This album has probably the most guitar firepower the band has had in some time. Were their conversations with Raymond on taking your playing up to this level or did it all happen naturally?
It was [fun]. Generally, Raymond takes the majority of the soloing. He has a very idiosyncratic style. There are things like on the track “Home” we play dual harmonized guitars. Raymond takes the solo at the end of that song. There are two solo sections to that song but for the first solo section, I think I came up with the initial solo and Raymond harmonized to that.
We’ve always been a guitar band. We’ve always tried to do interesting things with the guitar. We’re always conscious to try and come up with parts that compliment each other. I think that’s a mistake that young bands make very often. We, I’m sure we did too with all of the guitars playing the same thing. You think it’s going to make it sound big, but two people playing the same part sort of cancels itself out. You have this null with the guitars. You try to make it sound bigger but it sounds smaller.
With Gerry leaving the band, have you noticed a shift in sound or approach?
Yes and no. Gerry going was a loss, for sure. The band was great when Gerry was in it and he wrote brilliant songs. I don’t want to sound too glib, but what we did in the past was we would take four songs each. So for this record in terms of having the content of 12 songs, Raymond and myself had to come up with two more songs that we were happy with. In the past, for each album, we would probably all come up with seven or eight songs.
But in a way, for us, it’s business as usual. People leave bands. Things change. You either decide that that’s the end and you don’t want to do it anymore or you keep going. Everyone else in the band wanted to keep touring and making records, and that’s what we did! Conversely, when the lineup changes you’re almost kind of reinvigorated as well. We’ve had the same formula for quite a long time and you come to the point when you have to rejig that somewhat, you know?
I think it was a fairly smooth transition, but Dave had been with the band for a long, long time. I had been in a band with Euros Gorkys who had toured with us in the past. Euros had been on previous Teenage Fanclub records and he was a friend of the band. So it wasn’t as though we got a couple of new guys that we didn’t know. It felt different. I would look to the left and Gerry wasn’t there. Dave was there. So that felt a little odd at first.
I think we’ve done over 100 shows with the new lineup. It seems necessary now. You can either wallow and think, “this is terrible, the band’s not the same” or just go on with it. The way we’ve always looked at it is; it’s just a band. We’re just a bunch of pals that make music together. The combination of people could be good, or you’ll do your best to make a great record.
When you toured without Gerry, did it feel strange to recontextualize your songs in the grander scheme of a live set?
Well it did but at the same time we are fortunate that we’ve got a lot of LPs. So there were a lot of songs that we had never played. Especially Raymond’s songs. I think in the past the band was very much focused on myself and Gerry. We always get the singles and Raymond didn’t really get them. For example, the song “About You” should have been a single but it wasn’t. I don’t know why that was the case. In fact, for a long time, the [live] set was made up of songs that were my own and Gerry’s. Then in the last few years with Gerry in the band we sort of rebalanced that with more of Raymond’s songs. He’s got a lot of great songs! So what happened is we’ve gone looking for older songs because we have to put a set together. We’re not playing Gerry’s because it doesn’t feel right doing them without him there singing them. We’ve got hundreds of songs, so it’s meant that we’ve had to look through for other things. We plan to do more of that. There’s a song of Raymond’s that we haven’t played live actually called “Middle of the Road”. It should have been on Grand Prix but for some reason, we didn’t put it on Grand Prix. We reissued that album recently and put that song on a bonus 7”. That’s one that I would like to play live because I think it’s a really great tune. So to answer your question, I think it’s okay because we’ve got a lot of songs and we can still put together a pretty great set. Sure, we don’t do “Sparky’s Dream” and “Ain’t That Enough” and some other stuff but I think the set is still really strong.
Throughout your career, you have released records with two massively important independent labels; Creation Records and Merge Records. The record you did with Jad Fair Words of Wisdom and Hope came out on Alternative Tentacles. Did you have any interactions with Jello Biafra?
Yeah, we did! Not much but we met Jello and he really liked the record. He was a big fan of Jad’s. I had been a big fan of the Dead Kennedys since I was a kid. It was amazing and who would have thought that Teenage Fanclub would be on Alternative Tentacles? But there you go It happened! They were very nice. Jad has been a good friend for a long time. There was a period in his life where he was a lot like David Carradine in Kung Fu. He would always stay at our home in Glasgow. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, I should give him a ring.
Danny Boyle produced a biopic of Alan McGee of Creation Records that has been released recently titled Creation Stories. I checked and I didn’t see a “Norman Blake” character listed on the film’s IMDB page…
Thank goodness for that!
If there were to be a Teenage Fanclub storyline in a similar film, would there be stylized heist scenes or drugged-out montages of the band recording Bandwagonesque in your version of the film? What would you want that sort of storyline to look like?
Phew, I thought you were going to ask “who would play me?” I’ll go with George Clooney, of course [Laughs]. Someone actually got in touch with me a few years ago asking me if I would be interested in having a small cameo role in that movie as one of Alan McGee’s co-workers when he worked in the shipyards of Glasgow. I politely declined. I couldn’t see myself doing that.
I don’t think we are quite big enough to be a part of the story but I look forward to seeing it because I think it will be a hoot. I don’t know if the Teenage Fanclub story is interesting enough to have a movie made about us. There’s not enough drama.
Although we would have us meeting Little Richard at the Hyatt on Sunset. That would have to be in there. We were staying in L.A. and we were staying there and were in the lobby. For a very brief period, we had a guy called Jim Grant managing the band. So we were in the lobby with Jim and Little Richard came out the elevator. I turned to Jim and said, “Fuckin’ hell, there’s Little Richard!” and he says, “I know him, do you want to meet him?” and I was like, “Yeah!”
So we go over and Jim says “Hey Mr. Richard,” and Little Richard says, “Hey Jim, how are you doing?” Jim had been working with Living Color and knew him from something the two of them had done together. So Jim says, “We’ve been working with these guys Teenage Fanclub from Scotland” and Little Richard looks at me and shakes my hand vigorously and says [in high-pitched voice], “Teenage Fanclub from Scotland? COOL!”
I thought this guy knew Buddy Holly. Wow! This guy is Little Richard. Wow! So there you go, that would be in our movie!