Tindersticks :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Tindersticks released six albums throughout the 1990s and early aughts prior to frontman Stuart Staples stepping away to make something of his own. Two solo albums later, a new incarnation of the band was formed, subsequently releasing another five records. Full of conviction with an unyielding reverence for his art, Staples simply refuses to look back. “The things we’ve done, the great times we’ve had, that doesn’t interest me,” he told AD over the phone from his countryside home in Limousin, France. “You have to be in the moment together.”

Staples has always been in the moment. Whether with Tindersticks or his solo work, he hasn’t stopped creating in nearly thirty years. His prolific work as a composer, specifically the stretch of three films in the 00s from French director Claire Denis, has earned the artist some well due international notoriety—2018’s High Life, starring Robert Pattinson, won “Best Music” at the Ghent International Film Festival. Now on November 15 comes the twelfth album from Tindersticks, No Treasure but Hope via City Slang. 

“We are the amputees, cut off at our knees,” Staples sings on “The Amputees,” the first single from No Treasure but Hope. It’s a song that carries immense weight, one that sets a tone for the album as a whole. While many of the compositions are soft, enveloping soundscapes, much of No Treasure floats in a dim vastness, reveling in the existentialism and singularity of being human.

During our chat, Stuart shed some light on the process behind the new record, as well as the importance of looking forward, why he doesn’t like his music in TV shows, the earnest beauty of Greece, making sense of his new music and more. words / c ruddell

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell us about where you come from in the world and where you currently reside.

Stuart Staples: We come from a place called Nottingham, in the UK, in the midlands. The place where I’m from is a kind of a mining place. In 1990, I moved to London. I think that’s when the band kind of started to come together. I stayed there for 17 years, and then I left. I live in the middle of France, in kind of a rural place now. It’s in a place called Limousin in France. Recently, the last few years, we’ve been spending more and more time in Greece. This album was written in Greece specifically. That’s the geography.

AD: I’m curious as to what kind of literature and music inspired you in the early chapters of your career, from Asphalt Ribbons into Tindersticks?

Stuart Staples: I suppose at that time, being a teenager, you read the things you were supposed to read. If you were from the kind of background I had, it was important to be pretentious. I didn’t know anybody that went to university. Musicians introduced me to reading. I read Ballard because of Joy Division. I think it was the culture that kind of bred itself in a way. The references that musicians would talk about, you would then go and seek it out. So I probably read a lot of things that were too early for me, in a way, but I just wanted to have the experience of reading them. Saying that, I think the more that time has gone on, I realized that writing songs for me is not really based around words. I don’t think literature in itself has played as an important role for me as more visual input. I could easily put on a Joy Division record and enjoy it. There was so much music that to me is still relevant. 1980 to 82 is a really fantastic time to be 15, 16. It’s so rich. So much music that I still think is totally listenable today and influential. An album like the second Cure album. So much stuff we just took it for granted. It’s not until you look back on it that you realize how great that music was.

AD: How have the landscapes and cultures of Nottingham and Limousin specifically added to or affected your music?

Stuart Staples: I feel as though my musical life started when I moved to London. Before that I was fumbling around, practicing what it might be like to actually touch something that was actually valid or meant something to me or was part of something bigger. I think London itself in the beginning was very much about the being lost in its energy. What that actually ended up being was 17 years later, feeling like you’re defined by it in some way. When I wrote a song in like 2001 or 2002, like “Say Goodbye to the City,” it had such a relationship to this song, “City Sickness” I had written 10 years before. It was almost like I’m not gonna write another one of these lost, being consumed by the city songs. I need to get out of here and see how I feel. I think that London became this feeling that made me feel as though it defined me in someway or defined the music I made. Moving to Limousin and building the studio here, I felt as though, and I still do, as though this studio and this space is not defined by anything. To me it feels like it’s floating somewhere in Europe. When I enter it and I close the door, it can be anything, anywhere. It’s such a valuable space. For all of last year, I was inside of a spaceship in surround sound working on High Life, like it could be anything and you could go anywhere you wanted to be. I think that’s the biggest difference really. Feeling so surrounded and defined by London, to feeling so alone, but in a good way, a way of freedom to do creative things.

AD: Correct me if I’m wrong on this, but it seems to me like Tindersticks output depends greatly on how the band feels at the time. How does Tindersticks feel to you currently, and how has it differed from the past iterations of the lineup?

Stuart Staples: There are two very definite lineups in our history. Early Harvin and Dan McKinna, they’ve been playing music with us for nearly 10 years now, and they’re both wonderful musicians. When we met, we had an understanding, but that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you become a band. It’s taken this long, but making No Treasure but Hope, it’s the first album we’ve made together with just complete trust. It’s taken this long to achieve. Even though I love The Waiting Room, it’s very much based on ideas, exploring together, seeing where that takes us. For this album and these songs, it’s been a very democratic process. When we toured The Waiting Room, by the end of it, it was as though the feeling between the five of us kind of transcended the material itself. I think that kind of carried into getting back together and for this album. The most important thing we can do is to put all of the emphasis on this thing that we share when we connect with a song and an idea together, playing music. I think it also felt like the most progressive thing to do as well. To turn the computers off and turn the phones off, and just to play music for playing music’s sake.

AD: So you’re saying that with the new album, there’s a lot of trust in the process. So, Tindersticks feels good right now?

Stuart Staples: I think from where we started, with the embers of what was left of the original band, just by gradually always looking forward, we’ve arrived at this place that feels like a special space to be. The album itself confuses me because it’s the first time I’ve stepped outside of my studio for 10 years, so I’m still getting my head around how it sounds. It’s almost as if we made the decisions, we went to the studio, we recorded the songs, and this is what happened. The album is ‘this is what happened in those 5 weeks.’ For me, I’m used to understanding everything before it leaves my studio. It’s a very different experience in that way.

AD: Just out of your control, in a way…

Stuart Staples: Yeah, I don’t think it’s my need for control, but a need to understand what something is before it goes out to the world.

AD: It’s clear that your soundtrack work has influenced Tindersticks throughout previous albums, specifically on like The Something Rain. I’m curious, has it contributed to No Treasure but Hope?

Stuart Staples: It’s contributed in a way of a reaction against it. In a way of the freedom of music and song that has nothing to do with image. That had a big effect on it for me. For the previous two years, I was kind of working on High Life, Arrhythmia, Minute Bodies. There was so much music and image together that I’d been working on, so to just think about songs and playing those songs together, felt the most liberating. In that way, it had a massive effect on the art. But what I learned with making the music for High Life and Minute Bodies, Arrhythmia, which were all very experimental, will surface later, but at this moment in time I just wanted to pick up my 9 string guitar and go to the studio. That was it. It’s like I play my guitar and I sing these songs. This is where I want to be in this situation.

AD: Speaking of High Life, I’m curious how phased were you, if at all, to have Robert Pattinson, one of the world’s most recognized movie stars, sing your song “Willow.”

Stuart Staples: Most of the music for High Life was written for long sketches before filming commenced. So, I already had a conversation with Robert because Robert was interested in this in a way of having tools to get him into this particular space for him to approach High Life. We had a conversation going about this. Then, when I wrote “Willow” and we made the first version of it, I thought ‘Maybe this has something to do with the film. Maybe it’s important.’ I didn’t want to have a lot of emphasis put on it. I got with Robert and I said ‘I’ve written this song. Do you fancy trying to sing it? If you like it, I like it, we give it to Claire. If Claire likes it, it has something to do with the film.’ We found a day to get together in the studio. As soon as he opened his mouth to sing the first line, I knew it was going to be great. As a thing, for “Willow,” it’s a very special little piece of music, and he contributed massively to that.

AD: It’s lovely. So Tindersticks songs have been known to grace TV shows like The Sopranos or East Bound and Down. I’m curious if you have a favorite Tindersticks cameo in film or television?

Stuart Staples: I don’t. It’s ironic because the first request for The Sopranos was before the first series had been made, and at that time we had a lot of requests. I was a little more hard-line than I am today. I thought a lot of things being made wanted some kind of instant authenticity, and I didn’t like a couple of the experiences I’d had. I didn’t like the way the music was used. So, when The Sopranos came and asked, ‘this is the synopsis. Can we use this song?’ I said ‘No. I don’t want this. It’s not the way I feel is the future of our music.’ Then, they went to ask our American publishers and record company, and they said ‘Yeah, sure.’ That’s how it ended up in The Sopranos. When it was broadcast, I’ve never had so many phone calls in my life about something that we’ve made or done. But saying that, it’s still not something I’ve seen. It’s one of those boxsets or long running TV series, where when you’re on the outside, to equate that to how many hours of your life you have to dedicate to it, it becomes off-putting for me. If you’re there in the beginning and involved, it can be a great thing. But if you’re looking back on something, it can be a bit daunting in that way. After saying all that, cameos – I don’t know. When something isn’t written for something, it’s not something I seek out so much.

AD: With the exception of the process you spoke of earlier, what makes No Treasure but Hope different from previous Tindersticks releases.

Stuart Staples: Every album has its own identity. Whether it fails or it succeeds in some way, each record has its own identity. I suppose time entails whether it’s successful in what it’s reaching for. I think for this album, there are a few things for me that made it an interesting, exciting place to be. The first one – the primary one – is that across everything that we’ve made the past 25 years, I’ve probably had 3 times when I’ve just written songs very, very quickly, succinctly, and the songs have a relationship to each other. The first time this happened was the second album, with songs like “Traveling Light,” “She’s Gone,” “Talk to Me,” “Sleepy Song,” and “No More Affairs” – these songs were written very much in a period of months, and they all had something to say to each other.

The second time was my second solo album, Leaving Songs, that was made in Nashville. The third time was on this record. This album is very driven by songs. The Waiting Room was very much driven by ideas that got formed into some kind of version of a song. For this, it’s very driven by songs – finding the songs, and then everybody getting onboard the song to deliver it in the very best way we could find together. That’s one thing that I think about No Treasure but Hope. The other thing is just getting to a point that it felt like when we’d been in the studio the past 5 years working on these different projects, it’s so technology based. The way studios allow you to explore your imagination. The way that sounds approaches are accessible to you know. You hear it in every music, the way it’s made. Most of the new music that I listen to sounds like this, that it was made in this kind of way. To turn your back on that – the right thing to do, and the most progressive thing to do, is to put all of the emphasis on the human aspect in making music. It felt like you were cutting some safety away. That kind of felt exciting. What that then asked of us, was for us to become very, very close and to be in this moment together. That’s what we were doing. We were just recording the air in the room of us playing music. I think that that in itself defines what this is. The songs pertain to that as well. The human aspect of this moment and how you can try to navigate this world and this moment that we live in.

AD: It took only five weeks to arrange these songs and then record and mix and master. Is that correct?

Stuart Staples: From the first note recorded, yeah.

AD: That’s an amazing accomplishment.

Stuart Staples: In making an album or a film or whatever, there is always pain somewhere in the process, it’s just where you put it. All we did was shunt it off the end until you’re finished and faced with it. I think that this takes time because usually I would have so much time on the front end to explore and refine something whereas this, so much is made on instinct from all of us. I’m still hesitant. I’m still trying to figure it out. Saying that, I really trust the songs. Deep down, I really trust these songs.

AD: The album’s first single, “The Amputees” feels like a desperate attempt to cling onto something that’s slipping away. What’s your perspective behind that.

Stuart Staples: That’s okay with me. I did an interview today that talked about this song as purely along the lines of being British and living in Europe. If I’m honest, I can’t say that that doesn’t have something to do with it, but that’s not what it’s about. I do live in that situation that affects me everyday at the moment. It’s like I am committed to being European. I’ve always felt European, but somebody today just talked about that song totally equating it to that kind of experience

AD: And you took something from that?

Stuart Staples: I think that this is something that is pervasive. You can’t help but feel like that if you’re an Englishman living in Europe, feeling committed to living in Europe and your relationship to it. It’s hard not to feel like that. Sure, it does feed into this song in some way, but on the surface of it, this song is about a kind of emotional amputation. Desperate to cling onto what’s being taken away.

AD: You’ve described “Pinky in the Daylight” as the first love song you’ve ever written. What in your life put you in the setting to write such a vulnerable song

Stuart Staples: I don’t think there are any choices in writing the songs. Songs really do happen in a moment. Something happens, a song doesn’t exist, then something happens, and it does. For me, in that moment, I understand the song. I may not know exactly what it is, but I understand what it’s reaching for. The only choice to me is to accept it or to not accept it. As soon as you accept it, there is a responsibility towards it. I think for “Pinky in the Daylight,” it took me by surprise. It was like a moment of contentment. Feeling that contentment for 10, 15 minutes, this song entered at that moment. Like any other song, it’s just trying to be true to that moment and what that moment gave to you. “Pinky in the Daylight” is just a pure love song with no doubts. For that small amount of time, life was simple to me.

AD: You mentioned that the album was written in Ithaca, Greece. Walk me through your ideal day in Ithaca.

Stuart Staples: I don’t think that this album was written during any ideal days. There are two great things about Ithaca. One is the sea and access to the sea, and the other is the people. When we’re there, it’s not like a situation of this idyllic Greek island with a villa on the beach. It’s like living in the middle of a community that’s very vibrant. Going to swim everyday is an amazing thing to have in your life. Whatever happens in that day, and after you get to 4 o’clock, it’s always time for a swim. That is something. To be connected to the ocean is really important. Saying that, it is the Mediterranean Sea, and that to me is not this idyllic escape anymore. Being closer and closer to it and more involved in it, the Mediterranean Sea runs through the album. With “See my Girls” it can’t help but become something which is a darker place. I’m not the kind of writer that can write a direct song about the migrant crisis or be political in that way of writing, but at the same time, at a human level, these things, you can’t really ignore them. Being so close to the sea brought out many different feelings. It is a release, but it’s not this escape that it used to be. I feel it’s a place that is more in tune with real life.

AD: When did you first visit Greece?

Stuart Staples: I first went to Ithaca around 1992.

AD: That experience kind of opened your eyes?

Stuart Staples: I’d never found a place to escape to that has helped me relax in the way of Greece. I hadn’t realized – over the last 10 years, it’s become more and more important in a way of actually feeling like when you’ve been floating around for quite a long time that you actually belong somewhere. It’s quite a powerful thing.

AD: You’ve previously stated that you weren’t interested in nostalgia, in terms of Tindersticks albums, but I’ve found in No Treasure but Hope, it often dwells in contemplation and age, both young and old. I’m curious, have your views changed on nostalgia or is that still a theme that doesn’t interest you?

Stuart Staples: I don’t think of the things we’ve done, the great times we’ve had, that doesn’t really interest me. The original lineup of the band, it became a place in our relationships that we loved the most when we remembered the things that we did like 5 years before. That’s something that I think is quite dangerous for a group of people. You have to be in the moment together. The songwriting is kind of different to the attitude of what drives you as a group of people. The songwriting feeds into that, but it’s as much important how you view what we do when we play a concert and what songs we want to play. Things like that. They’re to me, things that breed nostalgia. Personally, writing songs, these songs from No Treasure but Hope, they’re so contemplative, I suppose. They are the musings of a 53-year-old. I’m disenfranchised. I suppose I don’t have much control over that, but I do have a control over an attitude of how we approach our music together and what we’re looking for to make an album, to make a concert. I think that’s when it’s important to be progressive.

AD: Last question. It feels as though Tindersticks is a band whose mission it is to constantly find meaning in the work that it makes. What did you find when making the music that would comprise No Treasure but Hope.

Stuart Staples: It’s early to say. I trust the songs, and I probably trust the songs – not more than I trust the songs on The Waiting Room – but I’d say that they are stronger, maybe closer to some kind of truth. Do I trust the album as much as I trust The Waiting Room? No, I don’t at the moment. It’s a different thing. I understand The Waiting Room. For this album, I’m still coming to terms with it in a way. I think one of the things I learned is sometimes it’s good to feel that there is nothing to prove. This album, I just trust what we have, that what we have will make something that is valued in itself. The last 10 years or so has been so much pushing of the edges, pushing the boundaries, searching in places that we’re not used to going, so to actually just have a song like “At the Old Man’s Gate,” which I think pushes in its own way what it needed to do as a song. It was ambitious, but at the end of it, when we finished recording and listened back, it’s like ‘Oh man, that’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes,’’ but I liked it! I actually liked it for that. It was something like this kind of influence that we shared, that came from so distant. It got so deep inside you, and it found a way to surface in this song, and I liked it for it. It didn’t make me dislike it. It made me like it more. That’s an example of feeling connected with this little moment of this happening. It doesn’t mean anything to the next moment, it just means this moment is what happened.

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