Teenage Fanclub :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“Well there was comfort in your company” goes a line in “Home,” which opens Endless Arcade, the tenth album by Teenage Fanclub. For more than three decades, Raymond McGinley and Norman Blake have been reliable sources of comforting instant classic songs, the kind that feel like you’ve heard them a thousand times before but never exhaust their charm. The new album arrives post what amounts to drama in the world of Scottish indie rock: the polite departure of founding member and songwriter Gerard Love, who left in 2018 after founding the band with Blake and McGinley in 1989 in Bellshill. (Sidenote: Ever hear Electric Cables? It’s a favorite.) Love’s absence required some shuffling: Dave McGowan moved over from keys over to the vacated bass spot and Euros Childs, of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Blake’s partner in Jonny, joined on as a vocalist and keyboardist.

Clearly, the lineup needed little time to find its footing. Endless Arcade exhibits the group various modes—all great. They come on like romantic folkies in “The Sun Won’t Shine on Me,” psychedelic groovers on “In Our Dreams,” and rock minimalists on “Everything is Falling Apart.” There’s variety, but it’s all united by songcraft that offers familiarity minus boredom. And it doesn’t hurt to note that it’s awfully hard to get sick of hearing McGinley and Blake fold their voices together in harmony. The Fanclub founders joined us for a conversation about keeping the magic alive in the recording studio, collaborating with disparate players like Alex Chilton, Edwyn Collins, Jad Fair, Frank Black, and De La Soul, and why their upcoming tour might require some extra rehearsal. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: You guys have some tour dates in place, is that right?

Raymond McGinley: We have. We’ve had two dates in place that have been moved a couple of times. We have some for September this year in the UK, and some other stuff we’ve had to move to next year. Hopefully it will happen, you know? That would be nice to be nice to do that thing again.

Norman Blake: Yeah, it’s been a while. I think at least a year and a half.

AD: Since you’ve played together physically?

Norman Blake: Yeah. We did a socially distanced video shoot a few months back. But that was that was miming, not playing. We haven’t actually played together with amplifiers that have been switched on for quite some time. 

AD: The “Home” video?

Norman Blake: That’s the last thing we did. We found a theater in Edinburgh in Leith. Really lovely old place.

AD: Have you missed being on stage?

Norman Blake: I think we really enjoy playing live. But it did give us a bit more time to sort of tweak the mixes for this lp. I think we’ve probably had more time to mix than we’ve had with any other record because of the situation. We mixed the record at Raymond’s place, so that was one sort of positive byproduct with this.

AD: Was the record was mostly finished as the lockdown set in?

Raymond McGinley: Yeah. We recorded the album in a proper studio—an old fashioned studio [Clouds Hill Studio in Hamburg, Germany] where we could all set up. We love studios. We love getting together as a band and doing the whole “band thing,” all together. But we’ve got a nice little setup here for self-indulgent tweaking in Glasgow. We can tinker around the edges of everything for as long as we want without it costing us money by the day. Sometimes that’s a good thing and a bad thing—you can spend the rest of your life working on stuff that no one will ever notice in the details. We knew that the kind of rush to finish the record wasn’t gonna actually result in us getting anywhere, we just kind of took the time to slow down and enjoy a little bit of extra tweakage. 

Overall, I’d say we’re more frustrated by not being able to play live than we are enjoying the things that have come from not having to do that. Whenever we listen to the record now—we’re trying to do that as little as possible now that we’ve actually finished it—but we think, “Oh, I just want to go on tour and play these songs live.” It’s frustrating because that’s the end of the cycle. You go and make a record and don’t think about the outside world. And then we’ll finish the record and want to engage with the outside world. We can’t yet, but hopefully soon.

I just got my appointment today. I’ll have a conversation with Norman while we’re doing this: Yo, Norman. I got my vaccination appointment today, so I’m getting it the next Thursday. 

Norman Blake: That’s amazing. Yeah. There’s still nothing for me, but I’m slightly younger than you. [Both laugh.] It’s really exciting making albums. But then once you’ve done that the next thing that is exciting is playing the songs in front of an audience. And actually, it’s been such a long time that we’re going to have to spend about time working out exactly what we played, I think. 

Raymond McGinley: There has been a buildup of cobwebs we’re going to have to blow off. 

AD: You guys generally write very compact and thoughtfully composed songs—I like how “Home” sprawls out—but do you anticipate that when you do finally get out and get the opportunity to play these songs live presents itself, could you see stretching them out? Are gonna go full prog rock on us, you think?

Norman Blake: Never say never, I guess. [All laugh.]

Raymond McGinley: We’ve been working on the stage sets during lockdown. We’ve got all of this extra time to think about, you know? The costumes and all that. We’re gonna wear them.

AD: You’re spread apart geographically. Norman you’re in Canada, Raymond, you’re in Glasgow. How do things work in Teenage Fanclub land? Do you have like a group chat going where you start to kick ideas around? “Hey, I think it’s time to make a record,” things like that. How does that information get worked out?

Norman Blake: We don’t have a group chat, but it’s funny, I’ve noticed quite a lot of people in bands do. I’ve talked to people recently and they’ll have a thing where they can upload demos and stuff like that. We have not. I mean, we’re technically capable of doing that, but I don’t think that’s something that we would do.

What we would normally do is have a conversation about making an album, and then at that point, we’ll go ahead and book a studio and start writing songs. And then when we get closer to the time, we’ll get together and maybe run through the songs. But especially on this last album, we did quite a lot of the work in the studio. Myself and Raymond would come in with a song, run through it on a guitar, and then everyone would just join in. We would arrange it on the fly. That was a lot of fun, doing it that way.

Raymond McGinley: We don’t have much of a kind of conceptual preamble, or any kind of conceptual preamble, other than, “Hey, let’s get together. Is everyone free on this day at this time?” We’ve always found the in-studio date to be really inspiring, you know? I think we’ve found that if we sat around kind of navel gazing and looking at the stars or something, waiting for the right moment when we all feel that we’re gonna be ready to make a record, it never happens. You have to decide, “Hey, we’re a band. Should be enough just going into the studio and doing some stuff.” I think we should do more of that, because we like being in the studio doing songs. I think we’re getting in the habit of taking too long thinking about when we should do it instead of just getting on with it, you know? So now I think everyone in the band is kind of like, given any opportunity, let’s get in the studio and record some stuff.

Norman Blake: Especially after having a year of enforced lockdown, we’ve not been able to do anything. That makes you realize that you really want to be using the time to be creative. We are fortunate enough to be able to do that, you know? So I think we would like to, if we’re not touring, we’d like to be in the studio and we’d really like enter that cycle. I’ve often thought that Yo La Tengo were really good at that. They either have an album coming out or they always come over to Europe every year. So they got kind of a strong work ethic in that sense. And it’s good. It keeps everything fresh.

AD: You and Yo La Tengo seem like bands that are built to last. There’s a great line in “Everything is Falling Apart”: “Run away from the miserable-ites who believe in no fun.” Does it remain fun to make Teenage Fanclub records and be in the band?

Raymond McGinley: It’s still exciting for us. I can still remember what it was like making our first record in 1989. We’re still doing the same thing we did and feeling much the same way about it as we did 32 years ago. Although, we’re quite serious about it all as well. Everyone in the band is quite easy-going. We get stuff done quickly together and we don’t really have a lot of drama, but we’re quite intense about it in our own way. But fun, definitely. I mean, it’s our kind of fun, making records.

AD: Beyond co-founder Gerard Love leaving the group, there were some personnel changes on this album. You’ve got Euros Childs on keys. Dave McGowan on bass. Did it feel good to shake things up in that personnel department? Did that contribute to that feeling of freshness in the studio? 

Norman Blake: I think when things change in terms of personnel you’re reinvigorated in a way. So Gerry is not there—we had many great years with Gerry. The first couple of shows that we did without him, it was a bit strange to me look to the left and see Dave there. We always would refer to Dave in the past as “the new guy” and now, I think he’s been with us for 15 years or something like that. He’s played keyboards and guitar with us through all that time, but he’s primarily a bass player, the best bass player around. He brought something very different.

Euros has his own idiosyncratic style of playing, so he’s bringing something that’s new and he’s also bringing his voice, which is great. I’ve been in a band with Euros for many years, so it didn’t feel in any way strange. We’re all fans of Euros’ music. He’s still an active solo artist and he’s got a great gift for melody. Really brave. He’ll just go for things. He’s not scared to express himself. He always comes up with the perfect line on keyboard. We set up a few keyboards in the studio. We had a Jupiter-4 synthesizer, a Wurlitzer, a couple of other little synths. And so he would just work out parts for each of the songs as we went along.

AD: It’s an interesting thing to start off as a fan of somebody’s work and become their friend. You’ve worked with people like Jad Fair, so I imagine it’s happened a few times for you both, that change in the nature of a relationship.

Norman Blake: You’re always learning something. When we made the album with Jad, we improvised backing tracks and Jad would look through his little notebook and say, “I think I’ve got a lyric,” and then he would do a vocal in one take. We were kind of blown away by that. It was like, “Wow. How do you do that, Jad?” He’s just so talented, you know? 

Raymond McGinley: I remember we did a radio session and we were warming up, getting sounds and headphones sorted. As joke, we started into this really stupid blues jam. Jad started singing along with it. He tried to make it work and even though we were just kind of having a laugh it nearly made sense. I was doing some really nasty, horrible, cheesy blues jam and he turned it into something great. At the end, he was like, “I don’t think I made this one work.” [Laughs] Of course we’ve been lucky to work with a lot of people. We’re supporting them, as we did with Edwyn Collins, Alex Chilton, Frank Black, or whatever. Doing stuff with De La Soul and things. We’ve been lucky to do a lot of different kind of things like that. 

Sometimes you’re in a position where you can suggest what a song is and what other people do and sometimes, you’re just contributing to someone else’s idea. There’s something about being a musician, you have to gather yourself, but kind of lose your ego at the same time. We’ve done that with each other for years, where you have to give personality to it, but not be too touchy if it doesn’t work and be prepared to go away and come up with something else if we doesn’t think it’s gonna work. We’ve worked with each other over the years. It makes it easier to work with other people.

Norman Blake: I’ve always found those things really enjoyable. All of these people have different ways of approaching writing a song. With Frank Black, it was all about the time signatures. He had a certain way of working and arranging those songs. We did a Peel Session with Charles and that was a lot of fun. We just worked it all out the day before like our usual, same way of putting songs together. And then you work with Edwyn and he’s got different approach again. When we played with Edwyn, what I really got from that was I knew he was a fan of garage music/rock music, but when you start playing the guitar parts you can really hear the influence of Chic and Nile Rodgers. It’s interesting to get a view of someone else’s palette, you know?

AD: What was playing with Alex Chilton like?

Norman Blake: He was a great guitar player. Funny thing about Alex and us is that we hit it off with Alex great from the start and we never had any funniness with him at all. We had a great relationship with Alex.

Raymond McGinley: We’re massive fans of Alex Chilton, and not just Big Star—his solo stuff and everything he did. But we really admired him as he was at the time when we were working together. We didn’t see him as being idealized about his past or whatever. We liked him as he was at the time. He’s a great player and an interpreter of standard songs.

Norman Blake: He was an engaged, cultured guy. He was lovely. We did a few shows with him and we did some recording with him in our  rehearsal space. You have to remember, Alex was probably in his early forties at the time, which is insane, you know, because I think we kind of thought of him as being this legendary  guy, but he was only 15 years older than me. When you’re 24, that seems like a big gap, but the reality was that he was still a pretty young guy when we were there. He just packed a lot into his years. 

AD: It sounds like part of what you’re talking about is really engaging with what the person is doing at that moment. For you two, as people who have been playing together for a long time, is that kind of generosity key to the enterprise?

Raymond McGinley: You have to be prepared to give something and also take who people are in the moment. Not to get too self-reflective of who you are, or what you’ve done before. Recording is by definition about the moment.

AD: Teenage Fanclub albums are immediately recognizable, but not staid. On Endless Arcade, they are rave-ups and ballads, it’s expansive in mood, but also cohesive. How do you keep it balanced?

Norman Blake: Ultimately, what you want to do is try and be yourself. I think when you start a band, pretty much every band is the sum of their influences. You can’t help that. You’re a kid. When we made our first album, we were listening to Sonic Youth, Exile on Main Street, a bit of a Captain Beefheart. You start out and develop from there your own style from there. I think very much everyone does that. There are maybe a few unique artists who land fully formed. 

Raymond McGinley: We realized that failure for us would be second guessing ourselves for doing things instinctively. We tried to only do things that we feel is right at the time. We never want to be a pastiche of who we were, or think of what we did these 30 years ago.  

AD: Here in the US, your most played song on “Spotify” is “Fallen” with De La Soul, from the Judgment Night soundtrack from 1993. Do you ever hear from younger listeners who wonder why there aren’t more rappers featured throughout the rest of the records? 

Norman Blake: We haven’t met the person yet who’s asked that question. We recorded that in an afternoon and they were lovely. We got something out of it. I’ve been playing that quite recently. I was thinking, “I wonder what that sounds like.” And you know? Yeah, it sounds pretty good.

Raymond McGinley: The experience of working with those guys was great. Working with beats and records was completely naturalistic for them, the way what we do is naturalistic to us. It was a little uncomfortable at first trying to figure out how we were gonna do this thing together, but as soon as you start actually doing something, you start to get somewhere. And it was great. We are so privileged to be able to do that. People will say, “What have you done?” and we’ll say, “Yeah, we made this record with De La Soul,” and people are like, “What”? [All laugh] 

Norman Blake: It still sounds pretty fresh. Hopefully it’s going to get picked up for some other big movie so we can all rest on our laurels. Rake in the royalties.

Only The Good Shit. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by our patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page. For heads, by heads