"Your Best Song Is the Last One": Twenty Years Later with Teenage Fanclub
Having toured with Nirvana, carried the torch for Alex Chilton, and still continuing to make great records 20 years into his career, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub reflects on his band's long, glorious legacy.
It's hard to say what Teenage Fanclub's greatest accomplishment is.
Was it the youthful burst of brilliance the band flashed on its "MTV Buzz Bin" breakthrough Bandwagonesque, which beat out landmark albums like Nevermind and Out of Time as Spin's Number One record of 1991? Or is it that these endearing Scots are celebrating 20 years together despite the trials and tribulations of a fickle music industry, outlasting almost all of its more ballyhooed peers and finding a way to thrive even as tastemakers deemed them in and out of -- and now back in -- fashion?
But ask Norman Blake, the most extroverted of the band's songwriting trio and its de-facto spokesman, about Teenage Fanclub's achievements and the implied answer seems to be none of the above. In keeping with the humility and workmanlike approach that has served Teenage Fanclub well over the past two decades, Blake's response is a more modest one: "Our initial objective as a group of people and a group of musicians was to make an album. And that was all we wanted to achieve initially. We did that and we've been lucky enough to make another eight".
PopMatters caught up with Blake the day after a homecoming show in Glasgow, Scotland, which seemed an appropriate enough occasion to be nostalgic and reflect upon the long and winding road Teenage Fanclub has traveled since 1989. With the release of its ninth album Shadows, these Scots are enjoying a bit of a revival, with folks paying attention again to a band that has been taken for granted and noticing anew that the once-rambunctious alterna-rockers have matured into wise elder statesmen through a slow, steady, and natural process.
Somewhere along the way, Teenage Fanclub became veterans of an ever-changing scene, one album at a time, one song at a time. As Blake explains, "Your best song is the last one, that's what it's all about, for us, anyway. I don't want to be intellectual about it, but to think about music as a craft. It's something you want to improve on". To hear Blake tell it, they've never had a long-term plan in mind: "I think we've only ever really looked to making the next record."
Caught up in the 1990s alternative-rock feeding frenzy, Teenage Fanclub's earliest albums, A Catholic Education and Bandwagonesque, were objects of adoration and hype that actually deserved both, though record sales never matched the critical success and unimpeachable reputation the group enjoyed. Going at grunge from a power-pop perspective rather than a punk or metal one, these mischievous Scots were a lot easier on the ears than most of their counterparts, but they lacked the bluster and attitude both in their music as well as their profile to strike it big in the U.S. When asked to look back at the turning points Teenage Fanclub has faced over the years, Blake seems to take their chances and missed opportunities in stride: "That's really difficult -- I suppose there were a bunch of maybes. I think we're happy with the success that we've had. A lot of people thought the band should have been more successful. Again, it's not something we can really spend time thinking about, because it didn't happen."
That's not hot air, really, because Teenage Fanclub never flamed out when it didn't meet industry expectations with its subsequent releases, which led to label changes and even left one of the band's albums, 2000's Howdy!, without U.S. distribution upon its initial release. But as the going got tougher, they not only persisted, but they learned to thrive under the radar, transforming themselves from good-humored could-be rock stars who could get by on their hooky instincts alone to master craftsmen who became as at ease with country-rock traditions as power-pop.
What's more, taking the long view has vindicated Teenage Fanclub's uniquely democratic approach to running a band, in which Blake, Gerard Love, and Raymond McGinley have all contributed equal songwriting shares to every enterprise, rather than each vying to play frontman. As Blake explains, "Maybe we've worked out some more kinks than other people, I don't know. I think the band has always gotten along well on a personal level. None of us would like to work in a hostile environment or have a combative writing partnership. I think also the fact that there are three writers, it's not so much pressure on one person."
You can hear how well that dynamic works on Teenage Fanclub's latest, Shadows. There's an obvious cohesion and bonhomie between the threesome that could only come about from many years of working together and from each member knowing his role. But a trained ear can hear the variations on the band's main themes, which keeps things lively: Love is responsible for the catchiest power-pop moments like "Shock and Awe", while McGinley's contributions show the band's nuanced technical skills, as on "The Fall". Blake splits the difference between the two, as a sentimental pop classicist with tracks like the single "Baby Lee" and the June gloomy "Dark Clouds".
On the whole, Shadows shows a band that sounds both at ease and in command, the product of experience and, according to Blake, environment. "With this one, we were at a really nice studio in Norfolk [in England]", Blake says. "The engineer is a really good friend, we had all our equipment, and the studio was a really nice, relaxed, sort of pastoral set-up. You could go to the backdoor of the studio, and there was an orchard and there were apples you could pick up. It was a pretty great place. And it was late summer, really beautiful weather in the south of England. So that maybe that all adds to the atmosphere of the record. There's no question the environment you work in will lend itself to the feel of what you're doing".
Blake attributes Teenage Fanclub's unforeseen longevity and continual renewal to the division of labor between himself, Love, and McGinley. It's not just that the bandmates have been so compatible for so long, but there's a practical dimension to not having any single member do too much heavy lifting. "We knew that having three songwriters makes our lives much easier", Blake explains. "If you think of a band with one songwriter, nine albums down the line, that would mean they would have to have written somewhere in the region of 120 to 140 songs. Songwriting is difficult enough in the best of times, but to maintain a high standard over nine albums for one person, I think it's quite a difficult thing to do. Not many people can do it. The Bob Dylans of this world can do it, but, for mere mortals, it's more difficult".
However Blake tries to soft pedal and downplay what his band has achieved in the larger scheme of things, it's safe to say that Teenage Fanclub is at least a little part of contemporary rock's history, after hitting the 20 year milestone while still being mentioned alongside many of the period's signature acts. The company that has Teenage Fanclub kept is pretty amazing, and, whether or not the Scots have become as legendary themselves, no slouches are permitted in the club they're in. Referring to their experiences with contemporaries like Nirvana, Pavement, and Superchunk here and there throughout the interview, Blake is happy to point out that some of Teenage Fanclub's fondest moments have been as keenly interested observers of rock's recent history: "I think we're fortunate enough to have been able to do a lot of amazing things. We were on tour with Nirvana when Nevermind was a big album. It's a great deal to witness that and a phenomenon like that, because it doesn't happen very often".
What helped to cement Teenage Fanclub's place in underground rock's timeline is its connection to Alex Chilton and Big Star. Though the Posies may have been Chilton's backing band for the Big Star reunion in the 1990s, it's indisputable that Teenage Fanclub has carried that seminal group's torch the longest and strongest, all the way into the present. "I'm 44 now and I met Alex for the first time when he was 37, which is incredible", Blake reminisces. "I thought, 'This guy's a legend and he's done it all.' Which of course he had, since he was a musician since he was 16. We got on really well with Alex. I think Alex saw something of himself in us, in our attitude and approach to making music. I think he passed it on to us and we've passed it on to another group of musicians. Alex was definitely a kindred spirit of ours. I don't know, something just clicked with us."
It's that perfect-pop legacy that Blake and company carry on and hope to pass on to others, as Teenage Fanclub has reached influence status itself. "I meet a lot of younger musicians who we can click with and identify with. So I think maybe Alex passed something on to us, and hopefully we're doing the same."
Ultimately, though, there's something that Teenage Fanclub has achieved that the many of the celebrated bands they are most often mentioned alongside of haven't: steady longevity and calm waters around the group over a two-decade period. So while contemporaries like My Bloody Valentine and Pavement ran out of original material and are already on their reunion tours, Teenage Fanclub has been chugging along, tending to mundane band matters like figuring out how to play new studio songs live for the first time along with crowd pleasers that might be older than some of the audience at this point.
A line from "Radio", an old single from the 1993 album Thirteen, sums up well how Teenage Fanclub has gone as far as it has: "Find a craze that fits and stay there for a while". It might as well explain how Teenage Fanclub figured out a formula that worked and carved out its own niche, even as trends seemed to pass the band by. As Blake describes Teenage Fanclub's recipe for long-term success: "Here's the thing, that's just the way that we do it. Every band has a different dynamic amongst a group of people. For us, three writers, four songs each album. That's just the way the Teenage Fanclub thing works."