They Whisper in Our Ear, ‘Don’t Waste It’: An Interview with Tindersticks

Photo: Christophe Agou

PopMatters chatted with baritone-voiced vocalist Stuart Staples about losing loved ones, finally embracing "Le Chien Chanceux," and emerging with an album capable of "saying 'Fuck you' to the world."


The Something Rain

Label: Lucky Dog / Constellation
UK Release Date: 2012-02-20
US Release Date: 2012-02-21
"At the album's heart lies the memory of the people we have lost in these last 2 years, but we were in no mood to be maudlin. It's to them. But it's for us. We are still drinking, laughing, crying, fighting, fucking, making our music. They wouldn't have wanted it any other way." -- Tindersticks, The Something Rain

"I hate finishing things," says Start Staples of recording The Something Rain, Tindersticks' latest boozy, cabaret-pop passage through melancholia and loss. "No more possibilities, it is what it is, like a little death."

But with Rain -- painstakingly self-recorded and produced in Staple's home studio, Le Chien Chanceux, between May 2010 and August 2011 -- there was the luxury of time. "This album," Staples tells me, "was not going to leave the studio until we were convinced of every moment, the angle of every turn."

An artistic triumph of Tindersticks' unlikely post-hiatus third act, The Something Rain is rich with those moments, angles, and turns. Inspired by experiments with beatboxes and old keyboards, it is the Nottingham group's most sonically varied batch yet. Into the band's minimalist bachelor pop come markedly new textures: xylophones and drum loops, spidery organs and rickety wah-wah crackles -- even the occasional chorus of female backing vocals. There is smoky, guarded funk ("Show Me Everything") and eerie, barreling free-jazz ("Frozen"), elegant balladry ("A Night So Still") and sordid storytelling (nine-minute opener "Chocolate"). Emerging out of stark isolation and quiet loss, Rain reveals itself to be Tindersticks' most lively, spirited work yet.

Over an exchange of emails (a severe bout of laryngitis got in the way of a phone conversation), I chatted with baritone-voiced vocalist Stuart Staples about losing loved ones, finally embracing "Le Chien Chanceux," and emerging with an album capable of "saying 'Fuck you' to the world: If you don't want it -- your loss."

* * *

What are some of the more significant influences that went into The Something Rain as compared with the last few Tindersticks records?

One of the greatest changes was just giving ourselves time to experiment, to build something gradually. We didn't know what we were looking for when we set out. We had some clues -- rhythm boxes, Gina [Foster] on vocals, saxophones, dark sweaty sounds. With a little hindsight, I can see the significance of our time in Nottingham in the mid–late 80s. Not just in David's writing of "Chocolate" but also the sounds that filled our lives then.

Musically, The Something Rain feels like one of the band's most upbeat, lively albums ever. Was this purposeful? What are some of the instrumental flourishes on the record that haven't appeared on a Tindersticks record before?

A few things came together, not least the band really starting to happen over the touring of Falling down a Mountain.Also, losing loved ones spurred us on, made us determined to push harder, squeeze the drops out of the experience. We needed to make something we could say "Fuck you' to the world. If you don't want it -- your loss."

There's a more prominent jazz sensibility on the record than possibly any previous Tindersticks album (especially on "Come Inside," "Frozen," "Slippin' Shoes"). Was this a conscious direction? How did it come about?

Sometimes it feels that any music that doesn't move in straight lines is labeled jazz.

I never think about it. I think about shapes and relationships between ideas and sounds.

"Come Inside" has been niggling inside me for years, just out of reach. Lhasa [de Sela]'s passing brought it to the surface, put it in my hands. I had to fight for that sax solo to be included. David still hasn't forgiven me, though his sax arrangement for "Slippin' Shoes" was something to behold.

To me, "Frozen" sounds almost free jazz-inspired. How did that come together?

"Frozen" was a hard one to find, a rhythmic idea, a chord change from David Kitt that I felt an instant connection with. It was grabbed hold of by Earl [Havin], Dan [McKinna], and Neil [Fraser] to make a great landscape. We then tried many ways off arranging it, though nothing made me want to sing this "feeling" in my head. I thought it was lost, doomed to be a great unused backing track.

But the last sessions for the album were with Thomas Bloch (Crystal Bachet) and Julian Seigel (bass clarinet, tenor sax). I threw in "Frozen" as a bit of a wildcard to both of them and it started to happen, became more abstract. I cleared out all the melodic elements we had been working on and for the first time I wanted to sing it (which became a journey in itself).

The opener, "Chocolate," marks a return to extended spoken word pieces for the band. Some critics have likened it to "My Sister" (possibly my favorite Tindersticks track ever). Was "My Sister" a conscious reference point? What else inspired "Chocolate"?

David wrote "My Sister" in a launderette and left it lying round the flat we shared in 1994. I read it and said we should do something with it. He then wrote the music; it felt new and exciting. I've been encouraging him to do more ever since. Eighteen years later he turned up with a demo of "Chocolate." It was obviously important.

For myself and Neil, it is set in a very real time of our lives: we know all the bars, the clubs, the chip shops, the feelings from our youth in Nottingham.

Is it David Boulter's first lead vocal on a Tindersticks track?

I reckon it is.

Where did the monologue originate? Any specific influences?

David Boulter: I was thinking about Nottingham. We left in 1990 to go to London. We were 25. So my real time in Nottingham, between 15 and 25, was about becoming an adult. The choices you make, the way your background, your city, and your family shape you. It was tough for us in Nottingham, the same as most cities in the early '80s. No jobs. The excitement of punk had turned into pantomime. To be outside the normal meant keeping your head down, looking over your shoulder. And boredom. Excitement was somewhere else. Or something else. That's what "Chocolate" means to me.

What inspired the prominent female backing vocalists on "Show Me Everything" and "This Fire Of Autumn"?

Starting the album, I knew a few things -- not many -- but I did know Gina [Foster] was important. She got involved very early and sang on many ideas, almost a primary color of the sound. I needed to hear her singing the chorus of "This Fire Of Autumn" before I knew what I wanted to sing myself. Similarly with "Show Me"; much of the arrangement was built around her.

The band has been more prolific than ever since reemerging in 2008. How has the experience of making these last few records been similar -- or different -- from the first five or ten years of Tindersticks?

I think we have worked our way back to the unconscious state of making music that we started out with, but as the people and musicians we are now. These last three albums (and the soundtracks) have been a rebuilding time, exploring. We felt when we made The Hungry Saw that we couldn't help but be aware of the band's history. Things like that are irrelevant now.

Dan McKinna and Earl Harvin joined the band for Falling Down a Mountain. How have their contributions impacted Tindersticks' last two records?

It has been a gradual process for Dan and Earl to find their voices in the band. It's not so easy to enter our world and figure it out immediately. When Dan started to play with us on The Hungry Saw, he held up a mirror to us -- I don't think we liked what we saw! His attitude and musicality have been a huge factor in our progression. Earl Harvin is a master! Together they bring this assured, understated confidence and so much more. There's no bullshit between the five of us -- [when] we get together, we want to make something.

According to the album's press release, your studio, Le Chien Chanceux, "has fully emerged as ground zero for the band's sound." Can you explain a bit about Le Chien Chanceux and what makes it unique or significant for Tindersticks?

This is the first album on which we were fully committed to the studio and what it is capable of. With recording Falling Down A Mountain elsewhere it showed us how special it is to us; we really missed it. It's a great space to play in -- ambient but not out of control. Our instruments sound alive in there. It gives a lovely dirt to the sounds that would be impossible to recreate elsewhere.

After dreaming this space, then building it (I still am), for it to deliver this album is a wondrous thing. There was no science or design involved, just a feeling. I will always be indebted to Philip Bagenal at Eastcote studios for helping me realize it. It wouldn't have been possible without his help and influence over the years.

How might working in Le Chien Chanceux be different from experiences in a more conventional studio?

There is no control room, no separate spaces. The album was recorded with just the five of us in the room, which makes it really personal and easier to experiment and take chances.

I have a certain understanding of the mics, the desk, the space -- it's pretty quick to jump on an idea and for something unexpected to happen. But the biggest factor is the luxury of time. This album was not going to leave the studio until we were convinced of every moment, the angle of every turn.

What compelled you to record and mix the record yourself? How was the experience?

I have always dreamed of finding the perfect producer. I always will. But as soon as something -- a song, a sound, a feeling -- enters my head, I have to see it through. I can laugh about it now, but at times it gets pretty intense and fills me with self doubt. Mixing is the most difficult. I hate finishing things -- the finality, no more dreaming, no more possibilities, it is what it is, like a little death.

Tindersticks also writes: "At the album's heart lies the memory of the people we have lost in these last two years." Who is this referring to? How does their memory pervade the record?

For David and myself it has been a time of losing people, close and important to us. They whisper in our ear: "Don't waste it."

Last year you toured performances of your film score music. How might that experience have inspired or affected work on The Something Rain?

It was the most disciplined thing we have ever done. We had to be on every second with the images for the whole concert. Maybe getting to the studio was a release from that.

David: It made me realize the power we have. The ability to create very fragile music. And to do it with a few musicians, all very individual. That ends up being very strong.

Any new or recently emerging artists that Tindersticks has been particularly moved by?

I wish there was. There's stuff I like, but I couldn't say I'm moved by it. I was feeling a little down and divorced a while ago about this, though in the last year there has been plenty to inspire me ... it's just not music.

What does the album title refer to?

The part you always don't know.

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