Even indie superstars have to mow their lawns, it seems. When Norman Blake isn’t helming Scotland’s finest purveyors of melodic alternative rock, Teenage Fanclub, he’s attending to his shrubbery. While waiting for his bandmate and fellow founder member of TFC, Raymond McGinley, to sign into a recent Zoom interview with PopMatters, Blake spoke excitedly about his latest acquisition: “I picked up my first Flymo today. I’ve still got to assemble it. At the front of the house, there’s a little slope, so I thought the Flymo was going to be perfect for that. I’m not getting any younger, and that’s a fairly steep hill.” As it turned out, steep hills and the aging process became recurring metaphors in our conversation.
Teenage Fanclub’s new album Nothing Lasts Forever is the latest in a long line of polished pop-rock releases. Fortunately, they are happy with their elder statesman status and have a dignified approach to their craft. “We’re kind of comfortable in our own skin now,” said McGinley. “Sometimes when you see people in bands, and I’m not going to name any names, you think, ‘Oh, my God, why don’t you just let yourself be who you are now?’ It looks way cooler than trying to look like you did 40 years ago. It never works when people try to look like the person they were years ago. I don’t think younger people care about that too much. The people who get self-conscious are people who might be in our situation. Having said that, we never had a ‘look’ anyway.”
Blake was keen to share his acceptance of growing older. “I think we write songs about our lives and the world and how we experience it,” he says. “I suppose as you grow older, you do become a bit more reflective. There’s quite a bit of melancholy in the record as well. But yeah, for sure. I think we’ve probably always done that.” However, McGinley was a little more fatalistic, adding, “I feel I was born thinking about death. I’ve always thought about mortality. All my life, I’ve thought, ‘Oh, my God, we’re all going to die, aren’t we?’ I think we’ve always been quite reflective, but maybe it increases as you get near the inevitability of the end of your existence.”
If that sounds like a rather bleak approach to writing, McGinley is unapologetic. When asked if, in hard times, a band obliged to try and raise the spirits of their listeners, he replied, “I don’t think we feel any obligation other than just to follow our instincts for doing what we feel like doing at the time and try not to second guess what we think about. It’s us doing our thing, and then we go out into the world with it. The only obligation we feel is to express ourselves. Just to do what we feel like doing instinctively. And as I say, try not to second guess or get uptight about that. Sometimes, you write a song and think, ‘I’ll change that later.’ In the end, you don’t change it; you just kind of make your peace with it and build another song. So, we just stick to the instinct of what we wanted to do in the first place.”
That idea of sticking to your instinct goes way beyond the recording process. “We’re really keen just to keep making records and touring. It’s what we do,” says Blake. “All the things I really like are all music related, and so we’re lucky to be in this job. I also think of it as a craft, and you always improve it. The songwriting process isn’t difficult; you just have to sit down and come up with a melodic idea. Then, get some words that are going to fit with that. You try and create something that will resonate with people too because you never know what they’re going to think of the songs you write.”
Since 2019, Teenage Fanclub have been augmented by Euros Childs. Formerly of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Childs plays keyboards in TFC, but unlike with his previous band, he doesn’t contribute to the songwriting process. McGinley explained, “We need to be respectful of the fact that Euros has got his own thing, and he’s really good at it. We’re not making rules about it either way. We’re respectful that he makes his own records, and they’re great, and we don’t want to be too presumptuous or whatever.” Blake is also keen to sing Childs’ praises. “He’s amazing- he’s a great musician. He’s very idiosyncratic, and he has a great voice. Euros and I made an album together under the name Johnny, and our voices work well. He’s great at finding that third harmony.”
Like their 2000 album Howdy, Nothing Lasts Forever was recorded at Rockfield in Wales. This legendary studio gave us “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Rush‘s Farewell to Kings album, and records by Oasis and Hawkwind, among many others. McGinley is impressed but not overawed by the studio’s history. “The good thing is that Rockfield wears its history lightly. There’s hardly any memorabilia. When you’re in that studio, it’s your studio. You don’t feel weighed down by the place. They make you feel like it’s yours. When I first looked at Rockfield, that’s one of the things I remember really liking about it. And this is before we made the Howdy album. The only thing they have as a nod to rock and roll is a picture of Joe Meek in the office. Kingsley (Ward – studio owner) usually dropped in at 6:00pm every night to regale us with some anecdote. He told us that when Rush were recording there, they finished early, so he got them to help paint the studio! Freddie Mercury worked on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in a little room by the office. But it’s a great place, you know, really good.”
Teenage Fanclub’s last album, Endless Arcade, was released in the wake of the pandemic, and the usual schedule of touring soon after an album launch simply couldn’t happen. McGinley says, “We all felt really down because doing that thing where you go and play songs in front of people and meeting people casually who have an opinion on what you’ve done feels real. And we didn’t get that for a while. When we finally did get to play shows, there were a lot of people who hadn’t been shoulder to shoulder with other people for a while, and you could tell they were inhibited. Thankfully, it’s kind of fading into memory a bit now.”
Blake agrees, “Things are back to how they were. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. The Endless Arcade experience for us was strange. Normally, we’d be somewhere on tour when a record first comes out. There was a big build-up to the day of release, and then ‘boom’, nothing at all. It was really strange. So, at least this time, we’re going to be on the road when this record comes out. We’re excited about that. It’s going to be great to have that. I’ll feel like things are back to normal when we do that.”
The advertising for Teenage Fanclub’s forthcoming UK tour proudly states that most venues will be seated. Blake revealed that Bob Dylan may have been the catalyst for this more sedate and grown-up approach to performance. “I went to see Dylan recently. It was an amazing show, one of the best times I’ve seen him, and that was in a seated venue. It felt really good. But I think the other thing about seated venues is that as well as the facilities being better in terms of the setup, the acoustics are usually great because they’re tuned more than other rock and roll venues. We’re looking for a different experience for ourselves and the audience. We’re just looking to do something a little bit different.”
Nothing Last’s Forever is Teenage Fanclub’s 11th album – a fact which comes as a surprise to Blake and McGinley and led Blake to cast his mind back to the early days of TFC. “When you start a band, your only ambition is to make a record. We did that, and we haven’t really looked back. Recently, we’re looking to be more productive. Maybe there’s a sense that there’s not that much time left. We’re not going to pop our clogs imminently, but we’re keen to get back into the studio and keep recording and keep working, writing songs, and making music. It’s what we do. So, we won’t be stopping now. We just keep going. It’s amazing that we’ve managed to get to album number 11. I was completely unaware of that.”
Teenage Fanclub are keen to keep on keeping on, with a refreshingly enthusiastic attitude to making music. “We’re not the kind of people who sit around,” says McGinley. “If we’re working on a song idea, we’ll actually record it. That way, it’s going to exist. It’s easier to allow yourself the indulgence of coming up with ideas when you know that you’re going to be recording them at some point.” Blake adds: “If we can release an album every couple of years, that would be great. I always think of Yo La Tengo in that respect, as they’re really good at that. They release an album every couple of years. I think we’d like to do something like that.”
Blake uses the fear of inertia as a catalyst. “At the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘Will I ever write another song?’ Then, you go over to the guitar or piano, and something comes along. If people like it, well, that’s another thing. But you can always come up with an idea. You could quickly disappear from view as well. You have to work and be out there constantly. We want to tour as much as we can, and we always like to play new songs – we’re very much focused on that. In the shows we did in Ireland recently, we played five or six songs from the last record and three from this upcoming album. We play an hour and three quarters, so we can still play lots of old things too, but we’re very conscious that we want to play new numbers in the set.”
Teenage Fanclub wear their legacy well. They are in no hurry to pretend to be the bright young things who recorded Bandwagonesque back in 1991 but aren’t in a hurry to tear up all the rule books and then set fire to them just yet. They like writing songs, recording them, and playing them in front of people. It might be a time-worn modus operandi, but it works well for Teenage Fanclub. Very well, indeed.