Tim Burgess on The Charlatans

THIS morning Tim Burgess is sitting on a railway platform waiting for the train to London when I call. When he gets to the capital, he tells me, he’ll catch another train to Portsmouth which should arrive at its destination around six in the evening. And then he’ll get ready to play a gig.

It’s what he does. He has been doing this for more than 30 years now.

Most of the time those gigs have been with the band he fronts, The Charlatans. Today he’s promoting last year’s solo album I Love the New Sky. And remembering how to do this in the process.

As with everything else last year, this tour was put on hold during the pandemic. So now, after an extended wait, he’s rediscovering the pleasures of playing live.

“It feels really great,” Burgess admits. “I think people are so excited to see live music and so attentive. Appreciative is another word I could use.”

I can imagine his bowl cut head nodding.

“The rest of the band have gone in a sweaty van,” Burgess tells me. But he’s letting the train take the strain and talking to me about 30 years of The Charlatans, the tragedies and triumphs.

But before we get there, we have to talk about Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties. Like many others, one of the few consolations of my own lockdown was Burgess’s curatorship of artists and fans tweeting along to an album in real time.

Night after night members of new bands and old bands, fresh talent and famous singers gave us insights into the making of their records. Burgess was the enthusiast in chief in all of this, organising the Listening Parties himself.

“I was getting phone calls daily. There was one day when I got a phone call from Roisin [Murphy], Ian Astbury and Gary Kemp all on the same day just asking me how it all worked.”

HeraldScotland: Tim BurgessTim Burgess

The obvious question is why he bothered in the first place? Why make the commitment to organise a Listening Party, and often more than one, nearly every night last year and on into this one. Had he just watched all his Netflix box sets?

“I do get targeted by Netflix to watch things about unsolved murders. But there are only so many that you can watch. People could say that about albums, but I don’t agree. Every album is different and if you add a member of the band or somebody who is associated with the making of the record of the production or the artwork or whatever, then it’s very exciting and you learn a lot about how these things are made.”

What have you got out of it yourself, Tim?

“Well, I had a deal with every single band where I would get 0.0000005 per cent of their Spotify, so I managed to get 56 quid that I split with 976 artists …” he jokes, mordantly.

“I got a huge amount of enjoyment out of it. We played a lot of new bands who wanted to spread the word about their record and there weren’t many outlets at the time. But, also, there are records as extreme as Iron Maiden or Spandau Ballet that I hadn’t really paid enough attention to in the past and I really enjoyed them.”

The series is approaching its 1000th edition. The week after we speak it’s confirmed that the album chosen is Blondie’s Parallel Lines and Chris Stein and Debbie Harry will be involved.

“We’re going to make a big deal out of it with a show at the South Bank, so it’s going to be live.”

The listening parties are set to carry on then? “Since it began people have always asked when it’s going to end. It’s the same thing with The Charlatans.

“I have no idea. It has changed shape so many times. There’s no sign of it stopping but there are signs of it changing all the time. We’ll just see what happens.”

Hair colour aside, you could be forgiven for thinking that Burgess, now 54, hasn’t changed at all since he emerged out of Northwich as a cherubic-looking 22-year-old with the Charlatans in 1990.

Next month sees a slightly belated, Covid-delayed, celebration of the band’s 30th anniversary with a series of gigs that will continue through to December and the release of a “best of” album, A Head Full of Ideas (also available in a variety of special editions including a six-vinyl box set).

HeraldScotland: The Charlatans in 2017The Charlatans in 2017

Back in 1990, when the band emerged as part of the then current baggy scene, you might have thought longevity wasn’t baked in. Yet The Charlatans quickly established themselves as one of the great single bands of the 1990s, a habit that has continued into the 21st century (my favourite Charlatans song? On some days it’s A Man Needs to Be Told from 2001 album Wonderland. On others, it’s So Oh, from 2014). And that’s before mentioning 13 albums.

“It’s been my life,” Burgess says simply. “I guess I was 22 when it started and there have been real intense times. Hugely rewarding moments and other times that weren’t so good.”

Indeed. The story of the band has a similar weight to it as that of their contemporaries Manic Street Preachers. They outlasted the scene they emerged from and managed to survive the imprisonment of founding member Rob Collins for his involvement in an armed robbery in 1992 and then his tragic death in a road accident in 1996. In 2013 the band’s drummer Jon Brookes also died from a brain tumour, two years before the release of their 12th album Modern Nature.

“After Rob died there was real trauma,” Burgess admits. “When Wonderland came that was it, really. I know we made an album in between, but that was a stepping stone. When we put out Wonderland it blew any doubts.

You go on because you go on? “A lot of it is to overcome the challenge. There is that famous saying, ‘It’s what he would have wanted.’ There was a lot of that.

“All the work that Rob had put into the band beforehand why would it have to stop? It’s something to build from really, and once you have that in your head space then it’s OK. It’s just finding your way to make that work.

“And then with Modern Nature after John died … We couldn’t have made the record while he was alive because it was physically impossible for him and heart-breaking to the band.”

Life is a catalogue of loss, Tim. And I’m speaking from a few years on down the road.

“How is it?”

I wouldn’t be in any rush, I tell him.

But let’s go back in time to the beginning. Why did he want to be in a band in the first place?

“The chance to say something about where I was from and what I was thinking and to be able to do it with people who had a real strength musically.

“Rob had a vision that it would be Hammond organ-based, and he would create a sound that would be a little different from other Hammond organ players in the past. And I think we were all quite happy for him to lead the band at the beginning.

“ We worked with Chris Nagle, who was a big part of the Factory sound with Martin Hannett, and he gave us more of a modern sound. We sounded quite sixties in the rehearsal room. He gave us a more dancey thing, which we were all interested in anyway. It was more of a nineties sound, and I think what he did for us really helped to make it more widescreen.”

Burgess admits that it took him a little time to find his own voice as singer. “I’d always been in bands, but some of the stuff that I was into before was more Jim Morrison more Iggy Pop. We even did cover versions of the Cult in my band before.

“So, I went with that in mind, and I remember Martin [Charlatans founder and bassist Martin Blunt] saying to me, ‘Oh let’s try this song again, but can you sing this time?’

“What it did was stop me overdoing something and be quite relaxed. And I guess that’s how I found myself.”

That was then. In the years in between Burgess has had his wild days, his rock star years, but he has never lost himself. How does he look back on that 22-year-old version of himself?

“Oh, very fondly, very fondly. He’s still there inside of me somewhere. I suppose being a dad as well brings all that back to you. It is a beautiful thing.”

What he has also never lost is his enthusiasm. If anything, with the Listening Parties and his solo work, as well as writing books and running a record label, he has been more engaged than ever of late.

“They’re all part of me. I treat everything with the same amount of respect. You just keep at it, really. It’s just enthusiasm for music.

“And that’s how it started for me anyway, just a general enthusiasm for music. Other things got in the way – being in the music game there are a lot more obstacles than just the music.

“But you don’t know that when you first start.”

As for now, despite derisory streaming payments, despite the challenges to gigging that every band is facing, he is still hopeful that there will be more new music and not just from him.

“Hopefully bands start getting more than they are and maybe there will be something positive.

I can only think like that; that we’re moving towards something that is better.

Tim Burgess is getting on a train. He’s moving forward. It’s what he has always done.

A Head Full of Ideas is out next Friday. The Charlatans play 02 Academy, Glasgow on December 18, Music Hall, Aberdeen, on December 20 and Corn Exchange, Edinburgh on December 21

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992