Forever Changes: The Charlatans’ Continuing Journey

Tim Burgess speaks to Clash about the making of 'Different Days'...

Grief isn’t a singular event but a process. When you lose someone it takes time to adjust, and this process changes you in a million small, insignificant ways, a pathway that turns you into a different person.

The Charlatans lost original drummer Jon Brookes to cancer back in 2013, part-way through the making of studio album ‘Modern Nature’. It was a cruel blow – Brookes’ innate sense of swing helped match the band’s future/classic poles, helped guide them through difficult creative avenues and down different aural motorways.

Seated in an East London cafe – with espresso and fizzy water close to hand – singer Tim Burgess admits that losing Jon is something that The Charlatans are still adjusting to. “Since Jon died,” he reflects, “Pete Salisbury from The Verve plays with us live. He was kind of like the first person to come along and help us out – and he’s quite a considerate guest, really.”

The band quickly found that once they had opened themselves up to one guest more followed. “It just kind of grew in a really organic way. It wasn’t really a plan until we realised that something else was happening and then it became a plan.”

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It’s someone who can keep a secret. And it’s someone you can bounce ideas off.

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Almost without realising it, The Charlatans had begun to make a new album. Let’s start with the numbers: ‘Different Days’ is the band’s thirteenth studio album, and it’s their tenth Top Ten album. Beneath this, though, lies a rather more subtle evolution, with each guest seeming to help the group re-define themselves.

To begin with, though, they headed home to their Cheshire studio. “We’ve had it for quite a long time, and I think of it as another member of the band,” he explains. “It’s someone who can keep a secret. And it’s someone you can bounce ideas off. It’s good for us all, really. You can stay there, sleep over.”

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The collaborations took on an informal nature – friends, guests would drop past, enjoy a cup of tea and leave their mark on the record. “Mark (Collins, fellow Charlatan) did a lot of programming on this record, and that was very significant in the way that the songs came about,” he explains. “Mark was using an app on his phone as a kind of drum machine. We just thought of Stephen (Morris, New Order), y’know… and he could make ‘em sound better. He does a masterclass in that.”

“Stephen Morris did about four songs with us on ‘Modern Nature’ and he’s played live with us a couple of times too,” the singer continues. “I’ve known him for a long time, and New Order are my favourite band.”

“Once Stephen got on board, he came a few times and he brought Gillian (Gilbert, also New Order) once with him and she played keyboards on a song. Then I bumped into Johnny, he came over.”

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I think that’s the most important thing, to remain inspired.

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Johnny is, of course, the Tory-baiting one-time Smiths axeman best known as Johnny Marr. “He came over for a cup of tea,” Tim recalls, “and was gonna play on one song… but he ended up staying for five or six hours and played on three.”

“Johnny has got really good taste and I think he’s found a way to stay inspired as well,” he continues. “I think that’s the most important thing, to remain inspired. I think after he left The Smiths he became, like, freelance, didn’t he? And he bounced around.”

“Probably did something not dissimilar to what we did on ‘Different Days’ – you invite people around, see if they’re alright, check in with them. And it’s very uncertain times so you want to see if your friends are OK. Come up for tea, bring your guitar with you!”

The cast list grew and grew. After years of friendship Tim Burgess and Paul Weller finally wrote a song together, the closing cut ‘Spinning Out’. “The idea was something we’d been working on for a long time,” he says. “It happened a couple of summers ago, I think, and we got the song together. It was the last one to be done for the record, but was written before the record. It wasn’t a full vocal or anything like that, it was just a demo.”

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I think it’s good for the ego…

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“I went down to his studio, to Black Barn, and he produced me singing on the track, and then I took the track back and Mark (Collins) played on it, and then Tony (Rogers) got to play on it. And then Martin (Blunt) said ‘I really want to play on it!’ – so that was it. No one wanted to be left out.”

The sessions took on an energy of their own, with The Charlatans working alongside some close friends and long sought after heroes. A Certain Ratio’s mighty Donald Johnson helped spur the album along, while Lambchop’s ever-gentlemanly Kurt Wagner added some spoken word. “I think it’s good for the ego,” Tim shrugs, when musing on the cast list. “It’s kind of good to not always be the main event. It’s good to shake it up. It’s good.”

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At various points Tim Burgess even loans out his microphone, with Catastrophe actress Sharon Horgan contributing to the title cut ‘Different Days’. It’s a friendship that began – like so many in 2017 – on social media, as the frontman explains.

“I was on Twitter one day and I ran a competition for people to come and see the band play on the rooftop of Gary Neville’s new hotel. And she entered. I said she didn’t have to bother, she could come as a guest! So I let somebody else win.”

“She came up for that and brought family and we got on really well,” he continues. “We just kept in touch, really. We’d see each other from time to time, friendly. I was watching Catastrophe and I had a voice in my head, I knew there was a space for a voice on the title track of the song and I just thought of Sharon.”

“It became a quest for me to get her to sing about headless horsemen. And I hope she liked it!”

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I just repeat it and repeat it until I find something, a string of a sentence that I quite like.

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Another close friend makes an unexpected guest appearance, with celebrated Scottish novelist Ian Rankin adding his tones. “I mean, he’s a big music fan, and he’s been to some of our shows, and I persuaded him to DJ before we played at Edinburgh once,” Tim explains. “Ian presented what he’d done on New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh. I went up to collect what he’d done, and it was a very exciting time.”

Ian Rankin’s considered, literate approach is quite different from Tim’s – who admits he doesn’t really reflect on his lyrical techniques, preferring to simply let them seep out from the ether. “I don’t really think of my own lyrics so much. They very much start with an acoustic guitar and things that sound good. I just repeat it and repeat it until I find something, a string of a sentence that I quite like.”

“It just comes while I play. I sing along until I quite like something, and then tying it all together is when I start to take a bigger view of it.”

In a similar fashion ‘Different Days’ slowly began to come into focus. The Charlatans recorded a huge amount of material, and were forced to make the painful decision as to which friend would end up on the cutting room floor.

“Originally I was hoping it would be a triple album but that’s probably just me getting over-excited!” he says with a broad smile. “Records eventually reveal themselves and that what it did.”

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Real elements of the record are very, very sweet and very pure…

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“I mean, my whole life has changed and I live in the woods now in Norfolk and there’s not even a light outside, not even a street light. The six months that is our winter, waking up with my four year old son at five o’clock and everything is so dark… Things started off in a very small way, but they hopefully reveal themselves to be something bigger.”

“I feel like I started a lot of the ideas of songs off, but I was actually seeing ‘em through somebody else’s eyes. Real elements of the record are very, very sweet and very pure and I think it set us up in good stead. Fragments of lyrics became big themes – ‘Plastic Machinery’ became about the ruling classes, and maybe they are a bit fake, and maybe they’re not made up of strong things, either. The lyrics are quite big and powerful, but the organics of the whole record came from a very small, sweet thing.”

We finish by talking about Norfolk, about his ambition for his label – O Genesis – and where the band’s tour schedule is set to take them. Tim’s a record addict, a real fiend for vinyl – as he finishes his fizzy water, he asks for directions to Flashback Record’s latest hub, just off Brick Lane.

There probably aren’t many record shops in the Norfolk woods, I point out.

“Yeah,” he shrugs. “After writing the book I’ve stopped a little bit now! Well, I haven’t stopped. Discogs is the easiest way. The biggest record shop in the world!”

Some things change, and some things don’t. The Charlatans will forever be adjusting, but they’ll always be The Charlatans.

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'Different Days' is out now. Catch The Charlatans at the following shows:

29 Nottingham Rock City
30 Sheffield 02 Academy

1 Wolverhampton Civic Hall
2 Manchester 02 Apollo
4 Glasgow 02 Academy 1
5 Newcastle 02 Academy 1
7 Leeds 02 Academy
8 Cardiff University Great Hall
9 London 02 Academy Brixton
10 Dublin Academy
11 Belfast Limelight

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