The Coral

"I just wanted to play music."

Gaggles of laughter ruminate and gather momentum as a handful of dimple-grinned boys stand and marvel at the peculiar sight of a young woman perched directly in front, delicately leaning over her patent red killer-heeled shoes and readjusting her leopard print tights from the ankles up. Disbelief soon leads to schoolyard hysterics, as one buries his head in the other’s shoulder and lets out a howl of laughter. “You know you’re in London now,” another turns to his next-door neighbour and acerbically asserts.

“At it’s roots, it’s more than meets the eye”, Sixties troubadour Dion once said of his 1962 hit ‘The Wanderer’. As six inconspicuous mop-haired lads from Liverpool fidget side by side over a sparkling afternoon over Camden lock, this much seems obvious. As the click of the camera demands more than just a fading glance from each figure standing (some decidedly, some casually propped up against the backdrop) over the make-shift bridge, wandering pedestrians pass after each framed shot, running towards safe passage over on the other side, yet indifferent to the commotion. Observing all six men, uncomfortably manoeuvred into a Usual Suspects inspired line-up, the attention is pulled downwards towards each member’s suede moccasin shoes. Each differing slightly in colour, yet each pair endearingly matched to the next.

It’s about an attitude. Being one as a band. And I think people connect to that more than anything.

Only two hours before, Clash waits patiently in the upstairs bar of the Lock Tavern in London’s bustling Camden. The lull of the pub’s stereo above soon relinquishes to a faint humming voice, spiralling in volume up the narrow wooden stairs. The gentle improvised melody of Van Morrison’s ‘And It Stoned Me’ echoes through the room, until the unidentified sound reveals itself in the form of The Coral’s lead singer, James Skelly, who appears suddenly through the doorway singing its chorus at the top of his lungs. The rest of the band soon follow in succession, as bass guitarist Paul Duffy collapses on one of the leather sofas and proudly showcases his new purchase, bought only a few minutes ago on Camden High Street. As the plastic bag is ripped away, Duffy reveals a fish-eyed camera to the fascination of a few Coral-lites shifting about the room to survey the location.

The Coral have just returned home from a support jaunt abroad with Arctic Monkeys in Europe, and as lead guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones shares his unpleasant mosquito bitten experience in Italy with the nearby photographer as she sets up her lighting gear, Skelly and keyboard player Nick Power settle down against the abstract wall of Fifties wireless radios, and soon settle into conversation.

It has been a few years since the band made their last musical salute for attention, in the form of 2005 album ‘The Invisible Invasion’. The release marked a testing time for each member, as four years of touring exhaustion and non-stop media attention finally took its toll on the collective. The proverbial straw that broke the band’s back arrived when founding member Bill Ryder-Jones decided to temporarily quit touring, leaving the remaining members facing an uncertain future. Faced with an impossible situation, The Coral did the only thing that could reinstate the band. They returned home.

The homecoming proved a vital rejuvenation. Returning to Hoylake, Merseyside, the band soon rediscovered their passion. A record was never too far away, and with the space to breathe it soon found its wings. Recorded in Noel Gallagher’s very own Wheeler End Studio, the unsupervised loan of his equipment was a much-needed boost of confidence for the band Gallagher has always cited as one of his most treasured. So, just how much of a leg-up was the time and space he so benevolently gave to them? “Big,” Nick enthuses, “very big. No money counter ticking away when we were in the studio, so we could try things again and again to get it right.” Speaking about the value of Wheeler End, Skelly adds, “You’re not going to get any better gear than that.”

As the discussion rests on the love Gallagher holds for music, the conversation soon veers into the ridiculous inaccessibility of retired 80s stadium rockers (“When you’re growing up, you want to join a band, and you’ve got some nugget in a ponytail playing Van Halen solos – it’s enough to put anyone off, innit?”), before nose diving into the social dissection of a particular brand of self-preservation music snobs who guard their music shops like they’re museums (“They’re the bane of music. It’s like they don’t want to sell anything. I don’t get that attitude.”) Both Skelly and Nick pause and ponder the farcical nature of it all, before we begin to explore the meaning behind The Coral’s latest record ‘Roots And Echoes’. “There’s a book called ‘The Wanderer’ about Dion,” Skelly explains, “and the first chapter is ‘Roots And Echoes’. It just said something about us to me. It means to us – getting back to the root – the attitude of what we’re about.” Power looks thoughtful as he adds, “But looking forward,” before Skelly soulfully encapsulates, “going back to look forward.”

Going back to look forward is a philosophy that has underpinned The Coral since its very creation in Liverpool, when six aspiring teenagers vowed to make their own truth through music. In their anarchically sketched-spiralled world, Huck Finn characters shape shifted their way through life to the psychedelic rumblings of lost souls such as Arthur Lee, Captain Beefheart, and underground 80s band, The Pale Fountains. “There was no other band at the time that were doing it, there was only us,” Skelly backtracks. “It is boss, and all your dreams come true, but you’re like, I’m 21 and I set out to do all these things and I’ve just done it all. My dreams were not all about money, I just wanted to play music and be a band who people follow and who stands out.” Is that why the band took their enforced sabbatical? “Yeah – I don’t think we had a choice really,” Nick answers. “I’m proud of all our albums,” Skelly continues. “There have been good songs all the way. But it’s not about that with us. It’s about an attitude. Being one as a band. And I think people connect to that more than anything.”

James Skelly recently admitted, “When you almost lose everything, you don’t take it for granted anymore.” Faced with one of his own musings, the question of what he almost lost leaves him provocatively stumped. Nick Power laughs into the funnel of his beer as he chuckles, “We’d probably do it all again.” The mistakes made by The Coral have arguably merged into their art throughout the years. Each album has summed up a transition in their carefully weaved journey, as each member has matured through every one of their records. “Sometimes, you over think it as well, don’t you?” Skelly asks, not particularly looking for an answer, but asking all the same. “When I look back, some of the best songs are those ballad songs, like ‘Liza’ and stuff. Looking back, we didn’t want something so slow as a single at that age, but now you think it would’ve been great.”

My dreams were not all about money, I just wanted to play music and be a band who people follow and who stands out.

Hindsight can be a powerful presence, yet James Skelly seems to thrive off its syncopated rhythm. Slow numbers may have been buried away on B-Sides in the past, but new record ‘Roots And Echoes’ is swathed in beautifully constructed Burt Bacharach inspired ballads, each one lamenting and sweltering under the weight of lost love and timely experience. “We can pull it off much better now,” Nick agrees. “When you’re in your mid 20s, you feel a bit cheesier when you do them when you’re younger. You’ve got to do everything at hyper speed.” Renewed contemplation is peacefully transposed through album track ‘Not So Lonely’, which expertly conjures the spirit of 60s swooners, not unlike The Carpenters or vocal clarity of chief ballad-troubadour James Taylor. “You can sing them because you’ve got the experience behind you to back them up. But when you’re younger, sometimes you’re doing it by numbers, because you copy how they wrote it. But when you do it now it’s more real because you’ve actually lived it.”

Their lived-in philosophy seeps into track ‘Rebecca You’, a personal favourite of Skelly’s. The ballad is a smouldering tale of lamenting love, and as such is the most mature ballad of the collection. Skelly croons over a carefully constructed score of strings that gives more than a definite air of Bacharach. The presence of strings on the record is something that is new to the band, yet isn’t something that any of them were particularly daunted by. “Because Bill can do it,” Skelly speaks of their lead guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones. “It’s coming from his heart when he’s writing it and it fits in with the music.” Discussing the danger of over-using such a powerful canvas, Nick adds: “There was a time in Britpop when strings were just ruined. Less is more really.” The band’s understanding of light and shade is more than illustrated on last track ‘Music At Night’ which is arguably their most adventurous and mature endeavour to date. Not to mention, a track that sounds the least like their previous work to date: psychedelic off kilter swooning harmonies soar and glide over a fantastical string score that more than captures the sixties cinematic screen of yore. As the orchestra blends smoothly and supremely into Skelly’s lead vocals, the scene is set to John Barry ‘Goldfinger’ inspired proportions. You can almost taste the slick anticipation as the stringed landscape peaks and troughs to the familiar heights of ‘You Only Live Twice’.

And as the record dips and dives into the familiar Arthur Lee reflected rock pools of psychedelic syncopation, star track ‘In The Rain’ tambourine jingles and toe taps to the rhythms of Love’s ‘Little Red Book’ before the album switches to Skelly’s defiant vocals on ‘Remember Me’ which subverts the dreamlike lyrics which cautiously paint “I’m a prisoner / but she’s so fancy free / will she remember me?”

As a record, ‘Roots And Echoes’ stands supreme, darting back and forth: to the tradition of the musical godfathers who weaved their psychedelic tales of confusion, loneliness and lost love; yet also sparkling defiantly forwards. Each track is masterfully and meticulously arranged and delivered, presenting their most complete record to date. And in a modern climate where single downloads are prioritised above the artistry of albums that document journeys, not snapshots in time, the band are ever closer to aligning themselves alongside the musicianship of veteran ‘Astral Weeks’ storyteller Van Morrison. As the melodies spiral, and the orchestral score soars to their own syncopated beat, it seems wholly evident that The Coral have finally found their moccasin suede feet yet again. Striving forward to come home.

“We finally had the chance to stop and remember who we were,” Skelly recently mused about their time away from the musical spotlight. As the discussions wind down to a restful close, and Skelly begins to drum his hands like a seasoned drummer on the coffee table in front, I remind him of this very quote. So just whom did he find, and how would he sum up his collective after all these years? He freezes for a second, before striking with a single word: “Honest.” Some roots and echoes need no further adornment than that…

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.