The Coral were always a good times band. Sure, the Liverpool group's songwriting contained more than its fair share of mystery, inspiration, loss, and melancholy, but - throughout it all - there was the sheer joy of being able to make music.
Russian polkas led into frenzied ska work outs, plangent acoustic songwriting spilled over into molten psych. And then, it stopped. The band went on hiatus in 2012, the frustrations around their (much delayed, eventually released) album 'The Curse Of Love' proving to be too much.
Now, though, they're back. New album 'Distance Inbetween' is refreshed, mature, and focussed, taking that impish energy into fresh climes. Speaking to frontman James Skelly, it's clear that he completely believes in the new record. “I think it's got the same energy as the first album, but obviously we're a bit older, and the times are different,” he says.
The germ of the material began as part of James Skelly's solo output with The Intenders, but somehow it just didn't fit. “I think when I was working with The Intenders I brought down 'Chasing Down The Tail Of A Dream', and we jammed it but it didn't sound quite right,” he says. “And I thought, 'oh that could be a Coral song.' And then we slowly moved to put out 'The Curve Of Love' and we started doing that together, and then it sort of naturally went from there, really.” “We didn't really speak about it, we just said: 'do you want to come in and knock a few songs around?' And then I showed it to our manager, and it was a bit heavy but he said 'no, no – this is a good way to go'. We went from there, really.”
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An entirely natural but rather slow process, The Coral began piecing themselves together after a career that had already birthed seven gloriously creative, wilfully unpredictable records. After his solo projects, though, James Skelly found it entirely natural to get back in to that mindset. “Well, I know what a Coral song is – it's just the natural thing that I write,” he laughs. “Whereas the stuff I did for my thing was more writing in different styles, which was enjoyable.”
“The initial inspiration just has to be a moment, and the rest of that I can kind of use my writing skills to finish it,” he continues. “The initial moment... I can't really just come up with something unless it actually happens.”
Not that the material on 'Distance Inbetween' arrived without any effort – some were quite natural, while others took a little bit more sweat and toil to get right. “Some of them were, some of them weren't,” he muses. “Each song is different, really. When we first started we only had four songs, and then (Paul) Molloy came and added some guitar later.”
“Some of the songs we'd thought we'd written, but then we heard them and realised they needed to be better. So we sort of re-wrote them over the backing tracks. 'Miss Fortune' got re-written, and was completely re-arranged, compared to what we thought it would be. And so did 'She Runs The River'.”
In comparison to the fractured sessions that led to their hiatus, however, the recording process for 'Distance Inbetween' found The Coral in an entirely disciplined mood. The tracks were laid down at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool, allowing each member to escape home after a hard day's graft. “Well, we wanted to keep it so it was like you could go in the morning, finish at 10 and everyone goes home. So it's got like a work ethic to it. Otherwise it kind of ends up as a party. If you're staying over somewhere. We wanted to get in and have a work ethic.”
We can't help but feel that James is talking from experience, here. “Yeah!” he exclaims. “And each night it gets later and later and later, then you're sick of everyone because you haven't had any time to learn anything.”
The majority of the album was recorded live, with minimal overdubs – often, the band opted for a 'first take, best take' mentality. “The recording didn't take very long, probably about three weeks at the most. Not even that. What took up a lot of time was then piecing it all together.”
“We do like three takes, and then a lot of the time we'd pick the first one,” he explains. “We've got short attention spans! We kept our attention for the first one, and then it was gone.”
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I only go back, in a way, to learn from it...
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'Distance Inbetween' is, by The Coral's own standards, a minimal record; overdubs are kept to a minimum, allowing each song to strike directly. “We wanted it to be more minimal than 'Butterfly House'. We thought, that was as far as we can take that sound. Which I really liked. But I wanted to do something different, so we've consciously made an attempt to keep it minimal.”
The band took charge of production themselves, something they've shied away from in the past. “We produced 'The Curse Of Love' in our rehearsal room, but this is the first time we've produced an album in the studio. You're learning all the time – you'd be a bit stupid if you didn't, I think.”
So what have The Coral learned from this experience, then?
“I'll probably find out on the next one!” he laughs. “I'm not sure. I don't really want to listen to it again, I've heard it that many times.”
Currently kicking off a triumphant British tour, The Coral are busy rummaging through their catalogue, piecing together a set list that will please both the fans and the band themselves. As the frontman admits, it's far from an easy task. “We've worked hard on the set, trying to get the most stuff off all the albums,” he says. “A couple of tracks off each album. It's getting the balance between the new ones, the singles, and then the fan favourites off the albums. It's getting the right balance, really.”
“There's so many songs, so there are always going to be people going: 'oh, you should have played that one'. So we'll swap it round for the next tour we do, and do some more. Try and play nearly all the songs over the next few years.”
Throughout our conversation James tries not to make reference to the past, but looking back on the band's catalogue for a potential set list is one occasion when he can't resist. “Maybe it was too many,” he says. “But that was just what we were doing at the time. Probably why we were a bit burnt out by the end of 'Butterfly House'.”
“I only go back, in a way, to learn from it,” he insists. “Because we fucked up most of the time. So, to learn from it. If I can.”
Not that the singer has any hang ups about the way The Coral's career progressed. “No, no. I don't really regret anything. In a way, the reason why it was really good is the same reason why it fucked up. If you know what I mean. All the things that make it great are the things that make it fall.”
At the moment, though, The Coral are far from falling. The band's live shows are earning rave plaudits, a crisp reminder of the sheer power of this band's history. This divide between live performance and the studio is a recurring factor in The Coral's career, as James admits. “We're probably a better live band,” he says. “But it's all about the songs, really. If your songs are good enough then that's all that matters.”
And on 'Distance Inbetween' the songs are definitely good enough. Far from an exercise in nostalgia, it's time to find that feeling once again, and pass it on.
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'Distance Inbetween' is out now.