On the eve of a tour with THE CHARLATANS, style icon and British indie legend TIM BURGESS gives ANDY HAZEL the lowdown on 20-plus years of being incredibly, incredibly cool.
“I’m in Birmingham, England and I’ve just woken up. It’s 9AM and I’m having a cup of green tea,” says Tim Burgess in an entirely un-rock n' roll manner. Soon to embark on a tour with his group The Charlatans promoting their new album Who We Touch, this Salford lad has been calling Hollywood home for the best part of two decades. Is there any sense of homecoming? “Not in Birmingham no,” he says with a wry laugh. “It’s not my favourite part of Britain. We start our tour tomorrow in Newcastle. The warm-up gig went really well, we played for a really long time because our drummer has been taken sick and we had to rehearse up a new drummer. Jon [Brookes] had a brain tumour; he collapsed on stage in Philadelphia. We thought it was dehydration. Over the last couple of weeks, it’s become more serious. He’s getting it sorted out, so it’s as good as can be expected, we’ve been using Pete Salisbury from The Verve. We’ve had to learn two hours worth in a week, so it’s been a pretty intense time,” he says quietly.
“It’s as good as it can be you know. When we were in Philadelphia he suggested Pete; from drummer to drummer.” This sort of brotherhood epitomises the history of The Charlatans. Unlike almost every other hyped band of the early 90s British rock era, they have endured and maintained a strong core following. When it comes to working out what they did right, Burgess is at a loss. “I mean, over 20 years there’s got to be a few things we’ve had bust ups about, but I don’t take it personally,” he says before pausing. “I answer this question a lot and I’ve not got a really stock answer for it. I’m a music obsessive and as a band we can play anything we want to and we have enormous respect for each other; I feel like they’re me brothers y’know. Obviously, we fight as well, but we’ve got over a lot of things together. A lot of our friends from that time, they got married and have kids and this life it’s not for them anymore. They might lose the plot or maybe they find music for them is a lead onto something else like a TV career, but for us…I don’t know. As soon as we’ve done a record, I’m going around trying to find a new thing.”
Influences on the band’s music have been as varied as the twenty years through which they’ve existed with early records getting a fresh release from hip-hop, drugs and the Britpop scene, and later albums from geography, esoteric books and films. “I wanted this album to be interesting in a filmic way,” Burgess explains. “I like the idea of [opening track] Love is Ending as a credit sequence and an opening, then there’s a backtrack through the album like Memento or Wild At Heart; I’m a big Lynch fan, and I love the way he messes with a film’s narrative. I’ve been doing a musical project for the Lynch Foundation,” he says shyly. “He’s using my music for transcendental mediation (TM) classes at the Lynch Foundation. He asked me to supply some music for a compilation album or something along those lines, we’re meant to work on something together. I gave him an acoustic version of The Only One I Know and he really liked it – wrote me a letter!” He says, as excitedly as you or I would be. “I do a lot of TM and I think it influences everything I do. I’ve only been there for the last two years so it only influences the last album.”
Sounds like a long way from Madchester and the heady days of Britpop. “I don’t really see my drug years as being a problem, I‘m just glad I don’t take them anymore,” he says without provocation. “I was at a point in my life where that felt like the right thing to do. I’m at another point now where I feel I’ve got through those phases of my life to get here, and it was all part of my life which I’ve lived without regrets.”
This open and carefree attitude oozes through Who We Touch reminiscent of Baggy’s cocky swagger and the loose West Coast hip-hop Burgess fell for back in the bands early years. As with most songs he pens lyrics for, there is a story behind it. “I don’t belong here in your garden / I should be up there on your throne / All the losers worship me”. Elsewhere Burgess has stated the song was about old manager Alan McGee, but today he has a different story.
“I was in Gatwick airport a while back, and this cockney scally chav girl with really bad makeup on is walking toward me and I bumped into her by accident and she did the L-shaped word to me on her forehead, y’know. And I was like ‘fuckin’ hell she thinks I’m a loser’. All the Charlatans fans are like me, so we’re all losers.”
Renown for giving away free songs, ringtones and downloads to subscribing fans, Charlatans have always been big on catering for fans needs, whether its playing requests or giving away their last album for free. “I think the way we treat our fans is been a huge part of why we’re still around,” says Burgess keenly. “We give to them and they give to us, and it’s mutual respect in a lot of ways. The thing about giving away the album for free last time was more than just treating the fans well; it was a move in a lot of ways, it was a statement of intent like a fuck you to the record company.”
This attitude has won the band many younger, more recently recruited fans such as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and The Morning After Girls; musicians who they are keen to work with. “With new stuff we’ve had remixes done by The Horrors who are friends of mine, and we give those away for free - more feeding the fans and picking up people who are interested to try and get their heads around it. It’s always interesting to be involved in the passing of information, and that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? You never know where it will end up or what effect it will have.”