Interview: Tim Burgess

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Tim Burgess may be 45 but he still has the youthful pout and cheek bones of the Britpop star who gazed out from posters on teenage bedroom walls across the country back in the nineties.

Back when Melody Maker and NME left inky stains on your fingers, Tim and his band – The Charlatans – were Mancunian poster boys continually triumphing in the face of adversity. Keyboard player Rob Collins was charged with armed robbery after the release of their second album Between 10th and 11th while later tragically dying in a car crash during the recording of their fifth album Telling Stories.

After much soul searching, the band returned from the brink with a triumphant gig at Knebworth supporting Britpop titans Oasis. Telling Stories spawned a string of hit singles (One to Another and North Country Boy being the biggest) with the group going on to deliver a series of warmly received full length albums.

In recent years, band members have diversified into other projects with front man Tim Burgess being particularly busy. An avid Twitter user and coffee drinker (you can buy his own Tim Peaks brand) he’s recently released his second album Oh No I Love You in collaboration with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner. A remixed version featuring reinterpretations from the likes of Factory Floor and Django Django has also just been released.

M caught up with Tim on what he described as ‘a beautiful morning in Munich’ to find out more about songwriting, the music that gets his juices flowing and writing with Kurt Wagner…

What are your first musical memories?

The Jam and Blondie on chart run downs were the first acts I remember. At school I was massively into Crass. They were considered anarchist punks but I was 13 years old so it kind of made a lot of sense to me.

My main motivation for thinking about music as a full time thing was Factory Records in the mid-80s. I’d just left school back in Manchester and New Order were my favourite band. I’d follow them around all over the UK. They were from the city but had global hits. It made me think ‘maybe I could do it’.

How did you first move into songwriting?

I’d dabbled a bit in songwriting before I joined The Charlatans but when I joined the songs were all about jamming. We all really enjoyed each other’s company and being in the same room so we’d just play and play until an idea would come. That would be the first part of a song. Things would come easily as everything was spontaneous. There would be no sitting down and starting with chords.

The first time I really wrote a song was Can’t Get Out of Bed on our third album Up to Our Hips. That was the first time I ever sat down with chords and came up with a structure and a melody.

So collaboration is important to you?

I like writing with other people. I like bouncing ideas off others and the social aspect of it all. Sitting down with someone is just more fun than me on my own.

How did you find working with Kurt Wagner on your new record?

I’d talked about it for a long time and been a fan of his for longer. And I’d never handed over the lyric writing before. When The Charlatans started I was always the lyricist, just because I like to sing what I see or feel.

I listened to other people’s ideas. If they were good, they’d go in. If they weren’t, then I wouldn’t bother listening to them. But with Kurt I’ve admired his lyrics for a long time and I thought the idea of working with someone where  they did the lyrics and I did the music would turn how I’d previously worked on its head. I consider him a grown up, who is experienced and would come up with interesting ideas. I think it worked out really well…

Does songwriting come easier now than before?

In some ways. You can recognise the feeling you have when you know something good is happening. But I still worry until the feeling arrives. I never look around and think ‘Oh yeah every idea I have is fantastic’. I’m just relieved when I get that feeling. Before that, I’m just working towards it. And I’m constantly worrying about it until that feeling hits. I’m concerned until I find something which I think is good.

What’s the record or song that you’re most pleased with over your career?

Anything from the first Charlatans album. Sproston Green is something I always really enjoyed. But I love different songs for different reasons. Some of the more epic stuff like Forever or Senses which are big sprawling things. If you counter act that, a really beautiful song on You Cross My Path called Bird – it’s the shortest song we’ve ever done and to me is a beautiful balance to something really epic and big.

You can’t write the musical equivalent of a James Cameron film all the time. You have to something like A Little Miss Sunshine or David Lynch film to balance it out.

You Crossed My Path (the band’s tenth album) was given away for free? You were ahead of the music industry curve?

It felt like everyone was downloading music for free at the time. So we did something available for free which confused everyone. Was this legal? Was it illegal? Was it right or wrong? It was definitely controversial.

I remember being interviewed at the time about it with another band. And they were asked would they give something away for free. They said no because it’s already been done. So in a lot of ways it stopped something. It was all very momentary. A couple of albums were given away by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Then it all stopped. Maybe it destroyed something, saved something, started something. It was definitely a momentary thing.

At the moment, things are starting to improve in the industry. It feels fresher and people are starting off with lower expectations and working harder.

What new acts are you really into?

I really love Factory Floor and was thrilled to see on Twitter recently that they’ve finished their album. I’m looking forward to that one. I’m putting out a band called Throwing Up who are just so fun and chaos. It’s really needed right now.

Are you and the Charlatans recording together?

Yeah we’ve got four or five songs I think now. Definitely more than ideas but they’re unrecorded at the moment. It just gets to a point where you think they sound really great. So you’ve just got to record them now. But there’s no real rush. The four of us have got quite a lot of other stuff going on but we’ll record over the summer with a view to getting the record out next year.

I’d read somewhere it’d been 16 years since Telling Stories…

Oh my god. I don’t know where the time goes. I really don’t.

If you had any advice for your 20 year old self what would it be?

Now and again a light bulb will go off in my head and I’ll be like ‘If I ever get asked that question’, you’ve got to remember to say this. But then I just forget!

The answer is – I’m just thinking on my feet right now – I like it when things really happen naturally. It doesn’t always. Sometimes you have to force it to get it through to the next phase. But you need to listen to yourself when it feels good. That’s always been the key for me. There’s been times, just like in everything, when it doesn’t really feel right and you second guess it but you go with it anyway and it doesn’t work out. But that’s just life isn’t it? I wouldn’t really change anything. Because there’s nothing really more that I want than to be making music.

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