James Skelly and the Intenders – interview
Following a self-imposed hiatus from the Coral – the band Noel Gallagher once described as “so far ahead of their time and their peers, it’s a joke!” – frontman James Skelly has been readying his first solo album ‘Love Undercover’. Louder Than War sent Fergal Kinney to talk to James about the record, released on 3rd June.
James Skelly is one of Britain’s best songwriters. This may not be conventional wisdom, but it is fact. Across six records with the Coral, the elder Skelly brother progressed from delightfully esoteric and spiky songs about human-to-plant metamorphosis and sailing for the Spanish Main to a highly versatile songwriter capable of remarkable sensitivity for someone who, in person, appears so guarded. Perhaps this is why.
Though the music press may have drifted into a state of perpetual indifference about them, their perfectly realised 2010 album ‘Butterfly House’ had garnered praise from stalwarts such as Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher and Robert Plant. Described by the Stone Roses’ Mani as ‘the best thing since the Roses first album’, ‘Butterfly House’ was a shimmering burst of perfect pop with an astounding high water mark of songwriting peppered with Byrds jangle and Eastern psychedelia.
It would be – for now- the band’s last record; drummer Ian Skelly would put out a solo record ‘Cut From a Star’ and last year James Skelly began work on his own album at Liverpool’s Parr Street studios. ‘Love Undercover’ by James Skelly and the Intenders (Skelly is at pains to highlight that the record is not just him and an acoustic guitar), is a notable break from Skelly’s musical past, a new immediacy and vitality washes away the psychedelia and introspection of the Coral for a soulful and expressly direct record.
Self produced and featuring a cast of familiar Coral faces (as well as one Paul Weller), ‘Love Undercover’ is released on Cooking Vinyl on 3rd June, and we spoke to James Skelly about the new record as well as the past and future of the Coral.
Louder Than War: This record seems certainly a departure from Butterfly House; a lot less of the psychedelic flavours and a lot more direct songwriting about relationships – sort of in the vein of ‘Rebecca You’ or ‘Walking in the Winter’ – what’s prompted this shift?
It’s just what came out really. I’d done ‘Butterfly House’, and I thought that was as far as you could go with that sort of thing. I just wanted to do something different, I like to keep it fresh and use a different approach. They were the songs I wrote in that period of time.
LTW: Were any of these songs earmarked for the Coral or were you thinking of them as marked out for yourself and the Intenders?
What A Day was something me and Ian wrote about 15 years ago, and we’ve always had that and it’s a really good song. We wanted it to be a bit more like George Harrison or something.
LTW: Yeah, I thought about the All Things Must Pass album at a few points on the record…
Yeah, and we couldn’t really do that with the Coral so much. I think Searching for the Sun’ we kind of had messing around when we were with Leckie. But I didn’t quite finish it.
LTW: What kind of influences were you taking in on this record? Was there any specific sound you were aiming for?
A lot of Stax and Motown stuff, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Tom Petty and the Heartbeakers, Bob Marley and the Wailers….I was going for that sort of thing…
LTW: It certainly comes out in the name…
Exactly, that’s what I wanted to do, you know what I mean.
LTW: You worked with Paul Weller on the track You’ve Got It All, and you can certainly hear the Motown and Stax influence on that, how did that come about?
Erm…he just sent me a demo of a song he hadn’t finished and said that he didn’t really have the words, just the melody and chords, and asked could I finish it, he said I’ve just got to a point with it.
So, I wrote the chorus and the words, and added the little riffs, went to his studio and we worked on it. We did a demo and he loved it, so I ended up putting it on my album.
LTW: Is that the kind of thing Weller’s done with you before?
No, he’s never done it before.
LTW: The title Love Undercover, is that a reference to anything specific?
All of the songs are sort of about all of the different disguises that love comes in, it’s like a conversation in a way. There’s a lot of different disguises but when you break it down it’s there…the words just come out.
What’s the song called again by Bob Dylan that starts with “You’ve got a nerve to say you are my friend”?
LTW: Oh yeah, ‘Positively 4th Street’
Yeah! That, just then, that opening line, I love that. It’s just a direct conversation with someone.
That’s the main sort of…even though it’s not even my favourite tune by him…just that line. I remember hearing it and I just really got that kind of songwriting. It’s a kind of conversation, even if it’s a conversation with yourself.
LTW: That’s a good comparison to make, a lot of this album is lyrically very direct and feels like a direct address to someone…
They all are, they’re all conversations. Searching for the Sun is a conversation with myself, trying to justify something to myself.
It’s loads of stuff, the selfish side of you, trying to push it away, I think a lot of it’s as you get older…
LTW: Did you find yourself in a particularly reflective place? Butterfly House had been well received but I always felt that the Coral’s last two albums had been damned with faint praise by critics, and obviously you’d put out the Singles Collection and Bill (Ryder-Jones) had left…
To me, Butterfly House was the best album we did. The most complete. And I just thought we got totally taken for granted. But that doesn’t really bother me. It’s one of them.
We always got decent reviews but the press seem to have had an agenda of bands that they back…and if they back you you’ve got a really good chance.
Maybe we didn’t play the game enough…but that doesn’t bother me. You do what you do don’t you. But yeah, as you get older it’s natural to reflect, I just wanted to make it direct, and sometimes when you’re in a band and a lot of the lyrics were co-written you can’t do that, so it’s different.
LTW: Am I right in thinking that the album contains a lot of the same people you worked with in the Coral?
Yeah but in the lyrics it’s just me.
LTW: You referred to the Coral in the past tense; is the Coral something that’s still alive? Do you intend to regroup to make a record in the future or…?
Oh certainly, yeah, I hope so…not too soon because I just think we’re a great group, we are a great group, but it got to the point where the radio and the TV just aren’t playing you…and when so many bands just die after one album you look at them (the press) and just think, you know, what a load of gobshites.
They’d go “what a great band, such an underrated band” and you just think, why not go and buy a record? You prick. “Oh yeah great band…have you got a new album out?”
LTW: I thought that, I loved Butterfly House but like I said, a lot of journalists don’t bother getting under the skin of an album before reviewing it
That’s what I mean, but how long have we been going compared to other British bands? They’ve all fallen by the wayside.
LTW: It was 2002 when you put out your debut and not many other bands who put out their first record then are still putting out records now
We’ve got half an album but we ran out of a bit of steam, we want to make it better than the last one so that’s what we’ll do.
LTW: What are your plans for the release of this album and the rest of 2013?
Tour it, hopefully another bigger tour towards the end of the year, that’s when the songs really come alive. I enjoy it. I’m getting more into live stuff, that’s where it’s really happened, you can’t download that. Come and see us live, it sounds great, it’s exciting, we do a couple of covers, a few Coral tunes like Talkin’ Gypsy Market Blues.
Love Undercover is released by Cooking Vinyl on 3rd June. James Skelly appears in store at HMV Liverpool One (Sunday 2nd June 4pm), HMV Manchester Market Street (Monday 3rd June 5pm) before heading out on a UK tour which consists of:
6th June – Leeds Brudenell Social Club
7th June – Sheffield o2 Academy 2
8th June – Liverpool o2 Academy 2
11th June – Birmingham Institute Temple Room
12th June – London Dingwalls
14th June – Bristol Thekla
15th June – Manchester Gorilla
All words by Fergal Kinney. You can read more from Fergal on LTW here.