Almost 23 years after the release of their debut album The Charlatans are still one of the great British rock and roll bands.
We’re already getting excited about their summer shows – headlining their own Delamere Forest show and topping the main stage bill at Kendal Calling – and the new film about the making of their classic Tellin’ Stories album just adds to the anticipation.
Mountain Picnic Blues allows the band to recount the making of their 1997 album, arguably their best, Tellin’ Stories. Over the course of the documentary they cover the earlier years of the band and give in-depth insight into the making of their most commercially successful album (Tellin’ Stories hit the top of the album chart and spawned three top ten singles).
But anyone with even a passing interest in the band will know that Tellin’ Stories was shadowed by the untimely death of band member Rob Collins during its recording and that by the time the album came out the loss meant they weren’t even sure they were a band that could carry on. During the documentary each member – Tim Burgess, Mark Collins, Martin Blunt and Jon Brookes – talk openly about their memories of the time, and of Rob, as well as about the music surrounding it all.
It’s a beautiful, sad, celebration of their friendship and the album that makes you want to listen to Tellin’ Stories start to finish as soon as the end credits of the film roll. It definitely made us want to talk to the band and we were lucky enough to grab a quick chat with Tim Burgess.
LTW: Tellin’ Stories is 15 years old now. What was it about this anniversary of the album that made it feel like the right time to make Mountain Picnic Blues and do the tour last year?
“It’s actually 16 years old – as of last Sunday!
“Being in a band is a bit like everyday life – it’s good to look forward and keep pushing things and keeping it new but you also take a bit of a look back and try and make sense of where it all came from. The tour was our idea, we’d done the Some Friendly gigs in 2010 and the anniversary of Tellin’ Stories came up and everyone was really up for playing it.
“The documentary wasn’t our idea, but the same people had made films about Julian Cope, Shack and Mott The Hoople – we’d seen them and we all agreed to be interviewed and we all told our stories. It was a time that was life changing and life affirming and both the start and the end of chapters within the band.
“Rob’s death was something that made our world stand still. As devastated as we were we experienced feelings of such love and kindness from our peers. Liam dedicated two songs to Rob Collins and Paul Weller gave me a hug I can still feel to this day. There was a feeling that the endless party had been invaded by reality – so, It felt like we could talk about the album honestly and it was time to play the songs under a different set of circumstances.
“It’s not like the story of what most bands go through. Even the times were very different. Knebworth was like a defining moment for so many things and in some ways Tellin’ Stories was the album that represented those times as much as any other. I told my part of the story and gave them some original lyrical scrawlings that I unearthed.
“We didn’t want it to be a vanity project – I wanted it to be the definitive look at that album.”
LTW: John (Robb, Louder Than War’s editor – as if you didn’t know!) and I wrote live reviews of dates on last year’s Tellin’ Stories tour and both noted how joyous the album sounded. In the film it’s mentioned the album comes off the euphoria of success – do you think the film brings out that aspect and provides balance with Rob’s part of the story?
“Well, thank you for that. It felt better to me this time round as I felt a bit empty when it first came out.
“Thing is though Rob was going through major changes in his life that he wasn’t coping with very well at all – all his frustrations he took out on the band as you would because we all lived together at the time. If he hadn’t died Tellin’ Stories would have sounded a lot different to the way it does.
“Everything about the band changed in one night – we didn’t even know if we were a band anymore.”
LTW: How easy or hard did you find revisiting this time in your life and in the band’s history and talking about it on film? As you’ve mentioned the producers of Mountain Picnic Blues approached you as a band, how was the rapport with them?
“I’ve never been hugely comfortable talking on film anyway but I just told the story as I remembered it.
“Everybody’s life involves looking forward and reflecting too. We were like a family and we suffered a family tragedy. So many people do and I think this was something that people realised.
“We lived out our family tragedy at the height of Britpop and this was a case of us running through everything about the album, Rob, the gigs and the world the band was inhabiting at the time.”
LTW: Was it a conscious decision for the band to be interviewed separately? Do you think it would have been a different feel if you’d been interviewed together or more ‘outsiders’ were asked for a view or memory of the time and album?
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to be interviewed separately but it just made more sense. We all played our own part in the album and we have a different route to how we came to be in the band.
“I’m hoping people would want to hear the story from the people directly involved. Otherwise, there’s the chance it becomes one of those ‘I Love 1996’ kind of shows with people just chipping in with their take on a story they weren’t necessarily a major part of.”
LTW: The Charlatans are still a working band, how has pausing to look back and revisit Tellin’ Stories fed into the ongoing creative process? Do you still feel like ‘the comeback kings’ or an ‘unlucky band’ as you’ve been tagged over the years?
“Playing Tellin’ Stories live reminded us of a great set of songs that were ours, but lives change, a band develops and you find yourself where life has lead you.
“I recorded an album in Nashville and worked with a different band for a couple of years so something like that has much more of an affect on the creative process.
“The tag of us being unlucky is quite strange. The unlucky bands are the ones you never got to hear about. The band whose van broke down and they missed their first gig. The band where the master tapes were wiped on an album that’d taken years to make and who gave up.
“By Tellin’ Stories we’d had six years of making albums and travelling the world. If someone counts Rob’s death as ‘unlucky’ then that’s up to them but it’s not a word I’d use to describe what happened to the band.
“I’m not sure we’ve managed a comeback like the likes of Bowie or Kevin Shields either – it’s not really for me to know how much we ever went away. I’m always right here with me so I’m not the best to ask!”
LTW: I think it was Martin in the film, speaking about Tellin’ Stories as being the end of one chapter for the band – how do you feel it fits into the longer story and what do you hope the next chapter has in store?
“We’ve got two shows this year as The Charlatans – Delamere Forest and Kendal Calling. Both in July. With it being just two it kind of makes them extra special.
“At this very moment we’re writing some new songs. We have quite a lot of ideas – our best albums have been self produced so we will probably do the job ourselves. Saying that Wonderland was an exception. A co-production with Danny Saber. I love Danny’s work on that one but…if we do it alone it’ll take us nine months to make, like Tellin’ Stories did, as opposed to one month like the one we did with Youth.
“Each record takes on its own life so that’s what keeps everything so fresh.”
The Charlatans play a headline show at Delamere Forest and Kendal Calling in July. Mountain Picnic Blues: The Making of Tellin’ Stories is released on 6 May 2013. More information on the film and live dates on their website.
Image by Elspeth Moore.