Stereophonics’ Coming of Age

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Most ‘90s bands don’t last past that decade – it’s hard to extricate yourself from the proverbial ‘90s rut when your sound is so indebted to a specific era. In Stereophonics’ case, it’s Britrock. But the band won’t have any of that cliché dictate their career, even if it had been 16 years since their debut Word Gets Around. A quintessentially Brit-sounding band that ascended that label, Kelly’s whiskey-soaked vocals and the band’s early pop meanderings led them to bigger mainstream success in the early noughts. With Graffiti on the Train, Stereophonics seek to escape mainstream competition in the charts and make an album that is anti-record label format – they’re not seeking pop validation anymore. JUICE spoke to founding member and bassist Richard Jones on breaking their 2-year-gap in between releases tradition, whether Kelly is an auteur in the studio, and found out about the new album’s movie potential and sequel in the process.

What’s good Rich? What are you up to?
At home at the moment, just doing interviews.

Just to pre-empt you – sorry, we’re planning to take the bulk of your time! Anyway, the latest album had the longest release gap from the previous one, was there a reason why you guys broke the 2-year rule?
I think the main reason was that last year the Olympics happened in the UK, and that kinda took the media focus. It wouldn’t be the best timing for us if we were to release it last year even though we had the album by February [of that year]. So we just waited until the Olympics happened, then focused on the album and worked on it to its full potential. Other than that, we spent 12 months in the studio. It was the first time we had our own studio space, so we were able to take our own time writing, recording, and just creating something that change the perception of the band from the general public’s point of view. We wanted to create different sounding songs and we achieved that with songs like ‘Graffiti on the Train’, ‘Roll the Dice’, and ‘Violins and Tambourines’.

We’re actually quite curious about the whole 2-year gap thing before Graffiti on the Train in the first place… was it a contract obligation to release a record within that time span?
No. Usually we are really quick when we are in the studio recording. Then it would take 16 to 18 months to play the album live around the world. That’s the only reason why we take 2 years in between every release. It’s a good way to keep up the momentum of what we do, y’know. I don’t think it would work well if we took time off, even though we’ve taken the longest space of time between releasing the last album and [Graffiti on the Train], we haven’t really taken any time off from what we do as respective members of Stereophonics, be it playing live or recording in studio. [Taking the time off] is not something we’d like to do – we are working musicians after all. [Music] is what we like to do and that’s what takes our time up.

You mentioned that the band wants to change the perception of Stereophonics among the general public. What exactly is that ‘perception’ that needed to be changed?
We realised that [in the past] we competed with a lot of pop artistes in the charts and what have you. We didn’t want to do that on this album, we have some songs which if we tried to chop into a 3-minute pop song, they won’t have the same impact and won’t do them justice. That’s mainly what we are trying to do, show people there’s a lot more to the band than what they hear in the charts. That’s why we want to bring out this type of record.

The album seems ambitious – it was inspired by a Paul Haggis screenplay as we understand it. How much of that was retained in the finished product though?
The conception of this album came about when 2 kids were using Kelly’s roof to get on the train tracks behind his house. He confronted them one night, and they said they weren’t breaking into his house, they just wanted to graffiti the trains. So he took that idea and worked a story around it about 3 friends from a small town being not very inspired by the town. Then 1 of them died, turning the others wanting to leave and find more about themselves and the world. That’s the screenplay idea, very briefly. That influenced a lot of the lyrics writing on this album – being situations those friends can get in and the different relationship things going on between them. That’s the idea of the screenplay, which is in development at the moment and hopefully we can get into production in the next coming 2, 3 years.

Bildungsroman, a literary staple. We’re surprised to find out there might be an actual movie based on that in the offing though…
There will definitely be something out there regarding the screenplay.

We read that Kelly would walk into the studio with 40 unfinished ideas at one go. That sounds like a lot of work to filter through. What was the process like?
Because we have our own studio, we can take our time working through those ideas. Kelly brings the ideas in, sometimes just as a melody of a song with a guitar, sometimes he would put different instrumentations there, and we would construct something around those ideas. I think we have about 30 to 36 songs recorded over the 12 months we were recording Graffiti on the Train. Hopefully we’re gonna bring out the volume 2 [of the album] probably about around this time or May or June next year.

That’s another thing we didn’t know, that the album was supposed to be a 2-parter and will have a sequel…
That, there will be (laughs).

Kelly produces and writes. It almost seems like he’s a bit of an auteur. Is that assumption right or do you guys get to contribute more than we thought?
Yes! We do our own thing within the songs, y’know. Like myself, I play the bass, so I create the bass parts, and the drummer – whoever it was at that time (ed’s note: they changed drummers during the course of recording) – would list down what he thinks is the right drum pads and sometimes we’d need to tweak that. Kelly, being a songwriter, he has the full scope of where he can see where a lot of the songs are going to. Therefore he produces a lot of the songs in that way. Another way is by leaving the band to create its own version of song and then he deconstructs them by using certain parts. But yeah, like I said, we all got our jobs within the band and Kelly, being the songwriter, he likes to take a lot of the production role.

You guys have your own label now, which the new album is under. Does the unrestrained full creative control get a bit too much?
No. That’s kinda why we want to release this by ourselves, we knew that if we went with the major labels, which we were with, they probably won’t allow us to leave the songs in the form that they are. They would want to shorten the length on whichever song that’s gonna be the single. We didn’t want to stick our faces on the album cover, which is the way everyone releases their album. And also not making any videos… we just wanted to take the overall creative process and push as hard as we possibly can.

Has your perspective changed now that you own a label? Maybe a bit sympathetic as to why labels are the way they are?
Major labels… they have a format they work with. Not every record can be released in that way, which we found with the greatest hits album, it worked really well. But with the other albums we released with them, it didn’t work that well. With our own label, we were able to fine tune how we can release our albums, be it with 1 single upfront or 2, 3, 4 singles with videos – however way we feel it should be perceived, really.

You and Kelly are the original members of the band. He’s one of your oldest friends, how do you keep lasting friendship yet not have any tension within the band?
I think it’s having the same goals. When we first had the band the goal was to make the band the best band we could possibly have and those goals haven’t faded. We do want to release the best album we could possibly record, play the best shows we could possibly play, and show people what we can produce over the years by changing certain elements of songwriting and our sound. We want to be the band that lasts the test of time rather than just being remembered for 1 or 2 songs. I think those goals, which we set in the beginning, we still hold them dear. It worked really well for us, and if anything, we are our own worst critics when it comes to what we do, anyway. We’re always trying to improve and impress ourselves.

Recently, it was said that ‘Been Caught Cheating’ was written by Kelly for the late Amy Winehouse originally. We never knew Stereophonics had written for others before, was it a one-off thing?
‘Been Caught Cheating’ was a song that Kelly had done the guitar and how the song would go. He knew the way that song would work would be in a stripped down, bluesy vibe. He did have Amy Winehouse in mind, but never went through contacting her at all. She passed very soon after, or might be even before, we started recording this album. When you are writing songs, first and foremost you have the band in mind, and sometimes the band doesn’t fit the song. Instead of wasting the song by not using it, you can put the song out there and perhaps somebody else would wanna use it. We got nobody else in mind for songs which we had written in the past and now.

About 10 years ago, we think, you guys had a song called ‘Mr. Writer’. Does the band still hold the same opinion about journalists a decade after?
‘Mr. Writer’, in particular, was about 1 journalist – character – who was on the road with us. We treated the journalist really well and we thought we built up a little bit of a friendship with over 2 or 3 days. And the journalist went and wrote something which we thought was totally inaccurate in its description of the band. So we wrote ‘Mr. Writer’ in response to that really, 1 character, but most journalists thought it was about all journalists – and we’ve kinda been answering that question for the last 10 years (laughs).

Well, sorry for asking again (laughs).
It’s okay, no problem.

Do you guys still feel misrepresented by journalists even after that though?
I think sometimes, yes. But we can’t influence journalists in any other way than what we do, producing the best album we could possible produce and play the best shows we could possibly play. At the end of the day, we are still producing music and playing live shows 16 years after we signed that record deal. This ain’t like blowing smoke up on our own arses or anything, but we played to millions of people and we sold lots of albums, so we must be doing something right in the public’s perception.

Speaking of doing something right, we read that you guys didn’t care whether the album fails or succeeds. It’s been more than a month now, what’s the verdict?
We think it’s a success, I think the reason Kelly said that was because we were so proud of what we have done in the studio, what we produced, that it doesn’t matter the amount it’d sell. We were just really happy with what we had done. For us, what has happened over the last month with album being a success – staying in the charts, people really liking it, people coming to the shows and really getting off what we do live with the new songs – it’s really encouraging for the rest of the materials we got when we recorded those songs. We’re gonna work really hard to get another album out next year, play the best live shows this year, and hopefully we’ve done enough success.

Stereophonics are set to rock Singapore once again on 25 July 2013 at The Coliseum, Hard Rock Hotel Singapore, Resorts World Sentosa. Graffiti on a Train is available now at all good record stores.