Skelly's Heroes – The Coral's James on his solo album and what happens after
The music business is dominated by groups, but do they ever work long term? A chat with The Coral's James Skelly, who's just released his rather excellent solo album, set me thinking….
How long do groups stay together? Some groups split after a few singles or an album or two, while those that carry on for longer still split in the end. Sure, there's exceptions like The Rolling Stones or The Who, but these aren't so much rock group as corporate industries. So what goes wrong and what's the best way to keep that magic?
There seems to be a finite lifespan genetically encoded within any group, before the inevitable split. It might come after a few months or a few years, but just like the rainclouds after three days of sun in Sheffield, there seems to be an inevitability to their demise. Ever since the public rending of garments and weeping on the BBC news that accompanied the end of The Beatles, it’s seemed that ‘musical differences’ is the inevitable epitaph for any and all of the groups we now love and worship, but can it ever be avoided? Who, back in the sixties, could have predicted that The Beatles and the Beach Boys would disappear to leave us to the care of Tom Jones and Cliff Richard?
All this was in my mind recently when I had a chat with James Skelly, lead singer and songwriter with The Coral. He’s in Sheffield soon to promote his first solo album, and while that was obviously the reason for our chat, inevitably we discussed why he’d gone solo after fronting one of the most successful home-grown acts since the start of the Noughties (love that word).
The story of The Coral is typical of many. School friends get together, mates join and leave the band until eventually they get a bit better at what they do. Most bands don’t get beyond this stage, and after a few local pub and club gigs, one or other of them goes off to do something else and the band is no more. Occasionally though, they have a bit more success and the band becomes a way of making a living.
The Coral's first, self-titled, album was a massive, Mercury-nominated, hit and I saw them at the Leadmill as they were getting ready for the summer Festivals in 2003 when they were more fun and full of hooks than anything I'd seen in ages.
Since then they've released a prolific number of albums, written some cracking songs, and achieved what would certainly be a dream come true if I was in a band; making an album with legendary producer John Leckie. In my house, (or rather, in the room in my house where my wife sends me to listen to music), Leckie has achieved god-like status. I first spotted his name in the small print as mixer, then producer on albums by Be Bop Deluxe, and from that moment on, for me he could do no wrong.
The Fall, The Stone Roses, Radiohead, Muse, Doves; he was there or thereabouts whenever there was a British band to be guided to massive success, and The Coral were at the top of their game. Why have they decided to spend some time apart?
"Working with John Leckie was indeed a dream come true," Expains James when we chat. "I felt that the album we did with him, Butterfly House, was the best thing The Coral ever did, and I still do. The big difficulty with The Coral was that there was always pressure to live up to the success we’d already had. The reviews for that album were excellent and we knew it was good, but it didn’t sell all that well. I knew how much we had put into it and everyone was a bit gutted. That took a bit of wind out of our sails, so we decided it was time to take some time off. Looking back now, I reckon if we’d done another album it would have been the end of the group. I’m sure we’ll work together again as The Coral, but not right now; when the time is right…"
And there’s the rub. Success is over rated. In the case of The Coral, they were judging themselves less by the quality of what they produced, and more by how successful it was.
"Our guitar player Bill Ryder-Jones actually left in 2006," James continues. "He’s since made an orchestral album ("'If' – based on Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night. Here's a stream" – Magic Realist Ed) which got a fantastic reception. Straight away after the decision to pursue other projects, Ian (Skelly, James' brother) made a solo album. I played on a few tracks and did some gigs with him, and Lee Southall (The Coral's amazing rhythm guitarist) worked on an album with Molly Jones. I just kept myself busy by writing a few songs. I was demo-ing them, and various mates started getting involved and it just developed from there. Lee came to play on a few tracks but it was good having other musicians to play on the album, as you learn different stuff from working with new people. I was just doing songs, like I do anyway. Some of the lads just stared joining in and jamming and it just became James Skelly and the Intenders!"
One unexpected bonus came when a ‘celebrity-fan’ got in touch (below).
"The album opens with ‘You’ve Got It All’, a collaboration with Paul Weller," Says James "He sent me a demo with the melody and the chords, but with no chorus or lyrics, so I added the rest until I was happy with the finished song. It’s the first track on the album and the first single too. I have collaborated before. I wrote with the singer Duffy, but she didn’t release it, in fact she hasn’t produced any material for some time, so who knows if or when that will come out. I’m also very pleased with the last track, Darkest Days. It started out as a sort of Sam Cooke song and ended up more like a Paul Simon song. It’s deliberately the last track on the album and I feel it works well at the end…"
Love Undercover is a much more immediate album than some of The Coral's more recent work. Inevitably a singer such as James will be looking around for some new challenge, just to keep things fresh. If you look at the evolution of any group it’s always the same. Doing the same thing for all your career, musical or otherwise, can be a bit of a chew. The groups with a genre-defying longevity have members who all have side projects on which they will work without their ‘band-mates’, before returning to the safety-umbrella of their day job.
For every 'Love Undercover' there's a ‘Ram’, but it might just be that the most important part of solo work is that freshness. And that's something that can bring a spring into everyone's step when the gang gets back together. That seems to be the only way to avoid the split; keep it fresh and evolving. Or, as an alternative, you might just decide it’s not worth it and just work on your own!
tldr: The best way to keep your band going is to split up.
James Skelly & The Intendors play Sheffield O2 Academy on Friday 7th June. More info here.