You’ve got to forge your own path, and it’s important to stick with it.
It’s now more than 20 years since Stereophonics released their seminal debut album Word Gets Around. Joseph Tryner talks to bassist, Richard Jones about the early days, keeping things fresh and the Sheff Music scene…
Word Gets Around – a record as energetic as it is measured, featuring classic songs like ‘More Life in a Tramp’s Vest’ and ‘A Thousand Trees’. It’s in tracks such as ‘Traffic’, however, that the band showcased their ability to craft vivid vignettes out of the highs and lows of the quotidian and build them into anthemic tracks that today remain full of the gusto that so obviously drives the group.
It is with such astute observation and canny writing skills that Stereophonics began and continue to garner respect among new fans while satisfying their loyal fanbase – all without going stale, two decades into their career.
Their latest album, Scream Above the Sounds, is expressive of a band who have found fresh artistic freedom by unchaining themselves from a third-party record label, instead opting to cultivate their classic sound under the auspices of their own management.
The album, which completes a trilogy of consecutive records produced under such a strategy, benefits from this decision – it is layered, inspired by various genres, and innovates upon their tried and tested ‘Phonics sound that millions have grown to recognise and love.
Do you have fond memories of that early part of your career?
Yes, it was really exciting! We’d been a band for nearly five years, and we were really adamant that we would make a success of it. It fell into place very quickly over a period of six months, the wheel’s started turning and before we knew it we were doing demos in the studio for various labels and next there was an album. It just took off from there really!
So you were really confident of the material you had?
Yeah, we weren’t playing the same game as everybody else. There were lots of Britpop bands around who we kept bumping into. But I think we had something a little different, a little bit more of an arty sound. We were listening to lots of American music as we were growing up, lots of Pearl Jam and things like that. Loads of stuff from our brother’s and sister’s record collections, which was a little bit of anything and everything; Beatles, Stones, rhythm and blues, soul music, whatever we thought sounded good. That’s where we got the confidence. But also, from playing pubs and clubs in Wales, who really would kick you out after a few songs if they didn’t like what they heard!
I imagine those pubs were full of fairly straight-talking people. Do you still enjoy touring as much as you did?
If anything, we’re enjoying it more now! We’ve got our experience; we’ve learnt to take it as it is. When you’re young, you’re vulnerable to the vices around you… I think we got lost in a lot of years of hedonism at the time, but now we’re having the time of our lives.
What do you think has been key to your repeated success and longevity within an industry that has changed so much since you started out? Bands seem to come and go at and alarming rate these days, right?
We’ve always tried to show a different side to the band with each album. If it sounds too much like something we’ve done before, or if it sounds too much like somebody else, we won’t use those songs. We’re highly critical of what we make. We make sure we get the best out of each other, but at the same time it’s about what pleases us rather than what pleases anybody else.
I’ve caught you at a few festivals over the years and I am, like many others, always impressed by your live performances. Do you take particular pride in your live sound?
Straight from the beginning of the band, we always wanted to perform the songs exactly how they sounded on the album, and we don’t tend to shy away from performing live – it’s the heart of the band. When we go out on the road we always want to do the best we can. There’s nothing better than having a great audience in front of you, and that’s what we’ve been feeding off in the last 10-15 years.
Talking of live highlights, what are some of your fondest memories or proudest moments?
In the early days we played with The Who, we did four or five Stones shows, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bowie’s last tour around 2003. That was brilliant! Meeting these people who have inspired you so much, and yet can be so down to earth, they can teach you so much, they’re great to watch and learn from. At the same time, we learn things from new bands as much as established ones, we like to have a look around at festivals. There’s so much camaraderie in live music and you can always learn something new.
I know that your recent work has been established on your own record label. What are the benefits to that for you?
I think having your own label gives you freedom – you’re not constrained by release dates or contracts. The industry has changed so much though, and how people are releasing music is changing week by week. The next step for us is to think seriously whether we are going to release traditional albums, or doing what others are doing now by releasing a few songs every few months.
A lot of artists don’t release physical copies anymore; they don’t necessarily need a big record deal with all these technical platforms. You don’t really need distribution anymore.
Its ever-changing, but for us we like releases in the classical sense. Record labels have gotta’ change the way they deal with bands now.
Despite that freedom, it hasn’t slowed your band’s output down – there has been a ‘Phonics album nearly every two years since your debut – is that intentional or just how the muse falls?
I think it’s habitual really. When you’re not touring, you’re working on new things or just experimenting with new things. Before you know it, you find yourself back in the studio making a new album! Perhaps that might change over the course of the next two years…
So, next month you’re playing at Tramlines in Sheffield, after a less exotic stop in Milan. Do you have any fond memories of performing here?
We’ve always had a good craic in Sheffield! I think our fondest memory would be playing The Leadmill years ago. We invited a couple of kids up on stage, and all of a sudden the whole audience was up on the stage! That was probably around 1998. Sheffield is a hard-working town, and hard workers usually play hard too, they certainly have a good time, so we always like playing places like that.
Sheffield has a lively and youthful music scene, with lots of pedigree to boot, what advice would you give to these up-and-coming groups?
I think the best advice is not to follow any fads, if you can find your own selves then stick to it, ‘cos trends come and go, and you can end up going away with scenes that fall out of fashion. You’ve got to forge your own path, and it’s important to stick with it.
Featured Photo: Tom Oxley