Tim Burgess: “Ideas give you energy, and new ideas are always seductive”
A lot of life is the everyday punctuated with highs and lows, and they’re all as important in the making of that life
If our esteemed editor ever calls to ask whether I’d like to do an interview with the great and the good who populate the pages of this magazine, well, I tend to block out that day in my diary. This simple reason for this is because I’ve never had even a standard twenty-minute phoner take any less than an hour. This is not due to my skill as an interviewer. I am not the Northumbrian-equivalent of Parkinson, eliciting confidences like a masterly inquisitor; still less a Graham Norton. It’s difficult to bound flamboyantly and shoot arch glances to camera down a phone, for one thing, and for another … well, there is no other reason. The simple reason for this simple reason above is because I’ve yet to meet a truly creative person who isn’t simultaneously interested and interesting; curious about the world and those in it, as much as being curiosities to the world and those in it at the same time.
So it is with Tim Burgess. We got together for a chat about everything from the fantastic album Different Days to the forthcoming UK tour to the links between location, people, and creativity; longevity; the magic of Marr; and much more besides.
Tim! How the devil are you?
Ah, the devil in me is good, mate. As are my angels. How are you doing?
Positively in the pink, Tim. Where do we find you today?
You find me in Norfolk, in my kitchen, putting the kettle on.
Ah, country life? How are you finding it?
I’m finding it interesting. I was in North London before this – and I love London. I still go up to town regularly to get my ‘fix’ of city energy. But for a while there I’d been feeling the need for a change. It wasn’t just the financial aspect – although it’s true that what gets you nothing in London property-wise gets you something outside of London. It was more … time for a change, you know? Have you ever felt that?
Definitely. When I was younger, I always gravitated towards cities: Edinburgh, London, and Manchester were my stop-off points. But I’ve just been out to my sister’s place in the country and I envy her views and night-time stars. It’s a different energy to a big city, to be sure, but there’s still an energy there.
That’s exactly it! It’s about the energy different places give you at different points in your life. I’ve always loved cities. Manchester first, and then when the band started happening I moved to London as soon as I got my first decent pay cheque. I then ended up in LA for over a decade – which was … basically wild and crazy times in Hollywood. Add in that the band was always working and touring and that gave me the sense that whatever was over the horizon was the interesting place to be, you know? It wasn’t just about the wild and crazy times, mind. I like being around creative people, and I like being in places where things are happening – and big cities tend to draw creative people to them simply because things are happening there. It’s a Catch-22: do people go there because things are happening; or do things happen because people go there? But my partner and I felt that with our son on the way, where we were … just wasn’t where we wanted to be anymore. It might sound a bit of a road to excess leading to the palace of wisdom type statement but sometimes the edginess of the city, which gives it the energy you love, means paying the price of being around edgy people … and the drugs. There’s a lifestyle that comes along with that; and I freely admit that I lived it. But it wasn’t a lifestyle I wanted to be fully immersed in anymore. We’ve found our place out in the woods, and we love it. But, like I say, we still go up to town for our ‘fix’ of London energy now and then!
Is there a tension between the two states that informs your own creativity?
I’d say so. Along with my restlessness, home has always been important to me. There’s always been a tension between my urge to wander and my urge to come home. At times I’ve felt that being on the move has inspired me, and so has being at home. I mean, I wrote the words to The Only One I Know at my Mum’s kitchen table over a cup of tea. It was just one of those moments, looking back, where the simplicity of home and the familiar combine with your head to make something magical. Cup of tea, lyrics pour out, and then off out for a walk and smoke. It’s certainly been a wild ride from Cheshire to Norfolk, and long may it continue!
“For some, the party becomes the most important thing, and the music secondary”
Indeed. Let’s shift tack for a moment and talk about your role in ushering our current age of the rock-star celebrity memoir…
Oh, you’re not pinning that one on me, Aaron. There’s always been memoirs written.
Yes, but now they tend to be the next logical step in the marketing plan: something bashed out with ghostwriters to squeeze the last pennies from a dying brand. Yours at least had the virtue of being self-penned, if I’m not mistaken, and eminently readable, which is rare for the genre…
Well, thank you for that. Truth be told, it was one of those confluence of circumstance things that seem to happen sometimes in life. The publisher had no idea who I was – none at all. But his daughter was a massive fan. It turned out to be the last thing that he worked on. We did try the standard method, too. I ended up sitting down with two ghostwriters – and I’ll not hear a word said against them because I knew them before the project and after, and they’re great people and great writers. But for some reason, I sat down with each of them, and it didn’t … click. This publisher, however, really wanted the book, we had a good connection, so I decided to do it myself.
How did that go?
Have you read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles?
Well, I like that approach, telling people who you are through lists of obscure songs and what they mean to you! But Dylan is Dylan, and I’m me … so I sat down and wrote 30,000 words in block capitals and gave it to my friends to read. And they said ‘have you thought about using punctuation?’ [laughs]. And I realised that the only way it could happen was if I did it myself; and I could only do it myself if I really immersed myself in it. So, that started a process, where I’d act scenes out for friends and see what worked and what didn’t. Through that I began to get a sense of what the key moments were – you read some memoirs and it seems like life is one long incident-packed party; but really, a lot of life is the everyday punctuated with highs and lows, and they’re all as important in the making of that life. It was from working like that, going back and forth, that the book emerged.
It emerged on Penguin, no less. Just you and Morrissey there, then…
I know! How cool is that? Inspired by Dylan, published alongside Morrissey. Odd process, though. Once it started coming together, I got excited. A lot of energy and momentum. Then I started to worry that I was killing it by overworking it. And then I got excited again near the finish line.
Is that typical of your process, and the band’s process?
I’d say so. Ideas give you energy, and new ideas are always seductive. But there’s always a point between the start line and the finish line where you can’t remember the excitement of starting and finishing seems a long way off. You just have to back yourself, and keep going. Stay inspired…
How do you manage that? The Charlatans are not just a band that has stood the test of time, but unlike some your output has never been just a calling card for a Greatest Hits tour. Different Days was described as relevant, forward-looking, and vital …
Well, not drinking helps! I’ve had my party. But that happens to any band that sticks around. You start off, and the music is the important thing, with the party being another way of continuing the buzz that music gives you. For some, the party becomes the most important thing, and the music secondary. After a while, though, if you’re lucky, the balance comes back. With ‘Different Days’, for the first time we started with melodies, rather than the beats. They demanded our attention, and the album grew organically from there.
And the stellar guests? Was that a wishlist thing, or was that similarly organic?
A mixture of the two! We’ve known Stephen [Morris] forever, and when he came by it seemed natural that he might add some beats. As Gillian [Gilbert] came with him, the next logical step was to ask if she’d do some keyboards! Johnny Marr came by – the stay inspired quote is from him, by the way, and he is inspiring and inspired – and said he’d play on a track or two as long as they weren’t shite. Luckily for us, they weren’t, so he played. And that’s when I started thinking, who else? I really wanted spoken word on the album, so I wrote a piece, dashed up to Edinburgh and got Ian Rankin to speak into my phone – job done. Then Sharon Horgan got involved, and … oh, friends old and new!
It really works. The album is incredibly cohesive – and worthy of all the good reviews its got. What’s next?
Well, we had a stop-start start with the album, but what I call the machinery is swinging into action. So we have this tour to come, and with an album this good, we really want to play it to as many people as possible, so we’ll be out on the road well into next. I’m really looking foward to it.
As are we here at Exposed. Tim and I left it there, not because we’d run out of things to talk about but simply because we both had school runs to do. However, a more charming or interesting character you’ll never meet. Check out the album, and go to the live shows. They are as good as and better than they ever were.
The Charlatans play Sheffield’s O2 Academy on November 30th.
Words by Aaron Jackson