After bursting out of Glasgow more than 20 years with the ragged glory of their debut, A Catholic Education (released on the esteemed Creation label in the UK and the equally credible Matador in the States), Teenage Fanclub reached critical mass in 1991 with their follow-up, Bandwagonesque, an album many put on par with Nevermind and other albums from the year that the underground surfaced in the mainstream. But after subsequent records were less successful commercially and when seemingly no one was paying attention, the band matured into a talented three-person songwriting collective capable of harmonic splendor. While drummers came and went (and came back again), guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley and bassist Gerard Love crafted a succession of records that honed their initial infatuations (Byrds, Big Star, etc.) into their own equally radiant pop vision.
This week the band released Shadows, their ninth album, on their own PeMa label in the UK and on Merge here in the States. It's been five years since their last album, Man-Made, but the time off hasn't diminished the iridescence of their songs. I caught up with McGinley via phone as the band was finishing up a short UK tour.
Do you still live in Glasgow?
Raymond McGinley: Yeah.
What do you think makes Glasgow such a hotbed for music?
RM: It’s developed over the years since we’ve lived there, and there’s probably a lot more music happening there now than there used to be. For us, the thing that was influential was the Postcard Records scene and Orange Juice. They did things with a certain attitude where they wanted to be eclectic and have taste and not just be like what was considered cool. They were cooler than that new wave stuff or whatever crap you were supposed to like at the time. That attitude of people doing what they want—whatever that is—was inspiring to us.
There’s something about Glasgow where people like to be in bands and do that kind of thing. It’s become part of the culture of the city to the extent where people move from other parts of the country to be in bands, which never happened in the past. I suppose once the reputation exits, it grows. I think people in Glasgow are supportive of people doing stuff. It doesn’t mean you have to like everything, but there’s a certain protective attitude towards people doing something creative and towards allowing them to do what they want. And it’s Glasgow and not London. It’s not as transient. There’s a stability and people who have been around for years, and you have friends that you were friends with 25 years ago. You still see the same faces, but there’s a lot of new things happening.
You’re doing a show here with Belle and Sebastian. Is that indicative of still staying in touch with the same people even as a band gets bigger?
RM: That was an opportunity where our paths are crossing. But yeah, there’s something about bands in Glasgow where they see the world as one place and it’s accessible directly from Glasgow and not through London. There’s always been an international outlook, and people in Glasgow like to get out there and see the world rather than seeing everything through the filter of the big metropolis in the UK, which is London. It’s just as easy to get from Glasgow to New York as from Glasgow to anywhere else, and there’s always been that attitude of seeing things through an international viewpoint. Our band, Belle and Sebastian, and say, Mogwai may be different musically, but there’s a shared spirit.
Given how long you take between records these days, do you have a more relaxed approach to the band than you used to?
RM: I think we’ve always had a fairly relaxed approach. After the last record, we figured we’d take a timeout and then a couple years ago said, “Look here, let’s make a new record.” I think it’s kind of an ambivalent thing, where we do take a relaxed approach, but at the same time we’re very serious about it. We try to not get too uptight or melodramatic about it. In a way, though, on that first day when you’re in the studio to make a new record, the feeling is exactly the same as when we went into the studio to make Catholic Education in 1989. You each have your own ideas about what you’re going to do and there’s some kind of collective feeling, but you haven’t discussed what it is. It’s the same excitement of starting a new process. It still feels exciting to be doing this new thing.
Talking about Catholic Education, you went from making fairly noisy records to doing incredibly harmonic songs. Was it just a matter of learning how to do that or was it a more conscious decision?
RM: It was partly learning how to do it, partly coincidence, and partly having a bit more time as well. With Catholic Education, we were less confident about the vocals, but also the album was recorded in four days. If we had more time, there might have been more harmonies.
You said it feels the same going into the studio, but the band does seem a bit different from the one that used to sell merchandise that said “Teenage Fucking Fanclub.”
RM: I have to say that the Teenage Fucking Fanclub thing wasn’t quite our idea. It was something that was suggested by our manager at the time, and we went along with it. We were taken with it because it seemed a little crass. It seemed like trying to market our rough edges, and we’ve never been too keen on any marketing that unsubtle. It’s probably an example of something we shouldn’t have done—not that we have any problem with swearing—it was a just a little unsubtle.
But do you feel like you have different fans than you did back then or have those fans stuck with you the whole time?
RM: We still have some of the same people, but generally, the people who go to our concerts now are a much wider age range that it was 20 years ago. I look at the audience and the average age is older than it was 20 years ago, but there’s also even older people and younger people there as well.
Alan McGee said that you could have sold millions of records, but that you were too humble. What do you think he meant by that?
RM: He may be right—I don’t really know. There’s lots of bands that probably thought they could have sold millions of records, but didn’t. If you looked at it as some kind of statistical analysis, very, very few bands sell millions of records and there have been an awful lot of bands, historically, who haven’t sold any records. We think we’ve done okay, and we are humble, which isn’t necessarily a band thing. I don’t we could have ever... Our personalities aren’t the same as Noel Gallagher’s. We weren’t going to do and say the things that Noel and Liam Gallagher did. That was never going to happen. And if we tried to do that, it would have been an abysmal failure and we would have sold even less records because no one would have bought it. At least with them, it seemed like that was them being them. If we tried to do what other people did, it wouldn’t have worked. I think you have to work with who you are and what your personality is and be true to that. There’s been so many people in the world of music giving other people advice about what to do, and most of those who follow other people’s advice end up abysmal failures.
With three singers and three songwriters in the band, when you record, does the songwriter tell the others what to do or is it more collaborative than that?
RM: It’s a bit of both really. Obviously the songwriter has an idea and a direction for the song, and the approach is that the others will try to help. But the person writing the song will direct the process. Say if it’s one of Gerry’s songs, I might suggest something and he might say, “I don’t know if that will work.” In the creative process, you have to give what you give and not get possessive about your contribution. The structure of the song will be with the writer and the rest of us will fill in the blanks. There’s collaboration there, but it’s usually in the arrangement.
Do you feel like each member brings distinct emotional characteristics lyrically or do you end you end up sharing the same mindset?
RM: All of what we do is kind of introspective, so inevitably whatever each person does is particular to them. At the same time, we tend to finish a lot of lyrics in the studio, and since we’re sharing the same environment and each other’s company, there’s an element of the shared experience that leads to some kind of unity. What we do is not completely disparate or written in different environments, so because we’re together when we’re finishing things, there’s a collective feel.
It seems like your songs (“The Fall,” “The Past,” “Live with the Seasons” and “Today Never Ends”) are concerned with time.
RM: Yeah, a few people have mentioned that, but it never occurred to me. It’s not something I was conscious of. Doing these things and the way you do them, I don’t have any kind of overview of what I’m trying to achieve. It just comes out of my subconscious. There’s plenty of editing consciously, but there’s no deliberation ahead of the process. It just works out the way it does. I must have been concerned with time in some way. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, like an admission of growing older and becoming more aware of time.
Speaking of growing older, Pitchfork called Man-Made a “mid-life crisis album.” What do you think of that?
RM: We’re quite comfortable with the passage of time and where we find ourselves. I think the mid-life crisis thing definitely does exist, but mid-life crisis would be if we tried to write songs that weren’t about the passage of time and being who we are. If we tried to pretend the passage of time didn’t exist that would be more typical of a mid-life crisis. We like to be who we are and not pretend that we are the exactly the same as we were 20 years ago. We acknowledge where we are and that our lives are different than they used to be, but I don’t think there’s any element of crisis about it.