Bursting onto the Britpop scene with their Hammond-fueled indie hit singles “Indian Rope” and “The Only One I Know” in 1990, the Charlatans (later known as the Charlatans UK) were a force of nature on a music scene still trying to figure out the perfect fusion of Madchester and manic rock ‘n ‘roll. If sales were any indication, the Charlatans came the closest yet: Their debut, Some Friendly, shot quickly to the top of the UK charts.
Now, to mark that record’s 20th anniversary, the band and their first record label Beggars Banquet are rereleasing a remastered version of the album alongside a second disc of singles and sessions.
With a new Charlatans album to come later this year — their 11th — the five-piece have transformed from scrapping young pop band to an enduring force on the indie-rock scene — all of this despite their changing lineup (guitarist John Baker departed after Some Friendly) and the death of their wayward keyboardist Rob Collins in a car accident in 1996.
eMusic’s Elisa Bray talked to frontman Tim Burgess about the band’s heady early days in the ’90s, and where he finds the inspiration for his prolific songwriting.
You were just 21 when you made Some Friendly — what was it like having your first hits so young?
It was a great time. I remember when we did “Indian Rope,” I didn’t know whether we could top it. Actually, I thought it was the greatest single I’d ever heard before we signed to Beggars Banquet. Then we did “The Only One I Know,” and that took us somewhere else that none of us had really expected — although we’d all hoped and dreamed of it.
At [the studio] in Wrexham, we took three weeks to record a mix. I think the World Cup was going on and “The Only One I Know” was a hit; you could hear it on Radio One, and it was on Top of the Pops every week. It was pretty amazing, so we were in our own bubble, really. We sampled Angel Heart — the Mickey Rourke and Robert De Niro film — and I ended up having to write to Robert De Niro to ask him permission to let us use his voice. Not only was he happy for us to use his voice, but he also really liked the record. All this stuff was going on and we were just 21 years old so it was mental. We got up to quite a lot of mischief.
Was that drug-induced mischief?
It was the height of the ecstasy years, so we were all doing that, but we were also quite serious in our own little way — they both came together — very experimental drug-taking, playing hard and learning lots of new stuff. [At The Winding] John Baker and Rob Collins were getting quite bored and I think Rob would end up jumping up and down on a bed with a crash helmet on so he could put holes in the ceiling.
How have you changed since those days?
I guess Rob isn’t with us anymore and John left the band after we did the first album, but it’s good to book up a few things and realize that we haven’t changed that much. I met with Chris Nagle [producer of Some Friendly] for the first time in 20 years last week and he’d kept everything I’d written to him. It’s quite nice to know that a lot of stuff hasn’t changed in 20 years, you know, there’s still the attention to detail! When I gave up drugs I went on a 21-day detox and because I’m such a compulsive person it lasted for three years!
How does the band’s history affect your perceptions of the album today?
I think it’s down to what you’re doing at this moment in time. Two weeks ago I finished mixing the new Charlatans album. And I haven’t really heard Some Friendly until this week. I’ve only just been putting it on my headphones because I’m going to have to sing it for a month so in my headspace now it’s a really great album. The record sounds good but maybe that’s because the record we’re doing now I’m really into as well — it’s that they both happen and exist at the same time.
How do you recall the band’s relationship?
We were 24/7. It was like The Monkees — in the hotel rooms all together, all the time. It was really tight.
Do you like to go walking when at home in the Hollywood Hills?
I do love walking. When I walk I get musical ideas, I’ve always been like that. I remember when I was living with my mum and dad, one night when we’d had dinner I went for a walk and came up with the lyrics and the melody for “The Only One I Know,” so from then on I’ve always gone for walks and jotted down what comes from those moments. I’ve become quite friendly with the drummer from Crass, he’s a great guy called Penny Rimbaud and I really appreciate him as an artist, and he says he comes up with ideas when he’s walking, but they always seem really dark, and he gets all his positive ideas when he’s gardening. But I’ve always had dark and positive thoughts when I’m walking.
So is that what you do when you’re stuck for inspiration?
It happens all the time. In Los Angeles I enjoy going to Transcendental Meditation classes and I find that’s really good for inspiration as well. I always knew about it from the Beatles and the Maharishi, and I quit taking drugs and drinking 10 years ago and wanted to delve a little deeper into myself. A friend of mine suggested this teacher in the Isle of Wight so after we played the Isle of Wight festival last year I went over and I’ve not missed one yet (20 minutes in the morning and evening). Lou Reed started doing it before Transformer and I thought that’s a great record, John Lennon wrote “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Across the Universe” — all his great records — on it.
Can you remember the first one, was it enlightening?
I’m a big fan of David Lynch and I’ve always known he’s done it for 25 years. The first time I did it, I understood a lot of his films more.
What does it feel like?
You know the very first chord of “How Soon is Now” by the Smiths — it’s kind of a tremolo effect? It’s kind of that sensation, but inside your mind. It’s a wobble and it goes deeper and deeper and I can only explain it as being cosmic consciousness. It’s an incredible release of stress.