The latest full-length Tindersticks’ album, Distractions, sounds like a real journey. All through the record, Tindersticks keep on exploring the abilities of sounds, creating ambient-type-of-landscapes more traditional for Brian Eno or Brendan Perry than for Tindersticks.
I got the chance to speak with Stuart A. Staples – founder, vocalist and guitarist of Tindersticks. In the interview for Louder Than War, Stuart speaks about the metamorphosis of No Treasure But Hope and writing Distractions, about the punk-rock element of his creativity and scoring work, about reflection on the past and perception of his work.
Prior to the interview, you’ve mentioned that Distractions became the moment of your rediscovery of yourself in the process of writing. What pushed these changes, according to your opinion?
“I suppose that in a way, there were many factors involved in making Distractions. And one of them, I think, in one way, we had a lot of energy from the band, that was left from the tours being stopped/cancelled. We were going somewhere as a band. And I think, for me, the last album – No Treasure But Hope, it was a beautiful experience. I lived every moment of making it, on the record we made. But in a way, it fractured the progressive kind of line that’s been going through our work for the last 7-8 years.”
“Before No Treasure But Hope there was a soundtrack for High Life, there was a solo album, there was the Minute Bodies project. These were all about exploring, approaching music in different ways. And I think, finishing No Treasure But Hope it kind of left me an I-need-to-experiment-feeling – in some way. Before the pandemic. And I think, from that came the first and the last song on Distractions. Then the tour was cancelled half-way through. We kind of found ourselves with energy, time and these ideas…So the album started these. But it was a very particular time with lots of different elements.”
The main focus on the record is your voice, lyrics and different images you refer to – creating the whole picture. Don’t you think that the process of work brought you to a different situation, where the lyrics prevail more than with anything you’ve been doing before?
“I think that with No Treasure But Hope, it was probably the most narrative record I’ve ever written, because I think the way it was written – it was written to record live-in-a-studio. As the songs grew, musically together, I had to kind of really pin down exactly what each line meant to me. What I needed to say in a song. And I think, it made a very narrative record. For this record, it’s probably the most abstract ambiguous conflicted record I’ve ever made. So, I think, they’re on two different sides of a spectrum. So, I think, in a way, my voice is not really a tool sometimes, to relay words. It’s a feeling of a sound. Of a human sound that is the most important thing, first of all. Because, I think, without that – there’s nothing. But in this album, there was a different way of working, about my voice. I kind of worked to make landscapes, musical landscapes for the voice to step into. And I didn’t want to step into. There were landscapes until they were ready. So, songs [from Distractions] like The Bough Bends, I Imagine You – these songs, in the end, were kind of spoken ones. And a lot of time, [I] was sitting down trying to understand what I had just gone through. Working on paper, trying to make them, make sense. It was more of like streams of conscious in a way. Ambiguous and are conflicted a lot of a time. And I’m hoping that the meaning comes from overall, from stepping inside of it. It’s not really about being told: This is the story – this is what happens! – I think, it’s different stuff.”
While working, poets often think about structural elements, acoustic elements – how one sound works with the others, the form, the rhythmics of the piece, how this word represents a feeling, etc. How did his approach of creating sound landscapes using your voice affect you while working on Distractions?
“I believe, it’s easy for people to think about me as a singer. And then, think about written words as some kind of a poetry. But for me, it’s like “forever”. Working in a studio, creative environments, creative atmosphere, creating songs, it’s the thing that drives me first. I kind of learn to sing. And I think, words are the easier thing to disturb the thing I’m looking for. And so, my work with words becomes very careful. But I don’t think there’re certain artists you think: “These guys are poets!” and then, they sing their words. I’m not one of those guys.”
“I’m more a visual person. And I think more visually. The words, writing, comes from a different place. Maybe at the beginning, from need for necessity. It’s been a necessity to be able to sing, to learn how to sing. To do this. Every song you write – you learn something. And you carry on these things into the next song you write. And it takes you on this journey.”
“I didn’t have an overall kind…With any of my work! Or with Distractions: This is the way I’m going to approach this! – it’s more about experimentation, opening my mouth, seeing how I felt about it, what I just recorded, how I react to that and what I’m looking for. But, as much for the right words, I’m looking for the right texture, the right timbre. To make be believe it! And I think, it’s all a part of the same thing.”
I remember, commenting on your previous No Treasure But Hope you said that wanted to bring the whole band together working and interacting together. What was your interaction at this point like?
“When we made No Treasure But Hope, the band hadn’t been together for three years. As a working unit, doing things constantly. For No Treasure But Hope, it felt like the right way to bring everybody together in a room. Acoustically and go: Ok! Here are a few ideas for songs. Let’s see where they’d take us together. But after we did that. We made the record, we went on tour, we were together. We were built together. And I think, in a way, Distractions is a testament to being together. Because, everybody in Distractions had to look at the input to the band, to the musicality in a different kind of way.”
“Because the ideas demanded it. It’s not like you can say: Here’s this idea for Man Alone and it kind of asks Neil to play the guitar, asks David to play the piano. It doesn’t have those things. But it does has an input in there. Of what this idea is, of what the conversation around it. And that’s to me, what every song went through. But that meant that our drummer – he played a lot of synthesizers on the record. I played a lot of bass on it. The bass-player played a lot of piano. I think, it just asked for different ways of that individually approaching the music. And it wasn’t just by design. It was like: Here’s this idea! What does it make you think of?”
“It just relies on people having a response, having an enthusiasm being engaged with these ideas. And I think that especially with the current situation, it’s like we all in our own spaces. And we realise pretty early that we can’t record remotely. So, it turned into a place where we exchanged ideas. Talked about songs. And everybody went its own spaces, figured out how it felt about each idea.”
“Then, in the summer the restrictions came down – we were able to get together and record, with all the ideas we got over the previous three-four months. So, I think that’s kind of a story of a record. But for me, personally, I was on my own a lot in the studio. Exploring these ideas. At the same time, the conversation was always going on with the rest of the guys. It’s like: Hey, this is what’s going on…I found this in this song I’m interested. It was like, Where is it taking us to ?”
“But it was stressful! I think, that stress lives in the record. But also, when it’s so difficult to make something and you really wanna make it – it brings the whole new energy to it. Cause, you’re really desperate, you wanna do something. It’s not easy! It’s not like saying: Ok! In April we’re gonna record this record! – everything was such a fight to get this record made. I think, that kind of puts real strong desire for me, within this record.”
But don’t you think it also involved a certain reflection? After you’ve passed this path of collaborating with Claire Denis, releasing your solo-record, how much of a reflection was there within Distractions?
“I think any record we make is like a reflection or a reaction to the times, the moments you’re living while you’re making music. I think, it has…A certain kind of…In general! Not just in the pandemic!…It has to be a kind of suspension of reality. If you walk into a space of trying to be free, trying to find an adventure.”
“To me, music is always about searching, it’s about adventure. Even if you’re writing the saddest song you have to be playful with it. To find it, to find what it means. I think you have to put yourself into a certain frame of mind. And I think, this album, that really came to be so kind of apparent. That’s kind of fight for that space. Even more than usual. But I think songs come and we started this process in December 2019 – Man Alone and The Bough Bands – they came to me. And once you have that, it’s about exploration and trying to match the thing that’s in front of you, with your making with your feeling that’s inside of you that you want to get across.”
“I think, with that, you have sounds, words, tempos, textures. But just trying to satisfy this feeling. That was a moment in time. That this thing came to you, and you accepted it. And I think that’s kind of true for making music in general, for me. Distractions is different. It’s a different time, a different process. But at the same time, these songs, when they came, they ask for something I was searching for.”
There were some records of yours you commented on saying about a certain heart of a record, the idea in the core. Is this always works in this way with your records, like you have some key-concepts in the core you explore with each of these songs?
“I think, I’ve always written in the same kind of way. The only choice you have about songwriting, for me, is when the song comes to you, or the idea comes to you – you accept it or you don’t. And I think, once you accepted it, you take on the responsibility for it. And it becomes something to nudge you, to cherish, to see where it’s kind of takes you. You kind of listen to the ideas, what they’re trying to tell you, and see where they want to go themselves. And I think, songs like Man Alone – at the beginning of January, I was ready to go on tour. We had a tour booked for seven months and I had these two songs in my head. I thought: “I’m just gonna make them exist – before I go!”.
“Because if I’d just keep them in my head and I’d gone on tour for seven months, I’m gonna lose this feeling I have at the moment, about how I feel about these two ideas. So, I made myself go to the studio for two days. I sketched down Man Alone and I sketched down The Bough Bands. It was like: “Ok! What do I have? I have my old Roland-drum-machine, I have my bass guitar. I have this…” – these are the things I reached to without really thinking about them. It’s like: “I want this rhythm. I can hear this…” – I started, but I didn’t realise necessarily at that time that these elements were just reactions.”
“Whether these are heavy guitars on The Bough Bands or bass and a drum-machine on Man Alone, I didn’t realise that this is what’s going to be stamped. Like: This is this song I was just thinking! This is something I can take to the guys and make them understand it so we can see where it goes to! – but the textures became strong.”
“People embraced them. They wanted to experiment with them. And that’s kind of how the things started. But to me, I was just working instinctively. And quickly. I think, they, themselves, those two songs, they led what this album was about. Anything that came, the other ideas, they had to talk to these songs, they had to react with them, they had to sit with them, they had to be happy with them. I never expected there to be three cover versions on the album – at all! We had songs, original songs that were coming through. But once you become committed with relationship – like, the first two songs on Distractions: Man Alone and I Imagine You – it’s a very particular step to take away the next step. And I think, there was only Neil Young song that was satisfying at that moment. So, it became important!”
“You’re always trying things – like transitions, so important to the overall shape of a record. And how it feels. Every step the record takes has to take it somewhere different enough to keep engaged with it, in a different kind of moment. Once you have a heart of something and you start to understand it, you then just try to build. And I think it’s always been like that with making Tindersticks’ records.”
“There are always two songs that kind of lead the way for what this record is. For No Treasure But Hope – For The Beauty, the opening track was something to really hang on to. And I think that’s true for Another Night – in Curtains. Or City Sickness on our first album. I think it’s just able to hold on something to be able to take another step – to be able to feel how this thing wants to be.”
Simple Pleasure was the moment when you decided to concentrate on your singing. How much, according to your opinion, did those changes affect your approach to writing lyrics and your perception of the process?
“I’ve just gone through phases. I think what I needed to do. There are different skills involved. Singing is one of them. Writing is one of them. Recording is one of them. Mixing – is probably the most difficult. I think all of these things are really important to me in a way. About how you make these pieces of music. With the first albums, I was so wrapped up in a hole – I was: Ok! There’s a time for me to sing!”
“Going to the booth, I was singing like a songwriter. Once…Twice…That’s it! Not kind of scrutinising it, in a way. I think I was afraid to scrutinise it. And I think, it’s because of my voice was just a part of what was in my mind. I wasn’t like: “Now it’s time for me to be the singer!” – the first three albums to me, they suffer for that. Not all the time, but in moments, I think: Why did I do that? Why didn’t I take more time with this song? It’s such a great song! Why didn’t I give time to nudge it in a studio rather than to be kind of off-hand with it?”
“When I got to Simple Pleasure, it was time for me to take my voice seriously. In a way, it obviously has something that’s important. And I think, that’s a realisation point. Over the years, I’ve come to realise how important singing is for me. And how important it is to sing for people, especially, to stand in a concert. And to sing for people. To do it the best you can, to do it for them is a really special privilege. In a way of being able to communicate in a way with the breath inside you. Over the years, I’ve come to really cherish that. But it has been a long long process!”
Following your own words, punk-rock became your “main-thing”. In what way did it open your eyes and change your views on the music itself?
“I was young! So, I was 13 in 1978. It just came along at exactly the right time to me. And for this kind of new music that broke down all these. It was totally connected to me at my age. But saying that, what happened – it was very short-lived. For me, I was in the North of England. I wasn’t on Chelsea Road. I was just a kid in a distant town in the UK. But it still meant so much for me and lots of people I knew as well. I think the moment, it was short-lived. What it did was it changed the landscape of the music industry. And what happened then was really really interesting.”
“And the music of the early 80’s is really-really important time in music in general. But it’s not just…Punk-rock came when it just knocked down the doors opening up this space for all these people to rush into. When I was 16-17, the music I was surrounded by was incredible. Singers and singers-writers. People like, obviously, Ian Curtis. But as much Mark Almond, Kevin Rowland…The place was full of young guys expressing themselves and being really unique with that.”
“I grew up in that kind of environment of thinking about music. Especially, I think with those people – there weren’t any rules. It was driven by a need to express something. Whether you could sing it well, it didn’t matter what it was. The feeling was flowing out of people. That to me is the time that shaped me the most.”
Within many of your previous albums, you united rock-trio-format with different heavy orchestrations. Your recent works are on the contrary – different. Starting with Les Salauds, you’ve been focusing more on the lyrical side of things and the way depth of sounds. In what way has that experience of scoring work affected your general approach to your music creation and worldview?
“You can definitely hear it on something like Man Alone and The Bough Bands. I think the sense of space in a way is very-very connected to some scoring work. And also, I’m a guy in a studio that spends so much of my time of the last 25 years alone. And recently, because of working on film, I found an engineer, a mix-engineer who come from movies, musical guy. And I found a space to work that’s so open and rewarding for me. I’ve never felt comfortable in a studio. I’ve never found anybody I’d feel comfortable in a studio with.”
“When you do find guys who have different skills to you, hear music in a different way, you can actually have an appreciation of a conversation and where it takes you. I think, that’s a really big thing for me. And I only really discovered that with High Life – in 2019. To find a collaborator in a studio has been a really great thing for me. And I think, that allowed the things like Man Alone, the sound effects on Man Alone, the recording, it allows it to be musical and have an emotional effect. That’s to me is more important than bringing a guitar-part there, or something else.”
“I think for Man Alone and The Bough Bands, those kinds of things formed the right things to do. With Distractions there are no decorations on a record. Everything has to exist to perform its role at a particular moment in time. We had some beautiful musical ideas that people brought to the songs in the band. And it was just not for this album. It’s like: Everything has got super-lean! Super scrutinised. And I think, the soundtrack, definitely feeds into that for sure.”
The Bough Bands sounds like something you haven’t tried before: two vocal parts interacting with each other. What was the idea behind this particular song?
“This is one song…I think, it was probably the last one to be sang. And it wasn’t somewhere I did want to. I was happy working on a music, understanding that this was this space for this vocal. This space for this vocal. I felt a need. This wasn’t designed. But I sang the first part. And I felt there was a need to react to it, in some way. Thoughts to me, feelings to me – they’re never straight-forward. You’re never wrapping into a neat-line.”
“I think, bringing in the second vocal, which sometimes contradicts, sometimes reacts or segments lines, it became something that was fascinating to me. It was a journey of experimentation, really! I had some lines, I had the opening that I thought was important to me. I had this line, that line. But it was really like one day-going: I really need to try and figure out what’s going inside of me for this song/that song! That’s kind of where it took me.”
When you’re set up to work on the record having some sketches of ideas, what usually shapes the ways and your system of approaches?
“I think for that in itself, I’d say it’s important that you find different ways to approach each record. If you use the same systems, the same ways of working with the band, working with musicians, I think you can get stagnant. That’s what I was saying about making No Treasure But Hope. It broke something for me, it got me out of my headspace in a studio, it put me in a room with piano and the guys. What was gonna happen then – I wasn’t sure. I spent three years in my studio. Most of the time alone, working on things people wouldn’t probably tell the difference of. You get into this space that becomes really really important. It was really important for me to get out to this space. And No Treasure But Hope was successful for that.”
“There was an appreciation for me to be out of this space. To be in this fresh air. For us to be together. It created that kind of buoyancy. In writing, performing, recording. Right through, going to stage. I think, for me, there was kind of ghost, some kind of needing to be musically in a place I haven’t felt I’ve been before. And I think, when the ideas for Man Alone and The Bough Bands came along, I felt like this was pulling me to place I haven’t been before. And I think, I needed that! Whereas, with the whole beauty of No Treasure But Hope, there’s something about it that feels like putting on your favourite suit. But you can’t wear this favourite suit all the time! It just becomes you do it every day.”
“There’s a definite type – traditional way of working. No matter how much each member of the band is pushing this input, you’re still in the situation where I’m the guy sitting there, singing and playing acoustic guitar. Neil is playing electric guitar. Earl is playing drums, Dan is playing bass. Everybody is in the space – they understand.”
“We get together, mixing beautifully. But we’ve been in that space many times. And I think, to actually try and find different ways, and a different way of working is just as rewarding as going to what we know. This works! We all believe each other. This is the music we make together. No Treasure But Hope is a great example of that. But sometimes, you gotta find new places to move. And I think, these two ideas came and it was: Ok! Where are these going? I had no idea that this is gonna be ten-minutes long each when they came! You just…Let [them lead] the way, try to understand them, and they take you somewhere.”
At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned a certain conflict within Distractions., but usually conflict presupposes an equal state of all the constants. Wasn’t it hard for you to find the balance of elements on Distractions?
“As you get closer making a record to get finished, I think, you’re trying to find the balance in many things. So much! To feel satisfied. That’s one element you don’t feel conflict all the time. But when the conflict comes, you want to feel it. You have to create and accept that there’s a negative space in there that allows something to be alive when it does come…But that’s true of so much. You can even say that’s true of this electric guitar, this feeling or that feeling. I think, finding the balance that creates that journey through the record is maybe the most exciting thing about making albums. Is that in itself: “Ok! It does here! It finishes here! And it’s gonna go from here to here, to here.”
“And for me, I always feel the need to feel the album – the journey of it. Before the final instrumentations are decided. Because you know, there are some strings in here, you need some brightness in here, this is where the guitar needs to come out – I need to understand the whole before I can kind of make, find and feel those. Where these colours should be, within the record. That’s kind of true of everything, everything we make. But at the same time, it’s just an extreme record. Distractions is an extreme record in some way. It asks for a different way of understanding, a different way of trying to appreciate what it’s trying to be.”
Distractions is out on 19th of February on City Slang Records
Buy it here from Sister Ray.
Photo-credits: Julien Bourgeois, Bogdan Frymorgen
Words by Dan Volohov. Find his author’s archive here.