Vancouver Weekly interviews Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake
Take nearly any Teenage Fanclub song and you’ll find yourself immersed in rich harmonies, earworm melodies, and chiming guitars. But there is a special kind of alchemy at work in their music that can’t be explained by the sum of these elements. It’s a certain grounded brilliance that earned Kurt Cobain’s admiration at the height of Nirvana’s success and has inspired a devoted worldwide following.
Since forming in 1989, the band has released 10 albums, with its core song writing partnership of Norman Blake, Raymond McGinley, and Gerard Love in tact until Love’s amicable departure last fall. Long-time touring keyboardist Dave McGowan has migrated to bass while Euros Childs of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci has joined the band on keys for their upcoming tour.
Vancouver Weekly reached guitarist and co-lead singer Norman Blake during rehearsals at former drummer Paul Quinn’s studio to discuss cutting his teeth in the fertile Glasgow music scene – which also produced Orange Juice, The Pastels and Belle and Sebastian – the early days of Teenage Fanclub, and what keeps him inspired.
Tracing his musical origins, Blake remembers being swept up in the first wave of punk to break in the UK. Seeing The Clash live inspired him to pick up a bass guitar just like Paul Simonon. Early releases on Rough Trade Records from bands like Swell Maps and Television Personalities made creating music of his own seem possible.
“People like me were making records.” Blake says. “Just normal people who weren’t rock stars, you know?”
He was eventually drawn into a thriving local scene by his friendship with Stephen Pastel, who asked him to join The Pastels on their 1987 European tour. Pastel advised Teenage Fanclub’s progenitor The Boy Hair Dressers and helped the band land a deal with Matador for their first record by mailing cassettes to his contacts in the alternative music scene.
Teenage Fanclub’s breakout Creation Records debut, Bandwagonesque, brought them into orbit with other legendary alternative rock acts. Blake is remarkably modest as he recalls these early days, positioning himself as a fortunate witness when Teenage Fanclub joined Nirvana’s Nevermind shows in Europe and Radiohead on their North American OK Computer tour.
“You go on tour with bands and you try to watch them, but sometimes you don’t do it every night,” says Blake. “But with Radiohead, I watched every show on that tour because they were sensational.”
Teenage Fanclub also caught the attention of Big Star’s Alex Chilton, who saw them play in New Orleans. Blake describes Bandwagonesque as a “marriage” of inspiration from Big Star’s cult classic power pop record #1 Record and The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet.
“For some reason, he took a shine to us. So he ended up coming over to Glasgow and we did some recordings,” says Blake. “He was a great guy. A really dry sense of humour.”
Teenage Fanclub is fresh off a series of three-night-stands last fall in which they played their five classic Creation Records albums in their entirety alongside B-sides from that era. Revisiting these 75 songs, some of which have not been performed live, has added a new dimension to the band’s live set.
Back catalog gems will find their place alongside new songs as the band embarks on its first tour with a new line-up. Blake sounds energized when he teases the debut of new material.
“The band’s really locking,” he says. “Euros has got a different style that adds a new colour to the band.”
Collaborating with his bandmates in Teenage Fanclub and other musicians like Jad Fair, Blake describes an overarching collaborative spirit that elevates his work.
“You learn from all the people that you work with and add that to your sonic palette,” he says.
More than 30 years into his career, music continues to capture his imagination like little else does. Blake laughs when he describes his hobbies as record shopping and buying guitars. He still possesses an ego-less drive to continue refining his craft.
“You never lose the feeling of wanting to be creative and write something better than you’ve done before,” he says.
Teenage Fanclub will play the Commodore Ballroom on Thursday, February 21.