Q Magazine

Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub on the Band's Ironically-Titled New Album, 'Nothing Lasts Forever,' And More

The Scottish songwriter/guitarist discusses his musical origins, working with BMX Bandits and Joe Pernice, and meeting Ray Davies.

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Source: Donald Milne

As ever, Teenage Fanclub stand alone.

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One can only imagine what the Teenage Fanclub of 1990 would say to the Teenage Fanclub of 2023, and if you wonder why they'd have so little to discuss, then you might want to listen to the band's debut LP, A Catholic Education, and then follow it up by spinning their latest endeavor, Nothing Lasts Forever. Make no mistake, both are strong records from start to finish, but it's hard to wrap your head around the fact that they're by the same band...until, that is, you've heard Norman Blake's explanation, at which point it makes perfect sense.

Nothing Lasts Forever is Teenage Fanclub's thirteenth studio album, which means they've finally reached the point in the career where the title of their fourth album is going to get a little confusing. (If you know, you know.) The aforementioned Mr. Blake took time to chat with Q about this new record, the band's excitement about taking it on the road, and their desire to get back into a more rapid new-album, new-tour cycle. In addition, Blake talked about his musical origins, working with BMX Bandits and Joe Pernice, and how much fun the band had - and how much charity they received from fans - on their first trip to America.

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Source: Donald Milne

As ever, Teenage Fanclub stands alone.

I couldn't help but notice that this is the fastest turnaround for a new Teenage Fanclub album in many years.

Yeah! I think it'll be two years since the last one. You know, we're aiming to do that now, because we realized that the gap between our albums had been increasing. [Laughs.] I mean, every four or five years? It's a long time! And actually, in a way, in terms of being a touring band, it's kind of unsustainable. To make albums, we pay for the recording ourselves, so to make the money to pay for the recording and pay everyone who works on the records, you have to tour. And the only way that you can really tour properly is if you have an album out. So we're trying to now go on a kind of cycle. Bands like Yo La Tengo, they'll make an album and tour, then the next year they'll make an album and tour the following year. So we're trying to do that, too. Also, I think it's just good creatively to keep working. It puts you in a good mental space as well when you're out touring and making music and being productive.

It seems like you've found your groove with the now-established new lineup.

Yeah, y'know, it's funny, because this is now two albums since Gerry [Love's] left. We've also done something like 130 or 140 concerts. And it's almost five years, which is incredible, really. Gerry left in November 2018, so...it's really amazing. But, yeah, we're really good. We're all in a good place. And the band lineup, in terms of changing personnel... Well, Dave McGowan, who has played keyboards and guitar with the band for almost 17 years, he moved over to bass. Now Dave is predominantly a bass player. When we met Dave, in the band he was in previously, he was a bass player, and a damned good one. And he's been playing bass for Belle and Sebastian. So it seemed natural that he'd moved on to bass. And then we were thinking about who we could ask to come and play with us live, and...I've made an album with Euros Child, I've toured with Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Euros had sung and played piano on some of our previous records, so we thought we would ask him, as he'd already become a part of the family. And, of course, he agreed to do it, so here we are!

And, yeah, it's a great touring lineup. There's a good mood in the camp, and everyone's really looking forward to getting out on the road. Because with our last record, we really didn't get the opportunity to do that until a good bit after. Normally, when you release an album, the day of release you'll be playing a show somewhere. And with the last album, basically, there was the build-up to day of release, and then nothing, because we were all in lockdown, and there were no shows happening at that time. So we're looking forward to this time. We won't actually be on the road the day it's released, but we're doing an in-store in Glasgow that day, and then the following week we're on the road. So it's gonna be fun...and exciting!

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I've always been curious with Teenage Fanclub and the fact that your songs are all arguably radio-friendly in their own right. How do you go about selecting what the single is going to be?

Well, you know, we've kind of dispensed with that. What we do now is, we speak to the people that we work with who do the plugging or whatever and take things to radio. Because, really, y'know, we just wouldn't know, I don't think. [Laughs.] Obviously, you want to maximize the amount of people that are gonna listen to something and like it, so we just ask people at our record labels who are doing radio plugging, "What do you think would be a good single?" We sort of do a poll of people that we work with, and then we come to a consensus. "Okay, we'll put that one out!" [Laughs.] But nowadays you realize three or four songs from a record. There aren't singles as such anymore. The first song that we released from this record was "I Left a Light On," which we probably put online almost a year ago! It's funny, it takes things quite a while to progress. Every few months you have to present a new song just to keep things alive. So I think we're now on the fourth song from this album. But it's all good, y'know? That's all fine. We're quite happy with that. We're just pleased to be able to have the album released, really.

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It's a good time for Scottish music. I'm a big fan of Trashcan Sinatras, and John Douglas just put out his solo album as well.

I noticed John brought out a solo record! I saw him play recently, and he was great, just doing some solo shows. In fact, I did a couple with him, and he was in fine form. So, yeah, it's really nice that he's got that out there. Good for John! But, yeah, there's such a good, vibrant music scene. Mainly around Glasgow, but over in Edinburgh, too. And up in Fife, with all the people that came from the Fence [Records] collective. Really, all over the country. It really has grown exponentially from the early days of when we started. There had been bands in the '60s - The Poets are a great Glasgow band produced by Andrew Loog Oldham - and, of course, the Bay City Rollers. [Laughs.]

But what would happen in the past was, people would move to London, and nobody would really stay here to have a career or whatever. And there weren't really labels here. And then along came Postcard Records, and that was the catalyst for everyone else. That was really where it all started. So now there are loads and loads of labels, and lots of bands, and...there would've been a time when I would've been able to tell you the names of most of the bands in Glasgow, but now I could probably only tell you the names of a fraction of 'em, and certainly not contemporary ones! [Laughs.] I'd have no clue there...and that's as it should be, really!

I'm actually in the midst of working on a piece about music documentaries that've come out during the last 10 years that people might've missed, and one that I was considering for inclusion was Teenage Superstars. I know you had a hand in that.

Well, that's one I've actually seen, because I was invited along to the premiere. [Laughs.] And it's really good, actually! It's really well put together. Grant McPhee, the director, has done a really good job with that. That one's primarily about the Glasgow scene, but the one he's done about Edinburgh is really good as well. He's got all the main players interviewed. Yeah, Grant's done a great job. It's really worth seeing. It's a good insight into what was happening in Glasgow in the early '80s through the early '90s.

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I looked back through your history, and I didn't realize quite how connected you were to bands I liked even before Teenage Fanclub, like Sean Dickson of the Soup Dragons.

Yeah, Sean and me are from the same town. We were sort of childhood friends, along with Duglas T. Stewart from BMX Bandits. We all hung around together when we were kids, young teenagers. That was the first experience of making music with other people that I had, with those guys. Actually, the Soup Dragons have just recently reformed. They've put a record out recently, and they're about to hit the road. Which is amazing, really. I haven't seen Sean for awhile, but I'm sure I'll run into him soon.

I'm a big BMX Bandits fan as well. I was psyched when your publicist selected you as the designated Fanclub member to be interviewed, because I started listening to them when you were still in the band.

Oh, yeah, that's good! In fact, I've been meaning to call Duglas. Yeah, I met Duglas before I met Sean, and we were at school together, and we'd listen to John Peel and make bedroom cassettes. We didn't really have any instruments at the time, so it was mostly percussion. You know, the back of margarine tubs and that kind of thing. [Laughs.] But that was a lot of fun! Duglas was an interesting guy. I met him in the art class at high school, and we've been friends since then, so...that's been quite a long time!

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Obviously, you were playing with him early on, but what actually led you into being a musician in the first place? Was it family, or did you just fall in love with music?

Well, a bit of both, really. When I was a very young kid, so maybe nine years old, my mum sent me to piano lessons for a year and a half, which I think at the time I didn't really enjoy, although I was fairly proficient. Actually, looking back on it, it sort of stood me in good stead in terms of having a good understanding of basic music theory. I think it really helped. But, yeah, from there, the next thing that happened was that punk rock came along, and of course there were lots of these bands making music who... Well, at the time you were told that ostensibly they couldn't play. But of course they could. They were all playing. They were professional musicians, most of 'em.

I really liked the Clash, so I went to see the Clash a load of times. I loved the Clash, and I saw Paul Simonon playing bass, and I thought, "I reckon I could do that!" So I badgered my parents, and they bought me a bass guitar. I remember the amp was a WEM Dominator amp. I wish I still had that. [Laughs.] But anyway, I started playing bass, and then from there I progressed onto guitar and thought, "This is for me! I'm gonna try and start a band!" So that was really where it started. Really, the Clash were the band that inspired me to make music, personally.

What led you down the musical path that you followed with Teenage Fanclub? Obviously, the band has... I don't want to say you've mellowed, but you've definitely found a less belligerent, more consistently melodic groove over the years.

Yeah, for sure, and I think there's a way to explain that. I always say that when you start a band and you're young, you're really pretty much the sum of your influences. You have to find your own voice. You don't know what you're good at. So when we started the band, the Fanclub, the main influences on that first Teenage Fanclub album would've been Sonic Youth's Evol and Daydream Nation, those records. And we liked Exile on Main Street a lot. That was what we were predominantly listening to. And we liked Love a lot then. They were an influence. We liked Arthur Lee. So we were the sum of those influences, but as time passes, more of your personality seeps into what you're doing, and you become more confident, and then over time you sort of develop your own thing, and that becomes your sound or whatever. And that's really just what we did.

I remember making the second record, Bandwagonesque, and we had Don Fleming in to produce that record, from B.A.L.L. Don had heard us singing harmony, and he said, "You guys should do more harmonies. Nobody's doing harmonies at the moment. You'd really stand out if you do harmonies." So we sort of took that advice on board, and we started incorporating harmonies into the songs, because he said, "You should do it because you can. Lots of people can't do harmonies!" So we incorporated that into what we we were doing, and then we've kind of become known for harmonies. But like I say, you just have to really find your own voice, and it just takes time.

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Speaking of Bandwagonesque, what did you think when you heard that Ben Gibbard had covered the entire album?

Well, I wasn't surprised, the reason being that Ben got in touch with me, asking me if I could... [Starts to laugh.] There were some lyrics that he couldn't quite understand, and he wanted to get it right! So he gave me a head's up on that. But it was a thrill to hear that he'd done it. And, actually, Ben's become a friend over the years, and I love the fact that he decided to choose that album. It was very flattering. I mean, he did a great job, y'know? And I liked his attention to detail. "I really need to get the lyrics right. I can't get anything wrong. So could you help me out here?" So that was amazing, yeah. Really amazing. He's a great guy, Ben.

Being the fan of Sonic Youth that you were when you were starting out, it must've been a thrill to work with Don Fleming.

Yeah, it was, actually. we met Don through a guy called Dave Barker, who had a label called Paperhouse Records, who put out our first record. And he had worked with Don with another band. So we made our way to New York - we were on Matador Records - and we were over for the launch night of the label. In fact, I actually recently found this... [Leans off-camera.] I'm moving to New York, and I don't know if you can see this, but it's a poster for the launch night for Matador Records. I've got two of them. It's the original poster from CBGBs.

But I think it was the night before this, actually, that I met Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, and we met Ira (Kaplan) and Georgia Hubley) from Yo La Tengo. So we got to know these people that we'd been fans of, and they're still friends. We still see Ira and Georgia fairly regularly. But that was an amazing experience, that first trip to New York City was, because we were fans of a lot of the music that had come from... Well, I guess we were big fans of American music, like a lot of British people are, going all the way back to the Beatles, and even people before that. So it was great to come and spend time in the U.S. and experience the country for the first time. Fortunately, we've been back a number of times, and hopefully we'll get back over sometime soon! But that first trip to New York City was incredible. Amazing.

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We slept on the floor in the Matador office. [Laughs.] And we took a road trip through New England in a car that someone had lent us. A guy called Ken, who was at Homestead Records at the time. I remember he gave us the car, and he said, "Oh, just one moment." And he went into the trunk, and he took out different plates, and he changed the plates on the car. And I was thinking, "I wonder why he's done that..." [Laughs.] But anyway, we weren't too worried. We just got in the car and headed off on the road. And that was a great experience. We did some shows with Uncle Tupelo on that trip! So that was amazing. But, yeah, just us in this old car that had a hole in the floor so you could see the highway literally passing beneath your feet.

Those are speed holes, I hear. They make the car go faster.

[Laughs.] Yeah, that's it exactly. It was one of those! But you know, what was amazing was the hospitality we experienced. Because, of course, we didn't have any money. We'd nowhere to say. So we would show up and play a tiny show in Philadelphia, 30 people, and at the end of the show, I would always say over the mike, "Uh, there wouldn't happen to be anybody here who could put us up this evening?" And every show, there would always be somebody who'd put their hand up and say, "Yeah, you can stay at our place!" [Laughs.] So that was incredible. And I've got some friends who we still see from the first time we were in New York City, when they put us up in their apartment. We've remained friends with these people. It's amazing.

As long as we're talking about New York, dare I ask if you remember anything about your appearance on Saturday Night Live?

Yeah, that was exciting! Although to be honest with you, coming from the UK, pre-internet, we'd sort of heard of Saturday Night Live, but we weren't aware of... We didn't know how big it was, really, y'know? So we were kind of unfazed by it. You know, you would think that we would've been, like, "Oh, this is gonna go out on national TV and millions of people are gonna watch this?" But we were unfazed because we didn't really know what it was. We thought, "Oh, it's some kind of TV show." [Laughs.] But it was a lot of fun doing it. And, of course, after we'd done it, we realized how big it was. It was an amazing experience, actually. Really a lot of fun. And we went on the road around that period and toured pretty extensively around the US. I've got some great memories from that time, too.

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When you look at Teenage Fanclub's back catalog, is there any particular album that you feel was underrated or deserved more attention than it necessarily got?

No, y'know, I think we've actually over the years been pretty lucky in terms of reviews, generally. We've gotten fairly good ones. And in terms of sales... You know, some have sold better than others, but I can't say that I'm disappointed by any of 'em. I think we've never had an expectation of success or whatever. I think some people would think that once they've got a record out on a major label or whatever - we were on DGC - things are gonna just explode and grow exponentially from there. But we didn't have that expectation at all. We were just happy to make the record! So I guess if you're not expecting success and then you don't have it, then you're not gonna be disappointed, y'know? I'm sure there were some people at the record label who were way more disappointed than us! [Laughs.]

I wanted to ask you about a couple of your other collaborations. How did you and Joe Pernice first hook up?

Well, I met Joe just on our travels many years ago. We did some shows with the Pernice Brothers when they were over in the UK. They did some shows with us, and then I moved to Canada about 13 years ago, lived there for nine years, and shortly after I moved over there, a mutual friend got in touch and said, "Listen, do you know that Joe has moved to Toronto?" I said, "No, I didn't know that!" So they put us in touch, and I went to Toronto, and we started hanging out. And we thought, "We're hanging out, so why don't we start making some music together?" And it really came from that. Myself and Joe and Mike Belitsky from the Sadies, we would get together. Actually, those guys would come out to my place... I lived in a place called Kitchener, Ontario, and those guys would come out on a Friday morning, we'd spend the day recording, and then we'd make some food, and the day was finished. It was very civilized. And we sort of put an album together through that, and we released it. And then myself and Joe did a bit of touring. We went to Japan and Australia. We had a great time. Just the two of us and a couple of guitars. It was a lot of fun. We still exchange text messages on a fairly regular basis. Joe's a great raconteur. He's always got a good joke.

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I'm always fascinated when worlds collide like that. I was a huge fan of the Pernice Brothers as well as Teenage Fanclub, so it was a bit like, "Someone's been reading my dream journal!"

[Laughs.] Well, like I say, it was a lot of fun! Joe's a good guy, and we had a good time. And that tour... It was a great little tour that I probably never would've been able to do myself, playing small towns in New England. We stayed in Joe's folks' place in Boston. It was amazing. I'd done a little bit of traveling in that part of the US, but not a great deal. So I got to see parts of New England that I probably never would've had the opportunity to see otherwise, and that was really, really exciting and enjoyable.

Did the collaboration with Jad Fair come about because of your interactions with the New York music scene?

I'm trying to think how I met Jed originally. I think I met Jad through the Pastels, from Glasgow. He'd come to Glasgow, and... I've known Jad for a long time. Actually, you know, I've known Jad for over 30 years! Because I remember Jad coming to our rehearsal space before we made Bandwagonesque, and we did some recording with him there, way, way back. But what would happen was, Jad would be doing a lot of touring at the time. He was on his own and sort of traveling the world and crashing on people's sofas. And when he was in Glasgow, he started staying at our place, with me, my wife, and my daughter. And he stayed a number of times, so he became sort of a close family friend, really. And we started making music together. We played a lot of Scrabble as well. [Laughs.]

The first time that Jad came to stay, we'd moved into a new apartment, and I was renovating the bathroom at the time, and there were tiles on the wall, pink tiles, and there was a pink bathroom suite. So I was removing all of that, and I was taking it down to the local dump, and I remember Jad was helping me take down boxes of tiles. I'd chipped all these tiles off the wall, and I'd removed the toilet from the wall. And I said, "Jad, I'll take that. You've been a great help, but you don't have to carry that. I'll do that." And he says, "Oh, yeah, no worries." And meanwhile, I took a box of tiles downstairs, and then I went back to the door and looked up the stairs, and there was Jad carrying the toilet. [Laughs.] What a guy! Above and beyond the call of duty, that. But, yeah, Jad's a great friend, and we went on to collaborate quite a bit. Teenage Fanclub made an album with Jad, and then myself and Jad made an album transatlantic-ly using computers. I would send some stuff, and we'd send stuff back and forth. And then we toured in Japan as well. A couple of times, actually. So it's always great working with Jad. He's amazing. A really creative and talented person. I haven't seen him for awhile. I guess because of the pandemic, there are lots of people who you might've seen otherwise in those two years. So I look forward to seeing him again. Hopefully we're gonna do more touring in the US at some point soon, and hopefully we'll get into Texas so I can hook up with Jad.

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Has there ever been anyone you've met where you had to fight to keep yourself from going full fanboy?

Oh, I don't know, actually. It's difficult to say. I met Ray Davies briefly, and what was amazing, actually. I was in London doing a thing with the Big Star guys, and they'd asked Ray to come down and sing a song. And Ira from Yo La Tengo was over at that time, he was working on this show as well, and I remember Ray Davies walking into the room, and he looked over at Ira and he said, "Oh, hey, Ira, how are you doing?" And I kind of had a double take. I was, like, "How does Ira know Ray Davies?" [Laughs.] Well, anyway, it transpired that - as Ira told me later - they'd done some work together when Ray was in New York, and they'd hung out a bit. But I'm a big fan of Ray Davies' music, so I was kind of struck dumb when I met him. That was amazing.

To bring it back to the new record to close, despite the fact that you guys have entitled this album Nothing Lasts Forever, it sounds like you're pretty optimistic about the future of Teenage Fanclub at this point.

Yeah, there's some irony in us calling the album Nothing Lasts Forever. A band who've been around for 34 years, releasing an album called Nothing Lasts Forever... We kind of just liked the nonsensical nature of that. [Laughs.] We're still around, we're still planning to keep making music, and...who knows when we'll stop making music? But as long as we're still around, firstly, and as long as people are interested in listening to what we do, then I think we'll keep making music. We enjoy working in the band. Everyone enjoys it. There's a good camaraderie. It's a good working environment. It's nice making music with those guys. It's nice spending time on the road with them, and in the studio, it's nice being creative with them. So we've got a good balance. And as long as that continues, I think we'll keep working.


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