Organising an interview with The Charlatans is no easy feat. Tim Burgess, the lead singer, resides in LA, while the rest of the band are scattered across the UK and Ireland. Factor in that they don’t currently have a manager and it’s a logistical nightmare. Eventually we schedule separate phone calls, kicking off with guitarist and co-founder Mark Collins. A logical first question seems to be: how do you keep this band together?
‘I think we’re quite determined,’ he laughs down a phone line from the band’s Manchester hometown. ‘We don’t get put off easily.’ He’s not joking either. Since bursting out of the traps with ‘The Only One I Know’ in 1991, a generation-defining song, the rest of the band’s career has seen more than its fair share of turbulent times. Addiction, near bankruptcy and a revolving door of managers have all plagued the band in a 19-year career. But that pales in comparison with their biggest tragedy: the death of keyboardist Rob Collins in a car crash in 1996.
‘That’s about as low as you can go,’ Mark agrees. ‘We were about three quarters through an album, so we left it on the mixing desk and went away for a month to think about whether to just call it day.’ In the end they decided to carry on and the finished album, Tellin’ Stories, was one of their most successful records.
But what about their singer, Tim Burgess, who, after falling in love with an American girl, upped sticks and moved to California – what persuades him to make the regular trans-Atlantic flights? ‘Sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes it’s easy,’ Tim admits when we finally get hold of him, ‘but I don’t see any issues really. We write when we’re together or we write separately. We only need to rehearse about a week before we go on tour, because we’ve pretty much got it together.’
But the move probably did more than keep The Charlatans together. Burgess was steadily disappearing into a mire of drinks and drugs and his new-found domestic stability helped overcome that. ‘I’m three years clean now,’ he admits proudly. Except for caffeine, that is. ‘I used to drink 10 diet Cokes a day. I try to minimise it to a few cups of coffee now.’
He also thinks the move helped prevent the band from running out of steam. ‘I thought that moving to LA and getting a new perspective on the world would be good for the band. [Otherwise] the spark wouldn’t have been there any more.’
So what of the future? Burgess reckons the band are in a good place right now. ‘With [new album] You Cross My Path we’re back on track,’ he says confidently. ‘And I’m looking at making more Charlatans albums in the future.’
Full live band performance at Stereo Festival.
Carl Barât’s had an eventful few years of late. Between the fiery on/off friendship with best mate and fellow Libertine Peter Doherty and the end of his last band, Dirty Pretty Things, it’s been a busy time for him. But when we get through to his UK mobile, he sounds pretty chilled. ‘Er, I’m in the bath,’ he explains. ‘Sorry.’ Well that’s pretty rock ’n’ roll, all right – at least, according to that one scene in This Is Spinal Tap – but when he tells us about the floaty rubber dolphin attached to his plug, we feel a bit ripped off.
Still, we shouldn’t be so petty. After all, the man’s coming out here to entertain us with an eclectic DJ set: ‘I’ll play rockabilly, Britpop, Dexys, and some new stuff as well – The Big Pink and that sort of thing. All my influences, I guess.’ And he’s not just looking back – in his own work Carl is currently creating new tunes, particularly ballads. ‘I started trying to write more poppy songs but they just seemed a bit devoid of meaning. So I went back to the core, really, to balladry, where songs kind of take on their own lives and turn into anything. That’s what I’m focusing on at the minute.’
Does this focus on solo work rule out the oft-speculated return of The Libertines? ‘I think [his relationship with Doherty] is good at the moment. I should give him a call, actually. And, yes, The Libertines thing is a distinct possibility, but I don’t want to do anything unless it’s absolutely right. It’s not right this year. It might be right next year, or not. It can’t just be an echo of the past; it has to mean something. It has to be something we can keep growing and developing. If it’s just for a half-hour gig then it’s not quite right.’
Indeed, just a couple of months ago Carl turned down an offer of millions of pounds to reform The Libertines for the UK’s Reading and Leeds festivals. So he must be pretty satisfied with where he is right now, then? ‘Yeah, the water’s lovely and warm. Oh, in general, you mean? Definitely, definitely. I’m just happy on my own really. It’s quite liberating.’
Liberating indeed – he’s even spread his wings into acting, appearing opposite Kevin Spacey in the biopic movie Telstar and making appearances on the YouTube-based comedy Svengali. But he’s not changing careers yet. ‘I’m too busy with music at the moment. It’s something you can do when you’re older. Especially if you’re a man. It’s harder for older women, isn’t it? There’s only one Judy Dench.’ Indeed. But you’ve got to aim for something. Given time, could Carl be the next Judy Dench? ‘Well yeah,’ he laughs. ‘When I said there was only one Judy Dench, I was of course referring to myself.’