Skirting the Bandwagons

Teenage Fanclub's recipe for longevity: Never get too popular.

The timing couldn’t be better for a Teenage Fanclub reunion. All the influential bands are doing it these days, and in the case of the Fannies, it’s easy to argue that gobs of modern UK rock bands — including many current magazine cover darlings — are indebted to the Scottish quartet’s magnificent guitar-pop, particularly its preternatural way with melodies and harmonies. So why not get back together, hit the road, and remind everyone of the group’s legacy?

Thing is, though, the band never broke up in the first place.

“Yeah, some people may well think we have, because we’ve not been in the limelight or whatever for quite some time,” singer-guitarist Norman Blake admits over the phone from Toronto’s Mod Club, an early stop on the band’s first North American tour in four years (and first proper headlining jaunt here since 1994). “But it’s been one unbroken line.”

As Blake’s bandmates — singer-guitarist Raymond McGinley, singer-bassist Gerard Love, and drummer Francis MacDonald — mill about the stage of the soon-to-be-packed venue, the affable Glaswegian starts to laugh. “Although somewhere along that line we became a ‘cult band,’ which of course is the euphemism for ‘We don’t sell any records,'” he continues. “But we have a good existence — it’s pretty nice to be able to make a living at something you enjoy doing for sixteen years.”

While the 39-year-old frontman maintains, in typically cheerful fashion, that the Fannies themselves look back on their journey thus far as smooth sailing, from an outsider’s perspective the band’s had a rough go at times. Initially, it was all highs: Spin named Teenage Fanclub’s brilliant second release Bandwagonesque the best album of 1991, famously passing over Nirvana’s Nevermind. Kurt Cobain, meanwhile, didn’t seem to mind, consistently championing the Fannies in the press and bringing them out for long stretches of Nirvana’s 1992 world tour. That and a stellar performance on Saturday Night Live early that same year appeared to augur a mainstream breakthrough for the indie favorites.

That, of course, never happened. Despite strong, critically hailed follow-up albums in 1993 (Thirteen) and 1995 (Grand Prix), the foursome didn’t score the big radio hit or big sales the United States requires; the Fannies did well back home, too, but certainly never achieved superstar status. Record-company support waned along with the general public’s interest, and at the turn of the millennium, Teenage Fanclub reached perhaps its lowest point: Sony, which had signed the band after it’d been dropped by Geffen in the mid-’90s, simply decided not to release the 2000 album Howdy! in the States.

Still, through all of those commercial misfortunes, the Fannies’ artistic prowess never dropped off — plainly put, they’ve never released a bad album. Their ability and desire to continually craft great songs explains both their longevity and Blake’s positive attitude, not to mention the band’s still-loyal contingent of fans and peers. It also doesn’t hurt that their albums from more than a decade ago don’t sound at all dated. The quartet has never been swept into any musical movements that would subsequently render them has-beens: Despite a rare and hearty endorsement from Oasis’ Liam Gallagher, they weren’t caught up in Britpop mania, and even these days, no one is really trying to shoehorn the Fannies into the melodic-rock scene dominated by the likes of Keane, Coldplay, and Snow Patrol.

“I’m sure that’s a big part of how we’ve managed to stick around,” Blake says. “I mean, we called our [1997] album Songs from Northern Britain as a laugh, since no one in Scotland cared much at all about Britpop — it just seemed like a fad the press manufactured to sell more copies of the NME, and we had no part of that at all. We’ve just sort of traveled our own road. We’ve also never quite had that massive exposure that can make bands fall apart, since they have so much pressure from getting a lot of success. And there’s the fact that there’s three of us [Blake, McGinley, and Love] writing the songs, so there’s never all that pressure on just one person to come up with a whole album. Put together, that’s all made things a lot easier on us.”

Because he and his bandmates shudder at the thought of becoming a nostalgia act, Blake explains that the Fannies wanted to wait until they had a new disc to tour behind before they returned to the United States, even if that meant virtually disappearing for a few years. Financed themselves, recorded with Tortoise’s John McEntire in Chicago last year, and released on their own PeMa label internationally (and on Merge stateside), this year’s Man-Made is yet another terrific album. The bright guitar jangle and fuzz, the super-infectious melodies, and the way the stunning three-part vocal harmonies mesh together won’t halt those long and persistent comparisons to the Byrds, Big Star, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but there are plenty more textures to lose yourself in: the gentle motorik push of “It’s All in My Mind”; the urbane strings that sweep through the tropical “Save”; and the plaintive piano that opens and closes “Only with You,” a song that answers the long-pondered musical question, “What would it sound like if Gram Parsons fronted Stereolab?”

While warmly received (as usual) by the press, Fanclub diehards, and college-radio DJs, Man-Made hasn’t yet set cash registers afire or made anyone forget about the chart-toppers, but Blake remains blissfully unfazed by such matters: “None of that bothers me at all. Obviously we’d like to sell records and we do our best to support the records — we tour, we do interviews — but beyond that there’s nothing you can do about it, so again, there’s no point in worrying about it or losing sleep. And I’ve never been jealous of other people’s successes or ever felt like anyone’s ever stolen our thunder. I’m not at all jaded. I mean, we’ve kept it going this long, we’re here in America again, we tour all over the world — what could be better? I don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘Ahh, fuck … Tokyo?! God, I wanna go home!’ I still love all of it.”


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