This is an article I wrote for Beat magazine in September 2008 with Tim Burgess of The Charlatans. He was one of the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing and rambled on for over 45 minutes even though we were only supposed to chat for 20 or 30 minutes. This was on the eve of their first Australian tour, even though they’d already been together for 20 years.
Tim Burgess doesn’t really have a good excuse as to why it’s taken them the better part of 20 years for his band The Charlatans to make their maiden voyage to Australia. They justâ€¦didn’t.
“It became like a point of embarrassment. We’d do interviews for every album and we’d always get asked ‘when are you coming over?’ and it would be ‘um, sometime this year’ and then it would get to the point where it was just like ‘oh, I just don’t know’.”
“I actually never thought we were going to come.”
But it’s not the angry fans he’s worried about upon his maiden voyage to our fair land.
“I’m a bit nervous about the spiders, to be honest,” he admits.
He’s set his expectations of his trip to Australia fairly low.
“I want to meet Mick Dundee,” he says. And of course: “I want to go on Neighbours.”
It’s 8.30 in the morning on his end of the phone line and seemingly it’s a clichÃ© that he’s in Manchester, the place where it all started for the Charlatans, producing a record for a local band called Hatcham Social.
Despite his indie rock icon status, Tim is most affable and it’s hard not to like him when he throws words like “innit” into the conversation at regular intervals and pronounces a word like “stuff” as “stoof” in his strong Mancunian brogue.
The Charlatans hit the Top ten in 1990 with their indie anthem The Only One I Know in the midst of what was the dominant force in British rock of the late 80’s, the “Madchester” scene, which spawned bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and was immortalised through the film ’24 Hour Party People’.
The Charlatans have been through their fair share of ups and downs over their near 20 year history, from the tragic death of then keyboard player Rob Collins in 1996, through to record label problems and substance abuse.
But they’ve come out the other end all the better for it, far outliving most of their contemporaries. In fact, their most recent album, You Cross My Path is the first Tim’s ever written sober, and it’s killer.
Taking drugs for over 16 years as part of a daily ritual can get a bit tiring but it was after a period of unrest within the band two years ago that saw things get a bit out of control. Tim decided at that point he needed to sort himself out.
“I’d be just playing a gig at 11 and then my night would start and then it’d finish at 9 in the morning and then I’d have to get up at 11 and travel to the next gig and you’d just have to keep topping up to keep going.”
“I just had to decide whether I was going to keep taking drugs or keep making music.”
Then there were the record company “issues”.
The Charlatans spent a large proportion of their formative years being looked after by English indie Beggars Banquet until they were lured away by a major label with the promise of riches beyond their wildest dreams.
“We’d been poor for like six albums even though we’d had three number ones,” he laughs.
After the 3rd album, the relationship between Universal and The Charlatans had reached a stalemate, with the label not wanting to put out their album. Eventually they moved on to Sanctuary, but when after everything the band had been through, they were about to get bought out by Universal as well – enough was enough.
So they decided to go the Radiohead route and give away their latest album for free as an mp3 via UK radio station XFM’s website. Upon it’s release, there were over 60,000 downloads, the equivalent of a UK Number Two album.
After all the drama they’d been through with labels, there was obviously an element of satisfaction with the whole thing. “All the major record labels in England started to freak out.”
These days Tim has escaped the cold weather and debauchery of Manchester for Sunny California, living a relatively peaceful clean and sober existence.
“I’m still in love with LA, really. I like the sunshine but I just like to see it through the blinds,” he says. As much as he likes the glitzy surrounds of Hollywood, he’s still a Manchester boy at heart and giving up his ashen complexion would be akin to trading in his UK passport.
“I don’t really like to go out in the sun. It’s not really Manchester style to get a tan.”
Electronic sounds have always played an important part in the Charlatans music, and these days Tim spends a fair bit of his time DJing. These days he’s a bit of a veteran since he got his start as support for The Chemical Brothers.
“I went out with The Chemical Brothers DJing in ’93 actually and they only wanted me to do it because there was a big beat boom at the time and everyone wanted to be the new Chemical Brothers but I just wanted to go and play some records that meant something to me, and I still do.”
Is it just me or is everyone a DJ now?
“Everyone does DJ a lot, apart from Paul Weller who doesn’t. I love Paul Weller. He always says to me ‘fuckin’ hell, everyone’s a DJ’. He refuses to DJ.’
When you’ve been around for nearly 20 years, had three number ones and nine top 10 albums, it’s kind of normal to be able to throw names like “Paul Weller” casually into conversation.
Tim’s also been working with Peter Hook (or “Hooky”, as he calls him) from New Order, who he admits were always idols of his.
In fact, a recent review of their latest album You Cross My Path states that “Tim Burgessâ€™ mob has made the best New Order album in ages.”
“Genius. Best quote ever,” he says. “The first proper band I ever fell in love with was New Order and as a teenager it probably shaped everything I did. I don’t think I would have been in a band if it wasn’t for New Order.”
So who would win in a fight between Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the Charlatans?
“Obviously the Charlatans because we’ve got 18 years of moves,” he says with confidence.
As far as his opinions on the new breed of English rock bands like The Kooks and Snow Patrol, he goes all paternal and protective on me.
“I can’t say anything bad about those bands because they love me,” he says affectionately.
As for the now relatively “old school” Oasis and their new record: “I can pretty much guess that there will be a couple of good songs on it and a lot of the words will rhyme with ‘sunshine’.”
If you’re waiting for the next Charlatans record, don’t hold your breath.
“I’ve got no reason at all to want to make another album,” says Tim.
So is the idea of reaching their 20th Anniversary a daunting idea?
“No, it’s not really, I just hope we make it that long.”