Stuart Staples / Tindersticks – Entretien #1

Interview by John Jefferson Selve & Damien MacDonald


photographie : Richard Dumas

John Jefferson Selve For me, as a listener the Tindersticks have been, since the beginning, above all, synonymous of freedom in the way of composing, writing, the independence concerning what is in vogue, which creates your great singularity… And even more so if we consider your career… Is it because you have a sense of freedom when you compose the music?

Fundamentally music has always been an escape for us. A problem occurred, especially for David and me, when in fact our escape became our reality. That was around our third album, Curtains. It was hard to understand we had lost our escape, because it was now our job, putting a lot of pressure on us. We started off in such a free, subconscious way of making music, and then gradually became more and more self aware, and I think we lost something about making music in those times. So we gradually had to work our way back to that point, being different people like we are now. I believe we have as much freedom now as we had at the beginning, but it’s a different kind. We worked out a way in which when we make music we are able to make the moment special. And other things don’t really exist any more, when we do that.
Also making music always needs a sense of adventure. Even if you are writing sad songs, like say “A night in”, that song was a lot of fun to write. I think it actually needs to be. Because if you are writing a song you can’t sit around with each other trying to find ideas, without having a sense of fun and adventure.

Then for the two next albums, real masterpieces too, it was as if you had extended as far as possible the spirit of the first one. Curtains was an incredible album. With its prolific orchestrations, always on the verge of unbalance, it would have been hard to go further in that direction?

Actually, with making the latest album, there was something similar, because the two previous albums lead us to the something rain. And now that particular line of that journey is over, and I don’t really know what the next step will be. Finishing the hungry saw was like this, finishing falling down a mountain was like this…
I think those first three albums were perfecting an idea of something, not meaning to, but just when you finish something doors open, and you have to set into them, they ask for you. But when we made curtains, there were no doors. It’s not that things are closed off. It’s just that there is no obvious thing saying go here, go there. So you know… But going from the album Curtains to the Album Simple Pleasures was really brutal. But it was not only brutal for the audience, it was also for members of the band. It was a really hard time, but if we had not done that we would not be here now, we would have stayed in this line of we make orchestral pop music, but when we had done curtains we had done everything we could with that.

There is something about survival that actually is success, if you can survive on your own terms, and not on other people’s terms. And I think that is more successful than anything commercial.

So there is a sense of survival in the actual making of the music, which is sometimes what we can feel as listener’s?

Survival is a key word, (laughter) in many different ways… I’m meeting my daughter later. She is now twenty, but when she was fourteen she got a kind of sense of what I do, that it’s my job, and all that. And she said “does it not bother you that your not more successful?” Because she is really ambitious. And I said to her I think there is something about survival that actually is success, if you can survive on your own terms, and not on other people’s terms. And I think that is more successful than anything commercial. It’s often difficult. But it’s not an easy thing to hold the band afloat. Keeping everybody engaged, being able to dedicate there time to it, it’s always been a challenge.

Especially when dealing with such raw emotions as those that your music conveys…

That actually is part of the release though, that is never a hindrance, or never get’s us down. What we are looking for is something real and tangible. When you’ve got something real and tangible, you can make music, make something to hold that real feeling within it. I don’t think of our music as always painful, but always intense and real.

The last song on Across 6 leap Years is called What are you fighting for? I can’t remember hearing it on any other album, am I wrong?

It was supposed to be the last song on the album The Hungry saw, but it dod not make it into the album. So it kind of bothered us ever since. So it was like taking a chance. When we went to record the songs in Abbey Road, we took fifteen or sixteen songs, and we thought we will let it find itself. This song was an outsider. And when we went in there it kind of automatically said I want that spot. So that is it’s story really. We did not go into Abbey Road thinking “this is the last song on the record”, but as soon as we were playing it, it became obvious, we knew it.

Could you answer the question of your title: what are you fighting for?

I think ; the essence of songs. I don’t think I ever write songs that are global. They are always about a moment, a situation or a feeling. I never feel like I want to write something that is a statement of an overall kind of way of thinking or being. I think songs just try to ask the question of “it’s always the same”. (laughter) So why try fight it? It’s always the same feelings coming around. So you kind of beat yourself about it, and there is a sense of resignation about that. And also with that resignation comes an element of freedom, that makes us free of that kind of fighting.

The only thing I can do is when a song comes either embrace it or try and push it away. That is the only choice really.

So you want the songs to convey an emotion rather than being a global statement…

It’s not even a choice, of I want this or I want that. It’s just the way I write. If I have an idea and wether it connects with me or not. And then I realize I don’t really like making statements, I don’t think there are many choices, I can’t pick what I do, I can’t pick the songs I write. The only thing I can do is when a song comes either embrace it or try and push it away. That is the only choice really. As soon as you embrace it, then it is in your mind. Then it’s a process of trying to hold that original feeling within a piece of music, within a song. And the story of the song is not necessarily to do with the feeling that came in the first place. It’s just a way of holding it with you.

So the story and the feeling can be totally disconnected?

It’s not that they are disconnected, it’s rather that the essence of where a song or a piece of music comes from is to do with, like sitting here, feeling something, for a few seconds, and if you can connect with that feeling, trying to make that tangible in some way, sometimes it’s a melody or a rhythm or a line, or an idea of words, but something to hold onto, and once it’s there, it’s how to hold it within the whole framework of a song. To get back to the point of re-recording them, a song like “a night in”, or “she’s gone” on the second album, they were not written, I was 27 years old, Like for example “she’s gone” was two weeks old when I recorded it, it was the last song for the second album. Then in the last twenty years I have sung them, and I have grown to understand them, and they have grown to connect with me, at different times of my life, and they’ve become something more to me than what they meant when I was 26 or 27.

Do you mean they are like a kind of letter that you would have written to yourself twenty years ago?

I suppose, I wrote those songs for moments, situations… But I did not realize that they would mean something different years later. When I said I did not like the idea of a global understanding, it’s also because that song is as important to me today as it was twenty years ago, it means something to me very specific now, that is very different to what it meant then.

And is it that discrepancy that you tried to capture with the Across 6 leap years?

Yes it made it a valid process, for me. Every song on the record has its own reason for wanting to be on the record.
Surprisingly there are no songs from the first album in Across 6 leap years.
None of those songs asked to be re-recorded again. None of them were left open. They were all finished. The second album was different, is in flux, to me. A song like “City sickness” was like you are like “1993, you feel like this. Everything is right, the studio, the feeling, it’s bang, finished. If I think of “City sickness” or “Patchwork”, any of those songs, I go straight back to the studio. Some of there other songs had not found there moment. But all the songs on the first album were like carved in stone.

And the other songs are not? Does that mean that they were unfinished or does it mean they were carved in something different than stone?

When you go from the point of having an idea for a song, connecting with the song to actually getting a finished recording that you listen to: You’ve got to write it, and arrange it, with the right people, with the right feeling, you’ve got to go into the studio, that is the right studio, to capture the feeling, you have to find the moment in that studio, and you have to work with people that understand that moment, and then you have to mix it, to present it, there is like ten different processes, and if you get one of those or two of those, not great, even if you write the song and it’s great, the song’s arranged great, if you miss the moment in the studio, or you miss the mix, suddenly it does not hold the song. The first album everyone of those was right, like with the something rain. Some albums are not like that. With the song can our love, I think it was one of the finest moments we ever found in a studio, with the original line up of the band. But two songs before that was “dying slowly” which had never really done it for me.

… to be continued