Richard Purden

LIKE many during lockdown Norman Blake ventured into his attic. He discovered artefacts include a poster for Teenage Fanclub’s first show in New York at the legendary but now defunct CBGBs.

“It was an important date because that was the first time we played in America,” reflects Blake on the show in the summer of 1990 attended by Sonic Youth and Don Fleming who would co-produce the Fanclub’s American breakthrough album Bandwagonesque which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Endless Arcade, released this month, is their 11th long-player and the first in almost five years. “There’s a lot to get through” suggests Blake after coming down from the loft. The 55-year-old has spent the last year based in his teenage bedroom after living in Canada for a decade. “With the pandemic, it’s meant that I’m stranded so I’m back in Bellshill. I was here working on mixes for the album and been at my folks' since. My daughter is also in Glasgow doing a postgraduate chemistry degree at Strathclyde, she wants me to isolate until I get vaccinated.”

Endless Arcade’s lead-off track Home indicates Blake’s extended return to Scotland while conveying the sense of loss we’ve all felt over the last year: “I sometimes wonder if I'll ever be home again/I just don't know when I'll open that door again”. The lyrics are complemented with a classic slice of the band’s guitar-driven pop.

“A few people have said Endless Arcade suggests the pandemic but the ideas about trying to get home and isolation were all written before. You never know what you are going to write, usually, I try to write more personally about my life outside the band.”

Blake’s routine has found him cooking for his parents and trailing through the North Lanarkshire countryside. “I’ve discovered some incredible walks in the Motherwell area. The River Calder is at the foot of the hill where my folks live, I’ve never been minded to go there before.”

Restrictions have also meant he hasn’t seen friends in Glasgow for some time, his last outing being a catch up with Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. “I’ve not seen any pals since the summer when I met Stuart and we were chatting about how tough it’s been to make ends meet without live shows.”

It will be getting close to two years since Teenage Fanclub’s last gig when they are finally able to play a twice-postponed UK tour in September. It’s a topical subject for the members as Blake and fellow guitarist/singer/songwriter Raymond McGinley parted company with their co-founder/singer/songwriter and bassist Gerry Love due to his reluctance to fly since 2016’s top ten album Here.

“Bands need to tour” explains Blake, “even big bands, this is where they make their money now. There’s no money in streaming, you need a million streams to make anything. I know that vinyl sales have picked up but it’s nowhere near what it was 30 years ago so you need to go out and play. Gerry didn’t want to do that anymore, which is fine, but everyone else wanted to keep going, making music and touring.”

McGinley, whose signature work helped define the band’s sound when guitar players were often viewed with some derision adds: “We were lucky that we finished the record just as this lockdown thing started.”

Getting out of Glasgow to record in fresh surroundings also aided the creative process. “We went to Hamburg to finish the previous album because if we’d stayed in Glasgow we would’ve worked on it for the rest of our lives. We’ve always liked Hamburg, I know there are connections with The Beatles but it’s also just a great city.”

It’s hard to think of many songwriters who could rival Blake and McGinley’s strangely uplifting melancholia on tracks such as Everything’s Falling Apart. McGinley says: “Everything is falling apart but at the same time, it’s nothing to get depressed about. Let’s look at the darkness of everything but see that life is still good. If you keep saying the same thing long enough, you become prophetic at some point, maybe there’s a part of me that’s always been a cheerful doom-monger.”

Since the early 90s Teenage Fanclub have enjoyed associations with some of the biggest bands of their generation while deliberately avoiding fame. “We were lucky in different ways,” says McGinley of their longevity. “First of all, we managed not to be associated with a genre or movement. The attitude was, ‘we just want to make a record’ and we existed in a constant state of bemusement about it all. We’d make a record in New York or London and come back to Glasgow and be the people that we always were. We never took criticism to heart but we didn’t take praise to heart either and we’re still like that.”

The band shared a kinship with Nirvana while Kurt Cobain and Liam Gallagher both nailed their colours to mast as fans, the latter describing them as the “second best band in the world”. Norman Blake remembers the former Oasis singer inviting the group to hear the latest album by their Creation label-mates. “We were recording Songs From Northern Britain and we could hear this loud noise downstairs. One day Liam [Gallagher] comes up and invites us down to listen to the album [the much anticipated but less revered Be Here Now] and have a beer. They had brought a PA system into the studio where usually you would have a small set of speakers. Liam proceeded to do a little show singing along with a pretend mike and dancing about while throwing around some air guitar during the playback.”

Nirvana shared a similarly dishevelled aesthetic abetted by noisy pop values. “It was amazing to witness that phenomenon”, says Blake of Nirvana, “we knew them as a smaller band and then we did the European leg of the Nevermind tour, people were going crazy and as the tour progressed it just got bigger and bigger.

“Nirvana were great guys, this was all before it became a bit too much for Kurt; they were still enjoying being in the band”, adds McGinley, “that tour was the first time we went to places like Spain, Norway and Sweden. After the tour, I went back to my parent's four-up council flat in Maryhill.”

It was from here that McGinley commandeered the family phone and conducted the band’s business. “It didn’t occur to me that we couldn’t deal with that stuff and it was great. Maybe it was something to do with that previous generation in Maryhill but my attitude was ‘yeah, come ahead, we can do this! My mum would say there was a call for you from New York or LA and it would be Gary Gersh [former Geffen records executive and Nirvana manager].

The conversation turns to the recent release of the Alan McGee biopic Creation Stories. The band released five albums on McGee’s label during the 90s. “They always got behind us,” says McGinley. “Alan and Dick Green spent their own money and took a risk on bands like us and Primal Scream. The money didn’t start rolling in until a bit later when they signed Oasis.”

An irreverent sense of humour and not taking the industry or themselves too seriously has been a boon for the band. There’s been no shortage of ridiculous experiences that Blake and McGinley look back on with some fondness, such as the time Little Richard was introduced to them at the Hyatt Hotel in LA taking Norman Blake’s hand and announcing: ‘Teenage Fanclub from Scotland; COOL!’

“It was a real moment for a couple of boys from Bellshill and Maryhill,” he confirms before McGinley adds, “in terms of ridiculousness we did this acoustic tour in 1993 and it was like a promo thing with Norman, Gerry and myself in the US. We had to come on after Tony Bennett and his trio in San Francisco. He had just performed I Left My Heart In San Francisco and we had to walk past this phenomenal legend with a viola and a couple of acoustics thinking: “Aye, try following that!”

Endless Arcade is released on April 30