Interview: The Charlatans
The Unluckiest Band In Pop
By Andrew Weaver
Just as things seemed to finally be on a high for The Charlatans, tragedy struck. Again. In mid-September, while touring their most recent and acclaimed album Who We Touch, founding member and drummer Jon Brookes collapsed on stage. And the news, sadly, isn’t good. “It’s not so great,” frontman Tim Burgess admits with a heavy sigh, before telling me that Brookes has been diagnosed with brain cancer. “He’s going to have six weeks of chemotherapy and radiotherapy – he’s really positive, but it’s quite serious. It’s terrible, but, well… I don’t really know what to say. It’s really serious.”
The band, who once famously described themselves as ‘the unluckiest band in pop,’ are familiar with hard times. During their first US tour in 1991, they became embroiled in a legal wrangle with a band from the 1960s who shared the same name – forcing them to add ‘UK’ to their title for all American releases. Bassist Martin Blunt fought a long battle with severe depression, and in 1992 keyboardist Rob Collins was jailed for eight months for unintentionally taking part in an armed robbery. Four years later, Collins was tragically killed in a car crash during the recording of the band’s comeback album, Tellin’ Stories. It was the group’s most commercially successful release, spawning three top 10 singles in the UK.
Maybe all of this is just what happens when you’ve been in the same band for more than twenty years; The Charlatans have produced eleven albums since 1989. Then, in 1999, the band’s accountant was jailed for swindling them out of £300 000 – the entire proceeds from their first four releases. (He told them he was offsetting the money against future taxes.) Two years later, Collins’ replacement Tony Rogers was diagnosed with testicular cancer; in a happily abnormal stroke of good luck, Rogers recovered after treatment, and continues to play with the band to this day.
The Charlatans are looking forward to a similar recovery for Jon. “After the operation, Jon was saying that he really wants to come to Australia – that’s the goal,” Burgess tells me. “Whether or not that’s going to happen we don’t know, but at Jon’s request we asked Pete Salisbury from the Verve [to step up to the stool] – so he’s playing with us at the moment.”
Meantime the Charlatans are doing what they’ve always done when adversity has struck: soldiering on. Their tour to the United States was postponed, but a UK leg and their visit to Australia is still all set. Although the touring company has confirmed that Salisbury will be filling in, at last report Jon was out of hospital; he joined the band on stage for an encore two weekends ago, at the Academy in Birmingham.
“Jon already has started chemotherapy, on the 18th of October, but [before that] he was running around and keeping focused. It’s obviously going to wipe him out for a while, but he’s going to control it. Obviously they won’t be able to cure it, but he’ll be living with cancer. He’s pretty philosophical about it.”
As he talks about their career, Burgess also sounds philosophical. It’s said in every story about The Charlatans that they’re a band who has lasted for forever and a day – an extraordinary achievement, considering the bad luck. “I think we’ve had an extraordinary amount of great luck as well,” Burgess counters. “If you put five people together in a room twenty years ago, and then monitored the lives of each member of the band, some shit is going to happen. It’s kind of just life.”
The band’s latest album finds them returning to playing great rock ‘n roll in its purest and simplest form, seemingly perfect for incorporating into a live setting. “It’s a lot of fun,” he agrees, “and we’re up there having a great time.” Who We Touch is full of rock ‘n roll spirit, with the band going for a sound not a million miles away from that which fellow survivors Primal Scream have been playing. “I wanted it to be not-American,” he says of the album.
The band recorded Who We Touch with Flood, AKA acclaimed producer Mark Ellis (Depeche Mode, U2, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sigur Ros, The Smashing Pumpkins…) “It was brilliant,” he tells me, of the recording process. “We had three days pre-production and I told [Ellis] what I wanted the record to sound like. He thought the demos were ‘quite esoteric’ – his words, not mine. We worked on the arrangements quite a lot in those three days, but when we recorded it we pretty much recorded 18 songs in 15 days – it was quite quick.
“Obviously there’s a melancholic mood in the band,” he continues. “But at the same time, we know that even though Jon isn’t sitting behind the kit, he put a lot of work into this album. I think the drumming on the record is brilliant, and I think he’d want people to hear it – which is why we’re out and about.”
Who: The Charlatans
What: Who We Touch is out now through Shock
With: Deep Sea Arcade
Where: The Metro Theatre
When: Thursday November 11