Inspired by the passing of their much-loved drummer and rejuvenated after swapping drugs for meditation, The Charlatans have delivered a new album that’s up with their best. Mark Beaumont meets the cosmic Tim Burgess and co on their comeback tour. Nostalgia circuit be damned…
As icy winds batter the seaside town of Worthing, the pier starts to shake. At the end of the promenade is the Pavilion, where posters for an upcoming Big Country and Toyah Wilcox double-header rattle on the walls, as though limp careers were being shaken back to life. For one night only, this cemetery of the nostalgia circuit is playing host to a bona fide rebirth.
In the main hall, The Charlatans are raising the roof on their own terms. Across the country for the past two weeks ecstatic crowds have gathered to worship singer, author, cosmic groover and coffee-touting Twitter gem Tim ‘The Human Light Bulb’ Burgess as he punches the air and gyrates to classics ‘One To Another’, ‘Forever’ and ‘Weirdo’. The hits are joined on the setlist by 2015 equals: sunrise anthem ‘Come Home Baby’, summery groovers ‘Let The Good Times Be Never Ending’ and ‘So Oh’ plus other spectacular cuts from this year’s ‘Modern Nature’, their 12th studio album.
“The new songs are sounding fantastic,” says Tim, his bleached neon bob freshly trimmed, poring over a backstage rider that’s heavy on organic hummus. “The reception has been euphoric. It’s a two-hour set, which was a goal we were trying to do.”
“Two hours is feeling quite natural now,” adds guitarist Mark Collins. “I was always a bit worried that we were getting into Bruce Springsteen territory.”
“It’s not Bruce Springsteen territory though because that’s four hours,” Tim corrects him. “When we first started we had a 45-minute set, now we’ve got a song that lasts for 45 minutes!”
He exaggerates; their perennial set-closer ‘Sproston Green’ (from 1990’s ‘Some Friendly’) has only stretched to 15, but as it wails to a roaring close, it’s clear that The Charlatans are riding another unlikely career peak right now, following the second tragedy to strike the band in their 26-year existence. In a mirror image of the artistic upsurge they experienced after the car crash that took keyboardist Rob Collins in 1996, this new wave comes after the death of drummer Jon Brookes from a brain tumour in 2013. Jon’s optimism and commitment to writing new music right up to the week before his death spurred them on to honour his memory with what became ‘Modern Nature’. Most bands wouldn’t have survived the death of one member, not least two – and that’s in addition to the years of self-destruction that threatened to wipe out The Charlatans altogether.
Hollywood, 2005. Tim Burgess crawls out of bed mid-afternoon, head heavy from the four bottles of wine he drunk yesterday. He prepares himself another vodka-based breakfast and, hunting through the places he knows his wife would hide his cocaine, starts planning his drug schedule for the day.
“I enjoyed the experimentation,” he admits. “I don’t miss it and I don’t recognise that person really, but I know that that person enjoyed it. I can’t imagine ever going back there at all, but I enjoyed the ritual of going to try and find some [drugs] just to go out and DJ. I’d wake up in the morning and think about it, ‘I’d better call early…’”
Once back in London where The Charlatans were recording their ninth album ‘Simpatico’, however, he found himself a mute presence. “I couldn’t sing any more,” he says. “I stopped being able to sing. I really wanted [dub producer] Adrian Sherwood to do the album and there were other forces that got us to try to turn a dub-inspired album into a rock album and I couldn’t fight the battle because I was incapacitated. So I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t fight any battles, and the music wasn’t as good, so that was when I made a conscious decision to change everything.”
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How bad had it got? Tim winces. “Slurring on records.”
“There were moments we just went ‘Tim, come back in the morning’,” Mark says, laughing. So Tim booked himself into a hotel for a self-imposed detox during which “everything made me want to throw up – food, television, myself…” – and emerged clean but hollow. “I felt a bit like an empty shell for a while and I had to start building the stuff that makes the soul again. Coke’s a pretty rubbish drug and it does take the soul out of you. So I just started going to the soul gym.”
Moving back to London as his marriage collapsed, he found himself sat alone watching TV in a corner of a party in his flat, “listening to the chaos, drinking a Diet Coke and thinking ‘this is brilliant, everyone’s fighting to put on a record and play it for a second and someone else would jump on’.” An old friend joined him and started talking about transcendental meditation, as practised by David Lynch and The Beatles’ Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “There’s always that section in every Beatles film – me and Rob used to watch this film called The Compleat Beatles – and the best bit was always when everything went a bit cosmic. These things spun around in my head and I would’ve passed it off until my friend said she’d been doing [transcendental meditation] since she was four years old – and she’s cool and really normal. So I thought about it a bit more and went to see this guy on the Isle Of Wight called Will and things started happening right away. Things I didn’t need any more just disappeared.”
Out-of-body experiences, tantric travel and hours spent sat in the dark mumbling gibberish to yourself – not like taking drugs at all… “I spoke to [Lambchop’s] Kurt Wagner about it and he learnt when he was 14 and then gave it up because he thought it was just as addictive as being on acid!” Tim says, laughing. “John Lennon was interested [in it] because he was an addict. He meditated for nine hours at a time and you’re only supposed to do 20 minutes. I think he came out too quick. If you come out of it too fast they say it’s like the bends.”
So when you talk about sensing the “cycle of life” in new album ‘Modern Nature’, it’s all part of becoming the classic post-coke rock’n’roll Buddhist? “I hope so,” Tim says. “It’s something I’m working on. In a lot of ways the spirit of Jon has brought us all back closer and for me, having a little boy around the time that Jon left, sitting in an English garden writing songs with the leaves turning from brown to green… I was seeing stuff going on outside of our control, some sort of force. It’s very Zen.”
In 2012, Tim wrote his autobiography Telling Stories (a sequel, Tim Book Two, is in the works, tracing Tim’s road trip around the nation’s record shops hunting out rare albums recommended to him by the likes of Bill Drummond and New Order’s Stephen Morris), made his solo album ‘Oh No I Love You’ with Kurt Wagner on production, and then ditched London for Norfolk to raise the son he has with Factory Floor’s Nik Colk Void. Meanwhile, keyboardist Tony Rogers has also bought a farm in the Irish countryside outside Dublin because “there’s too much temptation in the city”. So have the rest of the band been inspired to clean up too? Are they blowing Horlicks up each other’s arses these days?
“No – coffee,” Tim laughs.
“Or just smoke,” says Mark, shifting in his chair. “But no, I’m not saying we’re monsters, we just didn’t become as reliant. Some people are take-it-or-leave-it people. Some people are all-or-nothing people. I think maybe Tim’s more of the all-or-nothing. The way that Tim can immerse himself in something completely different and get a buzz off that, that’s admirable. I must say I still feel a bit rough every now and again. I’m not rough every morning but we still have fun on the road.”
It was after the band had spent two days awake “seeing friends” in New York in 2010 that Jon, midway through playing ‘Tellin’ Stories’ in Philadelphia, began staring at a light-studded curtain behind him, missed some beats and collapsed with a seizure caused by a stage four brain tumour. Their tour manager had to kick his drumkit away from him to stop him hurting himself. Unlike the sudden loss of Rob Collins, the band had several years of painful and traumatic treatment to come to terms with losing Jon, and the unbreakable spirit of this adorable giant brought the band closer than they’d ever been.
“When we were getting the early demos [for ‘Modern Nature’] together he was the one that was always on the phone – ‘when we getting in the studio?’,” Mark remembers. “But it was quite clear that Jon wasn’t strong enough physically, which was quite hard to see. Such a physically strong man and very vibrant guy not being able to do what he loves doing the most. All the way through he was totally 100 per cent behind the making of the record. Even when we went to see him in the hospital he was like, ‘I’ve got this idea for this tune!’, and this was the week before he died.”
Jon was buried, with characteristic good humour, in a casket shaped like the flight cases bands take on tour. “We were outside the house when the hearse came down the road,” Mark smiles, “and my first reaction was to burst out laughing, and I think that was mission accomplished. Black was banned, colourful attire was ordered. It was called a celebration. After the service it was all back to this hotel around the corner from where they lived and it was a full-on PA system in there, DJs playing. It felt more like a wedding than a funeral. It was a great send-off.”
In October 2013, two months after Jon’s death, the band played a tribute show at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which inspired them to go off and write defiantly sunny songs like ‘So Oh’ and ‘Let The Good Times Be Never Ending’, which they recorded in their freezing studio the following January. It’s songs like these that give ‘Modern Nature’ its brotherly heart, but Tim’s extra-curricular activities ensure it sounds like a record for 2015 rather than a nostalgia trip: he brings his Tim Peaks coffee emporium to music festivals, where he brings a stage to host up-and-coming bands, and runs the label O Genesis, home of Hatcham Social, Throwing Up and Keel Her.
“It’s all about meeting new people really,” Tim explains. “I don’t think that wears off. If you’re putting on a festival, which Tim Peaks essentially is, you choose bands that you like. If you’ve got a record label you put out records that you like, and it rubs off. The beauty of sitting down and letting something happen is the key really. Trying to let it all seep out or put it all on everybody else isn’t the right thing to do. With everything we’ve been through, The Charlatans – without trying – carry a lot of stuff with us, like a whale going through the ocean with all the little fish swimming on it.”
Having started the ‘Modern Nature’ project with no record deal in place and only signing to BMG when a band insider slyly slipped four early tracks to an A&R there, the Charlatans whale is set to race on at least to album 13, for which ideas are already beginning to formulate. “I hope the next one has the same feeling,” Tim says and Mark nods. “I’d like to see if we can marry this with the next one and step it up again.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve got any responsibilities,” adds Tim, beaming and finally at one with the universe. “I feel like I’m on an adventure!”