“The way everything seems to be moving, whether it’s in film or music,” says Stuart Staples, it’s just entertainment”. He turns up his nose at the word. “You experience it and it entertains you and you walk away from it and it’s gone. It doesn’t leave you with anything; you don’t take anything with you. I suppose we react to that.”
Tindersticks are a band with lofty ambitions. Not for them music that merely passes the time. In an age when a few half-decent tunes and a fingernail grasp of irony can entice 80,000 mostly sentient people to make their way to Meath, bugging the shit out of only a select few aesthetes like myself, Tindersticks aim higher and go a little deeper. Stuart Staples talks about the power of music to lift and inspire you and move you in ways you can’t begin to understand. He does’t even have the good grace to be embarrassed; he beams as he speaks, less of an apologist than an evangelist. Tindersticks have gone all serious on us.
All that may surprise you about this, if you haven’t been in a position to pay 100% attention to the story so far, is that Tindersticks might have ever been anything else. They are legendarily morose; Leonard Cohen without the laughs. Except, of course, as with Leonard Cohen, and as it’s by now a cliché to say: if you listen carefully, then amidst the misery and pestilence the laughs are there; bitter and twisted, but there. The Second Album had ‘A Night In’ and ‘Travelling Light’, straight-faced and stunningly gorgeous, but remember it also had ‘My Sister’, a (literally) unbelievably tragic joke song. Likewise, as soon as Stuart Staples sings, “When do you lose the ability to step back and have a sense of your own ridiculousness / They’re only songs”, on the bone-weary ‘Ballad Of Tindersticks’, it’s difficult to look Curtains right in the eye any more.
Now, though, is Simple Pleasure and now, to quote Jarvis, irony is over.
“Totally,” affirms Stuart. “There’s no irony. In the past, you’d have an idea, have a feeling and write a song and there grew, without knowing, different layers of protection, and irony is one of them. You can be ironic, ‘Oh, it doesn’t mean that much anyway’. But this is like… everything means a fuck of a lot. It’s not overbearing or anything, but our music’s lost a kind of a theatrical-ness to it. It s lost a kind of bombast. It’s a raw emotion we’ve got.
Listening to Stuart Staples, you quickly note that his fervour for his new work contrasts markedly with his feelings for Tinderstick’s 1997 effort (and it was an effort), Curtains. OK on a wet day, but patently the weak link in the Sticks canon. Too tired even to think up titles (‘Dick’s Slow Song’, ‘Fast One’, ‘Another Night In’), the band’s apathy towards it almost spelt the end. Curtains was very nearly aptly named.
“If I look back on the writing of that”, says Stuart, “I felt we kind of dragged it out of us. And I think when you do something like that, if you’re really hard on yourself you could say that we made a record because we had to. There wasn’t one waiting there for us to make, you know? And I think, doing something like that I don’t think it has something at the centre of it, where things emanate, that there’s nothing strong.
“Then to go through touring, looking back I was miserable. Looking back on it, it’s like you’re touring a style; whether it’s the sound, or whether it’s the suits, or whether you’re playing to the idea people have of you, because it’s easy. It’s easier to get through a day being what people expect of you. But you feel, like, really hollow.”
I put it to Stuart Staples that most people thought Curtains was at least alright.
“On the surface, yeah,” he grudgingly admits. “And I’m being really hard on myself now. I don’t think it was a load of old rubbish, it’s just to do with… if you have to deal with a lot of crap every day, but for this hour or hour and a half on stage you can make everything worthwhile, if that doesn’t work — you’re fucked really.”
In retrospect, a split was never all that likely, but, following the nightmare tour. Stuart Staples did consider his career options – “The guy who came around to work on the house, this carpenter, had changed his career at 32. He was really good at his job. I was kind of really envious of him” – but the seeds of Simple Pleasure had already been planted.
“Things got really bad halfway through the tour,” reminisces Stuart none too fondly. “We were playing two dates in Paris and I thought — I’m going to do something that’s worthwhile tomorrow. So I wrote ‘If She’s Torn’. That song, I’d been afraid of it for so long, I was afraid of singing it for so long; I didn’t know exactly what it was. I knew the feelings in it but I didn’t want to face up to them. So I went to the venue the next day and got the group together and made a demo of the music, played it on stage for a couple of hours, just singing it, played it that night, and played it every night since. It was the song that brought us through that tour; we knew we’d be playing it every night. It was the song that showed the way. There was this new feeling and it was just kind of… special.”
The feelings of which he speaks are difficult to put, here, into words; certainly there s a compassion and vulnerability in Staples’ singing and Dickon Hinchcliffe s barely-touched Fender Rhodes piano that can’t fail to give you shivers. But then that’s the point: other than in its naked emotion, how If She’s Torn showed the way was in that, more than on any other Tindersticks record, both in its creation, recorded almost entirely live, and in its appreciation, Simple Pleasure bypasses the brain entirely. You can’t break this stuff down.
“If you’d have told me six months before I recorded this that I d be able to write and sing a song like I Know That Loving, I would have thought ‘How do I get there?’ or ‘What do I need to do?’ But there’s something . . . you’ve just gotta feel something. With us, you re trying to achieve an indescribable feeling. Just, like, the way you feel when you walk down the street, you’ve got this feeling, and our songs tend to put that feeling into a setting so you just try and walk around it, and set the scene of what the feeling is in order that, in the music, it comes out, and makes you feel something.”
For a Nottingham lad, Stuart Staples talks about his feelings an admirable amount.
“You have an idea that makes you feel something, that makes you feel that you want to get it out of you; it really helps to get it out. And then you’ve got to go through these steps, moving you, moving other people, moving the band into feeling something, right down to when you’re mixing it, the way to mix it to bring this sort of feeling out. It’s all to do with that, it’s not to do with anything technical. It’s just to do with however it makes you feel.”
Stuart Staples talks like a proud father: a father who knows what labour pains are like. I tell him that I’m struck by how much in love with this work he appears, and he corrects me, but only just: “I’m in love with the idea of it. I’m probably too close to see it for what it really is, but in my mind I’m in love with the idea of it.” He’s right to be: from the frankly rocking, oddly hopeful opener ‘Can We Start Again?’ right through to the slowly building soul showstopper ‘CF/GF’, Simple Pleasure celebrates just that; allowing all the gravity love and devotion deserves, it does exactly what it says on the sleeve. It’s difficult for a band you know so well to take you aback but Simple Pleasure has moments — whole songs, whole sides — that have you sitting stock-still and silent so as not to miss a note.
A rich and life-affirming record, but the songs are slow and people don’t expect such things from Stuart Staples. “But nobody’s ever understood us,” he shrugs. “As a general kind of a thing. It’s not going to be any departure to meet odd people who really get it, and most of the people that don’t. It s not any new thing. But it’s like, the people who want to buy this record and sit in their bedroom feeling depressed about things, I don’t think are going to get much out of this record. Hopefully, they might get something a lot better for ’em, d’you know what I mean, than a kind of a… wallowing. There’s a real joy there.”