“We’ve never stopped. This thing is our life and we don’t know anything else”: Teenage Fanclub on touring with Nirvana and new album Endless Arcade
35 years into a career that now spans 11 studio albums, we caught up with guitarists Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley to talk cheap offsets, touring with Nirvana and Radiohead, and why they’re feeling stronger than ever.
Image: Donald Milne
“We’ve been buying guitars and amps for years,” says Teenage Fanclub’s Raymond McGinley, relaxing at home in Glasgow on the eve of the release of 10th studio album Endless Arcade. “But we always end up coming back to those first things we bought. We were lucky to get it right 35 years ago!”
Lucky feels like a colossal understatement when you look over the inventory of gear the band picked up in their formative years, and continue to use to this day. Rising from the mix on Endless Arcade – their first album since 2016’s UK Top 10 hit Here – is a mouth-watering array of vintage equipment: two early 60s Fender Jaguars, a 1950s Tweed Fender Deluxe, an early 1960s Epiphone Casino, a 1971 Gibson ES-335, a couple of delectable Martins and a 1950s Guild acoustic. The whole lot was acquired for what can only be described as peanuts, back in the halcyon days when a vintage Fender offset could be picked up for less than £300. Today you’d consider yourself to have bagged a bargain if you paid 10 times that sum.
“I’ve had two main guitars all the way through Teenage Fanclub,” McGinley recalls. “One of them, I bought in 1983 from the Guitar Player shop in Rochdale, a sunburst 1963 Fender Jaguar. It was £265 and it’s still my main guitar. A couple of years later, I bought the Casino for £300 from some guy in the local classifieds.
“I had this Fender Twin that Primal Scream were going to buy off me for £300, so I took everyone’s rent money from the flat I was in and bought the Casino. Then Primal Scream reneged on the deal and I was left in a hole for £300. I can’t remember what I did, but I didn’t eat much for a few weeks. Norman didn’t have an electric, so he used the Casino and I used the Jaguar. I love that I got one of those guitars when I was a student and the other when I was on the dole, and they’re Teenage Fanclub’s two main guitars to this day.”
McGinley, the idiosyncratic lead guitarist to Blake’s reliable rhythm man, loved that ’63 sunburst so much that he went in search of a second Jaguar, landing a 1964 Fiesta Red example from a shop in Boston, MA in 1992. Ask him what he likes about the tone of Fender’s revered short-scale offset, though, and he struggles – because his two have little in common.
“They feel completely different, the necks are completely different and they sound completely different. I think there’s something wrong with one of the pickups on the sunburst Jaguar too, it sounds broken, but I use it with both pickups together. The neck is fat and there’s a tiny bit of the bridge that you can hardly hear because it doesn’t work properly, but that’s the sound of that guitar.”
Blake enjoyed similar good fortune on the band’s gear-hunting adventures in the US. “Predominantly, I’ve played a 1970 335, which we picked up for a few hundred dollars in a shop in Cleveland, Ohio in 1991 or 1992,” he says. “The guy went down to the basement and there it was, virtually unplayed with flatwound strings and this curly lead that had been in the case so long it had left a tiny indentation in the lacquer. We paid $300 and it’s the guitar I’ve played all these years.”
Boys done good
Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley formed Teenage Fanclub with bassist Gerard Love and drummer Francis Macdonald in 1989 after the guitarists had played together in Glasgow band the Boy Hairdressers. After the raw noise of their debut A Catholic Education and largely improvised follow-up The King, they struck gold with Bandwagonesque in 1991. Fusing the serrated edge of the nascent grunge scene with hazy West Coast jangle and three-part harmonies absorbed from The Beach Boys, Big Star and The Byrds, it started a run of imperious releases on Alan McGee and Dick Green’s Creation Records. Bandwagonesque was followed by Thirteen (1993), Grand Prix (1995) and Songs From Northern Britain (1997). By the time they wrapped up the Endless Arcade sessions last March, they were celebrating three decades and 11 albums as Teenage Fanclub. “We’ve just never stopped,” says McGinley trying to explain their longevity. “This thing is our life and we don’t know anything else. We like making records and touring and we never really saw the need to stop and second guess anything.”
Endless Arcade begins with quite an opening salvo. McGinley delivers an immaculately phrased melodic solo that winds through seven-minute opener Home, Blake’s wistful reflection on his return to Scotland after 10 years in Canada. The album is unmistakably Teenage Fanclub, yet through a weathered, bittersweet lens as songs such as Back In The Day and In Our Dreams find them reaching back to their salad days. The title track’s hopeful mantra of “don’t be afraid of this endless arcade that is life”, written long before COVID struck, became an accidental thread to hold onto in these troubled times.
“Neither of us are musos. Creating a chord between us, the shapes he and I make add up to something bigger. We don’t really think about it. The blend of me and him just sounds like the band”
With Love departing in 2018, long-time member Dave McGowan switched to bass and touring keyboardist Euros Childs joined the sessions at Hamburg’s Clouds Hill Studio, overlooking the Elbe River. As ever, the band tracked live, vintage instruments allowed to trespass into each other’s sonic space and spontaneity encouraged. “We tend to set up in the same room, we don’t worry too much about spill,” says Blake. “We like to play in the same space, looking at each other, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of spill anyway.”
While the band’s rhythm guitarist alternated between a Martin 000-28 and his 335 into a cranked mid-70s Fender Champ, there were also appearances from a Fender Electric XII, an old workhorse Tele, a Martin D12-35 and a Jaggard acoustic bought for £60 in Nagoya. McGinley’s studio amp was another bargain picked up while trawling the dusty guitar shops of the US, his late-50s Tweed Deluxe.
“It’s like the one Neil Young uses,” he says with relish. “We were on tour and they were talking about hiring amps. I hate renting things. Luke Wood at Geffen took me to The Amp Shop in Reseda, California. It was wall to wall vintage Fenders. I bought the Deluxe, a 50s Bassman and a brown Princeton. The Casino and the Deluxe together sound amazing. You can have a really chimey, ringing clean sound or turn it up and it goes into proper creamy distortion. The tweed’s ripped off one side because my cat used it as a scratching post, it looks completely wrecked, but it sounds amazing.”
“They gave us money and let us do what we wanted. Nobody gave us a hard time about anything. they bet their lives on the madness and whims of musicians”
The near-telepathic blend between the two players has never been more evident than on Endless Arcade, sharpened by 30 years and hundreds of live excursions. Charmingly modest, McGinley explains, “Neither of us are musos. Creating a chord between us, the shapes he and I make add up to something bigger, and we don’t really think about it. The blend of me and him just sounds like the band. You’re down there, I’ll do something up here; you’re playing that shape, I’ll play different notes; you’re playing that rhythm, I’ll do something against that…”
Blake, who penned the bulk of the band’s early material before they began to share writing duties, is full of praise for his lead guitarist. “He’s got an idiosyncratic style and in terms of solos he’ll always come from left field and do something you don’t expect. If I’ve written a song, I won’t even attempt a solo. I leave his parts to him, because he’ll come up with something way more interesting than I could.”
The class of ’91
Alongside releasing their 10th album, 2021 has afforded an opportunity to reflect on the 30th anniversary of Bandwagonesque, a record that changed everything for Teenage Fanclub. It was released during a richly fertile year that also spawned REM’s Out Of Time and My Bloody Valentine’s murky masterpiece Loveless, while Nirvana rolled a hand grenade into a stale musical landscape in the shape of Nevermind. The Glaswegians were invited on the European leg of the latter album’s tour. “It was an incredible experience,” says Blake. “You were witnessing a phenomenon and we got to do it again a few years later when we toured the US with Radiohead on OK Computer, another phenomenon, this album just exploding. The reaction of the audience was incredible, not something that happens very often, and we got to see it twice.”
Blake is typically humble in assessing his album’s legacy. “You don’t listen to your own records that often, I’ve always said it’s masochistic, but Bandwagonesque holds up after all these years. I’m pretty pleased with what we did on that record.”
“It was the first record when we had a bit of time to do what we wanted in the studio,” explains McGinley. “There was no expectation on us, it felt like we were in our own little world, creating this thing. Whenever we make a record, we try to get back to that feeling of being off in our own little world.”
The pair may be modest to a fault about an album of startling melodic refinement, but it remains as potent today as 30 years ago. Listen back to sensational six-minute opener The Concept; jagged, saturated chords unfurl from Blake’s Casino as McGinley rips through a pair of hair-raising solos, illuminated by huge electrifying bends. It’s just about as good as guitar music gets.
“I used the ’63 Jaguar,” remembers McGinley, “and a great amp – a copy of a Mesa/Boogie, called a Mesia. I used it quite a bit until at some point during the sessions it caught fire. With that Jaguar, when you bend notes, there’s no hint of metal or rock, it sounds really sweet. I don’t know what it is, it just sounds so sweet. That Jaguar, at the end of The Concept, it just makes sense.”
“People ask me what my hobbies are outside of the band and I say, ‘I like guitars, I like studios, I like buying records’. I’m in my dream job”
The album, which peaked at No 22 in the UK and prompted Kurt Cobain to call Teenage Fanclub “the best band in the world”, was one of five the band released on Creation Records. McGinley and Blake look back at the label’s wild, narcotic heyday fondly, while accepting it could never happen again. “They just gave us money and let us go and do what we wanted,” says McGinley. “Nobody gave us a hard time about anything. They believed and they bet their lives on the madness and whims of musicians.”
“Alan put his house up as collateral to fund the Valentines’ album, ours and Screamadelica,” recalls Blake. “Then Oasis came along and took it to another level. They put their money where their mouth was, that’s just not going to happen today.”
Bandwagonesque is undeniably soaked in the influence of the criminally under-appreciated Big Star and their late frontman Alex Chilton, not least the song December, which channels the Memphis band’s September Gurls. McGinley and Blake played a handful of life-affirming shows with Chilton in 1996 after meeting him in New Orleans.
“He took a shine to us,” remembers Blake. “He was a really amazing guitar player. He showed me a chord once, and I said, ‘That’s a great chord Alex’. He said, ‘Yeah, Carl showed me that’. I realised later, he was talking about Carl Wilson from The Beach Boys. He was a really talented guitarist with a very idiosyncratic style and he’s really underestimated as a guitar player. Working with him, we learned an awful lot.”
Walk into the future
It’s lunchtime on a frigid February afternoon in Glasgow. Low winter sun is streaming through the window as two of the nicest men in music talk with rare humility about a career that began in the suburbs of Glasgow and saw them conquer the world. Blake is extolling the virtues of pairing his stock Vox AC15 live, with “the best pedal I’ve ever bought”, an Xotic EP Booster. You can tell they’re desperate to be out there on the road again. “It’s going to be really exciting to go out and play these songs,” he says. “We feel very enthused about the band, we’re keen to do more recording, we’re very keen to go out and play live. It’s been over a year since we played a show, or any band played a show, which is insane when you think about it.”
It is insane. On The Future, Endless Arcade’s doleful 10th track, McGinley laments, “It’s hard to walk into the future when your shoes are made of lead”, and yet here Teenage Fanclub are, still together after three decades – playing those same guitars. They’re feeling stronger than ever as a unit and looking towards that future with renewed optimism. Importantly, they still love being a band, they’re grateful for the opportunities they’ve seized, and here comes that word again.
“We’re lucky to be doing what we do,” says Blake. “People ask me what my hobbies are outside of the band and I say, ‘I like guitars, I like studios, I like buying records’. I’m in my dream job. I feel very fortunate we can still do this and just about make a living from it. We’re very lucky we get to make records and go to amazing studios like Clouds Hill. So many friends of mine are back working jobs and their music has had to take a back seat. We’re able to have this as our main thing, and that’s just incredible.”
Teenage Fanclub’s Endless Arcade is out 30 April on PeMa.
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