Interview: Tim Burgess


Lead singer of the Charlatans, Tim Burgess chats to Stephen Connolly about going solo, drugs, and the legend of the Manchester music scene

“Oh Manchester, nothing to answer for. You’ve made a happy man very old,’’ or so honked Steven Patrick Morrissey in a rare moment of affection while playing a homecoming gig in 2004. The quote is included here as he makes a valid point: while one may question whether Morrissey has ever been qualified to be termed as ‘a happy man’ in the conventional sense, he’s otherwise not wrong.

The drizzly erstwhile Roman fort of Mamucian’s various music scenes are famous for their cast of splendid bands, begetting such gloominaries as The Smiths, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, and The Fall, but took their toll on many happy men, most notoriously the wild-eyed sons of the legendary ‘Madchester’ scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among these were the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, and James, several now lingering as emaciated spectres, haunting sold-out arenas still. It was a time where ‘baggy’ stood unquestioned as an acceptable term for a musical style, guitarists studied the distorted musical belchings of 1960s psychedelic rock while frontmen delved further back into the past, turning to ape fossils of the Late Miocene sub-epoch for inspiration, and ‘Brit pop’ was but a hideous unibrowed foetus.

More pertinent to the purpose of this interview however, and relatively unscathed by the period are The Charlatans, of whom Tim Burgess, our patient and pleasant interviewee, is lead singer. While their first UK top ten single, ‘The Only One I Know’, may quite possibly be, well, the only one you know, their recording history has spanned from 1988 to these current times and includes songs like ‘One to Another’, ‘Flower’ and ‘Love is the Key’ and the UK chart-topping albums, 1990’s Some Friendly and 1995’s The Charlatans.

Most of the media interest concerning Telling Stories, Burgess’s autobiography published earlier this year, focused on the numerous druggy anecdotes included. One story in particular caught much attention, involving ‘‘blowing cocaine up one another’s arseholes,” an incident which, to the best of Burgees’s memory, occurred in an Irish hotel.

When discussing the herculean drug consumption in that era, Burgess continues to be frank: “I think we all dropped E, had acid, speed, coke… It’s something we all did at some point.” He connects his personal acquaintance with drugs to events in his life such as moving from Salford, the Borough of Greater Manchester to Cheshire’s Northwich, (“not exactly the big city”).

“For me it was just a huge part of experimentation. I grew up in a small town and getting high was a really important part of me growing up, finding my way back from where I wanted to grow up. I always had this feeling that I was dragged away. Cocaine keeps you awake at night so you can keep writing ‘til twilight, and perhaps it made us feel a little braver in some things that we did. With coke however, everything that is good about it eventually reverses. If it makes you brave and wiry, after a few years the opposite happens and you find yourself bloated and paranoid, quite the reverse. That’s when I knew it was time to stop. For a couple of years after stopping I really had to learn to be myself again.”

When Otwo tries to picture the 1990s music landscape, it’s difficult not to imagine the various bands lurching about the same North London pub, discussing the next Marc Bolan riff they intended to steal, perhaps even living in one giant house; Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker cooking while Brett Anderson of Suede having his jeans sewn on by Blur’s Graham Coxon.

Burgess however, is quick to dispel such fanciful notions, and insists that it is only in retrospect that we connect these bands. “It wasn’t really like that,” Burgess explains. “I mean, we recorded with the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses in the same studio in Wales, but we were very rarely drinking in bars or that sort of stuff. I once saw John Squire [Stone Roses’ guitarist] buying a canvas painting in a shop, and I once saw Shaun Ryder [Happy Mondays’ singer] talking to a painting in a pub, that’s pretty much it really.”

Tim Burgess’s solo album, Oh No I Love You, is his second in ten years and was written with Nashville cult songwriter Kurt Wagner. On his decision to once again record solo, Burgess is again pleasantly transparent. “It’s quite simple. With a band you have to collaborate with four other people. On the solo stuff, it’s just me; I do whatever I want. I didn’t miss the band, on this particular solo album I went away to Mexico for two weeks to write it with Kurt Wagner, and then recorded it in October within two weeks, I don’t pine for them every day. And by the way, the Charlatans have not broken up, if people are thinking that.”

Manchester’s legacy as a source of musical talent remains an obsession of music journalists and fans to this day. NME’s coverage over Oasis’s Gallagher brothers’ disputes over which is the bigger Muppet is tireless, the aforementioned Morrissey’s truculent utterances receive more attention than any other ageing curmudgeon in Europe, while the Stone Roses headlined a sold-out appearance in our very own Phoenix Park this summer.

Why has Manchester been so endurant in our collective memory? “Well, the records are very good, for one thing,” Burgess offers. “Tony Wilson [co-founder of the pivotal Factory Records label and The Haçienda nightclub] believed that it didn’t matter how much a record cost, what mattered was the importance of the record. Nothing came between him and his bands making really great records. The Charlatans made some fantastic records too and I think that’s what kept people interested: the music.”

Tim Burgess plays The Workmans on October 26th. Tickets are priced €20. Oh No I Love You is out now.