Norman Blake on gigs with Bernard Butler and James Grant
Mill Magazine caught up with the legendary Norman Blake before his Paisley show with Bernard Butler and James Grant in 2022
Although their paths have only crossed incidentally over the years, there’s something that seems inherently natural about Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, Bernard Butler [Suede, McAlmont and Butler] and Love & Money’s James Grant combining forces.
Much like The Travelling Wilburys or The Monsters of Folk before them, this ad-hoc supergroup have spent their lives in service of songwriting and it’s no surprise that one promoter had the foresight to set them on a harmonious collision course.
“Basically, it was Douglas Macintyre who organised it” Norman relayed. “He initially approached James and I about playing a show together for Celtic Connections and also suggested playing at his own event, Frets, in Straven.
“James and I were acquainted, but we didn’t know each other really well. Nevertheless, we thought it might be a good idea, so we started putting a little set together. Then, Douglas got in touch again and said ‘look, I’m thinking about approaching Bernard Butler’. Now, Bernard is someone I’ve known since the Suede days. Around the time of their first album, we’d become pals and he’s actually came up and played with Teenage Fanclub a couple of times at London shows.
“James and I had been rehearsing, then Bernard came up a few days before the first show and we worked out a little set. We agreed to do two shows and we enjoyed it so much that we thought we’d do it again!”
“It’s always really good to play other peoples’ music, Listening to it is one thing, but when you need to try and work out the arrangement, you just see it totally differently”
The epitome of the notion that magic can manifest when you least expect it, Norman Blake and co are ecstatic about the prospect of bringing their intimate show to The Spree alongside a select few other venues.
“This wee run of dates is going to be really fun. It’s a simple set-up, myself and James are on acoustic while Bernard is on the electric. We split the set three ways and play each other’s songs. All singing, all playing, but no dancing (laughs). Well, I suppose you never know!
“It’s always really good to play other peoples’ music,” he said of the shift in dynamic from performing in Teenage Fanclub. “Listening to it is one thing, but when you need to try and work out the arrangement, you just see it totally differently. Everyone has a different approach, James has little chord progressions that he’ll use while myself and Bernard will have our own wee guitar licks. So, you can always pick something up, even in terms of how different people structure their songs. Playing guitar and doing a solo set is fine, but it’s just always much better to work with other people and I’m sure any musician would agree with me.
“I think we’re all songwriters in the sense that we’re all interested in the form and the craft,” he said of the common ground between the three. “We’ve all been doing it for a long time and come from song-based bands. They wouldn’t be written around a rhythm or a sequence, so we’ve got that in common.
“We actually like the same kind of things, we’ve spoken a lot about Scott Walker in the rehearsal room as well as soul music and a bit of punk rock and we’re a similar age too. There’s only five or six years between us and when you get into your fifties, that’s really not much! I’m not sure how many times we’ll do this, but if we do it sporadically in terms of two or three shows then that keeps it fresh and exciting. We’ll change the songs and do ones we didn’t do last time. We’ve all got other things on as well, so actually making this work isn’t particularly easy.”
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Aside from his excitement over this new project, Norman – who is just weeks removed from touring in support of Teenage Fanclub’s Endless Arcade LP – overjoyed to be back doing what he’s dedicated his life to after the pandemic made it an impossibility.
“It’s great to be out touring again, it’s been a while. When you talk to musicians, everyone’s desperate to get back out on the road because that’s where you make your money now. It’s not record sales or royalties, it’s almost how it was before the real advent of the recording industry because it’s all about performances.
“We (Teenage Fanclub) are just back from a UK tour then a slightly shorter European run and you could really see the audiences picking up as we went.
“It’s not just good for musicians, it’s great for everyone who makes these gigs possible. Even with myself, James and Bernard, you’ve got Wes, the tour manager, Davie, who does the sound and all of the local crew. There’s a whole bunch of other folk who were affected. So, we’re all relieved and it’s things like this that are saving the industry in a way.”
This interview with Norman Blake appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Mill Magazine.