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Stereoboard Chats To One Of The UK’s Finest Rock Bands, Tellison (Interview)

Friday, 14 December 2012 Written by Ben Bland
Stereoboard Chats To One Of The UK’s Finest Rock Bands, Tellison (Interview)

Tellison frontman Stephen Davidson sat down to answer Stereoboard’s questions about writer’s block, the toilet circuit and confused mornings on the sofas of others...

ImageSo, you are about to re-release debut album 'Contact! Contact!' What was the reasoning behind making that decision?
The main idea behind reissuing 'Contact! Contact!' is that the physical version of the record had been out of print for quite some time and we wanted to change that. 'C!C!' was originally released by our first record label (Gravity DIP) back in ’07 but when we were discussing getting it back into print our new record label (NAIM Label) expressed an interest in getting involved and making a sort of 5th anniversary edition. We gratefully took that as an opportunity to add a few extra bits and pieces and then re-master the whole thing. As such I think we’ve ended up with something that’s both a good little package in its own right and a useful historical document of Tellison at that time.

Do you think the album really defines what Tellison are all about as a band to this day?
The album is very much a snapshot of where we were at the time rather than a definitive mission statement. We never set out to say, “This is the kind of music we’re going to make from now until forever”. The songs were just the songs that we wrote in a basement in the mid-2000s. There’s only one or two moments on there that make me squirm when I listen back, and for something that you made when you were a teenager I think that’s pretty good work. I guess it does and it doesn’t define us to this day. On the one hand it’s recognisably our songwriting, it’s recognisably the four of us playing much the same sort of the things that we still do. On the other hand, I think we continue to develop and surprise one another to this day and long may that continue.

How are plans for album number three going?
Album 3 is quietly forming in practice rooms and bedrooms across London. Pete and I have been demoing since about June. Just as real life got in the way of us making our second album we’re definitely fighting again against not having enough time to be Tellison together. It’s a struggle against day jobs and lack of finance and feeling too wound-up and grumpy after work to be creative. But we’ll get there quite soon I’d say. At the moment it’s looking maybe a little simpler than 'Wages…'. With that record we agonised about every little thing. This time round we’re trying to be more instinctive and let ideas lie before they eat themselves. Content-wise it’s mostly about going out and staying in and waking up confused in other people’s houses and staring, slack-jawed into the abyss.

I have to say, dropping any attempt at neutrality for a moment, the opening line to 'Get On' on 'The Wages of Fear' absolutely floors me every time I hear it. It’s such a brilliantly simple way to make your point but, to move on from that, how is the songwriting going? I trust the block mentioned in that song has been well and truly overcome now…?
Goodness. Well, thank you first of all! The songwriting is going ok. The block is definitely, hopefully mostly gone but, ever since it left, I’d say I have a very ephemeral grasp on any sort of “process”. There are bouts of prolonged anxiety where not much gets done and then brief incandescent periods of joyful output. It’s like a long-distance relationship maybe, where there’s a lot of quite mundane inaction followed by short, almost violent flashes where everything clicks together briefly and the entire spectrum of experience has to fit into a space that’s not quite big enough for it. Basically, I go to work, I come home, I cook some food, I sleep. Sometimes I get drunk and meet people and watch bands and get excited and write words for songs and pass out on Pete’s sofa. I see my friends and look at people and sometimes I pick up my guitar and write a song. And, more often than that, I pick up my guitar and don’t write a song. That’s where my songwriting is at at the moment. Sometimes I think if I had more time to dedicate to it I’d be able to be better.

It must be very frustrating not being able to commit to Tellison on a full-time basis. Do you think that has had an impact on the musical development of the band? 'The Wages of Fear' certainly seemed more world weary than its predecessor to me...
I think it definitely has and does have an impact on the band. If you think about any skill, the more you do it the better you get at it. Tellison has always had to fit into the gaps in the lives of four or five people and as such it’s pretty starved for time and I think we’ve probably moved a lot slower than we might have and I worry that we could be better, maybe a lot better. If I wanted to be a professional athlete I would spend all my time doing that. Except, I’d have to eat and live somewhere so I’d have to get a job and then I would have less time to spend doing the whole being a professional athlete thing, and little by little I might not really be able to be a professional athlete because the balance doesn’t work. The same is true of being in a band. It’s difficult to make a life where you can do everything properly. Equally, it’s important to recognise and remember that it’s not like we’re “owed” anything at all. Why should we get to do what we want exactly how we want to do it without things getting in the way? Despite all the frustrations we still enjoy it and we still, somehow, make it work. And until a different solution comes along that’s what we’ll keep doing.

Being unable to make a living out of music, I suppose, leads to making it harder to know when you are going to be able to commit time to music which then makes it harder to write records and then harder to tour, etc, etc. It seems very much a vicious circle to me. Do you think there’s any way around that for bands these days or is it something you just have to put up with?
I would definitely agree that it’s a vicious circle. It’s hard to know what to think. Sometimes I think if we just toured all the time then we could scrape by. It looks like bands at roughly our level in the US can just about manage by doing that. But the UK is small and you can’t tour all the time and it’s hard for us to get gigs in Europe for some reason. If I look at my friends and peers in bands I’d have to say there doesn’t really seem to be a way to make a living out of music unless you compromise or happen to be very lucky. Either you compromise and maybe become a tour manager or a session musician or work in music PR or blag a job at a label or in A&R or some lightning bolt of good-timing, luck and random chance hits you and you get signed to a major or given a bunch of money or a development deal by someone who inexplicably has pots of money to give to people in bands. Or, and this is by far the most common occurrence, you simply get sick of the struggle and give up.

Despite being unable to become full-time musicians, you guys still put a fair shift in going on tour and you are doing a number of very small shows in support of this re-release, is it always the same thrill for you guys going on stage or have some of the UK’s toilet venues become a little tiresome with familiarity?
We wanted to mix things up a little bit for this tour. To get ourselves and everyone else out of our comfort zones. When 'C!C!' first came out we would take any and every show we were offered, usually we’d beg people to let us play their shows and often we’d be playing on the floor in the corner of a room. Recently we’ve done a couple of floor shows again and we really enjoyed the chaotic, raw feeling of them so we tried to book a tour where we could combine that with playing in places we’d never been to and where you might not ordinarily see us. It was an idea to make the tour memorable and a bit special rather than play the same black-painted, sticky venues with plastic pint glasses that we’ve all been to a hundred times.

Finally, this re-release seems like a good time to look back at your time in Tellison in full. What would you say have been your highlights of the last few years and what do you hope the band can achieve in the near future?
In the immediate future I’d like to make another record of real quality and for people to notice and think it was a great record. I feel like the two we’ve made already, though they might have both taken their sweet time, are genuinely strong records that it’s a shame more people haven’t had a chance to hear and as a band I think we’re pretty proud of them. Perhaps this is another reason for us taking so long to make records, but we only ever want to put out music that we think is the very best we’re capable of. That factor combined with never having enough time or money to make records and be a band has meant we’ve been slow, but hopefully we’ve been consistent. Highlights of being in Tellison for me would be spending so much time having so many insane and amazing experiences with my best friends. The feeling of walking out on stage together and having people singing back the words to songs we’ve written is one I’ll never be able to articulate. We’ve also been all over the place, to places I’d never have visited otherwise, and we’ve got acres of insane stories. Most of all, it’s a desperately positive and amazingly powerful thing to know that in spite of all the problems and the feeling cursed and unlucky we’ve stuck together and kept it together when so many other people couldn’t. To use a cliché, no one ever said it was going to be easy, and that shared struggle has bound us together in a way that I would never change. Plus it gives us plenty to write about…and don’t forget all the free, warm lager! I know I’ve sounded pretty down on the whole thing at times in this interview but I hope the above would point to the fact that the experiences we have had in Tellison have been ridiculously, unbelievably, life-affirmingly incredible. Any grumblings about not being able to do it more should highlight that fact that we’ve enjoyed it all so much we want to spend more of our lives doing it.

'Contact! Contact!' is out again via Naim, 'The Wages of Fear' is also available now.

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