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We Hit Something: The Inspiration Behind The Coral's Triumphant Second Act

Wednesday, 29 November 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

When creative lightning strikes, any artist would be wise to grab such a gift with both hands. After returning from a five year hiatus, The Coral were already on a roll before lockdown allowed them to go into overdrive and craft 2021’s epic double album ‘Coral Island’. Clearly in the zone and determined to capitalise on their momentum, the retro quintet only went and bested that effort with two more exceptional concept-driven records released earlier this year.

Arriving after a further flurry of inspiration that was, at least partly, propelled by their desire to be the last band to record at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool before it closed down, ‘Sea of Mirrors’ and ‘Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine show’ find James and Ian Skelly, Paul Duffy, Paul Molloy and Nick Power in arguably the best form of their collective career on two very different, but equally classy and compelling, offerings that exude vivid storytelling and cinematic scope.

Written and recorded at the same time, but subsequently separated when the band realised they’d created a strong batch of material with two distinct identities, the former offers up a gorgeously rendered imaginary soundtrack for a ‘surreal’ Spaghetti Western film. The latter, a physical format only release that’s a spin off from ‘Coral Island’ only available to fans and collectors, revolves around the idea of a midnight radio DJ playing pre-60s haunted murder ballads with a slow burning country feel. 

Off the back of ‘Coral Island’, which saw the former Mercury Music prize nominees hit number two on the UK album chart, these releases mark something of an artistic apotheosis for the second coming of one of Britain’s most successful and adventurous post-millennium acts. Prior to the band embarking on a major UK tour this month, we caught up with James, who has also forged a successful career as producer outside of the group, to discuss the finer points of those offerings, working with a certain Oppenheimer actor and why, tears at the ready, you shouldn’t expect any more new music from The Coral for the foreseeable future.

There were suggestions that you came back with a point to prove after your five year hiatus ended in 2016. Did you feel that way?

Yeah, it felt like we’d been written off a bit, like what we did in the early noughties had been. No disrespect to the Libertines, they were great and I loved them, loved the first album, but we were before them. They were covering our songs and I felt like we’d been written out of what we’d done.  I wanted to prove we had longevity. We planned up to this point but it took longer because of lockdown. And now I don’t know what to do with myself. The plan’s over.  

Even though you had that plan, did the success of your most recent albums and the momentum you’ve built surprise you?

‘Coral Island’ surprised me. We’d kind of given up and just gone, ‘We’re gonna put out a double album with me grandad on, fuck it.’ But they’re the times when it’s never what you think. And it’s probably because we’d never connected with our fans before the second phase of The Coral, when we started to interact on social media more. We never embraced that early on. But now there’s a community and you can see them speak to each other and they’re all from different countries. It’s a beautiful thing. 

You followed up that record with ‘Sea of Mirrors’ and ‘Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show’. In terms of the amount of high quality music you’ve created over the last few years, are you always able to turn it on like that, or are there any particular reasons you’ve been so productive?

We just hit something. You’ve got to ride it when it comes and then, when it goes, enjoy not stressing over making music and just enjoy other people’s art. That’s what I’ve learnt as I’ve gotten older. Enjoy it when it comes, enjoy it when it goes. At the moment I’m having a fantastic time not writing and it’s great. I don’t know what I’d be doing it for now. It’s a different headspace playing live and I want to get back into enjoying that. I can’t wait for these gigs. We haven’t had a brand new set for ages.  

There’s a wealth of great music out there when it comes to the kind of murder ballads you sculpted for ‘Holy Joe’s…’. Why do you think those kinds of songs strike such a chord with listeners?

It’s that unhinged dissonance between easy listening and death. There’s something in it. Never Changes is the ultimate in a way. Break it down and it’s almost Johnny Mathis singing about ghosts of soldiers or something. And then, underneath it, there was a darkness that gives it this gravitas because it’s presented in that way. That’s always been my favourite thing.    

Can you tell me more about developing the character for Ocean’s Apart with Cillian Murphy, who subsequently appeared on that song? 

It was short. There was a phone call. I discussed this idea of what happened to Buster Keaton, from going silent to talkies to ending up almost as an extra. Bela Lugosi was the best example…he was Dracula. The ultimate seductive king of Hollywood. And then he’s in a film that’s renowned to be the worst of all time with Ed Wood. So I had this idea of that fall and how he ended up in these genre films, as just the actor.

It was a metaphor for when you go into your 40s, in a way. You’ve still got a bit of an ego, you haven’t quite let it go. I imagine that goes at 50. But you know you’re not quite what you were. That was the idea. And analysing that, separating it and doing it as a character, you could look at it more honestly. So I told him about Richard Yates’ books that I liked, and said, ‘Imagine if he wrote a script for a spaghetti western’ and he was like, ‘Leave it with me.’  We put some reverb on and put it on the album. And we’ve never spoken to him again. That’s it. It was like working with the ghost of Cillian Murphy.  

There’s a strong visual identity to The Coral’s music, a real cinematic dimension that particularly lends itself to albums like these. What part of the song writing process do you enjoy more, the music or the lyrics? 

I like working on the lyrics. A lot of our music, everything’s always been a vehicle for the lyrics. But I love a melody as well. I Only Wanna Be With You, by Dusty Springfield, if you wrote that melody, it sings itself, it sings the lyrics. Can you even say the words of Waterloo without it being the melody? I don’t know whether you can. Sometimes it’s one thing. But most times Nick will write the music and hook and I’ll write a lot of the lyrics. He would have the chorus and I take that and write the verse lyrics. Or verse melody. 

For Dream River, Nick had written the chorus and first line and I tried to fill in the gaps. It was then a matter of doing it and doing it…but I was never happy with it until right at the end. Then I did it from the perspective of the character. The faceless cowboy on the front of the album. I did it from that point of view. It took me about a year to get it. We had to redo three part harmonies each time the lyrics changed.

You’ve spoken about working with co-producer Sean O’Hagan again and how he really pushed you and essentially became a part of the band. Whereabouts can we hear that influence on ‘Sea of Mirrors’?

You can probably hear it most on Ocean’s Apart. We’d recorded it all and he made us change all the chords. Even though the melody was the same, we had to re-record all the chords and bass. We did the same on Faraway Worlds, changed the chords a little bit into the chorus. Sean’s like, ‘If the chords are this,’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, but it’s recorded,’ he’d be like, ‘Yeah, but if the chords were this…’ And then you’d just say ‘OK’ and re-record it all. The way he did it, a lot of the time it would be inversions, or a chord that would still fit the original bass line. So I’d have to go in and re-record it. There’d be bits where it’s a year later and there’s just one guitar chord being overdubbed into the original take.

I’d like to hear about the producers you’ve worked with, such as Ian Broudie, John Leckie etc, and what you’ve taken from them and integrated into your own style as a producer?

Lots of different things from all of them. I’ve taken all their bits and tried to add my thing. And a lot of my thing is that I just like the old way. You should be able to get a tune done in 10 hours. If you’ve got a load of money and you’re labouring over it fine, but I get bored with that. It’s got to have energy. Sometimes when you concentrate on one thing you can wreck it. The very first singer I recorded was a guy called Andy Wilson. He passed away recently. He just used to say ‘kick shit’ and then do a take. I always remember that. There was something about that. And he’d say, ‘If you’re having fun in the studio people can feel it. You might not even hear it, but they’ll feel it.’ That always stuck with me. If it’s got energy, people do feel that.

When you’ve spoken about producing younger artists, particularly in relation to Blossoms, you’ve said you don’t want them to make the same mistakes that you did. What do you try and warn them about?

Don’t be a dickhead. You don’t have to warn Blossoms that much though. Blossoms listen, that’s one of their strengths. We wouldn’t have listened. We would have just skinned up again and thought, ‘What the fuck’s he going on about?’ That kind of gave us something of our own at the time. But that only lasts so long. Sometimes you’ve got to take a bit of time out or give each band member space too. Also, don’t overthink it. Don’t smoke so much weed you can’t even think. Usually the biggest thing I find annoying about artists, because I find it annoying about myself, even now, is overthinking it. If you think too much you can kill it.    

You said at the start you don’t know what you’re going to do with yourself now. In the past you’ve done some solo work away from The Coral, albeit with a band, so might you do more of that in future?

No, I only did that to pass the time. I’ve never been interested in being solo. I’ve worked all me life for The Coral to be at this point, why would I start again? They’re all my best friends. I just want to play live at the moment. You’ve got to pay your bills. Everyone’s skint. You’ve got to try and keep food on the table. Making albums doesn’t do that, it’s kind of a hobby. But playing live, doing stuff like that, I want to enjoy it. It was hard making those two albums. I can’t speak for everyone else but it took a lot out of me and, in the end, I was like, ‘I don’t think I ever want to make an album again.’ 

There are also different ways to do it. Streaming, you’ll have someone who is just on a playlist in their hairdressers and that will count as if they’ve sold loads of records. I don’t know what that is. Maybe I’m old? Maybe we’ll do some stuff straight to fans? I enjoyed doing ‘Holy Joe’s…’ like that. But I’m just bored with the conveyor belt. I need to reassess and look at how it would be interesting enough to stimulate us creatively. Rather than just doing another album and trying to do a million versions so you can compete with people who are on the gym playlist. I might have had my fill of that game. 

And it has to be interesting or I can’t do it. Like trying to top ‘Coral Island’. That was a challenge. Trying to do something with strings, we’d never done that before. So, find a challenge that’s interesting and you can at least be as good as the last two records because, for me, they were so good with everyone pulling together. They’re so cohesive. But lockdown gave us the time we wouldn’t have normally had to make the last album. We could write and almost be like teenagers again and I felt it was the last chance we’re going to get to do that. So we’ve got to wait and see what comes around and when it does, heed the moment. People need to catch up on Coral albums now don’t they? They don’t need to hear another one for at least five years.

The Coral Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri December 01 2023 - GLASGOW Barrowland
Sat December 02 2023 - LIVERPOOL Liverpool Olympia
Thu December 07 2023 - LONDON Electric Ballroom
Sat December 09 2023 - MANCHESTER New Century
Fri March 08 2024 - CHESTER StoryHouse
Sat March 09 2024 - COVENTRY Warwick Arts Centre
Sun March 10 2024 - BRIGHTON Komedia
Fri March 22 2024 - LEICESTER Y Theatre
Sat March 23 2024 - MILTON KEYNES Stables
Sun March 24 2024 - SALE Waterside
Fri March 29 2024 - LICHFIELD Garrick
Sat March 30 2024 - LONDON Union Chapel
Fri April 12 2024 - HALIFAX Square Chapel
Sat April 13 2024 - WORKINGTON Carnegie Theatre
Fri April 19 2024 - WHITLEY BAY Playhouse
Sat April 20 2024 - LYTHAM Lowther Pavilion

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