Further down the tracks

Stereophonics’ new album is both a comeback and a departure, says Ed Power

KELLY Jones doesn’t like the word ‘comeback’. “The Stereophonics have never been away,” says the singer. “We simply didn’t tour our last album. It was the first time in 16 years we didn’t go on the road with a record. But we were still working. We certainly don’t feel as if we disappeared off the face of the Earth. Far from it. We are working harder than ever.”

The Stereophonics called a temporary hiatus on live performance to devote themselves to their latest LP, Graffiti On the Train. It proved an inspired strategy. Graffiti is one of the strongest releases in the Welsh outfit’s near 20-year history. For the first time Jones can remember, he is being championed by critics and is basking in positive reviews.

“People have asked us, ‘was it fatigue that stopped you touring’? Not at all. That had nothing to do with it. I don’t want to be misunderstood. It wasn’t burn out, or anything like that. We wanted to build our own studio and find a new way of working. You are always looking to try different things. That is entirely healthy, I would hope,” he says.

Graffiti was recorded on and off over the past three years, and Jones achieves a new expansiveness in his songwriting. He has been writing a movie script and several songs are informed by that. The result is a collection with a windswept, cinematic sensibility. The album will surprise anyone who dismissed the group as meat-and-two-veg Britpop.

“I’ve always been interested in cinema,” says Jones. “I attended film school when I was younger. Aside from music, it is my major passion in life. The album is directly inspired by the screenplay. I see the two as companion pieces. Hopefully, in the long-term, it will all merge into one big project.”

Jones is flinty, unafraid to stand up to the media if slighted (Stereophonics 2001 hit, ‘Mr Writer’, was a tirade against sloppy music journalism). He is spiky when asked about Stereophonics’ slumping commercial fortunes. Superstars in the late ’90s, it’s been a while since they had a bone fide smash. This is the only band to go from headlining Slane to playing tiny Whelan’s, in Dublin, within three years (though Whelan’s was a one-off fan-only show).

“I don’t feel any pressure to live up to anything I’ve done in the past,” says Jones. “Everything we have achieved, I’m tremendously proud of. However, the past isn’t my focus. I want to move forward. It’s our 20th anniversary next year. You are going to have ups and downs over a period like that. Everyone does. What you want to do is keep moving forward, surprising yourself and surprising others.

“We’ve always played different types of venues when we come over to Ireland,” he says. “We’ve done The Point, Slane, pubs in Temple Bar. You make different choices on different records. Of course, then, stuff happens, like your record company folds in the middle of an album campaign and your song doesn’t get on the radio. That can’t be helped. In that respect, pretty much anything that could have gone wrong in Ireland for us has.”

He is referring to the collapse of V2 Records, which went abruptly out of business in 2007 and resulted in the Stereophonics’ contract transferring to Universal Music. Jones says he has no complaints about Universal, which was due to release Graffiti until the band had a change of heart. Fearing they would not receive the marketing support from a big record company, the group felt it would be smarter to go it alone.

“The industry has changed. Nowadays, labels are concerned with selling pop songs — that’s a big part of what they are about. So, you end up not having a lot of people focused on what you are doing. We wanted a small team around us, concentrated on the record. It feels good to be taking a different approach. We put out two short films at the start of the campaign, directed by me. A major label would never have allowed that. They’d want a single that went straight to radio. So you have more freedom,” Jones says.

If the media never thought much of Stereophonics, musicians do. In the ’90s, David Bowie asked the group to join him on tour. On their trek around Europe, Bowie’s crew defeated the Stereophonics in a five-a-side football match. Bowie’s roadies lowered the winner’s trophy on stage during their set every night. They were also asked to go on the road by Oasis and U2 (Bono is an admirer).

Jones enjoyed the life of a carefree rocker until the fun diminished. Not helping matters was Stereophonics’ loyalty to their friends from south Wales, many of whom they hired as road crew. By their third album, 2001’s Just Enough Education to Perform, the partying was out of hand. The de facto leader, Jones knocked a few head together. Nowadays, he is father to two daughters and lives a quieter life. “We were in Paris for a show last night and we enjoyed ourselves afterwards,” he says. “But when I’m not working, I’m just like everyone else. My kids appreciate what I do and that I have to go away occasionally because of my job. They understand. Generally, I try to live as normal a life as possible.”

*Graffiti on the Train is out now. Stereophonics play O2 on Nov 12.


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