Kelly Jones has been in this London pub before. But that’s probably not surprising seeing that Jones, and his band Stereophonics, have been nearly everywhere before.
In the past 15 years they’ve toured virtually all over the world, chalking up five UK Number One albums along the way. They’ve headlined Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and hung out with rock’s glitterati from London to LA. But it was the decision to stop touring for a year that propelled them into their new album and an unforeseen change in the group’s direction.
Following their Best Of compilation ‘A Decade In the Sun’ which sold over a million copies in 2008 and their last LP ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’, released in 2009, the group quit Universal Records, acquired a new rehearsal “den” in west London and breathed a sigh of relief.
“It was the first time we hadn’t been on tour for 15 years,” says Jones,
“and it was one of the best things we ever did. When you stop and let your mind open a bit, stuff just comes into it. I’ve been quite impatient in the past, but that’s something I’ve discovered in the past two years: patience.”
Instead of a summer of festival headliners, Jones found himself exploring other creative avenues.“I had all these little things I’d been wanting to do for 15 years. Whether it was writing scripts, or writing short stories…making different types of music. And I just decided to stop travelling and see what would happen.
“I wrote two screen plays which I’m developing…and then I based a lot of this record on one of those screen plays. So then I’m writing about these two characters in the story rather than writing about me.
And as soon as you do that, you start to think outside the box a little. You’re not trying to write this beginning, middle and end, verse chorus single thing.”
The first of the plays – a reworking of a piece from his teenage years – found its way to Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis who’d used The Stereophonics’ ‘Maybe Tomorrow’ in his movie Crash.
“I’d never met him but somehow he read it and he wrote back four or five pages of ideas. I couldn’t believe it. And weirdly Richard Curtis had a copy at the same time. So I had feedback from these two major scriptwriters and their input and interpretation was so completely different it was so fascinating to me.”
It was the second screen-play though, Graffiti On A Train ,which helped inspire the band’s new record and gave it its title; a fascinating, filmic LP unlike anything the group have attempted in the past. Loosely telling the story of two friends who flee the country after a tragic accident, the record is both reflective and surprisingly fragile.
It’s also more experimental and spontaneous than previous albums, while still possessing Jones’ key lyrical writing traits (the eye for minutiae and the detailed sketching of the songs characters). The germ of the idea meanwhile, came from (literally) close to the singer’s west London home.
“I kept hearing these kids climbing over my roof and I didn’t really know what was going on. I thought they were trying to come into the house. But one night I caught them and shouted out of the window ‘What are you doing on my roof?’ And they said, ‘oh we’re not trying to break in, we’re just trying to climb over your house to get to the train track to paint the trains’.”
“All this time I thought they were trying to break in, but they just wanted to graffiti these trains. Not that it’s any better! They’re still using my f—ing roof! But that was the start of the idea. I came up with this scenario where a guy was writing messages on a train for his girl who catches the same train every morning and one day he proposes to her. But that’s the day that he slips off the train, like the kids in the Sudan who surf the trains. That’s the beginning of the story and why these two kids end up fleeing and going to Europe…. and it’s a rites of passage story from that point on.”
Armed with a storyline, the new, more patient Jones went to work.
“I found myself walking into a studio with 40 unfinished ideas, rather than 10 finished ones. And by doing that the songs became way more unpredictable. But I loved the way I’d write one line in a song and think, that could go in the screen play…and one line in the screen play which could go in a song. It’s probably not the best way of doing it, because the album was all over the place for a long time, but the band and everyone involved had a good time doing it because we knew we were doing something we hadn’t done before.”
“Eight albums in I didn’t want to make a record which was…’oh here’s another Stereophonics album’ and what am I going to write about now I’m 38. I can do that, but for me we needed to dig a bit deeper.”
It is, as Jones says, not your archetypal Stereophonics album. It begins with ‘We Share The Same Sun’, one of the older songs written before the narrative storyline was fully formed, a track made for your car stereo with soaring choruses and it opens up the rest of the LP to embrace all manner of twists and turns. Not least the album’s taster ‘Violins And Tambourines’ which was the first track to be posted online.
Spacious and sombre, it builds up to a bustling, chaotic, string-swept climax: a tale of love and madness. Inspired by a riff Kelly had on his phone, they added a Wurlitzer keyboard line and Jones improvised the lyrics over the top. “In two hours it was there in the room and I was thinking ‘where did that come from?’”
In many ways it is the furthest away the band have travelled from the sound we expect.“That’s why I wanted to lead with it,” says Jones. “I had a crack at directing the video which I really enjoyed as well because it’s a very visual song.”
‘Violins’ along with ‘Roll The Dice’, an impetuous, stomping brassy number, are two of Jones’ personal favourites on the record and where, in his mind, “the sound of the band was going.” But there are other tangents on the record too. There’s the stripped back, bluesy one-take wonder ‘Been Caught Cheating’, the Tom Petty-esque ‘Indian Summer’ which was a late adition to the record and the smouldering, seductive ‘Take Me’, a kind of Nick Cave ‘Murder Ballads’, except with Kelly dueting with Jakki Healy.
“I love Tom Waits and Nick Cave and the Grinderman stuff and all the noises in the background we pinched from people like that. But she came in to do the demo and we thought, ‘well that’s beautiful’, and we never touched it again. I like the lap steel at the end as well. Never done that before.”
And this is the key to the album. Jones mentions the words ‘challenge’ and ‘surprise’ a lot, even if he says “the first person I wanted to surprise was myself.” In fact it’s an album of firsts, which is quite an achievement for a group who signed their first deal with V2 records in 1996 and have been with a major label ever since. Well, until now.
The new album will be the first on their own label Stylus records, which is another unspoken hint that the band are preparing for another phase in their career. Jones himself says: “Once the Greatest Hits was done and it was successful we thought, well that bit’s done now.
“And I don’t care if the album fails or succeeds. I just feel so comfortable with what it is. And I’m not saying it’s the best thing I’ve done. But it’s certainly the most comfortable I’ve ever felt with something.” It is clearly, if not a reinvention of the band, a reappraisal. It feels like they’re starting again, except with the benefit of nearly two decades worth of experience.
Jones alludes to this album being the first part of a two-part story, with a second album to follow. But for that, like Jones, we’ll just have to be a bit more patient.
Stereophonics are: Kelly Jones (Vocals/Guitar), Richard Jones (Bass), Adam Zindani (guitar) and Jamie Morrison (drums).