In February 2004, when Teenage Fanclub arrived at John McEntire's Soma Electronic Music Studios in Ukrainian Village, snow was piled in drifts and the wind was whipping, and singer Norman Blake looked up to see a street sign that said division. The Scottish quartet had never recorded outside the UK, and for a moment he wondered if this were a bad omen for the band.
It'd been four years since their most recent studio album, and they were recording without label support for the first time since their 1990 debut, A Catholic Education. They were taking a chance, not just bankrolling the project themselves (to the tune of $70,000) but working with Tortoise drummer McEntire, who's not well-known for producing pop bands. But the resulting album, Man-Made--picked up by Merge Records and released in June--is Teenage Fanclub's best in more than a decade. It also bears the stamp of their stay in Chicago, from lyrics about the Blue Line to a painting of el tracks on the cover.
Blake formed the band in Glasgow in 1989 with drummer Francis MacDonald and fellow singer-songwriters Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley. By the early 90s they were the pop jewel in the crown of Alan McGee's Creation Records. Teenage Fanclub rode shotgun with Nirvana on a European tour supporting Nevermind--which finished in second place on Spin's year-end album list, behind the Fannies' 1991 classic, Bandwagonesque. In the mid-90s, Liam Gallagher of Oasis, who's hardly free with a compliment, called them "the second-best band in the world." But Creation folded in 2000 and the group was shunted to corporate parent Sony, where they languished. After that year's lukewarm Howdy!, which wasn't released in the States till late 2001, they fulfilled their contractual obligation with a 2003 best-of. "I would hate to think the group would've fizzled out after the compilation record," says Blake. "That's not the way we wanted to finish."
The idea of working with McEntire for the band's next studio album came from Love--his other group, the Pastels, had brought the producer to Scotland in 2003 to help record the score for an independent film called The Last Great Wilderness. When McEntire's collaboration with Teenage Fanclub was first reported in the music press, there was a bit of head-scratching about the apparent mismatch--as well as concern from fans that the post-rock doyen would try to reinvent the band's sound. "Some people were maybe jumping to the conclusion that's what was going to happen," says McEntire. "There's probably a tendency for people to confuse what I do musically with what I might do from an engineering perspective." He's just finished recording the Chicago Underground Duo and his next job is with the Red Krayola, but he's been a fan of the Fanclub since their first album.
Given the band's loose, spontaneous approach to music making, it would've been difficult for McEntire to overhaul their sound anyway. "We tend to do things quite intuitively--we don't get too conceptual about it," says McGinley. "We approach recording naturally: set up the gear, pick up your instrument, and lay it down. With this album there was never any huge discussion of exactly how it should sound. We just kinda did our thing and let John do his thing around us." But the band did tinker with their time-tested formula, inspired by their new engineer and the change of scenery: the arrangements are tighter and the vocal harmonies simpler, the guitar lines intertwine in a more consistently complementary way, and a couple of the time signatures depart from the usual 4/4. "I don't think that we're ever gonna drastically change what we sound like from album to album," says McGinley. "I don't think we can, by virtue of the way the group is set up--there are three songwriters, so there's no one with a single overall vision. But we did try and develop."
The band also established a different routine at Soma than they'd followed during their sessions in the UK, where they'd had their ordinary lives to get back to after a day's work. Each night everyone would take a break from the studio to watch The Simpsons. "Then we'd record for another hour, and then John would get out his big book of menus and see where we were gonna go eat. Then we'd go to the Rainbo for a pint after that," says Blake. "We got to know the people who worked in the local coffee shop, and the folks across the street at the burrito bar, which was great--to kinda immerse yourself and to become a Chicagoan for a month or so."
Blake, Love, and McGinley wrote most of the album's lyrics in the studio, so the group's immersion in the city had a direct bearing on the songs. "Our lyrics are impressionistic, so we tend to absorb the surrounding environment," says Blake. "There are quite a lot of references to the weather in the lyrics--using those wintry metaphors." McGinley came up with the words to the album's centerpiece--the romantic reverie "Only With You"--while at the Empty Bottle watching the High Llamas. "I'm really not the kind of guy that sits around in bars and cafes writing lyrics," he says. "But that one seemed to come out all right."
Teenage Fanclub released Man-Made on their own new PeMa imprint in the UK, and its parallel release on Merge--the North Carolina label owned by their friends Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan of Superchunk--has raised the band's stateside profile to its highest level since Bandwagonesque. To make the most of that, they're trying to undo their recent neglect of the American market--they're in the middle of their first full U.S. tour since the mid-90s, and their upcoming date at the Double Door is their first in Chicago in four years.
Overall the band's future is looking far less bleak than when Blake first arrived in Chicago 17 months ago. "Everything is really positive now," he says. "With Man-Made, it doesn't seem like the end of the band at all, but really a whole new start."
Teenage Fanclub, Evan Dando, Rosebuds, Judd & Maggie
When: Wed 7/27, 7:30 PM
Where: Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
Info: 773-489-3160 or 312-559-1212
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Donald Milne, Jim Newberry.