The Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones Discusses His Band’s ‘Mixtape’-Like New Album: Exclusive Interview
The Stereophonics are one of the biggest U.K. rock bands of the last two decades. After starting strong out of the gate with their 1997 debut, Word Gets Around, the act became bona fide superstars with 1999's Performance and Cocktails and 2001's Just Enough Education to Perform, which spawned a staggering nine Top 20 singles in a row in their native land —including the Top Five hits "Mr. Writer," "Pick a Part That's New" and "The Bartender and the Thief."
Stereophonics have been incredibly consistent throughout their career, and their excellent 10th studio album, Scream Above the Sounds, continues that trend. Although the record isn't afraid to take risks—the electronic textures introducing the hard rocker "Chances Are"; the low-key R&B/soul standout "Would You Believe?"; the menacing pop stomp "Geronimo"— Scream Above the Sounds is full of well-crafted, catchy tunes.
"It's a record that's got a lot of sides to it," frontman/songwriter Kelly Jones tells us. "We've always been a band about songs. The song is the boss. We've always tried to complement the songs as much as we can."
Diffuser caught Jones via phone from London, where he was at the band's rehearsal studios doing some press. "Talking shop, as they say," he says.
The record sounds great—it's you guys, but it sounds like 2017.
Each record we make, we try to move forward with something very naturally, and step outside of our comfort zone, and try to make it as honest as we can, but never try and repeat what we've been doing, really. This is our 10th record, so for us to make a record, we want it to be something we've never really done before, [and] challenge ourselves to find some new stuff on there, and incorporate that into the live show. It's been a good run.
What were the biggest differences this time around making this record? Were there any significant ones you can pinpoint?
I guess the main difference is in the whole process of the last few records has been that… We don't really go into the studio to make an album—[we've] been much more focused [on] recording the songs, and finding a home for those songs when it feels like there's a connection with other songs.
That frees you up a lot, because in the past your management or record company would say, "Right, you've got eight weeks, go make an album," and there's a pressure to make an album in eight weeks sort of thing. Having that freedom allows you to have all these different styles of songs. "Caught by the Wind" is very anthemic. "Taken a Tumble" is much more like the Cars or new wave sort of stuff. "What's the Fuss?" and "Geronimo" is much more musical, with the trumpets and the saxophones and stuff like that. "All in One Night" is very synthesizer-led and no band on there at all, really. It jumps around quite a bit, I guess.
It's kind of like a mixtape in many ways—there are a lot of different feelings and stuff on there. There's a lot to choose from and I'm sure people all have different kinds of favorite tracks depending on what kind of music you like.
That's really nice, because people have different entry ways into your catalog.
The audience has always been split 50-50, male-female. There's always a song that comes along that brings in a new audience, like "Dakota" brought in a bunch of new people, and "Indian Summer," and then "C'est La Vie" and "I Wanna Get Lost with You" on the last record. You look out and there's 17-, 18-year-old kids in the front row, and they discovered the band through Spotify or whatever streaming services they're into. Before you know it, it's a very eclectic audience, where there's people who have followed the band from day one and then the people who love the big songs off the radio stations. And then you meet people who are just discovering the band. It's rewarding to have 10 albums to pick and choose from and stick all these different things in a show.
It must be gratifying to be 10 albums in a career and still getting teenagers and younger audiences finding you. Because you never know—with some bands, their fanbase gets older, and that's it. That's very cool you're seeing that diversity.
It's a nice feeling. I wouldn't want to be a band still being around 20 years and harping on about the first album and 20th anniversary of my first album. It doesn't really interest me that much. I'm much more excited by the fact that our latest two singles are on the radio next to Rag 'N' Bone Man or somebody on their first album. It's much nicer to be segued between something brand new as opposed to something from the '90s.
Lyrically, as you were putting this record together, were there any inspirations you found you were taking from?
You collect all this in hindsight, really. At the time you're doing it, you're just literally writing about whatever went on in your day. Looking back, "Caught by the Wind" was the first track on the record—I guess that was written in the aftermath of stuff like the Bataclan and things like that in Paris, because that's my own work environment, if you will. There's an air of "What the f---'s going on?" and there's an anxiety involved in that.
["Caught by the Wind"] starts off with [the lyrics] "Wolves in their words / Don't play by their rules." But I guess what I was trying to really say was, there's a childhood innocence kind of being robbed with all this intrusion of 24-7 bad news all the time. The chorus goes on to celebrate lots of my memories from my childhood living in Wales: staring up at the sky and looking at airplanes. There was a lot more time of being bored. I think being bored is a good thing. Staring at my window's a good thing, rather than constantly being distracted with stuff.
When I look at the album now, there's quite a bit of that on the record. Going back to childhood, adulthood, dealing with modern-day fears and expectations and those kind of anxieties in the news all the time. I think the record is very uplifting, but it does go through some of those challenges, I suppose. I guess that's what I was feeling as I was writing it.
I think that is true sometimes. If you are subconsciously anxious, that stuff comes out in unexpected ways. Or in hindsight, you're like, "Oh, well, I guess that was bothering me." It's funny how the mind works.
Yeah, exactly. There's no way of analyzing it at the time you're doing it. The album's a year old to me now, so I've got a bit of distance from it. I can see some of those things.
You guys are on Parlophone for this record, whereas you self-released the last two records. What are the biggest differences you've noticed?
I think each record takes on a life of its own with different ideas. Being on V2 Records for most of our career was amazing, because [we were] on a very independent label, which felt like a family. When that got sold to Universal, we felt like a fish out of water, really. They did a great job on compilation records and stuff, but when it came to studio records, they didn't really fully understand them.
Then we left and did [2013's] Graffiti on the Train and [2015's] Keep the Village Alive independently, and achieved a platinum record and a No. 1 record against people like Sony and Universal, it was a very rewarding feeling, because we made records that we were very selfishly making for ourselves. We didn't expect any major results from those records. That gave us a new boost in confidence, and a new audience.
Then, to do this one on Parlophone, it came about [because] we invited their president to the studio to listen, because he was an A&R guy in 1996 and he'd been trying to sign me for 20 years. And now he's the president of this company. I played him some new music, and he was so f---ing excited by the music that he outshone everybody from our independent label, really.
Sometimes it's good to change things up. I gave it to the guy that wanted it the most, in the end really. I just thought I'd give it a chance. I'm fortunate enough to be in the position now where I can pick and choose record by record, at the minute, so I decided to try that with Parlophone.
That's persistent, trying to sign you for 20 years! Impressive. That's a fan right there.
I know, I kept bumping into him at awards ceremonies and charity events, and he's always going on about new stuff. I thought, "Jesus, maybe I should play him some stuff one day." He's been a big supporter for a long time. It's working out well so far. They're a good team of people. I've enjoyed the experience so far.
What is your U.S. fan base like these days?
Well, it kind of lost its way a little bit. Again, V2 was our label over there, and that changed hands quite a few times. When we got signed over there, it was us and Moby and the White Stripes. It was a great little label; it was really doing some good stuff. I think they spent too much money internationally, V2 generally I mean, and the company folded.
It's very hard to get our momentum back when the s--- hits the fan a little bit. We've been back and forth quite a few times, but sometimes it's about joining all the dots to make the actual trip, to make it count. You can do the shows, but if it's not connected to something else that makes it count, then you don't really get noticed.
That's why, with this record we're going to try to join those dots a bit more. We're trying to get a bit more out of what we're trying to do, really.
This year marks 20 years since the Stereophonics' debut record, Word Gets Around. What about that time stands out to you the most in hindsight?
It was amazing, because the album we released was only [about] 45 minutes. So we'd do these shows and we'd throw a few more tracks in. The hour setlist was great.
[After the shows were over] all the bars and all the clubs were still open, at least, for a really good time. [We were] traveling around in the back of a van, and the songs that really captured people's imaginations—they were lyrical small-town stories, delivered in almost in a punk rock kind of way. It was a very energetic show.
Now, we're playing for two-and-a-half hours, with 10 albums—and by the time we come off stage, all the bars and all the clubs are closed. [Laughs.]
At this point, how do you decide what gets in the setlist, and what you can't leave the stage without playing?
You have a basic skeleton of, there's a bunch of classics that people would kill you if you didn't play. And then you string along the bits in between to satisfy all the band. It's a bit like [when you would go see a] band like Tom Petty [and the Heartbreakers] or something. You [knew they're] going to play this, they're going to play that—but if you're a lover of the band, they're always going to pull this song out.
We try to keep it as musical as we can, so we get excited by it, and try to show the audience something they've never seen in the band before. We try not to make it predictable. There are definite markers in the set, that people are expecting to go nuts to this song or that song. It's good that we didn't just have one hit. Thankfully, we had a bunch.