To lift spirits and lessen isolation during this dark time, Tim Burgess of Manchester’s Charlatans has invited the world over to his house for a listening party. He spins records, including his own but also by other bands, inviting members of Oasis, Supergrass, Flaming Lips, Idles, the Cult, The The, the Pogues, the Libertines and many others to talk about their music while music fans around the world chime in too. Crispin Kott talked to Burgess about the listening parties, The Charlatans, his writing career and new solo recordings.
Tim Burgess is trending on Twitter.
More specifically, #timstwitterlisteningparty is trending on Twitter, and given pretty much everything else that’s been trending on Twitter lately, it’s a ray of blissful sunshine in a storm of despair.
When the entire world shut itself indoors to help flatten the coronavirus curve, longtime Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess revisited an idea he launched nearly a decade ago, one which taps into the timeless teenage practice of inviting a bunch of friends over to listen to your favorite records. Burgess, who’s penned three books to date, spins a very good yarn, even when measured tweet-by-tweet while spinning a very good album.
The party is worldwide, with the semi-metaphoric needle dropping on an album simultaneously; players and insiders involved in the creation of the music share stories, fans add their memories, and the vast, empty space between us all – more pronounced than ever right now – diminishes, replaced by a convivial sense of community. Alongside hours dedicated to albums by the Charlatans, members of Oasis, Supergrass, Flaming Lips, Idles, the Cult, The The, the Pogues, the Libertines and many others have joined in to talk about their music while music fans around the world join in. Some evenings boast two or even three albums, and if you’d like a concise schedule to plan your evenings in, someone’s set one of those up as well: https://timstwitterlisteningparty.com/
Burgess said he’s humbled by the response, crediting participating musicians and music fans around the world for bringing a collective sense of bonhomie to the parties.
“It’s because other people are involved, and I think it’s because people got a lot more time on their hands,” said Burgess. “How often can you watch Netflix and chill, you know? They were always popular when I did them with the Charlatans, but I think when you throw in other people and other people’s fans into the mix, it’s something they’ve not seen before and it’s a tell-your-friends kind of thing. Everyone’s looking forward to it now. It’s become a phenomenon, which is great.”
Burgess plays it close to the vest when asked about who he’s most excited about over the next few weeks of listening parties, especially as some have yet to confirm dates. But he did agree to reveal a couple of artists he’d personally love to have join in.
“Obviously there’s a lot,” he said. “I don’t want to push it. I’ve asked a few people and we’ve not got dates yet, but I wouldn’t want to say who those people are. But then there’s a fantasy list, which would be Peter Gabriel, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (of Blondie), or Kate Bush. But that really is a fantasy. I don’t know how I’d reach them, or whether they’d even know anything about it.”
Tim Burgess has been the frontman of the Charlatans for more than thirty years, joining as the final piece of the puzzle. Buoyed by a Madchester scene led by the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, the Charlatans quickly rose to prominence in the U.K. on the strength of debut single “Indian Rope” and its scene-defining follow-up, “The Only One I Know,” a heady update of stone classics like Deep Purple’s “Hush” and “Peace Frog” by the Doors.
Burgess was aware of the Charlatans before being asked to join, having seen the group numerous times before. Already a singer with the Electric Crayon Set, Burgess was either deliberately or by fate drawn into the Charlatans’ orbit through the group’s manager Steve Harrison, who owned a West Midlands record shop frequented by local scenesters.
“I’d been going in there for a long time,” said Burgess. “And also Martin was ordering records from him.”
Martin Blunt is the sole original member of the Charlatans still in the band, co-founding the group following the dissolution of Makin’ Time, a neo-mod outfit that released a clutch of electrifying albums and singles in the first half of the ‘80s.
“I’d see Martin in the (record) shop and we’d all kind of hang out,” Burgess recalled. “Martin and myself talked about clothes, and talked about records that were on this label Edsel (a still-active subsidiary of Demon Records specializing in reissues), and the Nuggets compilation, things like that. Mod stuff, punk stuff; the connection was really quite a wide set of influences.”
The Charlatans still had a singer at the time, Baz Ketley, but the band were looking to make a change. Present at Burgess’ first jam with the group were Blunt, drummer Jon Brookes, keyboardist Rob Collins, and new guitarist Jon Baker.
“I thought we were onto something at the first rehearsal, and I think you could probably call that an audition, maybe,” Burgess said. “I was quite nervous. I saw them with the singer that was in there before me, and I thought they were great. I really did. But I was more interested in Martin, Jon and Rob.”
With Burgess in the fold, Ketley was officially out of the Charlatans. Well, almost.
“I think Martin drew the short straw to tell the original singer that he was out,” said Burgess. “When the original singer opened the door, he said ‘Martin I have something to tell you: I’m not feeling the band anymore.’ Good timing.”
In addition to the first two singles, this version of the Charlatans also recorded their seminal debut album, Some Friendly, a stack of staggering songs approximating the ebbs and flows of a live gig, awash in Hammond-organ swirls and funky-drummer-by-way-of-Keith Moon beats. As their live shows did then and still do now, Some Friendly closed with “Sproston Green,” an anthemic psych-freakout tailor made for unhinged dancing.
With Bay Area liquid light show legend Captain Whizzo (a.k.a. Michael Elzea) in tow, the Charlatans embarked on a North American tour in early 1991 as the vanguard of the Madchester scene. Though they’d played a handful of U.S. gigs the previous fall, this first full-scale incursion saw the Charlatans heralded as heroes by Rolling Stone, which put them on the cover of their “New Faces of ’91” issue alongside De La Soul, Chris Isaak and Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt.
“I don’t think the Happy Mondays could get visas, and I think the Stone Roses couldn’t be bothered,” said Burgess of the Charlatans being the first of their contemporaries to make the trip across the Atlantic. “So that was always to our benefit. We were workers. And that sounds kind of moribund or whatever, but we were very excited to go to America. We drove across the country in a van with our T-shirts and Captain Whizzo doing the lights. We didn’t think of it as a retro thing; we saw him do the lights for Deee-Lite!”
The Charlatans’ early days are covered in the first chapter of Burgess’ first book, Telling Stories, published by Penguin in 2012. By that time, the Charlatans’ canon was 10-studio albums deep, and Burgess was on the verge of releasing his second solo LP (Oh No I Love You, which dropped that October on his own label, O Genesis). He’d also recently founded Tim Peaks, a fair trade coffee company that shares its profits with the David Lynch Foundation, which funds the teaching of transcendental meditation in schools and raises awareness of TM around the world. In 2012, he began working on a book he never imagined writing.
“I had no desire to write a book,” he said. “Some of my friends said to me, ‘You should write a book.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’m sure you say that to everybody.’”
It wasn’t until an agent approached Burgess that he understood he really did have a story to tell. And if you’ve even loosely followed the Charlatans, you know they’ve been through rather a lot.
“I kind of knew the way to go,” Burgess said. “It was the whole debut album, pop sensation all around the world, a difficult second album, Rob goes to jail, Rob dies…”
In December 1992, Rob Collins was arrested and charged with armed robbery of an off-license liquor store. Collins drove a friend away from the crime but claimed to have no advance knowledge that a robbery was going to occur and it wasn’t until he hear a gunshot from inside the that he realized what was happening. The armed robbery charge was ultimately dropped, but Collins would complete four months of an eight-month prison sentence on a charge of assisting an offender after an offense.
Collins’ time behind bars occurred after the recording of the third Charlatans album, Up to Our Hips, which was released on March 21, 1994. A fourth LP, The Charlatans, followed in 1995, and the group began recording their fifth, Tellin’ Stories, the following year. Collins had recorded most of his keyboards and vocals during sessions at Monnow Valley Studio and Rockfield Studios in Rockfield, Wales, when on July 22, 1996 he was killed in a car accident. The Charlatans would eventually complete Tellin’ Stories with Martin Duffy from Primal Scream finishing the keyboard work. The album remains a towering tribute to the genius of the Rob Collins and the collective power of the Charlatans. It’s a miracle it was ever finished. It was a miracle the band ever made it that far.
“When we finished our first album I kind of feel that Rob felt that he done everything he ever wanted to do, which was like make a Hammond organ record that would blow everyone away,” Burgess said. “Our lives around that time were just incredible. And Rob was a maestro, and Jon Brooks’ drumming, the two of them together were unbelievable. Rob got voted best keyboard player in Rolling Stone, we’re on the cover of Rolling Stone. And then after that it was like, ‘Well what do we do now?’ After that he went to jail for a little bit, and after that he died. If you think about it like that, it’s such a sad story.”
Tim Burgess has other stories to tell. Some, but not all, are sad. He told quite a few of them in his memoir Telling Stories, a project that is itself something of a journey.
“It is a story,” Burgess aid. “I went to meetings with the agent and just let him buy me drinks. I didn’t write anything, but I liked the connection.”
Two aborted attempts at writing the book with ghostwriters later, Burgess hid away in the Charlatans’ recording studio for a week and began plugging away at the manuscript himself.
“I just typed 30,000 words, I think,” he said. “It was all in capital letters, and it was a very basic outline, you know? I had a block in front of me and I knew it would be a lot of work to make it into a sculpture. But I knew it was there.”
Rob got voted best keyboard player in Rolling Stone, we’re on the cover of Rolling Stone. And then after that it was like, ‘Well what do we do now?’ After that he went to jail for a little bit, and after that he died. If you think about it like that, it’s such a sad story.”
Burgess sought guidance from other rock memoirs, especially those he didn’t particularly care for.
“I’d be disappointed if it was someone I really admired and never learned anything new about them,” he said. “When I first approached the writing, I wanted it to be things in there like revelations that people wouldn’t have known. And then of course when I read it back, I got a bit nervous and wanted to take them all out. It was a balance.”
That balance was struck by opening with a rollercoaster ride through early fame, followed by a chapter simply entitled “Cocainus.”
“Cocainus” appropriately opens with a mid-‘90s photograph of a grinning Burgess wearing nothing but a flowing summer dress while standing barefoot in front of a tour bus, its destination reading simply “Who Cares.” This is the chapter meant to grab the casual reader, the chapter most often cited by reviewers of the book, the chapter which brought fame to the “Manhattan powdered doughnut,” a practice which required a band member to assist another by blowing cocaine up their asshole.
In Telling Stories, Burgess candidly recalls the merits of the method in a chapter built around his experience with addiction, a tale told through the lens of sobriety with warmth and humor. On the phone from England, decades removed from his last Manhattan powdered doughnut, Burgess said its inclusion early in his first memoir is similar to the rationale behind the choice of a lead single from his forthcoming solo album, I Love the New Sky.
“Readers have to find a way in,” said Burgess. “Tony Lacy the editor from Penguin, was very smart putting that as chapter two, because it could have been something that came quite a bit later. I was talking to someone the other day about ‘Empathy For the Devil,’ my new song. And we were talking about the fact that it’s riffing on ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ It’s just about finding the first talking point. And it’s the same with the ‘Cocainus’ stuff. It’s a talking point and if it can get you in for the rest of it, people will find something more after it.”
Burgess followed Telling Stories four years later with Tim Book Two: Vinyl Adventures from Istanbul to San Francisco, a love letter to record shops, collecting vinyl, and the friendships forged through music.
“Tim Book Two is my favorite,” said Burgess. “The only reason that I wrote a second one was because I knew that I could now. I was on tour and going to record shops. And I had the idea in the book that it would be an ode to record shops, state of the nation, how are they doing. Let’s check up on all our friends in record shops. And then I asked some people who I know who are big record fans, and people who were in bands to make some recommendations for records that I should go find. It’s sort of an action-adventure story, and about my love of record shops. It’s not that different from doing the Tim’s Twitter parties. The connectivity with people and bring them all together and having people help each other out.”
The book was also Burgess’ first to follow the death of drummer Jon Brookes, who died on August 13, 2013, nearly three years after collapsing during a Charlatans gig in Philadelphia. Brookes was diagnosed with a brain tumor and spent much of his remaining years undergoing extensive radiation and chemotherapy.
Last November, Burgess released his third book, One Two Another: Line By Line – Lyrics From the Charlatans, Solo and Beyond. It was initially released overseas, but is due in the U.S. this November.
“It is a lyric book, but there are stories around the lyrics and how things came about,” Burgess said. “It’s very much again like the listening parties. When you read a book you want to smell the engine oil. You want to know what people the band were like before the album existed. And why did they all come together to make this record, and what happened to them after. What went on in the studio. Was it five takes? Did it slow down? Just anything. I think that’s quite interesting.”
With each book title either a loose pun, a nod to a Charlatans song, or both, what will Burgess call his fourth should he decide to tackle it?
“I used to ask people what I should call my books on Twitter and see how they responded,” he said, before admitting with a laugh that it would be difficult to ignore the chance to riff on the group’s 1997 single “North Country Boy” by going with Fourth Country Boy.
Full disclosure: I’ve seen the Charlatans loads of times. Loads. The first was courtesy Legs McNeil, resident punk. Legs was at Spin magazine at the time, and he was helping me try to impress a girl I was interested in by showing us around the office. Legs was always up for helping me try to impress girls. Bless him. In the midst of our whirlwind tour I overheard someone bring up the Charlatans, who were making their American debut at the Marquee that very evening. I’d tried – and failed – to get tickets, but Legs immediately got me and my date on the guest list.
I’ve since caught the group every time they’ve come through whichever city I happened to be living in at the time. The third was at The Academy in April 1992, a gig which followed a signing at the old Tower Records at 4th and Broadway. I was wearing a string of colorful beads at the show, which I handed up to Burgess early in the set. He draped the beads over his Mick Jagger-circa Rock & Roll Circus haircut and wore them for the rest of the night, predictably making them look a whole lot cooler than I did. That tour, in support of their sophomore album Between 10th and 11th, saw the group begin to break from the shackles of Madchester. Its lead single, “Weirdo,” a kinetic, oddly slinky dance track, was a hit in the U.S., topping the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
“That song is probably our biggest hit in America,” said Burgess. “It was our biggest played song on KROQ or something. I always consider that to be our biggest song over there. And American people loved Between 10th and 11th. It’s kind of a dark album, and Flood did the production, and he worked on some pretty pretty big records. Maybe American people really appreciate good production.”
Between 10th and 11th’s sonic shift wasn’t just down to Flood’s handiwork. It also signaled the arrival of Mark Collins, who replaced Jon Baker on guitar and is still in the Charlatans today.
“I’ve always really, really enjoyed working with Mark,” said Burgess. “I felt when he joined, something special happened. I loved Jon Baker being in the band, but when Mark joined it felt like I’d found a soulmate really. Or a long lost brother. Someone who could turn my ideas into reality. I can pick a few strings here and there on a guitar or hit a keyboard, but basically telling other people how to do stuff it’s what I was pretty good at. But the way that we connected, I would say something once and Mark just find it.”
The Charlatans have been through a lot, and they keep coming back. They’ve been through two untimely and terribly sad deaths. They’ve been through addiction and run afoul of the law. They’ve seen some heavy shit, man. And here they are. Tellin’ Stories, completed and released after the loss of Rob Collins, is for many the band’s best album. Modern Nature, released in 2015, was the group’s first album in five years; it followed the loss of Jon Brooks, and it is also a career high point against some major competition.
Modern Nature, and indeed the future of the Charlatans, was borne of A Night for Jon Brookes, a tribute to the group’s late drummer held at the Royal Albert Hall in London on October 18, 2013. In aid of The Brain Tumour Charity, the concert was headlined by the Charlatans, with appearances by Liam Gallagher, the Chemical Brothers, James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers, and members of New Order and the Vaccines. I was there too, with my wife Eve, in the front row of the lower balcony thanks to inadvertently fortuitous timing in our honeymoon planning. It was a thrilling testament to the positive power of live music, an evening of celebration and reflection at maximum volume. It was, to put it succinctly, a moment. And it led, perhaps indirectly, to the completion of the band’s 12th studio album.
“I think Modern Nature is an amazing record, because after Jon died there was again almost like some kind of light that really propelled us,” said Burgess. “Some of us went on to do other things, but we were just kind of waiting to see how Jon was going to be, or how weak or strong was he was going to be. We did go into the studio together, and it was tough to see because he would be exhausted. He’d hit the snare drum three times and have to go lie down. He really wanted to be involved, but then he’d have to go for chemotherapy.”
Brookes’ final contribution to the Charlatans can be heard on “Walk With Me,” a bonus track on the deluxe edition of Modern Nature. Elsewhere, drums are provided by Gabe Guernsey of Factory Floor, Stephen Morris of New Order, and Pete Salisbury, formerly of the Verve and for the past several years, touring drummer with the Charlatans.
“It was such a dark time, but after the Royal Albert Hall Show I think something had been lifted, like (Brookes) was still there but just in a different dimension,” Burgess said. “I think it’s my favorite, Modern Nature.”
Modern Nature was also the first Charlatans album which saw Burgess bring songs to the other members that he’d written on guitar, a quality that came in handy after the group finished an extensive world tour in support of their 2017 album Different Days. Burgess’ forthcoming album was also informed by the release of As I Was Now, an album recorded with friends like Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine), Joshua Hayward (the Horrors), Martin Duffy (Primal Scream/Felt), Steffan Halperin (Klaxons) and Ladyhawke between Christmas and New Year’s 2008, but which remained in the vaults until a limited blue vinyl dropped on Burgess’ O Genesis label for Record Store Day in April 2018.
“It did really well,” Burgess said. “The blue vinyl became a black vinyl, and then there was a second repress of the black vinyl. In January (2019) for independent venue week I did a 10-day tour with Average Sex opening, and then they became my band and we did As I Was Now and a few Tim Burgess solo tracks. And I got really invigorated by that.”
I Love the New Sky will be released on Bella Union on May 22, and though he’s recorded a handful of albums outside of the Charlatans, it’s the first Burgess has composed solely on his own. I Believe, Burgess’ first solo album, was released in 2003, and was largely a songwriting collaboration with producer Kevin Dotson, a.k.a. Linus of Hollywood. Oh No I Love You (2012) was written in collaboration with Kurt Wagner of Lambchop. Next came Same Language, Different Worlds (2016), credited to Burgess and experimental composer and musician Peter Gordon, who’d previously worked with Arthur Russell, Laurie Anderson, David Johansen, Elliott Smith and Suzanne Vega.
Which brings us to I Love the New Sky, an album entirely composed in early 2019 by Burgess, with contributions by musicians like Daniel O’Sullivan (Grumbling Fur), Thighpaulsandra, and Nik Void (Factory Floor).
“I didn’t want to be known as a collaborator guy,” said Burgess. “I wanted to do something at home surrounded by things that I love, records, guitar, computer, and just spend time from January to February.”
But the year saw Burgess once again experience loss; Darryl Weeks, founder of StageFright Publicity who worked with the Charlatans, was helping Burgess launch O Genesis North America when he suddenly passed away that February. Allan Burgess, Tim’s father, who passed away in early April of this year, was taken ill. And Burgess also lamented having “fallen out with some people that I’ve known for a long time.” And yet he also had happiness in 2019.
“Apart from all that, I had the best year,” Burgess said. “There’s lots of new adventures, and a massive palette to drawn from emotionally and the songs kept coming.”
Tracks were recorded with longtime Charlatans engineer Jim Spencer at Eve Studios in Stockport, with a few (like second single “The Mall”) cut at Rockfield, where some of Tellin’ Stories was produced.
“Rockfield was just such a revelation,” said Burgess. “And I don’t sound anything like I did when I was singing Tellin’ Stories, but there was a something there and I’m sure it’s like the tight reverb that makes me sound massive. And it’s just gorgeous.”
Unlike his time there with the Charlatans, Burgess’ return to Rockfield was something of a surgical strike.
“In the past the charlatans have been in big studios and worked slowly, and cheap studios and worked slowly,” Burgess said. “But the whole record was energized because we are in great studios but working really fast because of the budget. I didn’t want a massive budget anyway. It’s ridiculous.”
Burgess, no stranger to shining a light through the darkness, is hoping the inherent joy found in the grooves of I Love the New Sky will make its mark.
“I’m hoping by the time it comes out there is a new sky and it looks like it’s smiling,” Burgess said. “Brexit was going on when I was recording it as well. I’m sure you can probably guess that I wasn’t into the idea of leaving Europe. And I thought maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow to a nicer time after all this terrible stuff, but then the coronavirus came along. And after coronavirus and after Brexit maybe there will be a new sky and it’ll be wonderful.”
Burgess said he’s already seen a new sky in how people are pulling together to pull through the pandemic.
“People have been kinder,” he said. “Obviously there’s bad stuff going on as well, and it’s terrible for people who are losing close ones. But I think kindness is the thing that’s happening, and people are being warmer towards each other.”
And that’s Burgess’ modus operandi. It was even before Brexit and the coronavirus. Mellow out and be kind to one another. For those of us hoping to find our way to that frame of mind right now, Burgess has been there for years. It started over a decade ago with Transcendental Meditation.
“I gave up drinking in 2008, and this was about a year after that,” Burgess said. “And I was feeling pretty empty. I’d been drinking all the time I was in the band and partying all the time I was in the band. And it kind of just got to the point where I had to stop. But when you clean your body out of all that you just feel like an empty shell.”
Burgess was sober, but still trying to fill a void left by the absence of drink and drugs.
“I was having a party at my flat when I lived in London,” he said. “There were about 10 people there and everyone was doing drugs and everyone was drunk, and I was not drinking. I was sober, but I still liked the idea of having parties. I was sat in the corner and a friend of mine came over and she mentioned the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and she mentioned David Lynch, she mentioned Transcendental Meditation. My experience with that was watching Beatles videos with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and I always enjoyed that time with the Beatles where they go to India and they write The White Album.”
“The moment now, the quiet time is what meditators really try to get. Within, as opposed to everybody always looking outwards for everything, like what’s the next thing, or what’s best.
Transcendental Meditation also rekindled Burgess’ longtime love of music.
“For me music has always been my number one thing, but when I was kind of going through my heavy rock and roll says, I lost the love of listening to records,” he said. “I was in trouble, really. And I think a lot of that was down to because I didn’t really mourn Rob’s death properly. I don’t think any of us did. I think we kind of carried on. It took 10 years of trying to repair ourselves, but it was a psychological head-fuck But once I’d given up drugs and drinking, my love of music came back. And by that coming back, it just made me feel like this is what I am, a conduit of music and records.”
Burgess said meditation is still absolutely vital to him, and as with the Twitter listening parties, it can be an unbelievably powerful experience when shared with others.
“I meditate every day, twice a day, on my own,” he said. “I’ve meditated in the past with 10 people and it’s a little more powerful. I’ve meditated with about a hundred people, and that really changes things. And I feel the same kind of thing when I put the record on, and I just feel the power not for me but the connectivity, the actual feeling that people are doing something and sharing this thing in this strange, strange time.”
If you’re new to meditating, Burgess said social distancing and self-isolation may have inadvertently created an ideal atmosphere for trying it out.
“It’s the perfect time now to meditate because of the stillness that we’re experiencing and the quiet,” he said. “The moment now, the quiet time is what meditators really try to get. Within, as opposed to everybody always looking outwards for everything, like what’s the next thing, or what’s best. It’s about looking within yourself and finding the power within.”
Burgess will carry on meditating for the rest of his life. And for the foreseeable future, perhaps until it’s safe to go out and shop for records, hang out with friends in person, hear live music, he’ll keep serving as compere for Tim’s Twitter Listening Party. While other musicians have sought to connect through different means, Burgess said this feels right for him.
“It’s everything,” he said. “I don’t feel like I should be putting on an acoustic performance of my new album for people to see. The Twitter parties it felt like something, I don’t want to say slightly more original, but I think people can engage by responding, as opposed to just listening to me play songs averagely without the rest of the band who made the record. I think it connects with people because it’s simple we all put the record on at the same time all over the world. But in the same moment. And the power of that is astonishing. You can almost feel it.”
Follow Tim Burgess on Twitter (@Tim_Burgess) and join in the listening party.