"It's All In There, You've Just Got To Figure It Out!" The Coral Interviewed
With a prolific music career spanning more than two decades prodigious psychedelic indie-rock group The Coral have plenty of sounds, themes and imagery in their creative baggage to build on and take inspiration from. There has been a drive to mark the tenth album with a celebratory project, a back to basics level statement, and the new ambitious double record greatly fits the scale of their musicianship and vision.
With some inspiration rooted in iconic projects like the ‘White Album’ by The Beatles ‘Coral Island’ is a sparkling, theme focused effort from the Wirral Peninsula based five-piece, who sound stronger, and even more unstoppable than before. This big undertaking represented a window of opportunity to try out ideas in new ways and explore outer limits of their creativity.
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Reliving the moment when the initial idea came to the band, songwriter and producer James Skelly is happy to let me in to some writing tips. We talk about how a drive from Blackpool set off the thought of channelling all individual ideas from one location, and let that be a place where stories and imagery could emerge from. “From there it just kept growing while we were making it, it was always growing, one idea would lead to the next idea, and then another idea.”
This is not hard to imagine, and perhaps some of it comes down to the strong visual identity found in The Coral’s music, and songwriter Nick Power feels the close to cinematic dimension shines through their music. “That is the music I enjoy the most really, when you hear something, and you can see what looks like a scene from a film in your mind, the music that does that usually is my favourite music”, he tells me.
Initially viewing it as the release of two separate albums, two albums ended up becoming one double album led by two headings presented as ‘Welcome to’ and ‘The Ghost’ of Coral Island. The process of pulling the project together was also accompanied by the awareness of having discovered all they want to discover as a band, they have been lucky enough to go down the album route nine times previously, but with the double album format followed a novel, vibrant approach, instigating different methods.
The creative urgency to depict atmospheres of what Nick describes as “ultimate, forgotten seaside towns” is the group’s celebration of old Northern pier towns as well as some of the “old ‘50s fairgrounds that sprang up without permits from the council.” To some degree these images represented nostalgic memories the musicians were exposed to in early childhood such as holidays around North Wales and excursions to various parts of the north of England, and memories of Brighton, another place they frequently went to.
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Nick wrote a book to accompany the album, and storytelling frequents most songs in their voluminous repertoire, in this instance they were keen to take the discipline to the next level. Recruiting a storyteller to introduce was a priority, which led to the inclusion of Ian Murray, James and Ian Skelly’s grandad, who is 85, popping in to narrate some scripted lines. His contribution adds fine character and pace, and he supports the structure, adding an extra layer of finesse and humour to the production.
The band liked the idea of the focusing the first part of the recording on the faster songs, at large portraying the vibe around old jukeboxes and arcades, while the second half of the record zooms in on characters, who are there ‘on location’. A place where language is one of rich creativity and imagination, the need for songs that brim with life and colour is in equal demand.
The mesmerising ‘Old Photographs’ has an intimate, personal touch. For James, it was about capturing the emotional sensation you often get when looking through old photographs. It is a feeling of experiencing another world through them, and the stories they can tell. “It was like that set me off there and then,” he recalls. “Or you get an idea, and then you can just let the song capture the mood of that, it might be people you’ve never known, but you feel connected to them.”
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James wanted the song ‘Watch You Disappear’ to echo artists such as Geoff Goddard and Del Shannon. Talking about the atmosphere he was aiming for, he says he “was trying to get a pre-Beatles sound, a ghostly rock 'n' roll sound, and project the idea of a haunted peer. It’s in the mood. There is just something about an open fairground, and that feeling you get inside.”
While each Coral member contributes to the process of writing songs, a considerable chunk of the production duties are led by James and Ian. With James producing records for bands and solo artists, when he is not engaging with Coral activities, he says that he views music production as a way of giving a helping hand to bands. Knowing how much he likes putting things together, he is inspired by a career like that of singer-songwriter and producer Smokey Robinson, stressing he is not the sort of person, who likes to sit around the house, he prefers to keep busy.
He has seen enough to know that many artists understand the instant need to deliver when they are the studio, and they don’t like to mess around. “Sometimes you’ve got a day to do a song, but I like that. I like the old school way of it, you’ve got whatever comes out, this is what you end up with.”
It is the process of “figuring things out” that makes him tick. In the early days, when he was learning to play the guitar, he was always more interested in learning the chords than aspiring to be the lead guitarist in a band. “Everything is like a puzzle, like a Rubik cube,” he considers. “It's all in there, you’ve just got to figure it out, when it doesn’t fit, I arrange it to make sense. That is how my brain works, and with songs, I can make things make sense, and I make it all fit. It is like an escape, in a way.”
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At least one band share many values of The Coral, and the two bands are friends. Blossoms have established themselves as a bright young British band, with a level of commercial success that seems to represent a suitable match to the artistic career they desire. It is not an easy balance to archive, nor maintain, but the Stockport based five-piece have identified an effective recipe.
James produces records for Blossoms – among others. He is a great believer in them as people as well as their music, they have grown very close. “They are just like mates, when they are in the studio, it feels so easy,” he says. “Me and Tom will talk about songs, I’ll teach him stuff, he’ll teach me stuff. They are young kids, and there are mistakes that I made that I don’t want them to make.” Admiring their work ethic, there is a similar determination to hard work and an underlying unwillingness to compromise when it comes to the music.
Collectively all these specific traits and activities point toward The Coral’s strengths and core skillset. The one all-consuming characteristic is the band’s approach to writing, where mesmeric arrangements and immersive use of production styles come with a genre-fluidity that underpins the body of work. Not being too dramatic, it is a complete music package, and there is an argument that they could be one of the last groups to tick these qualitive measures on such a noticeable scale.
For this record the visual dimension needed to as strong as it could be to compute with the creative vision. While the admiration for thematic albums was there already, they needed to get a great artist involved to help shape the design, and British artist Edwin Burdis happened to be that individual. Tasked with the activity of building Coral Island, the image for the album sleeve, Burdis did the work on top of a Chinese restaurant in Cardiff while the musicians wrote the more character based parts of the record. As they became fully immersed in the work, the artwork took shape at a similar pace.
It felt easy, it was fun, it is possible that the key to the band’s success is their creative ease. The longevity is a different thing altogether, how and why did they remain a tight unit for more than twenty years? It takes more than loyalty, although that plays a part too, the question remains open for potential demystification, with Nick attributing it to having the ability to remain interested as well as interesting. “You’ve got to be in healthy competition with each other, you’ve got to inspire each other to keep coming up with things, that is important, if one of you give up, then maybe things will change.
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Fair play to them, there was a hiatus of five years between 2011 to 2016, when they realised they needed time for recuperation. During this period, in 2014, tragedy struck, as their mentor Alan Wills, the founder of Deltasonic Records, died very suddenly having suffered serious head injuries in a cycle accident three days before. Reflecting on the time when they all met up again, Nick says: “I don’t think it nearly came out in music, but we all came together, and we hadn’t seen each other for a long time.”
But the event of Bill Ryder-Jones leaving the band in 2008 is reflected in the music they put out around that time, and according to Nick, the tension can in fact be heard through “loads of pain and settlements.”
“For the first time since the first album, it feels completely settled and sorted and in the best place The Coral can be. It’s still a chaotic place, but at least you know everyone is looking in the same direction.” He views the periods they take off as important as the times they spend together, it strengthens the core bond between them, it strengthens them and makes them feel ready to go again.
Knowing themselves, and what they are like as people, and as dedicated fans of culture in all forms – music, film, literature and visual art – is a substantial part of who they are, and Nick believes it goes some way toward explaining how they manage to stay fresh and inspired. “We love films and bands, it is part of what we do when we get together, we listen and talk about it, just like fans do. When we are on tour, we are always in record shops, comedy shops and cinemas, we are collectors and enthusiasts.”
Their fan-like enthusiasm is a nutrient that feeds into their popularity as musicians in a music industry that has changed dramatically since they first emerged in early 2000. On one level, James deems the current music industry as better, more easily adaptable to their ways of working, and how they like to make music. “I think this landscape would have been quite suited for us, when we first came out. We were coming out of a different time, when it was more built to big rock bands than the way we wanted to do stuff. Now, you can release an album in different ways, using different formats. It all seems more geared towards creativity, it’s almost like you’re given a reward for it.”
Right now The Coral are in a healthy place, they are free to continue their expansive creative explorations, free to be as prolific as they always have been. As long as it remains as vibrant a journey to them as it continues to be from our perspective, then that is all that really matters.
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'Coral Island' will be released on April 30th.
Words: Susan Hansen
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