The 1990s proved a false economy for British indie rock bands. Initially there was a flash of success, but it invariably turned out to be impossible to maintain, either due to inter-band fighting (Oasis, The Verve) or mounting public apathy (just about everyone else).
Most bands from that era are now reduced to crossing their fingers that a reunion will trigger some latent nostalgic impulse among their fans as they roll into middle age; or they optimistically tour anniversary versions of the one album people seemed to care about. It is – as Les McQueen, bitter erstwhile member of Creme Brulee in The League Of Gentlemen, put it – “a shit business”.
You’ve got to give somebody a fucking reason to want to buy another Stereophonics album
Outliers, less in their music than in their career, Stereophonics have managed to avoid these pitfalls. Six of their last nine albums have gone to No 1 in the UK and only 2009’s Keep Calm & Carry On failed to make the top 10, scraping in at 11. They are about to release Scream Above The Sounds, their 10th album in 20 years, and set off on yet another arena tour. Mocked at the time for their “meat and potatoes rock”, they have proved resilient against the odds.
“You’ve got to give somebody a fucking reason to want to buy another Stereophonics album,” says Kelly Jones, the band’s singer, guitarist and chief songwriter, on how they have ring-fenced their success. “There are 10 of them out there so you don’t want them all to sound the same.”
The band’s nerve centre lies behind a nondescript door in a residential street in West London. Once inside, it’s like a rock TARDIS that takes in two reception spaces, a control room and a main studio (with a drum room downstairs). It sits as a band timeline, with posters for each of their albums and assorted awards taking up one room.
It is also like a cross-section of the band’s musical and cinematic influences, with posters of Neil Young, Bullit, The Odd Couple, AC/DC, Frank Sinatra and The Million-Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash) positioned as lightning rods to pull down the source code for the music they make.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Like a raspy-voiced Dorian Gray and dressed in a grey plaid shirt with black jeans, Jones appears to have not aged in the 20 years since Word Gets Around, the band’s debut album and first rush of success. Propped up on the stereo is the CD case of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that Jones is quick to explain away as belonging to the cleaner, pointing pleadingly instead to the Beatles LP on the turntable as a more telling selection.
The band formed in 1992 in Cwmaman in Wales (population: 1,000) with local boys Richard Jones on bass and Stuart Cable on drums. Cable was sacked in 2003 but tragically died in 2010 after a drinking binge. His face is everywhere you look around the band’s HQ, a spectral presence linking the band back to their earliest struggles and triumphs.
For them, the past is an unshakeable constant. Jones has a panoramic shot of their home village on the office wall as a reminder of his origins, pointing out the house where he grew up and where his parents still live. In the other room is a life-size photo of his father, also a musician, with Roy Orbison when he supported him in the 1970s.
Despite living in West London since 2000, his Welsh lilt has not been bleached out. What strikes him most on trips home is the growing economic deprivation in rural Wales. “It’s got a lot less money now than when I was there and there’s a lot less work now the factories have gone,” he says. “All the lidos have been crushed and turned into something else.”
Given how reliant it has been on European subsidies, he’s dumfounded that the majority of Wales voted for Brexit. “They all got lied to,” he says of the political duplicity that went on last year. “Boris Johnson promised us £350m a week [for the NHS] and they sent out a little pamphlet with a map of Turkey on it and talking about all the immigrants coming in.”
Brexit literally split his family. “My mother voted out and my father voted in – and they live in the same fucking house, man! I told them for years how much money the Welsh Assembly got from Europe. The whole of South Wales’ entertainment and arts is funded by Europe.”
The whole of South Wales’ entertainment and arts is funded by Europe
Jones himself received three grants from the Prince’s Trust to help start his music career in the early 1990s but fears for the next generation of working-class creative people who will have such opportunities shut off for them amid relentless slashing to arts budgets.
“I’ve spoken to people in schools in Wales about why they want to be taking music out of the school curriculum to save money and why they’ve closed down youth clubs,” he says.
“Taking music out of schools is wrong. You have a silent room then you put some music on and people immediately feel some emotion. If you start taking that away from young children because of economics, I think it’s fucking ridiculous. That’s what music is for.”
From the Welsh backwaters to sharing stages with rock’s A-list, theirs is a story of confounding the odds – like when they supported David Bowie on his Reality tour in 2003.
“He was an amazing guy,” recalls Jones. “He’d watch our soundcheck and we’d chat to him. We even had a fucking five-a-side football match. Bowie was very, very down to earth on that tour. He was just walking around bored most of the time. Just trying to keep himself interested.”
On the studio wall is a photo of Jones with Paul McCartney, Kanye West and Bono as a reminder of how far music has carried him. Did he ever get the famous Bono Talk, where the diminutive and self-regarding Irish bellower dispenses unsolicited life and career advice?
“Bono told me that if I found myself surrounded by a bunch of people on the table and if eight out of 10 of them are on your payroll you have probably become a prick,” says Jones. “You do find yourself counting them!”
Bowie watched our soundcheck and we’d chat to him. We even had a five-a-side football match
Critics might not have liked his band (his song Mr Writer is a somewhat clumsy rebuttal of bad reviews) but he knows the audience do and have most assuredly not deserted them. Yet he got the ultimate validation earlier this year when Bob Dylan – an artist whose music he grew up immersed in – named Stereophonics as one of his favourite modern acts.
“It was a bit surreal,” he says, still metaphorically scratching his head as to how it happened. “I was obviously flattered. I mean, he’s the fucking Shakespeare of music. I don’t know what side of the band he likes or what he had been listening to. But to get a namecheck was very exciting.”
Jones says he wrote a lot of the band’s new album on piano – an instrument he is not strictly au fait with – as a means of breaking the muscle memory that comes from decades of writing on guitar. He’s under no illusions that he’s reinventing the wheel musically but knows that small tinkering with the template has helped them avoid the trap door marked “Nostalgia Act”. It’s different enough to hold the audience’s interest but not so different as to spook them.
What might sound like creative ossification is actually a hard trick to pull off. And it’s the thing that has kept his band at arena level for years when their peers have fallen into cabaret or obscurity.
“You can’t get too comfortable in doing what you’re doing,” he says of their survival instinct, “because people can smell it.”
Scream Above The Sounds is out now on Stylus Records. The Stereophonics’ 15-date UK & Ireland arena tour starts on February 23 in Aberdeen