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Cover Story: Tim Burgess

| June 2, 2020

Benjamin Disraeli believed that “Change is inevitable; change is constant.” John F. Kennedy reckoned that “Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” But leave it to Charles Darwin to summarize it best: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent — it is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” It’s time-worn wisdom to which Tim Burgess can easily relate. As the current coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the world over the past three months, the Charlatans UK frontman quickly came to realize that every comfortable nuance in a musician’s life would be upended, stifled, even squelched, possibly forever. He knew that he needed a bracing new business model in order to survive. Little did he know, though, that he already possessed such skills. And he’d had them for years.

Now, it’s become a full-blown pop-cultural phenomenon, and a quiescent comfort to rock fans everywhere as they nervously shelter in place — Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties, nightly online events that playback one classic album. At the same time, a key band member discusses it in real-time. Kind of like regular fireside chats for the alt-rock set. In fact, Burgess, 53, has become so busy arranging this unexpected flurry of activities that he’s barely had time to promote his adventurous new solo set, I Love the New Sky, his fifth. And anyway, where could he even go to book a concert to tout it? “But I’d been doing these parties for a decade, but only for Charlatans records, starting with our 1990 debut Some Friendly, he recalls of his first tentative dealings with social media. “I’d do a listening party every time it was a record’s birthday, and people in Britain really seemed to like it. But largely — apart from Charlatans fans — they went unnoticed, so maybe 1,000 people would listen in, and we’d all listen at the same time, and people seemed to get quite a lot of enjoyment out of it.”

But everything changed a couple of months ago. Burgess was innocently overseeing his usual Some Friendly discussion on Twitter when he happened to catch the attention of one longtime chum from Scotland, Alex Kapranos from Franz Ferdinand, who had purchased said album as a teenager and fallen in love with its dreamy Madchester-Scene single, “The Only One I Know.” Would it be possible, he wondered, to do his own FF-centered Listening Party the very next night? Sure, the Charlatan agreed, no problem. By that point, he’d lined up Blur’s Dave Rowntree to chat about that group’s Parklife, and Evening Four featured no less than Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs, reflecting on Oasis’ legendary Definitely Maybe. And it never slowed down from there. “Within four days, it became newsworthy everywhere, and within a week Rolling Stone was reporting about it,” he says. “So it’s kind of like the slowest overnight sensation ever — an overnight, ten-year sensation. But it worked well with the Twitter platform, being shared with other people — people took it as a genuine thing, this sharing thing that was bringing people together who liked all different kinds of music. And it’s only gotten more and more varied, and more things keep cropping up every day.” Now Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties are scheduled for 8:00, 9:00, and 10:00 every weeknight, with bonus ‘Festival’ multi-artist programs on weekends.

Burgess even used one recent Listening Party to premiere his own New Sky offering, which caroms from the Cure-thumping opener “Empathy For the Devil” to a Beach Boys-jangly “Sweetheart Mercury,” an Elton John-retro “Sweet Old Sorry Me,” a dream-pop experiment called “Lucky Creatures,” the Beatles-reverb-evocative “Undertow,” and “I Got This,” which the composer sees as the most vintage-Charlatans-sounding track in the set. He penned all 12 songs himself, curbing his usually collaborative urges, and incorporated varied musicians like Daniel O’Sullivan on bass, drums and piano, and Thighpaulsandra on additional keyboards. One delicate minuet, “Only Took a Year,” pokes tongue-in-cheek fun at the amount of time it took him to write it. “I sit in a bedroom, and I try to write this song,” he sings of the process that turned out to be a tad more difficult than he’d imagined. But, left to his own devices in the Norfolk countryside, with the nearest market being a modest eight miles away, he discovered another whole new skill set he didn’t realize he had. He checked in from his retreat recently to discuss it all.

IE: You’re in Norfolk, home-schooling your son. How’s that going?

TIM BURGESS: How’s it going? Err, it’s not going amazing. But I don’t wanna be one of those super-amazing parents that have charts on the wall to mark the progress of their child. And it’s not easy, especially when the parents are trying to work, as well. So I’ve just been teaching him about the environment, and we talk about the coronavirus a little bit. And he loves volcanoes, too. He’s seven, so we go and play some videos, as well. But it is hard, isn’t it? And I don’t even know what’s going to happen when they let us all out again, but I’m gonna take it very, very carefully. Because they’re probably opening the doors too early, aren’t they?

IE: Some folks have said it’s Mother Nature, putting humanity in the penalty box before it gets one more chance.

TB: And I kind of welcomed it, in a way. I wasn’t afraid of it. And I’m sorry for anyone who’s lost anybody during this pandemic, of course. But I was kind of like …well, I just wasn’t afraid of it. And I think I might have had it, but I have no idea how. For me, we went to New York, and we were going to go to South By Southwest, but while I was in New York, it was building and building and building. So we played four shows for this new solo album, and then we had two days off. Then all of a sudden, on the last day before leaving, all the cafes there started doing only takeout — they wouldn’t let anybody sit in the cafes. And we thought, “Wow! This is getting pretty crazy!” There were only 60 people in the city who had it at that point. And then I started getting a cough and not feeling too good, so I was sent on a plane back home. And I got back home and was in bed for about five days, so what else could it be? I don’t know. But if I had it, it was probably a mild strain of it, but I still had a pretty intense fever, leg pain, and chest and kidney pain — just a really heavy aching in my chest. So those were the last shows I played. And who knows when concerts are going to happen again?

IE: Are your folks still around?

TB: No, my dad died a week ago. It was Parkinson’s, and he was in a home when he died. So it wasn’t anything to do with the coronavirus. But he had a different kind of Parkinson’s, called subnuclear palsy or something like that. [Ed. note: Progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, is a rare neurodegenerative disease that is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s disease because its symptoms are similar]. And from diagnosis, they gave him three or four years to live. But it turned out to be seven.

IE: I’m very sorry for your loss, losing a parent is tough no matter what the circumstances. The last time we spoke, it was all about your brand of coffee, Tim Peaks.

TB: Oh, yeah! But I don’t know now. With my friend, I do this thing called Tim’s Diner at Kendall Calling, Every year, Kendall Calling has a festival, a three-day event, and we book the bands, bands that I like; friends of mine, DJs, or people who have books coming out. And we sell coffee there, and all of the proceeds go to the David Lynch Foundation for Transcendental Meditation. And last year, just on the sale of coffee over those three days, we made over 10,000 pounds, and the two years before that, about the same. And it just means so much to me to be able to do that. But as far as turning the coffee into an enterprise, it’s not happening. I’m not doing that. It started off as being something I do as merchandise for the website to put out. But then I gave it to a company in Yorkshire, who do Yorkshire tea, so they’re making it now. So there was no cash incentive for me in any of that — it was just a thing I did for the festival – a nice circular thing where people actually benefit because they get to learn about Transcendental Meditation. So that’s kind of it — it just makes me feel good.

IE: And you practice TM, of course.

TB: Yeah, I do. And I feel like I really need it. Things are busy here. I’ve got my partner, Nik, and she’s in a band called Factory Floor and they’re on DFA, and she’s doing solo stuff. And then I’ve got my other friend, who I do Tim Peaks with, and he’s been helping me with these Listening Parties. And when I meditate, I’ve got all those things on my mind, but then all of those thoughts start to pull into place. And there are lots of moments on my new album — elaborate, theatrical moments — that I don’t think I would have been able to bring together otherwise—especially one that combines electronics with folk guitar and three-chord punk stuff. And the song “The Warhol Me,” of course, reminds me of the Velvets. But with everything involved, I do feel like it sounds like a record, even though it’s got all these crazy things that are going on with it. Well, not CRAZY, because people can make very far out, amazing records. So it’s a solo record, but I’m trying to bring everything I love into one place.

IE: Your Listening Parties should do a series on one-hit wonders, like Fuzzbox, or even Kenickie, whose frontwoman Lauren Laverne went on to a big career in radio.

TB: I feel like I have to ask Lauren Laverne because I feel like she would be upset if I didn’t. Like Nick McCabe from The Verve — I said, “I know you’re probably not gonna do it. But I just have to ask you — Do you wanna do it?” And he said he’d think about it. And I was like, “Fine. Just as long as you know that I’ve asked you.” But now everyone wants to do one. Paul Weller did one, Mike Skinner from the Streets. Weller’s a really good guy.

IE: What about Liam and Noel Gallagher?

TB: I dunno about that. Bonehead did such an amazing job. But there were rumors that Liam WAS going to get involved, but then I think he started going to bed early, actually. But who knows? Maybe he thinks that me and Bonehead did such a good job that he might actually spoil it.

IE: In “Undertow,” you say, “I’m through with counting all the friends that I can count on.”

TB: It’s a great lyric, and it’s actually not referring to social media, but just to **life. I made the whole album in a year, and during that year, I made friends with a lot more people than I fell out with. But there definitely was some fallout with friendships. There was a friend of mine, post-school, and I’d really been bothered by the friendship for a long time. And I could have lived with it the way it was, but then something happened that pushed it over the edge. And then I just couldn’t live with it anymore.

IE: And you have a song called “The Mall.” In the future, your grandkids will gather at your feet and ask for you to tell them fables of the old days when kids went to a tribal gathering place called ‘The Mall.’

TB: I know! Because people won’t be allowed to congregate anywhere anymore [laughs]!

– Tom Lanham

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