Norman Blake, a Scottish singer and songwriter with Teenage Fanclub chats with Kevin Cooper about meeting Little Richard, growing up with The Wombles, their latest album Endless Arcade and their forthcoming tour of the UK.

Norman Blake is a Scottish singer, instrumentalist and songwriter with the Glasgow based band, Teenage Fanclub.

Blake was a member of the Glasgow group The Pretty Flowers, and when the group split in 1986 he formed Boy Hairdressers. The original line up really just comprised Blake but he was joined by three future members of Teenage Fanclub, Raymond McGinley, Francis Macdonald and Paul Quinn (who later left the band in 2000). They recorded just the one EP.

Blake had a stint with other bands such as BMX Bandits and The Clouds, before forming Teenage Fanclub with McGinley, later enlisting McDonald and Gerard Love in 1989. Blake’s best loved songs for Teenage Fanclub included Straight And Narrow, Alcoholiday, Did I Say and Neil Jung.

Blake has collaborated with many other artists, such as Eugene Kelly as The Famous Monsters, and more recently has recorded and co-written with Euros Childs forming indie super duo Jonny. In 2018 he produced the debut (and only) album, Things That Roar, by Manchester band The Beep Seals.

As of 2021, Teenage Fanclub have released twelve studio albums and two compilation albums. They have played support for Nirvana in 1992 on their Nevermind Tour and for Radiohead on their 1997 OK Computer Tour. They also played support for the Foo Fighters on their 2015 Old Trafford Cricket Ground gig.

Blake was also a prominent feature in the 2017 documentary Teenage Superstars which featured Teenage Fanclub’s early days.

Whilst busy rehearsing for their forthcoming tour, Blake took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Norman, good morning. How are you today?

I’m very well thanks Kevin; it’s a very sunny day up here in Glasgow, but having said that it’s still rather chilli. But it’s really not too bad at all. I suppose that I am obviously like everybody else, worried about what is currently going on in the world; it’s just awful. I’m just trying to get on with things the best that I can. It’s funny but I actually played a show recently with James Grant from Love And Money and Bernard Butler form Suede; we have got this little act that I put together, just the three of us and all of the stuff that is going on in the world has been playing on my mind. So I have to say that it was just great to be able to get out there and play a show and kind of forget about that stuff for a couple of hours. I think that it shows us just how important music and the arts are in these current times, and that’s not me trying to trivialise what is happening in the Ukraine in any way at all.

What annoys me is that it is always down to the artists to point out just how important music is to the well being of the people. Why don’t the politicians do it?

I simply don’t know. But what I can say with some degree of certainty is that music most definitely helps people in times like these. Music, art, literature, whatever, reminds us that there is beauty and there are good things out there, through all of this senseless and needless conflict. These really are awful times.

That is so very true. Anyway, before we go any further let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure so there is no problem, no problem at all Kevin. In fact I have to say that I am actually surprised that you are interested in talking to me (laughter).

I know that you have briefly touched on the current problems in the world but, in general, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Thankfully, things are not bad actually, thanks for asking. People are always asking me “what are your hobbies outside of the band” and I always reply with “I like guitars, and I like buying records” and to be totally honest with you, I feel that I am extremely privileged to be able to do what I do because I really do enjoy making music. The fact that we are still doing it and that we are still around making albums after all this time, I really do feel very privileged to be able to do that. So, I have to say that life is good because we are still playing, we are still making records, and we are still touring, although touring, I have to say, has been difficult.

When you think that the current album actually came out last year, but because of the pandemic, we didn’t actually get to tour the album. That meant that for the first time ever, we didn’t get to tour an album. So, it is going to be great for us to be able to get back out on the road and actually play some shows. I suppose that there are two sides to being a musician; it really is great fun making records, but there is nothing quite like playing the songs to a live audience, playing those new songs. That really does give you a real thrill.

What did you get up to during lockdown to keep you active and occupied?

To be honest with you, there were lots of walks, when we were allowed to actually do that then I did lots of walking. Also, if you have a guitar and you are a musician, then playing that is a great way to keep yourself sane (laughter). I did a lot of reading; I really do love reading. I suppose that I had a little routine that I got myself into and tried to stick to. Last October I did catch Covid and here’s the thing, my daughter has just tested positive for Covid this morning. She’s fine, but it just goes to show that you have to make the best of it don’t you and get on with it. I was lucky in that fact that I was fully double vaccinated, but I hadn’t been given the booster at that time.

I felt rubbish for a few days, but it wasn’t too bad. I feel very lucky because many people didn’t have that outcome. So, having a set routine was the way that I managed to get through the lockdown. Rightly or wrongly I also find that humour is good to have around during these times. Earlier I saw a load of Ukrainian jokes about the Russian invasion, and I thought ‘that is what keeps people sane, humour’ and I find that it is good to do that.

The British are well known for their gallows humour.

Yes, they are, definitely, for sure. The Brits have always done it and I think that it’s good, I like it.

You have briefly mentioned the latest album, Endless Arcade and I have to say that I have been playing it for the last couple of weeks and I love it, I think that it is a great piece of work.

Thank you, that is very kind of you. For us it is a great privilege to still be writing songs and the fact that people are still interested in listening to them after all of this time is really pleasing for us. I have to say that we are, at this moment in time, actually working on another record. I think that there was a thing with our band, and I think that this happens with all bands. During the early period of the band you are constantly writing, and you will most probably have a new album out every eight months to a year. However, after a few years that eventually tapers off. With us we were actually releasing a new album every five years or so.

So, when I look at people like Paul Weller and Nick Cave, people who are, shall we say, older artists, who have become more productive than they ever were. Paul Weller, for example, puts out a new album every year now. We looked at that and thought ‘we should be doing that; we should be working more’. We are lucky to be able to do what we do, but sadly, we all have a finite amount of time to work and also to live. So, we have decided that we are intending to be more productive, play as often as we can, record as much music as we can, while we can.

A word of warning, just do not try to keep up with a certain Mr Bonamassa’s output (laughter).

(Laughter) I know exactly what you mean, I honestly do. However, I have to say that I find it amazing that certain people are incredibly prolific.

I think that Joe releases an album a week doesn’t he (laughter).

(Laughter) I know what you mean and let me tell you, it certainly feels like that. Having said that, writing and recording albums is most probably what keeps Joe sane actually. For him just to have that routine and be constantly working on something, most probably helps with his mental health. If you look at someone like Paul Weller, who recently came out and announced to the world that he was an alcoholic, keeping busy and writing is probably productive and helps to combat that. It’s good that he has finally found something that he is obsessed with and addicted to (laughter). That is not a bad thing to do if you are a song writer, just keep making music.

I certainly feel that way too. I am happiest whenever I am out on the road touring, or when I am making a record. I feel as though I have some purpose. It’s great being a musician and it is a great way to make a living, but you do have periods of inactivity, when you are not writing, you are not recording, and you are not touring. There is a lack of routine and sometimes it can be very difficult throughout those periods. During those periods you don’t have any sense of purpose. So, we are going to be out touring very soon and I am really looking forward to that because I feel right in my comfort zone whenever we are out touring.

On the subject of the album, are you and the rest of the boys happy with it?

Yes, or at least I think we are (laughter). The first rule that we have as a band is if we are not happy with something then we simply won’t release it. We have always tried to be as honest with ourselves as we can be. If we ever get to the end of the recording process and we don’t think that something is good enough then we wouldn’t release it. We are now putting albums out ourselves and we actually pay for all of the recording as we have our own record label, and we don’t have a major label behind us paying the bills. So, I think that if we ever got to the point where we don’t feel as though we were making good records anymore, I feel that we would stop doing that.

However, I feel that so far, and up to this point, we can get behind everything that we have released. As I mentioned earlier, we are currently working on some new material, and I have to say that, in my opinion, that is sounding good as well. We all seem to be happy with it, but you just never know just how the people are going to receive it. You just hope that people are going to like it and identify with the music that you are releasing, but you just never know. There is always a funny period a month before you actually put a record out there. It is all done and it’s all finished, and you sit there and think ‘okay here we go, let’s see what happens’ (laughter). Like I say, you just never know, but we have been lucky so far in the fact that the people appear to like the music that we have made.

The fans reviews that I have read so far are all saying that they think that it is your best work to date. Would you agree with that?

I think that as a musician you always want to get behind your latest thing. I personally really like the album. I can still identify with the songs that I wrote back when I was twenty-two but that was a long time ago (laughter). As a writer, I think that I personally tried to write songs that reflect my life, my underworld, and my place in it. Those are the songs that I feel closest too, but I really was happy with the songs that we made and put onto the last record. It’s not just down to the song writing, in terms of recording, you have an idea of how it is going to sound in your head, and you don’t always manage to capture that on the record. Having said that, I think that with this record, what was going on in my head is actually on the record. So, in that sense then yes, I am really happy with it.

Whilst you were preparing to record the album, were there not a few problems regarding the personnel?

(Laughter) so just who have you been talking to I wonder. Gerry Love who had been with us for thirty years decided that he no longer wanted to be a part of the band and he left us shortly before we made the record, so it really was a strange and slightly difficult time. Having said that, Dave McGowan who plays bass on the record, and who we still refer to as ‘the new guy’ despite that fact that he has been with us for twenty years, moved over to the bass so that really didn’t feel too different. Euros Childs from Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci came in and joined the band on keyboards. Euros and I have been friends for a long, long time.

In fact, Euros has played with the band before, so as you can imagine there was a slightly different feel to the setup going into the studio, but I have to be honest and say that it slightly invigorated us. I feel that the line-up change gave us some momentum. Making the record really was a very enjoyable experience. We recorded the album over in Hamburg at a place called Clouds Hill. So, it’s all been good. There is a real positivity within the band at the moment. We are really grateful that we are still able to do what it is that we do. It really is a privilege to be able to still make records and the fact that people are still interested in what we have to say really is amazing.

I currently have four go to tracks and funnily enough, when I have been doing my research, they are four tracks that were written by your good self (laughter).

Wow, well there you go (laughter).

What I am listening to at the minute are Home, Warm Embrace, Back In The Day and Living With You. I think that they are fantastic.

Thank you very much; it is so very kind of you to say that. We are looking forward to making even more music because we are still together after all of this time, we enjoy making music and we are privileged and lucky to be able to do it. The other thing is, performing live is going to be just brilliant. Picking up the guitars and getting in the van, it’s all great.

Putting you on the spot, do you have a favourite track on the album?

I have to say that I really do like the Endless Arcade track of Raymond’s (McGinley) in fact that was the very first thing that we wrote and recorded for the album. That was, in fact, the first song that we had recorded post Gerry being in the band, so it was our first attempt at making some music with the new line-up and I have to say that it all came together really quickly. It was at that point that we all realised that everything was going to be fine, so I really do like that one a lot.

Where do you think Endless Arcade would sit in a top five Teenage Fan club albums?

I would like to think that it would certainly be somewhere within the top five. Each of us, as individual song writers, might have a very different opinion on that, certainly when you like your own personal songs on a particular album. Having said that, this one for me is up there. Whenever you record a new album, sometimes you don’t quite accomplish or get down on tape exactly what it was that you had in your head but with this album I think that I did. I honestly feel that the songs are what I was hearing so I would have to put it up there at number one, why not (laughter). In the past there have been three of us writing but now it’s just me and Raymond which I feel really has been beneficial.

It is difficult for an individual to constantly write every song over a ten-album period. You are looking at over one hundred songs, and believe me, that is not easy to do, especially when you are trying to maintain the quality. I think that we have been lucky that there were initially three of us writing the songs. Now it’s me and Raymond which hopefully will help us to maintain the quality.

How many of the new songs will make it onto the set list for the forthcoming tour?

To be totally honest with you I have to say that we will be playing a lot of them. We are always conscious that people really do want to hear the old songs, that’s why we always play a spread of songs from each of the albums. We have played a few shows promoting this album and I think that we have played five or six of the new songs, and I feel that you don’t really want to go beyond that. You only have a finite period of time in which to perform in, and the last thing that you ever want to see is people yawning or looking at their watches (laughter). We play for an hour and forty minutes so we will most probably put four, five, or six of the new songs in there.

After the last two years when everything seemed to be in a perpetual state of lockdown, you will be going out on tour in the next week or so. Will there be any nerves?

I suspect that there will be; only time will tell (laughter). But I believe that I was born to tour (laughter). On this tour we are playing some really lovely venues. In fact we are playing Rock City there in Nottingham. When the tours are finalised I always look to see if Nottingham is on the list because I just love the city, and it is a must play venue. You don’t go to rock City for an event, you go for a concert. It’s that kind of venue.

You formed the band back in 1989, some 33 years ago now. During that time you must have seen some changes within the industry?

Yes, I have, and I personally feel that it is much harder for bands to exist now. Streaming is great, especially in terms of accessibility, but unfortunately Spotify simply don’t pay very well. So, it really is very difficult for new bands to exist. One of the major changes I feel is that most bands nowadays will actually be part-time and the members will have another job. They will have to work outside of the music industry. The problem with that is that it can seriously restrict the touring side of things, especially as not everyone can get the time off required. I still think that we are lucky because this is what we do, in order to make a living, so we were lucky. When we started the band, people did buy records then, which allowed us to build up a fan base and make more music.

But it is much harder now and being in a band or as a solo artist really has to be a labour of love. If you are in it for the money, then forget it (laughter). That’s not me saying that you can’t make a decent living out of music, it’s just that there is a hell of a lot of hard work involved. You will see that there is a hell of a lot of artists who are now handwriting song lyrics, signing those, and selling them on their websites. That is the reality of where we are at now. As I have said previously, we all feel very privileged to still be making records, it really is great fun, but it is much harder than it was.

If someone had told you thirty-three years ago that you would still be making music and that you would still be as relevant now as you were back then, would you have ever believed them?

(Laughter) I don’t know if I would have simply because I don’t think that you ever think that far ahead. We were just happy to get our first album released if I am honest with you and then before you know it, you have got another album coming out (laughter). And then in the blink of an eye, here we are some thirty-three years later on album number twelve or thirteen, I’m not quite sure (laughter). I wouldn’t have imagined that we would still be doing it, and, in answer to your question, I honestly cannot believe that we are still doing it. I have to say that there are a couple of factors to that; we all get on well as a group of people, and we haven’t broken up over musical differences or things like that (laughter).

It really has been great in that sense. It’s not like a lot of bands where there are the much-publicised artistic differences between two members of the band (laughter). I honestly find it incredible that we are still around, still doing it, and it really is still a lot of fun. It really is great fun whenever we are out on the road playing live shows. With each and every album, just before it’s released, you never know how it is going to be received. You are always thinking ‘I wonder if anyone is going to come along to the shows’ (laughter). What can I say, so far so good (laughter). Ticket sales, of course, have been affected due to the pandemic for everyone, and as you know lots of people have been cancelling tours. You just have to hope that things will return to some semblance of normality relatively soon. We can but hope.

You have been working with Raymond now for thirty-three years which is longer than most marriages (laughter).

(Laughter) I know for sure, yes. Raymond is a pretty pragmatic guy, but I think that it is important actually that you have some sort of compatibility within the personalities within the band. We have had quite a few different drummers over the years, Brendan (O’Hare), Paul (Quinn) and Francis (Macdonald) who has now been working for us for quite some time. I’m happy to say that we all talk to each other; there are never any spats what so ever and we are all on good terms with one another. The make-up of the different personalities within the band is important to how it operates. Raymond and I are the two longest serving members in the band, but I have to be honest and say that he is a pretty easy-going sort of guy, honest (laughter).

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Wow, there have been many, but I think, for me, there are a couple of highlights which stand out from the rest. Firstly, we toured with Nirvana on the Nevermind Tour, and secondly, we toured with Radiohead on the OK Computer Tour over in America. Those really were great experiences, simply because you felt that you were on the periphery of a phenomenon. Another occasion which I will never forget that springs to mind is that we actually met Little Richard at The Hyatt Hotel in Los Angeles near to where he lived, and let me tell you, that was a real thrill (laughter). We were all standing in the lobby, and at that time, Little Richard was being managed by this American guy called Jim Grant who I knew.

I said, “look there’s Little Richard” to which Jim replied, “that’s right guys, I manage him, would you like to meet him” (laughter). I jumped up and shouted out “most definitely yes” and so Jim took us over to where Little Richard was and said, “hey Mr Richard blah blah blah I’m working with these guys, Teenage Fanclub from Scotland” and at that, Little Richard turned round to me, shook my hand vigorously and said, “you are the Teenage Fanclub from Scotland, that’s cool” (laughter). That was pretty amazing, and most definitely a real highlight.

Who were you listening to when you were growing up?

Lots of different things, but all the usual things. I loved The Clash when I was a kid and being born back in 1965 there was a hell of a lot of punk rock. The Clash really was the big band for me, and I managed to see them performing live quite a few times, and the Give Them Enough Tour really does spring to mind closely followed by the London Calling Tour. Both of those gigs are very memorable to me. I must mention Orange Juice and Edwyn Collins. They were the band in Glasgow who made me realise that you could do whatever you wanted to do. Their whole thing was ‘yes, we are into punk rock but we also like Chic’ (laughter).

The whole ethos of punk was that you weren’t allowed to like anyone else, perhaps just a little bit of reggae (laughter). But then, along came Orange Juice and suddenly you could listen to what you wanted to listen to; you could even listen to Buffalo Springfield if you wanted to (laughter). Orange Juice actually opened me up to all kinds of different music, soul music and all that kind of stuff.

What about now, has your taste changed?

(Laughter) I think that I am most probably listening to the same kind of things, although I am always on the look-out for different types of music. I have to come clean and say that I actually listen to Radio Three quite a lot, as I like classical music. I actually get a lot of pleasure from listening to that. At the minute I am getting into a lot of Ethiopian music from the 1960s. There is just so much stuff out there, but I still like all of the stuff that I liked back when I was a kid, The Velvet Underground amongst others. I am open to any kind of music, and I will listen to anything. There is nothing that I won’t listen to really. I don’t have many Heavy Metal records, but I like some of it. What about you, what are you currently listening to?

At the moment I am listening to a lot of South African music. Styles such as Marabi, Afrikaans, Mgqashiyo and Isicathamiya. I have to say that there is so much variety out there waiting to be explored.

Really, that’s amazing because I feel that there is a hell of a lot of music over in South Africa that is just ready to be explored. I used to listen to the late John Peel a lot and I remember that he used to play a lot of Highlife music from South Africa, and I have to say that I really did like that when I was young. I was actually listening to some of it recently and I was talking about Johnny Marr and in particular how his style of guitar playing reminds me so much of Highlife. I don’t know Johnny personally so I can’t ask him, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he in fact listened to a lot of Highlife in his past. I suspect that he did.

On the subject of Johnny Marr, I recently interviewed Clem Burke from Blondie and we got talking about Johnny as he has written for them in the past and he is their special guest on their forthcoming tour. During our conversation Clem said that in his opinion, Johnny is the best guitarist since Bo Didley.

Wow, that really is quite a compliment.

Clem has based his opinion on Johnny’s guitar work on The Smiths How Soon Is Now.

Yes, I can see exactly where he is coming from; I can hear just what Clem means. It’s a little thing that Johnny does with a Fender twin reverb on the tremolo setting. The intensity is so high on that which means that he can get that effect that he gets on the guitar on How Soon Is Now. It’s amazing.

Testing your memory, what was the first record that you bought?

(Laughter) I can’t quite remember, but I really do suspect that it is going t be something by The Wombles (laughter). I really did like The Wombles a lot when I was a kid.

Norman, welcome to blackmail corner, just how much will you pay me not to put that in here? (Laughter).

No, I really do have to be totally honest with you and say that I really did think that some of the Wombles’ records were pretty good. In fact, I still like them; I still think that they sound pretty good (laughter). I think that it’s down to the nostalgic effect that I get whenever I hear them. You have to remember that Chris Spedding was one of The Wombles, so you have a connection between The Wombles and The Sex Pistols which is totally brilliant (laughter).

What a talent Mike Batt was and still is.

I know, most definitely, Mikes work is really good. I follow Mike on Twitter and I actually got the opportunity to tell him just how big a fan of The Wombles I was, and he thanked me (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live?

(Laughter) this is a funny one actually. I would normally say The Wombles as I did manage to see them live, but back when I was a child, my parents were on holiday in Blackpool, and they went along to see Tom Jones and The Kinks (laughter). It was round about the time of The Village Green Preservation Society. They took me along with them. I can’t remember any of it of course but, technically, my very first concert was The Kinks (laughter). I think it was around 1967, or thereabouts.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Wow, what a question. Thinking about it I would think that it would have been something by Nina Simone. Thinking about it now there is a particular song that always brings me to tears, and it is Gene Vincent singing Over The Rainbow. His version of that is incredible. I think that it is so moving, and it is well worth checking out for sure.

On that note Norman, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been a pleasure.

Likewise, Kevin, and I will look forward to saying hello when we get to Nottingham. All the best and stay safe.