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an interview with Stuart Staples by Martin Williams / pictures by Paul Heartfield

Tindersticks by Paul Heartfield"Ask them why they ruined their last three albums with that soul shit," someone said when I mentioned I'd be meeting Stuart Staples. Tindersticks long ago left the drawn-out rock 'n' roll tour behind, abandoned as a destructive endeavour, both personally and collectively. These days they focus on shorter sequences of concerts. "We never had much rock 'n' roll in us," Staples jokes. Alternatively, they concentrate on more distinctive one-off dates, like the open-air concert they're playing later today amid the neoclassical pomp of Somerset House in London. I'm sat with Stuart Staples out on the terrace overlooking the open skies of the Thames, over which clouds are ominously building, when I pop the question.
"Three?" he laughs, breaking off from rolling the latest in a long line of cigarettes. "I thought it was only two." He laughs again, apparently finding genuine humour in the question. Despite his general diffidence, there's no nervousness in this laugh, and it speaks of confidence in the face of criticism.
"I can understand somebody saying that, but to me some of our finest moments are on those records. With our third album it was like we had to break things down and think about finding a whole new way of working together. I think now we've come through something and it's about finding something that we're comfortable with where we're not trying. Definitely with [1999's] 'Simple Pleasures' we were trying to wrench ourselves away from something and trying to be something else. It was just a general feeling and all borne out of writing songs. All our songs had been very chord based I suppose and the fundamental thing was to get away from writing chord-based songs and get into writing things that were more based around rhythms, and things contracting and expanding. That was the primary thing for us, to try to write songs in a different way, and perhaps it's successful sometimes and not others. We'd always written from chords, but writing from rhythm gave us a feeling of freedom."
Such a collective redirection might suggest the Tindersticks indulging in something approaching a band meeting. Perhaps even more so since the members are relatively scattered these days, with keyboard player David Boulter living in Prague and violinist Dickon Hinchcliffe based in Bristol. But in keeping with the stiff-upper-lip stoicism projected by their impervious, besuited image, Staples counters that such open communication was never on the cards.
"We never really talk about anything," he says. "We used to waste a lot of time, we tend to be more appreciative of our time together now, but it is harder in terms of just chatting and conversations and sitting in the pub. It wasn't just musically, there were a lot of things we weren't happy with as a band. Looking back I think we felt that [1997's] 'Curtains' was lopsided, that the orchestration had grown so much that it had overtaken the band and the rhythm side of things was to get back to being six voices again. It was extreme, it went from making hour-long records to 45 minutes. It's just where you're at and the story you want to tell at that time."
Does their scattered living situation affect the writing?
"We've all got little computer setups and we often work on something and pass it around and often those things are being used anyway, we're just kind of building on them. If there's a feeling of momentum you just naturally talk, get in touch more and meet up more because there's an energy that drives it and when it's not it's...say, like last year all we did really was play live, so we tended to play, then wave each other off and then see each other again a few weeks later and play live again. This year's been very different, it's very much more about making something together and so it goes through spurts of energy where we see each other a lot."
Their much-mentioned musical shift might not be immediately obvious. An immediate airing of their last album, 'Can Our Love...', is rewarded with the hesitant opening of Dying Slowly, its steady acoustic strum and hesitant vocal sounding like business as usual. But by the time Sweet Release comes around, the transition in Tindersticks is writ large. Nine minutes of alternating organ and violin riffs, with Staples repeatedly murmuring, "Give me that sweet release," to a syncopated handclap. While 'soul' may be a tricky, loaded epithet, Sweet Release is about as close to Teddy 'Close the Door' Pendergrass as Stuart Staples is ever going to get. More interestingly though, it signals a band alive to possibility and feeding off each other.
Is Staples aware of potentially casting off fans with the band's choices?
"We could turn up tonight and play Tiny Tears and all these old songs and perhaps people would be happy, but one thing we've always tried to do-and we're still together and people still seem to want to come and see us-we've always tried to challenge people and we've never taken the easy option of playing Tiny Tears or the songs that people might want to hear. It's all about challenging ourselves and challenging other people."
It's an explanation that risks coming across as slightly arrogant, but it's based in a desire to stay interested, and to reject the calcifying effects of treading water.
"When we made the first album we all sat there and listened to it," he says. "It was shocking, it was so much more than we ever imagined and it was all to do with each other. But you can only try for that so far, if you drive it too far it becomes one dimensional, kind of staid and boring. The things I look back on and cherish are the things that don't make sense, and shouldn't work, but it's just to do with different people hearing things in different ways and standing their ground, and when that happens it's wonderful."
Such pleasure and pride in new discoveries runs against the grain of the grumpy "soul shit" brand of criticism, a judgement that testifies to the depressing petulance of so much pop music commentary. It's hard to imagine something so unreasoned finding favour in any other form. For Arvo Part, say, to be castigated for betraying his serialist roots; or David Hare hauled over the coals for following up a domestic drama like My Zinc Bed with a revival of his topical monologue Via Dolorosa. Anyone with an interest in these individuals would be apt to have an opinion on their decisions, certainly. But only with rock and pop (or whatever sub-genre therein you prefer) where the music and it's cluttered ephemera encodes an unhealthy degree of people's very identity, is it expressed with such arrogant tribalism.  
"Finding your voice is about losing things," Staples offers. "All the things you've been impressed by when you're 12 years old or something and you gradually find your own voice, find yourself becoming relaxed in your own skin. It feels as though that's what it's getting towards, but it's taking a long time."
The sole remaining weekly UK music paper may currently be a dim parody of itself, but, ten years ago, when NME and Melody Maker buried the Tindersticks in plaudits, those papers still retained at least a whisper of credibility. Were they aware of the fickle nature of that kind of attention at the time?
"Totally. It's something we were never comfortable with. A lot of it was funny to us. I can see why, something has to happen all the time..."
But, almost by definition, such a capricious focus can't be sustained. It must lead to a degree of disillusionment when the spotlight eventually shifts. How does Staples view their present situation?
"I suppose it comes down to the fact that this is what we enjoy doing, not all the time, but there is something that keeps us coming back to it. To try to get a hold on the whys, and the things that used to feel so important feel so much less important now. I don't actually spend that much time thinking about it these days whereas perhaps five or six years ago I might've done. We never embraced it, it just made us feel jumped on, it just confused us."
Is he surprised that they're still making music together eleven years on?
"It's always fragile. It's all about everybody within it actually feeling like they're doing something, expressing something. If it gives each individual member enough of a challenge it keeps it all alive. Over the last so-many years there's been a lot of downs and ups, but it feels good at the moment, we're working on a lot of new stuff. I think that's what we do primarily, when you get that rush of excitement when you have an idea and it fans out in all different directions."
With inclinations toward mood pieces and expanded string arrangements, it doesn't take any particularly unique insight to apply the word cinematic to Tindersticks. "I was playing with Dave a long time before this band and when I met him all he listened to was film music," Staples admits. Indeed, there was something entirely fitting when they provided the soundtrack to Clare Denis' film Nenette et Boni in 1996. Not just because the noir-ish romantic ambience of Tindersticks encapsulates something of what we dumb Brits might tag as 'very French', but equally because of something evocative and fundamental to their music. Were they familiar with Clare Denis when she approached them to score the film?
"No, but we quickly went to see 'Chocolat'. I think with Clare it's not a coincidence, there's something between her and the way she works and sees things and makes films that crosses what we do. I can't put my finger on it but it makes perfect sense."
Enough sense for them to repeat the experience in 2000, providing the music for Denis' film 'Trouble Every Day'.
"With both films we've done with Clare," Staples explains, "it's been 'I'm writing the script, I'll send it to you when it's done.' And she'll send us anything she's got: 'these are the actors we're going to use. Here's some shots we've done.' It's a build-up that we know is heading towards a particular date. With 'Trouble Every Day' we spent so long with the script that when it came time to start writing, it had a flow, it had a whole weight of thought about it even though we hadn't done much, there was just an understanding."
Necessarily relying largely on instrumentals, and less on Staples' lyrics, do such undertakings alter the dynamic of the band?
"Oh yeah, very much. That kind of thing changes all the time, I think it's changing more in the last two or three years. With 'Trouble Every Day' Dickon was at the centre and that was different, and just for things to be different was great. The dynamic of the band changes and people rise and fall all the time. I think it's a good thing."
More than a decade down the line and the Tindersticks remain a fertile collective, producing their best work and contradicting the naysayers in the process. Later they'll illustrate this to a large London crowd as the sky stays clear and the sterile grandeur of Somerset House is transformed. It's a good omen of things to come.
"For the last six or seven months it's been us just meeting up and whatever happens, happens," Staples says. "Whereas now we're just starting to make sense of it all, we're waiting to find something in what we've been doing. It's an exciting feeling at the moment, the position we're at with the new songs. Which means... more soul shit."

CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002