Tim Burgess of The Charlatans – COVID-19 Quarantine Artist Check In - “Nothing will be the same after this, some for the better, some for the worse.” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, January 18th, 2021  

Tim Burgess of The Charlatans – COVID-19 Quarantine Artist Check In

“Nothing will be the same after this, some for the better, some for the worse.”

Apr 10, 2020 Web Exclusive
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We are checking in with musicians during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to see how they are dealing with everything. What has their home quarantine experience been like so far and how is the crisis impacting both their career and art? Here we check in with Tim Burgess of England’s The Charlatans.

We’re living in future history right now, unprecedented times that will define our era. At some point we will be living in a forever-changed post-COVID-19 timeline, but right now we’re deep in it. Many have had their livelihood interrupted by the pandemic and included are most musicians, who make a lot of their money by touring and performing, two things they can’t do right now. Most record stores are closed and vinyl factories are shut down, so album sales are depressed too. Our intention with this series is to highlight the challenges musicians are going through right now to hopefully encourage our readers and their fans to rally around and support each musician (financially if you can, but we know it’s tough out there for many people).

We’re all in this together, a whole planet united in this fight, and we hope these interviews will help illustrate that. We put together the same set of questions about the current crisis and emailed them to several musicians and will be posting their responses as they come in.

Burgess is releasing a new solo album, I Love the New Sky, on May 22 via Bella Union. Previously we posted the album’s first single, “Empathy for the Devil,” via a video for the track that featured a misunderstood Devil at a wedding and as a child. He then shared another song from the album, “The Mall,” also via a video.

While The Charlatans have been at it since 1988 and have released 13 studio albums, from 1990’s Some Friendly to 2017’s Different Days, with nine of them hitting the Top 10 in the UK (and three of those at #1), Burgess has also had a busy solo career (as well as being an author, a DJ, and running the O Genesis record label). I Love the New Sky is Burgess’ fifth solo album, but the first where he’s written all the songs himself after collaborating with Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, Peter Gordon, and others on previous solo albums.

According to Burgess in a press release announcing the album, the songs on I Love the New Sky were written “in Norfolk, in the middle of the countryside, with the nearest shop eight miles away. There are no distractions, and I guess that way things happen. I wrote everything on acoustic guitar, and the chords were really considered. The guitar lines would lead the melody, and the melody would inform the lyrics – just dreaming away with music.”

Daniel O’Sullivan of Grumbling Fur arranged and produced the album, as well as playing bass, drums, and piano. Burgess had previously recorded a song with Grumbling Fur and put out two of O’Sullivan’s solo albums on his O Genesis label (plus Grumbling fur have remixed The Charlatans). The I Love the New Sky sessions also featured keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Thighpaulsandra (Julian Cope, Spiritualized, Elizabeth Fraser).

The press release says I Love the New Sky has “landed somewhere between Paul McCartney’s RAM and Brian Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).” 

Beyond his new album, Burgess has provided a vital and welcome distraction during the COVID-19 lockdown, with his nightly Twitter listening parties where we can all listen to a classic album at a prearranged time while Burgess and the artist behind the album live-tweets commentary about the album. Burgess has lined up an impressive array of artists to take part, including many who were part of the mid-’90s Britpop scene that The Charlatans found themselves in after starting out being labeled a Madchester band (such as Suede, Pulp, Blur, Super Furry Animals, Oasis, Ash, Supergrass, etc.). But many other artists are also taking part, including Mark Ronson, Billy Bragg, The Twilight Sad, The Style Council, New Order, Doves, Slowdive, Ride, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, and more. Find out more info here or on Burgess’ Twitter.

Read on as Burgess reflects on his COVID-19 experience so far. (One sad note: a few days after Burgess filled out these answers his father, who he mentions in the interview, passed away from a long-term illness. Our thoughts go out to Burgess and his family.)

Where are you spending the quarantine and who are you spending it with? If you’re spending it with other people, have you found that the quarantine has brought you closer together or caused tension?

Imagine seeing these questions a year ago and trying to get your head round the fact that this would be a real interview. 

I am in Norfolk, East Anglia in the UK. Isolated with my partner and our six-year-old son. It has definitely brought us together as we have to be completely self sufficient and self contained and it brings more of an understanding of the people that you are with. My partner is a musician and we have a small studio set up at home—she was at the start of recording an album so the solitude and new ideas of normality will maybe feed into the record. Folks might not think that people in bands are built for times of lockdown but they are strangely similar to making a record, losing track of time and days, a sense of disconnection from the outside world and a desire to get to the end of it without losing your sanity.  

We’ve had to adapt to homeschooling, which is challenging and rewarding. I had respect for teachers before but that has now increased tenfold.

Tension certainly plays a part in any situation of confinement but it’s about navigating around it.

We have loved the fact we can do more things together—Baby Yoda has been a fantastic addition to our isolation. We got a projector and my son made a “cinema” out of chairs and bean bags and we got some popcorn and watched The Mandalorian together. 

Is everyone in your family safe and healthy so far? 

We are but my father is in palliative care. Nothing to do with the virus but he is at risk and I have permission to travel up to where he is if his condition worsens. My heart goes out to anyone who has loved ones that are in poor health or affected by the virus. The restrictions on visiting are heartbreaking. The fact that people can’t attend funerals is perhaps the most tragic aspect of all.

What’s your daily routine been like? Have you spent much time outdoors? And since musicians spend so much time on the road, have you found it hard adjusting to so much time at home?

In all the strangeness and sadness, there are lots of moments of joy. We have had to plan more and we can’t rely on the outside world for help. I’ve never played The Sims or any of those games where you build a theme park/ ancient civilization but from what I’ve seen of them, this seems to be a real life version.

I used to go for a run at the gym as that was as much for my mental well-being as anything physical. That’s gone and has been replaced by my son and I spending time doing exercise—a game of football becomes a wrestling match which changes into cops and robbers. Not sure it’s what a personal trainer would advocate but it sure is fun. Oddly enough, life on the road is good training for the lockdown. On U.S. tours we’ve had 25 bus journeys and you learn to look inwards and try to find some kind of stillness. Even gigs are 70% waiting around—I obviously miss playing shows, we were due to play at South by Southwest and Glastonbury and we’d been rehearsing for a few weeks. We have to think of the bigger picture though—it’s a worldwide crisis and so many people are going through life changing struggles right now. 

We have a garden at home so we can head outside, it’s fairly rural so even a 15-minute walk can take in some amazing wildlife and scenery—we have a barn owl who lives in a tree opposite our house so it’s always good to see her out and about.

What financial impact has COVID-19 had on you and your band? Have you had to cancel or postpone any tours or festival appearances or postpone an album release because of COVID-19 and how will that affect you in the long term?

We had a summer full of festivals followed by a UK tour, which means lots of re-scheduling. Some may not be able to be rearranged but we’ll try to get to play those places next time we tour. My solo band had committed time to play all those shows and they were maybe relying on the income but they are all such fantastic people that I am sure they are much more concerned about how everyone else is affected financially. When something like this happens it’s a time for everyone to pull together, whether it’s big business helping independents or billionaires pitching in to help everybody. We need to ask ourselves what is the right thing to do, and make sure we do it.

Do you trust the government and our leaders (such as President Trump) to effectively deal with the pandemic? What most concerns you about the response of elected leaders at home and abroad? 

I trust President Trump 100%, to say and do exactly what he shouldn’t be saying or doing. In that regard I have absolute trust in him. I am just hoping that those around him can keep hold of enough of the decision making and put their faith in science and the medical experts. That’s who we need to be helping right now, they are the ones doing the most important work. The work of governments is to listen and help at the moment—the real test for them is to hold things together for their citizens and to make a plan to rebuild. Nothing will be the same after this, some for the better, some for the worse. Without getting overtly political, it seems that many of the ideas that we are turning to in these difficult times, are those of socialism, of sharing the burden, of looking out for each other. Individuals amassing billions should be a thing of the past. I saw a tweet with a really simple idea, that you are allowed $1 less than a billion—you have to make do with that. Anything you earn over that goes to healthcare or whatever. Obviously the types of people that love having billions will find a way round such a system but as a one line idea it works for me.

How do you think the crisis will affect this November’s U.S. presidential election? Will it make it easier or harder to defeat Trump? 

I’m not sure any given situation gives any clearer picture of how people would vote. It’s weird but it was Trump who changed all that. Any kind of sense seemed to disappear, and that had a knock on effect in the UK. Political predictions are where madness lies. I was in New York last month (or a decade ago using the new lockdown timescale) but not sure that can be used as any kind of indicator of how the country would vote. I guess I live in an echo chamber where everyone seems to dislike the current President but that could just be fake news. Trump is like some creature in a ’50s B-movie, whatever you think will destroy him makes him grow and become stronger. It will be interesting to see how history looks back on these times.

Which sources of news have you been turning to most during COVID-19 and which social media platform have you found most useful?

There is 24-hour rolling news which had me gripped for a day or two at the start. Now I’m rationing myself. I like Channel 4 news in the UK, it’s on at 7 p.m. for an hour so it’s more than just headlines. It’s a thorough look at everything. Social media is useful too—Twitter has a way of amplifying feel-good stories and clips, or just the weird stuff like the goats that took over Llandudno (worth looking up if that just seems like an odd collection of words). Doctors and scientists can make their voices heard, good ideas can gather speed. Gary Neville (a football (soccer) analyst and former England and Manchester United player of some repute), someone I am lucky enough to call a friend, tweeted that he had two hotels and offered all the rooms to nurses, doctors, and medical staff, as well as being an amazing way to help, it lifted the entire country. People realized that it was a time to pitch in and help. Those stories have been heartwarming. 

What do you think will be the lasting effects on society of all this isolated time at home?

I’m hoping that kindness makes a comeback—for some it’s never been away but lots of people had forgotten it. Pretty sure there will be lots of new music, from solo artists only of course. It’s the perfect storm for writing and recording, the subject matter is there and lots of time to spend on it. It’ll be its own new genre. 

If you have school-aged kids, how have you been dealing with homeschooling and how are your kids adjusting to life at home and away from friends?

Homeschooling is tough, rewarding, scary, difficult, and fun—all those things happen every three minutes. Then repeat. Skype, YouTube and all of those apps that facilitate teaching, exercise classes for kids are an amazing help. They always say that war is the main driver for technology and change but I’m thinking we’ll see the biggest changes of a lifetime during and after this. Video conference style calls were just for big business a few years ago but now a class of kids are using it to write stories. My son had a karate class, via an app, with his regular karate teacher and all the kids at home in their living rooms, he is only six so it’s non contact anyway, but I’m guessing lots of lamps got knocked over.  

Are your parents, grandparents, and others in your life who are at risk taking social distancing seriously? If not, what lengths have you gone to in order to convince them to stay inside?

As I mentioned, my dad is seriously ill but the people in the care home are looking after him with a dedication that has brought comfort to us. I think older folks were the difficult ones to convince at first—guessing they couldn’t get their heads around it because it was invisible and because the symptoms were things that in other cases, weren’t a serious illness. Hoping everyone has got the message now. Everyone in my family is looking after themselves and each other by staying home.

What other steps should record labels, music streaming platforms, and other music industry entities be taking to help struggling musicians through this time?

Maybe streaming platforms could give the artists more—Bandcamp did an amazing thing where they waived their fee in order that smaller artists could benefit and $3 million came in. In terms of the music industry, this has been the biggest seismic shift since popular music began. The entire live music world has been put on ice, not just performers but venues and tech staff. It’s often venues and festivals that can rally round and support artists in times of hardship but this has affected everyone. I’m hoping that we can all work together and do our best to assist everyone when this is over. It’s like the entire town burnt down, but maybe it can be rebuilt using a better plan. 

What is the best way fans can support you financially right now? Buying vinyl and CDs, downloading and streaming your music, buying merch, supporting your Patreon page or other crowd sourcing platform (if you use one), or some other means? Is there a particularly cool piece of merch you’d like to highlight?

I would encourage people to buy from independent record shops if they can. That’s the one part of the music world that has managed to keep on going. But the people who buy music are living in uncertain times too. Almost nobody is safe from some kind of financial knock on effect of what’s happened. I would love it if people could support the artists they love—I have an album coming out but promoting it doesn’t seem right. 

It’s a struggle for artists with all their tours, festivals and recording sessions but people turn to music in dark times. I’ve seen gigs that have been streamed and entire orchestras playing separately but together—these aren’t being done to raise funds but it’s great to see that artists are there to lift spirits. 

Which albums, songs, films, TV shows, books, podcasts, live streams, video games, board games, etc, have been helping you get through the quarantine

The Mandalorian, Somebody Feed Phil, any music documentary on BBC iPlayer, or Netflix. Wrestling—that’s not watching, taking part. With my six-year-old. There is a match each day. I’ve rewatched my David Lynch collection so that took a while.

I’ve been asked to do a streamed gig and I normally rely on Mark Collins (from The Charlatans) to join me on guitar. But this gig would involve me playing guitar and singing on my own for the first time ever. So, yeah, learning to play guitar has taken up a lot of my time. 

Have you been doing any live-streamed concerts during COVID-19 or do you plan to? A lot of artists have been doing them, do you think it’s a challenge to make them original and interesting?

About 10 years ago I was watching a film (Four Lions) on TV—I already followed one of the stars of the film, Riz Ahmed, on Twitter and he alerted people to the fact that the film was on. His next tweet said something like “watch my face as I get out of the car, I laughed every time so they just used the take where I was laughing least.” 

It stopped me in my tracks. I realized that while having a shared experience of watching or listening to something, Twitter could work to offer a kind of commentary, with stories and memories. So, within a few days we had planned our first Twitter Listening Party, and for the past 10 years, every so often I tweet to my followers and we plan to listen to one of The Charlatans’ albums at exactly the same time and I share info about writing, recording, or whatever, they ask questions and they can ever see what everyone else is saying via the hashtag.

I thought it might be a cool thing to do one for the lockdown. I let everyone know and we were getting ready when I thought I could ask some other artists if they fancy doing them. No cameras, no audio—just everyone listening to the album and tweeting.

To say that the idea took off is quite the understatement. Within a week we had enough listening parties to do one each night for five weeks and that number is growing. Members of bands, sometimes one, two, or up to four, including producers, were all up for the idea.

Our listening party list is pretty astonishing: Franz Ferdinand, Blur, Mark Ronson, Cocteau Twins, Ride, Prefab Sprout, Doves, The Chemical Brothers, The Fall, Slowdive, Super Furry Animals, The Flaming Lips, Orange Juice, New Order, Suede, The Libertines, The Style Council, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, and dozens more. 

While doing this interview, three more amazing bands have texted offering to do a listening party. They take place at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. each night and it’s pretty much taking up most of my spare time. And I love it.

A couple of twitter followers, who didn’t even know each other, teamed up and made a website that they update with each announcement: www.timstwitterlisteningparty.com.

Is there something you’ve been putting off for a long time, but are now doing with this time at home? 

I started making a list and then the listening parties came along. Which is quite relief as I can now put off whatever I was already putting off. Guessing they were all things I didn’t really want to do. 

Has the quarantine been a fertile creative time (are you writing or recording new music, for example) or have you found it hard to focus on creative endeavors?

I’ve never found it too hard to focus, I have quite a good work ethic. Guessing a lot of musicians and artists do. If you don’t make something, people don’t mind, they just forget about you. So I’ve always strived to keep creating. I’ve written a couple of new songs and got an idea for a fourth book. I like to have maybe five ideas on the go so I can get things completed. Each day the situation we are in becomes more normal and we realize we have to get back, as best we can, to what we know. Like your ship sinking and finding yourself on a desert island, the first time period is spent in shock and wondering what’s going on, then it’s all about moving forwards. 

Beyond the obvious items (such as toilet paper), what things have you made sure to get from the grocery store when stocking up? And, also, do you have any toilet paper?

People were in shock at first and we can’t really blame them for reacting in strange ways—everyone hoarding toilet roll was bizarre but it was a coping mechanism. The odd thing was all the biggest brains said there would not be a shortage of toilet rolls, the less bright people thought there would be and bought them all. Then other people had to buy them as they were so rare. And there was a shortage, so the not so bright people were right. Things seem to have settled down and there is a good supply of everything close to where we live.

Just in case this interview contains a little doom and gloom, I genuinely think we will all learn at lot from this and it may yet make the world a better place in some respects.

www.twitter.com/Tim_Burgess

www.thecharlatans.net

www.twitter.com/thecharlatans

www.facebook.com/thecharlatans

www.bellaunion.com/artists/tim-burgess/

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