Tue 6th Apr, 2010 in Features
A genuine phenomenon in their native Wales and a reliable drawcard across the UK, where they’ve had no less than five number one albums, Stereophonics have long been cherished for their ability to craft unassuming yet anthemic rock.
One thing they’ve been less known for is their sense of adventure and willingness to push themselves into new territory, but when it came time to record seventh album Keep Calm and Carry On, gravel-voiced singer Kelly Jones decided it was time to flick the script.
The first step to a different kind of Stereophonics record came when they changed producers to Jim Abbiss, who was well versed in guitar rock (Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian) but also adept at more electronica-based artists (Bjork, Massive Attack).
Kelly initially met with Abbiss and worked with him a day here and there, recording the rough and ready demos which later became the guts of the record.
It was clear from the start that this was going to back a back-to-basics approach. “I think (Abbiss) was taken aback with how honest I was about what we wanted to do” Jones recalls. “I was saying let’s strip back the wall of guitars, let’s push the vocals up, let’s really let the songs talk. I think he admired the risk factor in that”.
Jones concedes it took some time for him to get used to Abbiss’ raw approach to recording, and when the band reconvened, the others also took time to adjust to the new producer. Egos may have been battered in a more precious band, but Jones explains Stereophonics have never been a place for the selfish player. “It’s this dynamic we have where it’s not about ‘I want to play this’, it’s about what’s best for the song” he says. To this end, some tracks feature no bass at all, while others have minimal guitar.
It was not always a comfortable process, with Jones admitting the band “butted heads” with Abiss on occasion. “He was brutally honest with me” Jones explains. “I had about 25 songs and he got that down to about 8 and I was like ‘What the fuck is wrong with the rest of them!? That part of it was a real learning curve for me. I was out of my comfort zone for sure”.
While the culled songs still “turn up on the tour bus when we’re drunk” and may yet figure somewhere on a future Stereophonics record, Jones was ultimately satisfied with the finished product, which he sees as a “natural progression” and a culmination of the process of putting together the greatest hits record the year before, which involved listening back to the band’s work and realising how much the songs had changed in the live context.
Despite the revamped recording process, Keep Calm and Carry On is still very much a classic Stereophonics album, with Jones’ whisky-soaked vocals immediately recognisable and always central. There’s also a sense of familiarity in the lyrics, which include nods to long-time heroes (The Police) and friends (Tragically Hip) on the radio-friendly Could You Be The One?’ Like its predecessors, the record was a radio mainstay and ensured the group remain very much a stadium act in the UK, and later this year will play at Cardiff’s new City Stadium, a venue which holds some 26,000 punters.
With the group having existed in some form as far back as 1992, are there still any nerves that come with playing the bigger venues? “We just love finding different places to play, new things to experience” Jones shrugs. “And in a way, I think it’s harder to play to 200 people. When you play the bigger venues, there’s so many more people involved, you’re not responsible for a lot of it, you’ve got the lighting guys, the sound guys and everyone, but in a club venue it’s just you and them, you can see the whites of people’s eyes”.
Playing in Cardiff brings another kind of pressure, the self-imposed imperative of playing well in front of friends and family. Jones is reluctant to single out the home town gigs as the highlight of their calendar, however, given their determination not to let the live show ever become stale. “We’ve been doing a different set list every night” he explains. “We’ll play Berlin one night and then Paris a couple of days later and it will be completely different. I’ve been getting off on that actually”.
Stereophonics play the following dates in Australia:
Saturday 10th April – Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle
Tuesday 13th April – HQ, Adelaide
Thursday 15th April – The Palace Theatre, Melbourne
Saturday 17th April – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
Sunday 18th April – Metro Theatre, Sydney
Monday 19th April – The Hi-Fi, Brisbane