After almost two decades in the sun (has it really been so long?), Stereophonics frontman Kelly Jones and bassist Richard Jones tell ShortList’s Lucy Jones what keeps them going
Rhys Jones was living in a tiny mining village in Wales when he was drafted to the dusty heat of mainland Europe to serve in the Second World War. Somehow, while fighting the Nazis, he met and fell for a young woman and they decided to sneak off to Italy. Amazingly, it worked, and he found himself with his paramour behind enemy lines. The day eventually arrived when he had to return to camp, and he slipped back without his superiors noticing. His smug return was short-lived; he was gutted to find he’d missed Al Jolson, the famous American jazz singer, who’d been flown in to entertain the troops with a show the day before. His wartime romance cost him the gig of his life – and it was a regret he’d live with forever.
Decades later, the story would inspire Rhys’s nephew, Kelly Jones, to write a song called My Hero for Stereophonics’ ninth album, Keep The Village Alive. “He was this crazy, funny veteran who would tell lots of stories when he was drunk,” says Kelly.
It’s a surreal experience sitting with the Stereophonics frontman in a studio in Parsons Green as he talks about his uncle Rhys. That face – coal black hair, thick eyebrows and eyelashes, and his distinctive singing voice – has been a constant in British popular culture since the late-Nineties. From regular Top Of The Pops performances and rolling repeats of music videos on MTV2, to appearances on mixtapes and magazine covers, Stereophonics were as ubiquitous as bucket hats during the Nineties.
While their Britpop contemporaries split up or, more commonly, split up then reformed, Stereophonics have remained a part of the fabric of British music. As the industry changed dramatically over time, they continued to release new music, tour, play festivals and pick up new fans. They’re the extreme survivors of the post-Britpop world; the horseshoe crabs of leather-jacket-indie rock. And Kelly and Richard have been there since the start (now joined by Adam Zindani on guitar and Jamie Morrison on drums).
If you need evidence of the size and loyalty of their current fan base, in a few months the band will fill The O2 – the UK’s biggest arena. But before that, more excitingly, they’re playing a free gig for ShortList readers tonight in an intimate venue in Notting Hill (for details of how to get tickets, click here).
Kelly explains how a small venue requires a different style of playing: “It’s about the sentiment, the lyrics, the feelings behind the song. It becomes more intricate – less about volume and force.” If you’re hoping to hear the hits, you won’t be disappointed; Stereophonics’ set lists are crowd-pleasing: “We’ve never been selfish in the sense of ‘We’re not going to play that tonight, we don’t care what you want’. At the end of the day, you’re there to make sure people have a good night,” says Kelly.
Moving with the times
To stay relevant and attract new fans, you need that steadfast desire to entertain, and at V – the festival they recently played – they saw a crowd full of young faces. “We don’t feel out of place with George Ezra in the next dressing room, or Ellie Goulding,” says Richard.
When I ask if there’s a formula for writing a classic Stereophonics hit, the conversation turns to the unusual conception of the much-loved 2005 No1 single Dakota. “I was in a hotel room in South Dakota,” remembers Kelly. “I’d fallen asleep, my subconscious drifted off, I woke up and the whole of the song flowed out of a pen in half an hour.” He was sure he’d written a hit song and sent a text to the head of his record company saying so. “It was the only time we ever had a No1 single – if that could happen again a few times it would be all right,” he smiles.
But the landscape has changed dramatically since then. For a start, the charts now include streaming data and downloads. For a band like Stereophonics, who sell most music through physical copies rather than digital, would it be possible to have a No1 with a song like Dakota these days?
“I don’t think it would be played enough [on the radio],” says Kelly. “It couldn’t compete in a singles sales market. No rock band could compete with pop market sales.”
Even the tone of the landscape has evolved. Stereophonics came up towards the end of the Britpop era when bands were willing to shoot their mouths off – Kelly included. Nowadays, social media demands diplomacy to avoid death by shame culture.
“When we started out there was lots of banter back and forth,” says Kelly. “Someone would say something, and then you’d say something and it would be reported in NME or The Sun’s Bizarre column. It was tit for tat, it was a laugh, it was schoolyard bullshit, but entertaining to read because you were allowed to say whatever you wanted off the top of your head.”
He refers to the furore over Benedict Cumberbatch using the word ‘coloured’ in an interview earlier this year. “That guy probably did 15 interviews that day – he says one word, apologises and it’s taken the wrong way and out of context. I think people are more on their guard and cautious about how they talk. My fear is that it’s going to stop characters coming through, because everyone’s going to sound the same.”
He reels off a list of celebrities respected for saying what they felt: Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Ronnie O’Sullivan, Gazza, Noel, Liam. “That’s why people love Simon Cowell, because he says what he wants to fucking say, no matter whether you like him or not.”
He laments how the economic reality of today’s music industry stifles creative development, suggesting that if David Bowie recorded the avant-garde Low today, he wouldn’t be able to make another album.
“If people come out now with an experimental record or a commercial dud, they’re dropped,” he says. “Young artists releasing their first record have to sell so many records and get on so many radio stations to make it feasible for people to work with them. Creativity slips away because people are so self-conscious, and social media makes people vain because they want instant gratification. Nobody is bold – everyone’s distracted, no one’s looking out of the window and dreaming of anything, they’re thinking, ‘I better tell [social media] I’m doing this now.’”
The fame game
As the sounds of The War On Drugs’ latest album rise through the floorboards and torrential rain pours down outside, our chat turns to a gig in sunnier climes: when they played a ‘hangover’ performance the day after superfan Wayne Rooney’s wedding in Italy. “Me and Adam flew over on a Learjet, got picked up by a Merc and taken to a place on the Amalfi coast,” says Kelly. “I hadn’t really been around footballers, but if that’s how they live all the time it’s pretty cool.”
After seeing how some of their contemporaries got burned by the fame game in the Nineties, Stereophonics kept a relatively low profile. “You don’t have to be photographed, you can take the back door, not the front door,” says Kelly. They seem so normal it’s easy to forget how famous they are – until Kelly starts talking about that time Bowie gave him feedback on film treatment ideas when they were on tour together. “He was walking around, bored, talking to us about stuff. It was quite surreal, really,” adds Richard.
Touring with Bowie is one thing, but the clearest marker of true rock star fame is when someone gets a tattoo of your face. Has that happened to Stereophonics? “The face thing is weird,” says Kelly. He was sent a picture of one just the other day, in fact. “It looks really good, but I don’t know why anyone would want it.” There’s a slightly embarrassed pause. “It’s quite a commitment.”
Don’t milk it
One avenue that’s brought in new fans over the past decade is US TV and film soundtracks, such as Smallville, Friday Night Lights and One Tree Hill. So do they make more money from licensing music for TV shows than selling records? Kelly is transparent; it turns out dairy products are more lucrative than TV, which is more about exposure than cash. “They phone up and say, ‘Do you want to put Dakota on a milk commercial in New Zealand?’ and give you this ridiculous figure, and you have to say no because you don’t want your song to be associated with a bottle of fucking milk in New Zealand.
“That’s the hard part: you have to say no to this stuff, and your mother and father are going, ‘Are you fucking crazy?’ and you’re saying, ‘No!’ It’s about credibility.”
The latest chapter of the Stereophonics story is the release of the new album tomorrow, following their ShortList gig tonight. It’s an album of songs for people living in the small, trodden-on towns in Wales they grew up around – the factory workers and labourers who live to let their hair down at the weekend. “If we can let them escape for 45 minutes in the day and forget some of that crap, that’s the type of band we are,” Kelly says. “It’s a pretty magical experience, especially when you see these people singing back to you all these things they relate to.” Keeping the village alive may be the spirit of the album, but it’s that village – community, family, friends – that keeps Stereophonics grounded, live and kicking.
Stereophonics’ new album Keep The Village Alive is released on 11 September. Click here to preorder on iTunes
(Images: David Venni/Getty/Rex)