Tim Burgess on Listening Parties, festivals and getting a thumbs-up from Paul McCartney
Exclusive interview with The Charlatans frontman.
When the SIGNALS Festival line-up was revealed earlier this month, fans of Tim Burgess would have been very happy. Not only has the singer nabbed the headline slot, with his band The Charlatans, he's also doing a solo set - the first time he's appeared in both guises at a festival.
If that wasn't enough, there will also be a Tim Peaks Diner hosting gigs and DJ sets, as well as an all-new live, in-person version of Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties. Impressive stuff.
Couple this with the 25th anniversary of The Charlatans classic album Tellin' Stories and it's a busy time for the singer.
ShortList is lucky, then, that he took some time out of his busy schedule to chat about all things Burgess - from his most surprising Listening Parties, the relief of playing live again and the joy of spending time listening to records...
ShortList: Thank you for bringing Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties to the world over what was a very worrying time for many. The concept is such a brilliant one, take us back to that moment when you initially came up with the idea.
Tim Burgess: Well it was a collaborative effort but I'm not sure whether Riz Ahmed realises his pivotal role in the life of The Listening Party. For the full story we have to go right back to 2011. We were recording at the studio but all took a break to watch Four Lions on the TV. I followed Riz on Twitter and he started tweeting asking if people were watching. He pointed out some things to keep an eye out for that you might ordinarily miss.
Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning: what if we did the same thing with a Charlatans album? A kind of director’s commentary kind of thing. I thought the idea was so good that someone else would think of it, I didn’t share it straight away. So I tweeted that we’d be having our first Twitter Listening Party a few days later and everyone seemed up for it.
Over the following decade, I would do listening parties for The Charlatans albums and my solo records - a lot of this was pre-streaming so you had to actually own a copy. People loved them but it was a bit of a best-kept secret and we had fun doing them. We did one for the 25th anniversary of Some Friendly [in 2015] and we made an interactive map where people could drop a pin to say where they were. Eventually we had thousands on there.
We had people joining in from six of the seven continents - fairly obviously it was Antarctica that was missing on account of nobody living there. Kind of jokingly I tweeted that the entire continent was letting us down and then the most amazing thing happened. Dan from The British Antarctic Survey got in touch and said he would join in. So on that day, it was the first time in history that an album was played simultaneously on all seven continents on Earth.
Getting ready for #SomeFriendly25 with @Tim_Burgess from #Rothera#Antarcitca - All 7 Continents @thecharlatans ! pic.twitter.com/ls5lsDB2R6
— dantarctic (@dantarctic) October 8, 2015
We happily did our thing until the pandemic arrived. We were told we’d have to stay home and we thought it might even stretch to a couple of weeks. So, we dusted down The Listening Party and it just went crazy from there! We started asking friends to host them, then next thing we’d done over a thousand.
SL: Congratulations on the announcement of the myriad events you are taking part in at Signals Festivals. You are set to appear twice in the same day as both The Charlatans and a solo set - how do you prepare for something like that? Have you got your costume changes sorted?
TB: Fortunately I’ve been doing this music thing for a while but I’ve never done a solo band and Charlatans gig on the same day, so that’s a first. It’s a lot of songs to remember and 'solo band me' is a bit chattier with the audience than 'Charlatan me', he’s quite a moody character.
I’ll have my valet, my team of dressers and my flight cases of outfits as weather and mood will decide on the final choice - I might have to keep checking who’s on stage with me to know which me to be.
SL: There will also be an in-person version of your Twitter Listening Parties at the festival - what can we expect from this? Are you hoping for some crowd participation with that one?
TB: We’ve done a few live Listening Parties and they are amazing fun, the first one was with The Vaccines at Latitude and we got some amazing insider info from them. Then we hosted one at Abbey Road, our 1,000th Listening Party was an event at The Southbank Centre, as well as Twitter, and Debbie and Chris from Blondie were our guests for Parallel Lines that evening.
Recently we celebrated our second birthday at Dolby HQ in London with Jon Hopkins as our host. We kind of make a physical version of Twitter and, yes, that does involve audience participation - via our amazing ‘analogue tweets’.
I felt a bit lost with no gigs to perform or attend. It’s good to have them back.
SL:You must be so glad that festivals have been given the green light again, just how important is the live element of music to you?
TB: Recording in a studio is a brilliant thing but it’s the live shows where the songs come alive. I’ve been going to gigs since I was 11 years old so they are part of my DNA. I felt a bit lost with no gigs to perform or attend. It’s good to have them back.
SL: If you weren’t busy enough, Tellin’ Stories has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Congratulations! Even though it was your fifth album, for some it was their first taste of you and the band - and all in the midst of the Britpop boom. What was it like to be part of that musical movement and were you a fan of the Britpop label at the time?
TB: I think bands can be in the eye of the storm at times. We just did our thing and in 1990 we were told we were ‘baggy’ then we were filed under ‘indie’ and next up it was ‘Britpop’ - the whole time we were just us,.The labels are put on there by journalists and it’s all part of the game. I’m happy with whatever it takes to have more people hear our music.
We were told we were ‘baggy’ then we were filed under ‘indie’ and next up it was ‘Britpop’ - the whole time we were just us.
SL: Does it feel like 25 years since the album was made? How does making that album compare to some of the more recent things you’ve released, such as Love the New Sky? Is the process still the same for you?
TB: In some ways it feels like a year and in others it’s a lifetime away. The process is never the same, life becomes different, you give things up and maybe start other things - I drank and had a wild old time of it back then. Now I meditate but it’s still as exciting. The Charlatans is more of a democracy whereas I am a megalomaniac in sole charge of my solo records so there’s a difference there. I have different people to work with on solo stuff and maybe the pressure isn’t as much.
SL: While your Listening Parties proved again and again the importance of the album as a format, it does feel like there is a shift away from albums thanks to streaming offering playlist after playlist - what’s your take on this?
TB: Yeah, there’s a shuffle/playlist thing that seemed to move away from the album and streaming/ downloading meant we disconnected from other elements like artwork but Record Store Day and a move back to vinyl has meant the album format endures.
There’s nothing like spending time listening to records but the practicalities of being able to stream anything that was ever recorded as you sit on the train - there’s room for it all
SL: Finally, we are all about lists at ShortList so we would love you to give us the 5 Listening Parties that surprised you the most when you put them on, and the reasons why they have stuck with you.
TB: 1. Paul McCartney: I wrote a speculative tweet and couldn’t quite believe it when we go the thumbs up from the man himself
— Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) December 17, 2020
2. Roisin Murphy: I was obviously aware of Moloko’s amazing music and Roisin’s solo output but I’d never really stopped to listen to an album all the way through. It was like discovering a totally new artist for me and Roisin has hosted three solo albums and one by Moloko - and the info she shared ranged from heartbreaking to hugely uplifting.
3. Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen is one of my all time favourite albums and I had got to know Wendy Smith from the band over the last few years, we’ve even performed together a couple of times. Wendy hosted a Steve McQueen Listening Party which was incredible. Martin McAloon, the bass player from Prefab Sprout joined her for the next one which was Jordan: The Comeback.
Paddy McAloon, Martin’s brother and the genius in chief of the band and a hero of mine is quite a private and almost reclusive person, happily spending time with his family. Paddy had heard what we were doing and had contacted Martin with some tweets he wanted to share. I nearly cried when I read the words.
4. Run The Jewels: They were on my wish list but I had no contact with them. Then an email came out of the blue: “We hear you’d like us to do a listening party”.
And they did such a brilliant job.
5. And a special mention goes to Iron Maiden: We reached out and asked if they would host our 666th Listening Party and they jumped at the chance. Bruce made a little video intro and they even came back and did another. Not long after we started, a computer genius called Andrew Brindle contacted us and he had written code which meant any Listening Party could be replayed IN REAL TIME! It was like watching witchcraft.
After over 1,100 albums our top two most popular replays are the same band, with more replays than the rest of the top 10 combined. And that band is... Iron Maiden.
Tim Burgess will be performing both a solo set and with The Charlatans at SIGNALS Festival, at Crich Tramway Village, Derbyshire, 11 June. Get your tickets now.
Head to the official Listening Parties site to listen back to over 1,000 of the Twitter Listening Parties.