INTERVIEW: Stereophonics On Scream Above the Sounds, Longevity & Shaking Up the Release Cycle

Welsh rockers Stereophonics may well be one of the most successful musical exports the UK has had to offer over the course of the last two decades. Kelly Jones and his band (bassist Richard Jones, guitarist Adam Zindani and drummer Jamie Morrison) have been a solid unit for the best part of twenty years, making their way to the top of the charts on a regular basis alongside sell-out arena tours and appearances on renowned stages the world over. One such stage is Amsterdam’s AFAS Live, where the four-piece stopped off last month for a career-spanning greatest hits set in support of new album Scream Above the Sounds. We sat down with Kelly and Richard Jones to discuss the new album, maintaining longevity and how social media could be a hinderance to newer artists.

Hey guys. How are you doing?
Richard: Good, yeah. How about you?

Great thanks. You’re back in Amsterdam again tonight; what fond memories do you have of your previous trips to the Dutch capital?
Kelly: The last one was at Paradiso, wasn’t it? That was a good one. What else have we done?

Richard: We’ve done Melkweg and all those places.

Kelly: We’ve had some great times here. The last time we were in Holland one of our crew members went mental and disappeared, so we had to set up all of our own gear. That’s my last memory of Amsterdam, haha.

Richard: We bumped into Paul Weller here once when we were doing a couple of shows, I remember that. We had a really good night out with Weller.

Kelly: Yeah, he was recording. It’s always been good! Playing here is always good, as it’s something we did back in 2003. To get that level is very important and also good for us. We also did the Melkweg, which is a little club, as well as the stadium over the road with Lenny Kravitz. It’s all been good, we also did some good stuff out in Tilburg.

Richard: We had a really good relationship with our Dutch label when we first started out touring here, they took us out to a lot of great places like record stores which had albums we couldn’t get back home in the UK. They had a lot of Kinks records, that was cool.

Nice! Speaking of records – your latest offering, Scream Above the Sounds, is out now. Could you outline for me the process you underwent leading up to its release and throughout the recording period?
Kelly: It was kind of an ongoing process on the back of the last three records to be honest. All three are like a collection of albums as it was the first time that we had our own recording studio, so rather than booking a studio for six weeks with a producer and making an album there and then, we just went in daily and made some songs. Some of those were left over from the previous album sessions, and some had elevated as songs which we first started during the Graffiti on the Train sessions. Collections of music, you know? As a band, we get together for around two weeks and after that we fiddle around with everything we’ve got and see what comes of it.

With that in mind, could you suggest that the songs from the last three records were all thematically connected with one another?
Richard: There was a big bunch in the beginning, back when we first had our studio. We’d be in there recording constantly for six months, and there was a link between a lot of those songs. Since that six month period, though, we’ve just popped in whenever we’re not on the road just to do some songs. It’s usually just two or three songs at a time, and then we move on to the next thing.

What about from a visual or artistic perspective? What approach did you take this time round as opposed to on previous releases?
Kelly: Graffiti on the Train started with a screenplay I was writing, so a lot of that album was conceptual in many ways as the screenplay was being written in the day and the music at night. We almost got a full-on film into development, so lot’s of that was visually inspired by an artist called Steve Goddard. That was also mentioned in the script, and we used a lot of wicker paintings for the artwork. Video-wise I started directing a lot of the videos with a DOP I had a good relationship with. I started dipping my toes into the world of directing and prepared myself for the film. That era was very much inspired what we were doing as a big, combined project. Then we went on to Keep the Village Alive, which was more stylistically centred on the colour grey. This was inspired by an artist I like who did blind drawings of the buildings and streets where we lived. On this album, the wolf on the album cover came from the song Caught By the Wind, specifically the line, “wolves in the woods don’t play by the rules”. The wolf symbolizes the lone wolf intrusion and anxiety-based environment that occurs in the world these days. It’s about trying to find the innocence in life in and amongst all of the chaos and noise, a bit like an airplane soaring above the clouds or the intrusion of bad news every day.

You also mentioned a movie. Can you elaborate a little more on that?
Kelly: Between Keep Calm & Carry On and Graffiti on The Train we took a break. Our label went under, and we were stuck with Universal, which we didn’t really like. I went back to doing some script writing, as I’d previously been to film school; that’s also where I started writing lyrics. I would go to BAFTA and do writing with a lady called Kate, who’s a big script developer. I had this idea about these three guys leaving a small town and running away to Paris. The story comes after one of their friends dies while surfing a train, and that led to the whole album. Kate made me really dig really deep into what the script was really about, which led to Graffiti on the Train coming out as quite a left-curve record. It was really spiritual and orchestral. We didn’t really make the record for radio or anything like that either. Ironically, they A-listed four songs from it and we became quite a big radio band again. Such is life, as they say.

Richard: The idea was to release music which didn’t really follow the standard format. Kelly was writing a script for a movie, and we initially didn’t think it would be inspirational. We managed to whittle it down to just one album eventually.

Kelly: The whole process really allowed us to dig deep. When we were on Universal they wanted a radio song and all sorts of specifics, something we’d never had before as we were always on our own independent label. Getting out of that was a great thing as we managed to go independent for the last two records. It was an ark in the story, let’s say.

You’ve got all creative control now, then?
Kelly: Yep!

Jim Lowe also assisted on production duties. What did he bring to the table from a producer’s perspective?
Kelly: Jim’s really fast, and he’s been working with us since 2003. He started off just mixing some live tracks for us, but then I had a session with him which went really well. He’s got great knowledge of what he’s doing, and he also understands that the way we work is quite spontaneous. It’s very hard to come by people who you have an unspoken language with; Jim has spent a lot of time in our studio. If you keep having to go through the small talk situation and talk through gritted teeth to get what you want with new producers then it can be very draining.

Richard: Jim knows exactly where he needs to go when we think about having a particular sound, he understands that. We’re very similar in that way. He compliments everything we do in the studio, but he’s also not afraid to tell us when something is wrong. You need somebody like that.

Looking back on this record now, in hindsight, how do you ideally see yourselves moving forward from both a musical and artistic record?
Kelly: I’m personally getting a bit bored of the cycle. Album, tour, album, tour, trying to get on big TV shows and playlists. It’s a bit monotonous, and the world doesn’t have to run like that anymore. I would love to get to a position where we could write a song and release it a couple of weeks later. This album was already a year old when we released it, so when the cycle is over it’ll already be two years old. Which is fine, as that’s the way it is, but I think that with streaming there’s no reason to wait for a big collection of songs to be released. You can release them whenever you like and compile them at a later date as an album. Just like it was in the 1950s, where you’d put out an album based on a bunch of smaller singles. I would love to make more spontaneous music in that way and see how that works. Sometimes we feel a little bit boxed in.

Essentially switching up the release cycle. Over the years you’ve also played countless of huge shows and undertaken big tours, but how do you manage to keep it interesting for yourselves and ‘fresh’ on a nightly basis?
Kelly: Catalogue, really. Having ten albums, each show is different. In Paris last night we went a little bit more cinematic and darker; we didn’t do many singalong songs. We ended up playing quite a mysterious set with songs that people might not have recognized, which was quite cool. On other nights we try to play very celebratory songs which people can have a great time to. For us, it really depends on where you’re playing. That’s the beauty of having 120 songs in your catalogue, I guess. We rehearsed 45 songs last week, and we tend to do 25 each night.

Richard: The crowds are so big as well. You’ve got all the dedicated fans down the front, and then you also have some of the more middle-aged people further back who focus on the song lyrics and the stories which they tell. When you pull out these different songs, you can see the reaction in the crowd and what it does to them.

Over the years, your fanbase has become very dynamic. You’ve always maintained your diehard, older fans whilst still drawing in a constant stream of younger listeners. Your fans grow with you, but what do you think it is about your music that keeps attracting new people whilst still maintaining the old guard?
Kelly: It’s very much a 50/50 split between men and women, and it is great to see seventeen year old kids down the front who have just discovered the band. Maybe their dad or brother brought them along, and that’s great. I think the music takes you through certain journey’s in life, but it gives you an uplifting sense of hopefulness within the way that we try to deliver the songs. It’s not for everybody, but then again nothing is. The people who discover and like the band find it’s like a soundtrack to their life, even though I’m just writing about what I’m personally going through. The reality is that a lot of people go through exactly the same stuff, so I always try to be honest with my lyrics. We come across as a band who like each other and play music together, and it’s not about anything other than that. Scream Above the Sounds is out now.