Rock stars’ memoirs are not for everyone. The fact that you like someone’s music doesn’t automatically equate to you enjoying an intimate perusal of the minutiae of their (often self-indulgent) biographical accounts. On occasion, however, they can prove to be an interesting read. Telling Stories, the autobiography of The Charlatans’ lad-in-chief, Tim Burgess, is a good example. With humour, wit and optimism, it manages to pack in quite a lot of the hook factor.
Born in Salford and raised in Cheshire, Burgess shot to fame with The Charlatans at the age of 23. With an impressive back catalogue boasting numerous timeless classics (Exhibit A: The Only One I Know), the indie-gone-indie-ish outfit he helms still remains popular and often as interesting as it was at the height of the Madchester and Britpop days.
And, of course, the twists and turns along life’s big old motorway would not be complete without drama and mishap and, sure enough, Burgess has had a couple of decades crowded with incident. From being, quite literally, charlatan-ed out of heaps of money by the band’s former accountant to the death of the band’s keyboard player, Rob Collins, Burgess seems to have amassed enough experiences to fill an autobiography, a sequel and – let’s go with this – a prequel.
On Wednesday he is holding a special evening of music and chat at St James Church, where he will be joined by Mark Collins from the Charlatans and Gabe Gurnsey from Factory Floor for an acoustic airing of some classic Charlatans hits.
For a preview of what a Tim Burgess chat entails, read on.
How did this autobiography come about?
I was approached in 2008 by an agent who had represented friends of mine in the book world. It never really occurred to me to write one until that point, although I must admit people had, on occasion, said to me – “you should write a book, you know!”. I would go for meetings with my agent at very bohemian bookish coffee joints in London and let him buy me coffee and cake. He would ask: “so, Tim, are we going to get a book?” And then once I kind of agreed to write one he’d say: “so, Tim, how are the words flowing?”. At this point I was just meeting up for the coffee, nodding and smiling and wondering if I could even write a book and, if I did, where the hell would I even start. The Charlatans released Who We Touch in September 2010 and in December, after a hectic international touring schedule, I went to wales with my new girlfriend for a bit of a break – it was pretty much our first time away together alone – and she suggested I started the book. She interviewed me and I recorded the interviews onto my phone – I got about 20 hours worth during that time, having told her in detail about things like the Hacienda (she’d never been and wanted to know everything) and taken her to the Monnow Valley recording studios in Monmouth and also to the scene where Rob Collins was killed. I realised I had the outlines for a book and then worked on it pretty much every day from then until January this year.
Were you offered the help of a ghost-writer?
Yes. I was offered the option by my agent. He thought it would be best if I wrote it myself but I wasn’t sure. I tried writing with Robin Turner, a friend and The Charlatans’ former Press officer. He certainly knew me inside and out and we both thought it would work. It didn’t and we both lost interest. This was around Spring 2010. I ended up coming to the conclusion that it could only work with me writing it. I was done with procrastinating and then just got on with it. I’d asked some advice from people like Mick Middles, John Robb and John Prescott – it boiled down to discipline and sticking to some kind of schedule. So that was it, it was like I was getting everything ready for some kind of expedition and, at some point, I had to do the equivalent of just heading off into the unknown. So that’s what I did.
Was revisiting some of the more difficult times you’ve experienced in the past twenty-odd years painstaking or cathartic?
Neither. I just wanted to write it in a style that wasn’t bogged down. When life throws obstacles, pain, suffering at you, it’s the way you get out of it that’s as important as how you got into it – I like to get over things quick as I can and I think that with drugs, I took it to the max then stopped just before it was too late. I wanted to see how far I could push it before the elastic snapped, before teetering over the edge. With the loss of money through the accountant, we had to get gigs quickly to pay off debts. Rob’s death was something that was going to be with us for a lot longer – in some ways forever. But bouncing back from being fleeced was something we just had to get on with.
There’s a bit in the book where you mention writing to Robert De Niro to ask permission to include a snippet of his performance in Angel Heart on one of The Charlatans’ songs. He wrote back saying yes. Have you had the opportunity to meet him in person in the intervening years?
No. I wish! I heard he liked the finished track, though, which is more than enough for me.
Bit of a cliché, this, but – did the writing of the book induce any hindsight regrets in you or would you not change a thing?
I have regrets, of course, but I wouldn’t want to change the story because I have re-written it too many times already!
Apart from being a musician, you have also developed a career as a DJ. What brought this additional career path your way?
In 1993 I used to go to a club called The Heavenly Social. The resident DJs were The Chemical Brothers and I was asked to DJ on one of the nights. The Chems liked my records and asked me to open for them on a 4-date Swedish DJ tour – I have been doing it since then. I love to play records. So I suppose it’s been a parallel career and something I really enjoy. I know it’s quite a different thing but I ended up doing a few shows for 6Music too which I really enjoyed.
Do you ever play your own stuff during a DJ set?
I try not to.
You have been working on a new solo album. Do you think that the writing of your memoirs informed some of the song-writing for the record?
I think they both go hand in hand, really. I left LA – my home for 12 years – I began the book in December 2010 and started writing the solo album in Nashville in April 2011. The solo album is the present and the book the past. I had to do both at the same time – maybe the solo album is the soundtrack to the book. In some ways all records are autobiographical. It wasn’t something I was massively aware of. To an extent, one seemed like a break from the other.
Your work with Saint Etienne showcased your poppier side. Would you ever do a pop album?
I would love to do a song with Pet Shop Boys. I think Neil Tennant is really charming and I remember Chris Lowe introducing himself to me when I was DJing once. I could write a song for Beyoncé and Rihanna, I suppose. I could do it in the studio downstairs at the warehouse where I live now – it’s bangin’!
The band is celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Tellin’ Stories LP by touring the whole album. Is that your favourite Charlatans moment, then?
My favourite albums by The Charlatans change all the time. We’re well moody and very responsive to what is going on around us at the time of writing – I love Tellin’ Stories but I would say my fave albums by The Charlatans are You Cross My Path and Wonderland.
What’s the plan for the musical side of your special evening at St James Church?
It’s a beautiful chance to play acoustic with Mark Collins. Mark and I have a very strong link we’re very close. We are also writing partners. We will play some Charlatans hits we wrote together like North Country Boy and Impossible, just to show off really! Just to say: “hey we write hymns too!”. Then I will play a couple of songs from my solo LP. Mark playing those songs will be an honour.
The book ends with the words “Not The End” – a sequel soon, then?
Not long! I had a bath the other day and I started to make notes on the obligatory notepad next to the tub. Is this sounding a little bit Alan Partridge? Anyway, the paper got wet so there may be a slight delay. Tim Book Two is the working title.
Telling Stories is published by Penguin on 26th April 2012, priced £12.99. An evening with Tim Burgess ‘Telling Stories’ is on the night before (25th April at 7.30pm) at St James Church, 197, Piccadilly W1J 9LL. Tickets are priced at £20 (which also entitles you to a signed copy of ‘Telling Stories’) and are available from Waterstones Piccadilly 0207 8512419 email@example.com