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On their 10th album, The Coral have never sounded so timeless – quite literally – as they bottle the spectres from a world of sticky clock hands and fading lights.
In one regard, the new album by THE CORAL is very much them all over. Shiny toe-tappers threaded with the more complex. The familiar Liverpool scally pop and Welsh psychedelic hybrid bonds are ever true. But with Coral Island we see further ambition not merely as a masterclass in musical and creative world-building, but in real terms. James Skelly sets out his targets humbly but with good humour during the second time we speak. “If you can break back into the top 10 in the UK charts on your 10th album – a concept album about a mythical seaside town with your grandad in it – it will be our biggest achievement since we got our number one.” He chuckles as he speaks, but it’s an accurate analysis of both album and scenario. Second album Magic And Medicine hit the top of the album chart back in 2003 and 18 years is a long time in rock ’n’ roll.
Coral Island waltzes us into a magical place of unspoken questions, reflecting on the faded glamour and unsettling nature of the fairground, the sounds, motion and people encountered. The album and accompanying book Over Coral Island, the latter written by keyboard player Nick Power, recalls the band’s childhood summer trips across Wales and the North West. Wirral’s very own seaside town, New Brighton, feels the ideal place to meet James and Nick to talk about their hopes for the record. We rendezvous on a stretch of flat grey concrete yards from the seafront. Paper cups of tea and coffee in the open air is quite the thing now, but undeniably it has an echo of bygone times and black and white photographs in family albums.
Any artist’s 10th long-player is a milestone, we each agree, although the two men seem uneasy at being described as indie veterans, a term popping up in reviews with frequency. This point in time feels significant, not make-or-break exactly, but optimism in our conversation is offset by frustrations at the music industry, and personal regrets.
The first section of the album, a soundtrack to the rides and arcades of summer fairground childhoods, is bathed in a brittle sunshine not unlike that in which we squint at each other on this Tuesday morning. Part one encompasses an idealistic memory, one maybe never really lived at all, James and Nick tell me. The sadness of nostalgia and a time gone by start to sink in further as the record progresses, and we are introduced to the curious characters living in society’s shadows.
After an hour of talking, we go our separate ways; James and Nick to carry on with further promotion. This album is grabbing more attention from journalists than anything they’ve done for a while. During our conversation we’d talked about the role post-Elvis, pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll and pop played in Coral Island’s formation. A strange yet fruitful few years of death ballads and vengeful love songs, giving a voice to the deep emotional intensity of the emerging teenage experience and identity. Coral Island’s songs are short, in keeping with pop conventions of that period and what an absolute pleasure it is to hear and feel the influence of eternal broken-hearted outcast on the run Del Shannon. This led to playing some of his records at home afterwards and unearthing a memory of riding the Waltzer in Southport with his classic Runaway ringing in ears.
Within days, all the audio from our interview has vanished, so we find ourselves having to talk again two weeks later, a surreal experience in itself. Nick is the first to retrace his steps. It seems appropriate to share the Del Shannon in Southport theory.
“I think they’re still playing it now! You have to play pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll spooky death ditties with a little bit of Pink Floyd thrown in, and The Doors every now and then, some 80s, but go back to Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson. It’s brilliant!” Nick laughs. “I think it’s an unwritten code fairgrounds stick to.”
Why does he think that is?
“They’re marginalised places, aren’t they? Totally off the map, never written about any more in mainstream culture. It’s outsider music. That’s what we tried to get across, another world in the real world. An unreality in reality.”
Nick talks about The Dips in New Brighton, the green space used by families, and for performance or anti-social behavior depending on what time of day or year. How the fair sets up there, a sudden pop-up town. In the eve it’s kite-flying and dog walkers, the next morn dodgems blast out Roy Orbison and The Shangri-Las’ drama.
“You might see a poster in a few closed down shops or chippys,” he says of the fair. “How did they get in? How did that poster get in there? That shop hasn’t been open for years. Then you’ll see it – bang – and the next night it’s gone. Magic.”
Coral Island morphed into a double album as the band worked on it, he explains, expanded by James and Ian Skelly’s grandfather Ian Murray in the character of The Great Muriarty narrating between songs. It’s difficult to recall many contemporary double albums in the independent music arena, so Coral Island is either an anomaly, or maybe we simply make more space and time for things now. The album does play around with past and present and it’s true that, when we’re kids, summer holidays last forever, while cold hard adult reality confirms a fixed six-week length.
“There’s a bit in the book about that, your experience of time, it massively changes as you get older,” says Nick. “Small things when you’re a kid seem mind-blowing. You’re in the present, totally rooted in the now. When you get older you live in the past or future a bit more, memories or anticipating.”
Nailing down radio-friendly singles Faceless Angel, Lover Undiscovered, and Vacancy gave licence to sail into deeper, darker waters. Coral Island was created with a 1960s approach, writing and recording quickly while everything was still fresh. “This album was kinda like, let’s go for broke. Make something which the record company might advise against! If we can get the money for it, let’s just do what we want,” Nick explains.
There is a strong narrative present, not only due to the spoken word, but noticeably so within the songwriting itself. The listener, and presumably the creators, go on a journey along with it?
“It goes back to folk tales and things like that, or murder ballads or weird character studies. I love songs that tell a story, a lot of the ones we drew from for this album are like that, tell a story – mostly about people dying,” Nick laughs. “But as you said last time, it was early goth!”
“There’s a lot in there, we very rarely just tell a straight story,” James Skelly explains, when we pick things up. He resists temptation to write literally, leaving enough suggestion for people to project their own stories. “The version in your head is always going to be better because you’ve made it for you.”
The Great Muriarty, then, could be the ringmaster of the big top, or delivering Roald Dahl’s quite terrifying scenarios in the old Tales Of The Unexpected series. Sinister and not ghostlike exactly, but from behind an invisible veil.
“That doesn’t exist anymore, the world he’s from, that generation,” says James of his story-teller grandfather who took him camping as a boy – these memories feeding into the record. “So, he’s actually, in a way, a time traveller. Like he’s going back to an older time. Even his voice, people don’t have that accent anymore. It’s a piece of time delivered to people.”
The mechanics of the fairground seeped in the very production of Coral Island, the gear itself mimicking sounds and the oddness of a temporary, rootless community. It took a lot of graft to make it sound “wrong”, as James puts it.
“To move something out of time so it would be not correct, or not in time. Or if the tape is broken and everything is moving at different times, it almost sounds if you’re playing a music box with the batteries running out. If you go to those places, the seaside or a fair, and they turn the machines on they don’t just come on like they would if it was digital. It’s like coming to life. It’s not a digital moment. It’s real, the way the wind is real. Like a broken fairground ride.”
So. Coral Island, the place itself. Does the band have an image of what it is, an idea of where it is located? Cardiff-based Edwin Burdis created a sizeable walk-in sculpture of the island, seen on the album artwork, but that is Burdis’ vision alone. Is Coral Island the band’s very own Coney Island but based locally? An actual familiar seaside place from all our childhoods: Blackpool, New Brighton, Llandudno, Rhyl?
“I’ve always found it a place I can relax, and I can’t always relax in some places. It’s a holiday from life, you come back to it,” James says of his Welsh holidays as adult and child, but his personal vision of the island takes him to more surreal territory, melting together 1960s sci-fi thriller and high-concept psychological drama The Prisoner, and folk horror movie The Wicker Man. With elements of Lost, maybe.
“Like a series I wanted to see. It was more this strange place just floating in the sea of your mind. Almost a metaphor for your imagination. That’s what it was to me. Probably be something else to someone else. It can be what it is to you. That’s what it is. Half the time I don’t want to know what the person’s vision is in my head. My version would be better to me.”
We’ve seen independent artists with a proven fanbase triumph in the album chart over the past few months – Jane Weaver went top 25, The Anchoress top 40, The Coral’s Modern Sky labelmate Jamie Webster at number six late last summer – which is doubly impressive given the zero opportunity to engage with audiences in the traditional sense. In the end, Coral Island surpasses James Skelly’s expectations easily, reaching number two. It feels timely to recall how the record’s single from March, Lover Undiscovered, reminds us of how as adults we view the world through cynical weary eyes.
“One day you’ll see a seagull fly above the sea and it’s almost like CGI and think, have I manifested this? How is this happening? How has it gone from being nothing to just gas, or whatever it was when the big bang happened, to that? It’s a discovered moment again,” he told me.
Maybe the message got through, via the airwaves. Through Spotify, and those vinyl copies of the album in every colour of the rainbow. How we take things for granted, take creatives for granted. Whatever it is, the mystical Coral Island is doing its magic for the band, both on the record and off it. The Coral Rediscovered, indeed.
Coral Island is available now via Run On Records in association with Modern Sky.