Unlike a lot of people born in the UK in the mid-80s, my musical awakening didn’t come with Oasis or Radiohead or Massive Attack. I was a late bloomer, so it wasn’t really until the turn of the millennium that I ‘got’ the alternative/guitar/indie thing. There was something in the faded glamour of The Strokes and the romantic charm of The Libertines that hooked me, opening up years of musical exploration (backwards and forwards in time) that brought a verve to my late teenage years.
And then came THE CORAL. A troupe of slightly scruffy, slightly scally lads from the more refined half of the Wirral peninsula, they leapt out at me straight away as something relatable and real in a world of increasingly polished and over-commodified BritPop revivalism. I can still remember the first time I heard Dreaming Of You, and watching the quirky video for it on MTV2. It was electrifying to think that a group of ordinary lads from the other end of the train line to me could be capable of landing a Top 10 album and get tonnes of radio play, and do so by just being themselves. With their updated, zany version of the melancholic Scouse charm of The La’s, they were the perfect distillation of what was to become defined as the Cosmic Scouser.
There then followed a period of critical and commercial success for the six-piece, releasing a string of albums through Alan Wills’ Deltasonic label that also housed The Zutons and The Dead 60s. In 2013, they even hosted their own madcap summer festival in New Brighton, A Midsummer Night’s Scream. This was a moment where The Coral and their audience revelled in their madcap brilliance, crystallising a moment in time that felt vital, necessary even. However, when I asked them about the show, the band themselves had a slightly hazier recollection of the day. “I can’t remember any of it,” James Skelly says, as though fighting against the mists of time. “I was divorced from my own mind at that point I think, on holiday from myself. It was just happening.” The memory of Skelly’s fellow songwriter in the band, Nick Power, is slightly better. “I’ve got really great memories of it. I remember my uncle Denny throwing a bag of ale over the wall to avoid paying!”
Since releasing Butterfly House in 2010 – an LP that the band’s late, great champion Alan Wills declared as “their Forever Changes” – The Coral went quiet, as each of the members pursued their own solo endeavours: James Skelly set up a label (Skeleton Key) and released an album as The Intenders; Nick Power wrote and published two books; drummer Ian Skelly released one solo album, and another LP as Serpent Power, where he teamed up with former Zuton Paul Molloy; and guitarist Lee Southall followed Bill Ryder-Jones in making his hiatus from the band permanent to focus on his own solo work, paving the way for Molloy to fill his shoes. This expression of each of the individual’s extra-curricular creativity highlights the different strengths and characters at play in the group, giving them many – and varied – points of attack.
Both Skelly and Power believe that this extended break was needed, and helped them achieve some clarity in the space it afforded them. “You can kind of see the bigger picture, and be in control of you own destiny a bit more, so that you know why you’re doing something,” says Power. “I was probably on a major label from when I was 18 to when I was 28, and you just forget what you’re doing it for. You’re not quite sure why you’re doing it or what you want out of it. Having a break helps you to reaffirm what you actually want out of music.” Power agrees, saying that the break has made him approach his music with a different mindset. “It re-energises you. I think we were just exhausted, really. Things had just become a habit. So maybe everyone was afraid of doing anything else because we didn’t know anything else – do an album, tour it – and I think we’d just got a bit stale and tired. So we just needed it [the break].”
There’s something magic about the band as a whole, however, and the pull to reconvene and lay down some new tunes was too much for them to resist. Skelly admits that he felt “on holiday from myself” when he was writing material for his solo album – and Power himself believes that their dynamic of working together as a group is where their real strength lies. “I didn’t think we’d get it together so soon, to be honest. But as soon as we got together again and got a couple of tunes down, it was impossible to stop it.”
The band’s return was made concrete when they were announced as one of this year’s Sound City headliners at the tail end of 2015, fuelling interest in a new album, their first new offering for six years (save for The Curse Of Love, released in 2015, which feels more like a series of forgotten outtakes that fits more between Roots And Echoes and Butterfly House). Their eighth LP, Distance Inbetween, came to fruition in March of this year, released through Ignition Records. Significantly heavier and more driving than anything they’d done before, the record marks The Coral’s third stylistic evolution, from their early, off-kilter Beefheartian days, through to a more pastoral, Byrdsian sound, now finding themselves as a meatier proposition. The groove-based Distance Inbetween is certainly darker and more direct than any of the band’s previous material, relying on stocky, blunt, krauty rhythms. They’ve always been quite a filmic band that evoke cinematic references, but this album definitely has more of a rollicking soundtrack feel. “You could probably pull that out of quite a lot of the songs through all the albums,” says Skelly of this longstanding facet of their sound. “I think Distance Inbetween comes from a different style of soundtrack, maybe – but I’ve always thought that was there in The Coral. Take Music At Night, Don’t Think You’re the First, Secret Kiss – they’re very soundtrack-y, but in a different way.”
The band, completed by long-term bassist Paul Duffy, have been out on the road getting to grips with their new songs on their first headline UK tour for almost five years, interspersed with a long overdue performance on Later… with Jools Holland. Skelly believes it was “a pretty easy transition” to work the songs into a state ready for live consumption, and they relished the challenge to take their fans somewhere else with their new material. “I preferred doing the new ones [songs], I think they translate live a bit better,” agrees Power. “It’s all quite direct and electric, they make more sense. We’ve had to bring the old songs up in line with them a bit more. I don’t get bored of playing the old songs – it was actually kind of fun making them a little bit heavier.”
Being in complete control of what, when and how they release definitely suits The Coral, and it opens up a whole raft of possibilities going forwards for them. Being removed from that major label structure matches their loose, unfettered approach, and the whole process of putting together Distance Inbetween has been a liberating experience for them. “The way we’re doing it now is the way we always should have done it,” says Skelly. “It’s just that major labels are built for a certain type of artist, and we’re not really that type of artist.”
“It feels better now in every respect, for me,” confirms Power. “There’s a better attitude artistically.”
So far on their return, The Coral have steered clear of Liverpool, which has geared up this year’s Sound City headline show as a kind of homecoming. When asked, Skelly seems confident that this latest incarnation of The Coral is ready to make this their biggest show yet. “I think it’s going to be a great gig. We’ve got brilliant visuals as well that I think will look great on the screen behind us, especially when it goes dark.” Equally determined, Power agrees that their new visual setup is “quite demented, in a way. It’s out there.”
Let’s hope that they remember this show more than they did the last time they played in sight of the River Mersey. “I think it’s going to be one of the best gigs we’ve played,” says Skelly with an air of assurance. “We’ll bring our side of it anyway.”
Sound City, make sure you bring yours.
The Coral headline the Atlantic Stage on Sunday 29th May / Onstage at 22:30