Entertainment & Arts

The Coral: 'We were stuck in a timewarp'

The Coral Image copyright Ignition Records
Image caption The Coral were once branded "the next Oasis" by an over-eager music press

Following a self-imposed hiatus, The Coral returned in March with their eighth album Distance Inbetween, earning some of the best reviews of their career. They tell the BBC how the band got "stuck in a timewarp" and why friendship helped them survive.

After five top 10 albums and twice as many hit singles, it's surprising to discover The Coral have never headlined a music festival.

"We've been waiting to show what we can do in that kind of slot, but never really had the chance," says frontman James Skelly.

But that all changes this weekend, when the band play Liverpool Sound City, topping a bill that also includes Pete Doherty, Hot Chip and Circa Waves.

Fittingly, they will perform on Bramley Moore Dock, looking across the water to Wirral, where the band formed as schoolfriends 20 years ago.

"It's such a beautiful setting," says keyboard player Nick Power. "Most of the time we've played in Liverpool we've been in academies, which are more like nuclear bunkers than venues, so I really don't know how it's going to affect me - but I expect to be moved by it."

The Coral's set will be powered by their latest album, Distance Inbetween. Released in March, it is heavier and more direct than their previous albums, driven by ex-Zutons man Paul Molloy on spaced-out guitar, and Skelly's unerring knack for melody.

"It's geared up to play live," says Power, who admits the album was a reaction against 2010's folksy Butterfly House, which was "a pain in the arse" to replicate on stage.

"It was all so delicate - hanging off acoustic guitars and stuff," adds Skelly. "It can be really hard to play that kind of music in big venues. So this is really geared up to being heavy and enjoying playing it."

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Media captionThe Coral play live for The Quay Sessions

Tracks like Miss Fortune and Million Eyes have quickly become highlights of their set - showing off the symbiosis between the band's drummer - Skelly's brother James - and bassist, Paul Duffy.

"They've been playing together for so long, it's quite telepathic," says Skelly.

"I remember they learnt The Who's A Quick One While He's Away when they were 14," he marvels. "The whole song - all five parts of it - just on drums and a classical acoustic."

Don't believe the hype

The band were still in their teens when Alan Wills - formerly the drummer in Shack - heard them play in a local pool hall and formed a record label specifically to release their music.

"We played him a few songs, and then we played [future single] Shadows Fall," says Skelly. "And he was like, 'that's what you need to do - the rest of your tunes are like Happy Days'. So we sacked all our other tunes and did that."

Shadows Fall contained the DNA of every Coral song since - a sort of psych-rock Merseybeat that owes as much to Captain Beefheart's genre experiments as it does to Lennon and McCartney's harmonies.

Image caption The band were nominated for three Brit awards - including two citations for best album

Two EPs in 2001 built expectations for the band's self-titled debut album, which was nominated for a Mercury Prize the day after its release in 2002.

The music press, desperate to recapture the momentum of Britpop, christened The Coral the "next Oasis" and Skelly the "spokesman of his generation". They even invented a scene - "Cosmic Scouse" - around The Coral and up-and-coming bands like The Zutons and The Bandits.

Skelly, an outsider by nature, balked at the attention.

"We felt like Robbie Fowler when the premiership came and he was still out at the chippy, going for his dinner, but he was in a new world," he says.

"We were never the new Oasis. But then we were never the new Radiohead, either. We were always somewhere in between."

For a long time, the band fought against the hype. They were nominated for three Brit Awards and declined the invitation every time.

"In a way, it felt like we hadn't even earned it," says Skelly.

"We were always wrestling with the thing of 'we're not a major label band'," adds Power. "I don't think I'd skip The Brit Awards now. If someone back then had advised me of the actual facts, I probably would have turned up to at least one."

The band's refusal to play the industry game meant they could focus on making music. They released five albums in six years, with singles Dreaming Of You, Pass It On and In The Morning becoming major hits.

"We were discouraged from releasing that many albums," says Power. "We wanted to do more. Major labels don't want you to do that."

In fact, they have hours of unreleased material - Power mentions "a concept album about an otter recorded in a £1,500-a-day studio" - but after 2010's Butterfly House, their first album without guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, they were "bereft of ideas".

Streaming boost

They announced an indefinite hiatus, during which Power released two books of poetry; while Skelly recorded a solo album and started producing other bands, including BBC Sound of 2016 finalists Blossoms.

More importantly, Skelly dug out the sessions of a "lost" Coral album - 2006's The Curse Of Love - and polished them off for a full release.

"It had no promotion at all," says Power, "but the reaction was so good" it became the catalyst for the band's revival.

Image caption James Skelly: "It's not a nostalgia thing. If you come to see us, it's still a living band, it's still exciting."

"Sometimes, as a songwriter, it's like you're stuck in a time warp," Skelly explains. "I was trying to write Curse of Love over and over again because I never got it out... Once we'd released it, I wrote the whole new album."

Distance Inbetween is inspired by the graphic novels of Alan Moore, the photography of Gregory Crewdson and even box set behemoth Mad Men - all of which expose the horror lurking beneath the "normality" of suburbia.

"It's all churches and old people's homes around here," says Power. "The image of something horrific or supernatural within that landscape is one of the things I find most powerful."

The album has seen The Coral's reputation restored, not to mention their confidence.

"We're much more certain and much more focused now," says Power. "In the middle period, we were really unsure with what we were doing. Being best mates was the only thing that bound us together. Morseo, it helped us survive."

Distance Inbetween became the band's eighth album to reach the top 20 in March. It even topped the vinyl charts, much to the band's delight.

"I think it says something about the audience that they're willing to get behind us, and they genuinely care about the band," says Power. "They enjoy the artwork and how we present it as a full thing."

But the band don't want to be seen as relics, constantly harking back to a "golden era" when fans actually bought records.

"I don't mind what way people listen to music," protests Skelly. "For kids now, streaming is the way they listen to music. I'm not going to tell them that's rubbish. Half of them probably couldn't afford to hear all the great music they've heard."

In fact, he says, "our tours haven't done this well for a long time. Maybe streaming is the reason why... It might make music a bit more disposable, and hopefully artists will make a bit more money from it. But I'm not going to go on a march against it.

"I'm out there to get my tunes heard. That's always why I did this."

The Coral's album, Distance Inbetween, is out now. They headline Liverpool Sound City on Sunday, 29 May.

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