The Coral return: 'Success was like a runaway train – chaotic with no control'

After a breakneck run of hits, the wheels finally came off for the Wirral psych-pop oddballs. Then, just as they were ready to regroup, their mentor died. ‘Nothing prepares you for that’ they tell us

When the Coral began an indefinite hiatus in 2011, they did so on the back of a prolific run of six albums and 17 singles in 10 years, which took them to the top of the album charts, earned them a Mercury nomination, and for a while even saw them tagged “the next Oasis”. It was the kind of work rate you associate with the 60s or 70s, not the modern music business, where gaps between releases are geared to lengthy marketing campaigns.

“People in the industry were always telling us: ‘Stop putting so many records out,’” remembers keyboard player Nick Power. “We were actively discouraged from being prolific.”

So, by 2010, with the band shattered from heavy touring, they might have expected the industry to applaud their idea of taking a break. Not so.

“We had nothing left,” explains singer James Skelly. “There was only one thing to do: stop and see if we even wanted to do it any more. At which point the industry people all went: ‘Stop? You can’t stop!’ They all had a million opinions of what we should do. ‘Go into TV! Make a film!’ But none of it mattered because we were absolutely spent.”

The Coral had formed around the Skelly brothers (James’s sibling Ian plays drums) in 1996, while they were still at school in West Kirby on the Wirral peninsula. Guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones was just 13. They weren’t that much older when they found themselves on a major label, which wasn’t perhaps always equipped to deal with a gang of close-knit youngsters mad on early Pink Floyd, Can and Captain Beefheart, along with pop, soul and crooning “something you can hum”. They enjoyed weed and “mushies”, collected plastic dinosaurs and sent a video of themselves in a whirlpool bath with a Freddie Mercury lookalike to the Mercury prize ceremony rather than attending.

Now, with the end of the hiatus coinciding with the band’s 20th anniversary, James Skelly is still only 35. The dinosaurs littered around their Coral Caves rehearsal room in Hoylake are now augmented with horror movie posters and action dolls, and the band have returned with a heavy, spiritual, transcendent album, Distance Inbetween. influenced by what Power calls “stuff that’s happened”. Not least is the death of their long-term mentor, Alan Wills, who was killed while cycling in 2014, and to whose memory the album is dedicated.

The Coral’s Miss Fortune from Distance Inbetween

It was Wills who discovered the Coral, setting up the Deltasonic label around them after spying an early gig poster featuring one of their grandfathers with the universe coming out of his brain. “He told us he’d never seen anything like it,” remembers Power. “It was the poster that attracted him before the music, but he believed in us when nobody else was interested.”

Wills, an arthouse film fan, told them they needed to sound like a Bulgarian movie. “And he did make it like a film that we were in,” explains Skelly. “From everything seeming a million miles away, suddenly anything was possible. I was 20 when we got signed.”

The early Coral videos – such as the one for 2002 hit Dreaming of You, where the boys are on a beach, fighting with a man in a bear costume – depict a band having the time of their lives. Skelly remembers his initial astonishment as audiences started singing their songs back at them and music magazines put them on their covers. They met David Bowie on a TV show, where he addressed them as “the Corals”. “He was really nice,” remembers Power, who was still a teenager at the time. “Like your dad.” Their wildest dreams further came true when a fanbase of what he calls “bedroom heads, unrepresented as a subculture” took the band’s second album Magic and Medicine to No 1 in 2003.

“Suddenly, everyone’s giving you everything for free,” Skelly says. “It’s not good for your growth as a person.” He screws up his face as he remembers feeling “cocky”, then ponders in reflection. “It’s a lot to take in at that age.”

When the Guardian spoke to them at the time of that record, they were clearly becoming uncomfortable. Skelly spent the interview railing against the music industry and at one point even threatened to lock their own manager out of their house, or kill someone.

“I re-read that the other day and it just screams of a band saying: ‘Someone get a grip of us,’” Power says.

Skelly agrees: “We didn’t have any experience and Alan didn’t have any experience, but maybe if we had we’d never have done something so crazy in the first place, that everyone loved. People want something powerful but you’re not going to get that without the chaos and the madness, whether it’s us or the Stone Roses or Oasis.”

They stopped doing what was expected of them. “There were loads of times where we were like: ‘Nah, don’t wanna do that,’” Skelly says. “You can’t take a million quid off a record label and then go: ‘Nah, I’m going round to my mate’s.’ Or: ‘Nah, we’re making this film about a fella who sniffs knickers off people’s washing lines, so we’re not doing the NME photo. Is that all right?’”

A significant issue was that 49% of Wills’s label was owned by Sony, which wanted an Oasis-like commercial rock band but got a musically shapeshifting bunch of cosmic scousers. “People were trying to get a handle on us and it was like: ‘Fuck off’, basically,” says Power.

Skelly expresses deep admiration for artists who have wriggled out of being pigeonholed – he cites Bowie, plus Lou Reed, Neil Young and Captain Beefheart – and, conversely, distrusts bands who make career moves. But, with hindsight, both agree that a lot of their behaviour was a subconscious effort to slow the pace of what Power describes as like “being on a runaway train – chaotic, with no control over anything”.

The Coral’s comeback release, Chasing the Tail of a Dream.

When they were told to “nail it” with their third album in 2004, they turned in Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker, a barmy but inspired psychedelic mini-opus with songs about maggot brains and migraines. Reviewers declared it “irrelevant and self-indugent” (Pitchfork), discussing it in terms of “alienating their fans” (the Guardian).

“It wasn’t even meant to be an album,” Skelly says today. The band had been booked into a studio to record B-sides, but told producer Ian Broudie that they had other ideas. “At one point he said: ‘This sounds like a load of idiots fucking around on synths,’” Skelly says. “We were like: ‘Great! That’s the take.’”

“But, as a fan, I’d love that,” Power says. And fans did. The album went top five. Power roars: “I’ve got a silver record for it on my wall.”

At this point, finally, the Coral at least got themselves something that most bands take for granted: a manager. However, while 2005’s The Invisible Invasion spawned a huge hit with In the Morning, internally, the wheels were off.

As the youngest, guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones had always found the demands of the album-tour-album cycle particularly gruelling. Suddenly, he refused to play shows, which was put down to panic attacks and stress-related illness. Alhough the band replaced him temporarily, he returned for 2007’s Roots & Echoes (and The Curse of Love, shelved in 2006, but which emerged in 2014). He has since left permanently, going on to an acclaimed solo career.

“I think a lot of it came from a feeling of helplessness,” Power says.

Skelly nods: “I think he wanted out of anything at that moment. He wanted his own space.”

Minus a principal melodicist, the Coral managed to regroup for 2010’s Butterfly House, a triumphant show at the Royal Albert Hall to an audience including Robert Plant, and some of the best reviews of their career. With the Observer wondering “just how big this splendid, purposely arcane and nostalgic band will get”, the Coral unexpectedly pulled the plug.

They never fell out or split up, though, and continued working on other projects. In 2014, when James Skelly and the Intenders (basically, most of the Coral) started jamming a killer, mantra-like new song, Chasing the Tail of a Dream, the singer thought: “That’s a Coral tune,” and the mothership came calling.

Skelly had mentioned the idea of a comeback to Wills before the news came through of their mentor’s accident. He sped to the hospital, but it was too late. “It hit me like a sledgehammer,” he says. “Nothing can prepare you for that.” But rather than derail the comeback, the Coral became an outlet for their grief.

“In a way, it woke me up,” says Power. “It makes you realise how short this is. You’ve got to take hold of every day.”

Interview over, the band pick up their instruments and, with ex-Zutons guitarist Paul Molloy replacing Lee Southall (who’s taking further time out for his new daughter), they sound rejuvenated and resplendent. On the wall of the Coral Caves, a Bruce Springsteen poster has words written underneath that seem significant, about wanting to “reconnect with the fans that kept us going”. For Skelly, the restart has brought the opportunity of a new beginning, and the urge to throw himself into the Coral like in the beginning.

So, no more career sabotage? “I’m not sure there’s that much left to sabotage,” he says, “but if we get really big again, we’ll give it a good go.”

• Distance Inbetween is out now. The Coral’s UK tour begins in Newcastle upon Tyne on 3 March.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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