Ahead of their first NYC shows in a decade, the Tindersticks frontman discusses the legendary UK indie rock band’s latest album, No Treasure But Hope.
When I chatted with Stuart Staples—frontman of the long-running UK indie rock band Tindersticks, who now lives in France—on a recent Friday morning, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: “If the essay or novel or poem wants to be written, it will speak to you while the conductor is calling out the streets. The question is, will you listen? And listen regularly?”
Tindersticks grew out of another band—Asphalt Ribbons—that burst onto Nottingham’s alternative rock scene in the late ‘80s. The band’s early efforts—released on their own label, Tippy Toe Records, in the early and mid-90’s—exuded the blend of warmth and melancholy and wonder for which the band has become known. Songs like “Patchwork,” first released as a single in 1992 then on the band’s 1993 self-titled debut album, showed Staples to be an exceptionally gifted songwriter with a penchant for metaphor and sorrow: “The yellow is my sunshine / Comes out on odd occasion / Barely enough to keep you around.” But his lyrics never feel belabored or affected. They feel easy, like he’s breathed them into existence or sketched what’s directly in front of him. His poetry is profound yet matter-of-fact.
Chee’s words came to mind when Staples was describing a eureka moment he had when writing “Pinky in the Daylight,” the most joyful number off Tindersticks’ superb 12th studio album, No Treasure But Hope, which was released in November.
“I wrote the song on a ferry traveling across the Ionian Sea leaving Ithaca, and it was a really powerful moment,” says Stuart. “I think when songs come—and they don’t come very often, but when they do, they are always based on connection with something. Sometimes it’s hard to actually allow that song to grow and be held in a piece of music. But with ‘Pinky in the Daylight,’ it was so direct. It was just a moment of realization, and ten minutes later, I’m singing it. I knew the chorus. I knew the first verse. I’d gone home and picked up my guitar, and within half an hour, I’d figured out what this song was.”
This idea—of allowing a song to grow and be held in a piece of music, of listening to a song when it speaks to you—wasn’t the only wisdom Stuart dropped in our 15-minute conversation. Nearly 30 years into his career, he also had a lot to say about finding space to dream, balancing beauty and pain, and realizing your own vision as an artist.
He also talked about what he’s been up to over the past few years, including his experiences writing and recording the No Treasure But Hope, his recent forays into film scoring and directing (how many people can say they’ve scored Claire Denis films and F. Percy Smith footage?), and the band’s upcoming performances in New York City, its first in ten years.
AdHoc: I want to start by asking about your latest record, No Treasure But Hope. When did you write and record it? What was that experience like?
Stuart Staples: I had just finished a long time in the studio working on [the music for the Claire Denis film] High Life and making my solo album, Arrhythmia, which [was a] very cerebral time in the studio.
I came out of that and had the idea of the band coming back together. I wanted to make something that was of the moment and about human beings—not about sitting scratching my chin in the studio. So we devised this plan—because we were living in different parts of Europe—to get together a few days every month for a few months, just sitting by the piano and seeing where that took us.
All of the rehearsals were acoustic, and then there came a point when we thought we knew enough about the songs that we had to take [them] to the studio. We also thought that if it was going to take us more than five or six days [to record], we were gonna be doing something wrong or trying to force something.
It was all based on trust—trust in the songs, trust in each other, trust in the choices, the moments. It’s a strange thing for me, this album, because [my songs usually] haven’t been let out of my studio until I know everything about them. For this record, I still feel as though I’m discovering the album myself.
What are some themes that come up across the record?
I think the writing part, for me, was different from what I’ve just been describing. Since making The Waiting Room, [I’ve gathered] these moments that are important to explore, and I had time last autumn in Ithaca in Greece to organize these songs that were inside me and try to understand them and give them some kind of form.
When we wrote “For the Beauty,” I knew it was the opening track of the album. I suppose it maps out the record, that song. It’s this relationship between all this beauty and the pain in the world at this time, and in your life.
You have songs like “Pinky in the Daylight,” which to me are very pure and full of joy—almost like the opposite to “No Treasure But Hope,” which is probably the song that is closest to despair on the record. And in between them [are] songs like “See My Girls,” [which] explore these ideas from different angles.
Are there any other places that shaped the record?
To me, it’s very connected to Ithaca. I’ve been going there for probably 25 years, but in the last five years, it’s become more and more important to me. My studio in France is a place to get things done—it’s not necessarily a place to dream. Ithaca, over the last few years, has given me the space to dream.
After working with image so much over the last five or six years—making Minute Bodies, working [on] two films with Claire, even the last album was a collaboration with a short film festival—I never stopped to think about images for this album, and I didn’t want to. I tried, as much as possible in the recording of the album, to not look at anything, just to listen, just to feel these moments in the air in the studio.
When the album was finished, there [became] a need to represent something in a visual way. Two things came from that: The first thing was the “Amputees” film, which was a very simple idea based around the words of the song. It was very much about cut-out words, [with] words and letters becoming the amputees themselves.
“Pinky in the Daylight” was so connected to Ithaca. I wrote the song on a ferry traveling across the Ionian Sea leaving Ithaca and it was a really powerful moment. I think when songs come—they don’t come very often, but when they do, they are always based on connection with something. Sometimes it’s hard to actually allow that song to grow and be held in a piece of music. But with “Pinky in the Daylight,” it was so direct. It was just a moment of realization, and ten minutes later, I’m singing it. I knew the chorus. I knew the first verse. I’d gone home and picked up my guitar, and within half an hour, I’d figured out what this song was. It was a very direct example of the way I write a song.
But it was always connected with Ithaca. It was about trying to capture the beauty of Ithaca and my wife, who this song’s about. It was the first time I’d worked with a cinematographer, [and] the first time I’d worked with celluloid film. When the film was finished, it felt like the song was finished.
You’ve been releasing music as Tindersticks for over twenty-five years now. How has your approach to making music changed over time?
I think with every song you write, you learn something. That kind of takes you into the next song you write. And even though it’s been about 25 years, it feels like a lot of little steps—sometimes leaps. I’d describe the song for High Life—“Willow,” that we did with Robert Pattinson—as a kind of leap. You’re always learning and gathering. But with No Treasure But Hope, it was maybe the first time you had the confidence to trust in a moment, trust in yourself, trust in the relationships you have within the band. That’s also true of walking onstage to play a concert, even after 25 years. Before I walk onstage, I look at the guys and I think, “Okay, this is going to be alright.”
That’s a great segue into my next and last question. Your upcoming NYC shows will be your first in ten years. What can fans expect from your performances?
One of the reasons we’re coming is that we feel a need. There are certain things that we haven’t done for a long time that feel important for us to do next year.
Playing in Europe for us—wouldn’t say it’s easy, but we are [able] to play our music in the way we want to play it. When we step outside of Europe, that becomes harder for us, because of lots of things. But the idea came up to play Murmrr, and it felt like the right thing to do. It feels like a good spot. We’re looking forward to connecting to people. That’s the most important part.