Interview | The Charlatans | North By Northwich


By Matt Forrest

If you were to retell the story of The Charlatans, it would rival that of any of the great tragic musicals.  They formed in 1988 and have seen a career with a great deal of incredible highs and crushing lows: sell out tours, 13 albums, several of which went to number 1. Then there’s a story of heartbreak with the tragic passing of founding members Rob Collins and Jon Brookes, and this just scratches the surface. It would be fair to say that the band has faced adversity on several occasions and still managed to not just keep going but stay fresh and relevant.

One area the band have excelled in is there unique approach to self-promotion. Lead singer Tim Burgess is a constant force on Twitter, interacting with fans, holding album parties and hosting competitions and give-aways. Then of course there are the special events hosted by the band. Last year they took over Manchester’s Oldham St and the Lowry Theatre to promote their critically acclaimed album Different Days. This time around they have gone one better rather than a street, the band have taken over an entire town that being Northwich, their very own home town. North by Northwich will see the band play 4 intimate gigs, as well several other events that include: an exhibition of Charlatans memorabilia, various Q & A sessions with Tim Burgess and Gary Neville, in addition there are performances from Galleon Blast and Slow Readers Club.

Today we popped along to a unique opportunity to interview the band where we had 4 minutes 4 seconds, or the length of North Country Boy in which to have a chat.  With the smell of chips in the air, as the event took place at local Northwich fish and chip shop, The Seafarer, it was our chance to see what this event was all about.

First up was keyboardist Tony Rogers.

Opening Night: How are things? Are you enjoying the delights of sunny Northwich?

Tony Rogers: It’s brilliant – a bit like a holiday! Just wandering around, the sun’s out, you get to do what you love in the evening and then get to wander around in the sunshine. A bit like going away for Easter.

ON: Well you certainly brought the weather with you.

TR: Thanks, yeah I hope it stays.

ON: So how much planning goes into an event like this?

TR: An awful lot of planning has gone into this, and I’ve got to be honest I haven’t done any of it! (Laughs)

ON: So, you just turned up to take the credit (laughs)?

TR: Tim (Burgess) and Nick Frasier, you’ve got to give them all the credit and praise because they have done everything from start to finish. I mean, all I’ve done is give them a few bits and pieces for the exhibition, rehearsed a few songs and got some things in order, and that’s it. It’s been easy for me! Hats off to the lads, they’ve done a really good job of it.

ON: It seems each year the band are doing something fresh and unique to promote themselves: Last year the Oldham St take over (Manchester) and now this.

TR: I think when you have been going for as long as we have, (laughs), you find new ways and I think it’s down to the bands to find new ways to promote themselves because record companies are limited. You need them and they’re a necessary evil, but they kind of have a set way of doing things. Record companies use other people’s ideas on their artists and acts. We have always been looking at different ways to promote ourselves. I don’t think we’re a band, which would let them (sic) make all the decisions, because we’ve been going long enough to know what’s needed to be done.

ON: It’s not just a Charlatans gig. This is a mini festival, so what are you looking forward to seeing?

TR: To be honest with you, I’m just looking forward to wandering around and seeing other bands and things like that, but mostly I’m looking forward to playing live, that’s my thing. But I’ll make it to the Salty Dog (a pub in Northwich which is part of the festival) and a few other places.

ON: So, you’re doing 4 nights, with the promise of Thursday and Friday nights having completely different sets. How have you chosen which songs you’re going to play?

TR: We have our usual favourites, and then the first we are going to add in is two new songs. The new EP, Totally Eclipsing had its first play yesterday.

ON: Which is fantastic by the way.

TR: Thank you. Then we had a few requests throughout the years to play some songs that we’ve never ever played.

ON: Would it be too late to get one in? (Laughs)

TR: Not at all. So, there are songs from the very beginning, right through to the latest, so it’s a big mixture really and we’ll just jumble it up each night and add new ones, take older ones out and that’s it. There are a lot of songs; 32 songs we’ve got down to play. So, it’s easy to chose 19 or 20 songs for a set.

ON: What is your favourite to play?

TR: We’re doing I Never Want an Easy Life If Me and He Were Ever to Get There, and I’m loving that.

ON: Well I’m seeing you tomorrow, so I hope you do that.

TR: Good man, I hope we do it for you.

ON: Cheers Tony, it was nice talking to you.

TR: You too.

Immediately after my 4 minutes were up with Tony Rogers, it was on to bass player Martin Blunt.

Opening Night: So, what’s it like to be back home for a week full of gigs?

Martin Blunt: It’s good. I moved here in 1991 and left last year, so I had 26, 27 years living in Northwich – I thoroughly enjoy it.

ON: A great deal of planning has gone into this event. How much of this have you been involved with?

MB: Just the gigs and the exhibition. What happened was, we had the idea back in February to do the 4 shows, and then before you know it other events started to get connected with it and before you know it there’s another 4 venues, some new bands and some older bands. It sort of took on a life of its own.

ON: There’s so much going on, is there anything you’re looking forward to seeing other than your gigs?

MB: My dj-ing on Wednesday.

ON: Well I was going to bring that up. I caught your DJ set at the Lowry, when you did the Oldham St take over, some banging tunes in that.

MB: Cheers, thank you

ON: What tunes doing you like throwing in?

MB: Well you know, you put a few classics in there, and then you put some other good shit around it. (Laughs)

ON: You’re doing 4 nights here, and 2 of the nights you’re doing different sets.

MB: Well saying that Monday and Wednesday, we’re gonna mix it up: it’s The Charlatans juke box over the next 4 concerts.

ON: How do you pick which songs you want to throw in?

MB: By democracy, we talk about it for half hour then I get to choose the songs.

ON (Laughs) So when I found out I was doing this, I thought I’d try something a bit different. So, I asked my girlfriend (who is a school teacher) to ask some of her kids for some questions. They came up with the best question which is, what is like to be a rock star?

MB: You get an extra half hour in bed!

ON: (Laughs) ha ha they’ll love that. Another question they asked was how many instruments do you own?

MB: I used to own quite a lot and then I got divorced, so a lot of those got sold on. I’ve got about 12 basses, I think Mark Collins has got about 34 guitars, but you can only play one at a time can’t you, unless it’s a double neck.

ON: So, the memorabilia for the exhibition, how much is the band’s and how much is fan donation?

MB: There has been some fan donation, but at our studio, Big Mushroom, there was always a far-flung corner, where over the years we used to put some stuff there that’s never really seen the light of day. So, we thought it’s about time it did see the light of day, and then after this it will probably get flung back in the corner of the studio for another 10 years!

ON: I noticed Gary Neville seems to be doing a lot of stuff with the band.

MB: He’s just our stalker. No, its good Gary’s doing that, with all the profits going to the local hospice St Luke’s so fair do’s to the guy.

ON: Have you got any favourite songs you like to play?

MB: We played Bullet Comes and Easy Life on  Monday, which sounded really good.

ON: I’m coming tomorrow night and noticed Forever on the set from last night so hoping for that Wednesday.

MB: Sorry Matt think you’re gonna be disappointed, you should have come Monday.

ON: Fair enough, just made up to have a ticket. Pleasure meeting you.

MB: No problem cheers Matt.

After that it should have been my turn with lead singer Tim Burgess, but like some speed dating events time was against us and I didn’t get my 4 minutes 4 seconds with the mastermind of this unique festival. Just a few complimentary words, a quick picture for the photo album and rather interestingly, I was asked to take part in a documentary about the event. Here’s hoping I don’t get left on the cutting room floor.

For 10 days at least, this sleepy town in the heart of Cheshire is the place to be: even if you don’t have a ticket for one of the four Charlatans gigs there is so much going on that it would be well worth a visit. I finish my day off with a trip to the exhibition and finally a trip to Sprosten Green, because like many a Charlatans gig it was the perfect way to finish!

Marshmallow Laser Feast presents ‘IRIS’

Iris 2

Probing, enlightening, hypnotic and playful, ‘IRIS’ – the unique digital art installation – is a mesmerising sensory experience that visitors to the Lowry are going to ADORE! Last night was our first opportunity to see it, FEEL it, and to fall in love with it at the world premiere, as well as to meet the Director of this laser and robotic feast, Ersin Han Ersin.

Fresh from a win at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival for the virtual reality experience ‘Treehugger: Wawona’, Ersin had completed a successful ‘IRIS’ rehearsal earlier in the day; yet as VIP guests filtered into The Quay Club – swooping up cocktails that were as inviting as the day’s blissfully sunny skies – Ersin admitted to feeling (understandably) a little nervous: “I want people to find it spectacular,” he confides. “Usually, our production company, Marshmallow Laser Feast, designs for the stage. In this case, the commission was to create something for the auditorium that responds to the architecture of the Lyric Theatre.

‘The theatre is always the theatre. We have tweaked and played with the architecture – shrinking it and expanding it using laser lights. It’s abstract, ephemeral; there’s no clear narrative. People create that through their own response to it. We wanted to take people to a space that is changing and then leave them with that space – and hopefully breathless.”

It’s a hope that The Lowry’s Chief Executive Officer, Julia Fawcett OBE, shares: “Contemporary art, digital art… these can be a challenge. Our Digital Programme is about finding ways of opening up people, so that they bring no prejudgment; they haven’t already decided it’s not for them.

‘Our usual programme is planned two, even three years ahead, and artists approach us all the time with wacky ideas. We could never get our clocks in sync to exhibit them. That’s what our biennial commissioning festival Week53 is all about – stopping the clock and saying: ‘Our building is available’.”

‘IRIS’ is The Lowry’s Week53 commission for this intervening year. The Digital Programming Team were looking to work with artists who were at home with the challenge of working in the elliptic-shaped theatre; an empty space that isn’t truly empty. Previous collaborators – and internationally-renowned pioneers – Marshmallow Laser Feast were selected. Julia shares her delight at discovering one of the founders is from Salford, exclaiming: “They’re from around the world and around the corner!”

Iris 1

‘IRIS’ exists in two free formats: as a ‘Black Box’ experience you can enjoy as a piece of digital art, or as a surprise piece of pre-theatre before selected shows.

“It’s dynamic – a completely different experience that changes whether you are in the circle or the stalls,” says Julia, who challenged Marshmallow Laser Feast to create a digital art piece that would sit comfortably before every kind of show, from comedy to opera to drama.

“As it’s free, people can come back again and again. What happens isn’t like anything else that you usually experience when you sit in a theatre. You are a participant as much as an observer. You’re inside something – the void of the building – encapsulated by the sound and music-scape.”

With our appetites well and truly whetted, we head into the Lyric Theatre itself for a short introductory speech by Julia. It is only four days since a terrorist atrocity took 22 lives and caused injuries to 119 others at the Manchester Arena, so it is with loving respect that Julia pays tribute to all those affected. From the initial feeling of helplessness, she says, came a resolve to: “Do what we do: to carry on delivering the programme and great art.” It echoes Ersin’s earlier comments that the show will give us breathing space, and that “they [the terrorists] can’t win.”

After this moment of reflection, ‘IRIS’ begins… The bowels of the Lyric Theatre are plunged into darkness and is punctuated by mechanical, industrial noises, which are interspersed by strains of classical music. With my heart pounding, I feel for my husband’s hand – uncertain of what to expect next. Overhead, robotically-controlled lasers now pierce red beams of light through the darkness – stretching long, searching fingers down from the ceiling to slowly probe the audience below.

The movie reel of my mind digs out ‘Blade Runner’ as a cultural reference – it feels dystopian… a disembodied presence extending tendrils of light to prod and provoke.. yet as the light columns begin to encircle us – caging us in – I desperately want to be one of the ‘chosen ones’ who are ‘touched’ by the criss-crossing lights that stain faces and hands red for a fleeting second. When I finally ‘catch’ one, it ribbons through my fingers – leaving a smile of pleasure on my face.

Pulsating… growing and shrinking… ‘IRIS’ now changes – the soundtrack becoming ethereal and yearning. We have entered a time of enlightenment, similar to Aldous Huxley’s ‘doors of perception’; there is a feeling of a new dawn of knowledge and connectivity. The lasers are a friend and an educator – showing their intelligence with increasingly intricate patterns that suspend, swoop and play.

Then – after six all too short minutes – it ends abruptly; the hypnotic trance is broken. Julia Fawcett’s ardent wish that ‘IRIS’ will leave you curious – and with a burning resolve to return – is fulfilled.


Spilling back out into the still brilliant daylight, it’s now time to nurse a drink and muse over what we’ve experienced in ‘IRIS’, while the ‘Tim Peaks Diner’ experience takes residence at Pier Eight below us. Strains of overhead conversation echo Julia and Ersin’s promise that this ethereal being, ‘IRIS’, will be interpreted uniquely by all. No two opinions are the same, but there are surprised and curious grins of pleasure all around.
It’s the perfect precursor to The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, who is joined by guests TEAR and a bevy of DJs for an uplifting mini-festival that feels communal and comforting after the week’s events.

Hi Resplendent in a gold glittery cardigan, which he later peels off to reveal a ‘A Different Day’ T-shirt, the indie legend serves up an acoustic set of the ‘songs we know, but done different’ – treating us to crowd-pleasers like ‘The Only One I Know’, ‘Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over’, ‘Tellin’ Stories’ and ‘North Country Boy’. It is hot on the heels of the launch of The Charlatans’ new album, ‘Different Days’. Touted as ‘the best Charlatans album in 20 years’, it features a plethora of special guests – including Smiths’ legend Johnny Marr, who plays on three tracks. After the ‘Tim Peaks Diner’ experience, Opening Night will be snapping it up!

Audiences can experience ‘IRIS’ before selected performances in the Lyric Theatre and on the following additional dates:

Saturday, 27 May – Sunday, 28 May: 11am to 4pm

Saturday, 10, 17 and 24 June: 10.30am to 11.30am

Saturday, 8 July: 10.30am to 11.30am

The artwork will last for approximately seven minutes and will be shown every 15 minutes.

Reviewed by Michelle Ewen