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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

20 years of Stereophonics: 'To us it’s just another day in the studio'

Ahead of their concert in Dubai, frontman Kelly Jones talks to us about the band’s 20-year career

The band combine big pop hooks with storytelling lyrics. Photo by Andrew Whitton
The band combine big pop hooks with storytelling lyrics. Photo by Andrew Whitton

The Stereophonics are not fond of looking back. Unless you are a fan, you would barely notice that the group are in the midst of a landmark year in which they are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album, Word Gets Around.

Such occasions are jumped on by bands as a lucrative opportunity to cash in through nostalgia-filled world tours and greatest hits compilations, but the Welsh rockers shrugged it all off and instead decided to release a new album.

Getting the usually tight lipped front-man and guitarist Kelly Jones to even acknowledge the achievement is bit of a challenge.

“I didn’t have any feeling to release a compilation record. The music I was writing was strong and I am very happy with the momentum the band has been on for the last three records, particularly,” he says. “But when you get to these anniversaries people expect something or assume something that’s going to come along.”

“But to us it’s just another day in the studio,” he says.

Word Gets Around was not about escapism

Now, this may sound like the musings of a killjoy, but that has been the modus operandi for the group since its inception.

When the group emerged in 1997 from the small Welsh town of Cwmaman, whose population is just less than 5,000, The Stereophonics were defined by their lack of frills.

They were a counterpoint to the bombastic and brash behaviour of peers such as Oasis and The Verve through their collection of passionate yet straight-laced rock songs. The key songs in Word Gets Around, such as the propulsive Local Boy in the Photograph and the affecting title track, were not bold youth declarations of world domination but, instead, spoke of the little tragedies and the suffocation of living in a small town.

That said, Jones uses the opportunity of the debut album’s anniversary to correct a common misconception shared by the media and fans.

“These weren’t songs of escape,” says the now-London resident. “It was more a comment on what my surroundings were, and I was quite happy in those surroundings. It was very simple times and I really enjoyed that and I think the album was much more about how rumours spread in a small town and the sarcasm, tragedy and comedy that comes with it. It wasn’t about getting out.”

Fans and critics the world over were beguiled by Kelly’s compositions, which paired big pop hooks with lyrics filled with sharply defined characters ranging from a football team engulfed in scandal (A Thousand Trees) and a much harried fruit and vegetable merchant (More Life in a Tramp’s Vest) to Billy Davey’s Daughter, which is based on a suspicious death on a local bridge.

Ever since the album’s release, the band has been regularly touring the world, and over the space of 10 albums they became a bonafide stadium act in the UK.

Scream Above the Sounds plays to the band’s strengths

The reason for the latest global jaunt, which includes a Friday night performance at the relatively intimate surroundings of the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, is the group’s 10th album Scream Above the Sounds.

While the album is another fresh batch of tunes, it also serves as a strong tribute to the band’s durability.

The 11 songs on offer are a showcase of the various sounds and rhythms The Stereophonics played with during their time, from gritty pub-rock missives to stadium rousing anthems, in addition to adding some new sonic explorations.

They are all bound together through Kelly’s lyrics, which remain steeped in their observational power and scattered with thoughtful musings from a world weary artist.

A case in point is the fist-pumping opener and lead single Caught by the Wind, which is partly inspired by the 2015 terrorist attack at the Parisian concert hall the Bataclan – a venue the group first played two decades ago.

But the song is far from a sombre affair, and is instead a life-affirming ode to enjoying life’s underappreciated moments such as “sunbathing on the roof/watching aeroplanes”.

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“The attack was the first time something like that came into a concert, which is my work environment. You start having doubts about what you want to do, and travelling the world and all sorts of things like that and having children,” Kelly says. “It’s a process where you realise you have to practise what you preach, and I felt those things and put it down in a song that’s basically telling you to carry on living your life and celebrate the small things. Don’t just worry about the intrusive bad news coming through your telephone or your TV every day.”

Another key track on the new record is What’s All the Fuss About? It finds the outfit at its most musical and lyrically intricate. Over a shuffling drum beat, acoustic guitars and off-kilter brass the track serves as a mini Robert Altman movie with a variety of characters ranging from school kids to a battling alcoholic as they attempt to find some meaning in their existence.

“It’s about running around a lot and you’re chasing your tail a little bit and there’s kind of almost something beautiful right there in front of you that you sometimes don’t see, and we’re all guilty of that sometimes,” he says.

“It’s a meaning of life song, but it comes from a little bit of searching, and asking yourself few questions I guess.”

Online: Where next for Stereophonics?

With Stereophonics reaching the mountain top in terms of album sales, sold out tours and even admirers in the form of Bob Dylan, does Jones asks himself what makes him still keep going with the group two decades on?

“I think the question is ‘what else is there for me to do?’ Because this is the only thing I’ve known in my whole adult life and I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’ve had a lot of good times doing it, and I’m proud of the work we’ve done,” he says.

“But at the same time, I’ve got questions, ‘is there something else that I want to do in my life as well?’ and I don’t know what that is. Most of my challenges in life have always come through in songs and writing and one way or another.

“I don’t know really, I mean it’s 20 years so, who knows, maybe after this tour finishes in September we will take a little break and see what comes next.”

The Stereophonics perform at the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre on May 11. Tickets from Dh399 are available at dubai.platinumlist.net

Also on the bill: Plan B to play his latest tracks in Dubai

In what is shaped up to be an eclectic double bill, British rapper and actor Plan B has been enlisted to support Stereophonics.

UAE audiences are set to be one of the first fans to hear the 34-year-old rapper’s latest tunes in a live setting with his third solo album, Heaven Before All Hell Breaks Loose, released only last week.

The record, his first solo release in eight years, is a colourful concoction of various styles that has him occasionally switching his raps for an awkwardly affecting croon with tracks touching on drum’n’bass, dancehall and R&B.

The new release is a welcome return to the studio for Plan B, who has been busy carving out a solid career as an actor with acclaimed roles in 2009’s crime drama Harry Brown alongside Michael Caine and the film remake of the gritty British drama The Sweeney in 2012.

That same year, Plan B also went on to write and direct the thriller Ill Manors, in addition to producing the well-received soundtrack that featured fellow Britain-based urban music stars Labrinth and Kano.