Mar 22, 2021
By Dom Gourlay
With a recording career spanning two decades and nine critically acclaimed albums under their belts to date, The Coral have become something of an institution in the UK music world. Ever since 2002’s self-titled debut arrived amidst a sea of plaudits, the five-piece—James Skelly (guitar, vocals), Paul Duffy (bass), Ian Skelly (drums), Nick Power (keyboards), and Paul Molloy (guitar)—have established themselves as one of the more consistent bands over the past quarter of a century.
Initially formed in 1996 on The Wirral (a peninsula in North West England) and predominantly based in and around Merseyside ever since, The Coral’s fusion of genres range from traditional folk to psychedelia via melodic pop and beyond. This has set them apart from most of their contemporaries, while ensuring that no two Coral records sound the same in the process.
Next month (April 30th) sees the release of their 10th album, Coral Island. It’s a sprawling, double concept album split into two parts (“Welcome to Coral Island” and “The Ghost of Coral Island”) that encompasses a mammoth 24 tracks, including several spoken word interludes from the Skelly brothers’ 85-year-old grandfather Ian Murray (aka The Great Muriarty).
Under the Radar caught up with founder member, singer, and guitarist James Skelly to discuss the album, anniversaries, longevity, and the band’s legacy.
Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): How’s lockdown been for you?
James Skelly: Probably better than it has for a lot of people. I was lucky that I had a lot of production work going on, so I did the Lathums and Blossoms albums during lockdown. Which helped me.
Do you find it more satisfying and rewarding combining the band with producing other people’s music?
I probably do both as much so it’s kind of a joint career. At the moment I need to do as much as I can because no one knows when gigs are coming back or what we’re going to be doing really. Everything’s pretty uncertain at the minute.
It’s a very worrying time with many venues not being able to open their doors for the last 12 months and still no guarantee whether the proposed reopening in June will actually happen.
You’d think the government should be addressing that but I have no idea what to expect any more. It’s just a mess.
Has the pandemic impacted the way you work? Have you been forced to adapt and do things differently?
No, not really because we’d already finished Coral Island. Then we postponed it because of the first lockdown. So it hasn’t affected us that way and I’ve just been in the studio producing ever since in the way I normally do it.
When did Coral Island first start to take shape? How long ago did you start planning the album?
Quite a while ago now. Halfway through promoting the last album was when it started. We had a couple of ideas and then it gradually formed into the album over time. It was a lengthy project that went through a few transformations along the way until it got to what we settled on.
Which are the oldest songs on the record?
Maybe “Land of the Lost.” We’ve had that for a while. Actually “Lover Undiscovered” is probably the oldest one but it had different words and was really slow, so I reworked it. Then a lot of the songs were written two days before we recorded them. Once we got into it we were doing around two backing tracks a day. We recorded the acoustic segments and drums live then put everything else on top.
Was it always intended to be a double album?
It was, once we set out on doing Coral Island as an album. At first we weren’t sure what we were going to do. We just had a few songs and were trying to figure out what to do with them, and then we decided let’s do the opposite of what you should do! Let’s just make a double album.
Did the songs come before the concept or was the Coral Island theme there from the start?
The concept was that Coral Island was a place where all our ideas came together. We were trying to find a way to mix Nick’s [Power] writing in his books, Ian’s [Skelly] artwork, and everyone’s individual songs all coming together under one banner. So that was how it started. Then it eventually became a place and we started working with Edwin Burdis, who did the front cover and the videos. He built Coral Island above a Chinese restaurant in Cardiff. So we started to write songs when we saw some of that, and it was like a collaboration in a way. Then all the different parts started to come together. I said to Nick he should do a “Welcome to Coral Island” piece, then “The Ghost of Coral Island” after. Because at one point it was going to be two separate albums. So we were all throwing ideas around and within that everything came together naturally.
When I listen to the album and envisage what Coral Island means to me, it brings back memories of caravan holidays by the east coast in places like Skegness and Chapel St Leonards. Did reminiscing about your childhoods play a big part in how the album turned out?
A lot of it was inspired by that. I was looking at a lot of old photographs so I wanted it to sound like that. I wanted to create a sound that matched what was on those photographs so we found an old little tape machine. It was all dusty, yet when we recorded the songs onto there it sounded like an old photograph in a way. Like a memory of something rather than a physical reminder.
What music were you listening to while you were making the album? What inspired the record, as I can hear elements of The Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake and SF Sorrow by The Pretty Things in there.
I was watching a documentary about The River by Bruce Springsteen and he said the fast songs are the bands playing in the boardwalk clubs and bar. Whereas the slow songs are the characters. That gave me an idea of how to put the songs together, so a lot of side one is mainly faster and upbeat songs for the soundtrack to the fairs an arcades. Then the other songs on the record were more character-based, especially the second side. Characters that are left when the island is closed down because they’re the most interesting ones to write about.
How did your 85-year-old grandad Ian Murray become involved as the album’s narrator (“The Great Muriarty”)?
We had a few ideas and having a narrator was one that stuck. So I just thought, “Let’s get my grandad to do it!” He recorded a few bits with Nick and Ian which they gave me. Then we put it all through a Space Echo so it sounded echoey and strange. Once we’d done that we had to cut it up and work out which pieces to use and where to put the music then sequence it. So it was all done in stages. One of those happy accidents.
His parts remind me of Stanley Unwin’s on Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake.
That was the idea, to be like that. Ogden’s… is one of my favorite albums ever. It was inspired by that but taken to another level. I’ve always loved listening to Dylan Thomas or T.S. Eliot or Jack Kerouac while I’m having a bath or whatever. So it was about trying to get that in with the music under our full banner of creativity. We were trying to create our own White Album in a way as well. Everyone would come in individually and do their tunes, then I’d produce them. Me and Ian did most of the backing tracks, so then whoever’s tune it was went over the top. I don’t think there was a point where everyone was in at the same time. Maybe at the end when we were putting them together but mostly it was me and then another member of the band.
Did the book come afterwards or was it written simultaneously with the record?
They were both written at the same time. I think we were coming home on a plane and I said to Nick he should write some short stories about Coral Island and all the characters and stuff. We were talking about doing some kind of subscription thing but there’s a lot of work involved with that. But then once Nick started writing the book—it was just a little conversation to begin with—the ideas came flying then Ian did the illustrations for it so they worked on the book. I didn’t really have anything to do with it. I just thought it was great when I read it.
You’ve already put out “Faceless Angel” as a single. Will there be any more singles and will the videos follow a theme associated with the album’s narrative?
The next single is “Lover Undiscovered” and the video will have a lot of psychedelic colors, which are meant to represent spring and summer. Whereas the one for “Faceless Angel” was in black and white. We haven’t decided what’s coming out after that but the plan is for all the videos to have the same feel.
Were there any other songs written around the same period that didn’t make it onto Coral Island? Will they be revisited in the future?
Yeah, there’s some that we put on the Lockdown Sessions EP last year. It’s just come out on dinked vinyl. There’s some great songs on that. They just didn’t quite make it or fit the theme.
The Coral are one of the most prolific bands from the last two decades and seem to have an endless stream of material. Approximately how many songs do you have left over in the vaults? Are there always works in progress that you find yourselves going back to every now and then?
There’s always unfinished tunes or songs where we go back to them and rework something. Or an idea but with better skills maybe. There’s always something to dip into.
Will you be playing Coral Island in its entirety when the opportunity arises to play live again?
I don’t know whether we’ll tour it. It would be quite difficult for us to recreate. We’d probably only play three gigs out of the rehearsals it would take to do the amount of tickets you’d sell for it. It wouldn’t make sense really. It would be great but there wouldn’t be that many people there. There would be at a few shows but the reality of what that would take in terms of rehearsals, props, sets. It wouldn’t make any sense.
The Coral have been active as a band for the best part of 25 years now. When you first started the band back in 1996, did you expect to be sat here a quarter of a century later talking about your tenth album?
Kind of, yeah. In a way I did! Maybe the delusion came true. I probably thought I’d have been a bit richer but you can’t knock us for sticking around can you! Maybe if we stick to one thing long enough people will come around to us.
The first time I saw The Coral was on an NME tour back in 2002, and even then one of the first things that struck me was how you didn’t sound like anybody else. Since then, you’ve always done your own thing, which is arguably why you’re still here today whereas a lot of bands that started around the same time have long since disappeared.
We couldn’t fit in if we tried! We’ve always tried to shy away from any scenes and do our own thing.
You’ve a couple of big anniversaries coming up. It’s the 20th anniversary of your debut album next year while fifth album, Roots & Echoes, also celebrates its 15th birthday in 2022. Will you be doing anything special to commemorate either of them?
We’re working on some stuff, yeah. We’ll have to see how that pans out but we’re definitely working on ideas.
With so much material to choose from, how do you go about putting a setlist together for a Coral live show?
Once you get on stage, the songs that are the most fun to play are the ones that end up in the set. It has changed over the years as members of the band have come and gone. I’m on the guitar as well as singing so that limits me a bit. When we had Bill [Ryder-Jones] or Lee [Southall] in the band they could play guitar as well so we were a bit more free. Whereas I can’t sing and play everything that we’ve done. So that dictates what we can and can’t play sometimes. In the future, we might get someone else in which would then give us more options what to play.
Looking back over the last 25 years with The Coral, if you had the benefit of hindsight is there anything you’d change or do differently?
I wish we’d have put “When All the Birds Have Flown” on Roots & Echoes. That’s about it really. We’re here. We’re still going.
If you could pick a definitive record or favorite from The Coral’s ten albums, which one would it be?
Sometimes I think this could be the best album we’ve made so it’s the last 25 years that got us here. It depends which person you ask in the band I guess. They all have their own different perspectives. I often think our best records are the ones where the band were all pulling in the same direction and are completely on the same page as a team. Which I would say are the first album, Distance Inbetween, and Butterfly House. They’re the three albums where everyone was really into what we were doing. The first album, you’re just starting. You’re all kids. Butterfly House, Bill left so Lee stepped up and we all pulled together. It was based around the songwriting and we had a concept. Then Distance Inbetween was the comeback album [Paul] Molloy had just joined and it gave us something different, a bit heavier. The album works as a whole. All 12 tracks. Whereas with some albums, The Invisible Invasion for instance, some of our best tunes are on that but we weren’t really pulling together as a band. So across the whole album it dips in places. The high points can be higher than the best songs on your favorite album but the low points can be the opposite. Sometimes the friction can make you do a moment like “A Warning to the Curious” off The Invisible Invasion for instance. At the time as a band we weren’t in a great place but we channeled it for that song which ended up being one of our best. But it’s hard to do that across a whole album unless you’re all pulling together. So from my point of view, those three albums would be our best from what we’ve released. But I’m hoping people think this is our masterpiece when it finally comes out!
What advice would you give to a new band just starting out?
It’s so difficult because they’re in a completely different world to the one we were in when The Coral started out. We were closer to the industry when we started, if that makes sense? Someone once said this to me, and it’s the best advice I can give to any new bands. If people aren’t coming to you, then you’ve got nothing to sell them. Do your own thing. Try and be different. Make your own fanbase, then they’ll all come knocking at your door. Look at the way Gerry Cinnamon’s done it, whether you like his music or not. You can’t knock that. He’s changed the game. That’s how Blossoms started as well. Doing their own thing and releasing everything themselves. You don’t need to go cap in hand, because if they aren’t coming to you then you’ve got nothing to offer them in the first place. Blossoms are the hardest working band I’ve ever met. If they’re not touring they’re either writing, recording, or trying to improve by rehearsing. They’ve earned what they’ve got.
Which artists are you most excited about right now?
There’s a couple of artists I’m really excited about. Brook Combe is one. She’s from Edinburgh. Her single is coming out in April. Rianne Downey is another. She’s from Glasgow. Her music is like a country take on indie and her single “Fuel to the Flame” is great.
Will there be another James Skelly solo album?
I don’t know. If there was, I’d just release it. I wouldn’t try and tour it or anything. It’s difficult enough trying to tour with the band these days, so if I did release a record I’d just bang it out. At the moment I’m just focussed on The Coral.
What are your plans for the rest of 2021?
To just do the festivals that have been rescheduled—provided everything opens up—and promote the album where we get the invitations.