In March last year, Tindersticks were doing a soundcheck before a show in Bordeaux when they were told the gig was off. So were all the remaining dates in the British band’s first tour in four years. It had been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“After the tour was cancelled, there was about a month of panic,” Tindersticks’ frontman Stuart Staples says on a video call from his home in Limousin, a rural region in south-central France. “To have to cancel a show is an emotional wrench, but it also leaves a big mess. To go through that for about 30 concerts was a real existential threat to the band. There was a month of real struggle just to steady the ship.”
A year later, the band have survived the storm. Tindersticks have made it to the 30th anniversary of their formation in Nottingham in 1991. Indeed, not only have they made it, they have done so in style — with the release of a fine new album, Distractions, whose creation was the unexpected consequence of the crisis.
“The conversation between us felt like it needed to carry on, something was unfinished,” Staples says, sitting in his workroom. Behind him is an upright piano and framed pictures on the wall, including covers of several Tindersticks albums. Upstairs is his studio, where the new songs were recorded between lockdowns. “The confinement prompted the need to be creative, not to give in. It made the album just come alive,” he says. “But the process of actually getting it made was so stressful. It was a fight to get anything done during the confinement. It just left me absolutely exhausted.”
Distractions is the band’s 13th studio album. They have also made a number of film scores, notably for the French director Claire Denis. At a stage of life that few bands reach, and when those that do tend to have lost inspiration, Tindersticks are operating at a high level. Their songs are thoughtful and deeply felt, moving through contrasting states of despair and hopefulness, intimacy and numbness, melody and discordance. Staples, 55, sings in a low croon, a gentle register, but there can be an oddly keening edge to his voice too, an intimation that all is not well.
Denis, who began using their music for her films in 1996’s Nénette et Boni, has said that she was drawn to them by their “strange mix of violence and lyricism”. When the makers of The Sopranos needed a song to soundtrack Tony Soprano’s depression in an early episode, they turned to Tindersticks’ “Tiny Tears”, from their 1995 second album. (The mob boss is shocked out of his catatonic gloom as the song ends by a botched assassination attempt.)
Their debut came out amid the first stirrings of Britpop in 1993, and the music weekly Melody Maker named it Album of the Year ahead of releases by Suede and Blur. Tindersticks were an indie band, too. However, their handsomely wracked sound, drawn from such sources as Joy Division, Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Lee Hazlewood and Nick Cave, fitted less snugly into a triumphalist narrative of British rock.
“We felt very ill at ease with the prevailing culture,” Staples recalls. “I didn’t feel akin to those bands. I remember in 1997 when we made our third album, Curtains, which I was very proud of, it felt culturally irrelevant all of sudden. Everything about the media in the UK at that time was so wrapped up in the idea of Britpop. Curtains is as far away from that as you can possibly imagine.” He laughs. “I remember that feeling, for sure.”
Like the similarly enduring Radiohead, Tindersticks stood apart from their 1990s peers. Unlike Radiohead, though, they never had any big hits. In the mid-2000s they almost split up; a rebirth with a shrunken line-up came after Staples moved to France in 2006. His fellow founding members, keyboardist David Boulter and guitarist Neil Fraser, are based in Prague and Antwerp respectively. (The band’s other players are Earl Harvin on drums, who lives in Berlin, and the UK-based Dan McKinna on bass.)
Staples grew up in what he describes as an “aspiring working-class” Nottingham household. “Myself, David and Neil, we were all raised not to think beyond the end of our street,” Staples says. Their first trip abroad came when the band toured their debut in 1993. “We were amazed at how we were able to communicate through our music with so many different kinds of people. From that point on, we found ourselves feeling very European. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that we’ve all ended up outside of the UK.”
On January 31 last year, before their tour was cancelled, they played at Paris’s Salle Pleyel. It was the night of the UK’s formal departure from the EU. Staples dedicated the title track of their 2019 album No Treasure but Hope to the occasion. It was, he murmured from the stage, “a sad song for Brexit day”. Music has turned out to be among the sectors left high and dry by new trading arrangements, with acts from Britain and the EU facing onerous new regulations and charges for touring. “This is another door closing for young musicians,” Staples says. (He and his wife, the artist Suzanne Osborne, have two children, aged 18 and 27.)
Distractions includes a song written and sung in French. “Tue-moi” is a piano ballad inspired by the Islamist terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in 2015 in which 90 people were murdered. It is a familiar venue to Tindersticks, who first played there in 1995.
“I have a distinct memory of standing on the stage at the Bataclan, singing. The way it felt, the way it smelt — everything,” Staples says. “When that song came to me I knew that it needed to be in French. That moment there was a certain kind of” — he gives a resigned sigh, the sound of an English songwriter realising that he has to write a song in French. “I knew that for that song to exist it had to be in French, otherwise I was not being true to it.”
Submitting to the moment is a recurrent idea in Distractions. “It’s so much to do with the songs talking to each other. The songs that rise up into a place and slot in — they’re not necessarily the best songs, but they are important for the momentum of the record,” Staples says. “Every song has that scrutiny to it. It’s so bare, the instrumentation.”
It is an album created in adversity. But that is not the same as conquering adversity. The crisis caused by last year’s cancelled tour is still being felt. “I don’t think it’s over yet,” Staples says. “At the same time, I think that fight for survival is a part of this record. It wasn’t an easy thing to achieve. We’ll see where it takes us. But what it has allowed us to do, even in separate countries, is to be invested in each other. For the conversation to carry on, that’s the gift of this record.”
‘Distractions’ is released on February 19 by City Slang