Think you know Stereophonics? Prepare to think again. November 16th 2010, the hugely popular Welsh rock band released their seventh studio album, 'Keep Calm And Carry On'. And despite the title, this is not really business as usual.
Coming on the back of their greatest hits, which sold 750,000 copies, singer, guitarist and songwriter Kelly Jones has taken the band in some surprising new directions. 'Keep Calm And Carry On' is stripped back, minimalist, pithy, poppy and soulful, 12 little gems of sharply crafted, melodic storytelling.
"I wanted to try to make an album that was like a debut," says Kelly. "We've got the brand of Stereophonics over us, we're expected to do a certain thing to fill seats, but I just tried to forget that. I wanted a record that carried its own weight, a set of songs you could play in a bar as a little band, and if they are strong enough, people will turn around from their beer and watch. That was it really."
'Decade In The Sun: The Best Of The Stereophonics' was released in November 2008. "It felt like the right time to do it," suggests Richard Jones, Stereophonics long serving bassist. "Ten years down the line, it felt like more of a celebration than a sell out. And the record just stayed in the charts, which gave us a new confidence, funny enough, cause it reminded us that people like what we do."
Stereophonics have not always been critics darlings, but since their stunning debut 'Word Gets Around' in 1997, their popularity and creativity has endured while most of their Britpop contemporaries have fallen by the wayside. "We all had a real sense of pride in what we'd achieved, but I knew I needed to pull out something good after that," says Kelly.
"We needed to up the bar a bit, I think, otherwise it was going to fritter away like it has done for a lot of the bands that were around at the same time as us. And I think we're better than that.
An early decision was to work with a new producer, "just to shake things up a bit, get us out of our comfort zone." Kelly started doing some work with Jim Abbiss, whose credits include such diverse music makers as Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, The Enemy, Bjork, Adele and Massive Attack. "It started as a series of demos, but that became the guts of the record. It was kind of built from the back to the front. I wanted to take away the walls of cranky guitars, and drive the vocals, and find a bit of space to let the songs come through. Some tracks haven't got bass on, some have very little guitar. We tried to put all agendas aside and contribute when it was needed."
The other members of Stereophonics all had their parts to play. "The band had changed a lot over the years," says drummer Javier Weyler, who replaced original drummer Stuart Cable in 2004. "When you bring new people in, musicians, producers, it changes the dynamic, and Kelly actually tries to push that with every album. I would say it has got more intense and deep and dark, but that's what keeps the band alive, keeping it exciting for ourselves as well as the audience."
"It's good for a band to change," says Adam Zindani, frontman of rock band Casino who was recruited by Stereophonics as an extra guitarist in 2007. "If you keep repeating what you're doing, you get bored, then the public get bored. Kelly's demos started taking a different shape and the band went with that, we let the songs dictate the production, rather than imposing ourselves on them. It became its own beast in a way, and you're kind of hanging on to it for dear life."
"A lot of records have been more fun in the studio, you lock yourself away and kind of get lost with it, jamming together. But its not always the best way of getting something fresh," says Kelly. "For me, this record is a true testament to the band. Everybody contributed when it was necessary to compliment the songs. We could have all played all over it but we all held back on this record and you can almost feel that tension."
There is real depth and variety in the songs that make up 'Keep Calm And Carry On', from the cascading chords and harmonies of the richly melodic, bittersweet Beatle-esque gem 'Innocent', to the stripped down electro pulse and melancholic stoicism of 'Beerbottle', the East Coast harmonies, delicate picking and sweet sentiments of 'Could You Be The One', dirty riffing of the politically charged anthem 'Trouble' and the album's big closer, a vulnerable, soulful, pleading piano and strings ballad, 'Show Me How'
"I've never worked out songwriting," says Jones. "All I've ever tried to do is keep the tap dripping. These songs come from a place where I didn't question anything, didn't hold anything back. I just wrote down what was coming out. I quite enjoyed it, it felt like an uplifting record to me, it was quite effortless for once." A friend had sent Kelly a World War II propaganda poster, with the message 'Keep Calm And Carry On', which he would see everyday as he went to the studio."When I looked at the songs I thought they all go through situations but come out the other end, and so that became an underlying theme."
Lyrically, it is probably Kelly's most cohesive set since Stereophonics debut, an album of struggle and resolution, finding the positive in the negative, whether it is recalling the deaths of childhood friends ('Innocence'), memories of how his parents and fellow villagers stoically reacted to a flood that destroyed their houses ('Beerbottles'), adjusting to the pace of modern life ('100 MPH') or empathising with the hard times everyone is facing as the global recession bites ('Trouble).
"You go through the pain year, where it's all a bit dire, but you have to turn it around. I guess a lot of stuff had been put to bed, and everything's in a good place now, so this is what came out of it."
That spirit is certainly located in zesty rocker 'Live 'N' Love'. "Its about 'change what you can, the rest you've gotta leave behind'. Once you have been through a bit of a dark patch and you can see the light again, you have to live for now as opposed to worrying about what might be." That song probably sounds most like Stereophonics of old.
"That's exactly what we didn't want with this record," admits Kelly. "But I love having one of them on here, big guitars, big drums, big anthem. It's really exciting to play but I didn't think it said anything different as a production. I want to compete with bands on their debut albums, and that's why I shook things up a bit. Cos I think we've still got a lot of good things in us.""It's a different sounding album," says Richard, "but it's always going to sound like us, cause its got Kelly's voice on there. A lot of questions came up, some real soul searching, but at the end of the day we're still the band that are playing it, we've got to be happy with it, and we are. Now we're gonna take it on the road and show everybody what we've got."
In other words, keep calm. And carry on