When we stumble into Stereophonics’ rehearsal as they take a break, we find a band in a state of déjà vu. The process of learning to play the songs from a new record is something they’ve done a fair few times before, but even though this band has gone from pubs to stadiums in a 20-plus year career, the first day of rehearsals doesn’t get any easier.
“It’s one thing doing it in a room in the recording studio, but another doing it together,” laughs Kelly Jones as the ’Phonics’ main songwriter steps out from the band’s live rig, complete with head-level elevated drum riser. And it’s especially true of the latest stage of the Welsh band’s story. Since 2013’s Graffiti On The Train they’ve had a creative renaissance - exploring a darker, cinematic side to their sound while reeling out the anthems their fans love, to create sonically diverse albums.
New record Scream Above The Sounds being a prime example. None of this was an accident and as we sit down with Jones and the band’s guitarist of 10 years, Adam Zindani, we find two guitar players who are still learning and surprising themselves.
You could have easily done a Word Gets Around anniversary tour but you’ve pushed on with new material, is it important to make that statement?
Kelly: “Making this album we didn’t really think much about Word Gets Around. But it became apparent when the dates started coming in and I realised. Because I can always remember the date we signed, which was the August 1, and I remember the album coming out on the 25th. I saw on the calendar that there was nothing on that day, so we did that small gig in ULU [University Of London Union], which was just 800 people.
“When we were rehearsing Word Gets Around for the first time in forever, with the B-sides, everyone was getting quite high on it. All the crew were really into it, we were all into it, and we thought maybe we could do a tour of this. Then we did the one gig and we thought, ‘No.’ It was great but it was pretty emotional - lots of B-sides and stuff, but we literally are in the middle of a different album so it could be quite confusing doing two projects at the same time.”
Adam: “I don’t think we would be able to give it the respect it deserved because we were focussed on this [album] and it’s difficult to then say, ‘Okay, let’s do that.’ That wouldn’t be fair to either of the albums.”
And you can still give a nod to it on the tour in February?
Kelly: “Yeah, which we always do anyway. We’re still very proud of the record. I can’t believe it’s been 20 years. It’s one of those things where it felt like a little punk rock gig when we did it in the ULU. It’s all one guitar, three-and-a- half minute songs, and an hour and 20 minute [set] boosh, then it’s over. It was great.”
Adam: “And my guitar blew up for at least half the set. So it literally was just a three piece.”
Just enough guitar to perform
That’s in contrast to this new album, which is quite diverse in terms of guitar tones. You have a song like What’s All The Fuss About with a Latin feel and panned guitar parts…
Kelly: “Yes, nylon string stuff in there. I bought a couple of guitars for my two daughters for Christmas. Not forcing it on them but putting it in the house like my old man did to me. They ended up playing the piano and drums so I had a pink, nylon-strung £20 guitar and a brown one. And I can’t stop playing them. I wrote most of the record on it. Because it’s easy. I used to hate learning on a nylon string but these ones are brilliant.
“So What’s All The Fuss About is arpeggio guitar, like a Spanish thing. Then when you bring it in here it’s very hard to do because you’ve got a drum kit on top and you have to play it harder, and you can’t play it as well if you have to play it harder, can you? It’s learning how you’ll do it. I love that song, but I’m not loving learning how to play it live at this point in time. It’s very delicate.”
Adam: “I bought my son one of the little Squier guitars - 3/4-size Stratocaster. Do you want the truth? I can’t stop playing this £60 thing.”
Kelly: “I can see us in the future. We’ll be like Ed Sheeran on the stage with these little guitars!”
Adam: “But they’ll look the right size for us because we’re only small.”
Kelly: “They might even make us look taller.”
So your advice for any budding songwriters is to get a child’s guitar?
Kelly: “Yes I would! There is a beauty to it. I do a lot of writing on acoustic. I very, very rarely write anything on electric guitar. I’ve never got an electric guitar around me.”
Adam: “And that’s another thing about writing, it depends on what guitar you’ve got. Fenders operate very differently from a writing point of view; like on Dakota and things like that…”
Kelly: “I did do that album [2005’s Language. Sex. Violence. Other?] on electric guitar. All Jaguars and Mustangs.”
Adam: “It gives another element to your writing because you don’t play it like you do with a Les Paul.”
Kelly and Adam take us on a tour of their live guitars...
About to rock
Chances Are’s intro on the album sounds like a nod to AC/DC’s For Those About To Rock…
Adam: “You, nodding to AC/DC?!”
Kelly: “That’s probably a very close nod on that one! That’s hard to play - my thumbs start to twitch I’m doing so much fingerpicking. It’s hard to sing and play. I’ve always liked that picking style with Angus. I’ve always found it very helpful on record and it’s on a lot of our records where you can’t hear, it’s a very rhythmical thing.
“In and amongst everything it always does a very cool counter melody and tempo thing. I guess over the years you then start doing arpeggio synths and things like that... like ZZ Top used to play. I love that though, but we’ve only played it twice, so I’m not saying it’s easy yet. I might send that over his way!”
There’s the upbeat anthemic side of the Stereophonics people know from the singles but the albums also show a darker and deeper element that you’ve been exploring more with your sound since Graffiti On The Train. How did that come about?
Kelly: “We enjoyed it a lot on Graffiti because we’d come off the back of a greatest hits and a studio album, Keep Calm And Carry On, which wasn’t very well received on the radio. Probably a lot to do with us changing record company at the same time, so it was a bit of a confused area - new plugging team, new everything. Doing Graffiti, it was a longer length of time - almost three years.
“We’re usually out every 18 months and I was doing a bit of screenplay writing and it was the first time that the band had the HQ so we’d just go in there and fuck about with sounds really. So songs like Catacomb and In A Moment, all that darker stuff, was influenced by Unkle and Nine Inch Nails.
“Thinking we’d never be able to get on the radio again made me want to do what the fuck I wanted. Ironically, we had five A-list singles from it, which was a bit confusing. And that’s good for a player like Adam as well, because I think he comes more from that side of guitar music anyway. His ability to add stuff has more windows - like the guitar solo from In A Moment or Graffiti On The Train.
So it’s widened your horizons as players?
Kelly: “There’s more scope because we’ve never really done guitar solos to be honest with you, until album six. And then we found these moments in the live show that really leant themselves to these things. So we’ve been a bit more musical about making the albums because we’ve discovered if you have a moment like that on the album, you can have a moment like that in the show. It really lends itself to making the show more dynamic.
“Tracks like Sunny, Graffiti On The Train… Jamie [Morrison] doing a drum solo at the end of Mr & Mrs Smith, I know that they sound like traditional, old-school things, but when you do them in a refreshing way, for 17-year-old kids who have never been to a rock show before, it’s a big section for them to get into. It’s been good.”
Adam: “And we can play better!”
Kelly: “Before we had the first album we could play solos all day long in pub bands but then you do your first album and say, ‘We’re not doing any more.’ It wasn’t fashionable to have guitar solos in the ’90s. It’s not really noodling now: it’s got a purpose in a particular place and that gives you confidence in a different musical way. And I think Tony [Kirkham] on the keyboards has been doing more of that. It just becomes more of a thing to watch. If you watch the Tom Petty band there were six people in that band doing something. Then you’re interested in all of it.”
Adam: “We've been to see bands from Future Islands to Tom Petty.”
Filling the stage
Does it all feed in?
Kelly: “I think it does. It takes you a long time to get used to the position you’re in. You’re playing arenas on your third album and for long time you’re thinking, ‘Who are they here to see?’ It takes you a long time to feel comfortable in your own skin being on a stage that size and to know what to do with a stage that size. This is going to be our 10th arena tour in February, which is pretty mad really. I think we know what we’re doing a bit more now!”
You mentioned the band’s studio HQ in Shepherd’s Bush earlier; do you have a go-to rig in the studio?
Kelly: “I’ve just got a 50-watt Marshall head, my cab’s downstairs in a cupboard and I pretty much use a fucking massive orange [Gretsch] Country Gent on everything. That guitar covers so much ground - it’s pretty much on everything on the last three albums. But I’ve never brought it to rehearsals or taken it on the road. I don’t think we changed the strings for three albums! It’s massive on me but I could play it all day.”
Adam: “It feels like one of those guitars that’s had stories told on it. Whenever you pick it up it feels like something comes through you. Some guitars are like that. Someone gave me a BC Rich Warlock once… that never happened!”
Kelly: “The only story that’s been told on that is Fuck Like A Beast!”
Adam, you’ve been in the band for 10 years now; what was the transition like for you coming in?
Adam: “We’ve known each other since they started and I was in a band [North Star Head]. We met when we were kids in 1997, so it wasn’t as if I was a new guy walking in. It was like I was going down to play guitar with my mates.”
Kelly: “We were all hanging out together. He just happened to bring his guitar that day.”
Adam: “He said, come down and play for a little bit and then... it’s 10 years.”
Looking back on how you both were as players, what are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in the last 20 years?
Adam: “I was a guitar player before I was a singer and songwriter [Adam fronts the band Casino]. But what helped my guitar playing is definitely singing, more than anything. I always wanted to make a line memorable.”
Kelly: “For me it’s about having confidence. When you become a singer/guitar player, you have a tendency to play the song and then not play too much around it. I always thought my right hand was better than my left hand because I’m always keeping time and when you’re singing you tend to attack with your right hand a lot more. When I think back to the guitar player I was when I was 18, I was doing a lot of lead work. I’ve quite enjoyed the last couple of years, learning a bit of the blues scale, having fun with that.
“For me it’s about having a bit of confidence in yourself as a player. You can just play the song but you can also play around them and change the versions - they are our songs. I’ve been very rigid with delivering the version the people have heard. But now I’m starting to feel around that, which I’m enjoying.”
Scream Above The Sounds is out now. Stereophonics’ UK arena tour starts on 23 February 2018.