ravechild meets Tellison’s Stephen H Davidson

Tellison, who describe themselves as a “failed minor league amateur indie rock catastrophe, too stubborn to quit,” have faced a number of hardships in the last 12-years of their career.

Despite this, they have not only carried on, but have fought their way to record their third album and remained as humble and genuine in person as their lyrics make out.

 

The band has already soundchecked by the time I arrive at the venue, The Garage Attic, where the band will play one of the two dates on their Scottish leg of the tour.

I quickly seek out frontman Stephen H Davidson, who’s hanging out by the band’s new merchandise to introduce myself.

Feeling a bit awkward due to sporadically appearing at the venue and not have done many interviews before, (especially with a band that I’m a self-confessed fan of) I’m relieved that Davidson knows exactly who I am and greets me with a warm smile.

We find a quiet area of the venue while the support bands continue soundchecking, and I turn on the microphone.

You’ve been relatively quiet since your last album, what have you been up to during this time?

Going to work. Living our lives. With our last record [The Wages of Fear] we only had a one album deal with our label, so when that album came out and failed to sell lots of records, they didn’t renew it. Meaning we didn’t have a record label or any support structure.

At that point our management quit, our booking agent quit the music industry altogether and our lawyer told us he didn’t want to represent us anymore, so we were just suddenly alone again – which is exactly what happened the last time we put out an album [Contact! Contact!].

It was just a bit of a blow and we retreated into doing day jobs because we’ve never been a full-time band and we don’t make enough money to do that, so it’s very easy to just get up every day and go to work, which is exactly what happened.

After probably a year or two Pete, Henry and I kind of reconvened and thought let’s write some more songs. That process takes a while as well because again you’re going to work everyday day.

We tried to initially get a team around us to help make a record and though a few people were sort of vaguely interested no one was willing to write a cheque or offer any of that kind of help so then we had to save up money from day jobs and figure out who we could record with and how we could make a record.

It was a lot of figuring out stuff, meeting people and talking to people and asking, “would you help?” and them going “no” or just not replying to emails.

You’ve signed to Alcopop Records for your new album, what have they been like to work with so far?

Incredible, Jack [Clothier] is an amazing man. He is a rare thing in the music industry currently – at least the corner of the music industry we are occupying.

In that, he is creative and excited by music, which sounds odd but it is amazing how few people have seemingly any interest in it even though they make their living from it.

Once we made the album and shopped it around to a couple of people, some expressed vague interest, but Jack was by far the most impressive and supportive to us as a band. I mean one or two people said, “ah, I guess we’ll put it out, but it will be on at least these conditions,” that would have just kind of crippled us – financially, creatively in every way.

Alcopop was an amazing blessing for us; I mean I feel very lucky Jack seemingly took pity on us. He’s been great, he’s got amazing ideas, I love that he is just constantly coming up with stuff, I get so many emails at 4 o’clock in the morning from him being excited by us.

It’s very easy when you are in a band to just get down on yourself because you are just a little team, and you can lose that confidence quite quickly. So, to have someone outside the team be like, “this is a good thing, I believe in it” is hugely important and helpful for us.

Now that the new album is finished, what can we expect from it?

The new record is actually the first one we have recorded as a five piece. The last two we made as a four piece, which is how the band existed for 10 years.

We’ve always toured with an extra guy playing keyboards and guitars and doing singing as we would always end up recording more stuff than we had the hands or voices to do.

It was always weird, people would see photos of the band and there would be four people and then they’d come to a show and there would be five – it’s a typical thing that happens in bands – but we got the fifth guy to record and write with us for this record. So, it’s a bit different in that it is much more guitar focused because the guy is very good at the guitar.

In terms of writing it was really fun for us. When you record, and you’ve got two guitars you usually pan them to either 180-degree mix, but when you’ve got three guitars it’s like, “who’s going to go where?” We thought of this while writing, so there’s lots of new songs where lead guitar parts are broken across three guitar players – which is really fun. I love music that is a bit more intelligent than just smashing out four chords for three minutes – so I hope the new record taps into that. It’s meant to be pop music but clever basically – that’s the whole point.

It is also the first time we have really been involved in the producing side as well, we recorded the album with our friend Andrew Jenkin – who runs the tiny studio we made the album in. We all worked together and used our own equipment rather than the swanky shiny equipment that was in the studio.

Do you feel like you had a lot more creative control over it?

It wasn’t creative control because we never had people going, “do this,” “write a new chorus,” or whatever – that doesn’t seemingly happen in any world that we exist in, but it was fun to just have to rely on our own wits and figure out how to make a record that sounds good rather than be with someone who is like, “I know all these great tricks to make your record sound like this band or that band,” “I’ll do this for this song and this for this song” and then it’s like, “oh, your album’s done.”

This time round none of us knew what we were doing, we just had to try and make it sound good enough that we aren’t embarrassed to release it.

Your new singles ‘Tact Is Dead’ and ‘Boy’ were both premiered on Radio 1, how has the reaction been so far?

Honestly, the people that know have been generally positive, which is overwhelming lovely. Like you say they have been premiered on Radio 1 – I think this is maybe going to sound a bit bad but I don’t think Radio 1 seemingly means anything anymore – who’s listening to it actively?

Recently ‘Boy’ got played on 6 Music, and the reaction to that was much more traditional, with people talking about it on the internet and people asking, “What’s this? Who are Tellison?” You could quickly see on Twitter and Facebook our count went up, and people were talking about – there were Google Alerts and stuff – a little thing happened, but for Radio 1 it just disappeared.

It’s a big difference, and I’m happy that we finally got played on 6 Music because we never had before, and it’s the only radio station I would ever really listen to nowadays. It feels like that is where the actual people who like music are listening and getting music from, and Radio 1 has become background in cars, school buses and shops.

Considering that I’ve just finished my final year at university I’ve found ‘Tact Is Dead’ extremely relatable, can you tell me a little bit more about where the inspiration for it came from?

So I graduated in 2009 – which is a long time ago – I emerged from it thinking, I’ve done everything I was always told to do. I worked hard at school, was fortunate enough to get good grades, get into a good university and worked fairly hard when I was there. I emerged from it thinking what my parents had told me was going to come true and I was going to – this was naïve of me obviously – I thought people would be impressed by me having a degree and having work hard and they would think, “let’s talk to you at least, let’s give you an interview or be interested in you,” but emerged into a shitty job market and financial crash, which is still going on.

All of us in the band have done a series of endless horrible jobs, which make you think, what was the point in all that hard work? And feel betrayed, upset, confused and angry.

I think the song expresses the fact I’m not really articulating very much just frustration and disappointment I suppose. It was inspired by six years of crappy jobs because I did an English degree and have no vocational skills and it can often feel like things that I’m good at are valueless to society at the moment – that’s a pretty tough pill to swallow when you’re cleaning up sick in a cinema for minimum wage, you feel pretty bad about yourself. That’s where that song came from, and the whole “my generation” thing is in parallel to that idea. It is not that specific to me. The amazing thing on this tour – someone comes up to me every night saying “You bastard! You know! This is exactly what’s happened to me!” I also have lots of interesting, talented friends and I’ve met lots of creative, interesting, awesome people who could contribute, have great ideas and do all of this awesome stuff, but so many of them are just being blunted by a Britain that is just not interested.

You are playing a number of headline shows across the UK after not touring for a while, what’s it like to be back on stage?

It’s been a freaking nightmare actually; nothing is going right. This is day four, and it’s the first time we’ve actually managed to get through a soundcheck. Everyday stuff has gone wrong. We were in Accident & Emergency yesterday in Birmingham. Henry, our drummer, had an awful stomach problem suddenly, so we had to rush him to hospital before the shows. Also, amps have been blowing up, and equipment isn’t working – symptomatic of the fact we haven’t played live very much for a while.

We’re also just getting a bit older and weaker I think. We are less resilient to being hit by amps or whatever. It is always fun though, I don’t want to be too negative – it’s really nice to get to play songs and new songs. Hopefully, they are coming across okay.

Yesterday was day one in Birmingham and the people who were there seemed into it, but it was not particularly busy or anything. Often on tour you can get very reflective and think, what am I doing? I’m playing a room with like 20 people and it’s freezing cold and you’re just like, why am I spending my time doing this? It’s not helping anything or anybody really. I also know you can’t judge it on one night – especially a Monday night in Birmingham – we won’t really know how it’s going until later on.

The people who are coming do seem to like the songs – that’s good. No one’s thrown anything at me yet – that’s also good. However, I feel like if people didn’t like the songs they probably wouldn’t tell me but I’m just on a roller coaster of emotions.

You’re also playing a number of festivals during the summer including 2000 Trees, which are you most excited for?

2000 Trees has an amazing lineup! Each time they announce it I’m just like “What is happening?” We’ve played those shows for a while – the guys who book them were friends with our old record label, so we got into playing Y Not, 2000 Trees and Truck. It has been really fun to see them get bigger and now you’ve got Alkaline Trio playing Trees – which even a couple of years ago I would have been like, “Haha, no. Obviously they’re not going to play” and I heard Snoop Dogg is playing Y Not – but maybe that’s just my band messing with me. [Snoop Dogg is playing alongside Tellison at Y Not]

You’ve also got bands like Idlewild, playing Trees as well – one of my all time favourite bands – who have legitimised those festivals hugely. So I’m excited about 2000 Trees because of the lineup. I love Truck; it is one of my all time favourite festivals for mostly sentimental silly reasons. It just nice and if the weather’s great it’s a beautiful place to be – I’m looking forward to it.

Playing festivals can go one or several ways, sometimes it is great, you play as the sun is going down, and it just feels like a magical moment. Other times it just feels like you’ve not soundchecked, and you’re just making noise and people are just like “What is this awful shit.”

What the different being playing festivals and playing shows like tonight’s? Do you have a preference?

Playing your own shows is nice because the crowd is there to see you and hopefully they might know the songs and you get that connection where people have waited to come and see you play whatever song – it feels very personal. When I was younger, I used to go to a lot of shows the same size we play, it’s fun to be back in that world and experience it from the other side.

Festivals can be, like I said, amazing, and it’s fun to play on a big stage. However, it’s weird playing in the afternoon after years of playing at night but it can be really fun. It’s also nice if you’ve got a few of your friend’s bands playing. Having been in this band for twelve years quite a few of our friends are doing stuff – so I can be really fun on a personal level to just hang out and be silly in a field with your friends – which is a fairly common experience.

 

In terms of which I prefer, I think I probably like doing Tellison shows, specifically Tellison shows, because it nice to play to people who definitely want to be there. From a selfish point of view – that is rewarding for me.

You mentioned Idlewild before, but tonight you’re sharing the stage with Scot’s So Many Animal Calls and A Sudden Burst of Colour. Are you a fan of Scottish music and if so who are some of your favourite Scottish acts?

Well, I am actually Scottish. I grew up in Edinburgh – though you can’t tell from talking to me. I grew up in Edinburgh coming across to Glasgow to see bands. I saw a lot of Idlewild, Snow Patrol, Major Major and Odeon Beatclub – who are one of my all time favourites.

More recently I really like Fatherson – they’re a really great band. Obviously the Xcerts, we played with them twelve years ago in Aberdeen, when we were all just children, and then we played with each on this Saturday and Sunday at this festival. [Hit The Deck] They’re a really really amazing band – great live – heartening that they continue. Most of our friend’s bands have broken up, so it’s nice that one or two of you carry on. Otherwise you’re looking around like “What are they all getting that I’m not?”

So yeah, I love depressing Scottish indie rock music, absolutely. Idlewild are high up on my list, but there are lots of bands that I have loved and will hopefully continue to love – probably the most is a band called Stapleton, who were from Glasgow and have now scattered to the wind somewhat. They’re probably my all time favourite band; I’m amazed by them. We played last night with Lexi from Jonny Foreigner – he played a solo set and covered a Stapleton song – I was just in this basement in Birmingham and having kind of a bad time and then he played it and it made me realise, “Oh yeah, this is why I’m still doing this” and that’s what the power of music is.

Words: Jess Lavin
Photos: Bill Gray

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