The new double album by indie magicians The Coral, entitled ‘Coral Island’, is a magnificent snapshot of an imagined place that existed in childhood memories – a fairytale land that bristles with life and lustre over the summer months then becomes an isolated, bleak and desolate place over winter. And, despite this seasonal transition, the remaining population has more colour and detail than ever: a sparkling detritus among the shuttered boulevardes.
The album, out on 30 April 2021, is a magnificent journey born from a fertile, febrile imagination and a childlike sense of wonder. It is an immersive and transfixing work of art that will take its place as a modern classic.
Backseat Mafia were privileged to chat with The Coral frontman, James Skelly via WhatsApp on the eve of the release of ‘Coral Island’.
Congratulations on the new album.
Did you plan to record a double album, or did it just happen spontaneously as the material presented itself?
Yeah we did plan to do a double album and then we thought let’s release it as two albums – a part one and part two (which is what it is anyway). Then we thought we would just release one double album but it was like – we wondered if people could even take that sort of album length with streaming – you know, getting up to track eight and losing interest. And then we thought, look, it’s either all or nothing really: if you’re willing to take the whole journey, the reward is worth it, if you know what I mean.
Anyone who’s not (willing) to take the journey is not going to make it – they’re not going to make the second part anyway. So, we thought – in a way it’s kind of the opposite of what you should do – so we thought let’s just do that…(laughs)
Was there any influence of the COVID era in the album?
No – but because we finished it just as we went into lockdown it was like, prophetic – do you know what I mean? It was like – bloody hell – we have just been writing about this – about the shutdown town – so it was quite strange. I was still checking the masters and the mixes as we were in that lockdown.
The album is like an opera with different movements and moods throughout…
Yeah, it’s definitely split – it’s not like every song is a concept it’s more thematic, if you know what I mean, and it’s brought together by the concept of the spoken word bits.
We sort of put the album together by putting a lot of the faster songs mostly on side one which is sort of the soundtrack to the jukeboxes of the bars and the arcades and the rides on the fairs in the summer – you know when you go on the rides at the fairs and there would be those songs that are played as a soundtrack. And then there are the more character-based songs in side two about the characters who actually live there – representing winter when the fair is closed down, when the most interesting people are left on the island when everything closes down and all the tourists are gone.
In fact, it seems to me – in Coral Island – there are themes about childhood memories and while there is a degree of romanticism about this, I don’t necessarily see it as a nostalgia for a different – say 1950s – Britain…
No, it’s not that – someone said to me recently nostalgia literally means the pain of the past, which gives it more of an edgy sense. It’s not about nostalgia – it is about the magic but then in the end – at the end of the album – it’s the people that are left – it doesn’t have to have exist at any particular time, it doesn’t matter, it’s just art.
(The themes) are more about capturing a memory or feeling – where you have something that reminds you of a moment or those little fleeting moments from the past. The album is about capturing that memory or feeling – you can just use the Island as a symbol – like the fair and the fairground and the smell of something that could happen – possibilities or potential. It’s like if you live in a town in the old days when the circus would come through town and there was magic in the air – it was more a sort of symbol for that.
It’s youth, isn’t it? You have certain things you remember when you were young when you didn’t have a mortgage – it is better, because you don’t have any responsibilities.
When you don’t really know how truly horrific the world really is…
(Laughs) No! And basically, life becomes just navigating the suffering of life. That is what happens, so when people are remembering that life was better, they are really just remembering before they knew what life actually was…!
Everyone has this seasonal thing when summer kicks in and you feel it – there is a magic in the spring, but then there is also a magic to the winter as well – the spookiness, the wind blowing through the harbour – everyone knows that and every now and again you have those moments where you feel really connected to stuff like that. For example, for years I felt like I haven’t looked at the sky – I mean noticed it, and then once I had kids I could see it again through their eyes and felt connected to it again. That’s what ‘Lover Undiscovered’ was about.
I know it’s strange, but for me, with things like fairgrounds and carnivals, there is always a slight undercurrent of horror…
Yeah, that’s in our minds – that’s always been in our music and ‘Butterfly House’ was almost a precursor to that thing – it had that element to it, but then we thought let’s go to the nth degree and sort of cement that as our thing, in a way.
But the album did start as Coral Island being a place where ideas come together, before it became a literal thing when we worked with Edwin Burdis – a Welsh artist. My brother put me in touch with him – he helped the Arctic Monkeys with the artwork for their last album which was a concept thing. So, I started to talk to him, and he actually physically constructed a model Coral Island – the place you can see on the cover of the album – he built it on the roof of a Chinese restaurant in Cardiff. He built it so it was a massive island like in the Thunderbirds or something. So that started to inspire the songs and we were writing the album working together, and then the more character-based songs began coming out.
And the little snippets of recordings in-between the songs – was that part of the recording sessions you did with your grandad?
I asked Nick to write liner notes for part one and part two and they were so good, we thought we could record them, and we could get actors Cillian Murphy or John Sims, who are fans, to do it all, and then Ian was like ‘I’m just going to get Granddad to record them in the rehearsal room’. And he did, so we used that recording instead and then we had little jams in the rehearsal room – bits of keyboard – and then I would take that and put it through the Space Echo, put it all together – it was like putting together a jigsaw, really.
There’s always been a definable nautical, seaside element to your music throughout your career…
Yes, it’s because we grew up in a seaside town Wirral – and I went away from it because my Mum and Dad owned pubs so we moved all around, all landlocked places, but I came back to it when I was older – it always drew me back, it always draws me back. I could not not live by the sea. It’s like a magnet, in a way.
When you first started, did you ever think you would still be playing as The Coral so many decades later with almost the same members? And, somewhat tongue in cheek, does having a brother on drums help with stability (thinking of you and a band like Doves)?
(Laughs) I don’t think any drummer is stable…Find me a stable drummer…(laughs). Find me a stable drummer and I’ll find you a shit band…I’m not too sure about that but I think we thought we would still be doing it – I’m not sure we thought that far ahead. I think we were just in a tunnel vision when we were doing the first album. In fact, I think then we were thinking ‘this is it – this is our final word on the whole world’. You’re young and naïve, aren’t you?
In fact, it’s said that it takes a lifetime for a band to create its first album and then there’s only a year or so for the next album…what was the creative process for writing Coral Island?
Yeah, that’s what happened – we did the next one a year later, which was all written on tour – a lot of the second album was written in America. That’s why it’s got that sort of traveller feel to it.
For Coral Island, it was an idea of bringing individual ideas together a collective under Coral Island – that was the banner. So, Paul Molloy had songs – the one that ends the album – Ian had songs and I’d write songs with Ian and Nick. I was doing the production thing. For many songs, for example, the process would be like Nick had written a chorus, he and Ian would lay it down, I would be in the studio and everyone would come in and record their parts later. No-one was really in the studio at the same time very often. But then you’d be have random people would turn up sometimes and you’d be like ‘let’s do this part today’, like spontaneously.
So for example, the song at the end, ‘Land of the Lost’, I’m playing the guitar part on the verse when it comes in – I’ve got this sound with this little weird old guitar I’ve got then I thought we should double up with the bass in this part, and Paul Duffy would take over and then, at the end, I’m thinking this is a great sound but I’m not good enough to play the solo I want to play, and Molloy turns up – says ‘What’s Going on?’ and I say ‘you play this solo at the end of this song’. He plays the solo at the end and so there’s three people playing one guitar part – that was like the vibe.
You’ve always had a sound that is vastly different from the standard Britpop – with a greater psychedelic influence and even elements of reggae – how did this develop – what have been your musical influences?
Yeah, we were just at the end of the Britpop era. I always think of it like what Robbie Fowler was to the Premiership. Like Arctic Monkeys is when the Premiership kicked in and it all changed. I would say Arsene Wenger’s appointment is when the modern Premiership era kicked in…so what you have is that Robbie Fowler is from that earlier era when footballers are still going to the chippy (laughs) but it’s changing, if you know what I mean. It’s some weird thing I feel that that’s the era we came out of…industry wise.
We are the Robbie Fowler of the music industry! (laughs)
One of the things that makes The Coral stand out is the variety of musical styles that can be detected – such as a reggae element…
Yeah, we’ve always had that sort of ska, sort of Trojan dub influence, we always loved that stuff.
That was so different from your peers – what were your influences at the time?
We really like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – we liked how they didn’t fit in a scene – we liked The Kinks or early Bob Marley stuff – always stuff that didn’t quite fit in a scene. They were always just that little bit strange but not strange in the way someone who is just avant-garde. In a way they’d like to fit but were a little too strange to fit.
And that’s the noticeable element of Coral Island – you go from traditional melodic indie pop tracks to more theatrical music hall styles
Yeah, we were trying to find a way to span all of our music into one thing across one album but it was too schizophrenic, so we had to put it across a double album to make it a whole so that it flows.
It’s an album that doesn’t feel like some double albums do – it holds your attention throughout…
Yeah, in actual fact it isn’t a very long double album – in fact I think Liam Gallagher’s album is actually longer than our double album (laughs). And Tame Impala’s last album.
You worked a lot with Ian Broudie in your early career and now you and your brother have worked with a number of local bands over your career. How important is mentoring to you?
It’s a two-way thing – you learn a lot from younger people and their views – they have a fresh way at looking at something and everyone’s got different algorithms, don’t they? I always think it’s good – they always know loads of stuff you don’t and can help you. Usually I’m trying to solve problems – that’s how my brain works – how are we going to make this song sound a good as it can be, and we try and solve this problem together.
You are releasing the album in conjunction with an illustrated book by Nick Power – what is the relationship between the album and the book?
Ian did the illustrations as well, and the book contains short stories about the island and the pictures are of the characters and some of the songs in there. It’s all part of the same world – if you want to go further into the world of Coral Island, get the book!
If you only want to get the songs and make a little play list – do that. It would be interesting to see what people’s favourite eleven tracks off the album would be…
Are there any bands that are impressing you at the moment?
There’s a band I’m producing called the Lathums – they’re good I think they’re going to do well when the album comes out.
I like a lot of that American alt. country stuff – I like that Charlie Crocket album and Calvert Wall, Sierra Ferrell – I like that sort of outlaw country – it’s like they are reclaiming country music.
In fact, your single ‘Faceless Angel’ has an element of twangy country guitar in it…
Yeah, we were trying to go for that Joe Meek producing Johnny Cash sound…Joe Meek was the main production inspiration. Somewhere between that and Velvet Underground and Lou Reed! I don’t know why but those were the two things I referenced. I think because Lou Reed has a Coney Island thing or there’s something about the Velvets that remind me about that…Coney Island Baby. In fact in ‘Lover Undiscovered’, we wanted to be Lou Reed playing Motown in a shopping centre!
‘Coral Island’ is set to be released on Friday, 30 April 2021. It really is an innovative and exciting release – look out for our review. You can pre-order the album here in an impressive variety of formats.