Most bands, you’d assume, would fancy a rest after putting out the most sprawlingly ambitious work of the career, as The Coral did with the daring, conceptual double album Coral Island in 2021. It was a record that had reenergised older fans and drawn in new ones, perhaps a touch surprised that a group still best remembered in the mainstream consciousness for the poppy, radio-friendly likes of ‘Dreaming of You’ and ‘In the Morning’ had a much more psychedelic side that they were continuing to indulge.
And The Coral might have gone their separate ways for a while, had the offer not come in, last year, to make the last-ever album at Liverpool’s legendary Parr Street Studios. Or make that the last two albums; James Skelly led his men through the same doors that the likes of Björk, Coldplay and The Smiths had passed through over the years, and came out with two batches of songs, which meant two records. One, Sea of Mirrors, would be the true follow-up to Coral Island, with a sort of country rock sound as refracted through the same psychedelic lens that they applied to their last album.
The other, Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show, would provide an atmospheric bridge between the two, a wildly ambitious work soundtracking an imagined spaghetti western, one with heavyweight film world involvement from man-of-the-moment Cillian Murphy, from long-time Coral fan John Simm and, in an unlikely bit of casting, from Skelly’s own grandfather, who reprises his role of Coral Island’s own radio compere, The Great Muriarty. In case it wasn’t clear, The Coral’s world is ever more wonderfully weird, as Skelly explained when Rolling Stone UK caught up with him.
How did you end up making two records?
We were working on our own things, and then we got a call asking if we wanted to go into Parr Street Studios for a final time, because it was being sold. We didn’t really want to turn down the opportunity to be the last band recording there, so we dropped what we were doing, went in and were just writing and recording on the day, each day. By the time the studio closed, we looked at what we had and realised we had about half of two separate albums, rather than one full one. Lyrically, they were very different; one of them was telling a story, there was a narrative, mostly in the first-person. And then the other felt very dream-like and was a stream-of-consciousness thing – it kind of felt like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, or something by Bob Lind or Arthur Lee. So we kept them apart.
Was it daunting to jump back into making something this conceptual and sprawling so soon after Coral Island?
I think a lot of our albums have had concepts; Butterfly House did, Distance Inbetween did, even Magic and Medicine did, even if we maybe didn’t market them that way. Move Through the Dawn had a concept, but I don’t think anybody got it! It was supposed to be a band from the sixties making this album in the eighties, the sort of thing you’d find on a tape cassette in a garage that sounded like it was produced by Jeff Lynne. But it didn’t really translate.
I think really we’re at a stage in our career where the question is, “what haven’t we done?” We haven’t done a country album, so we’ll do our version. We haven’t done a soundtrack, or an orchestral type album, so we’ll do that, too. It was more about filling in the gaps in our catalogue, because to be honest, we’ve only planned up to this point, and in a way, I can’t really imagine making another album, now we’ve filled those gaps. This might be it. Twelve seems nice.
Do you feel confident that the fanbase will go with you when you try something ambitious? Coral Island seemed to go over really well…
Yeah, that album definitely gave us more confidence, but i think we’ve always been the kind of band that would rather try something new than play it safe. We’re happier reaching for the stars, even if it means landing in the gutter sometimes. My favourite stuff has always been grand ideas executed within limitations, and in a way, having smaller and smaller budgets these days plays into our hands with that. After we left Parr Street, we recorded a lot of these two albums in our rehearsal space, where we’d be next door to a heavy metal band and we’d have to wait for them to finish before we could start playing this delicate music on a classical guitar, or whatever. But that works for us.
You say you’ve never had an offer to soundtrack a film, but you seem pretty cine-literate in terms of the influences that have gone into the concept on both of these albums…
Yeah. I was more the editor on that, which is often my role in the band; kind of editing other people’s ideas into something that can go on to an album. With Holy Joe’s, it was (drummer) Ian (Skelly) and (keyboardist) Nick (Power) who had the idea to present it as a radio show, with my grandad as the narrator. What we were really doing was taking the spaghetti western genre and playing with it, which is kind of the history of the genre – those films went off in a lot of different directions. Django was really a gothic horror film. Some of the revolutionary ones were political. Some of the seventies ones were quite comedic.
So, musically, we imagined it like a surreal spaghetti western that’s going through a disastrous production process, everything’s going wrong on set. There were a lot of ideas thrown in there. I was always fascinated by that period of the silent films into the talkies, what that meant for certain actors; like how Bela Lugosi goes from almost being a sex symbol of his era in Dracula to being in one of the worst films of all time, Plan 9 from Outer Space. You can imagine him on that set, wondering how he got there. So those ideas were part of it, too, and then Ian tied it a together with the central character, who’s sort of a faceless cowboy, like a Steve Ditko creation – like Mr. A or The Question.
How do you make something that conceptual and still maintain a personal connection with the songs?
Well, whatever you write is personal, isn’t it? To me, it always is, down to the chords you choose or the way you phrase something. Even if you’re cloaking what you’re saying, rather than wearing it on your sleeve – the fact that you’ve chosen to cloak it is personal. Sometimes, there’ll be a moment that makes me feel a certain way; light coming through the trees a certain way, a seagull flying overhead from a certain angle, and I’ll try to put that mood into song. I mean, the song might be about a girl’s hair, but really it’s about how that moment made me feel.
And then sometimes, you’re just trying to capture a time that doesn’t exist, but it takes you away somewhere. And that’s personal in itself. Van Morrison is really good at it. And what I actually like about him is that he seems like quite a horrible guy, but then he has these moments where he lets his guard drop and it’s pure love between two people, or between him and the landscape. And he carries that off with the air of a mob boss about him! I love that. He’s like Tony Soprano with the ducks.
There was a nice quote from (producer) Sean O’Hagan recently, where he was saying that when bands get to your age and have kids and responsibilities, it mutes their ambitions, but that he hadn’t found that was the case with The Coral.
Well, a lot of the songs are coming from a perspective of an actor who’s reached a certain point in his life, and I’d just turned forty; it was maybe a way to write about arriving at a certain point in your life without it having to come straight from me, without it having to be just me talking about being forty. So there’s that, and I think getting older means we’ve learned to be more adaptable anyway, because, yeah, people are having kids, and that means they’re not available for a month, or can’t come into the studio on such a day, and you learn to work around that and it makes the process different every time. In itself, that lends itself to trying new things.
I think since we’ve been in charge, since we’ve been on our mate’s label…he believes in us, the management believe in us, so we’ve been able to be ourselves and just do our thing. It’s a long way from being on a major and having them asking for another ‘Dreaming of You’. We’ve just carried on doing our own thing, which we have to really, because we’re not very good at doing anyone else’s. And we know each other so well now, everybody knows their roles, everyone has a sense of what the song is calling for in terms of their own parts. It’s all a bit like a comfy chair that just fits around you.
Why was Sean the right man to produce this time?
We hadn’t worked with him since 2010, but we’d always threatened to do an album together. I’d called him about recording some strings, because I always thought he was the best at that; most people’s strings sound like something off an insurance advert. Maybe he didn’t have the best self-promotion, but there was a reason Brian Wilson wanted to use him. We got talking, and he ended up doing an arrangement for ‘Cycles of the Seasons’ that sounded like a psychedelic Van Dyke Parks, just perfect. So we went from there.
And he was the connection to Cillian Murphy, in terms of getting him involved on ‘Oceans Apart’?
Sean did his first-ever soundtrack (for 1999’s Sunburn), and I think there’s an Irish connection there; one of Sean’s best mates is one of Cillian’s best mates. He emailed saying, “I love The Coral, I’ll help you out, give me a ring.” So I did, and I was basically asking him, “can you help us build this character? Who is he? I gave him some ideas, told him i was thinking about Bela Lugosi and Italian westerns, and that he could have any accent really because in those films, you’d have Americans, British, Spanish, Italians, Germans. He liked that idea of the old Hammer Horror thirties era, and maybe the character being an actor of that era looking back decades later. So he made his voice sound that way – he sounds like Tommy Lee Jones! And when we laid his vocal over the top, it just fit perfectly. So we thought it must be fate.
And John Simm’s involved as well – you’ve known him a bit longer…
Yeah, he came to our first-ever gigs in London. Before we even had an album out. I think (Ian) McCulloch was the connection; John had been in a band that toured with the Bunnymen. So Nick had talked to him, we knew him a little bit, and Nick said we should get John on ‘Drifter’s Prayer’ once we had the idea for it. Nick sort of wrote it with him in mind, some picked guitar lines that were kind of like Townes Van Zandt. John came in and nailed it in three takes.
For all we’ve talked about Holy Joe’s, a lot of people might not get to hear it.
Yeah, it’ll only be available physically. That makes it clear that Sea of Mirrors is the main album, which to me it is; Holy Joe’s is kind of the bridge between Coral Island and Sea of Mirrors. I like the idea that you can’t just pick up your phone, that once it sells out you’d have to try to buy a copy from somebody else. And people buy plenty of vinyl these days, so it’ll certainly be available, but if it does end up getting kind of lost, there’s something great about that too, I think.
Sea of Mirrors and Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show are available via Run On Records on September 8. The Coral play three UK shows in March and April 2024