“We never went into this band with any expectations, so we’ve never been disappointed… We just love making music together”: Teenage Fanclub on fame, perseverance and ice cream with Nirvana

Teenage Fanclub's Ryan McGlinley [left] and Norman Blake onstage in Edinburgh
Teenage Fanclub's Ryan McGlinley [left] and Norman Blake onstage in Edinburgh (Image credit: Roberto Ricciuti/Redferns)

There was a time at the dawn of the alternative rock explosion when Scottish quartet Teenage Fanclub seemed destined for rock stardom. They toured with Nirvana, performed on Saturday Night Live, and Spin rated Bandwagonesque as the best album of 1991, ahead of Nirvana and R.E.M. Suddenly, every media outlet wanted a piece of the bedraggled, jangly rockers, who were touted as alt-rock saviors. 

“It was a really exciting time for us,” says guitarist and vocalist Norman Blake. “We got to tour the world and play these amazing places.

“We played a huge venue in Stockholm, and after Nirvana’s soundcheck we left with them and found a little play park. We all bought ice cream cones and ate them sitting on this swing set. That was really memorable because in the middle of all this craziness, we had this private, innocent moment with these nice, friendly people from America.”

Critics and alt-rock purists embraced Teenage Fanclub, but Bandwagonesque was ultimately a sales disappointment for the record company, which hoped it would be platinum within a few months. For Teenage Fanclub, however, the album allowed them to keep playing shows and recording music, which was all they had ever strived for.

“I’ve always felt we’ve been quite lucky,” says lead guitarist and vocalist Raymond McGinley. “Maybe a lot of people see us as a band that should’ve been more successful. But that’s not a bad perception to have because it means they think you’re good and you didn’t get what you deserved. In our minds, we never expected to go platinum. That was never a goal. We’ve gotten to be a band for 34 years and make a living doing it – and we’re still going.”

“We never went into this band with any expectations, so as a consequence of that we’ve never been disappointed,” Blake adds. “There are endless accounts of people saying, ‘Well, if the record company had done this or that, they would have been huge.’ But we’ve never thought that way. We just love making music together.”

Teenage Fanclub’s positivity and sustained enthusiasm for their craft has been the key to their survival and cult-level success. Since the release of Bandwagonesque, they’ve released 10 studio albums, including the new euphorically tuneful, yet melancholic Nothing Lasts Forever.

The follow-up to 2021’s Endless Arcade (their first recording since the 2018 departure of bassist and founding member Gerard Love), Nothing Lasts Forever is winsomely jangly and mid-paced – a cross between the Byrds; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; the Band; the Beatles, and, yes, Big Star, the band Teenage Fanclub were mercilessly accused of aping in the early ’90s. 

It was a critique that provided smack-talkers grist for the mill. For Blake and McGinley, however, being compared to Big Star was both a compliment and an opportunity.

“When we did press, we were actually quite open about all of our influences, whether it was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young or whatever,” McGinley says. “And then we’d mention Big Star, and I think a lot of journalists had never heard of Big Star, so people hooked onto that and used it as an angle to say, ‘Oh, it’s the band that loves Big Star!’ 

“But it was flattering to be compared to Big Star because their music is so good, and it gave us the opportunity to meet Alex in New Orleans the first time we played there. We got along really well and became friends and even got to work with him.”

Although Blake and McGinley are content with their new songs and pleased with their current lineup – which includes keyboardist and former bassist David McGowan, drummer Francis Macdonald and keyboardist Euros Childs (ex-Gorky’s Zygotic Mynki) – they admit they started working on Nothing Lasts Forever before they were really ready to enter the studio. Like countless other bands, Teenage Fanclub were planning to embark on a lengthy tour when the pandemic put their plans on hold.

“When Endless Arcade was released, it was kind of like going back to 1990 when the first album, [the grunge-inflected A Catholic Education] came out. We couldn’t really do anything with it. Everything came to a screeching halt. We were all a bit depressed about that. I mean, there was a lot to be depressed about at that time, but it just felt really weird.”

“There was this buildup and then the release, and then nothing,” Blake adds. “I think that’s where the idea for the theme of Nothing Lasts Forever started because nothing was happening, and it seemed like everything was ending. Also, it was a line in Endless Arcade and we’re always looking for ways to tie things together. But we felt like we needed to do something, so we said, ‘Right, well, let’s make another album.’”

Holed up at home, Blake and McGinley wrote a batch of new songs sans vocal melodies and showed them to the rest of the band. Then, instead of recording pre-production demos (which they’ve never done), Teenage Fanclub fine-tuned the songs, added vocals, and then headed to Rockfield Studios in Wales, where they finished the lyrics and tracked Nothing Lasts Forever.  

“We had the title, so that lent itself to a bit of reflection, at least with the lyrics,” McGinley says. “We’re not saying this is our last album. We sure hope it’s not. But bands don’t last forever. People don’t last forever. Nothing lasts forever. After 34 years in a band, you have to accept that we’re not a conveyer belt and we’re not machines. Anything can end at any time, and maybe that provides motivation to keep going.”

Not only do Teenage Fanclub plan to keep going, from now on they plan to release a new record every year or two, instead of waiting a half-decade, as they’ve sometimes done in the past.

“That’s the way Yo La Tengo do it, and it seems to work well for them,” Blake says. “That’s really about as fast as you can do albums these days because there’s a bit of backlog waiting for vinyl, and then you’ll go on tour for six or seven months. So, two years sounds about right.”

And while their sound has changed slightly with each album, they’ve relied on the same approach since the first time they entered the studio back in 1990. McGinley tackles all the leads and Blake sometimes joins him for guitar harmonies. 

For the rhythms, McGinley plays mostly open chords and chord fragments with very little gain, and Blake compliments the riffs with chord inversions, using a capo and setting his distortion higher to create a denser sound. 

“Norman mostly plays all six strings all the time,” McGinley says. “I like to play a few strings at a time and arpeggios, but we mix it up as long as the two guitars sound complementary, but different.”

While Teenage Fanclub were picked up by Geffen/DGC after only one record, they never expected to retain the support of a major label for too long. After their fourth big-budget release, 1997’s Songs from Northern Britain, their U.S. label dropped them due to poor sales. 

It was a mixed blessing. Being out of the major-label shark pool meant less pressure to shift units. It also meant less money to record and less tour support. Even so, they were handpicked by Radiohead to open their OK Computer tour, but the shows only reinforced the notion that fame comes at a price.

“It was amazing, and we had a good time hanging out with the guys, but we noticed that everywhere Radiohead went, people followed them,” Blake says.

“We saw the same thing with Nirvana years earlier. If you’re very successful, it’s impossible to have private space, and I can see how that would be difficult to deal with. If I’m walking around Glasgow I may be recognized by a couple of people, but it’s not as though I ever get mobbed in the street. I think we’re fortunate that we’ve never had to deal with that.”

Following the 2003 compilation CD, Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty-Six Seconds – A Short Cut to Teenage Fanclub, the band started recording albums on their own and licensing them through independent labels, including Merge in the U.S. and Norman Records/Pema in Europe. From 2005’s Man-Made to the present, Teenage Fanclub have covered all their recording and studio expenses, ensuring no one will interfere with their music or artwork. 

“Having worked with labels and done records on our own, we’ve discovered it’s much better for us to do it ourselves,” Blake says. “We’ve been at this for a long time, so we kind of know what we’re doing. We’ll get the artwork and music together and present it to whoever’s interested with the finished project. Then it’s, ‘Well, here it is. Let us know if you’re interested.’”

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Jon Wiederhorn

Jon is an author, journalist, and podcaster who recently wrote and hosted the first 12-episode season of the acclaimed Backstaged: The Devil in Metal, an exclusive from Diversion Podcasts/iHeart. He is also the primary author of the popular Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal and the sole author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends. In addition, he co-wrote I'm the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax (with Scott Ian), Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen (with Al Jourgensen), and My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory (with Roger Miret). Wiederhorn has worked on staff as an associate editor for Rolling Stone, Executive Editor of Guitar Magazine, and senior writer for MTV News. His work has also appeared in Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Yahoo.com, Revolver, Inked, Loudwire.com and other publications and websites.