“We just wanted to be a band really – make records, go on tour – there was never any grander plan than that.” As Stephen Davidson, frontman of Tellison, explains in “one of the few pubs that aren’t awful” near his East London flat, the quartet’s ambitions have never been particularly lofty. Theirs is a twelve-year career that’s the epitome of underdog – plagued by bad timing and doubly-bad luck, seemingly on the edge of a breakthrough just as the music industry “was essentially sinking”, their scrappy charm never quite delivered the quartet the rock’n’roll dream. Sometimes, though, that’s not the point.
“I worry sometimes that I’m very negative,” Stephen admits, “especially in interviews; it comes across as if I’m moaning, and I don’t want to do that because it’s fun – that’s why we do it! It’s fine – we still get to do fun things and play to lots of people and have a good time.”
“I, for a long time, felt bad – like I’d failed,” he continues. “I still, sort of, on some level do. The yardstick by which people measure bands – if you put us on that yardstick, we’re a failure. We should give up, probably, because the odds are getting slimmer!”
He laughs, but anyone pressing play on Tellison’s new album ‘Hope Fading Nightly’ might worry that Stephen’s in need of one hell of a hug, as opener ‘Letter To The Team’ fades-in with an apology penned by Stephen to the other members of Tellison, past and present, “for the mess we’re in – this holding pattern of defeat, on defeat, on defeat.” It’s not as mopey as it might seem, though.
“I love black, ‘gallows’ humour,” says Stephen of the track. “I just thought it’d be a really dark but funny thing to do. And then my brain just kept going, like, ‘Imagine if this is the first song – he quits the band in the first song!’” he cackles.
Influenced by his day job at the company that creates the Football Manager games, where “if you suck, they fire you”, it’s a typically wry slice of Stephen’s observational lyricism. “When the idea occurred to me that I could write a kind of resignation letter I was sort of thinking about culpability and liability,” he explains. “So much of the world seems to basically boil down to who’s to blame – ‘Who’s at fault, here?’
“I was thinking about that in terms of the band. I sort of run Tellison, and have done for twelve years – if this was any other pursuit or professional endeavour, I would have been fired a long time ago! Things clearly aren’t working out!
“I felt guilty about having these four people in the band, and these two other guys who’ve been in the band previously, and how I’ve been forcing them to write songs with me and go on tour with me and make records, and the fortune and glory that we were all, I guess in some way signing up for, has not materialised. It’s a sort of weird, cathartic, dark joke… slash, not a joke! Cause as I say, I should probably have been fired. If this was anything else, we should not still be doing this, for so many reasons. It doesn’t make sense!”
Stephen’s honesty when it comes to Tellison’s fortunes – or, rather, lack thereof – is a deliberate outlier in a world of macho posturing, where “you’re encouraged to behave as though you’re all rock stars already.” “We’re pointedly not,” he says matter-of-factly. “I live in a shitty flat, I have a full time job… we fit being in a band around everyone doing the same thing.”
It’s this belief in the dirty fingernails approach that makes Tellison’s recent link-up with Alcopop! Records the perfect pairing – while Stephen smiles at the idea that “[label owner] Jack’s been trying to put us out for years,” that persistence is undoubtedly a common trait. “Alcopop! makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons,” ventures Stephen. “Lots of people start labels and put out a single, but not a lot of people put out, I think we’re 123. It’s hard to do that, and I respect him a lot for doing it.”
“We got a few other offers from people, but none of them were as generous or had their eye on helping us, really. It was always like, ‘Uh, a third album from a band who’ve been around ages and not really done anything? I guess we’ll do it, but it’s not gonna be good!’” – he breaks off with a smirk – “I think they saw it as, ‘I guess we’ll take a punt on this, but you’re coming to us on a bended knee.’ Whereas Jack very generously and graciously didn’t treat us like that!”
“Most people I know who make a living in the music industry, at one stage or another they compromise – they do music they don’t really like, or maybe don’t behave in a way that I would feel comfortable behaving as a human being or whatever. Jack and Kev [owner of Alcopop!’s sister label and Tellison’s last home, Big Scary Monsters], are amazing. I have nothing but good words.”
As ‘Hope Fading Nightly’ is released, Tellison are feeling a lot less drab than their chosen album title might suggest. While lead single ‘Tact Is Dead’ might have lamented the nature of a daily slog to-and-from a minimum wage job, there’s no ‘rock’n’roll dream’ vs. ‘real life’ battle here. “It’s all my real life!” Stephen exclaims, “It just doesn’t, from the outside, look like what my parents would think of as a professional band. But it’s our band. It’s weird and it’s probably quite unique, and it doesn’t work in a way that I’ve seen any other band work, but it’s still alive.”
“Underneath all my posturing and being like, ‘Oh, we’re also-rans and we’ve fucked it up, we’re a failure!’ – I still do it; on some level, I think we’re good,” he admits with a smile, “and increasingly, that’s enough for me.”
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