The Art of Longevity Episode 7: The Coral, with James Skelly

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The Coral is a band revered on the music scene - a real artist’s band. They are very accomplished musicians who first got together at school in the small Wirral town of Hoylake. The band members bonded over their many music icons, from The Beatles and the Small Faces to Acker Bilk and Del Shannon. Listening to a record by the Coral is a dizzying fairground tour of Liverpool’s music hall pop heritage mixed with American West Coast psychedelia and a lot else besides. Sometimes all in one song. Yet it sounds like no other band except The Coral.

Funny then that some 20 years after their debut, The Coral has made an album that sounds more like themselves than anything else they’ve done. ‘Coral Island’ is themed on the romantic ideal of the faded seaside town. The band has had an ongoing obsession with the sea since day one, but Coral Island is different. The band collaborated with artist Edwin Burdis to actually build the island and once it became a physical thing, the band’s imagination was stretched further to bring it to life with stories, characters and poetic interludes narrated by the Skelly brothers’ own Grandad.

The album is an end-to-end modern classic, yet the band’s singer James Skelly told me he expected the album would linger in obscurity, but it reached number two on the UK album charts and has received critical praise across the board. It’s probably their best record so far and if it’s too early to tell, then let’s say Coral Island is a potential masterpiece.

It’s nice to see a band as good as The Coral come full circle over the course of two decades. When the band was elevated to the top of ‘Britpop’ mania in 2002 with their song ‘Dreaming of You’ and their Mercury Prize nominated debut album, they had a great time basking in the limelight and usurping industry etiquette (a Freddie Mercury impersonator stood in for them at the Mercury Prize ceremony). However, The Coral also lost touch with reality. When they released a third album of spooky psychedelic jams, they thought it might get to number one (like their second album ‘Magic and Medicine’). It was perhaps an act of subconscious self-sabotage. A self-correcting mechanism. But at the time it’s just what the band wanted to do, though their judgement was somewhat skewed by skunk.

In episode 7 of The Art of Longevity, James Skelly walks me through the rest of this remarkable band’s story in a conversation we both thoroughly enjoyed, partly because I was very impressed by the combination of working class ambition, humble wisdom and complete dedication to artistry. There is no doubt when you hear James’s account of the band’s character and history, that The Coral would work their way through the mangle of the music industry and come out of it relatively unscathed. And, creatively speaking, even better.

In particular though, it’s the songs. Skelly and co do not lack a way with melody. As I put it to him, he could write Coldplay songs all day long, but then there are these things called minor chords...and The Coral never minded a little darkness and spookiness mixed in with the melody. No need for them to call Max Martin in to help write the next few hits (though I suspect Max is a fan). As James says himself, in The Coral’s early days he would kill for a song. Some 20 years in, he’s no longer in need of such morbid thoughts.

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