You wanna be an overnight success or a career musician? It's a question the music industry's been debating a long, long time. Ideally, of course, bands would like to sell millions every time they put out an album. But unless you're U2, you'd do better to buy a lottery ticket. For the vast majority of bands dealing with the "here today, gone tomorrow" paradigm of the modern music business, the question often becomes: Do you want to be a tortoise, or a hare?
For a band like The Charlatans UK, the slow and measured route came to them mostly by default. "We'd love to explode in the States-and we came close at one point," says drummer Jon Brookes.
Although the band has been around since 1989 and released nine albums, they still have yet to hit it big on these shores. Throughout the '90s, they were often regarded as also-rans and compared unfavorably to fellow Manchester bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays.
Now, however, the joke seems to be on their detractors; anyone who has ever seen the Manc scene film 24 Hour Party People knows what happened to the Mondays (for those who haven't, one word: crack). The Stone Roses have likewise sunk into oblivion. The Charlatans UK, on the other hand, have just released a new record, Simpatico, that debuted in the top 10 on the British charts.
Having cemented their reputation in England and, conversely, having relatively few fans to impress in the U.S. lets them experiment more than most. They're apparently aware of this, because on their new album they added reggae elements to their upbeat, Brit-pop sound. "We were listening to a lot of The Clash and old Elvis Costello when we were working on the new record," Brookes explains. "Our lead singer, Tim Burgess, lives in Los Angeles, so we had a gentle American influence, too." While Simpatico is uneven at times, it is clear they'd rather take risks than produce a near facsimile of one of their earlier records. Brookes sees it as something larger than their own situation.
"The Internet has put the ability to make music popular back in the hands of the people," he says, pointing to the recent chart success of Gnarls Barkley, who had a chart-topping hit based on downloads alone. "The corporate tastemakers have lost a lot of their power. For a long time, bands like Nickelback were big because record executives wanted them to be, but now listeners have so many more options and don't have to rely on top-40 radio to figure out what they like."
While D.I.Y. technology has been a boon for bands, it has also sped up the hype machine. As a result, turnover is faster than ever; bands are often hailed as the "next big thing," only to experience massive backlash before they even release an album. Brookes sees The Charlatans UK's chances of worldwide, Arctic Monkeys-like success as slim. And he's OK with that.
"We're lucky because we have a foundation, and we've been around for so long," he says. "In the end, though, our biggest goal is to offer a musical option that is not derivative and to make interesting music for interesting people. Luckily for us, you can't put a price on experience and history. We play for over an hour every night and we've barely cracked the surface of our catalog."
The Charlatans UK play June 8 at House of Blues. Doors open at 8 p.m. $20-$23. 619-299-BLUE.