Stereophonics Talk Bob Dylan Shout-Out, 25 Years of Eclectic Rock

Frontman Kelly Jones on opening for U2, weathering a changing industry and the mixed emotions that fueled new LP 'Scream Above the Sounds'

Stereophonics frontman Kelly Jones reflects on what it's like to be praised by heroes like Bob Dylan, and the mixed emotions behind their new album. Credit: Andrew Whitton

On the afternoon that Rolling Stone catches up with Stereophonics leader Kelly Jones, he's already had a full, and rather upsetting, day. The 43-year-old singer and guitarist is calling from his home in the Parsons Green district of London, where, just a few hours earlier, an explosion on a train at his local tube station injured several people. "I've got three daughters, and I dropped the oldest one, who's 12, at the tube," he says. "And she went off on the train and then 10 minutes later I come back and there's men with machine guns and helicopters flying over. So it's been kind of a weird, insane, surreal day, to be honest."

Jones is on the phone with Rolling Stone to speak about the Stereophonics' new album, Scream Above the Sounds, the Welsh band's 10th full-length overall. But several times throughout the conversation, he'll make reference to the day's alarming event – which, in its own way, also ties into some of the emotions captured on the record. "You know," he recalls, "we opened up for U2 on their Elevation Tour, when 9/11 happened, and the names of all these firemen would come on [the screen] and stuff like that. There's been a lot of stuff that has gone on in my professional life, and things happen and you don't talk about it and you bury it. And I guess you get to a certain point and maybe you start making life choices, you don't want to go here, you don't want to go there. And then you realize it doesn't really matter where you go, there's shit happening all the time. Today is a fucking perfect example of that. And I always try to write about the things I'm experiencing. "

Those experiences are all over Scream Above the Sounds, such as in "Before Anyone Knew Our Name," which finds Jones looking back on his musical life with both fondness and regret. Overall, however, he posits that Scream is a "hopeful" record, its title telegraphing a desire to have one's voice heard through what he deems to be the constant noise and intrusions of modern life.

As for the Stereophonics' own noise, Jones and his bandmates have been playing their particular brand of wide-lens pop-rock (gritty and punk-infused sometimes, slick and electronic-tinged at others, massively anthemic more often than not) for 20 years now, and continue to find great success – in particular in the U.K., where they regularly chart Number One albums and sell out arenas and stadiums. And while they haven't experienced the same popularity on these shores, the band has garnered respect and recognition from some of America's greatest artists, from Bruce Springsteen, who has had Jones & Co. open shows for him, to Bob Dylan, who in a recent interview named the Stereophonics as a "good record" he's heard lately.

"It's very surreal," Jones says of the Dylan shout-out. "You know, I was brought up with two older brothers and they used to play stuff like Creedence and Neil Young and Dylan all the time when I was a kid. So when I heard him namecheck us I was very kind of nervous if it was true, and then very, very flattered. Because I've spent a long time trying to writing lyrics that mean something to myself, and that hopefully other people can then relate to. So to have something like that come from a guy who's kind of the Shakespeare of music? It's very ... it's a jab in the arm for sure. It's encouraging, you know?"

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Stereophonics' 1997 debut, Word Gets Around. Did you have that in mind at all while working on Scream Above the Sounds?
Not really. I'm not the type of writer or the type of musician that looks back very often. I mean, the last two albums [2013's Graffiti on the Train and 2015's Keep the Village Alive] have been very successful. We had a Number One record [with Keep the Village Alive]. And we did them both independently, on our own label, so I think of these as almost like a trio of albums, really. So I wasn't really thinking about Word Gets Around a lot. And you know, records to me are kind of an ongoing process. I've got my own studio space and I've just been going to work every day and making songs and making music and not really thinking of them as albums. And then I compile the songs and fit them together at a later date. Whereas in the past, you'd book a studio for six weeks, go in and make a record and hopefully get it done in that period of time. But I've just been making music in a very free kind of experience.

Do you feel there's a difference in the type of music you're making today?
I think the main thing with each record is finding something that steps out of our comfort zone, musically and lyrically. And I try to always write about something I'm experiencing. Tracks like "Caught by the Wind" and "Boy on a Bike" reflect back on stuff that happened – oddly speaking considering what happened today – after things like the Bataclan, where I felt anxiety start to get in the way of choices we were making. And I thought the record as a whole might have turned that way, but the songs actually came out much more celebratory. I think they lend themselves to some sort of hopeful kind of record, and really in a time where there's a lot of noise and a lot of destruction every day.

Is that what the album title is referencing? Trying to get beyond that noise?
Yeah. It's a lyric in a song called "All in One Night," which takes you through a journey where two people's lives change quite dramatically. And then it just kind of fit. There is a lot of intrusion, and young people have to deal with this stuff every day. We all do. And I think people sometimes we forget to celebrate the small things – lying on a roof and looking up at the sky, or whatever it might be. I try to paint pictures that make people realize there's more to life than the constant intrusion we're living through, really.

"All in One Night" has a pretty detailed lyric about two people who meet at a party. Is it based on a true incident?
It's pretty much a fictional story. I like narrative songs, story songs. I had an idea for each verse taking place at a different time of night. It was kind of inspired by ... there's an independent German movie called Victoria, where these guys leave a nightclub and over the course of an evening everything turns pretty dramatically on its head. And I like that idea. I had the music for the song in a hotel room in Shanghai when we had to do a stopover once. I had a few versions and that was the one that stuck really. So it's a fictional story but one that takes you on kind of a trip.

"Boy on a Bike," on the other hand, is clearly self-referential. It shows you looking back on your childhood, to a simpler time in your life.
Yeah, probably everyone's lives. But there's an image I used to use in my head of me riding down a small village street when there was snow on the ground, going to see my grandmother on Christmas day and it was very quiet and you could just hear the snow crunching under the wheels of the bike. That's a common image for me that I use quite a lot. And it just came out in a little song, really. Kind of a little Louis Armstrong tune in a way. I had a nylon-string guitar, it was very lo-fi. It's a very personal song and I'm quite fond of it.

Another song that shows you looking back, and in a very specific way, is "Before Anyone Knew Our Name," which pays tribute to a former member of the band.
That's about friendship and loss. Boyhood. That's a reflection of losing Stuart Cable, who was the drummer in the band, which happened almost seven, eight years ago now. I don't know where that song came from – one day it just came out that way and it was literally pages and pages of words and I just sat down at the piano and they unraveled. Again, it's a very honest and vulnerable type of song, you know? Very true. Almost one of those ones where you're not sure you want to put it on the album.

It's a reflection on the beginnings of the band, and your musical journey with Stuart.
Yeah. I think, you know, Stuart left the band and we were still friends for seven years. And then he passed away tragically, and of course people have opinions about what happened and all this sort of stuff. We kept it very private because we were like brothers and we didn't want to dish any dirt. And I guess a lot of the point of the song also is, you know, Stuart and I lived seven doors apart all our lives, and from the age of 12 I was in a band with him. So we were trying to be the people we became for a long time, before anybody knew who we were. So there's a lot of history there before we even had a record deal. People forget that sometimes. There's a lot of history there and sometimes people make judgements or calls on what happened when they don't really know the backstory.

You talked earlier about stepping out of your comfort zone not only lyrically but also musically. And there are a few tracks on the new album that have a bit of a different sound for you: in particular, "What's All the Fuss About?" and "Geronimo."
"What's All the Fuss About?" is a very musical song for us – it has almost like a jungle drumbeat. And it's also a very lyrical song. I guess it's influenced by people like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Again, I'm using a nylon-string guitar with all these other kind of electronic sounds, and there are trumpets and other things. So that was a cool song which really led the way to some other ideas. "Geronimo" is more kind of gnarly. Again, I'm a big fan of Tom Waits, and I love songs like "Big in Japan" and that kind of stuff, where the trumpet just goes fucking crazy at the end, and all the saxophones and baritones. That kind of very free, falling-apart kind of feel. Compared to something like "All in One Night," which is very linear and very electronic, it's a complete contrast. And then you have something like "Caught by the Wind," which is a very uplifting kind of sound, and that goes into "Taking a Tumble," which has almost like a New Wave, Tom Petty / Cars kind of vibe. And "Elevators" at the end could be kind of Lou Reed crossed with Exile on Main St. It's very loose and falling apart. So there's a lot of different things on there. I don't really like to box myself in on sounds. I let the song dictate where it feels it should go. And I try to make the sonics sound as close as possible to what the lyric is about, to take you on that trip.

You guys are huge in the U.K. Obviously, you haven't had the same sort of success in the U.S. Have you ever wondered why that is?
Yeah, I've wondered why. I think people are the same worldwide. I think if there's a certain tribe of people that like the music I make, then I'm sure there's certain tribes of people in every country. But you know, we signed to an independent label, V2, and it was great for the first couple of years. And then it kind of fell to shit. And once you lose that momentum it's very difficult to get it back. So without blaming others involved, we tried our best to be there as much as we could in the early days, but sometimes things don't pan out your way. But I kind of feel that's what's made me work so hard for 20 years. And I feel more comfortable in my skin now than I ever have. And I think the music I'm making now, I'm way more comfortable, and if anything, we've become more successful now than I would've been then anyway. You know, we've had the opportunity to do Bowie's last tour in America. We've done shows with Springsteen, who doesn't have opening acts. We've learned so much from watching the greats. And I would say we're ready for any opportunity that comes along. We're in a good place now.

Twenty years in, are you amazed at the experiences and success that you've had?
The last, I would say three to five years, I've really embraced it and understood it. When it first started to happen I was very young. It happened on, like, our second or third record and I kept thinking that these people were there for someone else! I couldn't fucking believe it. And of course it took me 15 years to realize they bought the ticket to come see us play. It's weird because when success comes that fast and that hard and that big, and literally four years before you're playing in a bar, it's an odd feeling. You know, we headlined Glastonbury on the Pyramid stage [in 2002] and I basically can't even remember it, really. It was an out-of-body experience, you know? It was so bizarre. I'd love to have a crack at it again and actually be present [laughs].

Is there one show you've done over the years that really stands out?
I guess the first big one. It was at a place in Wales called Morfa Stadium. It was just when our second album [1999's Performance and Cocktails] came out, and a promoter took me to a field and he said he could put 50,000 people in this field. And I told him he was fucking crazy. And the next thing you know, there were 50,000 people in the field watching us. That was very special, because at the very beginning I didn't really believe it could possibly happen. And then I realized that, you know, people really do relate to things that we're saying. That was a very special moment. And then from that point on it was very, very fast. We were opening for everybody from the Chili Peppers to Aerosmith, and all these bands wanted to take us on the road. We were playing with the Stones and these sorts of things. So it's been a fucking ride, and it's been incredible. And like I said, since about 2012 I'm starting to really get into that whole, you know, "what it all is" point of view. And I'm loving it.