Stuart A. Staples is not tense. When the Englishman and leader of Tindersticks is asked by phone if the recent terrorism in his adopted home country of France has him rattled, he laughs gently and says, "No." He does, after all, reside in Limousin, France's least populous region. And amid that bucolic countryside is where Staples and his cohorts have built the studio where they've recorded Tindersticks' latest album, The Waiting Room. As with the group's previous nine full-lengths, The Waiting Room is a brooding work of atmospheric indie rock full of smoldering poetry and baritone storytelling. Like Staples himself, the album is not tense. Still, there's an underlying intensity to songs such as "We Are Dreamers!", a duet with Savages' Jehnny Beth, and "Hey Lucinda," a duet with the late Lhasa De Sela, with whom Staples has sung numerous times in the past.
Unlike previous Tindersticks efforts, however, The Waiting Room almost entirely eschews Staples' guitar, letting the bass, organ and drums — not to mention the lavish brass arrangements by British jazz luminary Julian Siegel — carry the day. The result is stunning. Even those used to Tindersticks' sonic restlessness over the past 25 years may be taken pleasantly aback by the krautrock pulse of "Were We Once Lovers" or the Afrobeat funkiness of "Help Youself."
The band's cinematic bent (it's worked on numerous film scores) has also been amped up: Each song on The Waiting Room comes with a short film by a different independent filmmaker, with Stuart himself creating or co-creating the video accompaniment to four of the album's tracks. The project was created as a result of a collaboration with the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, and will have its premiere on Jan. 19 at Rough Trade NYC. A special version of the album, out Jan. 22, will include a DVD with the film as well. But right now, you can watch all 11 videos, and below, you can listen to the songs on The Waiting Room and read Staples' comments about how they came together.
1. Follow Me
"This was the last song to be recorded for the album. I felt that when the shape of the album had come together, it needed an introduction. The song is a cover. The melody is from the 1960s version of Mutiny on the Bounty, the Brando version, composed by Bronisław Kaper, a big Hollywood composer at the time. I'm not an expert on him, but Julian Siegel, who did all the brass arrangements on the album, is a jazz musician and knew his tunes. I don't have any personal connection to that film, but I came across that melody about ten years ago, and it got inside me. I ended up walking down the street over the last ten years humming it, so it found its moment. Originally, 'Second Chance Man' was going to be the start of the album. But on 'Second Chance Man,' my voice comes in right on beat one. When the album got built, I realized there needed to be a space before that, to create an atmosphere for 'Second Chance Man' to step out of. 'Follow Me' is just a few minutes to just settle down and get in the mood."
2. Second Chance Man
"Through the years of writing with the band, I've realized that when I sing without playing guitar, I'm rhythmically freer. When I pick up the guitar while singing, I tend to box things into time signatures. Something that's really come to the fore with this album is me putting my guitar down and just singing. I think that allows interesting things to happen, rhythmically, with the songs. All the guys in the band are so much better at playing music than I am, it's given them more freedom and fluidity. And building the brass arrangement with Julian, which we worked on together, was us reaching for this kind of abstract feeling within the song.
"One of the strange things about Julian is that he's from Nottingham too, which is a relatively small city in the U.K. We're both roughly the same age, and we knew each other when we were roughly 17, 18. Then he left Nottingham and went to music school, and he's been on this whole curve of music, and now he's regarded as one of the finest jazz musicians in London. When I met him again five years ago, we realized we'd both been on this 25-year journey, doing our own thing, and now we've come back together. I'm not a jazz musician, and I don't think in a jazz kind of way, but over the years I think I do look for a certain kind of freedom within an idea. I'm pleased that I can have a musical conversation with someone like Julian."
3. Were We Once Lovers?
"I think this song has something to do with how memory defines you. It's exploring this idea of forgotten intimacy, really. As I get older, it's something that fascinates me. When the idea for the song came to me, it was just thrashed out on an acoustic guitar. There's some anger in it, I suppose. The song has this tremendous momentum, but it doesn't know where it's going. It's just moving forward as fast as it can, searching. There's an uncertainty deep inside it."
4. Help Youself
"This started out as a small idea I had, just tapping the guitar when I was working on a different song. I thought, 'Okay, that's something.' In 20 minutes I built this kind of rough sketch and a few words that kind of connected with it. When the band came around the next time we had a session, I said, 'I've got this idea.' Maybe 40 minutes later, we recorded this version of the song. It was longer, and so we edited it. It was almost like capturing the moment of creation. No one had time to think. Everyone was living on their wits in that song. It has a real freshness, a sense of excitement.
"I then gave it to Julian and said, 'What do you think of this?' We didn't know what he was going to do with the brass. His arrangement knocked us over. The band works best when we can take an idea, throw it at everyone, and there's this energy and inspiration as it gets passed from one to another. I think 'Help Youself' is a really good example of that."
5. Hey Lucinda
"This song is kind of devastating, because we lost Lhasa [to cancer, soon after 'Hey Lucinda' was recorded in 2009]. Going back to the song after four years and listening to it made me think of the great time we had together making it. That's what makes the song. It's about the moment. That moment we had ... We had a great time. That's the moment I felt responsible toward when I decided to finish it for the album, more than the sadness I felt about losing her. We had fun. I think at times in the song, you can hear her laughing. She was very special. A lot of singers would have taken 'Hey Lucinda' and seen it as a very sad song, from the woman's point of view. But it's really not. The woman in the song is in control. She's moving on. It's the guy who's kind of clinging on for dear life, who won't let go. Lhasa understood that, and she had fun with that.
"I first sang with Lhasa when we were working on our album Waiting for the Moon in 2003. We had a song called 'Sometimes It Hurts' that was written as a duet. When we were writing it, we didn't know who it was written for. Then we got introduced to Lhasa's debut album [1997's La Llorona], which is amazing. We said, 'Wow, let's talk to her.' So we did, and she said yes. In the moment we met her, we kind of clicked. There was an understanding, a deeper musical understanding, that we had. It really gave me a lot over the years. It really helped me. I hope it was reciprocal."
6. Fear of Emptiness
"It's bang in the middle of the record. This is where the record turns, I think. We've always thought about our records as piece so vinyl, and this is the first album of ours that's kind of confused. This song could be the end of side one or the beginning of side two, really. I believe in the album as an art form. Traditionally ballads were placed at the ends of the sides of a record, where there's less energy. There are certain parameters that you have to kind of work with. The format makes it interesting. It's not just a free-for-all, like a CD. There are definite dynamics.
"This is an instrumental that was brought to the band, very loosely, by [keyboardist] David [Boulter]. It happened one afternoon, just real freedom and experimenting. We threw loads of things at it and messed around with it, and eventually it formed."
7. How He Entered
"This started off with [bassist] Dan [McKinna]. He brought in the idea, and we tried it a couple times. It was nice, but it wasn't moving forward. There was something in it, though, that really stayed with me. I spent some time with Dan, just to strip it down, and we found this really strange time signature for it. Once we found that, it planted a tension within it, even though I think it's quite pretty and quite beautiful. That's when the song started to get exciting. It started to bring this story out of me. I wasn't really expecting it. That's what happens when you work in a band.
"With song ideas, I don't think there are so many choices about what you can do. I think you can guide ideas, but when they come, you fundamentally accept them or you don't. Once you've accepted them, they dictate the terms. I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to write a song like this about this.' The songs come, and they touch you on the shoulder. You walk into them. For me, they're not something I can determine. I loved the fact that there was going to be a spoken-word story on the album that was very different from the rest of the songs, kind of like 'Chocolate' [on 2012's The Something Rain]. Actually, I think it's closer to a song on our first album [1993's Tindersticks] called 'Marbles.' It's more abstract autobiography. I don't think any of us consciously built it that way, though."
8. The Waiting Room
"A moment in time. Probably the fastest song to be written on the album. It took me about an hour to write, start to finish. One of those songs that I knew how to play before I ever picked up an instrument. It doesn't really happen very often. It's a really tough song, but it has to be fun and discovery and adventure. The time Dan and I spent playing this song together was a funny time. There's a strange chord in it that doesn't belong there, but it's the only one that it can be. It put a stamp on it. If the structure of it was easy, I wouldn't have trusted it. It needed something deep inside it, like an intruder, niggly and uncomfortable. It took Dan some time to accept that, musically. But when it happened, it was great.
"It's a strange thing, because the film for 'The Waiting Room' was the first film for the film project, and it was a film that I made. I made it the same day I made the song, literally seven hours apart. I didn't realize at the time that they went together. It was that film that convinced Calmin Borel [of the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival] of the idea of the film project, of commissioning non-narrative films that created a visual space for our songs."
9. Planting Holes
"Here's another song that's been around for a while, waiting for its moment. It's an instrumental that we've all known for a few years. Much like instrumentation for 'Hey Lucinda,' we weren't capable of it a few years ago. Our minds were much more linear, and we didn't know how to break out of a certain kind of linear pattern with songs. It's rain falling on paella pans. The relationship between the piano and the rain falling on paella pans, which I recorded here, is something really, really special to me. It's one of my favorite moments of the album. And I needed a moment between 'The Waiting Room' and 'We Are Dreamers!' [that] was open and contemplative. I couldn't just go straight into 'We Are Dreamers!' from 'The Waiting Room.' It would've been too much. It creates a blank space, in a way. It's in no way a blank piece of music, but it creates that negative space."
10. We Are Dreamers!
"Jehnny [Beth of Savages] and I were both guest singers at this concert in London at The Barbican, a night of music from David Lynch films. I was aware of Savages, but that was the first time I'd seen her sing live. I was working on 'We Are Dreamers!' at the time, and I was talking to Julian about some kind of brass arrangement in the second half of the song that would give it discord and urgency and movement. But when I heard Jehnny sing, I thought, 'Okay, this is what this songs needs.' The presence of her. When I talked about to her and gave her the song to listen to, the only thing I said to her was, 'I don't think this is just a duet or a case of backing vocals. There's another person, another presence, here.' I knew that if it was going to work with Jehnny, it would take ten minutes in the studio. And it took ten minutes. It was a second take. She was just so perfect for it. She got it."
11. Like Only Lovers Can
"The music on this one came from David. This song kind of happened at a soundcheck in Dresden that I recorded on my phone. The guys were messing around, playing this idea, and I thought, 'Wow, that has got something.' It was a reaction to an idea. I think it's the one song, out of all the songs on this album, that we may have made before. [Laughs.] Because of that, it had be really, really f****** good. It had to be irresistible.
"I also think it was important for this record to finish unresolved in some way. As a song, it does something very particular. On the surface, it kind of wraps everything up. You feel like you're at the end. But it asks so many questions. This album was never going to finish neatly, in the way that, say, The Something Rain finishes with 'Goodbye Joe.' The Waiting Room doesn't wrap up all the emotions that you felt in the album and say, 'This is the end, time to move on.' 'Like Only Lovers Can' doesn't do that."