Interview: The Charlatans legend Mark Collins on Tellin’ Stories film, tragic death of band mate and new album

By Michael Halpin

The Charlatans’ eagerly-anticipated film Mountain Picnic Blues – The Making of Tellin’ Stories will be released next month.

MM sat down with guitarist Mark Collins to discuss the bittersweet period that brought both the death of keyboard player Rob Collins and the band’s most successful album.

The film marks 15 years since the release of hit album Tellin’ Stories and commits to celluloid their anniversary tour.

A company called Start Productions had heard the band were doing a few shows and said they wanted to put a documentary together.

“We were like ‘go on then, as long as you don’t want us to pay for it!’  Chris, who was putting it together, showed us some of his other stuff and we gave the go ahead to commit it to film,” he said.

It was inevitable that questions would be raised about the death of band mate Rob Collins during the recording of Tellin’ Stories, especially when revisiting the period through both the film and last year’s tour.

He said: “None of us go a week without reflecting back on Rob, he’s always with us and we don’t feel awkward talking about him.”

“Rob was a big part of our lives and he was a big part of that record, it’s a shame he wasn’t around to enjoy the aftermath of it. 

“We still take him on tour with us because if we ever run samples live of some of the songs, he’s in there – we just put him in a little box… he’s a lot easier to carry around these days!”

Rob Collins could indeed be ‘difficult to carry around’, as John Robb’s 1998 band biography We Are Rock revealed.

It reads: “(He was) the band’s wild man banging on hotel doors at all hours looking for partners in crime, covering the drivers eyes on the way to gigs and generally looning around.”

Rob may well be a lot easier to carry around these days but the affection in Mark’s voice when he speaks about Rob still reveals the loss he feels for a friend and band mate.   

In early 1996 when Mark Collins, Tim Burgess and company set to work on Tellin’ Stories they did so by flying out of the blocks with a blitz of recording that produced One To AnotherNorth Country Boy and How High.

“In session one we recorded those three,” Mark enthused. 

As the sessions progressed and the album began to take shape, the mood within the band was at an all-time high. 

On the evening of July 22 1996 however, all of that was about to change.

Following an afternoon and early evening spent in a pub in Monmouth, The Charlatans headed back to the studio at around 10pm. 

Rob Collins decided to drive his own BMW back to Monnow Valley studios and on the journey back attempted to race a car containing other band members. 

He tried to take a short cut but collided with several parked cars, and as he was not wearing a seat belt, he went through the windscreen and later died.

Stunned by Rob’s death, The Charlatans spent the following days wrapped in confusion. Did The Charlatans end there?  Would it be disrespectful to carry on? 

A visit from Rob Collins’ Dad explained that Rob would have wanted them to continue and Jeff Barrett from Heavenly PR gave the band an impassioned speech as to why they should keep on going. 

The immediate business that needed to be taken care of was The Charlatans support slot with Oasis at Knebworth. 

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream immediately offered keyboard player Duffy’s services.

He learnt Rob’s keyboard parts and the band appreciated his presence “He was a great person to be around at the time,” recalled Mark. 

“Playing-wise he is a genius but in a different style to Rob’s genius, it worked perfectly.”

Knebworth was undoubtedly the most difficult gig The Charlatans would ever have to play and in effect the band was publicly grieving.

Nothing was dedicated to Rob Collins because as bassist Martin Blunt said, everything would be dedicated to him.

More than 100,000 people were behind The Charlatans at Knebworth and what was given to both Rob and their audience was the most ferocious gig they had ever played. 

“I can’t really remember that gig other than walking out and concentrating on giving Duffy little nods where he’s supposed to change chords,” Mark admits.

ecauseuch at Knebworth hat day. evening spent yboard player Rob Collins.on?finished most bands, but then The Charlatans aren’ed”He had five days rehearsing with us to learn a whole set –I don’t even know whether I looked out at the crowd. 

“We were just staring across the stage at each other concentrating on making sure that people knew; it was a message of intent.”

Just two weeks after Knebworth The Charlatans released One To Another as a single, and it hit number three in the UK charts.

“We spoke to the record company and said we were going to release One To Another’ and they were very good, they let us,” he said.

“Rob played on those and I was thinking about this, if Rob had had his accident on week one, we might have called it a day.”

“The four singles that came off that album, One To AnotherNorth Country BoyHow High and Tellin’ Stories, they all still sound great to me.”

Following Knebworth, and the release of One to Another, the band decided to finish the Tellin’ Stories album. 

Duffy would fill out Rob Collins parts; the rest would add finishing touches and the album would be complete.

Mark said: “It would have been the wrong thing to do to call it a day then.  It had to be done all round – it was essential.”

In April 1997 North Country Boy was released as a single, reaching number four in the UK charts.

The Tellin’ Stories album was released in the same month and became the band’s third number one album. 

Tony Rogers was drafted into the band on keyboards for the tour and as a result became a fully-fledged member.

“Tony’s unflappable,” said Mark.

“But we weren’t after someone to fill someone’s boots, they’ve got to bring their own thing and Tony was completely capable of that.”

It was a hugely emotional tour, and thousands of fans showed their love and admiration for the band and the courage they had shown. 

Gigs at Glasgow Barrowlands and London Docklands Arena capped-off the end of the tour and the end of a period that, for better or worse, has come to define The Charlatans.

As Mountain Picnic Blues will show upon its release on May 13, The Charlatans really can take on anything and come out fighting. 

The Charlatans will begin recording sessions for a new album in June, and are aiming for a 2014 release. 

Image courtesy of highnumber13 via YouTube, with thanks

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