It is 16 years now since Stereophonics burst out of their South Wales hometown, Cwmaman, with their debut album Word Gets Around.
Performance And Cocktails, their follow-up released two years later in 1999, kick-started a run of five chart-topping albums, while they moved from the small venues in which they’d cut their teeth to arenas and stadiums all over the world.
To date, they’ve sold more than 20 million albums and worked with the likes of The Who, Tom Jones and Paul Weller.
Being so busy came at a price, however. In Stereophonics’s case, particularly that of frontman and songwriter Kelly Jones, it seemed to be the drying up of ideas.
Their seventh album, Keep Calm And Carry On, released in late 2009, was their poorest selling and lowest charting, having peaked at No 11.
A year later, after almost three-and-a-half years of constant touring, the ’Phonics, as they’re known colloquially, decided to stop and regroup.
The result is Graffiti On The Train, which went in at No.3 in the album chart on Sunday. It’s their eighth album and easily the best since 2005’s Language. Sex. Violence. Other?, which yielded their only No 1 single, Dakota.
‘We finished touring in November 2010, not out of fatigue or anything – it was all very positive,’ says Kelly.
‘We’d just never had our own studio before and that was something we wanted, and it seemed like a natural time to take a break.’
Along with fellow founder member, bassist and backing singer Richard Jones; the now departed drummer Javier Weyler (who was asked to leave the band last year and replaced by Noisettes’s Jamie Morrison); and guitarist Adam Zindani, who became an official member in 2008 having previously toured with the band, Kelly opted to rethink the way they approached making albums and take a year off from touring. Something they hadn’t done before.
‘I really wanted to concentrate on songwriting again.
‘The first two albums we had so much time to write, and it was all a collaborative effort between the three of us,’ says Kelly, talking of the band’s original trio of himself, Richard Jones and drummer Stuart Cable, who choked on vomit in his sleep and died in 2010.
Kelly sacked his old friend and bandmate in 2003 when his drink and drug abuse became problematic. The pair patched things up in just over a year and were on good terms again by the time of Stuart’s death.
‘After the first two albums, the band got bigger and busier and I was writing whenever I could, on the bus, in a hotel or whatever.’
While Kelly wouldn’t admit it himself, it wasn’t good for his songwriting.
Word Gets Around, and to a degree the follow-up, was brilliant because of the beautifully-observed, deftly-written vignettes which celebrated extraordinary happenings in a very mundane small town.
Looks Like Chaplin, A Thousand Trees and More Life In A Tramp’s Vest summed up that sentiment perfectly.
Another song, Local Boy In The Photograph, was written after seeing the picture of a 23-year-old, who killed himself on the train tracks, on the front of the village newspaper.
In short, Kelly’s songwriting is at its best when he’s writing stories.
Given his background as a film and animation student, that’s hardly surprising. In fact, he was offered a job as a scriptwriter by the BBC shortly before the ’Phonics were the first band to sign a deal with Richard Branson’s fledgling V2 record label in 1996.
Thankfully, in a true return to form, Graffiti On The Train showcases his brilliant way with a yarn. Much of it is imagined, but it was largely inspired by a real-life event.
‘It was summer 2010 and we were touring a lot and doing festivals, so I was at home a fair bit,’ he explains.
‘I kept hearing footsteps on my roof when I was in bed. I was worried someone was trying to break into the house.
‘I shouted out to them, you know, “What the hell are you doing on my roof?” kind of thing, and they said they were just trying to get to the railway line across the trees to spray graffiti on the trains.
‘That’s quite a lot of trouble to go to just to paint a train, but at least they weren’t breaking in, which is half a bonus I suppose.
‘Anyway, I went back to bed and got thinking about what they were doing, and why. I understand kids are bored out of their minds. We all want to find a way to express ourselves and leave our mark on the world, and I was lucky enough to have music.
‘I ended up thinking about someone who might be leaving notes for his girlfriend on the morning train.’
As the album progresses there’s a marriage proposal, a Romeo and Juliet-style romance and, ultimately, on Violence And Tambourines, the death of the protagonist.
‘Lots of things started unfolding as I was writing the album,’ says Kelly. ‘At the same time, I started writing a screenplay about these two kids who leave a small Welsh town to go across Europe to watch bands.
‘There’s an element of autobiography in that because that’s what me, Rich and Stuart did.’
Kelly has written a number of screenplays but the Graffiti On The Train screenplay is the first for which he’s actively pursued funding to adapt into a film, and he hopes it will be released in ‘two or three years’.
‘The two things I was writing sort of bleed into each other,’ continues Kelly.
‘There’s the thread of a story there, it’s not a concept as such, and I was taking inspiration from one for the other and vice-versa. Plus I’ve got a ready-made soundtrack for the film if it gets made.’ he laughs.
Meanwhile, Kelly and the band are busy with their sell-out tour this month. It will see them performing in venues they grew out of long ago.
‘They’re all around 2,000-capacity venues, so not tiny,’ says Kelly, ‘but small for us I suppose.
‘We know what it’s like not living near a big venue, though. No one ever came to our town, so we were always going off somewhere to watch a band. As old-fashioned as it sounds, we’re taking music to people.
‘That’s how we built the fanbase in the first place, going to small towns and universities, and I think that’s why a lot of people have stuck with us. We’ve got a lot to thank those people for.’
· Stereophonics’s sold-out tour begins tonight in Leicester and comes to Portsmouth Guildhall next Friday, March 22.