The Coral’s James Skelly Talks Sea of Mirrors, Double Album, Cillian Murphy & More!

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Following the widespread critical acclaim surrounding the release of concept album, Coral Island, in 2021, The Coral are riding the crest of a creative wave as we approach a highly anticipated double album follow-up.

Sea of Mirrors and Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show are both released on Friday. Two different concepts, one following on from its predecessor and the other channelling a Spaghetti Western.

We spoke to frontman and songwriter, James Skelly, who talked us through the inventive ideas behind both records. We also discussed the Liverpool music scene, Skelly’s production work with other artists, working with Cillian Murphy for one of the new singles and plenty more!

NC: The album is out on Friday, is it business as usual or do you still get a nervous excitement for album release day?

JS: “I just want it out at this point. I’ve lived with it for ages, I just want to see what all the fans think. We’ve been making it for two years and finished it in January, so I’m ready to move on with it now. You get to that point with every album.”

NC: Sea of Mirrors has a “Spaghetti Western” theme. How did that come about?

JS: “We got asked to do a Spaghetti Western soundtrack, it was called Bushwhacker Blues. It was a werewolf / horror / western movie. So that’s where the idea came from, and I think Wild Bird might have even made an early trailer for the film but there were issues with funding so we’re not sure how far the film making process went. When we took the tracks away and realised we had two albums, we started to embellish the ideas of what each album was about. Nick wrote some notes for this idea after a watching a Spaghetti Western documentary, where they detailed how directors were using the genre just because it was popular at the time, rather than from a love for it. I thought it was interesting and we took the idea from there.”

NC: So was the story from the film followed or did you create a new narrative?

JS: “Yes in a sense. The story is about a guy trying to make a film but the set gets flooded and everything goes wrong. So we used the Spaghetti Western idea to make this existential theme of a doomed film, and we’re not even sure if the film gets made in the story, but it was a surreal take on the Italian western.”

NC: Did the success of Coral Island spur on this creative wave, with more concept-focus on these two records?

JS: “Maybe Coral Island gave us confidence but also it needs to stand up as just an album in its own right – one set of songs. If on your twelfth album you aren’t doing some sort of cartwheel to make it stand out, then who is going to take much notice? It also helps as you get older with a family, because once you’re five songs in, if you have an idea to hang your hat on, then you can finish the album looking at yourself from a distance. So in a way, you can write more personal stuff through a character. It helps when you get stuck, and it was a bit of a backlash against a lot of soundtracks. Idea by numbers, drone by numbers, and we wanted to take it back to the style of Midnight Cowboy, Ennio Morricone, the memorable soundtracks. We thought it would be nice to do that for ourselves and land something into the soundtrack world we wished still existed.”

NC: You must have been happy with the way Coral Island was received?

JS: “By the end of the album run, we were thinking it must be overrated! Sometimes you get a perfect storm and you have to be grateful and enjoy it. We have had it twice in our career, the debut album and Coral Island, so we’re very happy with how it was received.”

NC: Are the two new albums linked in any way or are we viewing this as two separate projects?

JS: “They have a similar sound due to us recording them at the same time. Holy Joe is a traditional country murder ballad album, it was supposed to be a radio show on Coral Island for drifters, sinners, and outsiders. Someone has to die in every song so we were crowbarring deaths in left, right and centre. We just get lost in the ideas and fully immerse ourselves in the process.”

NC: It was the last album recorded at Parr Street Studios, can you tell us a bit about what that place means for yourselves and Liverpool’s music culture?

JS: “It was the creative hub of Liverpool, that whole area was. Parr Street was in the middle of it, the final piece of the jigsaw. It was significant but we had to see it as motivation to become the ones starting something culturally new in the city. We’ve gone to the other end of town and opened a new studio. Ian Broudie has moved into a rehearsal room there, a new costume design studio is there, and the MMA fighters train on that road like Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann. One door closes, another one opens, and we want to make this the new creative and cultural hub of Liverpool.”

NC: Holy Joe’s Coral Island Medicine Show will be a physical format only release. What was the thinking behind that?

JS: “I think there’s still a place for that in music. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. We have limited copies for release and I like the idea of somebody searching for a record in 20 years. Someone might get into The Coral and there’s plenty to get into, but then there will be material a little bit further away that they’ll need to search for. That’s a beautiful thing in music and it shouldn’t be lost with everything being so available. Also, we wanted to make it clear that Sea of Mirrors was the main album.”

NC: You worked with Cillian Murphy for the Oceans Apart single. How did that come about?

JS: “Sean O’Hagan did the string arrangements and also the soundtrack to Cillian Murphy’s first film, and he knew Cillian’s best mate. We were trying to work out what to do with the song and thought this narrative would fit nicely at the end. At one point I was trying to get it translated into Italian, and then we changed course and Sean said ‘what about Cillian Murphy?’. I got an email from Cillian saying he liked The Coral, and that he wanted a chat and to get something in the calendar to help us out. We chatted about the character, built on the themes, and discussed ideas. We spoke about books we liked, films we liked, and then he just did it in the first take. We put some reverb on it and said nice one, I never actually met him he’s like a digital ghost!”

NC: You also worked with another actor in John Simm for the record, what led to this collaboration?

JS: “He was mates with Ian McCulloch, and I think McCulloch put him onto our first EP. He came to one of our first shows in London so we met him for the first time then, and a few times since at festivals. He talked us up when we first broke through, and he was pretty big at the time because of Life on Mars. We just thought, he’s from Blackpool and he’ll know this character so it’s perfect. He came down, did three takes, and just got it spot on. A total pro, it’s always easier when they’re so good at their job.”

NC: It’s interesting that you haven’t forgotten that praise from over 20 years ago, it must have been nice to team up with John?

JS: “Yes definitely, you remember the first people who shout about you. Paul Weller, Johnny Marr, Noel Gallagher, John Simm, and Ian McCulloch. This was before the debut album and around the time of our first EP, so we’d never forget that support.”

NC: Have you always had this strong connection with film which we see so evidently in Sea of Mirrors?

JS: “Film has always influenced our music, the same as books. I see it all as one big pool of art that you can swim in, I don’t make many distinctions between the two. Bill was always into soundtracks when we were kids, and we’d listen to the records at his. That got me onto soundtracks.”

NC: You’ve produced a lot of material for other up and coming artists. Do you see helping out and giving back to future artist development as an important and fulfilling task?

JS: “Yeah I think sometimes young people need a bit of encouragement. Half of the time, nobody tells them they’re good at something, especially if it’s not academia, but there are different types of intelligence. The Dream Machine share our rehearsal room at the minute and they’re great. A lot of the time I’m just coming in to do production with the bands. If I was in charge of the whole process I’d be letting all of the young bands come in!”

NC: You made a surprise appearance alongside Jamie Webster recently to perform Dreaming of You at Pier Head, what was that like?

JS: “I know Jamie, he’s a good lad. My brother plays with him on drums, and my other brother is part of his management team. I met him a few years back, we chat and text a lot. We’ve hung out and wrote together, stuff like that. He just said do you want to get up on stage for this big gig, Mick Head was supporting. So it was good to support Jamie and good to watch Mick Head, a great day all round. My type of gig – a few bevvies, get up for one song, shoot off!”

NC: What would you say is the secret to The Coral’s longevity?

JS: “Nobody has ever invited us to do anything else! No I’m joking, we have a deep friendship I suppose, and it has to be honoured and cherished.”

NC: And finally, if you could give yourself one piece of advice back before the first album when the band started out, what would it be?

JS: “Make sure you write a good chorus. Just write a chorus and you’ll be sound. You’ll get a decent bathroom out of it!”

The new double album from The Coral is out THIS FRIDAY – September 8th. Head to The official website for The Coral for more information.

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“If you could go out for a drink with any three musicians, past or present, who would you choose and why?” – That’s what we ask our guests on the Fantasy Pints Podcast! Seasons 1 & 2 are available now. You can check out all episodes on Spotify, Apple and YouTube, including interviews with DMA’s, Clint Boon, Robbie Knox, The Wombats, Jamie Webster, Clinton Baptiste, Scheiffer Bates, Omid Djalili and plenty more!

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