Monday, 27 February 2012

Third one's a charm: An interview with The Maccabees

A few weeks ago I met The Maccabees before their headline show at Brixton just as their third record, the expectedly epic-sounding Given To The Wild, was coming out. It's an alright record! And they were lovely! And mega fit obvs lol!!1! The whole thing was a pleasant surprise! Owen Richards took some neat photos of the band too, including the one below, which was taken to the side of the stage. They set up a ping pong table on stage during soundcheck, which can only be a good thing. I miss ping pong.

Some slight changes were made in the printed version which I can't really be bothered to add in here. Suffice to say I prefer my own concluding paragraph to the subbed one (as all writers do, the egotistic idiots).

First published in Loud And Quiet

Photo by Owen Richards

Raking through the slush pile of mid-Noughties indie rock, who would you have predicted to be filling arenas half a decade later? The Kooks? Good Shoes? The Pigeon Detectives? As we know, the landslide of leather jackets and Telecasters soon became landfill, consigned to changing rooms, mobile phone ads and Hollyoaks montages, and surely destined to be a mere footnote to 21st century pop music.

But a strange thing happened in 2011. Three of the year’s most feted albums – The Horrors’ Skying, Metronomy’s The English Riviera and Wild Beasts’ Smother – were delivered by bands of the 2006 vintage. While none of those bands could have been mistaken for landfill indie even in their embryonic form (being obviously in possession of some discerning taste and eccentricity of vision), they hardly seemed likely back then to blossom into the critically acclaimed list-botherers you now see before you.

Even less likely to make the leap from upstarts to heavyweights, then, were The Maccabees. While the Brighton-based band may not quite have a Mercury nomination on their hands with their third album, the restrained and ruminative Given To The Wild, they are nonetheless on a weirdly similar trajectory to their Class of ’06 peers, surprising probably even themselves as they gear up to play Brixton Academy for the third time.

In the dressing room before their headline show, frontman Orlando Weeks and guitarist Felix White are buoyant and unfailingly polite, offering tea and apologising profusely for being four minutes late for the interview. Their rider, heaped high on a corner table, consists of fruit, crisps and great leaning towers of houmous. (And when did houmous become an acceptable rider staple? Oasis wouldn’t have tolerated that hippy paste but Kasabian probably do – sometime in the early Noughties chickpea dip must have entered the register of suitably rock and roll pre-show snacks.)

Their politeness towards the intruding journalist is a surprise, given that the press has not always been kind to The Maccabees. Just a few weeks ago The Guardian’s Kitty Empire derided the new record as “[Coldplay’s] Viva La Vida all over again, only with better lyrics,” while their debut Colour It In and follow-up Wall Of Arms were criticised for leaning too heavily on their influences – first The Futureheads, then Arcade Fire – even while the songwriting itself was praised. Do they take notice of the reviews?

“I've read some of them,” says Orlando. “Felix has been a lot more on it this time, 'cos he’s never read them before.” On purpose? “Yeah. But sometimes you just think, oh fuck it, I'll read it. And I read a really, really bad one, someone sent me a link to it.” That was nice of them. “But it’s not the end of the world – the writer said it was unimaginative and trite, I think, and then he said, 'for a second album'! It can be a bit weird to have people lay into the record that you know so much more about than they do. But then – we get to go and play in Australia for three weeks, we’re going back to America, we’re doing our own tour in Europe, we’re getting played on the radio...”

From the first few seconds of Given To The Wild it's obvious the band have made their 'mature third album', where 'mature' means grown-up lyrical concerns (memories, family, mortality) and an attempt at making something warm and expansive rather than youthful and spiky. Where they once sounded like a band in thrall to their influences, The Maccabees now seem invigorated by sounding like themselves, albeit filtered through a careful ear for Mojo-approved classics. 'Pelican', in particular, stands out as a classy bit of modernised Fleetwood Mac, a comparison Felix seems pleased with. The record is also strikingly cohesive, creating a hermetically sealed atmosphere of reflection and quietude, even on the more epic and rousing tracks. Lyrically there are some pretty dark moods going on there too: “Forever I've known nothing stays forever”; “One thing's for sure we're all getting older/ So we take a lover waiting in the corner/ Before you know it, pushing up the daisies.” It's a far cry from singing about a swimming pool's wave machine ('Latchmere', from Colour It In), isn't it?

“Lyrically I didn’t want it to come across as a sad album,” says Orlando, “but I think reflective is a much better word for it. When you have memories, or you look back, it prompts you to evaluate what’s going on now. But it’s not meant to be sad, it’s meant to be...” He pauses. “Any time that you’ve put into making a song, it has to in a sense be a celebration, because it requires so much attention and patience and you wouldn’t give that to something you didn’t care about. So that in itself means that it shouldn’t be sad.”

How did they achieve that cohesion on the record? On the first listen the songs almost bleed into each other, you barely notice the tracks changing. “That is a big compliment, just because the way that we set out writing it was so bitty,” he explains. “We had all these 10-second loops, a chorus here, recorded in a bathroom somewhere, or on a tourbus with people falling over 'cos we’re on the M25 or something – to then make that cohesive was a huge challenge. And I think that’s a lot down to Felix, Sam [Doyle, drums] and Hugo [White, guitar] really starting to understanding production.” Felix adds: “Some of the sounds are plug-ins and things from working on computers and Logic, messing around on things like that, but we were conscious that we’d always have guitars, you’d need the guitars, and we wanted to have more things, so we bought hundreds of pedals.” Orlando adds: “At one point you were walking round with a Sainsbury’s carrier bag with a grand’s worth of pedals.” Felix: “I was! Which pretty much sums it up.” “This record sounds like a grand’s worth of pedals,” they laugh.

There's also a transition in Orlando's vocal style, which has already developed from the clipped yelps of the first album through the lower register of the second, and now alights on a buttoned-up falsetto which floats coolly over the songs, sounding almost detached from the guitars and drums. “The skeletons of the songs were coming from all over, so I’d be emailed this thing and it wasn’t like I was in a loud rehearsal room trying to hear what I was singing over the top of everything, so I could do it with headphones in a quiet place. And on top of that there’s some busyness elsewhere, so I thought that a nice way of being involved in it would be to not try and out-busy everything, and if there’s that grandeur going on then maybe my role should be to not compete and to just try and find the gap that needed filling.”

The new material is bound to strike a contrast with the older stuff in a live set though, so how are they going to work around that? Felix explains that they still enjoy playing their early songs. “Those songs on the first record, the more time goes on the more they kind of mean things to people. I still love 'X-Ray' as a piece of music, I think that’s great. That’s one of the best things about going to see bands that have made three records – you’re going to see a band play a body of work. Like when you go and see Interpol, I think it’s beautiful to see the whole span of it – it’s mixed with hope about what they’re becoming and a sense of nostalgia for songs that mean something to you from 10 years ago.”

One review of the album, on The Quietus website, notes that this record is made by grown-ups: “The air of sweet sorrow that blankets their music seems now to be less like indie boys fetishising an abstract sadness, and more like something homegrown, which usually means the difference between 'moping' and 'dealing with pain through music'.” Would they agree with that at all? There's a long pause, before Felix blurts, “Shit sandwich,” and they fall about laughing. “There's not really an answer to that,” he says. “Better than dealing with music through pain,” adds Orlando. Clearly wary of coming across as pretentious or self-indulgent, they shy away from answers that delve too deeply into the meaning or purpose of their music. But who would accuse The Maccabees, of all bands, of being pretentious?

Take the cover art, a photograph of an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture, and a vivid and arresting image that's an intriguing visual counterpoint to the music. “[Goldsworthy's] books are like the perfect coffee table book – big, high-res photographs of beautiful things,” says Orlando. So what is it about that image that works so well with the music? Orlando looks over to Felix tentatively. “What d'you reckon?” “I don't wanna say what it means or anything,” offers Felix. “It just looks like an album cover. Not many things look like an album cover immediately, it’s beautifully colourful.” “And it looks good in any size, on a billboard, on posters on the Tube, in iTunes,” says Orlando. A lot of people see album covers as thumbnails these days, adds Felix, but this one has impact. “You could still pick it out like that,” he says.

As a band who've put in some serious hours on the road, how do they get on with the touring lifestyle? Felix grins. “Why doesn't a tour manager look out the window in the morning?” Dunno. “To give himself something to do in the afternoon.” “Ahh, that is so mean!” says Orlando. Okay then, what are your tourbus rules? “If someone’s blinds are closed, they’re closed for a reason,” states Orlando. “If you fall asleep in your bed then you're safe, if you fall asleep anywhere else on the bus, you’re not safe,” adds Felix. Not safe from what? “Everything. You’re only limited by your imagination,” says Orlando. “Just don’t fall asleep. And also, sleep feet first, like a coffin. That’s for safety reasons.” Safety reasons? That's not a rock and roll answer! “It is if you break your leg, if your shins come off and go through your knees.” Fair enough. How about a favourite roadside service station? “Oooh. In Germany,” says Orlando. “Just the quality of crappy t-shirt and snack – sausage, schnitzel. It was good.”

Back in the UK, Brixton is a venue The Maccabees that must feel like a second home by now. “It’s always a treat playing here. It definitely doesn’t feel like home but it feels less intimidating,” Orlando says. Can they remember their first show here? “Yeah, it was terrifying, it was such a big deal.”

Seeing them soundcheck – with a ping pong table centre-stage, wheeled in from their rehearsal room down the road – you might say The Maccabees got damn lucky. They caught an unstoppable indie pop wave and have been fortunate to end up on a label (Fiction) who've given them room to grow and evolve where other bands (including their beloved Futureheads) were abandoned on the shore. Not to mention having amassed a sizeable and committed fanbase along the way, something that no record label would turn its nose up at. And like those three bands mentioned earlier – The Horrors, Metronomy and Wild Beasts – they've produced a third album that really surprises people, fans and critics alike.

“I think those bands have always been thought of as artistic, intelligent bands – even from their first records it was obvious that they were good bands,” says Orlando. Sure, but Metronomy were more like a fun party band, The Horrors were seen as a bit silly and Wild Beasts were just plain bonkers. None of them were taken all that seriously to begin with, but they're still going strong where others have faded away. “Maybe something that they’ve all got in common is that they weren’t huge when their first albums came out, and that might have been in favour of all of them, 'cos they’ve been allowed to change,” says Orlando. And has that been the case for The Maccabees? Both agree. “Definitely for us, yeah.”

And considering how wildly different all four bands sounded to start off with, they've all landed on a sound that is not so dissimilar – a restrained, carefully constructed, moody sound that's epic without being bombastic, referencing past styles but still aiming for timelessness. “I have no idea why, and I don’t even know if I agree totally that everyone’s come to this same place, but I think that having the opportunity to develop and figure out where they want to go next is the common thread,” says Orlando.

“When we started the band,” says Felix, “people were copying – well, not copying, but it was all that post-punk, late '70s music, and as we’ve moved on seven or eight years later, the music people are cop– er, referencing, not copying – is eight years on from that. There’s something unconscious or subliminal about people moving through record collections and coming round to this stuff.” He tests the theory out tentatively as though it were completely madcap, this idea of borrowing through the ages. What's next then? They'll start referencing themselves if they wait long enough. “Maybe late '80s,” says Felix. “I've just been listening to Talk Talk non-stop. Incredible music.”

So there you have it. The Maccabees, against all the bloody odds, have made a third record, played a third show at Brixton Academy to launch the thing, and – to the gnawing chagrin of the hipsters and naysayers – they're doing it with some undeniable panache. You've gotta hand it to the lads – we won't be hearing the word 'landfill' again.

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