Interview with London Grammar
Sometimes a new band comes along whose sound seems to be impossible to find under the weight of the comparisons being levied at them. ‘The new xx! With Florence Welsh on the vocals!’ is quite a buzz to have accompanying your debut album. Such is life for London Grammar, a three-piece from London (by way of Nottingham). Vocalist Hannah Reid and guitarist Dan Rothman met at university back in 2009, before later adding multi-instrumentalist Dot Major to form the band. A set-up so reminiscent of The xx was always bound to set tongues wagging, and wag they have. I sat down with Dan on the eve of their first ever headline tour to talk creating record labels, Glastonbury and psychoanalysing friends.
If You Wait, London Grammar’s debut album, is built on softly swooning synths and melodious guitar. This production provides the perfect foil to Hannah’s vocals, which I can only think to describe as being wholly arresting. Hers is a voice which commands attention, and also, as Dan informs me, “one of those voices that just destroys your throat on a weekly basis”. In fact when we speak Hannah is holed up with tonsillitis, and the band has had to cancel their gig the previous night. In the seemingly never-ending age of the X Factor we could be excused for experiencing ennui of hearing voices that are described as ‘powerful’, ‘heart-felt’ or ‘emotional’. London Grammar are a refreshing alternative.
Beginning life as far more of an acoustic enterprise, the band originally consisted of Dan, guitar in hand, touring bars and pubs around Nottingham with Hannah. “We did that for about a year, and then we met Dot, who was introduced to me by my girlfriend. He was in the year below us and played drums. He pretty much just joined the band by coming along to a gig with us and playing. That’s how it started really.” Did their sound change after Dot joined? “To begin with it wasn’t a drastic change, we were really acoustic, there wasn’t any electronic production involved. I was just playing electric guitar and [Dot] was playing drums so it wasn’t a dramatic difference in sound. The rhythm was there and that kind of rhythm that we use now we were just starting to formulate.”
“It wasn’t until a year after that after sort of developing in the studio and taking time with producers and all that that we kind of found the more electronic side of things, and that’s when the sound really changed I guess”. Dan describes their time spent in the studio as a “learning process”: “just being [there] and working with a couple of different people you become exposed to Logic (Apple’s music production software) and different plug-ins and the kind of boring shit that goes on in the studio, you know how to use all that stuff.”
Before they were London Grammar, the band went through a set of various names. Playing around Nottingham, Dan and Hannah decided that they wanted to stand out: “we had it in our heads that we wanted to call the band ‘London’ something. So we called it The London Project for a bit, and then stumbled across London Grammar, I don’t know why, that sounded good together. And it just stuck”. As names can often be, it became a slight point of contention. “I’m not sure everyone thought it was a good idea at first, but you kind of become your name after a while. I’m glad we kept it”, Dan says, laughing.
Music and artistry has always gone hand in hand, and London Grammar have a strong visual aesthetic to match their sound. “I don’t think that’s how we anticipated it to be”, Dan says. Their website presents a stylised logo for the band over their singles (in a way that reminded me of how Majestic, the Urban Outfitters of YouTube channels, does with their logo on tracks stolen from the internet). Dan credits their label, Ministry of Sound, with helping them work out the finishing touches: “I mean you don’t really think about all of that stuff; how the logo is going to look, or the cover, or the name or any of that stuff. I mean it came together quite naturally and Ministry [of Sound] were really great at helping us do that.”
I’m surprised to hear that London Grammar are signed to a label known first and foremost for electronic and dance music. Is this maybe a sign that Ministry of Sound are keen to take a more ‘XL’ approach, shall we say, to signings? Perhaps they were keen to snare their own xx? Dan explains, “basically, when we had been gigging for a while we got spotted by a record company, and the usual hype starts, as with a lot of new bands. You get 3 or 4 different labels talking to them and you get taken out to dinner and all that…” Sort of like a business seduction, I proffer? “Yeah, and we went through all that and we were lucky enough to get a manager and we ended up signing a record deal with Ministry of Sound, who kind of had this great idea of signing a band that they had never signed before”.
Interestingly, Ministry of Sound suggested London Grammar create their own imprint within the label, on which they could release their first EP. Thus Metal & Dust Recordings was born, and the EP of the same name was released in February this year. Dan is pleased to talk about the experience, and the fact that I picked up on Metal & Dust Recordings before speaking to the band (“You’d be surprised how few people ask about that”). He has nothing but positive words regarding Ministry of Sound. “They were willing to give us our own little bit of money to go and do what we wanted to do for the best part of a year, and then have us release our EP on our own imprint. So they funded it to let us do what we wanted for it without any interference. It was amazing and a great opportunity, it really worked because it gave us complete freedom.”
With Hannah being ill, I don’t get the chance to speak to her directly about the lyrics which she pens for the band. As is wont in the best music, they are often painfully raw and open. Love is frequently explored. Dan is quick to assure me he’s schooled in the most important assertions. “She does write about relationships she’s had, not just with boys, but with family and friends. However, I think with Hannah, and I believe this as well, [the lyrics] aren’t as specific as a lot of people think. With ‘Wasting My Young Years’ (the band’s second single) Hannah was not referring to herself, but commenting on her perception of other people around her. She psychoanalyses people, and I think that’s where she get’s a lot of her inspiration from.”
This autumn the band depart on a mammoth tour, which sees them headlining for the first time, ever. They will be going around the UK, Europe and America in a tour that started in September and finishes in January. It must be quite a prospect for them, I tell Dan. “It is exciting, and terrifying! This is such new territory for us, and we are nervous about it. We’ve been really lucky that we’ve already managed to build a fan base that are buying tickets to see us. It’s insane, it’s nuts. And it’s really exciting.” As ever, with a first tour, there’s the anticipation of how it will be received. And the pressure is well and truly on. “We do feel an obligation to put on a really good tour for people, and that’s kind of scary as well. We hope we can live up to the album and reproduce the same thing live on stage. Festivals have been a good preparation for it, we’re all really excited”.
Despite having played together for over 3 years now it feels like 2013 is London Grammar’s year. Highlights so far have included Glastonbury, “it was the first time I had been and to play there for the first time having never been there was crazy. It felt special and seminal”; and Wilderness festival, playing to 3,000 people on a tiny stage (“it was nuts!”). By the end of our interview I’m left thinking that trying to make comparisons where London Grammar are concerned is pointless. They’re doing things their own way and it’s working out fine.