London Grammar: ‘Space Is The Answer’
Eureka moments and excitable texts brought London Grammar to where they are now, four years since they formed.
Welcome to freakout village Ferropolis, where you’ll currently find Germans on pills, Brits on cheap beer and Italians on holiday. It’s Melt! festival in sweltering rural Germany and the carefree clientele limbering up doesn’t really seem like the sort to be enthralled by soft-spoken ex-humanities students performing post-xx art-pop. But how wrong first impressions can be.
By Huw Oliver
Posted 4th September 2013, 10:10am
The setting is idyllic. The sun shines bright, 34 celsius on the thermometer, 50 Factor on the skin. Melt! is a two-hour coach journey away from Berlin, positioned on a miniature peninsula jutting out into a sky-blue lake. This Ferropolis, as its name correctly suggests, is an open museum of gigantic industrial machinery, where, for one weekend only, brutalist steelwork surrounds substance-addled festival-going. With a line-up dominated by electronic music (tonight’s headliners are The Knife), the odd guitar-wielders slip in and out, and silk-smooth British trio London Grammar, playing their first ever European festival, are among the early afternoon deviators. And boy, do they please.
One week later, it’s back on similarly surreal turf. This time, sitting awkwardly in the back of a tour bus behind the twig-festooned Where The Wild Things Are stage at Cambridgeshire bash Secret Garden Party. The band – Hannah Reid, Dot Major and Dan Rothman – excited and alert, booze in hand, are readying themselves to talk about ‘If You Wait’, their forthcoming debut album and one of the most anticipated releases of the year so far.
Their rise to fame has been unexpected, or so their modesty suggests. There was much talk of their apparent anonymity. Who were these guys? Why the hell are there no photos of them anywhere? And that voice! As it turns out, this was all accidental. Singer and lyricist Hannah tells us a cover-up was “genuinely never an idea”, whilst guitarist Dan expounds, “It would be more a case of ‘oh, let’s put a song out and let’s see what happens with it’. That’s what I thought it seemed like and then when people jumped on it, people assumed we were being very anonymous because there was no picture on Soundcloud. There was no video. But it was more a case of we just hadn’t made a video.”
Although these were the songs which introduced the band to most, London Grammar has actually been a thing for three or four years now. They’ve since been re-unveiled to the world, with more experience behind them and on a much larger platform. Non-blurred promo pics abound and they even model on the album artwork. It seems they’ve blossomed naturally and progressively, with some early funding from Ministry of Sound and production tips from Tim Bran (The Verve, La Roux) and Roy Kerr aka The Freelance Hellraiser (Ladyhawke, Little Boots). But some faint relics still remain of their origins. The two closing tracks on the album, ‘Flickers’ and ‘If You Wait’, more restrained but more bewailing, date from way back. It’s almost as if the record is trying to tell their story in reverse order.
In fact, Dan claims it’s that final, melancholic title-track which was pivotal to their success. “That was the song that, in a way, kind of made lots of things develop in terms of our situation with management and label. A lot of people heard that song and were really impressed by it. I think, considering we spent so much time making the album, it also seems to apply lyrically.”
On their own album, two key ideas combine in London Grammar’s luxurious sound: room for manoeuvre, and the interaction between vocal and guitar. According to Dot, “there’s one thing we could always agree on: the bad things. That always came down to the space. It took us a long time to realise that, because when you’re a new band and you suddenly have all these opportunities, and you’re like, ‘hey, I’m going to have this person and this person and this person’. There are so many amazing opportunities and you’re just so fresh-faced and you want to do all of that. And then you think, ‘where is this going?’ There were points when there were issues with how the album was developing and the only thing we could always agree on was the space.”
“We had, like, a really bad session and the songs just weren’t sounding right,” Hannah recalls. “We were like, this is really shit. We were all really frustrated and I remember getting a text from Dan being like, ‘SPACE... SPACE... How could we be so stupid? SPACE... SPACE IS THE ANSWER’.”
Space, but what for? To facilitate a frisson, a chill, a feeling in the listener, all by bringing to focus the coupling and mirroring of Hannah’s powerful voice with Dan’s intricate guitar lines. Without legroom, this can’t be noticed. But they’ve known how to create this breathing space since the very beginning. “That was how we met originally,” Hannah continues. “It was just me and Dan, and Dan would make loads of guitar loops and I would write a vocal to the guitar loop. So, they are, in most of the songs, the two top lines that carry the music along.”
18 months of determination to perfect this later, and they’ve succeeded; the outcome is 11 songs of breathless cohesion and compelling magnetism. Be it the chillingly casual delivery on breakthrough opener ‘Hey Now’, the sensitive ex-boyfriend drama of ‘Wasting My Young Years’, live show highlight ‘Shyer’, the utterly beautiful ‘Interlude’, song-about-being-a-woman ‘Strong’ or the aforementioned closing bang, it’s impossible to pick out any sort of blemish.
The production and mixing lays bare the all-important interaction, creating a sense of wholesale urgency and leaving you on tenterhooks at every corner. So, ‘If You Wait’ will certainly cement their place as one of the UK’s most unique, in-demand new acts, but how do they feel about the whole shebang? Dan is characteristically unassuming. “We just hope that people want us to make a second one. That’s it, really. Other than that, we don’t have much expectation. Every time people come to see us at a festival and every time someone buys our records, it’s a surprise.”
London Grammar’s new album ‘If You Wait’ will be released on 9th September via Metal & Dust.
Read the full interview in the new edition of DIY Weekly, available from iTunes now.