East Londoners Rudimental have stormed the world’s charts but can still hang around unhassled in Hackney. Ahead of their ShortList show tonight, Louise Donovan meets them
Be honest: do you recognise anyone on this page? If this London quartet walked past you in the street, would you recognise them? Rudimental have, in fact, sold five million singles worldwide. They’re a chart-topping, platinum-selling mega success whose debut album, Home, spawned a slew of songs you definitely know (even if you don’t quite know it’s them). You can barely chuck a beer can through a festival tent without it hitting a member of Rudimental (they’ve played at least 11 in the UK this summer). Yet, as individuals, they’ve remained under the radar.
“Hence why I’m in Visions all the time,” says one quarter of Hackney’s finest, Kesi Dryden, referring to the Dalston club in which you’re as likely to lose your shizzle as you are your phone/keys/inordinate periods of time. “The bouncers think my friends are Rudimental,” he explains, “so they’ll be like: ‘You wanna come in?’ and no one recognises me.”
This isn’t a private members’ club where you’re left to your own devices, it’s a sweaty, grubby basement from which queues stream up Kingsland Road on a weekly basis. It happens to Rudimental outside the UK, too: a club in Australia refused the band entry because, they were told, “Rudimental are already here”.
After years of working multiple jobs (one to pay the bills, the other heading to the studio late at night or DJing over the weekend), surely they’re flattered that people now pretend to be them? “Not really. It’s one of the drawbacks of not being the face of your music,” says ginger-bearded member Piers Agget, before Dryden counters him: “It’s a tiny drawback, though.”
He’s not wrong. Being unrecognised certainly hasn’t done the four-piece – Dryden, Agget, Leon Rolle (aka DJ Locksmith) and Amir Amor – any harm. Home sailed straight into the charts at number one in 2013 and they’ve been packing out fields with their loud, heady mix of trumpet-filled drum’n’bass ever since. And besides, for Rudimental, anonymity is the whole point. Each song is written and produced as a group, but guest singers are brought in to complete the line-up – it’s why you hear vocals from the likes of Emeli Sandé (Free) but also career-launching spots from Ella Eyre (Waiting All Night) and John Newman (Feel The Love).
It’s a winning formula, and one they’ve repeated on their eagerly awaited second album, We The Generation, out next week. Nestled next to pop giants Ed Sheeran and Lianne La Havas are Rudimental’s class of 2015: little-known singers Mahalia, Will Heard and Anne-Marie, who is signed to the band’s label Major Toms.
“From the outside, the whole Rudimental thing could be confusing,” says Locksmith. “There are four of us at the core, but on stage there are 11 plus. We could go off on a crazy tangent [making music] with Nas or Ed [Sheeran], but actually we’re about developing new talent. It’s really important for us to show the world who we think are amazing.”
Agget continues: “It’s kind of like the school of Rudimental,” before Locksmith butts in: “You start off shit and you become great,” he laughs. “Actually, don’t write that!”
Taking young British talent under their wing is admirable, but they do go off on a crazy tangent: everyone from grime kingpin Dizzee Rascal (“we’re from the same part of Hackney”) to Steely Dan lead-singer Donald Fagen (“that came about as a bit of a joke”) crops up on the album. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Parliament and Funkadelic’s George Clinton in the background on a couple of tracks. And there’s also the not-so-small matter of a Bobby Womack guest appearance.
“New Day was one of, if not the, last songs he worked on before he passed away,” explains Amor. They’d sent the legendary soul singer an instrumental, but he’d become too sick to complete the song. Womack’s wife, Barbara Campbell, then sent the worked-on a cappella back and informed the group Womack had wanted them to finish it without him. “We were in Arizona supporting Ed [Sheeran] and our tour bus had broken down. It was blistering hot, we were wearing very few clothes, but when the a cappella came through we almost had tears in our eyes. There was a powerful message in his lyrics and we had to do it justice. Hopefully we did.”
If you’ve ever been to a Rudimental gig, you know things can get a little… nuts. Their set is a shape-shifting mix of guest singers, jumping hype men and a roaming trumpeter all throwing themselves across the stage. Locksmith runs from one end to the other whipping up the crowd into an energetic frenzy. Standing in a field, it’s exhausting to watch. So we can’t imagine how they feel on stage. But Rudimental are nothing but entertaining – their tried and tested formula of catchy chorus, trademark euphoria and a massive drop that sort of makes you want to jump on the person standing nearest you never gets old. “You do get people head-butting each other,” says Agget, by way of agreement. “Or jumping around in a mosh pit. Or fighting during Feel The Love.”
There’ll no doubt be equal amounts of chaotic energy at their next show: Rudimental are playing ShortList’s free gig tonight (Thursday 24 September). Two weeks ago we had Stereophonics, now the London foursome will be taking over Hackney Empire for the second instalment of our new 48 Hours To... series (there are four more to come). Despite growing up in the area, the band have never played at the venue before. Both Agget and Dryden, however, used to work there: “I was the best technician in Hackney,” laughs Agget. “But it’s a wicked venue. We’ve played to 50,000 people and those gigs are always fun, but the smaller ones are more intimate and a lot more sweaty. Live shows are important to us because it helps to explain who we are as a band: you see the core founders and then the extended bunch. Rudimental is like a family.”
That family thing? You can see it a mile off. Sitting down with Rudimental is like trying to talk to a bunch of overexcited school kids: there’s one of you, four of them, and a whole load of trying-to-get-a-word-in-edgeways. They riff off each other, chat among themselves, take the piss out of everyone involved (me included: “Are you getting this all down?”) but it’s infectious. And it’s one of things that makes them so appealing as a group: they genuinely like each other and that’s what you see onstage.
If their music has its ‘not proper drum’n’bass’ naysayers – well, they’d be right. There’s far too much genre-hopping going on for that. Listening to their album is like a history lesson in urban music: from the bassy grooves on Common Emotion featuring MNEK, via gospel-tinged pop-power on Go Far with Will Heard, through to a final blast of reggae from Max Romeo on System. Unsurprisingly, growing up in London had a huge influence on their sound. “We had so many different types of music thrown at us,” explains Locksmith. “On our street there was an Irish family playing folk music, a Jamaican family blaring reggae out the window and then us playing everything from grime to jungle to house with 20 MCs in our bedroom.” But after listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles at school, it was soul music they bonded over. And it’s this, rather than beat-heavy mega-hits, that are at the forefront of the new album. “People want to box you in: ‘You’ve got to do hard stuff like Feel The Love,’ or, ‘You’ve got to do like that drum’n’bass beat,’,” explains Agget. “But we were like: ‘Nah, we’re gonna do this.’”
Like a movie
So whether you’re a purist or more of a casual Radio 1 listener, Rudimental have something to offer. They’re as mainstream as drum’n’bass gets in 2015, but they still bring a certain edge to everything they do. The collaboration that sticks out? Ed Sheeran. He might be the most-streamed artist in the world but this is a guy who admitted to once soiling his pants on stage. Don’t get us wrong, we love him for it, but was that not a strange pairing for Rudimental?
“His world is so different to ours,” admits Amor. “But we don’t think: ‘Oh, it’s Ed Sheeran, it’s too different for us.’ We don’t look at it like that. It could be anyone: we’re a sucker for an amazing voice and the chemistry between us just works.”
Amor knew Sheeran long before he’d been signed, but it wasn’t until they hooked up in a studio in Los Angeles that anything really took off. “It was a mad session,” he says. “Ed invited The Game down and we ended up doing five songs together.”
Agget adds: “And Ellie Goulding just turned up. Alice Cooper was upstairs. Johnny Depp was downstairs. It was like a movie, wasn’t it?”
The result was Bloodstream, the original of which you can hear on We The Generation (Sheeran remade a version with Rick Rubin for his album X). From there, a friendship blossomed and Sheeran invited the band to support him on his US tour.
“I get the feeling that Ed invited us because he wanted to party,” Agget laughs.
“Yeah,” agrees Locksmith, “he spent more time in our dressing room than his own.”
Surely hanging out with the most famous ginger singer on the planet, playing at America’s largest stadiums and mingling with the world’s A-listers must have rubbed off on them. Are they aiming for that sort of fame?
Amor doesn’t think so: “It’s difficult. I remember we were on the beach in Seattle with Ed, it was, like, 1am. One kid just goes: ‘I know who you are!’ He brings his friends, you’ve got a crowd and all of a sudden it’s time to go. That kind of recognition is horrible.”
And once again we’re back to that deliberate anonymity: “Nobody really knows our faces,” agrees Locksmith. “Nobody’s bought into our PR or anything like that – they’ve bought into the music.”
So what’s next for Rudimental? After the ShortList gig tonight, the album will be released while the band are in the middle of a 24-date world tour. First, though, they will be sitting down for lunch with Disclosure to discuss their co-organised Brighton-based festival, Wild Life. It sold out within hours in January and will no doubt do the same next year.
“It’s funny,” says Locksmith. “I remember we supported Zane Lowe and Mark Ronson at Ibiza Rocks, it was just a DJ set. We always used to joke: ‘What if we get to the point where we’re playing in front of 50,000 people and we can make our own festival?’ Suddenly we’re sat around a table arguing over having Nas at our show and Disclosure having Wu-Tang Clan at theirs.”
Grubby east London clubs are all well and good, but Rudimental are about to take it global.
We The Generation is out 2 October
(Images: Dean Chalkley/PA/Rex)