After three years away, The Maccabees are back. ShortList’s Louise Donovan speaks to a band hitting superstardom
Things haven’t got off to the best of starts. The Maccabees are here, but it’s a blistering hot Tuesday and we’re all crammed into a dark, sweltering studio in Elephant & Castle for ShortList’s cover shoot. I’m sweating and, even though I haven’t physically checked, I’m pretty sure the band are perspiring under the studio lights, too.
But it isn’t just the heat – the band are overcoming fatigue having left Worthy Farm less than 24 hours ago (after a storming set on the Other Stage – more of which later) and, to top things off, drummer Sam Doyle has bruised his ribs after crashing into a (parked) car on his way home.
“I’m fine,” he says, smiling weakly but noticeably hugging his chest. The car, on the other hand, was a complete write-off.
Faced with any one of these hardships, a more diva-ish band could have sulked or even walked. But not The Maccabees. Over the past decade the quintet have gone from playing Hammersmith Working Men’s Club (where “16-year-olds snuck in with cider” remembers guitarist Felix White) to bringing fellow south Londoner and “hero” Jamie T on stage with them at Glastonbury. In other words: they know a thing or two about sticking it out.
And while the next gig on their schedule won’t involve performing in front of 10,000 fans, it will still be a special occasion – they’re playing the second ShortList Sessions event. Our first, with The Vaccines, was a roaring success, with stage invasions (in a good way) and frontman Justin Young hanging out of a second storey window to serenade the fans who hadn’t got in. And this time we’re going one better, swapping our local pub for a one-off gig at Corsica Studios.
So, assuming this intimate occasion will be up with The Maccabees’ best live show ever, let’s begin at the other end – what was their worst?
“We were trying to impress a producer who’d worked with The Strokes,” remembers singer Orlando Weeks. “But because I was so nervous…”
“Oh yeah, that was at a Brentford Working Men’s Club,” interrupts Felix. “I remember Jamie T got kicked out and Lan [his nickname for Orlando] shouted ‘Brentford FC’ again and again over the first three songs. You just kept shouting: ‘FC FC FC FC.’ You were incredibly drunk.”
“I was nervous,” protests Weeks.
“Oh sorry. ‘Nerves.’ Yeah… must have been it.”
A BIT BRIAN WILSON
The shoot is done and I’m joined in a room filled with larger-than-life antique furniture by three of the Maccabees: Weeks, Felix and Felix’s younger brother Hugo, who plays guitar and co-produced the album (along with Doyle, the fifth member is bassist Rupert Jarvis).
It’s fitting we’re holding our gig in Elephant & Castle as The Maccabees haven’t really left the place in the past five years. They all live here, but they’ve also spent two-and-a-half years of it holed up in the same two rooms of their studio. The result? Their eagerly awaited fourth album, Marks To Prove It, the follow-up to 2012’s Mercury-nominated Given To The Wild. It wasn’t, however, an easy task.
“To begin with, every track either sounded like the previous record or it felt like we were just going back over old ground,” says Weeks.
The frontman jokingly told the crowd at Glastonbury they’d fallen out during recording of the album, but has since admitted it was tough. “We were just disagreeing a lot because everyone was trying to make it the best that it could be.”
After a year, the band had recorded seemingly endless demos but had nothing to show for it. “We scrapped it all,” says Weeks. “Everything.” If they’d been a younger, less experienced band, Felix isn’t sure they would have made it through the recording period. And after so many months in that same tiny studio, cabin fever started to set in.
“Normally you’d do rehearsals, write in someone’s house, record somewhere else, meet producers… but there was definitely a sense of Groundhog Day. It was difficult to escape because there wasn’t anyone else involved,” Felix says wearily. “The isolation of that, even though we were at home in London, was disorientating.”
The band needed clarity, and fast. “We started putting big limitations on things,” Felix continues, “keeping the reverb on vocals to a minimum, for example, or not stacking more than two guitars on top of each other.” Stripping back, they began to notice other things, too: their surroundings. Suddenly, in the midst of “this sprawling nightmare”, they had found a direction: the very place driving them crazy. But not before they all grew long hair and beards: “It got a bit Brian Wilson in there,” laughs Felix.
Yet it’s an effective touch. You can feel the Elephant’s presence all over the album: snippets of overheard conversation make their way into lyrics, the album’s title track is taken from people-watching in Kennington Park and the cover art is a shot of the Michael Faraday Memorial, the stainless-steel box on the Elephant & Castle roundabout. “This record is about stopping and appreciating things you’d normally walk past,” says Felix. “It’s about celebrating where you’re from, wherever that is.”
GOING IT ALONE
The Maccabees met as teenagers in south London, starting the band as university students in Brighton. That was in the mid-Noughties. In the years since, despite the world of indie bands fracturing off into the abyss, they’ve quietly become a British institution. Impressively, in an era where guitar bands don’t last long, they’ve slowly built their career over four albums, getting bigger, and more respected, each time.
Do they feel like a ‘big’ band now? Weeks shakes his head at the mere suggestion of success. Felix offers up a different view: “It’s just different now because we’ve been around long enough that you can’t argue with it,” he says. “Whether you like the band or not, we’ve just become something tougher than that. We’ve always had the thing where every record we made someone went, ‘It sounds a bit like this or that’, and now we just sound like The Maccabees. We just are The Maccabees.”
And they’ve got four albums to prove it. With its soaring vocals and whimsical tales of love, 2012’s Given To The Wild proved a different, more interesting direction for the band. It worked: they charted at No4 and played a giant, 8,000-capacity show at Alexandra Palace. The excitement that surrounded Given… is amped up on their latest album: Weeks still semi-mumbles lyrics into your ear, but they’ve nuanced their sound with melancholic beginnings, tumbling guitars and lyrics about getting older. Joyous and sprawling, it’s their most accomplished album to date.
They’ve also gone it alone this time. Back in 2012, big-name producers such as Tim Goldsworthy were involved, but the band had to take the final tapes back to their studio (“It was a complete mess”) and, at the last minute, sort the songs out themselves. “These guys weren’t going to help and we’d spent our whole budget [on them],” explains Hugo. “That record was make or break it.”
As a result, this time, Hugo took the lead on production duties. It’s a role he took seriously. “You’d come in and find Hugo staring intensely at a computer, and you’d think he must be watching something riveting,” says Weeks. “And it’d be a YouTube tutorial on how to make a certain Pro Tools plug-in work. He’d be in it.”
Having recently watched their old friend Florence headline Glastonbury, would they like to step up to those bigger leagues? They’re not that confident, yet: “I don’t know if we could pull it off at the moment,” says Weeks. “I’ve seen bands overshoot and put their records into scenarios that are unsuited. That’s a bad idea.”
One such bad idea might be Kanye West’s polarising Saturday night slot: “The sound was so bad [the show] almost didn’t get a chance,” admits Hugo. As members of an indie rock band, did West’s ludicrous Greatest Rock Star In The World declaration rub them up the wrong way? Not by a long shot.
“I fell in love with Oasis because they used to say that stuff all the time,” says Felix. “If they hadn’t had that belief in themselves, I don’t know if I would’ve gone along for the ride. That’s what those people should do.”
The band will be hitting festivals until the end of the summer and then it’s back on the road, though this time with less raucous nights for one band member: Hugo no longer drinks (“I stopped when we were making the record. I quite like it”).
The ups and downs of touring also still never fail to amaze them. “It’s crazy,” says Felix. “One day you’re in Soho House Chicago, free drinks everywhere, roof-top bar, anything you want. The next day you’re in a hotel that’s basically a prison cell/suicide holding bay.” But there are other downsides, too. Felix in particular finds it hard to settle back into normal life after being away: “It took a long time to work out why I felt low because I love playing so much. After the first couple of tours I’d come back and I’d be depressed for a month.”
Despite this, you can tell they’re looking forward to getting the album out there. Largely, because they’re so damn proud of it. “This is our best yet, definitely,” says Weeks, agreeing with our earlier proclamation. “Given To The Wild was bit odd because the tracks slightly jarred against each other. And that’s what’s good about this one: it’s got that same maturity but we can play it properly as a band.”
Back in the early days, the Maccabees had a nagging insecurity that people wouldn’t turn up to their gigs. It didn’t matter what event clashed; another band, a rainy day. Even football games were enough to fill the band with dread: “If it was the Champions League quarter-final, we’d think, ‘Oh f*ck no one’s going to come,’” says Weeks.
And now? Well, their recent gig at the Coronet tells you all you need to know: the queue stretched down the road. “It was like we’d taken over the area,” says Felix. You’ll undoubtedly see the same tonight. And you’ll see it in their lack of fear: “Gigging is a gamble,” says Weeks. “You can’t control it. Over the years I’ve just accepted: it will be what it will be.”
Marks To Prove It is out now