Animal Kingdom - Songs of loaf and loss

Animal Kingdom recorded their haunting, hypnotic debut album Signs and Wonders with Fleet Foxes' producer Phil Ek in Seattle. But their heart remains firmly in London thanks to a certain bakery, they tell Alexia Loundras

'We call him The Doctor," says Geoff Lea, Animal Kingdom's drummer. Around him, Lea's bandmates nod as an air of reverence fills the converted North London church this affable four-piece call their studio. The man in question is Christopher Freeman. And all of Animal Kingdom agree that their wonderful debut album, Signs And Wonders, wouldn't be the same without him.

"He's central to our creative process," says the band's frontman, Richard Sauberlich. "He's like Willy Wonka." But Freeman is not a producer. He is not even a musician. Dressing in a white coat, prone to waxing lyrical about spelt and rare wheats, he is the proprietor of nearby Dunns Bakery, a fifth generation baker and, by all accounts, a master purveyor of doughy delights. "We're hoping if we mention Dunns enough they'll give us some kind of magic loyalty card," laughs Sauberlich, only half-joking.

Animal Kingdom might be signed to Warner, the home of Muse and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but what marks out this charmingly unassuming quartet is their immaculately crafted songs and their ability to rouse and challenge in equal measure. Like a Coldplay-Radiohead hybrid, they are accessible and rewarding, marrying driving melodies and heady emotion with an innovative and artful edge.

That Animal Kingdom cite bacon rolls and cherry slices ("They're really quite special," says Lea) as their greatest inspirations perhaps helps explain why they sound nothing like their London peers. They don't even sound British. "Maybe it's because everyone now thinks an English band should be influenced by The Libertines or should sound regionally specific, like the Arctic Monkeys," says Sauberlich. "No one ever imagines we're English. People have even suggested I sound like a Russian girl."

The singer smiles, bemused by the comparison. But Sauberlich's ethereal falsetto is as beguiling as his ageless, sculpted face. Indeed, with its haunting vocals and sweeping, glacial orchestration, Signs And Wonders sounds enchantingly Nordic – like Danish alt-rockers Mew or the majestic Sigur Rós. Yet Animal Kingdom's predilection for vintage instruments bathed in golden reverb is distinctly American.

Signs And Wonders was written in the band's studio, not 50 yards from Freeman's tempting treats. But the album was recorded with the producer Phil Ek (who has worked with Fleet Foxes, The Shins, and Band Of Horses) in his Seattle studio and it bears his eerily timeless signature. "Before we got to Phil's studio, we'd only ever had rubbish little amps," says Sauberlich, beaming. "But he had all these vintage instruments and equipment out and we spent ages just playing on everything there – finding out what noises different guitars had through different amps and pedals." He grins. "It was candy shop time," he says.

Animal Kingdom spent three months in Seattle and were blown away by the experience. But then, it is not long since the four of them were day-jobbing dreamers and little has lost its shine. They even describe a trip to play a show in Hull as "glamorous".

The band have been together for three years but Animal Kingdom's history goes back further. Sauberlich studied art history and English literature at Goldsmiths. After he graduated, he started playing music. He met the guitarist Wayne Yardley at what he coyly calls "a rubbish temp job": "Our job title was 'street enforcer'," is all that he will reveal. He cringes: "We were like Batman and Robin!" But the pair began playing Sauberlich's bedroom ballads at acoustic open-mic nights. "It was all slow, depressing kind of stuff," laughs the singer. "I still write four slow, sad songs to every quick one, but we didn't have any quick ones back then."

To liven things up a bit, Sauberlich and Yardley recruited a rhythm section. Hamish Crombie, a friend of a friend, was pulled in to play bass and he poached an old Lincolnshire schoolmate, Lea, to complete the band. "Writing for a piano or acoustic guitar is very different to writing with other instruments in mind," says Sauberlich. And with the new line-up, his songs were transformed. Propulsive drums and hypnotic basslines are the band's muscle and sinew, driving the melodies and balancing the delicate intensity of the songs. Sauberlich is the beast's heart and head. His compulsions, passions and regrets give Animal Kingdom life.

"You can always sense when someone is doing something they don't believe in," he says. "When I write songs, the feelings have to be real, not synthesised." The songs on Signs And Wonders are personal, so much so that Sauberlich is reluctant to talk about them. "If you're happy, you don't write songs," he offers, nervously. "You're out and you're having a good time. It's when you've got that feeling in your belly that you need to get out, that's when you do it."

Sauberlich has always been obsessed with songs. His father was in the army and he grew up on bases in Germany, Gibraltar and Hong Kong. With only one channel for radio and one for television, access to contemporary culture was limited. But Sauberlich – whose bedroom walls were graced not with posters of bands but of the West Ham striker Tony Cottee – was fascinated. "After first hearing The Doors and Neil Young, I just wanted to learn how to write songs," he says. "I would have cut off a bit of my left-hand little finger to have a song come through me rather than just listen to it. It seemed like those who could do it knew some secret that could take you to another place."

It turned out Sauberlich had that secret too. Signs And Wonders is packed with literate, emotionally rich songs which smoulder with longing and burn with unfulfilled desire. Sauberlich turns himself inside out, but his songs are his solace. And that makes his music more inspiring. With the notable exception of the crushingly poignant "Home", the delicate melancholy that underpins his songs is always gilded with hope.

"I might not seem like it, but I'm not a glum kind of person," says Sauberlich. His bandmates jeer playfully but he is adamant. "Really, I'm actually quite a jolly sort." The four giggle like schoolboys. Despite Sauberlich's introspective tendencies, Animal Kingdom exude a puppyish giddiness that is enormously affecting. They're thrilled about a tour of places like Leeds and Glasgow and have begun work on their second album – calling songs after the names on a first world war memorial which occupies the back wall of their studio.

Of course, they want to be doing this for some time to come. "We'd love to have eight or 10 albums to look back on – I hope we will," says Sauberlich. "But I wouldn't want to jinx it!" Today, though, is Lea's birthday, and minds are less on future music-making than present merriment. Tea is made and candles are lit. And I leave them celebrating with cupcakes. Dunns, no less.

The album 'Signs And Wonders' and the single 'Two by Two' are out now. Animal Kingdom play the Borderline in London on 23 February (Myspace.com/weareanimalkingdom)

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London