'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)