Athlete: Young hopefuls going for gold

Athlete are full of unbridled cheer. And they've got lots to crow about, says Alexia Loundras
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The Independent Culture

January. Cold, dreary and irredeemably miserable. Yet in a south London rehearsal studio, enthusiasm is winning the battle against apathy. Athlete are seemingly immune to seasonal blues. Practising for their sold-out tour amid piles of strewn musical gear, the Deptford four-piece are a picture of contentment.

January. Cold, dreary and irredeemably miserable. Yet in a south London rehearsal studio, enthusiasm is winning the battle against apathy. Athlete are seemingly immune to seasonal blues. Practising for their sold-out tour amid piles of strewn musical gear, the Deptford four-piece are a picture of contentment.

Lost in their own creative zone, the band throw themselves into their songs with glee. Even their affable frontman, Joel Pott, sucking herbal cough sweets to suppress a clawing cold, can't hide his beaming smile. As the band down their toys for the day, he bounds over to say hello. His good humour is infectious and within minutes he's chatting about his family and showing off his yet-to-come highlight of the day - a small bottle of oily, yellow liquid. "My mother's potion," he smiles. Unscrewing the top, he tentatively sniffs its contents - eucalyptus. "I can't wait to get home and rub some of this on."

The band's cheeriness is entirely justified. Athlete are already happily ticking-off their new year's resolutions. Today, 28-year-old Pott finally passed his driving test - a feat he's understandably proud of - "even if it has taken three years," teases Carey Willetts, the bassist. But there's more. At the end of this month, Athlete realise another ambition with the release of their second album, Tourist, the excellent follow-up to their 2003, Mercury-nominated debut, Vehicles and Animals. Tourist is a lush landscape of an album, filled with depth and emotion. And its release is preceded by that of the heart-wrenching, lead single "Wires", which is likely to give the band their biggest hit to date. "Never, ever has so much gone right for us," says Willetts with a nervous laugh. Until now, the south London lads have only managed to dent the charts. Though singles from their first album were fairly well received by radio - and festival crowds from Glastonbury to Glasgow - the songs never really took off with the wider public.

Now Athlete are at the centre of a flurry of hype. "Wires" is all over the radio and all sorts of people have been clamouring for interviews, from the NME to CD:UK. So certain is their prominence in 2005 that they were even invited to perform at the launch of this year's Brit Awards despite not being eligible for any of the prizes. "All that's happening to us is so new," says Willetts, "that there's no way we can actually gauge what this feeling means, but it does feel fantastic."

Athlete have some idea of where they might be heading. This time last year, as they were rounding off their UK tour, the same sort of thing happened to their support band, then a little-known quartet called Snow Patrol, who were releasing a cracking song called "Run". "As soon as I heard 'Run', I knew that was the song that would break Snow Patrol - and it was," says Pott. "There was something so exciting about seeing their song rise and rise. Will the same thing happen to us? It's hard to say when you're personally involved. I get really excited by 'Wires' - it still gives me goose-bumps when we play that live - but who knows. We hope, we hope."

The potential significance of a first hit single is not lost on the band, but they have always tried to keep their expectations in check. Even after signing with their dream label, Parlophone, home of Coldplay and Radiohead, in 2001, the school mates never let themselves get carried away. They immediately applied themselves, touring relentlessly for the best part of two years. Slowly their exuberant live shows won over a steadily-growing following, while the moderate ripples of acclaim that greeted their debut upon it's release in April 2003 found them a few more fans. And yet the reception Athlete received at their 2003 Glastonbury appearance knocked them for six: "We were low on the bill so it was a real shock when so many people turned up and sang along to our songs," remembers, Steve Roberts, the drummer.

The band also hoped they'd be nominated for that year's Mercury prize, but stress that they didn't really think they would be. "We just felt we were the kind of band it could really help," says Tim Wanstall, the keyboardist. "We felt we had a record that could be appreciated by more than those who had it at that moment." The eclectic pop of Vehicles And Animals was duly recognised by the Mercury judges, giving Athlete some all-important publicity and a critical stamp of approval. And this, together with the triumphant festival sets of that summer, had an important affect on the band's album sales. Athlete ended up selling more than 250,000 copies of their debut album. "It got to a point where we could just sit back and enjoy what we'd done," says Roberts. "We'd achieved all we'd hoped to achieve and everything on top of that was the proverbial bonus."

And yet, with Tourist, Athlete are exceeding expectations once again, graduating from the promising melody-drenched indie of their debut to produce surging adult-pop. Swooning with strings and sprinkled with moments of Flaming Lips-like splendour, this record exists on a whole new plain. Tourist is packed full of potential hits. From its simmering title track to the explosively passionate "Yesterday Threw Everything at Me" and pounding gem - the album's high-point - "Half Light", the new record is bursting with graceful grandeur. And while Athlete's debut album was unlike anything else in the charts at the time, Tourist fits right in; it finds Athlete poised to take the baton from the likes of Keane, Embrace and Snow Patrol.

Athlete say they wanted to replace the little Casio keyboards of their first album with something richer, to make their second record a truly "big"-sounding album. But they are adamant that, far from jumping on any indie-ballad bandwagon, the inspiration for this sonic shift in direction came from within. "We started writing Tourist in 2003," says Willetts, "before we played Glastonbury, before we became a Mercury nominated band, before everything. And back then, it didn't feel like what we were doing was a safe bet at all. It felt like a really big leap. We were worried people wouldn't get it." Around him, Willetts' band-mates are nodding vigorously. "We didn't think, 'Right, because this is doing well we're going to do this, or because we love that album, we're going to do that.'"

"This is just the sort of album we always hoped we'd make," he adds. "We wrote our first record in a homemade studio that was falling apart. The idea of using an orchestra then was just absurd. But this time, the option was open for us to do it, so we did." Though certainly more streamlined and sonically richer, Tourist does indeed mark a natural progression, showcasing a new songwriting confidence that has allowed their songs to breathe. "Yeah, I think we are much more assured as musicians now," agrees Pott, unwrapping another cough drop. "We're no longer obsessed with putting little hook-lines or catchy melodies into every little space. We trust ourselves more and can keep things a little more open. And I love the sense of distance and intimacy that lends our songs. It gives us much more depth."

Pott is right. Tourist pours with soul that was previously lacking at times. But he also has his lyrics to thank. Another sign of Athlete's newfound confidence is the singer's willingness to open up. "I feel if people want to hear my personal stories, that's fine with me," says the frontman. "I'll be naked. We've always written about stuff we know - things we've been through - but this time I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve."

He certainly is. Mainly inspired by the band's endless touring - "being away and missing family, experiencing things and being desperate to share them," says Pott - Tourist is a bittersweet catalogue of lust and longing, so vibrant that listening feels like eavesdropping. For instance, the forthcoming single "Wires" is a cinematic account of Pott's rush of fear and hope as he bonded with his daughter, Zoe, now a bouncing two-year-old, after she suffered a seizure shortly after birth.

"Trading Air", meanwhile, is a real-life climax to a Hollywood-style love story. Written by Willetts and adapted by Pott, it recounts Willetts' decision to tell his old university love, who was engaged to another man, that he still loved her. "I thought it was the most evil thing to do," says Willetts, "but after six months of not eating and not sleeping, I had to say something." You wouldn't know it from the song but this tale has a happy ending: "She didn't speak to me for six weeks after I told her, but then I got a text saying her wedding was off! And so, woo hoo!" shouts Willetts still thrilled. After that, the bass player wasted no time and the two have been married nearly a year.

"I can just see it," groans Pott. "The headline for this is going to be 'breaking up marriages and babies in incubators'. People are going to get the wrong idea about us! We're not melancholic people. Really!" And they're not. In conversation, the band exude the same unbridled good humour that bursts from them as they rehearse. "Making this album, we've probably got on better than we ever had before," says Willetts. "And I think we've come up with better songs." Athlete can certainly be proud of their album. Though at times the subject matter is heavy, Tourist is still uplifting. Its soaring anthems are flooded with adventurous melodies, flushed with love and brimming with hope. Athlete are hardly the most rock'n'roll band around: though still shy of 30, three of them are married, two have kids - "We're desperately trying to keep Steve single so at least there's one of us!" Pott jokes. But as long as they can continue to write songs that inspire listeners, they'll be happy. "Our music has to connect with people," says Pott. "As long as we can continue to write songs that do that and satisfy ourselves creatively, that will be enough."

Well, there is one other ambition. Wanstall admits: "I'd love us to play Glastonbury's Pyramid stage at sunset." "That would be nice," Pott agrees. He looks like he can't wait. And, who knows, if "Wires" kick-starts Athlete's career the way "Run" did Snow Patrol's, he may not have to. For now, though, Pott has a simpler pleasure to attend to. Interview over, he's out of the door with a gleam in his eye and that small bottle of eucalyptus oil in his hand.

'Wires' is out on Monday, 'Tourist' on 31 January, both on Parlophone. Athlete tour the UK to Monday ( www.athlete.mu)

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