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Bombay Bicycle Club interview: Saddled with success

The band’s latest album takes them way beyond the jangly indie-pop for which the quartet are still known

When Bombay Bicycle Club formed at the age of 15, they wouldn’t have expected to be discussing their fourth album, from their own studio, nine years later. “We would have picked a better name if we knew that it was going to last for longer than a couple of years,” smiles bassist Ed Nash, reflecting on naming themselves after an Indian restaurant chain.

 Despite their lack of a master plan, ever since their 2009-released shimmering indie-rock debut album, they have been creeping further up the chart; their No 6 third album A Different Kind of Fix led them to play the 10,000 capacity Alexandra Palace last year. And they’re still all only 24 years of age.

It was a momentous homecoming gig for the band’s singer and songwriter Jack Steadman, guitarist Jamie MacColl, and drummer Suren de Saram, who all grew up in north London’s Crouch End, and met at University College School in Hampstead (Nash went to a nearby school).

They still live nearby – in fact Nash and MacColl are about to move even closer to Alexandra Palace. “We’re very much north London boys, still,” MacColl, the most loquacious of the group,  says. Steadman, in a woolly jumper and felt cap more befitting a middle-aged golfer than pop star in his early 20s, adds: “That’s what keeps us grounded. It’s been so important that when we come off tour we go home and are just with our friends. There’s no ego.”

For a young male band, the lack of ego is refreshing. It comes up later in conversation, when MacColl, whose grandparents are Peggy Seeger and the late Ewan MacColl and whose aunt was Kirsty MacColl, says: “I don’t think we’re perceived to be as popular as we actually are. And that’s probably reflective of our personalities. We’re quite quiet. I’m not sure we’re able to separate our persona in the band from our normal personalities in the way that real pop stars have that public persona.”

It all began with a competition they won at 16 to play the V Festival as the band at the forefront of an “underage” scene alongside Cajun Dance Party. And it’s that from which they’ve found it hard to disassociate themselves. “We have an issue breaking past an image as a jangly indie band that sounds like The Strokes,” says Steadman.

“I think in a lot of people’s minds, that’s still who we are. And you try and present this album which we think is interesting and experimental and very far removed from that and they just say, ‘no, I don’t like Bombay Bicycle Club, I know what they’re like’.”

He’s right about their new album, So Long, See You Tomorrow; it is interesting and more experimental than anything this talented band have done yet, synthesiser-driven with loops sampled from music from around the world amassed on the travelling adventures Steadman embarked on to rejuvenate his inspiration for songwriting. “Feel”, for example, takes its hypnotic hook from the soundtrack of a 1950s Bollywood film. And the whole album is unified by a loop; the melody of the final song picks up that of the opener – part of the album’s overarching theme of continuity.

Could their enduring ambition and quest to push the band into new sonic directions be a response to the preconceptions they feel hinder the band? “It could play a part in that constant drive to want to prove yourself,” muses Steadman. “Without that, maybe we wouldn’t have all this, so you can look at it positively.”

Their Edgware Road studio, where we meet today and which has become Steadman’s home, is full of items acquired on his travels. Alongside an ornate keyboard, guitars and recording equipment are pictures from India and a huge collection of jazz records from Japan. “It’s my favourite country,” he says, eyes lit up. “I go to Tokyo every year.” Songs, he says, often begin with a sample, while lyrics might begin with a line from an existing work of prose. When Steadman was holed away in a rented shepherd’s hut in Derbyshire writing lyrics for the album, MacColl, the “most bookish of us all,” sent books and poetry for inspiration.

It’s rare that bands on major labels are afforded the luxury of progressing and taking directions of their choosing. They agree wholeheartedly. “The only person that’s been involved with it is Darcus [Beese], the president of Island,” says MacColl. “He came into the studio twice and sat there and said he liked it – and that was all.”

“It’s a luxury to be left alone,” adds Steadman. “Hopefully we’ve just earned their trust, because in the past when we’ve done things ourselves they’ve worked.”

It worked when they turned their back on the jangly indie-rock of their debut, releasing the all-acoustic album Flaws in 2010 to huge success. It had an Ivor Novello nomination and provided their first song to make the Radio 1 playlist. “It just proved that sometimes you have to think outside the box. Labels have such formulas, you know,” states Steadman.

With three albums released in three consecutive years, by comparison So Long, See You Tomorrow has been a long time in the making. They put the time lag down to trying out two producers, Ben Allen (Animal Collective) and David Kosten (Bat for Lashes), before settling on Steadman taking on production duties. “A friend of mine said talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” he explains. “It’s not what it was designed to be. In the studio, you have to talk so much about what you want. When I have an idea, the only way I can really express it is by going ahead and doing it. Having the space and the freedom to do it ourselves was liberating.”

He points out that his tendency for experimentation was there long before even the birth of Bombay Bicycle Club. The music Steadman created at 13 on a recorder bought by his father was “10 times more experimental than anything I do now with the band”.

“The funny thing is that everyone now says, ‘you’re producing a new album, it’s such a brave step’. I’ve been doing this for 11 years.”

‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ is out on 3 February