East India Youth interview: the Mercury Prize's dark horse

The electronica whizkid may seem unassuming, but he has big pop ambitions

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The Independent Culture

Music’s annual Mercury Prize has long been thought, only half-jokingly, to have a curse on it: win, and watch your career falter.

One of the favourites to be crowned on Wednesday is East India Youth and, even if his debut album is doomily titled Total Strife Forever, he seems surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing.

That’s because William Doyle, to use his real name, has already finished his next record. “I feel remarkably little pressure,” he tells me over lunch at a diner in East India, a trendy spot amidst the dockside industrialism of east London (he took the area’s name for his own after living at a friend’s flat there). “If I had to start making my second album now, I’d be having a nervous breakdown. But whether I win [the Mercury] or not, the next stage is already set in stone, so I’m just happy to enjoy it. And it is really enjoyable: getting to peek behind the curtain, to see this weird, showbizzy lifestyle.”

If that makes the 23-year-old – already on his second musical career after the demise of indie outfit Doyle & the Forefathers – sound precocious or hurried, it shouldn’t. Total Strife Forever came out in January; a bedroom laptop electronica album, it nonetheless showed huge ambition, with a rich, dense sound that flipped between genres, from songwriterly synth-pop led by Doyle’s plangent vocals to neo-classical experimentation to banging techno. But, Doyle is keen to point out, it didn’t come either easily or quickly – he started making the record back in the autumn of 2010.

“Not to belittle it, but it was stuff I was working on on the side – it wasn’t until that band ended that I dragged [those tracks] into a playlist in iTunes,” he explains. The long gestation means it reflects his own musical development, listening to everything from Brian Eno to Philip Glass to electro-noise duo Fuck Buttons. “I guess that accounts for why it doesn’t really fit in one place stylistically. I know it seems like a big shift, but for me it was very gradual – I wasn’t trying to jump on any bandwagons or follow any trends, it was just where my heart was.”

(Photo by Charlie Forgham-Bailey)

Doyle’s band were formed when he was 17, living in Southampton; later, he moved for family reasons to Ruislip, a northwest-London suburb against which he harbours a comic-with-hindsight grudge. “It wasn’t a particularly pleasant year I spent there, because it’s not that pleasant, Ruislip… it was this isolating period really, and that’s when I started to work on [Total Strife Forever]. It wasn’t always pleasant, but I felt like the results I was getting out of it were fulfilling me a lot more. When the band broke up and it became time to mix the record, there was a big sense of euphoria – it seems to be working! So, it went through a lot of emotions, and I guess that’s reflected in the record.”

I think it is – the album can feel treacly dark, but it also bristles with a restless, exciting energy.  Despite his sideways hairdo, natty retro style and current home in Shoreditch, Doyle is no too-cool-to-care hipster; he talks with heart-tugging earnestness about his music. “My whole life’s changed because of this album. I hate to overstate the importance of things, [but] this record really does mean much more to me than just ‘these are a bunch of songs I put together’.”

In fact, he’s got his natty taste in shirts to thank for getting a record contract. Doyle spied John Doran, founder of The Quietus music website, at a gig in 2012. A fan, he went over, and offered Doran a CDR with Total Strife Forever and his phone number scrawled on it. “He looked at me and said ‘I like your shirt... so that’s half the battle’.”

A month later came one of those easily-mythologised, fork-in-the-road moments. Doyle, broke, decided to sign on: “I got my first text from the job centre, and I was thinking this is going to be a long, depressing struggle. Literally half an hour later, John texted me saying: ‘I’ve listened to your CD, I really love it, email me.’ So I had these two things in my inbox – it could go either way ...”

In fact, it went one better, The Quietus setting up a record company specially to release his music. His story has, I suggest, something of the fairytale to it. Doyle agrees, adding with mild disbelief that the Mercury nomination is the latest “amazing, but really weird” development in a career that has “just zoomed upwards”.

(Photo by Charlie Forgham-Bailey)

But the real question: what was the shirt like? Doyle laughs. “It was a Reiss shirt I’d been bought for my birthday, with like a mini-camouflage pattern. It’s discontinued now which I’m gutted about because it’s got a massive hole in the elbow” – that’s what you get for having such sharp ones. “I miss that shirt! But I haven’t chucked it out. I’m not very sentimental, but it was that shirt that got me here ...”

He may joke about it, but Doyle is more concerned than most laptop-botherers with the front-facing aspects of being a musician. Anyone who’s seen him live – and given his ubiquity at festivals this last summer, that’s no small crowd – will know he puts on a show, even if he is stuck behind a computer-covered table: sharp-suited, he mauls a bass guitar, frantically twiddles knobs and fiddles with keys while head-banging that lovely mop of hair with wild abandon.

“When I started to watch electronic music live there was – sometimes – something lacking. [Whereas] if I haven’t broken a sweat by the end of a gig, it must have been an awful show.” He feels like being a showman comes naturally to him, in any case: “It wasn’t an affectation or anything,” he says.

When Doyle cites Jarvis Cocker – another dapper-dressed mover – as an inspiration, I ask if he misses being a front man? He does. “I thought I might go down the serious electronic [route], and go underground for the rest of my career but as things have gone on ... I just really want to be a pop star!”

(Photo by Charlie Forgham-Bailey)

It’s nearly time to let Total Strife Forever go. There are a few more of those lively live shows – including breaking-America dates he’s excited about – and a special edition is being released with a bonus disc soundtrack to the 1916 silent movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, recorded at a Bestival last year. Fingers crossed, after Wednesday it’ll be covered with Mercury Prize Winner stickers too. “It’s this seal of approval: people take notice when you’ve been endorsed by that sort of thing,” he acknowledges with uncynical pleasure.

But Doyle’s attention is really on the new record, out next year – he’s not saying when. But he does reveal it’s been shaped by the thriving dance music scene he’s immersed himself in since moving to London (in particular, “dark industrial techno” nights at Corsica Studios) and the bands he’s supported on tour during the whirlwind that’s been 2014: Wild Beasts, These New Puritans and Factory Floor. So, quite eclectic again, then?

“I thought I might home in on one aspect of my sound and really explore that, but ...” – Doyle breaks off with a resigned laugh – “I can’t do that”.

The expanded version of ‘Total Strife Forever’ is out tomorrow.  For tour dates, see eastindiayouth.co.uk