Groove Armada - Big beat boys chart new waters

After more than a decade spent reaching for the lasers as the UK's foremost main-stage dance act, Groove Armada say it's time to go back to basics. By Marcus O'Dair

Dance acts formed in the 1990s are notoriously faceless, but perhaps none more so than Andy Cato and Tom Findlay, who together constitute the 12-year-old Groove Armada. When we meet for lunch in a north London pub, Cato straight off the plane from his new home in south west France, the question of their being approached by fans is laughed aside. "I don't even get recognised at my own gigs," grins Findlay.

Such anonymity might not seem to fit with Groove Armada's festival headliner status, but, to couch it in the terms of their dance music forebears The Prodigy, both men are very much Liam Howlett rather than Keith Flint. Every one of their major hits has relied on guest vocals, either live or sampled. It was Patti Page on the hazy chill-out anthem "At the River"; Gram'ma Funk on the irritatingly catchy, big beat-style "I See You Baby"; MC Mike Daniel (aka MAD) on the dancehall-influenced "Superstylin'"; and the titular ex-Sugababe on the slamming electro-funk of "Song 4 Mutya", widely hailed as one of the best pop singles of 2007. Richie Havens and Neneh Cherry make this list of collaborators still more eclectic.

Given the logistical impossibility of assembling the above guests on a single stage, the Groove Armada live show has traditionally relied for its impact on eye-popping lasers and video screens – to such an extent that they were once dubbed the dance Pink Floyd. They'd got this gargantuan production style down to a fine art, culminating in a headline slot on the Other Stage at Glastonbury 2008 to a crowd of over 50,000.

So it's something of a surprise when, gastropub menu duly perused, conversation settles on the matter at hand: the new, stripped-back Groove Armada live show.

"The Glastonbury gig was this amazing peak," as Findlay puts it, "and everything else after that felt a little bit like excess. We'd vamped the show up to such a degree it just got too ridiculous. We just needed to bring it all down."

This is not what one expects to hear from an act whose whole raison d'être, at least since their more woozy chill-out origins, seemed to be translating the Balearic high into a form suitable for airwaves as well as dancefloors.

Even more surprisingly, it's not only the live show that's changed: the new album, Black Light, their sixth to date, kicks off with – gasp – an electric guitar. Right from the driving opener, "Look Me in the Eye Sister", the album is, as the title suggests, significantly darker than anything Groove Armada have done before. But it's also rawer and more spirited, the result of allowing musicians who previously performed only in the live show into the recording studio for the first time. With drummer Martin Carling and guitarist George Vjestica, Findlay laughs, "it feels a bit like being in a proper band".

Findlay admits that this change of direction is in part a reaction to a broader shift in musical climate. Reports of dance music's death may have been exaggerated, but the genre has undoubtedly evolved almost beyond recognition since Groove Armada first set sail – a time when headline acts frequently hid behind banks of equipment, the occasional raising of an arm the nearest they came to anything as rockist as working the crowd.

To be fair, Cato and Findlay were among the first dance acts to incorporate live elements into their set, but a younger generation, including Klaxons, MGMT and Friendly Fires, have taken that idea and run with it. It's a "changing of the guard" that Findlay openly acknowledges:

"In the old days, it was all about big screens and big visuals," he continues. "You look around you and feel that maybe that stuff's slightly had its day, those classic 90s dance duos. We needed to come back with something a bit fresher."

The first time an audience became aware of this new, freshened up Groove Armada was at last summer's Lovebox, the London festival that the pair themselves founded back in 2003. Their performance, slap-bang in the middle of the Black Light recording process, was notably different to any of their previous appearances at the event.

Eschewing the electronic safety net of old, they adopted a Luddite approach whereby, to quote Findlay, "what you see on stage is what you hear coming out of the speakers." As well as vocals from new discovery Becky Jones, aka Saint Saviour, there was live guitar and drums, while Findlay himself played keyboards. Bass guitar duties, meanwhile, were undertaken by Cato (who, as a trombonist, is a former Young Jazz Musician of the Year).

Their Lovebox appearance was "definitely a pivotal moment", as Findlay admits. "I remember Andy and I standing at the side of the stage and saying to each other: 'This is either the end of our careers or the start of something new'." Cato, meanwhile, says it was the most nervous he'd been since taking his driving test, although he recalls the reaction, mercifully, as "instant and amazing".

Buoyed by this success, Groove Armada moved in a still more intimate direction, undertaking a tour of UK warehouses last autumn. Says Cato: "It was basically saying, 'OK we're going to swap some of the biggest stages in the world for warehouses'... Go right back to basics and just start again. It's refreshing, it's an exciting thing to do. If you're scared of that, you end up hiding behind your visuals and hiding behind your main-stage heritage. The one way to find out whether you've got substance or not is [to perform] in a car park."

Cato says that the warehouse tour was simply an extension of Groove Armada's long-held commitment to playing front rooms as well as big stages. What's new, however, is the extent to which this approach has fed back into the new album. Some of it was recorded in Cato's place in France – "I'm in the middle of nowhere, so you can make a lot of noise" – and some in Findlay's Stoke Newington studio.

Yet the studio's synths and drum machines were, for once, largely neglected. Conspicuous by their absence are the more dance-based grooves after which the act – christened, like Chemical Brothers and Dub Pistols, back in the days of what-you-see-is-what-you-get monikers – take their very name.

Says Cato: ""Superstylin'" is a great tune, obviously. It's made a lot of people very happy and it's made probably, collectively, millions of people jump up and down, which is a great thing. And there are a few other tunes like that too. But this is an album of music which isn't really judged like that... These are songs which are moving, you can get lost in a lot of them."

It's no unqualified success, marred by such blots as Will Young's cloying appearance on the final track and multiple appearances from the ever over-the-top Nick Littlemore, of kaleidoscopic Aussie electro act Empire of the Sun.

Yet once the initial surprise has worn off, Groove Armada's decision to have "gone rock'n'roll, in a dancey way" works far better than many would have predicted. "I Won't Kneel", featuring the aforementioned Saint Saviour, makes for a strong lead single, recreating the hook-laden, feel-good factor of old using slightly different tools. She returns, along with the vocalist from Northamptonshire electro newcomers Fenech-Soler, for the stomping glam pop of current single, "Paper Romance".

"Shameless", meanwhile, features the unmistakable vocals of Bryan Ferry, sounding wonderfully melancholy and as decadent as ever (though it's sadly not a song about Channel 4's council estate comedy). Amazingly, it's Ferry's first ever guest appearance, but it makes a lot of sense given that much of the record comes across – if such a thing can be imagined – like Roxy Music minus the art-pop intellectualism.

For their part, Cato and Findlay seem genuinely convinced that Black Light represents the best music they have ever made. Though there is already talk of a more "banging" house-based project to be unveiled in Ibiza this summer, the upcoming dates represent "very much the Black Light tour".

Yet though they promise that at least most anthems of yore will remain in the live set, the album won't necessarily be an easy sell, a risk only accentuated by the fact that Black Light is released on Groove Armada's own Work It label. Previously, as well as a much-publicised if short-lived deal with Bacardi rum, they were signed to a subsidiary of Sony (landing them in the company of Steps and Britney Spears: a world in which, as Cato grimaces, "the big night out" meant tickets to the Backstreet Boys).

They aren't sad to see the back of all that, of course, and neither are they shy of sheer hard graft in order to win over fans new and old – hence the move away from mainstage-scale audio-visual assault. As Cato puts it, "You've got to accept the fact that if you're trying to get new people on board, there's no point trying to do that from massive concert halls. You do that in small places."

"In the old days," agrees Findlay, "we had this great band, but it almost felt like you'd start by looking like a panorama. It almost looked best from 100 yards. But now I think we've totally turned it around. Becky [Saint Saviour] is in the heart of it, and actually you're better off getting up close and seeing her. It feels like we've boiled that whole 90s pomposity right down and it's become quite intimate. Which is why it would be lovely to go and do great little venues like King Tuts or Cabaret Voltaire or the ICA in London – because I think we'd smash it."

A Groove Armada toilet tour? Without going all John McEnroe, surely he can't be serious? "I don't see why not," comes the reply. "In the past it would probably have cost £20,000 just to get us on the road, and when you're taking that level of production, it becomes a kind of prop. Now it doesn't feel like that. We've got so much confidence in the music, and in the musicianship on stage, and in Becky and [MC] Mike as performers, that I'd love to be judged in those venues. I can see us in a splitter van, driving up and down for a few weeks. It would be good for our souls."

Black Light is out on 1 March. Groove Armada play Olympia, Dublin 26 Feb; ABC, Glasgow 1 March; Ritz, Manchester 2 March and HMV Forum, London NW5 3 March

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