Guillemots aim to show they're no fly-by-nights
Elisa Bray speaks to the Mercury nominated band
Friday 28 March 2008
Tucked away in the quiet back streets of Hackney, east London, is a building that used to be a synagogue, then an art gallery, and is now the creative hub where Guillemots have spent the past year rehearsing and recording their new album. The rehearsal room is an Aladdin's cave: old furniture, electric guitars and amps; the big black metallic bird (made out of a shopping trolley and colander) that appears at their shows; a microphone dangling from a wooden beam. "I lassoed it up there," frontman Fyfe Dangerfield says as he shows me around. At the back, behind amps and cables, he is keen to reveal his prized treasure, a 100-year-old harmonium. When Dangerfield starts pumping his foot on the antique instrument a beautiful rich sound fills the vaulted room.
"The atmosphere in there is great. It's so cool going in at one or two in the morning to play the piano," 27-year-old Dangerfield says, his boundless enthusiasm edged with nervous energy as he fidgets endlessly. The unconventional space even played a part in shaping the sound of the new album.
"Mainly out of laziness we just set up a couple of drum kits and bass amps. The last album was very soft and dreamy and we wanted this one to be the opposite and rhythm-led. We played for hours with bass and drums and riffs. The room had an influence because it was really cold. And just the surroundings as well. Not being somewhere... glamorous."
When Guillemots first came to attention in 2006, nominated for a Mercury Music Prize for their debut album Through the Windowpane, their music was worlds away from anything else on the shortlist. A collection of dreamy ethereal melodies, the Mercury judges called it "a superbly adventurous exploration of mood and melody – ambitious and imaginative".
Apart for their track "Sao Paulo", the album was composed by Dangerfield, a classically trained multi-instrumentalist who has played piano since the age of three and has perfect pitch. Two years on and their follow-up, Red, retains that musical adventure and ambition, but takes a 180-degree turn from the romantic dream pop of their debut. Aside from a couple of songs penned by Dangerfield back in 2003, the album is by all four band members.
"It was a very different way of working because for the first one a lot were songs that had been in my head a long time. The weird thing is, this one was scarier. None of us knew where we were going with this.
"There were four of us producing, Adam [Noble] as well. We learnt how to work as a band. It was one of those weird things, it just clicked – we learnt what roles each of us were taking and where to step in and step back."
Watch the video for Guillemots' track 'Get Over It'
Both the double-bassist Aristazabal Hawkes and Dangerfield were especially keen to introduce R&B (Hawkes wanted something they could dance to, while Dangerfield, too, had been listening to R&B and cites tracks from Rihanna, The Police and the new Britney album as being "amazing"). Drummer Greig Stewart wanted different drumbeats and guitarist MC Lord Magrao wanted more electro. So the band set out to introduce heavier drums, programming electronic beats.
The combination of R&B, pop and experimentation of Red shows Guillemots are not afraid to keep pushing the boundaries, even when they have discovered a winning formula that saw them sell 100,000 copies of their debut album.
"It would've been dead boring to have another record the same," Dangerfield states, recalling criticism of the first album from many people who said, "I like the singles, but the rest didn't get me." "I don't agree with that, but this time we wanted to have a record that was upbeat, that even the ballads were rhythm-based. We wanted everyone to know we like heavy stuff, too.
"Us two are probably the two that like ballads," Dangerfield continues, speaking to Stewart. "That's what's good about the way we work as a band, each of us takes us out of each other's comfort zones." Stewart adds: "The basis for the record was to move forward again and do something fresh." Are they concerned the change in direction might alienate their fans? "We got played on Jo Whiley and someone phoned in and said Guillemots are a sell-out pop band," says Dangerfield. "It's gonna happen," Stewart shrugs.
"I don't know," Dangerfield says. "I hope people will like this record. It's different. Everyone has favourite albums. A lot of people prefer the first records a band makes. But there will be a lot of people who didn't like us before who like us now. We seem to be getting that response from people who have heard this stuff. What we've done with the first record – we've done that. There's no point in giving people more. It's not going to be as good, anyway. It's like doing sequels to films. They're not normally better."
That the band recently advertised on MySpace for a fifth member is typical of their approach to expanding their creative output and harks back to their unusual formation in London in 2004. And, with an age range of 23 to 39, and Stewart recently becoming a dad, they are not your typical band.
It seems the members' selection of backgrounds, cultural as well as musical, has never been more vital to their eclectic sound and progression. The Brazilian guitarist Magrao met the Birmingham-born Dangerfield through an advert the singer had placed in the NME, while the others, the Canadian Hawkes and Scottish Stewart, all of whom had played in underground UK music scenes, met through chance encounters and noticeboards.
Eighties influences have always been apparent in their music – more so because of the limitations of Dangerfield's cheap Yamaha Casio keyboard, Stewart claims. "Magic FM is my new obsession," Dangerfield proudly states. It doesn't help their cool cred, but then, despite their rise from the underground, they have always held the notion of cool at arm's length. "We're not a cool band to like. We're not cool people, I can understand why we're not hip. We wind some people up and it's funny. I think it's the combination of us liking things to sound big and colourful and melodic coupled with the fact that we like using sound and stuff, and we put tons of ourselves into it and it ends up being quite emotional music. They're all very un-now things. For a long time it's been seen to be cool to dress in black and have a real veneer and not to give yourself away and just be stripped down. As a singer I try to play around with that, but ultimately you do what you do. Maybe that's why people don't like a lot of Eighties stuff, because it is very cheesy."
Try to get to the bottom of Dangerfield's other hobbies, and he describes himself as a big food fan, "to the point of obsession". His average night is going to a restaurant with his girlfriend. "It's supposed to be my wild twenties. We're hardly the Klaxons, but we're getting there."
He also writes poems, but is self-critical. "I wish I wasn't such a flowery writer. Everything I write looks like a sixth-form essay. I'm a soft lad." He got the nickname "soft lad" from Richard Hawley at the Mercury Awards. After the band played a song, the Sheffield star told Dangerfield, "nice one, soft lad", and the band agreed it summed him up. Hawley is one of many celebrities to pay Guillemots compliments. Paul McCartney is a fan.
"Macca phoned up and left a message," continues Dangerfield. "I'm determined I'm going to work with him." Ian McKellen even came to see the band. "Gandalf's been to one of our gigs!" they exclaim.
If there is one thing they object to, it's the constant references to eccentricity. Dangerfield says: "The Beatles experimented and they weren't called eccentric. Revolver is 42 years old and has 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and 'Here, There and Everywhere' and 'Yellow Submarine' on it. But we get asked, was it a conscious decision to have all the songs sound different? It's boring when music all sounds the same."
On Red they've experimented sampling unusual sounds, from a bus engine to the bat noises on "Big Dog". "See, these are the things that make my world go round. For me it's the poetry of getting something for nothing. I couldn't get the notion that you could make a keyboard sound out of anything. I turned my girlfriend into a pad on the keyboard. I love it."
"Then they go: 'they're kooky'," Stewart laments. Dangerfield adds: "It sometimes threatens to undermine the fact that we're a pop band and we like to make songs, because it sounds like I don't think we're very good at censoring ourselves. But that's the thing – it would be so contrived. I think people associate it with a put-on weirdness and it just isn't.
"We never want those things to be overbearing or crying for attention – they're all subtly put in there and, ultimately, if it doesn't work for the song, it doesn't work for the song." The sound they recorded of a bee trapped in the toilet did not make the final cut, but Dangerfield takes great delight in recreating the high-pitched sound.
"It's the childish thing. It's quite fantastical doing things like that. I love it when you hear a record and think, 'what is that?!' You don't want to get into the trap of making music for musicians. We wanted to improvise music. There's nothing worse than people just making noises. There's nothing behind it. When free jazz is done well, it feels so spirited."
For all the fun, there is an underlying theme of tension in Red, despite the upbeat sound. "We were aware when we were making it that there was a feeling – almost a shadow – hanging over us," Dangerfield continues. "It definitely feels like the world is in a strange place politically and environmentally, you're very aware that things could just go at any moment. It feeds underneath a lot of the tracks. There's a lot of stuff that references death or war in some way or arguments, greed and lust and want – that theme of wanting more and more, and the after effects that has on other people. 'Kriss Kross' came out of this place and had this real tense feeling. I really like that you don't expect it to go into a chorus like that. It's not the most upbeat record lyrically, but musically it is. We seem to do that a lot."
What would they like next? "The two things we love are making pop music and having stuff on the radio," asserts Dangerfield. "We've never had that – we've never had a song that's been massive on the radio. It would be so great to have that someday, to have a song that's known all over the world. It would be an amazing feeling. But then we're also people that could sit there listening to the static on the TV for an hour and getting lost in it. It's trying to combine two things."
They are planning to spend some time on a farm in Norway with friends who are creating a studio. The spellbinding energy that manifests itself in hair-raising polyphonics in Guillemots' live shows was recognised in their Brit nomination for Best Live Band in 2007. While the band have already used live recordings for B-sides, they are contemplating a live album. "We definitely want to have record that captures that. But you can only do so much with a record – you can never satisfy every part of yourselves. Who knows what the next record could be?"
'Red' is out now on Universal
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