Guillemots: Birds of a feather stick together

The Mercury Prize-nominated Guillemots are happy being an odd bunch, discovers Alexia Loundras
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The Independent Culture

It's low tide at Snettisham's RSPB reserve and above the buzz of the grasshoppers you can just make out the distant hum of hordes of feeding birds. Two miles off the East Anglian shoreline, where water meets mud, spindly-legged waders are congregating in their thousands. "It might just look like mud to us," says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds's Ciaran Nelson, gazing out at the beautifully desolate landscape, "but to the birds this is a gourmet feeding ground."

Nelson points out the Lincolnshire coast wobbling in the far-off haze and sagely announces that the spot where we're standing is the only place in eastern England where you can watch the sun set over water. Looking through what appear to be military-issue binoculars, the enthusiastic RSPB man surveys the foraging flocks. "We get many pink-footed geese in the winter and terns, knots and all sorts of waders the rest of the year," he informs us, "but guillemots are rarely seen round these parts."

Today, though, is a rare exception and there are four of the blighters standing right in front of us. Of course, this sighting is not of the seabird sort but of the lesser-spotted Mercury-nominated kind.

Troubled by hangovers acquired after a triumphant show in Colchester last night, three-quarters of the Guillemots cling cautiously to the edge of the shingle beach. But with scant regard for his throbbing temples, front man Fyfe Dangerfield kicks off his shoes and gallops joyfully on to the sticky mud. "Ahh, this is good!" he squeals, aiming his binoculars into the distance.

"I'm a bit out of practice, but I think that's a greenshank," he says excitedly, setting up his telescope for a closer look (yes, he's brought binoculars and a telescope).

It's not difficult to work out why the band took their name from a seabird. Dangerfield's band mates may be nonplussed by their singer's decision to spend his (indeed, their) day off at the Norfolk nature reserve, but Dangerfield is in his element. He's harboured his ornithological curiosity since watching a nature documentary about the Farne Islands as a kid. A family holiday to those islands sealed his obsession. "I was dive-bombed by terns," he exclaims. "Not terribly friendly, but so exciting!"

Adopting a David Attenborough-esque whisper, Dangerfield embarks on a mini-master class on seabirds, pointing out egrets, oystercatchers, spoonbills and shellduck. It's not long before his infectious enthusiasm lures his reticent band mates on to the wet ground, and soon they're passing around the binoculars with giddy grins on their faces, making grunts of appreciation as Dangerfield looks proudly on.

This might not be the kind of icy demeanour you'd expect from one of 2006's coolest new bands. But then Guillemots are different. Although they were tipped for big things by the BBC's annual tastemaker's poll in January, their sweet eccentricities (playing typewriters, for instance) marked them out as different from the rest, something their outstanding debut, Through The Windowpane, confirmed.

The album bagged them a sackful of critical praise, a clutch of famous fans (Jake Gyllenhaal asked for an introduction to the band) and a place on the Mercury Prize shortlist. Indeed, the bookies have Guillemots as second favourites to scoop the award at next week's ceremony.

But far from wearing their achievements with the usual nonchalant swagger, the band are beside themselves with excitement. "We really, really hoped we'd get nominated," gushes Dangerfield. "It's the only award that seems to recognise creativity, ambition and being imaginative and just being on that list... it's just...." He trails off, lost for words. "It's just... wow!"

With his passion and child-like innocence, there's something endearingly Peter Pan-like about Dangerfield, and it permeates both his band mates and the music they make. "I was never going to be in a band like The Strokes," says Dangerfield. "I wanted a band that was like a bunch of misfits." And that, he states proudly, is just what he got.

Guillemots wear their idiosyncrasies like other bands wear skinny jeans. With members sourced from across the globe via random meetings, their musical influences are as diverse as their names are colourful. The Canadian-born double bass-player, Aristazabal Hawkes, is from a jazz background. Percussionist Greig Stewart (who formerly went by the stage name of Rican Caol before the pretence got too much), spent years flitting between Scotland's folk and metal scenes.

The former chef and Brazilian guitarist, MC Lord Magrao - whose real name, says Dangerfield elusively, is a closely guarded secret - spent years in a metal band before "developing a passion for white noise". And Birmingham-born Dangerfield (it's his mother's maiden name) came to pop via the classical route. And as you'd expect from a band whose guitarist was recruited with an ad that stressed: "imagination is more important that technique", Guillemots' music itself is as kaleidoscopic as the characters who make it.

Described by one critic, to Dangerfield's pleasure, as "boundary bothering", Guillemots' album is an eloquent sound-clash where rotund double-bass lines bounce over circus synths; time signatures bow down to victorious trumpets, and found sounds echo eerily as swathes of orchestral Technicolor douse each song in a dreamlike sheen.

Coloured with the bold hue of improvisation it is brash and unorthodox but joyously melodic. And this triumphant patchwork of sound is no accident. From his motley crew of band mates to the eclectic noise they all make together, it's all part of Dangerfield's sonic masterplan.

A few years ago, Dangerfield was playing in a conventional indie band, but he was uninspired by the narrow-mindedness and limitations of their sound. "I knew I wanted to write pop songs," he says, "but I was bored with the usual guitar-bass-drums set up. I wanted to do something different - push the boat out musically. I wanted to take pop music back to how it was in the Sixties when it was really exciting; when genres were mixing together, The Beatles were getting into Stockhausen and John Cage and pop was an artform.... Look there!"

Distracted by a squeaky chirrup, Dangerfield grabs his binoculars. "That's a lapwing! It's beautiful," he sighs. "It has such a cool call." Turning back to the matter in hand, Dangerfield continues: "I wanted to form a band where there was a sense that anything was possible. And that's what I did."

Guillemots' aim was always to let loose and have some fun. Sure enough, every note of their genre-hopping album is gilded with the band's sonic playfulness. Through The Windowpane is an aural concoction that shouldn't work but somehow does. And for that, says Dangerfield, he has his jigsaw-puzzle band mates to thank.

"Our album is just a reflection of the kind of people we are," he says. "We're all different but we're like four kids in a playground when we make music; it really excites us and makes us happy. It doesn't seem to matter where we come from - musically or otherwise. We all share the same sense of wonder at the world and when we play we become a one-headed, eight-armed creature."

Through The Windowpane may contain moments of melancholy, but the album is characterised by the band's vibrant lust for life. Songs glimmer with loved-up optimism and joie de vivre pours unhindered from every chiming chord in much the same way that it floods from Guillemots' front man. It's a surprise, then, when Dangerfield admits that this reckless passion has its source in grief. "We've all lost a lot of things in different ways," he says. "But I think in a strange way that strengthens you.

"Some of most uplifting people I've met have been those who have been through the most," continues Dangerfield softly. "When my brother died of an epileptic fit when I was 18, I learnt you can either be gloomy about it or you can just be like, well, he's dead - though I feel he's around - but I'm still here. You could die any day so you have to make the most of it.

"I really hate it when people mope through life," continues Dangerfield, "because although life can be tough, it can also be the most wonderful thing. That's why I love coming to places like this. Watching nature and the world around you puts things in perspective. It's like looking up at the stars - you realise we're so insignificant, we might as well try to enjoy ourselves."

It's that kind of attitude that drives Guillemots. Not just their music, but their career. The band seem intent on making the most of their time in the Mercury limelight. They're thrilled to bits at the prospect of performing at the televised Mercury Prize ceremony and have had outfits made for the occasion.

But although they admit their success has already affected them - "We're getting used to taking cabs," grins Dangerfield guiltily - they seem sweetly intent on keeping themselves in check. "We don't want to change as people so we have this competition in the band to see who the biggest diva is," reveals Dangerfield, before coyly admitting he's in the running for the title. "We don't want to get blasé," he adds, "and acting all cool just wouldn't suit us. As long as we can take the piss out of ourselves we'll be all right."

However, while they're trying to keep their egos reined in, Guillemots' ambitions remain lofty. 'We're never going to be satisfied," says Dangerfield with the steely fervour of a Marvel comic crime-fighter. He'd love to follow Radiohead's lead by taking experimental music to the masses, but at the same time, he admits he'd love to write a No 1 pop hit. Either way, he won't compromise to get there.

For now, though, Guillemots are happy to enjoy their achievements. "I'm really proud of our album. It was a labour of love and it's all I hoped it would be. Actually, I should shut up. If we start saying that we think it's great then we're only going to end up sounding like Razorlight."

His Borrell-alarm ringing, Dangerfield shifts tack slightly. "I already feel like we've made it," he says, glowing. "I felt like we'd made it last December when we played to a sold out crowd of 300. But we've kept upping the stakes. After we supported Rufus Wainwright I didn't think we could top that, but then we did Top of the Pops, which was beyond surreal. Then, last month, when we played T In The Park, no one would leave the tent after we'd finished playing. And last night in Colchester we had a massive audience singalong and I even spotted someone air-drumming to a song!"

It seems the air drummer made him as happy as anything else has. "That's the thing. The best moments are not always the grandest ones," he says. "Just sitting on the tour bus with the rest of the band, chatting and making each other laugh - that's great. Sometimes I sit back and I think this has all just come together. And it's really nice."

Looking up, Dangerfield jumps suddenly to his feet. "Wow - that's amazing," he says consumed with awe and pointing towards a thick brown cloud on the horizon. "It's a flock of waders arriving - probably knots. It looks like there must be thousands of them." He watches, transfixed, as the birds land and then settle to feed. Eventually, he sits back down with a grin glued to his lips and continues: "Yeah. I'm the happiest I've been in a while."

'Through The Windowpane' is out now; the single 'Trains To Brazil' is out on 11 September; Guillemots perform at the Mercury Prize awards ceremony, broadcast on Radio 1, BBC2 and BBC4 on 5 September