It is halfway through our meeting at a London café and I Am Kloot's singer, guitarist and lyricist John Bramwell is showing me his – surprisingly pearly – lower teeth. These, it turns out, are replacements for those knocked out in a speed-boating accident during the recording of their new album, Let It All In. And if you listen closely to “Bullets”, the opening song, you can hear the slight lisp which made it past the refined ears of their long-time production team, Guy Garvey and Craig Potter of Elbow.
“I've only just told Guy and Craig that I'd lost a couple of teeth – the myth is a speed boat accident,” says Bramwell over one of many glasses of white wine, not that you'd tell from his articulate conversation. “Guy would say, 'Your voice… what are you doing?' And I'd say, 'It's just the way I did it', and try to cover it up. They found out recently, but the LP had been mastered by then.”
Myth and mystery are intrinsic to the Manchester trio. When they first made themselves known on the scene, after a few years of putting bands on at music venue Night & Day, it was obliquely – no gigs, names or photos, just posters around Manchester emblazoned with the potently sinister lyric off their single “Twist”: “There's blood on your legs, I love you.” Daubed in red ink, these posters did not go down particularly well with the locals. “There were complaints in the local paper about this horrible thing on the wall,” recalls bassist Peter Jobson.
The lyric is an example of the disarming, poetic gems that pepper Bramwell's songs about life's bruisings and romantic woes – songs of, as he likes to say, “drinking and disaster”. “I think it contains multitudes about love and passion,” its 46-year-old writer says, refusing to be pressed for a meaning. “And some people really don't like it; some have openly said to me it's held us back.”
To what extent “Twist” is responsible for holding them back is unknown, but I Am Kloot should be bigger; Garvey is one of many who have proclaimed them one of the UK's most underrated bands. It didn't help that when their debut album, Natural History, was released to critical acclaim in 2001, their momentum was stalled when a financial problem with their record label rendered the album unavailable. After a decade of hard touring, they had their deserved commercial breakthrough in 2010 with Sky At Night, which reached No 24 in the chart and earned them a Mercury nomination.
Its follow-up, out in January, should further their rise. Thanks to the success of Sky At Night, the band rediscovered the confidence with which they began. “I got the shakes around [third LP] Gods and Monsters. I was over-thinking, not going with my instincts writing-wise,” explains Bramwell. “I was feeling very confident with this album. I know that the three of us in the band working with Guy and Craig, whatever we come up with we're going to be able to do it.”
It's also, they hope, closer to Kloot's roots. They've stripped back the orchestration; it's more about the immediacy of the melodies. Where Bramwell took songwriting inspiration from the Edith Piaf film La Vie en Rose for Sky At Night, he looked closer to home for Let It All In. “It was a considered move to try to capture what we did the first time. To keep the songs simpler,” says drummer Andy Hargreaves. “This is a sparser, more honest record,” states Bramwell. “I've always felt a bit Walter Mitty-ish. If I read a book, for a while you associate with the character, and you can write about other people, but inevitably the filter is you. With this album I have written straightforward songs about what I see in front of me. It has got some of Natural History back, it's got that freshness.”
“Mouth on Me”, for example, is an honest look at his younger self, while “Bullets” captures perfectly self-disgust: “You treat your mind like a cheap hotel/ Somewhere you could stay but never stop.” “Freud would probably have a field day; when you talk to someone in a song and you accuse them of things, it's you, isn't it?”
The last album afforded a relaxing of their busy touring schedule as they started playing larger venues. It meant more time for hobbies such as speed-boating and karting, which Bramwell does close to the home he shares with his girlfriend in Crewe. Hargreaves spends time on his Vespa scooter, while Jobson has converted his garage into a sauna.
As a band that rely on spontaneous bursts of inspiration for songwriting rather than the discipline of dedicated writing hours, time off provided the ideal channel to ideas. “If it comes, it comes,” says Jobson. “It's not a case of sitting down and working really hard.” Some of the album was recorded at Jobson's home. It is normal for Bramwell to come up with an idea at 3am, drive the hour to his friend's house and record it there.
Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn with Elbow; both bands go back to early 1990s Manchester, and have sensitive, poetic singers. Back then, members of Elbow worked behind the bar of indie venue the Roadhouse, and Bramwell, who played with the performance poet John Cooper Clarke, formed a band called The Mouth with the late Bryan Glancy, to whom Elbow dedicated their Mercury-winning 2008 album, The Seldom Seen Kid. Since their win, Elbow have played arenas and written an Olympic anthem. I Am Kloot's first success coincided with their peers' mainstream rise – not that they have the same path in mind. “They can be very good at spooky, but I think there's an area of spooky that we can go further with,” says Bramwell. “We can do euphoria, but there's an element of euphoria that they can do better, but that's because of very different ways of writing.”
“We're very different bands,” adds Jobson. “Personally, there's a certain size of gig that you get where you go a little bit bigger and the atmosphere is lost. It's not necessarily something I would want to get into.”
For I Am Kloot, there's more than aiming for the top. “I would like to be comfortably wealthy, of course,” says Bramwell. “But there's a pathway to the world through music and the thrill of that cannot be bought.”
I Am Kloot play Islington Assembly Hall, London on Tuesday. 'Let It All In' is out on 21 January