Teenage sensations move on from silly songs and bad hair
Bombay Bicycle Club played the V Festival when they were all 15 years old. Now 21, they chuckle at their past with Gillian Orr
The problem with being so precocious is that some of your youthful impulses stick around forever to gently mock you. It is something that the London indie quartet Bombay Bicycle Club know only too well. Having been on the scene since they won the "Road to V" competition when they were 15-year-old schoolboys (the prize being an opening slot at the festival), they are now all 21 years old, on their third album, and not averse to the odd cringe at some of their earlier decisions.
"The band name, for example, is pretty ridiculous," laughs bassist Ed Nash. Yep, naming your band after a chain of Indian-takeaway restaurants certainly has all the hallmarks of a healthy adolescent sense of humour.
"Or calling a song 'Emergency Contraception Blues'," groans frontman Jack Steadman, shaking his head at the title of the instrumental opener on their debut album, 2009's I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose.
They go on to reminisce about some questionable hairstyles and outfits before shrugging. "But it's all part of being young, you know?" says Steadman. "Everyone has embarrassing things they did when they were a teenager but for most people, it's not all over the internet. We can just laugh about it now."
It's almost impossible to talk to Bombay Bicycle Club (also comprised of guitarist Jamie MacColl and drummer Suren de Saram) without discussing their youth, so inextricably linked have they been to the so-called "underage" scene since their inception in 2005. Of course, there were older fans too, but it was their peers who really embraced the band, and their earlier gigs were famously raucous affairs. Teenagers, who can be so under-catered for when it comes to live music, finally had a place to let loose.
But this year has marked a huge turning point for the band. They might have already had a top 10 record and been nominated for an Ivor Novello award, among other accolades, but between their superb third album, A Different Kind of Fix, and some blistering festival appearances this summer, there is a definite sense that Bombay Bicycle Club have moved into the big league; that a fine band just got very good. Co-produced by Animal Collective collaborator Ben Allen, the album charted at number six and its inventive, experimental sound drew rapturous praise on its release back in August.
But it's not just the public and critics who are suddenly seeing Bombay Bicycle Club as genuine contenders, the band seem to be taking things more seriously now too, although they realise that they might not be able to persuade everyone to give them a go.
"It's always very difficult to shake off the first impression you have of someone. I'm sure there are people who won't buy our album because they associate us with being a young band," says Steadman. "But then if The Pigeon Detectives suddenly released this genius album I probably wouldn't listen to it, I would just go, 'The Pigeon Detectives? They suck!' People are like that, they're prejudiced." When I meet Steadman and Nash at a south London rehearsal studio, they are preparing for their UK tour, which comes to an end next Wednesday with a sold-out show at Brixton Academy. In the past they've eschewed proper tours for support slots, festival appearances and, in a move that must have tested their record company, asking fans to suggest places for them to play. Off the back of their debut they ended up performing in a puppet theatre, down a mineshaft and at a replica castle. After the release of their 2010 acoustic album Flaws, they chose to play a series of churches up and down the country, which probably sounded lovely but did little to improve their profile.
"Our touring has been a bit of a joke so we've had loads of time to write," says Steadman, which goes some way to explaining how they have managed to release three albums in as many years, a feat practically unheard of these days. "At that stage we didn't really realise how serious this was and we just wanted to have a good time. We just thought we'd have a laugh with it."
"We're stepping it up as of now," Nash chimes in.
They're not really a typical young band. While they are certainly funny, in person they come across as a little awkward and nerdy, they pay no attention to their image, and there's a definite absence of bravado. Considering they are currently being touted as one of the most exciting bands around, they are curiously self deprecating and lacking in grand plans. When asked if they think they have the potential to be one of Britain's biggest bands, as some pundits suggest, they shift uncomfortably.
"Well, we played the Barfly [a 200-capacity venue] last night and I had a really good time and it made me think I kind of want to play small venues," says Steadman. "All bands say that, but I miss having that mad intimacy where anything can happen. But then playing to a huge crowd at Reading was amazing. I think the level we're at now is nice. That's classic Bombay, to just be like, 'I'm happy where I am,' and not be ambitious; never thinking about the next thing, just being content."
It's hard to know how honest Steadman is being; he's obviously a driven person, not to mention talented. After the jangly indie-pop of the band's debut and the acoustic folk of their second album, Steadman was responsible for the new direction that their third album took. A long-time fan of electronic music, A Different Kind of Fix features synthesisers, sampled loops and reverb throughout, and Steadman is even credited as co-producer.
"The electronic elements just happened because that's what I was into when I was writing the songs," says Steadman. "It's hard to make electronic sound good without being geeky about it. If someone doesn't know anything about it, it would sound awful. It's not like with the guitar. You can have someone who is not very good at guitar, like Bob Dylan, and he's still a genius but with electronic music you can't be bad with the software. It just doesn't sound good, it doesn't work."
It will be interesting to see where they decide to go next. Their career has so far been full of surprises and hopefully will continue to be. They certainly have a bright future and, in the meantime, the gigs get bigger and the crowds more diverse as more and more people – of all ages – discover them.
"This time we have so much equipment with us we have to have a lorry as well as the tour bus," Steadman excitedly says. "To think, five years ago we had our parents driving us to gigs and now we have our own lorry."
"Yeah," grins Nash. "We're a real band now."
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