The Maccabees - The quiet men of guitar rock go large

With their third album, The Maccabees have moved into epic territory, the chart-topping south London quintet tell Elisa Bray

The Maccabees should be celebrating. When we meet, on the threshold of their biggest tour to date, the south London five-piece have just heard that they're at No 1 in the midweek chart, while they are currently gracing the cover of the NME, hailed "the best guitar band in Britain". Not that they are in mid-celebration.

"Midweek," stresses their overly cautious singer and lyricist Orlando Weeks. "This is the thing... it can all change very dramatically." Somewhat more encouraged is the five-piece's guitarist, Felix White. "Just the fact that is it is even for a second is..." he pauses, lost for words. "I hadn't even entertained the thought that it would be, so that's amazing. I'm ready to celebrate that, even if it ends up at 25."

It did drop a few places, but only to No 4, landing them their first Top 5 album, at a time when guitar music is supposedly in trouble and out of favour. The success led them to announce a date, this June, at Alexandra Palace, the 10,000-capacity venue where bands including Arcade Fire, Sigur Ros and Interpol before them – and now The Black Keys – have cemented their status. It's clear that The Maccabees' time is now.

Perhaps their reluctance to shout about it is to do with the fact that their success has been a long time in the making. Since the close-knit group of friends, including White's younger brother Hugo on guitar and Rupert Jarvis on bass (drummer Sam Doyle joined after the debut album), formed in 2004 as a more productive alternative to spending the whole of the summer sitting on Clapham Common doing "absolutely nothing" ("we had to start doing something, just to spend time doing more productively and then also to maintain that togetherness," recalls Weeks), The Maccabees have been quietly toiling away on the guitar-band circuit. They have slowly built success, from their single "Toothpaste Kisses", which found its home on a Samsung advert, to the higher chart placing (No 13) of their second album Wall of Arms in 2009, which led to sell-out performances at Brixton Academy.

"The way it's gone for us is that we have just slowly, slowly crept up the table," says Weeks. "Each album we've got to play bigger places as a statement, almost, although it doesn't feel like that's what it is to us. [The Alexandra Palace gig] is a really nice thing to look forward to and work towards.."

They don't regret the slow ascent; they wouldn't have had it any other way. "It's definitely very positive for us," says White. "If the first record had happened to be a big record, it would have been difficult to keep us all together because we weren't sure what we were doing. We're still not, now, but you need to have space in order to work it out. I'm glad it's happened how it's happened. We still don't feel like a big band."

The new album, Given to the Wild, is their most ambitious to date, leaving behind the angular indie of their beginnings to take on a thoughtful and dreamy mood, drawing in cyclical riffs, subtle layers of guitar, and even prog-rock. They put their sound development down to their new method of songwriting. While both their debut and sophomore albums were created as a collective with the skeleton of Weeks's songs as a starting point, for Given to the Wild there was a democratic decision to each go their own ways, to their respective south London homes, to work on their ideas.

"Up to that point we'd only written in rented rehearsal rooms that you have for a day," explains White. "By the time we'd finished our second record it just felt limiting and we were bored of that process, so it made sense, with people having bigger ideas." It was a way of allowing all the band members a part in the songwriting process, "keeping everyone happy and it still being The Maccabees and it not falling apart... In the writing it feels there's an easiness," adds Weeks. "The change – and taking some of that pressure away from the claustrophobic room environment – I think that definitely made a huge difference."

White cites The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk "and the space in it" as inspiration. Weeks had found himself drawn to expansive songs such as The Cars' "Drive" and Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia". "I was listening to these shamelessly enormous songs and trying to understand how that works, how the vocal melody could be that slow or that repetitive. I thought there must be a secret to these vocal lines."

With the space afforded them – the album was written over a luxuriously paced two years – lyricist Weeks had plenty of time to ponder the themes for the album, which include growing up and mortality.

"Going from being really busy to having this free time gives you a lot more time to think about stuff that there really isn't any point thinking about," says Weeks, at 28 the oldest of a band which ranges from 25. "Everyone being of an age where people that you've grown up with are suddenly starting to become parents and becoming serious members of society, it felt like something worth cataloguing."

Final work on the album – and all their rehearsing – took place in the studio where we meet, in Elephant and Castle, London. While Call to Arms was stamped with the sound of Arcade Fire due to the production work of Markus Dravs, by album three they had honed their recording skills to the point of being more reliant on themselves. It's how they were able to create their distinctive sound on Given to the Wild.

"In a production sense we had a lot more understanding of how we wanted it to be," says White. "Whereas in the first two we put it in their [the producers'] hands, with this one, from the very start, we could mould it into how it sounds now." While in the past they felt they had more of a sense of identity live than on record, this album saw them take more risks musically. Weeks explains: "This time we made a record to sound like a record, we didn't put those limitations on ourselves."

The other side to creating more complex songs is, of course, that they are harder to replicate live. "There's too much going on in this record to do it all live without faking loads of stuff, which we don't want to do," says White. "One of the first proper support tours we did was with Jamie T and the Pacemakers and Jamie had made an amazing bedroom record and when the Pacemakers were playing it would be totally different, but it would be fine. No one wanted to see the exact same version, so we've learned something from that this time round. It's tempting to literally recreate it."

Weeks adds: "Often it's better to slightly sacrifice in terms of the layers of things going on. You compensate for that with performance – and loudness." Now that they are feeling confident, they have been reading reviews of their album, something which they'd avoided for fear of being knocked back.

"I was worried I'd be hurt reading negative things," admits White. "But this time we feel good about the record and assured enough to be able to take it on the chin." Weeks adds: "I read that the record sounded like a witch-house version of the Lion King soundtrack, which sounds amazing," says Weeks. "But I don't think it was intended to be a compliment." The news that they ended up higher in the chart than Beyoncé that week came as welcome relief. "I got a phone call from my landlord saying that my rent had bounced," says White. "That sums it up, really."

'Given to the Wild' is out now. The Maccabees are on tour in March

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen