The Rakes: The Rakes' progress

They may have jumped on the punk-funk bandwagon, but this is a band taking music somewhere new, hears Chris Mugan
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If they sound like bandwagon-jumpers, they do have something unique in their favour - an engaging mix of thoughtfulness and sly humour. With the singer Alan Donohoe's wry delivery, you never know when or if The Rakes are taking the mickey. You may be being taken for a ride, but you can't help but enjoy the trip.

Matt Swinnerton, the guitarist and one of the band's main creative forces, puts this down to a healthy self-awareness. "You meet a lot of people in the music industry and they buy into a certain myth about the coolness of rock'n'roll that perpetuates a lot of ideas. We are just a bunch of guys with a good sense of humour, and that gives us an edge."

This is now revealed on their debut album, Capture/Release, though The Rakes have won fans through a tireless touring schedule that has grown from hard-won support slots to a current headline jaunt. We find the band in Manchester, with Swinnerton soaking up rays outside the university science building while reading John Gray's book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern.

Donohoe, meanwhile, is perusing an ex-broadsheet newspaper in a now deserted cafeteria. Clearly, these are not your average angry young men set to wreck havoc across Britain, as the singer attests. "After last night's gig most of us just had a couple of beers and watched a DVD. I know many of the bands around are into class As, but we would honestly prefer to read a good book."

Admittedly, unnamed members of the band got into a fight outside a chippy in Edinburgh, though that might have more to do with the London accents of some of their entourage. The album track "Violent" meditates on this in the manner of Kaiser Chiefs' "I Predict a Riot". The Rakes share other concerns with contemporary bands. The singles "22 Grand Job" and "Work, Work, Work (Pub, Club, Sleep)" look at the daily grind just as The Others do on the anti-careerist anthem "Lackey". The Kaisers, of course, named their debut album Employment.

This surprised Donohoe, who worked in an office and played "22 Grand Job " to his colleagues. "They thought it was pretty cool but said the song wasn't about anything. Then I heard The Others and thought, 'Oh, Christ, this is terrible', because it's making an adolescent 'I hate my boss' kind of thing. But I'd never been in a band before. I didn't know what to write. I'd be at work with a Word document open, chucking in lyrics."

While other bands disparage the nine-to-five life, The Rakes seem more ambivalent. "22 Grand Job", in fact, reads like an episode of The Office: 'Talking shop with my colleagues/ Did he do the same degree as me?"

"I wasn't trying to make a point," says Donohoe; "it was just personal stuff. And it was like The Office: all the graduates would be upstairs and didn't seem to be doing anything. Then there was a load of Kiwi and Aussie temps without degrees doing even more mundane stuff below. Dominic Masters [The Others' frontman] was a great influence. When we started I was writing more narrative kind of songs, but then I saw them and realised it was all right to sing about what you know. If you know someone is being honest, it makes more of a connection."

Much of the rest of the album reads like the diary of a twentysomething white collar worker. "Retreat" questions the point of going out just because your mates are. Sometimes you get lucky, but "The Guilt" details the consequences of casual sex. It is a song that Donohoe introduces as being a true story. "There's no particular reason why it's that song, " he explains. "I had a long wait before I did my vocal, so I had a couple of bottles of wine, but only because I could get away with it on that one because it's quite lairy. The rest of the time I was sober."

Even with their bookish stance, sobriety is in stark contrast to the band's manic stage shows, with intense moshing from their fans that invariably lead to the odd bloody nose, along with the inevitable stage invasions. Donohoe has applied himself to preparing his voice with help from Paul Epworth, the producer who has worked with Bloc Party and The Futureheads. "He had loads of ideas for how I could train my voice," Donohoe admits. "I was swimming every day to expand my lungs."

While Donohoe is the band's diarist, Swinnerton is more imaginative, as on "Terror!", a song that examines the constant fear of urban living. Its protagonist has a recurring nightmare of impending doom, so asks his girlfriend to stay in as he thinks the long-awaited terrorist spectacular is about to hit town. "The network is down and my flesh is all torn," exclaims a fraught Donohoe.

The song was written and recorded long before last month's atrocities in London, but Donohoe insists there would never have been any discussion of pulling the track. "We were in Stockholm on the day of the bombings and I was just glued to TV screens because all my family were there. It occurred to me that some of the lines sounded a bit gratuitous, but I thought we were such a small band that it didn't matter."

"It is not about any particular event," adds Swinnerton. " It's about a process of thought that arises from a sense of displacement and worry. Bombs have happened and will always happen.'

He is keen to emphasise that The Rakes are not "political", that is to say, they are not a band with a collective stand on the issues of the day. Though there are thoughtful moments. Rarely have the tenets of behaviourism, the idea that animal instincts drive many of our actions, been encapsulated in a three-minute pop song, but here is Donohoe's "We Are All Animals".

Donohoe studied biology at university. "I do want to write something about mass extinction, where there are loads of species disappearing, so that all that is left in parts of the world are men and livestock. And rats and pigeons."

Swinnerton is a philosophy graduate who, several years after leaving university, is only now finding himself thinking about the disciplines he picked up there.

"I wouldn't write 'The Ballad of Friedrich Nietzsche', but certain people like him, and topics such as the Enlightenment, reason and progress, are certainly something I've come back to, particularly with the way the world appears to be at the moment."

I mention a particular line that stands out in the track "Retreat" : "Everything is temporary".

"It is not a description of Buddhist philosophy, but it says it's difficult these days to get roots or find your identity. We have a crisis of identity because we're always being moved about and shuffled around from bar to bed and work again."

Swinnerton is more sensitive about talking about his personal life in relation to the band. A real oddity on the album is "Strasbourg", a song about an East German couple who have escaped to the West. A source close to the band said Swinnerton might have written this because his girlfriend is German, and thus produced a backhanded love song.

"That has got nothing to do with The Rakes," he says, somewhat icily. "I was reading this book Stasiland, about life in East Germany, and there were so many amazing stories it just grabbed me."

Swinnerton regales me with tales of people spying on neighbours with hidden cameras donated by the state's secret police, the Stasi, and the vast number of registered informers.

It remains the case, though, that while Capture/Release is full of intelligence and a keen eye for detail, its emotional impact is well hidden, if not non-existent. Even their most direct pronouncements are couched in Donohoe's arch delivery.

"I suppose we are quite guarded people, especially Alan," says Swinnerton. "He prefers to write about events rather than have an emotional take on them, but I think Alan wants to change his delivery to be a bit more soulful."

Swinnerton has been making music off-and-on since his school days in Stafford. He met the bassist Jamie Hornsmith and Danish drummer Lasse Petersen when they all worked at a trendy fashion boutique in Covent Garden. This information might encourage the belief that they are trendy hangers on, especially as the group have provided inspiration to the Christian Dior designer Hedi Slimane, who has famously taken the ex-Libertine Pete Doherty as his muse.

Having seen The Rakes live, Slimane worked on his current collection with the band's music as a soundtrack and commissioned the group to write a backing tune for his recent catwalk show. Furthermore, there is a Rakes dress code that revolves around tight trousers and smart shirts or polos.

"We just know what we like," says Donohoe. "We have ripped off The Specials and Michael Jackson because we put a certain amount of thought into our gigs, though it's just based on what we'd wear anywhere."

Hornsmith was an arts student and Petersen's sister ran the shop, while Swinnerton had wandered in on a whim.

"I had a 22-grand job that I jacked in because I fancied a change. I walked past the shop and thought it looked like a good laugh so walked in off the street."

They connected over an admiration for The Strokes, and formed a band after spending a summer drinking outdoors. A mate of Hornsmith, Donohoe was given a chance to front the fledgling group.

"He had always been writing, though just for himself," explains Swinnerton. "It was more about the energy between us. It was like playing with mates again.

"It gives us a certain maturity in our writing, like when you're young you can be more judgmental and confrontational, while we tend to be more observational. There might be a certain naïvety in some of the lyrics, but they are not throwaway. There's things people can get their teeth into."

Not that many people have noticed the age gap between The Rakes and many of their peers. The Mirror dubbed them "Britrock kids", while even the studious Mojo called them "scrawny youngsters".

It is tempting to see this as a form of flattery. However, it may have more to do with being lumped in with the post-Libertines explosion of London-based talent. Not that The Rakes mind. Instead, they are glad they achieved recognition at an early stage in their career. Now, with a debut album unleashed, they can make an impact all their own.

'Capture/Release' is out now on V2; The Rakes play the Reading/Leeds festival, 26-28 August