It has been almost four years since The Ting Tings released their debut album We Started Nothing, and five since their infectious single "That's Not My Name" first exerted its considerable adhesive power on the world's pop consciousness. That's more than enough time for entire music fashions, let alone bands, to slip from Next Big Thing to Last Year's Thing, and the Manchester duo have been so absent from the whirling roundabout of pop trends that it would be extraordinary if they hadn't fallen at least a little out of favour.
Which all makes the potency of The Ting Tings' return with Sounds From Nowheresville all the more surprising. Like its predecessor, it's a short, sharp burst of spiky art-pop industry, its 10 tracks as lean, whip-smart and diversely engaging as the early albums by their heroes Talking Heads. Only the most jaded, trend-chasing victim of internet burn-out could fail to be persuaded by the manifold charms of an album that confirms, once again, the value of quality over quantity.
"I like the way it's taken nearly four years to produce around a half-hour album," says drummer Jules de Martino with a sly smile. "What's that, seven and a half minutes a year?"
Initially, the delay in producing a follow-up album was due to the band's burgeoning popularity, as they spent several years chasing a wave of success around the globe. Ironically, it prevented them from actually experiencing their triumph.
"We never felt successful, because we always had to start from scratch in each territory," explains Katie White, charmingly down-to-earth for the universally recognised siren of self-righteous individuality. "Just as 'That's Not My Name' took off in one country, we'd move off to the next, so we never got the experience of being a huge success. We never heard our song on the radio! We totally missed our own success." But with success came creeping self-doubt, and creative stasis.
"The commercial world changes everything," says de Martino. "A lot of famous painters never really got acclaim until they passed away: they were struggling for most of their careers, and that struggle was the inspiration that kept them painting. You can't replace that."
So when they returned to Manchester more than two years later, bank accounts bulging and ambitions sated, they needed a fresh challenge.
"We needed a reason to create art," explains de Martino. "That's why we moved to Berlin, for the challenge. We had to get our feet back on the ground, start over again, build ourselves back up. We were digging for inspiration, and we got to Berlin and thought, This is great!"
But it wasn't great. Famously, the band ended up scrapping almost an entire album's worth of material recorded in Berlin, and relocating to Spain, where they recorded another album entirely. This provoked rumours of confusion and inertia, but to the duo themselves it was simply the way they had always worked.
"We did that with the first album, too," explains White. "If there's a song that we're not happy with, we delete it. We don't keep it for a rainy day."
"We'll write five songs, record them as demos, get them together, and in the process of that we come to like maybe a couple of them, and the others we delete," says de Martino. "We delete them because otherwise we'd re-use the drum loop from one and bits from others, and end up with a Frankenstein monster. So we get rid of them. Then we write four more, scrap three of them, and eventually we get to ten, and that's the album." The Berlin experience, however, was a chastening lesson in following their instincts and not being distracted by outside voices.
"One reason we scrapped them was that we felt like we'd lost our opinion of our record," says White. "The record company has representatives in all these different countries, and they all wanted to visit us in Berlin. We'd be halfway through a song and they'd be going, 'that's amazing, it's gonna be huge!'. Then six weeks later we'd listen to it, wondering, do we really like this, or is it that they liked it? It distorted our view of our own songs. We just felt really fake, like we'd lost the mechanics of what made our band tick. Deleting those tracks made us feel like artists again."
"After a month of minus 27 degrees, we realised we were exhausted and had nothing to say," says de Martino. "It was almost like we should disband, to get reinvigorated again. So we went to Spain and totally isolated ourselves, so we could do something that was authentic to us, and that we had something to say on it."
In Spain, up in the mountains of Murcia, The Ting Tings got their groove back. A visit to Bilbao prompted the catchphrase hook to "Guggenheim", a track in which Shangri-Las-style teenage angst collides head-on with artistic reassertion. And a squeaky studio chair provided the secret, subliminal element that perfected the infectious groove of "Soul Killing", a song about the corrosion of commercialism.
"We don't have any vocal booth," explains de Martino, "so sometimes Katie just has a quilt over her head and sings standing next to the control desk. We'd hear this squeak on the track, and we realised that every time I sat and pressed record, it'd go 'eeuuk'." On "Soul Killing", there seemed to be something missing from the ska groove, apart from the bit when Katie was about to sing.
"We analysed the good bit and found it was this squeaking chair," says de Martino. "So we miked the chair up and I recorded it through the whole track, and it worked perfectly."
The resulting track is one of eight for which the duo intend to create low-budget videos.
"We don't want to make the big shiny professional kind of videos," says White. "We always look terrible in them, and it's not what we want to get across. We'd like to spread that money across eight songs, and make them all ourselves." It's with this kind of hands-on artisan-ship that the duo hope to bring a sense of individuality back to the creeping anonymity of the digital realm.
"It's important that we finish it ourselves," insists de Martino. "If we weren't writing our own songs and producing them ourselves, going through this pain barrier, there'd be nothing left." For the same reason, they have no intention to enlarge the band beyond its present size. When they tried using a couple of extra musicians for a few shows in Australia, they hated it. All the lovingly-crafted sounds and loops they'd usually trigger with their foot-pedals were being played by other musicians, and were no longer theirs. Just as in Berlin, they felt they were losing control of their own art.
"The energy went, the anger went," says de Martino. "With session players, the edge had gone. But with just the two of us, there's nowhere to hide."
Born in the epidemic spread of internet fever, The Ting Tings are keenly aware of the way it accelerates careers dangerously, but hope their painstaking methods and attention to detail will help them ride out its impact. "The internet magnifies the hype," says White. "Now you get artists who've barely started out before they're getting a backlash. So we're just happy in our little bubble, making songs, and it'll go in and out of favour, people will poke it and chuck it around, but we'll just keep doing what we do."
'Sounds From Nowheresville' is out now