Tings can only get better for The Ting Ting's
The DIY popsters Katie White and Jules De Martino are on the verge of their first major-label single. By Chris Mugan
Friday 29 February 2008
Islington Mill is coming up in the world. This former workplace of cotton-spinners in Salford, Manchester's city neighbour, has been taken over by artists and designers. It is here that the former girl-group wannabe Katie White and the previously jobbing producer Jules De Martino put on underground parties, organised the decoration of DIY record sleeves for limited edition singles, and even recorded their debut album.
The Ting Tings certainly make a distinctive, beguiling sound, part Go! Team shouty vocals, part Gossip garage-y bite and, at their must bubbly, part Hot Chip electropop . They stormed a new-bands stage at Glastonbury last summer, but they held off the major labels so that they could release an indie single in the autumn.
"Fruit Machine"' was only available at a series of gigs in industrial spaces, in London, Berlin and at their home – literally, at the time, for De Martino both lived and worked in the mill. The audience decorated sleeves for attendees at subsequent shows. Their calling card, though, is ''That's Not My Name", White's tirade against objectification. It was first aired on BBC's Glastonbury coverage and then on Later With Jools Holland, a jaw-dropping performance with De Martino hammering his drums and his partner stalking the stage yelling into her mike like some inverse White Stripes.
Handy, really, for she is nominally the group's guitarist, though she only learnt the instrument last February. She suffered at first, shuddering as she remembers how she forgot to turn on her amp and could not tune her instrument. Now, though, Islington Mill is also home to proper Manc rock royalty – the former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. "We'd only just found out he was going to be doing some nights with The Cribs on the NME [Awards] tour," De Martino marvels. "And then he popped his head round the door and said, 'I've heard a lot about your band, pleased to meet you.'"
"He's a lovely guy," a wide-eyed White adds. "But two years ago I wouldn't have known who he was. I just didn't have any knowledge of music, good music anyway."
White was brought up on a diet of unremittingly awful local radio. Inspired by the success of the Spice Girls and Take That, the Wigan lass formed a trio with her best mates and supported Atomic Kitten, though White is keen to point out that this was only at a local festival in neighbouring St Helens, "and there were about 30 bands between us on the bill."
Brought up in London, De Martino's tastes were the complete opposite. "I was never into pop. I was into songsmiths and anything left of centre." Having tried his luck with various no-mark bands, he invested in his own tiny studio in a garage, and one prospective collaborator he was introduced to was White, he explains, who moved down when she was 18, with De Martino 10 years older.
"We found we had a mutual respect for Portishead, so we started with this dark, mellow sound," he says. Then White interrupts: "And we kept being pulled towards writing these really poppy, catchy songs that defied the trip-hop thing."
"I suppose you brought the pop thing to me and I brought the songsmith to you," De Martino continues. "It made my dull, boring droney songs into something more catchy..."
"And you stopped mine being as bubblegum, but now we've gone like that." White crosses her arms. "Now when Britney comes on he's like, 'tune!'"
Unable to live on her own at the time, White moved back to her parents' farmhouse. De Martino paid visits with increasing frequency, until, impressed by the vitality of the local music scene, he settled in Manchester himself. Then came another false start in the form of pop trio Dear Eskimo, a kind of mini-Scissor-Sisters. The band was picked up by Mercury, where they festered for the next couple of years, the victim of personnel changes. With hindsight, the pair don't miss their first group.
De Martino explains: "When we got signed it wrecked us because we lost that development stage and the freedom to be creative. The label tried to polish us. The two MDs that signed us got dumped and everyone that liked us went. We had a terrible manager that didn't do anything, so we sat around for six months with 32 songs, just going mad, doing mega-mixes of them all."
Then they were dropped. Both ended up working behind the bar at the Mill, which brought them into contact with a whole world of music that White, for one, never knew existed. Local acts used the building as a rehearsal space and put on parties that featured such exotic concerns as Japanese psych rockers Acid Mother Temple. "It just blew my mind, all these experimental noise nights and hearing about people like Nico, but also being around the artists here, seeing other people struggling."
De Martino went back to his original instrument, the drums, and played around with loops, while White learnt to play his guitar, the pair jamming on nights off, until they decided to put on their own party at the premises. Their three songs went down a treat, possibly due to the free beer. This was rectified at their next do when they asked for donations.
"I remember counting all these coins," says De Martino, "and in my naivety, because we were working really hard, I said we could run nights like this, so we did three more of them." They found themselves namechecked on Xfm and suddenly the mainstream music industry took an interest.
It is easy to link a song like "That's Not My Name" to White's early experiences with the industry, though the connection is not that direct. "We weren't writing tunes for any other reason other than fun," De Martino explains. "It was a relief to do something rather than worry about it."
Such early efforts marked the tone as The Ting Tings set out to write enough material to fill a set, De Martino says. "We went back into the studio and if, after an hour or two, we didn't get that fix we got from our first songs we just erased it."
"That's the kind of thing we wouldn't have done two years ago," White adds. "Killing ourselves trying to get a song out of something."
The forthcoming single, "Great DJ", draws more obviously on White having her tastes broadened by bands and DJs. "It's a frustration song again, about alleviating the boredom. We came here and danced a lot, during a stressful period of time," she says.
Its video, with the pair dancing awkwardly in front of a garish back-projection, brings to mind nothing less than the iconic promo for "Road to Nowhere" by one of White's new favourite bands – Talking Heads. "I saw Tina Weymouth and I found her inspiring because she's feminine, but not bimbo-y."
"Then we found out Toni Basil did the choreography for it," De Martino says, smiling, "and Katie was saying to everyone, 'Can we get her to do the video? It would be fantastic!' In the end, we had this choreographer who was a nightmare so the director told us to come up with something, which we did."
Their can-do philosophy extends to answering messages on MySpace, refusing to allow a website to be set up unless they are completely satisfied with its design and content, and insisting on hand-decorated sleeves. Their first major label single will enjoy rough sleeves: they have bought 1,700 singles, from boot sales and eBay auctions, for sleeves to customise.
The Ting Tings play Koko, London NW1 (0844 847 2258), tonight; 'Great DJ' is out on 3 March on Columbia
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