Tings can only get better: Why sudden pop success has not been easy on the Ting Tings

Last year, the Ting Tings were just a couple of failed musicians living in an old mill in Salford. Now, on the eve of a sell-out UK tour, the whole world wants a piece of them. No wonder the strain is beginning to tell...
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Meet the coolest band in Britain, being very uncool. "This is typical us," the Ting Tings' Jules De Martino is saying. The band, he explains, were at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, hanging with the super-celebs. As they sat in the auditorium, their manager told them that gazillion-selling rapper Lil Wayne – a man with tattooed eyelids and diamond-studded teeth – was behind them.

"I had no idea who he was," recounts De Martino. "But I turned round and saw this black dude sitting behind us; big jeans, gold. 'Hey Lil Wayne, it's Jules from the Ting Tings, pleased to meet you.' Cause we're in a foreign environment and I wanna meet people, say hello, and understand what's going on in LA or America with these American acts. And the guy just went to me, 'Yeah, yeah.' I turned back and our manager said, 'No, Lil Wayne was the guy sitting next to him.' I turned round again, stretched past the first guy and said to this other guy, 'Hi Lil Wayne, Jules from the Ting Tings, nice to meet you...' And as I'm doing it, I'm pouring my glass of champagne all down my front..." His mortified bandmate Katie White did what she does best, retreating behind a curtain of bleached-blonde hair.

The Ting Tings have had a whirlwind 12 months. This time last year they were a duo known only to Manchester hipsters and the artist friends with whom they shared studios-cum-accommodation in Islington Mill, a former cotton mill in Salford. They had released one single on a tiny local label, and had a decent following on MySpace, but were better known for putting on parties in the converted loft space they called home. They began 2008 playing bottom of the bill on the NME new bands tour. But despite a well-received performance on Later... With Jools Holland, they were still largely viewed as an achingly trendy stunt band. They boasted home-made CD sleeves, "event" gigs in Berlin and New York, and edgy style (him: sunglasses, all the time, and customised T-shirts; her: two dresses at once, children's pinafores, leggings). The Ting Tings were a plastic White Stripes with added novelty buzz.

Then people listened to the music. "That's Not My Name", "Great DJ", "Shut Up and Let Me Go": three whip-smart pop singles, elegant in their playground-friendly simplicity, brilliant on radio, perfect for the dancefloor. The Ting Tings were a triangulation of Blondie, Girls Aloud and Talking Heads. Clever pop, if you like.

As spring turned to summer "That's Not My Name" knocked Madonna off the top of the singles chart. A week later We Started Nothing – an album they'd made at home, on their own, for a recording budget of precisely nothing – knocked Neil Diamond off the top of the albums chart. To date it has sold 650,000 copies and hasn't left the top 20. Farcically, this super-fresh sound of Britain's DIY/digital revolution wasn't even nominated for this year's Mercury Music Prize.

And now the rest of the world is jumping aboard the Ting Tings bandwagon. A few days ago they flew to the US after four frenetic days in Australia. They're already known in America as "the iPod band" – "Shut Up and Let Me Go" soundtracked the most recent ad for Apple's music player. Their first engagement this week was at the MTV VMAs, where "Shut Up and Let Me Go" was nominated in the Video of the Year category, and won the Best UK Video.

Yesterday, they flew here, to Seattle, for a radio station-sponsored show. Tomorrow they fly home, and, after two days of rehearsals and laundry, will begin a sold-out UK tour, their biggest yet and the fastest-selling ticket in the prime autumn touring season. So much so that they've already announced a follow-up tour, in even bigger venues, for early 2009.

It is, therefore, a somewhat frayed Ting Tings who are loitering this Saturday afternoon in the foyer of the Experience Music Project in Seattle. This colourful and architecturally daring rock'n'roll museum – it looks like a melted frying pan made by Fisher-Price – was set up by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and is dedicated to Seattle-born Jimi Hendrix. It's the venue for tonight's show.

As their small road crew ready the stage for the sound check, De Martino and White idly discuss the strains of being a buzz band the world over. After she endured three consecutive chest infections in a row, White was put on steroids by an LA specialist. Her face and back promptly erupted in a bumpy rash. Photo sessions – of which there are many – became a nightmare of paranoia and strategic make-up.

De Martino, meanwhile, has badly bruised the inside of his knuckles with his nightly drumming work-out. Now he can barely knock on doors. Plus, he's started having fits. He's always had a problematic right eye – the eyelid is permanently heavy and swollen – and it gets worse if he's tired or drunk, or if the lights are too bright. This, not rock-star affectation, is why he wears sunglasses all the time. "But they haven't helped with all the strobes and camera flashes," he says, adding that his eye is too weak to cope with the light flashing into his brain. On a couple of recent occasions, on red carpets and at big events, he's started having epileptic-type seizures.

The bright lights are not the only aspect of stardom the band have struggled to adjust to. The Manchester pair are still in many ways innocents abroad. At the VMAs, while watching Lil Wayne perform, they couldn't work out why his trousers were falling down. "You could see the bottom of his pants, the flesh," says De Martino, aghast. "Made us feel really uncomfortable. I'm not against fashion or people's desire to be fashionable, but really..."

"He had to walk around like that," adds White, a woman seemingly not unacquainted with dressing in the dark. "But the next pair of trousers he put on were like that too. So it's obviously his look." She tuts like your grandma while De Martino – a man who today is wearing children's toy sunglasses – shakes his head.

Katie White, 25, grew up near Wigan. Her dad had a farm, and little Katie was mad for ballroom dancing and horses. The family couldn't afford their own but a neighbour let White and her sister ride her horses if the girls would muck out her stables. Later, the neighbour gave them a horse that was too naughty for her. "I loved him, a little fat thing," White recalls. She'd try to leapfrog on to him and ride him backwards. "I was fearless, but I've lost my nerve a little. I do love horses." The little fat thing died recently, she adds mournfully.

She also loved the boy bands and girl bands who ruled the mid-1990s pop landscape. It was but a short step from a much-loved Spice Girls pencil case to making up her own dance routines, inspired by her heroines. "It's what you aspire to if you're a little girl – it's shoved down your throat. But you get to about 17, 18 and you go, 'It's shit, really.'"

But not before White, at age 14, had formed her own girl group with two schoolmates, called TKO (Total Knock Out). They supported Steps and Five, and played on the same bill as Atomic Kitten in St Helens, with 30 other bands. "It started with me prancing round my mum's kitchen when I was 14 and I finished it when I was 17," she says, keen to downplay the significance of her teenage folly.

TKO took her to London, which is where she met Londoner Jules De Martino, 34. He'd studied fine art and worked in a graphic-design studio before giving it up to focus on music. He was writing for and producing a band called Tomkat, who were (briefly) signed to Virgin. He was happy to be the back-room guy, but ended up playing guitar with them "cause they weren't very good musicians". While he was rehearsing one day with Tomkat, he got chatting to ' the Northern teenage girls in the studio next door. This was TKO, who'd come to London to find a manager.

One year later, having disbanded TKO, White called De Martino, suggesting they write together. "It was folky stuff at first," recalls White – she liked Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman. But having been joined by a DJ, the trio started writing trip-hop-inspired songs. They called themselves Dear Eskiimo (they profess still to be unsure as to why the two i's) and eventually, in early 2005, they were signed to Mercury.

That didn't work either. According to White, the label's marketing people viewed her as another dolly bird who might, if she shed enough clothes, get the band good press in the lads' mags. She later spat this bitter experience of the misogynistic music biz into the "Hey Mickey"-style chant of "That's Not My Name", a song with an otherwise chirpy bounce ("Are you calling me darling?" goes the backing vocal, "Are you calling me bird?"). De Martino spent months doing "30 or 40 mixes of one song just to please them". Then there was a changeover of staff at the label. Then Dear Eskiimo were in limbo, and 15 months after signing, they parted company with Mercury. They hadn't even finished recording their album. They hadn't even released a record.

"I was quite happy-go-lucky before, but that experience gave me a bit of a chip on my shoulder," says White. "We were written off." As a consequence, she says with flat Lancastrian bite, "we really mean what we're doing in the Ting Tings".

White and De Martino retreated to Islington Mill, where they lived as friends and musical collaborators, never romantic partners. They spent the rest of 2006 hanging out, licking their wounds, working for the Mill's landlord by collecting rents and cleaning out pigeon guano from the upper floors, and wondering what to do next. Finally, early last year, they had their first jam session. Soon they were demo-ing songs on whatever they had to hand: a laptop with the GarageBand program, two amps, some guitars, a drum kit, a keyboard. They put their new songs on MySpace, and every time they had 50 plays, would put on a party. At these – which they called Ting Tings Nights – they performed short sets of their work.

Like Lily Allen and Arctic Monkeys before them, they surfed the digital revolution. Unlike those artists, the once-bitten Ting Tings had good reason to avoid the blandishments of the music industry and connect directly with the kids. '"We were still dodging labels, we were very nervous," recalls White, "cause we'd had a horrible time beforehand."

Eventually, last summer, they signed with Columbia, having received concrete reassurances that they could do things their way. This means designing their own cut'n'paste sleeves, giving away songs on MySpace (they still got legal hassle from Columbia for that one), and touring as a stripped-down and supremely entertaining duo toting just drums, guitar and samples triggered by De Martino's foot pedals.

One year on, they still seem involved in perennial (mostly) good-natured tussles with their label. Earlier this year they junked a video for "That's Not My Name" that had been directed by Sophie Muller. She's one of the biggest names in the business, and the duo estimate that the video, an epic production complete with great balls of fire, must have cost £100,000. Instead, the Ting Tings made their own, for £8,000. While they were out of the country, the label released the expensive video anyway; alerted to this by her mum, who saw it on telly, White was on the phone in a flash, demanding it be withdrawn. Having fought for an uncommon amount of power wielded by a new, upstart band, the Ting Tings would not let anything pass. "It would have gone wrong otherwise," snorts White. "And what's the point of just accepting stuff? We had nothing to lose. We'd already failed once."

"Our stuff is song-based, nothing else," adds De Martino. "People talk about us as a fashion band, about the artwork. That's what we do, and we love doing that, but we don't sell that – we don't go out there saying we're an art band."

Indeed. But it is their clever way with such hipster signifiers – art, fashion, pop-punk attitude and argy-bargy – combined with their huge success that has led some cynical observers to wonder if the Ting Tings and their story are too good to be true. Were they really in a failed band called Dear Eskiimo? Is that really his name? Is she really only 25?

The answer to all three is yes. YouTube features several Dear Eskiimo videos (in the clip for "Patience", the sight of De Martino dressed as a clown while riding a child's tricycle is a treat; in the video for "Jack And Jill" they mocked up an entire episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show). De Martino has an Italian dad. And White's driving licence – which she has to produce when a Seattle barman asks for proof of her age – shows that she was indeed born in 1983.

They really are this good, the perfect pop band for the post-digital age. And when the songs are so catchy, it doesn't matter if things are a little frayed round the edges. "We always wanted not to have a plan," says De Martino. "Let's put tracks on MySpace and let people listen to them and get back to us. Let the band just fail or succeed."

In the foyer of the Experience Music Project, the Ting Tings rehearse for the evening's short acoustic set, watched by gaggles of curious tourists. For this month's UK tour they have an elaborate set involving moving rooms constructed around them on stage, but today White and De Martino are both sitting on stools strumming acoustic guitars. Stripped of the samples and rudimentary but propulsive beats, the songs sound glacial and soulful, with White trying out twisty new melodies. As she tells the crowd, normally the Ting Tings "bang stuff" and don't do so many harmonies. Afterwards, they discover the crowd are more than satisfied with their efforts. Post-gig, they're forced to wind down in their dressing-room by answering text messages submitted by fans. That's the trouble with the DIY revolution: it means maintaining direct contact with the kids 24/7, even when the hotel bar and an early flight home are calling.

By their very nature the Ting Tings and their primary-coloured, building-block pop may not be a band with a long-term future (although healthy advance ticket sales for next year's even-bigger UK tour would suggest the public appetite remains undimmed after months of saturation radio play). To their credit, De Martino and White seem aware of this, and almost reconciled to it too. When I first met them, in a student union in Exeter earlier this year, they talked blithely of ending the band after We Started Nothing and starting all over again. New name, new sound, new future. Why not? After all, they've ripped it up and started again once already.

"Why has it worked?" White had mused earlier that afternoon in Seattle as the Tings Tings enjoyed pre-show margaritas in the sunshine. "You don't really know. If there was a formula every band would do it. But I think we can write songs."

Fair point. You can have all the gimmicky production techniques, funny clobber and clever artwork you like. But if you haven't got the tunes, you won't have 650,000 people buying your album in four months.

"Sometimes people forget that songs are powerful," continued this charismatic, and amusingly withering, Northern English reboot of Debbie Harry. "A song, it travels. And I think that's what happens. What do you think, Jules?"

De Martino, a chipper little geezer who looks both cool and wrong in those plastic sunglasses, looked up from his cocktail. He grinned, shrugged and sipped his drink.

The single 'Be the One' is out on Columbia on 13 October. For details of the Tings Tings tour, visit www.thetingtings.com