Five minutes from Elephant and Castle’s notorious yet rarely celebrated roundabout, and down a side street flanked by a police station and the staff entrance to a McDonald’s, is a door the colour of sludge, marked 9A. Unremarkable save for the acidic tang of some recently produced urine, this is The Maccabees’ south London HQ. I have to knock loudly (the door is thick), and after several minutes, Hugo White, the band’s guitarist, lets me in, apologises for the “toilet smell”, and leads me up the concrete staircase to their studio, where guitars are displayed alongside a dartboard that has seen better days. It is here I find singer Orlando Weeks, 32, perched on the edge of a sofa, cup of tea in hand. He is slight, bantamweight, head recently shaved, chin not. He smiles in welcome, and shows me around.
“The Jesus and Mary Chain used to record here in the 1980s,” he explains. Later residents include the Stereo MCs and, briefly, Aqua, the cartoon Danish outfit who in 1997 ruled the world’s charts with their novelty hit “Barbie Girl”, and thoughtfully abdicated a few short months later.
This cramped space is where The Maccabees – Weeks, Hugo White, his fellow guitarist brother Felix, drummer Sam Doyle and bassist Rupert Jarvis – make their music. It’s not the sort of environment you would expect to have produced the lush, widescreen sound that can be found on their current, and best, album Marks to Prove It, which went straight to No 1 when it was released in July. Twelve years after their formation, the band are quietly but gradually becoming a great British band, and determinedly arena-bound. They make songs that almost by default avoid being easy to hum. Like their Eighties heroes Talk Talk, their music is dense and deliberately opaque, full of brooding groundswell and the sort of melodies that only reveal their true pleasures after repeated listens. Marks to Prove It, then, with its contemplative squalor and frequent flights into pure sonic uplift, is an unusually compelling listen.
“We like to steer away from anything that sounds too obvious, too catchy,” says Weeks on the band’s almost Radiohead-like reluctance to stray towards the commercial (although they can write crowd-pleasers: witness the current album’s title track, and “Pelican”, from their 2012 album, Given to the Wild). “Songs have to go through a lot before they are finished. We have to exhaust all options before we realise which was the best version.”
What this means is that the creative process is an all-consuming one. They write songs and then take them apart. They put them back together again, then dismiss them for a year before they feel brave enough to return to them. At this point, they either acknowledge the song for what it is, or else start again. Little wonder it took them two years to record the album, and that it left them, at its conclusion, “mildly traumatised”.
“It can be an exhausting process,” Weeks admits. He sounds exhausted just relaying it now. “I love watching documentaries about Motown that feature some guy sitting at a piano, coming up with a few notes in a few minutes, and it results in a single that stays No 1 for six weeks.” He smiles ruefully. “That’s not how it works for us.”
The album in part plays homage to the neighbourhood in which it was recorded, and around which the band members currently reside. This doesn’t necessarily make it a concept album, Weeks insists, but the spirit of the place – long the irascible carbuncle of south-east London, now in the process of vigorous regeneration – nevertheless runs through many of the tracks.
“I think we liked the idea of having something to write about outside of the autobiographical, all that usual stuff,” he says. “But it’s not like we’re ambassadors for Elephant and Castle, or anything. It’s an interesting place, and you make the most of where you are, don’t you? It definitely has a unique charisma, and it doesn’t feel like a limitation being here. I love its quirks, and also the contrast of our very groundhog existence – hidden away in here every day, recording – while all around us there is so much rapid change taking place, and not always welcome change.”
Estate agents, he says, have recently been paying visits to the studio to measure floor sizes. “And that can’t be a good sign,” he says with worry.
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Later this month, a film the band commissioned to accompany the album, Elephant Days, will be released. A contemplative documentary on the major facelift the area has been enduring these past few years, it features both residents of old (the tailors, the pie-and-mash shop regulars) and new (the artists, the flat-white connoisseurs). An unusual project for a band to indulge in, perhaps, but they had long been looking for some kind of film project to soundtrack. “Eventually, we realised that we had just about enough pulling power to commission one ourselves,” says Felix White. “It’s a forgotten pocket of London, the Elephant. There are so many interesting people here, so many stories.”
The film arrives just as the band are embarking on their biggest tour to date. While their old friend Florence Welch has had a far quicker rise to fame, The Maccabees have experienced instead a slow boil. “But then Florence is that rare thing,” says Weeks generously, “an extraordinary performer. Even when we were watching her play a pub, it seemed inevitable that she would one day headline festivals.”
Besides, the slow-boil suits them. “The whole process of being us – writing, recording – can be a pain in the a****. But it works, and we’ve stuck at it for 12 years now. It’s all about attention to detail. Trying to write something that is going to last is always going to be protracted. And that’s fine; we’ve learned how to handle it.”
“We just need to factor in a little more time off every now and then,” says Felix. “We didn’t do that after touring the last album; we just came straight back here and started the whole process again.” He winces. “That was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
Weeks opens his mouth as if to say something, but doesn’t. Not all internal thoughts need to be externalised. He looks to the floor instead, his frown speaking volumes. It is Weeks, perhaps, that best personifies the band and their music. He is at once intense and relaxed, introspective and expansive, an enigma. When the interview is over, he visibly relaxes and we chat amiably about all sorts of things with an ease he hadn’t previously displayed.
Earlier, he had told me that their continuing goal as musicians was to perpetually seek creative satisfaction, and to always come away slightly disappointed. “You never really want to feel fully satisfied,” he said. “That would be unsettling. If you felt fully satisfied, what would you do next?”
‘Marks to Prove It’ is out now. Their documentary ‘Elephant Days’ premieres at the BFI London Film Festival on 12 October
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