Complacency is a killer. Repetition repugnant. Art deserves movement – and music positively feeds off it. The movement of the musician(s), and the reciprocated motion of their audience – these are symbiotic states of being, two sides to the same calling. But in assessing any outfit’s onward momentum, one measurable alone is of import: the evidenced progression from a starting point, A, and where we find a particular band today: where X marks the spot.
Sometimes it takes a radical diversion from the expected to turn expectations upside themselves – but not every band has its own ‘Kid A’ in the locker, and their own X can be a touch tougher to distinguish from preceding instalments. Incremental advancements might be preferable to dramatic leaps for many, and this is fine – bands will often state that, primarily, they make music to please themselves, and whoever wants to join them, great. But bands can become popular, very popular, and then ignoring the audience – that vital half to the equilibrium aforementioned – is just as bad as not bothering to widen one’s own artistic horizons.
Pack up, go home, thanks for all of the carrots-and-hummus rider snacks washed down with Tesco’s most-average reds. Might as well. Extend the ignorance of the present into the blinkering of a beautiful future that might’ve been. Turn up on radio review shows to blather on about how new bands don’t have the heart you once had, how whatever real music is this week has gone the way of the dogs.
But while we’re exchanging idioms, doesn’t every dog have its day, an opportunity to strike out and make itself better? One feels, looking back at the band’s catalogue to this point, that London’s Bombay Bicycle Club could well have drifted into a position of moderate appeal, into middling success playing mid-afternoon slots on second stages until the four members decided: y’know, maybe this is as good as it gets? Maybe we’re not destined for the stars, as all of those tipped-for-the-top pieces blowing smoke up our arses implied?
But they didn’t.
“We were very lucky,” admits the band’s frontman and primary songwriter, Jack Steadman. When BBC – as they will be referred to henceforth, completed by Ed Nash, Suren de Saram and Jamie MacColl – first appeared on new music radars, they were greedily snapped up by the hype machine, tumbled for a while, and finally spat into the mainstream with a debut album, 2009’s ‘I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose’, recorded and released not long after the foursome left full-time education, which did little to support the press angle of this being a band rich in promise. It wasn’t panned, but fell into that awkward area between miserable and magnificent, with a plethora of 6/10 ratings and a chart peak of 48, domestically.
“When we came out, everyone was using the word ‘potential’,” says the singer. “And that gave us this hunger, from day one, to better ourselves, this desire to prove ourselves. Our first record was very much of its time – it was a record based around themes relevant to teenagers. Its themes were relevant to us, then. But, really, that was a good thing. When you see some bands, and they release a classic debut album, where do they go from there? It was only natural that we would progress, and I think that’s a really healthy way of doing things.”
Today’s Sound Of-style accolades for just-emerging artists can be, Jack says, “a burden”. And it’s true that the critical landscape has changed a lot since BBC had their spell as a new band – patience for progression isn’t what it was, on both the side of releaser and reviewer. If a band doesn’t make it first time, it’s a case of thanks, but no thanks, come the follow-up. Heard it, didn’t like it, next. Music moves too fast in the Twenty-Teens to mull over a might-be. Links need clicks. And if a label is sensibly waiting for the right moment to release an act’s precedent-setting first long-player proper? That can blow up in everyone’s face, too – just look at the recent behaviour of rappers Angel Haze (review) and Azealia Banks (news).
Yet BBC survived ambivalence – they’re probably one of the last British bands to manage it. Regrouping after ‘I Had The Blues…’, the Crouch End-formed quartet worked on the making of an entirely acoustic LP, a set that’d separate them from so many indie-popping also-rans of the previous decade’s final days. Some might have called the move a risky one, as acts like the distinctly not-acoustic-only Editors, Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys and White Lies scored number one LPs in 2009. But movement is life, and what BBC needed was an injection of it.
With the release of ‘Flaws’ in 2010, just a year after its makers’ debut had come out, Steadman and company had become the butterfly from the cocoon: a beautiful, top-10-ready proposition whose folk-inflected songs chimed perfectly with the critically adored work of the equally young Laura Marling, whose own second LP ‘I Speak Because I Can’ had been issued a few months earlier, charting at four, and the commercial rise of Mumford & Sons. Not the most obvious progression, then, and perhaps not one with a truly singular identity attached, but a marked one nonetheless.
‘Flaws’ was a hit, charting at eight in the UK. Its follow-up, 2011’s ‘A Different Kind OF Fix’ (review), went two positions better, peaking at six and making decent inroads on the continent, too. Three albums in three summers, though, was inevitably taking its toll. And the band’s sound, while easily recognisable to fans who’d traced the thread through these songs since day one, was at risk of becoming bland, too close to companion acts for its nuances to sing with the clarity these musicians were striving for. The potential was being met to an extent, but how could BBC push further from the source, towards something new, something that really positioned them as one of the UK’s outstanding bands? A break was needed.
From August 2011 to February 2014: a 30-month spell between new album releases for BBC. Previously, the longest they’d taken between studio albums was 13 months. Something was changing within them – the butterfly was reformatting itself, re-establishing a pupal stage and letting the juices flow, mix and simmer.
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Bombay Bicycle Club, ‘Carry Me’, from ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’
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The result, the X, is ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ (review). It’s not ‘Kid A’ – what is? – but like Radiohead’s transformation from a very accomplished indie act of 1997 to an anything-is-possible collective of experimentalists in 2000, it finds BBC displaying an energy that manifests itself in a more outwardly electro-tinged fashion. The roots of the band remain evident – that core songwriting quality – but ‘So Long…’ is bold where, with hindsight, perhaps ‘…Fix’ was complacent, ultimately consolidating strengths rather than properly establishing new ones.
“You read the comments, when we post a song, and see people saying: ‘It sounds completely different, but on the third listen I could tell it was Bombay Bicycle Club’,” says Steadman of his band’s new direction, one showcased clearly enough in the song ‘Carry Me’, which matches human handclaps with digital pulses and ends up a bit like some other acts you know, without ever not being identifiable as the work of these four musicians.
“Our fans, they can hear that these new songs, they exist with the older ones,” he continues. And then, an admission that, just maybe, some followers might come unstuck: “Even if [the new album] does alienate some people, I’d rather have a small, very dedicated group of fans, who are incredible passionate about everything you do. I’d rather that than be able to fill a stadium as a band where 75% of the people there are just waiting for you to play that one song, the one they heard on Radio 1.”
When I speak to Steadman, it’s the day after BBC has aired a clutch of new tracks on Zane Lowe’s Radio 1 show – so, clearly, some fans are getting into the band because of just one song they heard on the wireless. Says Steadman of the session: “It was brilliant. It was the first time we’ve played the new album out to people, and it felt really special.” Playing live is a vital part of the BBC package, and something that Steadman is keen to maintain the physical aspect of, however electronic these studio arrangements may become.
“We enjoy playing live so much, so we’re cautious about going too ‘bleepy’. We don’t want to be just four guys on stage twiddling knobs. We want to retain that energy we’ve had since we first started, on stage, with guitars, and the movement that comes with that. I always like to keep a bit of bass and guitar in there.”
So why incorporate these new shades in the sound? Why go electro, even slightly? The answer’s a simple one: excitement. BBC is four young guys, still discovering music for their own pleasure. Nobody can ever hear everything, but those of us in our 30s and beyond can likely recall our late-teens and 20s as the period when so much of our musical DNA was established, when we found our most-cherished LPs, those records that’ll stay with us a lifetime. This is where the members of BBC find themselves: soaking up the new-to-them while also reconfiguring their own methodologies and resulting material.
“I don’t think our progression has ever been calculated, or planned,” says Steadman. “But I think the only way I’ll ever have the drive to start writing for another album is to do something that excites me. I keep wanting to discover new sounds. And because a lot of the work I do is based on sampling, it’s very easy to immediately get those sounds for what you’re doing. I don’t have to study in India for three years to play the sitar – I just buy a record, and immediately my song has that sound.
“The other side of it is that we’re not the most confident of people, outside of our music, but in the music we’re incredibly confident. And you need that confidence to always change what you’re doing. Some people are too nervous, and they think that’s too big of a risk. But we’re so sure of our songwriting that we are confident that we could write a song in any style, and behind the exterior sounds there’d always be a really good song. So that gives us the freedom to experiment.”
And what about finding these new sounds, those that might bleed into the BBC system? “For the last two years, the only music I listened to, away from the band, was for escapism. So I’ve been listening to classical music, and jazz. I just get to escape this world for a bit, and listen to something that has no relevance to what I’m doing.” It’s reasonable, despite Steadman’s off-duty tastes, to assume that BBC will never release a jazz record. That might be a stretch too far for the band’s audience.
Which is huge, these days. Two top-10 LPs are representative of great commercial appeal, and the band’s March tour sees them call at the 02s of the nation – including a performance at London’s cavernous Brixton Academy. It’s not Wembley Arena, true, but music this intimate feeling just wouldn’t resonate rightly within such environs. And BBC respects their fans’ connection to the band, and also recognise that they don’t want to go about increasing their reach via intrusive means.
“People who are our fans, they almost know us personally, as well as our music – and that’s something you have to cherish. We have fans retaining that vague sense that they ‘possess’ you. You know, like we’re their band.
“Our fans don’t see us plastered around the place, on TV adverts and things. We’ve always said we don’t want any YouTube pre-rolls, and stuff like that, because we don’t want to shove ourselves down people’s throats. We want people to think of us as their friends.
“I think we’re in a really good position – we can play to a lot of people, but we’re not really a famous band. We don’t get recognised anywhere, and we don’t go to fancy celebrity parties. Any negativity we’ve had in the past, it’s help us develop a really thick skin. We’re really proud of this band.”
Pride might be a cardinal sin to some, but listening to ‘So Long…’ it’s palpably evident that this band is one expressing its confidence, its sense of place in the wider musical landscape, with real panache. There’s happiness here, a playfulness that’s infectious. Since the band’s first album was acknowledged in some corners as representative of the ‘landfill indie’ threatening to choke creativity amongst guitar-toting types, BBC has sought to alter such opinions, but only ever on the band’s own terms.
It’s refreshing, indeed, to see a band getting better with each album, and to see its visibility in the mainstream grow in tandem, too. Perhaps there’s a lesson we can all learn here: something along the lines of pride not necessarily being a sin, but patience certainly representing a virtue. ‘So Long…’ might have been a while coming, but its abundant qualities are sealed with an X.
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Bombay Bicycle Club, ‘Luna’, from ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’
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Words: Mike Diver
‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ is out now on Island. Find Bombay Bicycle Club online here.
Listen to ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ in full via Deezer, below…