It’s the late 1960s. Apollo 11 is pointed towards the Moon – a lunar landing beckons, and space is on the tip of our planet’s collective tongue. The question a la mode – “Are we alone?” – is one popular culture tries to answer. Creedence Clearwater Revival tell of “trouble on the way”, Stanley Kubrick predicts a red bleep of doom, and W. H. Auden just sees “the usual squalid mess called History”. USA say astronaut, USSR say cosmonaut, let’s call the whole thing off?
Yet, as Neil Armstrong’s size-nine-and-a-half left boot lands in the Sea Of Tranquility’s chalky white basin, 600 million pairs of eyes watch the first of mankind’s many perennial mysteries unravel in a pretty slow and crisis-free manner. In one step, the Milky Way shrank, the universe expanded, and – Russia aside – the globe rejoiced in an alien-free, moon-crazy, acid-drenched summer that spawned films, fashion, songs and books.
Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ sent Major Tom to the stars, Zagar & Evans foretold of “the year 2525”, and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band birthed “the urban spaceman”. “People were singing about space, and alluding to astrology became all the rage,” explains Metronomy’s visionary, Joe Mount. Cosmic fever was in full swing.
Mount may still have been a mere ambitious biological prospect floating through his daddy’s thalamus in the ’60s, but the space race would inspire this soon-to-exist imagination. “There is one record,” begins Mount, “‘Let The Sunshine In’, covered by Diana Ross And The Supremes… It has astrological influences. It’s one of those nice tools of songwriting that nobody had really thought about before. It’s cosmic.”
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Metronomy, ‘I’m Aquarius’, from ‘Love Letters’
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Specifically, it would inspire Mount to write ‘I’m Aquarius’, the first song conceived for Metronomy’s entirely analogue fourth studio album, ‘Love Letters’ (review), and his personal “addition to that wonderful song genre lineage” of astrology.
‘Love Letters’ starts with ‘The Upsetter’: a simple drum machine beat beneath campfire acoustic guitar chords, Mount’s distant tenor and a sizzling Latin-inspired electric guitar solo. Within 20 seconds, his lyrics reference being “back on the Riviera”, a place that inspired their previous and most successful album, 2011’s ‘The English Riviera’. Clash asks if this is an intentional nostalgic device?
“Are you familiar with the fourth wall?” asks Mount. “It’s when someone looks straight to camera and it shatters the illusion of cinema. I like that theory. It’s like in The Beatles’ song ‘Glass Onion’, when a lyric refers to the “Walrus”. It’s direct. People don’t expect it. People expect you to just move on and not mention your past songs.”
He looks defensive when we ask if ‘The Upsetter’, beneath all its charming imagery and construction, simply boils down to sending a text: “Listen, I remember when Paul McCartney released ‘Memory Almost Full’. I remember thinking it was an amazing name for an album, because, you know, he was getting old and his memory must almost be full.
“[But] I remember listening to a Radio 2 interview and he explained that it was just because he saw it on his mobile phone. And I was like, ‘F*ck you, Paul! That is the shittest idea. You just read a mobile phone? That’s like calling something ‘Message Send Failure’.’ But then, it made me realise that you could turn quite an insensitive form of communication into something poetic. If you do something by text, it is considered insensitive. Within that, things can get quite poetic.”
Starting out as an instrumental electronic band (one now comprising Mount beside Oscar Cash, Anna Prior and Olugbenga Adelekan), it’s hard to believe how much the Devon-formed band has changed over the course of four albums. Almost too much for some people to even acknowledge, as Mount jokes: “Some have congratulated me on my second record, without knowing the first two even existed.”
Things snowballed for the band when they released their escapist’s masterpiece ‘The English Riviera’. The record penetrated the top 30 in the UK and France, sold its way into a silver certification, and transformed them from an imaginatively niche party band into British pop innovators. Now, as a fully-fledged singer/songwriter, we ask Joe if it feels weird looking back on those early decisions not to sing?
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Metronomy, ‘The Bay’, from ‘The English Riviera’
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“It was more to do with the desire. I never wanted to, and I didn’t have the confidence to. Since then, I’ve realised it sounds better. And it sounds much better if you do it with confidence. If you’re going to start singing, you can’t be forgiven if you don’t get better.”
Mount admits there has been a discourse of amazement between himself and the label when each album comes around: “I met with my publisher the other day. We were joking about how they thought they were signing an instrumental electronic band [in 2007]. As a result, I didn’t sign a big deal. The more you take, the more you’re asking them to stick their oar in. I don’t think anyone should ever be putting pressure on me or anyone, more than I am myself. You should never be sat around listening to someone tell you to make a good record.”
For ‘Love Letters’ in particular, Mount chose to pole-vault himself and the band from the digital comfort zones of laptops into a land unchartered: the analogue studio.
“If you make music in the modern age, you can do it in a very step by step way, and it doesn’t happen in real time. There is so much editing. That’s brilliant, and there is no way I’d be doing what I do now if that hadn’t been possible. But for ‘Love Letters’, I wanted to have a sense of creating something. I wanted to make a record that wasn’t made looking at a computer screen. I wanted to make something with my ears.”
And just as it had begun, the retrospective approach that inspired ‘I’m Aquarius’ would continue throughout the making of ‘Love Letters’. The location would be Hackney’s notoriously analogue Toe Rag Studios, and the process would change him as a writer.
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Exclusive: click here to watch our video interview with Mount at Toe Rag, with live performances and further insights into the creative process behind ‘Love Letters’
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“I was preparing to record there, so I listened to a lot of stuff that was recorded in the same way. Almost all of that is from the ’60s or ’70s. I wanted to learn how to write songs in a more traditional way. I’m used to writing songs in a differently, so sitting down with a guitar and a glass of wine feels unusual. All those things conspired to give the record a very vintage feel.
“It’s hard for me to make records that express my love of music without re-using some of the music I love as reference points, and if you’re going to record to tape you need to listen to music that was.”
For these reference points, he had to reverse his eyes in his head and scan backwards through his mind. The autumnal rock of The Zombies, the gritty funk of Sly And The Family Stone, the soulful songwriting of The Isley Brothers; all meshed in Mount’s imagination and bonded with that classic Metronomy sound of organs, beats and ear worm melodies. “It’s stuff I’ve always listened to, but this time I let it directly influence me. And because of the studio I was using, it made sense.”
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Metronomy, ‘Love Letters’, from ‘Love Letters’
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Words: Joe Zadeh
Photos: Nik Hartley
The above is an excerpt of our full feature. Read the complete version in issue 93 of Clash magazine, out now. Find it in all good newsagents, and on our online store – details here.
Metronomy’s official website is here.
Listen to 'Love Letters' in full via Deezer, below…