London can often feel like a vast, fluid, homogeneous whole – a myriad of streets, a mosaic of buildings and a flood of people, people, people.
Life on the ground, though, is somewhat different. Each area has its own taste and character, and that's nowhere more true than in South London. A melting pot of culture, it's where The Maccabees largely grew up, and it's where they found the perfect space to base themselves.
A series of twists and turns in Kennington finds Clash knocking on the door of the band's studio, a cozy complex packed with guitar pedals, instruments and, naturally, three members of the group: Orlando Weeks, Felix White and Hugo White.
“We had been rehearsing at a place which is no longer, it got bulldozed and turned into flats in Bermondsey,” the singer recalls, “and just as that was about to happen we started thinking we should try and find somewhere that we can soundproof and make our own recordings. A space to rehearse in – just to save a bit of money.”
When they found it the studio was little more than empty office space packed with faded flyers for bashment raves and a broken down piano, but the studio has provided both refuge and a point of inspiration for the band. Completing the international tour that followed 2012's studio album 'Given To The Wild', the group threw themselves back into the creative process – with decidedly mixed results.
“One of the regrets is that we didn't stop after the last record,” explains Felix. “When you come off the back of a tour you feel like you're bursting to do something else. You've got all this pent up desire to be at home but also making something happen, to make music. But we went straight in and that probably was the wrong call because a few months later we realised we were pretty exhausted and no one had a cohesive idea about what it was we were trying to do.”
“We did go down that wormhole for a little bit,” he admits, “which kind of forced the framework, the aesthetics we set for it. Which meant this record's got the specific identity it has, because we really had to work out what it was in order to fit all this music in.”
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Desperately searching for a framework, for a sense of order, the band realised that they had begun to mimic their surroundings in an odd yet very direct way. “A place informs everything you do whether you're aware of it or not,” Felix continues. “But once we got onto the record a little bit, one thing we did notice was that 'Given To The Wild' was not particularly tangible in terms of a place. You couldn't place it. So having been here for a few years it just kind of started to make sense, we wanted to make the record sound like we were playing in that room.”
“We'd never made an album where we could exactly re-create it and it felt honest, in that sense,” he states. “The songs lyrically ended up being a bit more third person, a bit more stories about the place. Music had started to sound like London at night. They seemed like they worked there, somehow. So that started informing the whole thing.”
The results certainly have an incredible sense of cohesion. 'Marks To Prove It' is a sonically gorgeous record, but it's one where these beautiful tones occur and re-occur, where the palette is restricted to enhance recognition. South East London is both a base, it seems, and a writing tool in itself – as Orlando explains.
“The story is about trying to find a little bit of romance or a little bit of folklore or whatever it is in this area,” he says simply. “We could have been in any area and still been trying to find those, and inflated the drama that goes with it by putting it in a song or making it the album cover. It's circumstance means that's what happened. Elephant is at the centre of that but it's also just happened to be where we've been.”
“On the whole it sounded better being play in that room, it sounded better when we played it at night,” he continues. “A lot of the way I was approaching lyrics and wanting to find stories and starting points for songs would come from things either on my way into or my way leaving the studio. So I think it's there and whether anyone else would ever know it is... it was a very good tool in terms of us structuring and giving personality to the record.”
'Marks To Prove It' is very much a band record, where the personality of the material is informed by the five distinct personalities of the musicians involved. It allows for subtle shifts in emotion, but also for a complex working pattern which needs to accommodate five completely different points of view.
“If there's five of us all working then we would all work differently,” sighs Orlando. “How I would choose to make a record is entirely different to how Felix would choose to make a record. So what we're having to do is find a kind of common language and that's also when stuff starts working. We would come back to it, earmark and highlight it and then at the end of the week we'd come back and say: that worked, why did that work? There's a lot of email chains and whatsapp groups.”
At which point the assembled group start to laugh amongst themselves. Clearly, a Maccabees record involves a lot of email chains, numerous phonecalls and a red hot Whatsapp group.
“It is weird and totally unromantic and dull but it's true,” the singer insists urgently. “So much of it is communication, so much of it is being able to transfer how I think and how you think and how you think... how we're going to get that to something that exists as a song. It's an act. It's politics and it's a group activity and it's art. It's all of these things.”
“It's interesting,” muses Hugo. “Because that's maybe subtly what people think is great about bands, that you do have these different people that they are all together trying to make something happen. I think that's what makes the continuing narrative about bands over time a fascinating one.”
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There's certainly a narrative running through The Maccabees career. Each album has an identity, a taste of its own, with 'Marks To Prove' becoming – at times – their most explicitly emotional statement yet. “When I listened back to it it actually shocked me at how emotional it was,” Felix reveals. “It actually felt much more emotive than I thought it was going to and I think part of that is kind of it is not layering vocals, not layering guitars so it's a bit barer. It disarms you a little bit.”
With so many voices being aired, Orlando felt under enormous pressure to bring together these disparate concepts in his vocal lines. “I find it really, really stressful,” he sighs. “A responsibility to myself, as someone trying to write the best I can, and to the boys, for not letting them down or their song down. People have been asking us if we're nervous about the release and I've been saying that I don't feel at all nervous because all of that nerves were done...”
“I did all of the nervous,” he snaps. “I cared about it and minded it and got it finished and it's the best it can be. So I don't feel at all nervous now. But I did, I found it very, very stressful. As we all do. It's one of the guarantees to yourself, that you're doing something genuine and sincere, is that you mind.”
“It is a collaboration, at the end of the day,” interjects Hugo. “And to continue to make that work you have to constantly adapt and find ways of balancing it and making it work. If one person switches mind-frame the whole thing can be difficult and everyone has to find a way of working together.”
Felix adds: “It's a fragile thing.” It certainly is. The creative process may well be an avenue of self-expression, but it's also definitely a minefield of self-sacrifice – of bruised egos, rejected ideas and continual compromise. It's something the band feel keenly, as the guitarist explains: “Everyone gets their head down and gets knocked at different points, but also everyone feels invigorated, buoyed.”
Sat in their studio, though, The Maccabees are a solid unit of calm, a brick wall of assurance. 'Marks To Prove It' is released this week, a wonderful album packed both with astute subtlety and marvellous grand gestures. It manages to somehow be both grand and intimate, containing material that is both urgently immediate and songs that only reveal their deeper secrets over time.
“It's nice, with the whole record complete,” smiles Hugo. “You can hear moments in it that no one else would. It's a simple thing on the surface, these eleven songs, but there's moments where only we would know only how many songs these parts have been in to get to that point. How many big discussions and big changes to get to the point where it can end up there. Even we wouldn't want to think about that!”
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'Marks To Prove It' is out now.