Text Alia Azmi
Interview Kevin Ho
It’s been a while since we last heard from English indie folk rockers Bombay Bicycle Club. Jack Steadman, Jamie MacColl, Suren de Saram, and Ed Nash went from being a bunch of 16-year-olds scoring a record deal while fresh out of school to award-winning musicians with a cult fanbase. The North London lads’ lively full-length debut I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Lose marked their path to success. The critically-acclaimed record was released in 2009 and won the foursome the title of Best New Band at the NME Awards. They have certainly come a long way since then. The band’s latest full-length So Long, See You Tomorrow — already their fourth studio album in five years! — was put out via Island Records earlier this year. This latest sees the musicians keeping things fresh by exploring new soundscapes. Much is owed to frontman Jack Steadman who wrote the album during his recent travels across the globe. Featuring hit singles like ‘Carry Me’, ‘Luna’, and ‘Feel’, the album sees the band departing from their guitar-driven roots for a more electronic vibe. Ahead of their show at The Ground Theatre in Singapore last July, JUICE managed to speak with the drummer Suren on their latest album, Jack’s travels, Bollywood films, and more.
You’ve recently stirred some ripples in the news by remarking on the showmanship of One Direction. Have you received any particularly negative feedback from their devotees?
Actually not much at all, which we were a bit surprised about. It wasn’t me who made the comments – it was Jack our singer – but I completely agreed with what he was saying. You expect pop bands like that to at least be able to turn it on and put on an act even if they are not having the best of times, but they were just sauntering around the stage looking like they didn’t want to be there at all. You would expect some kind of choreography or something to make it more of a “show” to at least make up for the lack of good songs.
Congrats on the album! It’s done amazingly well since its release. Has the reception been greater than you anticipated?
In general the reception has been positive, yes, but it also seems to have been quite a divisive album. We saw quite a few comments from critics and fans that didn’t seem to get what we were doing. I think there are definitely some fans out there that have been with us from the beginning and still wish we were an indie guitar band and are almost shocked by what we are doing now. But at the same time I think this album has opened us up to new fans. I’ve seen quite a few comments along the lines of “I never used to be a fan of Bombay Bicycle Club, but I’m into their new album,” so that’s a good sign.
Would it have traumatised you if the general consensus had gone sour instead?
Truthfully, yes. I think it would have hurt us if the reaction to the album had been negative overall. This was the first album that we produced ourselves and so it very much feels like our ‘baby’. We’d always worked with a producer in the past and that almost gave us something to hide behind I suppose, but with us doing this album ourselves, every criticism somehow felt that bit more personal. With the amount of care we put into making sure the finished album was exactly how we wanted it, it definitely would have been a blow if the album had flopped.
There’re a lot more electronic elements and samples on this record, but usually the implementation of such factors are quite individual and subjective in nature. How did the whole band get involved in the decision-making process?
Electronic music is something that Jack has been making for a while outside of the band, but over time the two paths have started to meet and that influence has obviously crept into the band’s music in quite a big way now. Although we’ve changed styles musically quite a bit from album to album, we’re always conscious of what our roots are and we’re wary of alienating fans that have been with us from the start. With that in mind, the rest of the band were almost there to keep Jack in check and make sure he didn’t do anything too crazy! It’s quite easy to get carried away when writing music on your own, so the rest of us were able to listen for the first time from an outsider’s point of view and see the bigger picture.
There were some songs that didn’t end up making the album because, even after working on them together as a band and recording them, we felt they were just too alien to what people would expect from us. There was one song in particular that we all loved but it just didn’t feel like us – we could easily picture a pop star like Rihanna singing it instead. The journey ‘Luna’ took as a song was interesting as well. The origin of the song was this crazy Bollywood sample (I remember laughing the first time I heard it). It then lost some of the Indian flavour and turned into this electropop song, which was great, but we knew it couldn’t be a Bombay Bicycle Club song in that state so we got together and reined things in a bit to make it suitable for the four of us to play together.
We understand that Jack went travelling for inspiration prior to the songwriting. He travelled alone, didn’t he? Was it logistically impossible for the whole band to go along? And in fact, what did the rest of the gang do while he was away?
For the most part he was alone. Ed was with him some of the time in Holland and India. It probably would have been possible for the whole band to go along if necessary but with the nature of how many of these new songs were being written it made more sense for Jack to be on his own for the most part. Whereas songs used to come about more with the four of us being in a room and playing together with guitars, bass, and drums, a lot of these new songs were written on a computer. Jack would take his “travel studio” around with him everywhere – basically his laptop, a small keyboard, and some sampling pads. He’d be constantly emailing us anything he’d written, whether it was a near complete song or just a little loop for example, and we’d be back at home giving feedback. We’d be zooming in on the strong parts and trying to make the most of those, while picking out the weaker parts as well.
Out of the numerous destinations Jack visited – from Japan to Turkey – which was the most moving?
I think India was definitely the most productive destination. The pace of life and energy of Mumbai is infectious. It’s quite a full-on place in general – so many sights, smells, and sounds to take in. All this rubbed off on Jack and made him excited about writing music while he was there. He was lent a studio there for a couple of weeks by a local band, which ended up being his haven. He could lock himself away there if the hustle and bustle of the outside world became too much.
The influence of India on the album is pretty blatant in places. Jack was doing a lot of record shopping while out there and then bringing the records back to the studio and sampling bits and pieces. ‘Feel’ is the most obvious example with a sample of a Lata Mangeshkar song from the ‘50s Bollywood film Nagin featured prominently. At the time, Jack thought he’d found this really obscure piece of music but it turns out it’s one of the most well-known songs in India! ‘Overdone’, ‘Luna’, and ‘Come To’ were also all written while in India and feature some Bollywood samples, although the Indian influence got watered down a bit as the songwriting process went on in some cases.
We really dug the interactive video you had for ‘Carry Me’! We guess that must’ve been pretty fun to film? Were there any embarrassing bloopers?
I can’t think of anything too embarrassing that happened… It took a lot more time to film than a regular video because every shot had to be done nine times, each time from a different camera angle. For example at the start when the four of us are hitting the drums and you can move our heads from left to right, we had to start off doing the first shot with us looking fully to our left, gradually moving our head to the right with each subsequent take, until by the ninth shot we were looking fully to the right.
The sequence in the final chorus where we’re all standing behind one another in a line and you can move us up and down was quite tricky to film as we had to hold these pretty uncomfortable positions for quite a while! Also, obviously hitting drums comes quite naturally to me but wasn’t as easy for some of the others, so I was trying to do some last minute coaching with them so we all looked comfortable and we were all hitting in a uniform way.
And speaking of videos, ‘Feel’ was quite a delight to watch too. Was the band familiar with any Bollywood films before this?
My brother-in-law is actually from India, so he’d introduced me to a few modern Bollywood films over the past couple of years. Lagaan and Taare Zameen Par are my favourites. I remember how the idea for the ‘Feel’ video came about – we were sitting in an Indian cafe in Melbourne that had a TV in the corner that was on an Indian music video channel. We were mesmerised by how wonderfully bizarre many of the videos were and we decided then that we wanted to make a video like that.
We also spot a trend in your videos – there’s been an element of dance in videos like ‘Feel’, ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’, and ‘Beg’. ’Fess up, you guys are big dancing fans aren’t you?
That’s actually more of a coincidence than anything else. We weren’t particularly happy with some of our earlier music videos and we slowly came to realise that the less we got involved in them, generally the better they turned out! The video for ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’ was an interesting one. It came about basically through a competition that we ran where we placed a short brief on this website and invited any up-and-coming directors around the world to submit a video for the song. The entries we got varied wildly in content and style, but the one that we ended up going with just stood out to us because of its charm.
‘Feel’ was a little different in that we had a clear vision of what we wanted from the video. We knew for a while that we wanted to try and make an authentic Bollywood piece, so we got put in touch with a very good director who was based in India to help us reach that goal. It was all filmed in Mumbai and originally the plan had been for us to fly out there and make a small cameo in the video, but we were too busy to do so in the end. In hindsight, I think it worked out for the best – I think having us in it probably would have made it a bit silly and detracted from the authenticity.
It’s no secret that y’all are pretty humble and nice guys. Do you think that plays a part in your mass appeal?
In some ways, but in some ways it also holds us back I think. I think many of our fans can relate to us and like the fact that we’re down to earth, quite shy people. Maybe they see a bit of themselves in us. But I think it holds us back in that we’re not the kind of people to go around shouting about ourselves and causing controversy to make headlines. By doing that I’m sure we could gain some casual fans, but to be honest I think we’re very happy with how things are. We’d much rather have a smaller, devoted fanbase than a huge pool of casual fans who only know our big singles for example.
Bombay Bicycle Club played at The Ground Theatre, Singapore on Tuesday 29 July ’14.