The Maccabees – Interview – 2015

"How's Brighton?", asks Felix White, guitarist with The Maccabees and a former resident of the city, that back in the mid 2000s proved to be the ideal launching pad for this classic indie band, one who had initially sprung out of a loose South London scene that had included the likes of Jack Penate, Rumble Strips and Jamie T. I tell him it's still rocking. He tells me he really likes a local Brighton band called The Magic Band, who he saw supporting Wolf Alice recently ("they love playing with each other, and it was really refreshing in this world of posing and nondescript guitar music")… "I went to Sussex (uni), and most of the boys went to Brighton (uni). Lan (Orl ando Weekes, singer) went down to Brighton to do illustration, and at first it was just a means of keeping the band together, so we decided to have various excuses of degrees to keep The Maccabees going. We all dropped out pretty fast (laughs). Brighton is where we got a deal, so we decided to stay for a few years, before migrating back to London."
I tell him that the last time I interviewed him, he said his brother, Hugo, was still living down here…. "My brother did stay down here after we all went back, but he got brought back into line! We are all Londoners at heart."
It's been quite a journey for the five piece, with four of the founder members still a part of the band; Orlando, Felix & Hugo, and bassist Rupert Jarvis. Robert Dylan Thomas was the original drummer, to be replaced by Sam Doyle in 2008, who has remained with the band ever since. And keyboardist Will White joined in 2010.
Synonymous with a particularly buzzy Brighton scene at the time that included British Sea Power and The Kooks, Hugo remembers their time in Brighton as an exciting one, and a place where they wrote both their debut album, Colour It in, and the 2009 follow up, Wall of Arms. "Brighton was a relief from growing up in London. It was somewhere that was a bit calmer for a while (although they caused a bit of a mini-riot at their infamous Concorde 2 gig in 2006). It was a nice place, especially at the ages of 19 or 20. It didn’t feel like anyone you knew had a job, everybody was just hanging out all day, and everywhere was just five minutes’ walk away. There were so many venues and so many bands, it was quite exciting for us."
According to Felix, Brighton was the place where it all came together. "A significant part of our development was in Brighton. Before that we were basically like kids, in a pub band, and didn't have much ambition beyond that. Brighton helped a lot; it's a small community with a lot going on, so it felt much more tangible to get something going. If we hadn't moved to Brighton I don't think we would have found that context for ourselves at that stage. It was only through word of mouth or whatever, filling out the Freebutt (infamous Brighton venue that is no more) every other week or whenever that was, that was when labels came to see us and we found management."
Ah, yes. Curly! "Yes, I saw her yesterday, we are very much in touch with Curls. She's a successful agent now!" Laura (Curly) Davidson had been a promoter in Brighton, promoting under the name Curlygigs, and that is how she came across the band, who she took under her wing, eventually joining up with JPR Management, with whom they remain.
Named after flicking through a copy of the Bible – the original Maccabees were the leaders of a rebel Jewish army that seized Judea in 2nd century BC, and reasserted the Jewish religion – the band, who apparently have no religious affiliations, released their first single, 'X-ray', in late 2005, on the small Promise label, followed by 'Latchmere', released on Fierce Panda, which was championed by Steve Lamacq. Subsequently, they were signed to Fiction Records (who they have remained with ever since), and in 2007, with the buzz growing rapidly around the band, released their debut album Colour It In, which featured such gems as 'First Love', 'About Your Dress' and 'Toothpaste Kisse's. Those early songs were hugely infectious slices of exuberant and jerky indie-pop, featuring Orlando's distinctive warble, and touching on teenage concerns like love and, er, the Latchmere swimming pool wave machine…
Follow up album Wall of Arms cemented their reputation as a first class indie guitar band, while third album Given To The Wild saw them reach their highest album chart placing (number four), as well as being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Meanwhile the song 'Pelican' earned a prestigious Ivor Novello for Best Contemporary Song. From their early, fast and furious beginnings the band had now developed a sound that is increasingly euphoric and epic; there was/is a touch of Arcade Fire creeping into their work, although they remained great at shifting gears throughout a song, dynamics, intensity and space always to the fore, and yet grounded in some kind of earthiness, perhaps more as a result of the relatively shy personas the band inhabit. Things were going well for the band… But, when they finished touring the album at the end of 2013, The Maccabees started turning their attention to album number four, and for some reason, it wasn't happening… "It took a long time to work out what it was we were making," says Felix. "We felt pretty confident that we could just make a record, but looking back on it we weren't pulling together what we wanted to achieve. We worked for a year, couldn't agree on anything, didn't have any idea of 'the palette' of what it was we were making.
"When we started making the record we thought we could make Given To The Wild again. We started noticing our own tricks and techniques and it started getting a bit boring. How we were making music is that we would send little bits and pieces to each other; but it's almost like we started to notice how each other does it, and it turns you off from it almost immediately. So, we almost had to re-learn how to write as a band in a room again. And some of that was a painful process because you want to be able to layer stuff up, change certain things or take hold of it. Once we came round to the idea that this is going to sound like we do in the room – one instrument each, there would be no vocal layering and that there was going to be a piano player on it, it was the total opposite to Given to the Wild album.
"Then we realised maybe the record is to do with the area we were in; it was our studio, we were making it ourselves, maybe we should try and make it sound like the room…? Try and make a conceptual, soundscape, cinematic type record; and try and make it sound like a band again. Being involved in Elephant & Castle, and living in that area, that's why it all came together… we are all from the south and we all live within a small radius of it.
"It was an interesting time to be there because the whole of London is getting re-generated at the moment; they are knocking down peoples homes and council flats, to build buy-to-let properties that no one is living in. There is a kind of surreal air to London at the moment. Elephant is the last untouched bit in central London, and it has only just started to really happen. So, it felt when we were making the record we were witnessing, like a time and a place. It was never going to be like that ever again, because there was so much rapid change going on around it, and that's how it informed the record."
The album cover features The Faraday Memorial, looking rather attractive in this night time shot taken in the 70s; a sort of modernist, yet nondescript building that inhabits the middle of the extremely busy Elephant & Castle gyratory. Even though I used to drive through that area all the time, I can barely remember it. "There you go!" exclaims Felix. "It just emphasises what I just said, that you wouldn't normally notice it. It's been there since the 60s.
"Driving through it, people see it as a transition place that you go through. Once you are involved in a community, you see how many layers there are to it, and the interesting things that are going on in there. Again, that was another thing that informed the record, things you wouldn't normally take a second glance at, that seem mundane, but is worth re-analysing; taking hold of where you are from and noticing and not taking it for granted."
It had been over a year since they had gigged, but with the album finally coming together, they went on the road at the tail end of '14, ending suspicions that perhaps The Maccabees were intending to call it a day. As well as a few dates supporting Mumford & Sons in the US, they also came back to their former home, for a surprise Great Escape gig in mid-May, that wasn't announced until the day of the show, the final main act of the three-day festival. "It was tagged on to the end of a short tour," says Felix. "There was definitely a sense of people having queued a long time, maybe not getting into that many venues, and it was the last thing that happened. A lot of weary faces maybe, over indulged faces! It definitely had that last rites vibe… They had a confetti canon which went off at the end of gig, which is one of the least Maccabees things in the world. The most apologetic show you will ever see, but we had a great time."
The Maccabees, like many a great band, didn't have much of a clue when starting out; their experiences of music making were very limited, but as a unit they gelled quickly, and became one of the best indie bands of the 2000s… "In our case that was definitely the case. The first record we made we didn't know what a reverb pedal was. We were a garage type band, really. We've got to the point where we've made this record and produced it ourselves. There has been an accelerated learning curve to it. But, I think you are right in what you are saying, you end up discovering things about yourself, and it becomes a language that you evolve that only you have as a band; you haven't been taught by anyone, you haven't learned keys, songs in the key of A or whatever. It's boring when someone plays a guitar solo perfectly, who wants to do that! I can't do that!"
As we speak, Glastonbury is on the horizon and Felix is looking forward to it… "The last time was six years ago. I can't wait, I want to see Patti Smith on Sunday. I will stick around, I haven't anything better to do!" Indeed, their performance on the Other Stage was a big deal for them, Felix grinning from ear-to-ear throughout. And old friend Jamie T came on stage to join the band for a song. Did that South London scene actually exist, back in the mid 2000s? "We weren't hanging out that much, but there is an element of truth in it. It's interesting, we got told all the time that there were so many guitar bands. We got constantly asked about, 'why are there so many guitar bands'? And now we get asked why aren't there any guitar bands. I don't know the answer to either of those questions.
Jeff Hemmings
Marks To Prove It
Wall of Arms
Can You Give It
Toothpaste Kisses
Precious Time