Are you Athletic? - An Interview with Athlete

" Are you Athletic? - An Interview with Athlete "

 

Are You Athletic?

Damian Leslie took the time to meet up with a bunch of guys from England and find out exactly, just who are Athlete?

Athlete: photo from nme

Athlete are four lads from South London, Deptford to be precise. For myself, a lad born and bred in the North East of England, another band made up of a bunch of Southern Softies was the last thing I thought I needed, but I found their single "You Got The Style" undeniably catchy and hard to ignore. Then I heard "El Salvador" and I couldn't stop singing it either. It was time to give their album a chance. On first listen I thought it was good, but nothing special. Then I gave it another listen, and another, liking it even more.

After a fortnight of listening to it almost exclusively I've decided it's one of the best debut albums I've heard so far this year. Could this be a new band worth getting excited about? It was time to find out.

I managed to corner singer Joel Pott and drummer Steve Roberts for a short time before their gig at the Paradiso on the 9th of May. Having spent most of the afternoon being interviewed by other magazines, by the time they got to me they were looking a bit weary and somewhat nervous, Steve in particular. We exchanged greetings and settled down into what turned into a rather open and refreshing interview.

INCENDIARY: So how are you guys finding Europe? It's your first time out here yeah?

STEVE: It's a bit bizarre to be honest. It's going well I think.

INCENDIARY: How are you finding the audiences? A bit different to back home in the UK?

STEVE: Yeah, like last night we were in Germany and we played a gig to about sixty people. All radio types and PR men and they just stood, completely quiet and we were talking to each other on stage saying, "Well they're not into this." But they were.

JOEL: Yeah, they'd all clap at the end of the songs and we thought it was ok but they weren't really getting us, then we went off and they went wild!

STEVE: Yeah it was a bit mad watching these sixty people, in suits and ties and things going completely mental and we had to go back out and do an encore. It's embarrassing enough to do an encore as it is, you know what I mean?

JOEL: It's good though, at least we found out we were doing something right.

INCENDIARY: So you won over the German crowd then, good stuff. Let's hope you can do the same tonight. Are you looking forward to it?

STEVE: Yeah, we were over here before, and played the Melkweg where we were supporting Simian but it'll be interesting to see how it goes. I just hope it's not empty, that's all.

INCENDIARY: I think you'll be ok. So how did Athlete come about then? You've all been friends for years, yeah?

JOEL: Well me and Steve, and Carey used to be a three piece, guitars and drum kit thing and it got to the point where we were a bit bored with it 'cause we felt like we were one of a thousand bands doing exactly the same thing.

INCENDIARY: That was around the whole Britpop time yeah?

JOEL: Right. I think that really made us think long and hard about what we wanted to do musically and that it should be always a laugh. It should be something that you can just have fun with and you love 'cause [otherwise] what's the point of doing it? That's how Athlete started really, just on the back of feeling a bit like that.

INCENDIARY: I was going to say, listening to the album it sounds like you've had a good laugh making it.

STEVE: - Well we've been making music together since we were fourteen and the majority of that time we've been really skint. We've never stopped 'cause there isn't any other choice. If you're gonna be in a band that's just what you do and whether or not you're making money, that's just whatyou do.

JOEL: [We started by] getting a little twelve track, 'cause it's all we could afford at the time and just playing around with things and having a laugh. And that's what I think the album is really, it's just the result of a couple of years being in the studio and messing around with things. "Oh well let's check out this three pounds fifty casio keyboard I got on the market"

STEVE: Let's see what we can do with it.

JOEL: It's got 100 hundred sounds on it; let's see what it can do.

INCENDIARY: So you kind of work as a collective. Because you write as a group, as opposed to one person writing the lyrics and so on, is that right?

STEVE: On this album there's been a general sense of everyone having their roles but it's not been particularly strict. It's all kind of interchangeable really. At some points we've made an effort to try and do that for a reason, to restrict ourselves creatively. But hopefully now we're trying to understand our strengths a little bit more because we just want to try and get better really. We've discussed allowing each other to concentrate on our strengths and just the bits that we really enjoy. I mean, we're always going to be excited by keyboards and computers and things.

JOEL: That's Tim's thing.

STEVE: And that's what Tim does and [though] nothing he does will end up on the next record without our agreement, it's what he'll push himself to come up with that'll help us to improve. I think that's a real positive thing.

JOEL: And with all the songs on this album they've all started as a piece on an acoustic guitar or one chorus idea. It's not like we go down to the studio and we're like, "Here's a whole song!" We don't work like that. One of us will come down and say - well here's a chorus and then we'll...

STEVE: Well it's just like layering lots of different ideas and sitting around together and trying to come up with sounds. That's what's great about new technology being so cheap to be able to do things through the computer at home. You can just layer things to try and define that song to another level. That's how this album's come about and that's what's so great about those little demos which were recorded so badly because we just recorded them so quickly. [We were] just like, "Get that idea down, let's move on!" A lot of the final bits on the album are just taken straight from those demos. We've just taken them to the studio with us and gone - well that's what we've got so far. Ok we'll keep that, keep that and keep that.

INCENDIARY: The album was produced by Victor Van Vugt, whom I know best for his work with Nick Cave. How did that relationship work? Did he try tostreamline you at all, because it seems like you come in to the studio from all sorts of directions. What was he like to work with and how much of an influence did he have on the album?

JOEL: More and more as we've gone on really. When we start out and when we've written a song it's produced and it's written, you know? We'll have demoed it up beforehand and that's a big part of our process of writing. We always demo it up. So [when we go into the studio] all the parts are there, there's not actually that much production left to do.

STEVE: It's more his experience [that's helped]. The years and years he's been in the studio and recording things so that it just sounds really good, so that it's got that depth in the recording. He's someone really easy to get on with. And although we felt like we really clicked straight away and he knew where we were coming from and what we were trying to achieve, as we've gone on he's kind of gotten to know us more and switched on to where we're coming from more. The relationship has developed to where he can now feel it's pretty easy to throw in ideas. It's also just that he's really excited about music himself. He knows what kind of things we like.

JOEL: Every now and again he'll just be like, "Well try and put a moog on that" and we'd be like, "Hmm okay that could be good."

STEVE: But also there'll be times when he'll say, "Just try this," and we'll just say no and he'll be okay with that

INCENDIARY: So he's really become more of a creative partner, rather than someone who just presses the buttons or someone like Phil Spector who wants it all to sound a certain way.

STEVE: Yeah. He's good at just letting us find exactly what we want.

JOEL: It is important for us to be able to work with someone like that. With us working together all the time and the way we process ideas it's really important that we're all mates and if we weren't it would be a nightmare! It's really nice to almost have a fifth person there as well. So it's just that creative process, and for him to be a part of that as well. It's improved more and more as the album's gone on. I think we really want to work with him again and we will, 'cause he is a friend now.

INCENDIARY: Let's talk more about the album. Of all the pieces I've read about you, you're described as being big fans of Granddaddy and the Flaming Lips and as such you've been described as very similar in sound. Although I can see where they're coming from the album seems to be rooted firmly in Britain as opposed to wanting to sound like those American bands.

JOEL: Well we are British! (chuckles )

INCENDAIRY: Ok, point taken. (we all laugh) But although you do have that nice wide scope to your music that's similar to the Flaming Lips etc, there's a lot of England in there, and Deptford in particular, especially the song "Westside". That's you talking about the pub band scene you were part of back in the Britpop days before you became Athlete right? (Joel and Steve simply nod in agreement) And "You Got The Style" has to be the nicest song about race riots that I've ever heard.

(Steve laughs)

JOEL: Yeah well, I think it's just that our ethos has always been to get a positive outlook on things. So when we're writing songs we don't really let each other be miserable about things and I don't think we are miserable people anyway. So when we looked at that time, during the race riots, living in Deptford became really strange. It really affected the whole vibe of the place and so we wrote about that but with a kind of positive look on things.

INCENDIARY: I'm glad you said that because what I like about the song is that I get a sense of your complete bewilderment to the situation. Because you don't understand how it materialised but you suddenly get caught up in that kind of atmosphere and you're going, "Where has this come from?" I mean, "You Got The Style" could have been given a real hard edge to it but it seems obvious that your mindset isn't set on that way of thinking.

STEVE: That's exactly how it is because Deptford's not like that. But for a few months it was weird. With it being such a multicultural area you really felt the pressure of that, kind of...at the time...

INCENDIARY: That extra stigma applied to you?

STEVE: Yeah. You really had to be careful how you looked at people and you had to kind of watch your back a bit whereas usually it's pretty [relaxed]. It's a really mixed community and everyone just gets on with their lives. Particularly with the young people in the area it's just not a thing that's thought about, and it's a problem that was never really there before.

INCENDIARY: So that's where you've come from, where do we find you now? Will the next album owe as much to Deptford as this one? Or will it cease to be your base any longer?

JOEL: I'm sure it'll feature quite heavily because that is where we are from, you know? I mean, it's important to me to grow lyrically and in the general feel of the album. It's important that the next album does something different and that we're pushing ourselves constantly. I mean, there's no way that we're not going to be influenced by traveling round and all the new experiences that we're having but for now I think there'll still be a bit of Deptford in there.

INCENDIARY: In "El Salvador" you talk about getting signed to a bigger label and how that all seemed so weird to you. Is it everything you wanted because it sounds like you've taken a step back and are finding it all a bit strange. Is that where your mindset is at the minute?

JOEL: No it's definitely what we wanted. I think the song is just really about us having been in our dingy little basement of a studio for years and then suddenly coming over here and being interviewed by you lot and that's a bit weird. Do you know what I mean? And doing a video and stuff, it is a bit strange. But it's great at the same time because we can say to each other, "We're really fortunate, this is amazing!" It's definitely about us taking a step back and questioning it all but again, trying to have a positive view on things and not really complaining about it. It's just us saying that we've got to make the most of this but some aspects of it are of a different world than we're used to but we're not gonna let it affect us.

...

I find it admirable that it's easy to believe him. These guys seem to have their heads screwed on properly and their feet planted firmly on the ground. They seem to be letting all the hoo ha fly around them, rather than getting caught up in it.

The interview wraps up as they have to make their way back to the Paradiso for sound check. Myself and Incendiary editor Jonathan spend the rest of the afternoon downing a few beers before making our way into the Kleine Zaal of the Paradiso.

Twenty minutes before they're due to start the room was practically empty. Barely double figures. I spied Steve at the mixing desk looking around, somewhat disappointed. He scuttled off backstage and I had to feel for him. It must be hard to gear yourself up to play to no more than a dozen people.

As he was back stage getting ready, there was suddenly a rush of activity and within ten minutes the room was more than half full. By the time the band took to the stage there was hardly room to move. The band looked pleased and well up for it. The show was great; full of life and energy. The band seemed confident without ever being arrogant, which is a trend I always find appealing.

There appears to be a great sense of camaraderie between them and although Joel is undoubtedly the front man, there's a distinct Gang of Four mentality about them. At times they seem to be pushing in different directions but still maintaining a tight structure.

Live the songs were given a bit more punch and power, but fill four young lads full of adrenalin and testosterone and that was always going to happen. The set was a delight to watch, the band managing to wind the audience up nicely, which resulted in them being applauded wildly from the stage and forced to endure another embarrassing encore. At which point Joel said, "We'll have to stop now as this is the last song that we know!"

I caught up with Steve again afterwards and asked him how he though it went, "Definitely the best night we've had on this tour so far. The crowd seemed to take a while to get into it, but I think we got them going by the end. It was nice to see so many people out there too." He smiled widely and looked proud and pleased and I have to say he deserved to be. They came, they saw, the won the approval of the room: Job well done!

If a rock band's career can be compared to a sprint race, Athlete have made a good start. If they can keep their heads and keep up the momentum, the finishing line that signifies fame, fortune and a fanatical fan base could be reached in record time. I've decided. Athlete are worth getting excited about.

Athlete will be performing at the Music In My Head festival in Den Haag on Saturday, June 14. Catch up with them there.

Damian Leslie