Bury those anthems. Athlete discuss the makings of a risky album.

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If there's something really beautiful going on you have something underneath it that keeps it down to Earth.

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It was bloody hot. That's what I remember most about the afternoon. I'd played a game of football earlier that day, so I arrived at the Melkweg with a face like a beetroot and an undying thirst. Stepping out of the heat into the cold halls of the Melkweg was a very welcome feeling and when I found the band, busy playing with their iBooks in the dressing room, Carey, the bass player, offered me a cold beer almost immediately, which put me at ease right away. Joel was suffering with his vocal chords and apologized for having to back out of the interview, so, with Steve the drummer nowhere to be found (turns out he was sunbathing on the roof of the tour bus) Carey, Tim and I made our way to another room for a quick chat. And that's where you join us:


 


Incendiary: I was wondering how different you feel as a band compared to when Vehicles and Animals was released? Because there seems to be a difference in tone to this new album and I was wondering how things are within the band, compared to then?


 


Carey: Well in the way that it was written is different. The first album was like, how you say, everybody all in it, all the time. Whoever came up with a few chords, we'd all be there at the beginning going, "Right, what are we going to do?" But this one we were all a little bit more, I think just a little more confident in ourselves, in our own writing. So we'd all go off for a couple of weeks, come up with a load of ideas and then play them to each other and the songs were kind of, you'd normally get the verse and a chorus of a whole song. I don't think that anybody actually came down with a whole song that stayed, but the verse and the chorus would be ready and then we'd would all work on it from there. So this time I think the ideas were a little bit more developed before everybody got involved. Which I think is good.


 


I think it was good for people to create things individually, to have something fresh to kind of get their teeth into and push themselves a little bit but I think, as well, that song wise it's given some of the songs a little bit more continuity. There aren't quite as many left turns as their were in the first album, although there still are some because that, for us, is interesting and it's a lot of fun to try to do things in a way that isn't always natural. I think it helps songs to be a little bit more interesting and creative I guess.


 


So yeah, I think we're just a bit more confident. It is still kind of, all in it together and there's no kind of there's no riffs or splits.


 


(Tim laughs)


 


Carey: In fact this album's probably been a lot more fun than the first, just because we gave ourselves the space.


 


Tim: Yeah it makes things a bit easier I think. I guess with this album we had, more or less kind of individual roles really. Different directions. Rather than everyone being involved in the tiniest detail of a keyboard part but there is still that sense that each of us all cast an equal vote you know?


 


IN: So there is still that kind of that writing by osmosis kind of thing that you had before, but you've all kind of gotten better at your own job so to speak?


 


Tim: Yeah well like, on the first album I would stick a tune on the Ipod and then go home and mess around with a few ideas on the computer, then come back the next morning and say here's a whole set of ideas and then we'd all talk about what's the best part and sound and whether or not one of them was right, and whether this bit needed to be a little bit different. It's still like that but it's like there's a little more room for creativitiy. You can go and make your mistakes on your own somewhere else, but there's still kind of that quality control I suppose.


 


Carey: I think that's made the whole thing like a little bit more thought through. 'Cause maybe at the last album we were all their discussing what we thought should go on, but this time there's a bit more of sitting back and listening to things and deciding why you think something should be where and what job it was doing. I suppose you thought through the bigger picture earlier, whereas last time you kind of threw loads of stuff at it and then ended up at the end and then kind of stripped it back and threw another load until you kind of..


 


Tim: Which was very necessary because of the kind of tunes that this album has on it. I mean, as soon as we started writing the songs, I mean Wires was the first song that we did and when Joel came up with the idea for that it was obvious straight away that it was a song with a very different mood to any of the tunes on the last record. It was just darker and more emotive. Just hearing the song as it is with him just him singing it with an acoustic, we knew that we were not going to be sticking the same kind of sounds on this album that the last record was full of. And then Chances and Tourist were the next two to come and so quite quickly this album obviously had a very different direction.


 


Like Carey said, with the first record it was so much fun because it was about trying to fill every little piece of space with a hook line. So apart from having some incredibly catchy chorus, we also had a guitar line or a keyboard hook all going at the same time. And that was part of the sound and that was great, whereas on this one it's funny 'cause, although it is more of a grand and epic record there's actually a lot more space in the tunes and a lot less happening. We really had to sit down and, even at the stage of recording it we, just the four of us would go into the room and play our main parts and then just keep coming back and listening again. "Is it all exactly right? Is that bit flowing with that bass line into the chorus" and you know, "Is the piano part just a little bit run of the mill?" And I think that was really good for us. It helped us grow in confidence as players as well you know?


 


IN: It feels like a more confident album. There are still a lot of clicks and whirls and a lot of samples. Like you say, left turns every now and again, but now it seems to feel a lot more structured. Everything's a lot more epic and bigger but it sounds like you've actually tried to push yourselves in different directions, just to see if they will work. Take If I Found Out for example, the song that brings a Gospel Choir into the mix at the end. It seems like you're just saying, "Can we pull this off, or at least try it?"


 


Carey: Yeah, well that was one of the one's that I'm most proud of. I don't think it's my favourite, but it's definitely one of the ones that I'm most proud of, just because it was difficult to get it to work. I mean we had the verse and the chorus, both really catchy and we never could quite get them to work into each another and we never quite found a middle eight or anything that worked. We were just jamming one day and me and Steve started playing over the groove at the end and started building on that. Then we came up with a couple of hook lines and me and Joel sang over those and came up with a kind of arrangement. And then we thought, "Maybe that would sound better with a gospel choir?" Steve came up with the idea for something to do with soul at the end and then just getting, like, about 8 gospel singers in together and saying, "Well these are all our parts." Then they were saying stuff like, "Well we could do this with it," and we'd say "Yeah, well give it a go." It was just kind of one of those things where you're almost playing catch up with your idea. By the end of it we were like, "Thank God it worked!" You're not sure if you're gonna pull it off but...


 


IN: I find it interesting that you say that Wires and Tourist came first because there are only a couple of tracks that sound anything like the first album. One of those is Modern Mafia, which is a really big bouncy song and I thought, "That's the kind of Athlete I knew" and then the rest of the stuff I was kind of, "Hang on, I can tell it's the same band but this is totally different."


 


Tim: Well I think we all kind of look at Modern mafia as kind of a song on its own in a  sense. We just went through a stage where we wrote a couple of tunes along that line, where we were just looking for something that would be a little in your face live and a little bit throwaway. I think that's the reason that we stuck with that tune because we just thought, "They're gonna love that." But I agree that it's definitely the one that would most fit on the first record.


 


IN: I was just surprised that that didn't come first, you know?


 


Carey: Well I think we were all quite surprised.


 


Tim: Well I think the idea for the verse was actually around since the beginning, but it took a long time to find the chorus.


 


Carey: Well it kind of became one of those things in the end where we were playing over it and that's where that whole song kind of came together. The whole ethos of the song is just about trying to get that four mates together and just warning people to back off back off, we'll look out for each other. So it was a bit of a throwaway kind of thing and we just wanted it to have a lot of energy and be one of those songs that you can just bash out. It was one of those ones that just kind of live came together a little bit more whereas the others are a little bit more thought through.


 


I think it helps the album as well, I think it's on the album for a very good reason for it helps give the album a little bit of pace, whereas there was this other tune that we all really liked but was a bit slower. We might just slip out on an EP or something at some point because we all really like it, but in terms of the flow of the album it didn't fit quite as well, although I still think it's a great tune. So Modern mafia is kind of one of those things, it just seems to give the album a bit of a lift at a point.


 


IN: It feels a lot more reflective as well, the album. I described the first album as a bunch of guys in Deptford creating an album that would sound brilliant on a night out in the pub. Whereas this one sounds like a bunch of lads who've been away from Deptford and are talking to people back there and saying, well you're still talking about Deptford, but it's got that kind of distance to it. It feels like an album that was written on the road, I don't know whether it was entirely?


 


Tim: There was some writing that happened on the road. Certainly lyrically and the experience of being on the road has certainly impacted the reason why the songs have the kind of mood that they do.


 


IN: So how happy are you to be back on the road now? I mean the UK tour has obviously been far more popular than you would have thought it would be?


 


Carey: So far this year has been a shocking year. It's been really weird. You just can't get your head around things that have gone so much better than you thought they were going to. But to be on the road, it's great. We had our first little European gig last night in Paris, which went loads better than I thought it was going to. I thought it would be quite reserved but it was actually a lot more raucous than I was expecting it to be.


 


It almost feels like, at the minute in Europe we're just kind of starting to figure out where we are. 'Cause we're only this tiny little band anywhere else apart from home and even at home we're not particularly a huge band, but everywhere else nobody has a clue who we are. So we've always felt that it's kind of building things slowly and so it feels like, hopefully this tour will be the beginnings of building something. Hopefully this'll be the first time that, well I don't know, first that we get to come back a few times and hopefully each time getting a bit bigger and a bit bigger. But I remember in the UK, just before the album came out, we did a few little gigs in Northampton and 140 people turned up and we were like "Shit! Where have they all come from?" and that was really exciting at the time and it feels like going a bit back to that, just being really excited that anybody turns up in a country that you don't know anybody. I don't know, it's kind of been a good year though.


 


IN: Well I remember the first time you came here and you were playing upstairs in the Paradiso and I was talking to Joel and Steve and they were like, "We just don't know who's gonna turn up?" and I can remember about 15 minutes before the gig started I was standing in the Hall looking around and there were about 15 people there.


 


(Tim and Carey both start laughing)


 


IN: And I'm thinking "God I hope this isn't it?" Then suddenly, about five minutes before you took the stage, the place was heaving and you could tell by the looks on your faces that you were like, "Where the fuck have this lot come from?"


 


Tim: It's exciting this time because we are, in essence, a brand new band in Mainland Europe and giving it a proper go with this record. But I think the last one came out in such a haphazard manner that it really didn't help us and it's nice to know that with this one we've got a whole record ready to go and this is like, in Holland this is the first thing we've done, a tour on this record and there is that potential this time that we'll come back in six month's time and we'll be playing somewhere else.


 


IN: Ok. Now I need to get something cleared up. Who let Steve into the mixing desk at the end, because I don't think I've heard an album that wasn't made by the Beatles, where the drums are so, "Hello! IT'S STEVE! I'M HERE! DON'T FORGET ME AT THE BACK! BANG! BANG! BANG! (Tim and carey are in fits of laughter) I mean I've been listening to the album a lot on my walkman a lot, and it sounds great, but the drums are just so loud in it! So I was thinking either you meant that or Steve's nicked into the mixing desk and gone, "Just turn that up a little bit! That's right, that's right" So what is it? Is it him or is it meant to be that way?


 


Carey: (after some laughter) No it was a considered decision wasn't it.


 


Tim: Yeah definitely. Just that sound like, there's this pedal, a contortion pedal.


 


Carey: It's a guitar pedal.


 


Tim: But the hi hats and the snares just sound great to it and it just kind of had a sound that felt great. And it gives a really nice crunchy kind of tone. If you listened to it on its own it's quite a nasty kind of sound, but somehow, set within that whole epic landscape, it's kind of quite beautiful at the same time. And also I think, like say Wires, if you take the prominence of the drums away and those kind of crunchy effects off, it's really clean and nice and it makes you see the song in a different way. It's a bit Flaming Lips too, like Soft Bulletin is a similar kind of thing with that big drum sound.


 


Carey: It just helps to bring things back down to Earth. I mean, if you take a song like Street Map. It's a beautiful song, but part of the reason that the strings are discordant in points and kind of go out and comeback in and part of the reason why the drums are so trashy is that it actually takes the song away from being this kind of cheesy kind of, beautiful thing and makes it a little bit more down to Earth and something that you could relate to. And that was quite a conscious effort on the whole album, to make sure that there was something counteracting it, that if there's something really beautiful going on you have something underneath it that keeps it down to Earth.


 


IN: Again, you've created something really anthemic, but without delving into that Bruce Springsteen kind of territory you've kind of, well the anthem's are still there and especially when you play live that side of things comes out, but when you listen to it on record it doesn't kind of go into that AOR/MOR rock station stuff.


 


Tim: Well we use it kind of understated. It's like, we've just had this live review in Q magazine and it was exactly that kind of thing where the guy was saying, that listening to the record there were these kind of understated, quite held back tunes and you were kind of like, "Is this gonna work live?" And to be honest the first record was such an obvious kind of, like you say, a Saturday night, football terrace sing-a-long and this is a bit more of a Sunday morning record and that's what's been amazing on this tour, is  seeing those new songs come into a life of their own, There are these several tunes that are gonna have these like, huge anthems and sing-a-longs, but it's not necessary or really apparent when you listen to them on record, like Q said.


 


Carey: I think that was the thing for us because that was one of the things that most made us nervous about this album because we thought it was a real risk doing this album. Because it was so different to the first. And at a point in fact, we had a two week period when we were writing the album where we tried to write that song that was somewhere between Vehicles and Animals and Wires; somewhere between You Got the Style and Wires and Steve but it was such a depressing experience that we just scrapped everything we did. We probably argued most in those two weeks. Everything was just rubbish. I mean, some of the tunes were quite catchy, but our hearts weren't in it. But that kind of made us feel that what we have done is right and we feel really confident with it. We know that we couldn't have made another album at this point than the one we made. 'Cause we tried.


 


 Interview : Damian Leslie