Thursday, August 30, 2007

Get ready to build: Editors

[previously published in total:spec magazine July 2007]

"Well done boys," announces the PR man, turning from his mobile towards his gang of four. "You're in mainstream radio land."

In an unlikely twist of fate, the new single by dark 'n' brooding indie quartet Editors, the glumly-titled 'Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors', has made the GCap stations' B-list. It's the first time this has happened for the band and means that their brand of serious, claustrophobic guitar music will be heard on the likes of Capital alongside MOR rock staples like Coldplay and Travis. The news is greeted quietly and, although we're in a bar, within puking distance of an alarming array of booze, no one's rushing for the champagne. Singer and lyricist Tom Smith does show a modicum of excitement: "This means we'll be played in the factories, right?"

Right. Rewind 15 minutes to our first encounter with the band, during their total:spec photo shoot in London's (cough) jewel in the crown, glorious Shepherd's Bush. The group - much younger than you'd expect if you've heard their mature and confident-sounding music - are standing in front of a scraggy metal fence which encloses a grotty bit of scrubland. On the wall next to them is an enormous poster for the new Travis album, The Boy With No Name, which shows Fran Healy et al atop an enormous skyscraper gazing out over a huge cityscape. We see the assembled Editors at one stage glancing nervously up at the daunting advert. You probably wouldn't catch Travis sitting on a park bench in this west London yuckhole.

Ah well, it's all part of the process, a process they call "the slow build", something Editors are very much used to. Although the general music-buying public might remember the band suddenly appearing in their consciousness back in December 2005, it wasn't like the band pounced on the scene from nowhere. The four of them started playing together while studying music technology at Staffordshire University and built themselves a hardy following before being signed in September 2004. Debut long player The Back Room, was released in July the following year – a bit odd, as it's about as far from being a summer record as you can get - they released several singles ('Bullets' twice, in fact) and toured like hell. It was the quartet's Good Hard Work which helped move the album slowly up the charts, promoting, gigging, promoting, re-releasing.

Things really went stellar as 2005 segued into 2006 as the record finally reached the top 20; the label re-released what's now Editors' best-known track, 'Munich', which, in its turn, pinged The Back Room into the higher reaches of the charts, a hefty five months after its release. Appropriately, success had come once summer had become a distant memory and the winter months were well underway. Back in the band's hotel room, booked for a day so they can recuperate after a performance in Paris, Smith and bassist Russell Leetch recall the bona fide Rock and Roll Moment that occurred when the news came through. "When we heard the album was at No.2, we were in LA for the first time, in the Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard, actually drinking Margaritas in the pool," says Leetch. He seems as incredulous as we are about this – and for sure, it's very un-Editors. But there was more to come.

The band were then booked to play south London's top venue, Brixton Academy. That sold out in a couple of days. So they added another date. That sold out too. So they did another. "We said stop at three," says Leetch. "They wanted us to do more, but we thought that was a bit ridiculous."

How to top that? A Mercury nomination should do it. "The day the album was released was the first day of eligibility for that year's Mercury, so I thought we would be forgotten about," explains Smith. "But that proved the record did have legs, it lingered in people's consciousness and people were still enjoying it and getting into it. It was a nice way to finish."

Even though the Arctic Monkeys beat them to the prize, it had been quite a crescendo. Since then though, things have gone quiet if you're a UK-based fan – Editors have been away touring and recording, which is, of course, the done thing. And when we speak to them, they haven't played their own gigs in Britain since the Brixton trio of shows, about a year ago.

"We did festivals, but not our own gigs," says Leetch. "It's been a while, as Nickelback famously said."

"Was that Nickelback? It was Staind wasn't it?" wonders Smith.

Staind, Nickelback? Pfuh. Better to be Editors right now. They're just limbering up to play Camden's Roundhouse, as if to say, "Yes. We're back with a vengeance (and a new album)." The second record, An End Has A Start, is ready to roll and Smith, who writes the lyrics and sketches out the bones of the songs before the others add their own ideas, is "over the moon" with it. "I don't think we could've made a better record at this stage in our lives," he waxes. "It feels like we've achieved exactly what we set out to achieve."

How is it different from The Back Room?

"The first one was more claustrophobic and tight, like a debut should be - the sound of a band in a room," he says. "But there was this narrowness to it. With this album, we wanted to make a more textured record, with more going on. It's opened up, it's a little bit easier to read, it's not quite as cryptic lyrically, but it's a lot more dynamic."

Word-wise, Smith was preoccupied with "death, illness and things coming to an end"; he mentions that over the last year or so, he has felt closer and more aware of life's dark side than ever before.

"My gran passed away," he says. "Someone I went to school with was killed. Then there were a few people around me… not dying, but getting ill, getting older. I think it's never come into my thought process that much before. It used to feel a million miles away."

But don't despair. An end has a start, after all, and Editors wouldn't be the success they are if all they did was churn out intolerably heavy slabs of black-cloud depression. Although these tunes obviously do cruise the shadows, there's an optimism to the new songs which shines through on the record. "There's an awful lot of love there, and a warmth, and a hope," says Smith. "Those are the things that make these scary things not so scary. There's an acceptance of death and a realisation that it's part of life, I guess. With a lot of the songs, when there's a dark moment, there'll also be a line of hope."

Producer Garret "Jacknife" Lee, who's worked with the likes of U2, Bloc Party and Snow Patrol, understood what the hell they were on about, and the pair light up at the mention of his name. "That love and warmth - Garret got that quite early on," explains Smith. "He'd talk about these religious moment in songs, where there's a sense of release; he'd talk about clouds parting, things making sense all of a sudden. We've always been excited by those kind of moments in music – you're watching Sigur Ros or Arcade Fire and everything is amazing. I still think on the first record there are some big uplifting moments, but with this one, we really tried to squeeze every bit of emotion from each song. As a result, you feel a bit overwhelmed and exhausted when you've finished listening to the record. But it's exciting."

Their first encounter with "Jacknife" – apparently he wanted a cool name when he started doing dance remixes, so he just made one up - sums up the man rather well. "One of the first things he said when we walked into the studio," says Leetch, laughing, "was that Paul McCartney had been hit by a train. We were like, 'What, today?' And he paused then went, 'No, I'm only joking!' That was your initial warm-up treatment for Jacknife Lee."

Lee's off-the-wall style helped when the stress started to kick in: "If things were getting tense in the studio, he'd just throw himself off his chair, or snap his fingers and say 'Let's go and play hide and seek', or take us out shooting."

But it wasn't just his "oblong" side, as the pair describe it, that appealed to them. "Jacknife describes sound in a way that I've never heard anyone else describe it," says Smith.

"It could be that he's not very good at describing sound, or he's an absolute genius," adds Leetch. "It could be either. Sometimes he'd describe what emotion he wanted just by going…" He silently makes a strange upward swooping gesture with his arm.

"Or he'll say he wants it to sound 'like a polar bear sleeping'," adds Smith. "Sometimes it takes a while to get what he means…"

Lee was involved in the new songs from the start, hearing the initial demos and contributing his own ideas way before the songs were fully formed. Leetch talks of "a really great bond" between Lee and the band and speaks of their desire to have an ongoing musical relationship, mentioning such producer-artist partnerships as Tony Visconti and David Bowie, Brian Eno and U2, Nigel Godrich and Radiohead.

But he worked them pretty hard – drummer Ed Lay in particular. It was very different to the two weeks spent recording The Back Room, says Leetch. "With that album we were just recording what we had, but with this we had two months. We could put different parts and pieces together in a different way, and it transformed the songs. Ed did three days of drumming for When Anger Shows, for example and it's a total journey, that song. I think that's what opens up each song to repeated listens and lets you hear something new each time."

Despite the occasional intensity of the recording, the studio, Grouse Lodge, sounds like it was quite the haven. A country estate in the middle of Ireland, it allowed the band to get away and find a bit of space. "It was a bit rough round the edges. When we describe it, we call it 'homely'," says Smith.

"Massive open log fires, friendly human beings, lots of animals…" adds Leetch.

Er, what kind of animals?

"Horses, dogs, cows that you could see as you open your curtains in the morning. I was going to say pigs, there were no pigs. There was a vicious cat for a while - but it died," he says, laughing.

Smith brings things back to the music: "It's very easy to be creative there. There's space for each of us to be trying lots of things at the same time. The first record we did in the middle of nowhere – it was lot smaller, we were on top of each other, three weeks felt like it was too long. So we were a bit hesitant in going out to the middle of nowhere to do this, but as soon as we were there, the vibe was good. We didn't get bored. And the Guinness was phenomenal."

Generally, Editors come across as a hard-working band of professionals, viewing their music with an unflinching and workmanlike seriousness. Onstage they'll usually be seen wearing all black, bar the odd messianic white shirt from Smith, a bid for a kind of timeless look that'll put them outside fashion. "We don't want to be wearing hyper-coloured glowing t-shirts," as Smith puts it. Leetch invokes an alternative future in which they would look back with embarrassment on "the hat years".

And it's clear that talking about stuff that isn't directly related to the music itself generally provokes less enthusiasm. We ask whether Smith is still seeing celebrity girlfriend Edith Bowman, the Radio 1 DJ, and get a curt, but clearly practised, "that's none of your business" (though he laughs in a way that suggests the answer is probably yes). With the mention of Ireland's Guinness, we wonder whether they're prone to rock and roll excess, noting that Leetch is sipping a solitary glass of red wine, while Smith is on peppermint tea.

"We're sensible," says Leetch. "If we say we're going to do something, we'll do it. We're not rude." Then, obligingly, as if he knows he should try and give good, spicy copy: "Of course, we like to go out and drink. We could drink most other bands under the table… Well I could have a go." But they almost seem surprised to be asked – they're just four youngish guys who party like anyone else their age does. Just not on a school night, it seems.

What with this and that rather grown-up music they make, are they wise beyond their years?

"No, not at all," says Smith. "I'm sure some people think a lot of what I sing is nonsense, and that's completely fine, but it means something to me. I'm not any kind of intellectual higher being or anything. I just sit down to write, the words come out, and I sing 'em. When I first started writing songs on my own, I was very much into your Thom Yorkes and your Jeff Buckleys, but I quickly realised that wasn't where I was. I realised I was a little… further down. But you gotta push yourself."

The question of influences and sound-alikes is a sticky one with Editors. Interpol and Joy Division frequently come up, comparisons the group aren't so keen on, not because they don't respect those bands, simply because they feel it's not accurate. However, Smith knows that it's churlish to sulk. "Even the comparisons that are annoying are still good; we don't get mentioned alongside bands that are shit. It's not like being compared to Scooch, is it? But we get the countless million Joy Division comparisons – but they're just not an influence."

Had you not listened to Joy Division before The Back Room?

"Listened? Heard. It's just that people were saying they were an influence on us as people and as musicians and they weren't really. I couldn't talk to a Joy Division fan about Joy Division music very well. But they are very good, obviously."

Back in the bar, we ask about the interviews they've done so far and what, apart from being told they sound like Joy Division, they hate getting asked. With irritation, guitarist Chris Urbanowicz mentions a Swedish journalist who told them during an interview, that they were "too aggressive" for Coldplay fans. "I was like: so?"

Well exactly. Watching their first proper UK gig in a year at the Roundhouse the following week, it's striking how forceful, intense and, hell, how downright rocking Editors are live. And it's their gigs that will sway any doubters – the band conjure up an excitement and power that's perhaps not always there in their studio material. Although it sounds like blather when Leetch says the band don't have one defining single (like, 'Munich', hello?), the reception songs like 'Bullets', 'All Sparks' and 'Blood' get suggests he may have a point.

Meanwhile, Smith is a hugely assured and watchable frontman, an animated version of Edward Munch's The Scream, clutching his head, wringing his hands and hugging himself, like a man with a series of uncontrollable twitches. Although he's grown his hair, he still won't escape those Ian Curtis comparisons. And now Smith is sitting down at the piano for several of tonight's songs, rocking back and forth while he plays, another comparison which seems almost unavoidable is (and you can see what that Swedish hack was about, here) Chris Martin and Coldplay. And that's a big band to be compared to. "Editors: the Coldplay it's okay to like", anyone?

They're not there yet, so let's look further ahead: where would Editors like to be in 10 years time?

"It's just about trying to be a band that's there because they deserve it, because they're good, you know?" says Smith. But it's that slow build that'll do it: "We've always said we want to be one of those bands that makes record on record on record and evolves and pushes themselves and is just… Editors."

Just Editors, then. Soon we won't need to compare them to anyone.

'Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors' is out now
An End Has A Start is out now
Check out for live dates


deanne said...

Hey - I like SheBu! Hmph! (Fond memories of SheBu Walkie).

And was Tom Smith alright with you describing him as an animated version of 'The Scream', because I'd be a bit miffed.

(Plus Kate Moss bears way more resemblance surely?)

Will said...

Hmmm. I guess it has character.

Unfortunately Mr Smith didn't get back to on the comparison - but he totally does live.