Bombay Bicycle Club
There are few things in music more exhilarating than the sound of a young band in a hurry. Velocity, hunger, surprise: these are the qualities that keep a band interesting. Bombay Bicycle Club's third album in as many years reminds you there was a time when new bands put out a record every year or so, each one expanding their territory and making listeners reassess their assumptions. As its title promises, A Different Kind of Fix is not at all what you'd expect. It is the sound of a band throwing the doors wide open and confounding all preconceptions.
The band members have never wasted much time. Frontman Jack Steadman, guitarist Jamie MacColl (grandson of folk legend Ewan, nephew of the late Kirsty), bassist Ed Nash and drummer Suren de Saram formed the band at school in north London in 2006. They won a competition to play at that year's V festival, released two EPs the next year and wrote their debut album, I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose, while still at school. It came out in 2009 and went gold.
This is where most new bands would take a year or so to regroup and plot their next move. Instead, Bombay Bicycle Club took a left-turn with 2010's folk-influenced Flaws, which included covers of Joanna Newsom and John Martyn. Their label was initially reluctant to release a second album so soon, and an acoustic one at that, but Flaws grazed the top 10 and was nominated for an Ivor Novello award. "I think that's what bands should do," says Jack. "I don't know how bands can make the same album over and over again. After Flaws it's all out in the open. We can do whatever we want."
Signposts to their third record emerged last year in the form of Jack's low-key solo tracks on Soundcloud and MySpace, bearing the influence of J Dilla's instrumental hip hop and Flying Lotus's fidgety electronica. It was a dramatic departure from the stripped-down, organic sound of Flaws but it hadn't come out of nowhere. Jack has been making electronic music in private since he was 14, when he first discovered Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. "With that type of music, until you become comfortable with producing it, it sounds like a 10-year-old's made it," he explains. "You can be bad at playing guitar and a song can still sound great but with electronic music you need to be a bit of a nerd. I've been trying for a long time."
The band reconnected with long-time producer Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian) in London last autumn and again in Hamburg in February. They also traveled to Atlanta in April to record Shuffle, Your Eyes and Favourite Day with Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley, M.I.A.). Tinie Tempah was in the studio next door. "He came in," says Jack. "'Oh I'm a huge fan, when are we going to collaborate?' He was charming everyone." Finally, it was mixed by Craig Silvey (Arcade Fire, Portishead, the Horrors).
"We'd always talked about making an album in one place with one producer and we ended up with the complete opposite," says Jamie.
Throughout the album, the production is intrinsic to the songwriting process rather than a final polish. Many songs started out as laptop loops or rearranged samples before blossoming into full-band pop songs. How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep, which appeared in demo form on the soundtrack to Twilight: Eclipse, opens the album with eye-widening mantric dream-pop. The first single Shuffle compresses hip hop breakbeats, highlife guitars, chopped-up piano samples and the campfire psychedelia of Animal Collective into one of the most irresistible pop songs of the summer.
Lights Out, Words Gone makes common cause with chillwave via looped vocal harmonies and dewy-fresh Balearic guitar. Take the Right One's scintillating, multi-layered sound came about when Abbiss suggested recording four different versions, each one more effects-heavy than the last, and then playing them back all at once. Leave It even lifts its opening motif from a Puccini opera, recasting it as stirring guitar-pop with backing vocals from singer-songwriter Lucy Rose (who also appears on Lights Out, Words Gone).
Other songs had a more traditional evolution. The legacy of Flaws is felt in Beggars, which moves from spartan folk into thrumming rock and celestial sighs, and the sonorous Fracture, a song from the Flaws tour that was filled out, recorded in a church and produced by the whole band. What You Want ("about being a pushover in relationships") builds a bridge back to the debut and, further still, to the resonant, raincoated indie-rock of the Chameleons and Kitchens of Distinction. The final, self-produced song, Still, is a falsetto piano ballad with hints of Thom Yorke, a gentle touchdown after 50 minutes of sonic adventure.
Pressed about what these songs are about, Jack becomes elusive. The lyrics this time are clues and fragments rather than stories, and he feels more comfortable that way. "We were so young when we started, we weren't self-conscious at all. We didn't think anyone would listen to the songs. The reason I started making music was because I couldn't express with words what I wanted to say."
Bombay Bicycle Club have always had youth on their side. Through touring and social media, they have built a fiercely loyal, tattooing-lyrics-on-their-arm kind of fanbase. "I've always thought it was because of having fans who were the same age as us who could come to talk to us after a gig and relate to us," says Jack. But A Different Kind of Fix is a giant step into adulthood: an intoxicating, enveloping record, which anchors its diverse inspirations in the warmth and dynamism of Jack's songwriting. It draws the strands of I Had the Blues, Flaws and Jack's solo instrumentals into a panoramic picture of what this band is capable of. It is a watershed for the band: not just their best record yet, but a promise of still better to come.
"Bands these days get so pigeonholed by their first album, which 40 years ago was not the case, but we're constantly trying to find the kind of music we want to make," says Jamie. "And I'm not sure we've discovered that yet."
Long may they continue searching.