Getting to know clean bandit
“So you think electronic music is boring? You think it’s stupid? You think it’s repetitive? Well it is repetitive.” The opening words to Mozart’s House, Clean Bandits’ entrance into the world of dance music, were very different from your standard dancefloor anthem. But then so was their path – and so is their approach to music.
The quartet, formed of three interlocking pairs – two brothers, two childhood friends and a couple – have kept control over every aspect of their music, including their videos, during a story that spans over 4 years and 2,000 miles. And with the release of debut album, New Eyes, on hand, it’s all coming to beautiful fruition.
Despite the delirious rush of joy that is Rather Be, their first number one and the fastest-selling January single in almost 20 years, the foursome came together in the studious air of Cambridge University and classical music. Here Grace Chatto and Neil Amin-Smith, who performed together from the age of five in North London, were one half of a string quartet. Grace’s boyfriend Jack Patterson began “writing beats and basslines to little snippets of recordings of our concerts to create something different for the people who were coming”, explains Grace.
This led to a club night – the National Rail Disco – and a feverish burst of creativity. “We wrote about 10 songs in two weeks,” says Grace. “One of the most productive time we’ve ever had and that was five years ago.” The quartet performed perched on bar stools while Jack triggered beats from his laptop and friend and regular collaborator Love Ssega MCed. It was the string quartet’s audience and they had no idea what to expect, but the experimental fusion of electronic and classical was a huge success. And the lives of the band changed forever that night. “We knew immediately we wanted to do it seriously,” says Grace.
The club nights continued, with Neil getting ever more into his DJing and the post-dubstep scene (James Blake was an early booking for National Rail Disco). Jack’s brother Luke joined on drums and the creative process continued during Jack and Grace’s extended stay in Russia (her studying Russian; him at film school and working as an exhibition designer), from where they also took their name – Clean Bandit is the literal English translation of a Russian expression meaning ‘utter bastard’.
The shows continued whenever Jack and Grace returned to the UK and on one of these trips they laid down their first track, Mozart’s House, written after the sound of house music from the kiosk below their flat in Moscow lodged itself in Jack’s head. Ssegawa contributed the vocals and Clean Bandit finally had their first recording.
Things were getting serious. More music followed – including the brilliant A&E, a tune begun while Jack was waiting with Grace at Wittington Hospital – which was released by Black Butter Records as well as album deal with Atlantic Records. Clean Bandit’s moved base to South Kilburn Studios, a council-run project offering free space to creatives who take on local apprentices.
They opened two studios – one for music, one for the videos that are an integral part of everything Clean Bandit do – and, handily, some of the apprentices who came to learn about music production were also hugely talented singers. Nikki Cislyn (aka Nikki B) features on A&E, Cologne and Nightingale and has seized the exposure as a springboard to her own publishing deal, while 16-year-old Sharna Bass (“the Rihanna of North London” says Grace) takes lead on the powerful new track Extraordinary, vying with its pizzicato strings, steel drums and oldschool piano house.
It’s typical of a working method that relies mostly on luck and happenstance when it comes to recruiting singers. Eliza Shaddad, who sings on UK Shanty was spotted by Jack busking in East London outside Shoreditch tube station. Jess Glynne, vocalist on Rather Be, has also recently signed to Atlantic. Ssegawa, of course, was a friend at Cambridge (and will likely contribute to Clean Bandit again now that a PhD spent shooting lasers through his own blood is complete). It’s not all new talent, though – one time MJ Cole collaborator and legend of jungle and UK garage, Elisabeth Troy, sings on the garage homage Heart On Fire and is one of just two handling vocals for the live shows (the other being Florence Rawlings).
“Working with different singers brings a different dimension,” explains Neil. “The others couldn’t have done a classic garage vocal like Elisabeth has done. And then Eliza is totally different from anyone else, with a kind of folk voice. It’s hard to imagine just having one.”
Citing label mates Rudimental and tour partners Disclosure as inspiration, Clean Bandit are the newest part of an upsurge of British dance music that makes as much sense on stage and in the charts – singles and albums – as in the clubs. “They have given us a lot of confidence, definitely. When we first started we didn’t know about them, there was only Basement Jaxx [as an example of a successful dance group] and they were not really doing anything at the time,” says Neil. The band co-wrote ‘Extraordinary’, ‘Rather Be’ and ‘Dust Clears’ with Jimmy Napes – the man behind hits for Disclosure, Naughty Boy and more.
Regular support slots with these acts has also taught them a lot about big shows and their sound has consequently grown with the audience. Tunes such as Extraordinary, Come Over featuring Stylo G, and the, in Neil’s words, “soft-pedal drum ‘n” bass” Up Again, are bigger, more powerful than the likes of A&E or Dust Clearsm yet still laden with the subtlety and sensitivity you’d expect from their classical roots.
Unlike their peers, though, Clean Bandit were effectively born on stage. Luke says, “The thing that sets us apart is we’ve always been a band and they’ve always been from the DJ and production world.” “We were going two years before we recorded anything,” Grace adds. “So we’re much less club-focused, it’s not all dance music.”
It’s not just dance music – and it’s not just music. Clean Bandit’s self written, self-directed videos have become a fixture of every release. Jack is the key figure here, having become, in his own words, “quite good with computer graphics” when working in an architectural visualisation studio. “We see the music video as the product as opposed to the song or the video alone,” he says. Until the unavoidable demands of a release schedule took the inevitable toll on Clean Bandit’s working time, they’d refuse to start recording a new song until the video for the old one was complete.
Despite Jack’s skills with graphics, they’re committed to live action video, too. “Jack is very keen on making everything real, says Grace. “As you can tell from the fear on our faces,” adds Neil. So far their videos have seen them battered and blown on a cold January day off the Cornish coast with Lily Cole, dancing on ice (falling through the cracks in Grace’s case), strapped to the roof of a moving car with just a belt as harness and driving a giant motorised snake up one of London’s tallest buildings (OK, that one was CGI).
When Grace, Neil, Jack and Luke first resolved to introduce classical music to some new and interesting ideas, this wasn’t quite what the audience had in mind. Contrary to some reports though, they retain strong links with that world, citing invites to play the Lewes Chamber Music Festival and the “super-cool” Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as a recent show at Tate Britain, where they started with a 10-minute acoustic movement from Mozart before Jack and Luke joined in for a regular Clean Bandit set. “We were kind of just hiding, waiting for our turn to play” recalls Jack. “We need to figure this out, a box to jump out of or something, like Spinal Tap.” Now who says electronic music is boring?
mar 30 masquerade atlanta, ga
mar 31 the cannery ballroom nashville, tn
apr 01 metro chicago, il
apr 03 the pageant saint louis, mo
apr 04 majestic theatre madison, wi
apr 05 first avenue minneapolis, mn
apr 07 gothic theatre englewood, co
apr 09 the marquee theatre tempe, az
apr 10 brooklyn bowl las vegas las vegas, nv
apr 11 coachella indio, ca
apr 13 the regency ballroom san francisco, ca
apr 15 fonda theatre los angeles, ca
apr 16 north park theatre san diego, ca
apr 18 coachella indio, ca
apr 21 the showbox seattle, wa
apr 22 commodore ballroom vancouver, canada
apr 23 wonder ballroom portland, or
may 23 common people 2015 south Hampton, united kingdom
jun 05 governors ball (date tba) new york, ny
jun 08 mr. smalls theatre pittsburgh, pa
jun 09 house of blues cleveland, oh
jun 10 st. andrews hall detroit, mi
jun 12 danforth music hall toronto, canada
jun 13 virgin mobile corona theatre montreal, canada
jun 17 cat's cradle chapel hill, nc
jul 03 wireless festival 2015 london, united kingdom
jul 09 exit festival 2015 novi sad, serbia
jul 10t in the park 2015 perthshire, united kingdom