Standing underneath the 15th century viaduct that towers over a sodden Leeds’ backstreet, a stream of impeccably dressed city folk take their turn in eying the buzzing back door of The Cockpit as it rattles on its hinges.
Unaware of the numerous furrowed brows of confusion they were inadvertently creating, London Grammar pound through a stripped down, based up sound-test on the evening of their second to last gig of a month long tour. I spend ten minutes enjoying live reworkings of ‘Metal and Dust’ and ‘Nighcall’ before the band’s manager Sweeney beckons me into the sparsely decorated backroom.
London Grammar are a three piece often compared to The XX, both in terms of sound and the acute trajectory of their meteoric success. Yet both comparisons are flawed. Undeniably, sparsely plucked guitar notes do fall in-between down-tempo beats in a manner similar to that of the Wandsworth trio, but to liken them wholeheartedly is to severely undermine that which has seen London Grammar infatuate festival crowds and Radio stations. Notes of pure power from lead vocalist Hannah Reid float up and down the entire vocal spectrum as pin-point minimalism reaches the epic on a level way-a-way from The XX’s sparse ghostliness. As for the hasty success, Dan Ashcroft, the band’s guitarist, is quick to dispel this myth as he walks me into an adjacent, snack filled room.
“We met in Nottingham in 2009 and after a few shows together got signed by Ministry. We were very lucky. Now a days the record companies have a lot more control, but we got signed off of one record online so we could just disappear. People used to do that a lot more. Now they wait for bands to have a bit more of the impact online before they sign, when most of the work is done.”
Dan walks around the room whilst talking to me, inspecting the quality of the innumerable packets of sweets piled high on the side board. As he does so James, the first support act, walks in. “I’m fucked, I’m not playing. I pushed it way too hard last night. The doctor says I have a fever, a chest infection.” Dan suggests bed, to which James replies “I’m going to. I’ve got such a high fever I’m getting a slight heart murmur. Big old line of cocaine would do.” Dan laughs a little bit and sets about making a substitute cup of tea, explaining that he’s “a good person.”
With James gone and the tea brewing, I ask if the band managed to return to Nottingham, their university town, whilst on tour.
“We did. It was really amazing going back. I went to so many gigs at Rescue Rooms and saw some big bands there. I saw Bombay Bicycle Club and Miike Snow, so I associate the venue with big artists. It’s funny how little things like that make you realise where you are in the spectrum of other bands.”
At this point Dot, the man behind the keyboard, drum machine and production, walks in. He is immediately friendly, shaking off bits of the entourage and offering me a fruit pastel. After accepting, I ask the pair if they still had the time or inclination to listen to the album. Dot explains “No. Every night when you’re playing it its essentially like listening to the record. I find it difficult to even bother to play guitar when we’re not on tour. we used to work so hard, working together everyday. We just can’t face it at the moment.”
At the end of their first UK tour and a week away from extensive European and Australian dates, such slight hints of apathy are forgivable. Short of an ad-hoc American tour, the months following Australia will see the band return to the studio and Dot insists they will remain true to their sound. “I think it will always be minimalist, but the production will change, that’s inevitable.” Dan adds “I think it will be minimal, but the less there is, the more special the little things are when you do put them in. A minimal amount of layers, but perfect those layers. It can make them even more interesting.”
Walking to the fridge and rummaging through bottles of beer, Dot wonders whether “there should be a couple of moments that should be more like ‘Metal and Dust’. When you write an album you can’t quite realise how its going to flow. When you play live you really get an idea of it, every song exists as one big piece, one big show. In my opinion, we should at least have another moment like ‘Metal and Dust’ or the end of ‘Flickrers’ where there’s a big release. Hannah didn’t think about it, but she wrote all these crazy melodies where she just has to go for it with her voice. Which is incredible, but I think she’d like a few more moments where it’s a bit more instrumental.”
It is aptly at this point that Hannah walks in and immediately expresses concern for her voice in light of James’ illness and their upcoming spot on Jules Holland next week. Following words of meditative advice and a spot of hair brushing from her stylist, Hannah turns to me and offers a friendly hello.
With all three now present, I ask what the result would be given the opportunity to write a completely self indulgent, pressure free record. Dan suggests that if ‘the three of us were left to our own devices we’d probably end up making completely different records.” Dot and Hannah agree, Dot assuming an album of indie-rock and Hannah one of ‘If You Waits’. The song is a hauntingly simplistic display of vocals, gradually cushioned and lifted by roof of mouth tickling strings Dan explains were “done in prague with a guy called Will Malone who basically arranged all the strings for Massive Attack and The Verve. Live its all synth. I think if we got the chance we’d love to do a Portishead and have live orchestral backing.”
It is unfortunately at this point that Sweeney makes his entrance and tells me my time is up. I am left feeling flattered by the warmth of London Grammar, if not a little disappointed the chance to ask about the gender political implications of the Radio 1 “fit” scandal and look to at Hannah a bit more. As I leave Sweeney makes sure I’ve tickets for the band’s performance that evening.
In the end I didn’t go. What was once an enchantingly sodden Leeds back street is now but a Leeds backstreet; the chill of a clear skied inner city night offering an uncomfortable edge for a slight framed, post McDonald’s music journalist. As I wait in the queue by myself a man approaches me and offers a magic trick in exchange for some coins. I jump at the offer for company and he jumps at the chance to offer me a card. It’s the 4 of diamonds. I place it back in the pack, he shuffles, riffles and produces the 9 of clubs. We try again. I pick the 4 of diamonds. He produces the 7 of hearts. Once more, 4 of diamonds, different card. At this point I note my surprise at choosing the same card three times, to which he says “I know! It’s a fixed pack, I just can’t remember which fucking card comes up.” I give him my tickets. Whether or not London Grammar’s audience are bolstered by this friendly man, one suspects that their success will only continue to increase as they hone an already delicately beautiful sound.