Hours before they storm The Olympia armed with fresh material and newly pressed suits, The Maccabees’ guitarist Felix White and drummer Sam Doyle chat to Eva Griffin about their latest album, questionable DJ sets and the art of Sociology.
The elusive number one album – a mere pipe dream for some fledgling bands and a mark of respect for some veterans. It can be trying to discern what sonic recipe sends an album straight to the top of the charts: stick to what you know, blend into the trends or come out guitars blazing with the most original material you can muster? An audience can be hard to please, and a solid fan base can prove impossible to please album after album. For London based quintet The Maccabees, a band lauded by NME as the “band to bury landfill indie”, hitting that height hasn’t necessarily been on their radar four albums down the line.
Doing the press rounds from their dressing room ahead of their highly anticipated set at The Olympia, guitarist Felix White and drummer Sam Doyle seem largely unfazed by the number one achievement, finally attained by their July release, Marks To Prove It. White certainly appreciates the recognition, though he concedes that a band’s stance on the charts can be problematic: “It is difficult not to quantify it sometimes because not always the best music is the most successful music, and you don’t want to mark your band by just wanting to have number ones, but honestly it felt great.” Doyle echoes this sentiment, adding, “It’s nice to have a sense of progression – not that we obsess over chart positions – but for it to keep getting better and better feels like a nice sense of reward.”
As they gear up to tour their first album in four years, the pre-gig jitters are palpable as the pair swing their legs haphazardly from the dressing room table. Fans have been eagerly awaiting a follow up to 2012’s Given To The Wild, and it seems the band shared that anticipation, though with a tinge of unease. “We were manically trying to make a record,” White admits, and though both he and Doyle follow the statement with a laugh, the creative slump has only taken on a humourous quality in hindsight. Returning home from touring a successful album and finding themselves stuck both physically and sonically was certainly daunting, with Doyle claiming that during that time the band didn’t enjoy the luxury of a break. White paints a particularly morbid yet mundane image of the process: “It was like a three year black hole while making the album. We probably should be cooler about it and be a bit more mystical and mythical but we just find it really hard to make a record – it takes ages.”
Forcing themselves into a myriad of creative constraints proved fruitless until their chosen – and certainly humble – abode of Elephant and Castle opened up a different kind of inspirational door. Marks To Prove It is a well-paced affair; it shoots and scurries via infectious hooks, pausing to peer through vignettes of South London life and ponder old age in the affecting lyrics of frontman Orlando Weeks. Choosing a local monument to adorn the album cover, the Faraday Memorial blinks out from a night-time backdrop, a far cry from the earthen tones of Given To The Wild and the standout pop awash on their debut’s sleeve, and a move towards mature, universal lyricism.
“‘You guys are old and miserable and you’re all dark… you guys got kind of weird.’”, White quips when asked if this dip into gloom is just an ageing effect. All five members are now edging towards middle age; White’s brother and fellow guitarist Hugo and bassist Rupert Jones round out the line-up. White pauses to consider the band’s progression. “I think the first album there’s – definitely, listening to it now – a massive sense of naivety to it and it sounds very young, which is really nice in a lot of ways. It’s kind of always sentimental even playing it now. I don’t know about sounding darker… if that was necessarily intentional, but the new record does feel quite introspective and literally dark, it sounds like evening to me.”
While the evocation of evening suggests a sense of calm, the album starts with a scream, one that White claims as his own while pointing out that it comes with connotations of horror films like The Shining – perhaps then, the album examines the horror of modern living? Doyle has a more lax suggestion for why the scream is a fitting introduction: “It’s got that kind of urgency and immediacy that we’re looking for in, not only that song [‘Marks To Prove It’], but in the object of the record.” With that in mind, it could be that the pressing need to finish an album influenced the overall sound. Doyle almost agrees. “Maybe subconsciously. I think the track ‘Marks To Prove It’ came quite late, it was one of those latter tracks as we were finishing so maybe there was a bit of that sense of venting a little bit.”
The frustration at their own perceived inability to rectify time spent with amount of output seems to have pulled The Maccabees in a new direction. Indeed, across their career the band have been loath to cling to just one sonic tether tying their distinct sound together, having swapped out preppy rhythms for Americana horn sections. White admits that the number of instruments and layers has decreased in order to close the expanse that was Given To The Wild. While this has added a sense of delicate intricacy to their musicality, it comes with the advantage of being more natural to replicate in a live setting. “It just felt kind of exciting to be that exposed and vulnerable,” White explains. “These days you can sometimes fall into the trap of making everything sound perfect… I think we ended up with a record that does just sound like The Maccabees, which maybe we hadn’t achieved before.”
If Marks To Prove It is the closest the quintet have come to distilling their sound, do they think it’s necessarily plausible for a band to progress their career with a chosen, static style? “I think some bands are really good at it,” White admits. “The last three or four of The National’s records have sounded aesthetically roughly similar but the content is good and interesting enough to hold your attention. I think that’s quite cool when a band just says ‘that’s what we do’, but we’ve never been like that, we’ve been a bit restless.”
That inability to stay put has kept The Maccabees on a constant cycle of moving between the studio and the stage. At this point in their career, they’re looking forward to taking a proper step back from their instruments after this tour, with Doyle adamant that it will be a beneficial break. “That’s [the lesson] we kind of learned from after Given To The Wild, because we didn’t take a break at all and went straight back into the studio. That was detrimental because there’s no breathing space. You need to live a bit of life to have something to write about in the first place.” White also notes that being in a band requires downtime, and the lack thereof can leave you feeling as if you’ve missed something. “Of course there’s a life beyond it. I think you do realise that the things that you said to yourself when you were fifteen, that you would sacrifice anything to do this, you actually have sacrificed them. I wouldn’t change it though; it’s a blessed existence.”
Touring offers the obvious possibility of travelling, though constant gigging and the continuous press circuit mean bands very rarely get to see the sights. Thankfully, both White and Doyle have enjoyed “some good nights out in Dublin”, citing Whelan’s as a favourite spot. White even got to explore another side to his musical talents when given the opportunity to DJ in The Academy – will this be his next pursuit when The Maccabees tour comes to an end? “Have you heard us DJ though? We’re kind of out of touch with what people even listen to in clubs anymore.” At White’s confession, Doyle desperately interjects to save face among the cool kids of the dance scene: “No, Felix, we’re trying to get more gigs! Spread the word – we’re great DJs.” So if you missed their raucous set at The Olympia, be sure to catch them spinning some delectable tunes at a club night near you.
Diving into the subject of alternative careers on the back of White’s DJ confession, both musicians initially come up blank, though Doyle has a background in film and theatre that he would enjoy pursuing if time allows. White, conversely, doesn’t seem too keen to continue his foray into sociology that began his university experience, especially since he struggles to explain his long lost art. “Sociology is the study of society with application and reference to human behaviours in different topical contexts…” he trails off, leaving Doyle shaking his head and whispering the refrain “You’re just making that up.”
With this challenge to flaunt his knowledge, so begins a rather odd digression as the interview further descends into laughter on Doyle’s end. “I could tell you stuff about Japanese business models compared to other business models… not business models but like how they treat… oh I’ve forgotten it now.” Though White attempts to explain himself further, it seems most of his time in sociology lectures gave way to daydreams of studios and stages. “I’ve literally come up with that now,” he concedes, before finally answering the initial question with tongue firmly in cheek. “If I did something else in my life I’d probably pick up a bit more of my own Japanese research on business models, just take that further.”
If the sociological end of things doesn’t hold up, can we expect to see The Maccabees on tour forever? Probably not, according to White. “I can’t see us rocking in our sixties,” he says, though he admits that the temptation to switch things up lies on the horizon. “I was super into the matching outfits. I’m trying to still get everyone to wear suits together, but I just can’t organise that sense of cohesion with us.”
White isn’t the only one upset with the lack of formal wear in their stage shows, as Doyle recalls a similarly dissatisfied fan of fancy. “I think it was in Berlin after Wall of Arms came out… the cover was by an artist by Boo Ritson where she literally covers you in paint, so we were all painted and photographed. This woman came up to me and said ‘yes, I thought the concert was good but you didn’t wear the outfits,’ and I was like ‘what outfits?’ She said ‘the outfits from the album’! I was like ‘you think we get covered in paint every night?’”
Though touring is often the great love easing its unsteady arms across a band’s career, musicians pressed for ‘fun’ backstage tales of debauchery can disappoint clamouring journalists. White namechecks Carrie Brownstein and her book Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl to illustrate that tour life is simply life on the road: equally as dull. “She was saying it’s the worst thing trying to explain to people what it’s like being on tour… It’s based around trying to work out where you’re gonna get food and how you’re gonna sleep and getting hot water… just very basic things [but] people always want to get this thing out of you.”
That said, the band do come armed with a set of favourite stories, one revolving around Doyle and the band’s old penchant for drinking before and after gigs. During a previous festival season where a pint provided not only some relaxation but refreshment from the blistering heat, Doyle passed out backstage donning a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. “Whilst he’s passed out it becomes a bit of a photo opportunity,” White explains. “We start putting peanuts on his head, that kind of thing. He becomes a bit of a tourist attraction and people start taking notice.” Then divine intervention swoops in and lands Them Crooked Vultures backstage, the super group comprising Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and one John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame. White sees an unmissable opportunity as these stars align. “So I – in a fit of real drunken confidence – just bolt straight over to them and explain the situation that Sam was passed out there and it’d be great if we got photos with them.” And so, there exists in the universe a photo of Jones next to an unsuspecting fan. “They told me at around midnight when we left the festival,” Doyle shakes his head and casts a side-eye at his bandmate. “Very cruel.” So, is that the drummer’s proudest moment in his 12 years with The Maccabees? “No, not that proud of that one,” he sighs, before White pipes up, “It’s my proudest moment.”
Marks To Prove It is out now.