The Maccabees seem to be engulfed by opposites: London lads who grew up liking The Libertines, starting to make music at an early age and having been musicians ever since. Their fanbase growing up with them but still counting fans much younger than themselves. All this leads to the expectation that we will find a laddish band.
On the other hand most boast rather elegant first names, certainly enjoyed quite a privileged upbringing and yet they pull it off in the North of England as well since they have worked immensely during the past decade or so since they came together.
The result are four albums to date (the last one being darker and grown-up), convincing live shows (better than their peers, I dare mumble), a Mercury prize nomination, film soundtracks etc.
I remember vividly a performance at Jools Holland where I was astounded that they were much older than I thought they were, down to the expertise on stage. However, wrong, they are still in their late twenties and yet their latest album “Marks To Prove It” seems to be about getting older, about reconciling with the past, reaching out to former friends and starting to appreciate the small things in life. More like someone in the middle of their life really.
The Maccabees are taking their songs on an immensely long tour and I had the chance to see them in Cologne, Germany, last Thursday. Moreover, I had the opportunity to speak to Hugo White (guitar, vocals), almost a second frontman as he is far more a natural performer than singer Orlando Weeks who is quieter and concentrating on the songs, and Sam Doyle (drums).
I would also like to mention their very good indeed support Johnny Lloyd, keep your eyes and ears peeled for Johnny!
Thank you very much, Hugo and Sam, for taking the time to answer my questions and in such a nice way as well. Thank you also, everyone at Caroline, especially Isa and Christian. You will be able to hear snippets of the interview in my radio shows on NOVUMfm and ByteFM.
Here is the interview in print and you can find the original audio at the bottom of this post.
Offbeat Music: So how is the tour going so far?
Hugo: For this one we have only done two shows so far, we did Amsterdam and Brussels. This year we have already been to Australia, then England and then this. We did a lot.
Sam:Even though they are kind of separate tours and separate countries…we had like one day off inbetween the Australia and the UK tour and then one day between the UK tour and here. It blends into one.
Offbeat Music: But I heard that the London shows went really well and the Manchester shows.
Hugo: Yeah, amazing. They were really a highlight. The biggest shows we’ve done.
Offbeat: Nice venues as well.
Hugo: Yeah, really nice venues, (chuckles), it is the opposite to tonight (more chuckling). This is…I like the venue, don’t get me wrong. It is a different kind of occasion.
Sam: A different approach.
Offbeat: Yep. I hope you get a great audience here though. You have got four albums so far – would you quickly take us through them, saying a sentence or two about each. What it is like looking back onto them.
Hugo: The first one was…we were starting the band when I was sixteen. And that first album was maybe the third set of songs from learning to play music. This was before Sam was in the band. We had a different drummer at that time. The naïvete in the record is a nice thing, looking back on it. I still feel quiet fond of it and those songs. The second album was when Sam got involved. We wrote most of it in Brighton. At the time we were living in Brighton. We recorded it in France, in Paris. We definitely moved on from the first record, we had developed, so we started to understand what we were doing a bit more and trying to achieve.
Sam: Also we had Marcus Dravs, the producer, on that one. We still have a very good relationship with him. Haven’t worked together again since but he is still a good friend of ours.
Third record: We wrote in a different approach. We wrote individually and in pairs and a lot on laptops. So it kind of existed in a laptop rather than in a live room or rehearsal room. Because of that, we ended up using a lot more studio techniques and recording interfaces, not trickery, but a more computerised approach.
And then for this record, we wanted to take it back to a more natural band approach. So we wrote it all together in a room, rather than in bits and pieces. And that brings us to now.
Offbeat: But you took it to the extreme. You spent a long time in the studio together. Were you not starting to get onto each other’s nerves or to fight?
Hugo: We did on all of them. All of the records were at least two years of work. Actually, in some ways, it is the way we always worked. But I think, we always surprise ourselves each time because we start the process thinking because we’ve just finished touring and it’s been great and we’ve been playing the shows every night…so you get slightly deluded into the fact, you forget the difficulty of making it, you just enjoy the ease of it. Then, when you start going back into the studio, it hits you very early on that it is actually not easy to progress and to make music and aim for something higher, to achieve something higher than you did before. It is difficult. We just about manage. It is difficult because it is collaboration. There is a lot of us involved. Even collaborating with one person is difficult. Everyone has an input which is also one the reasons why I think the band is great because there is that and we do that. It is a collaborative and one person’s initial idea is nowhere near, is rarely anywhere near what it ends up becoming. It becomes what it does because of collaborative and everyone else’s input.
Sam: And also the thing is, the older you get, the more knowledge you have and the more personal taste you develop. In a way that makes it harder to collaborate and find that middle ground, that ease of coherence. But then that’s what it makes it more rewarding when you eventually get there.
Offbeat: If you have a lot of ideas or music snippets before you go into the studio. Do you find it hard to actually turf out an idea if it absolutely does not work or will you keep it and come back to it?
Hugo: No, we slave over it if there’s something good. A lot of the things on this record were like one bit of a verse that did not have lyrics but a melody, a sound that we wanted to keep. We worked on these for long periods of time. Some of the songs were, although the initial idea might have been there, worked on – if you added the hours up, it’s a long time.
Sam: But we are quite ruthless at getting rid of stuff. If anything sounds too this or too that. The first year of writing was basically a bit of a write-off. We had so many morsels and bits and pieces that didn’t quite work or weren’t strong enough to carry through. So we ended up culling most of that and starting a lot from scratch, only holding on to the few ideas like Hugo said that had legs.
Hugo: And we got more than on previous records of stuff that we didn’t finish. At one point we got every idea that we had recorded, at least 130 things. They all had names, the dates or the place they were made at. Then we did have to sit there after a year and go: How are we going to make THIS into an album? But through persistence and hard work, we managed to get the best out of what was there and make a concise record that has unity to it.
Offbeat: Your music also has these unexpected edges. Maybe on the first record you already were not one-in-a-million bands but now it is really individual and your music takes unexpected turns. Do you do that deliberately or does it just happen or is the way you have developed?
Hugo: Yeah, I think it is deliberate. A lot of the beauty of that sometimes is that it is two different ideas coming from two different places and they are different things and we know that we are going to make them work.
Sam: Everyone has aspirations to basically never do the same thing again. That is not interesting in terms of making music, writing music. So it is constantly an amalgamation of trying to take it to different places and that is where a lot of them come from, merging two songs together and two different ideas and try to find a way to make them gel and fit together. It is not kind of intentional. The only intentional thing is to not regurgitate what you have done before. We spent a long time to try to mesh things and make things work and a lot of time we didn’t. But hopefully we found a way to make it sit together.
Offbeat: It shows nicely on “Spit It Out” because it has these very quiet parts and then gets louder and louder, spirals up and sort of explodes. Even the quiet parts have this underlying darkness or danger – they are not twee or anything.
Hugo: There is more strength to it than we used to have musically, the depth of it is serious.
Sam: I think on “Marks To Prove It”, the opening track as well, that’s a kind of clear sign of merging two different ideas. The slower parts when it drops down in tempo…a lot of the songs went through ten different versions before we settled on a final one. It was the same song, not two different songs but at one point the song existed like a down-tempo with that kind of groove, that kind of swing. We did not want to lose elements of that and we thought how about if we have a sudden switch. We try and make it seamless but also feels like it had a sense of purpose.
Offbeat: Does the record company try to hurry you up a bit?
Hugo: Not really, they have been amazing. We have been with Fiction since the day one. They signed us on the first record. They stand by whatever we’re feeling like doing and that allows us to do it. They’ve definitely been great.
Sam: We’ve got a really good relationship with them. It is nice to feel that sense of trust from them. They leave us to it. They don’t say it in so many words but they definitely have patience.
Hugo: They have been worked on. We definitely made them worry before. (Laughter). But they never decided they are going to change it.
Offbeat: Lyrically, so it seems to be, on every album, you are dealing more and more with getting older, with memories which maybe you would like to change, being traumatised…but saying in the end, look, you have to sort of compromise, look at the small things, start appreciating those, so bit of a silver lining there.
Hugo: Orlando does the majority of the lyrics. But the themes are there, especially on the last record. Appreciating the everyday kind of things that you can ignore in your everyday life but acknowledging them was highlighted lyrically.
Sam: The third album – that was a strong theme of it. Reaching a point in your life where your friends are having kids. A lot about parenting and nurturing. The next kind of progression is to, once you have made that shift – and this is what the last record is about – see the here and now, what stage you are at now.
Offbeat: Is there the link also to Elephant & Castle. It’s changing, it is becoming anonymous and it used to be – with nostalgia or without – individuals living there, it used to have character? Now it is losing that?
Hugo: A little bit. The Elephant & Castle bit was just because that’s where our studio is. We became part of stories of the area.
Sam: We never took a break between the third and fourth record. We went straight back into the studio which was a bit detrimental in a way. Because we went straight back into writing, we didn’t really have time to do anything else. That’s all we knew. So obviously our immediate environment day-to-day is our most direct reference to draw upon.
Offbeat: Also the sea seems to play a part in many of your songs?
Sam: Orlando does a lot of walking, along coastlines, as a kind of escape from London. The polar opposites. It is highlighting the two extremes. An extremely urban environment, a frantic pace of life and then the other side of the coin.
Hugo: Weird, we never noticed that.
Offbeat: You have a very good fanbase who appreciate you as a hard-grafting band. How do you see your fanbase?
Hugo: Especially on the tour we have come off in England, felt like a real..you don’t get crowds like that without being a band for ten years. People that had grown up with the band and developed with us. They would come and see us when they were fifteen. People who had our first record when they were ten. Now they are in their twenties. As our audience got older as well, there’s a real mix of people of every age group. We could not ask for a better fanbase.
There are a lot of people who understand what we are trying to do which is an amazing thing. We could have done this work and people not understand it. To come out with that record and to feel people listening to it and feeling the emotions we tried to make the record build on – you can’t ask for more than that.
Offbeat: Like you are part of their lives. A lot of people wonder: How can you be so sad about David Bowie’s death? But for some people his music was substituting friends and family.
Hugo: Yeah, exactly, and the importance of music is amazing.
Sam: The connection you build with it, the emotional connection is undeniable. It is a beautiful thing to see people stick with you over the years.
Hugo: When we were young and the bands that we would go and see and have this connection with and still do now – it is that piece of music even though you never told that person or the people who made it: That piece of music is so important , more important than anything. The fact to be in a position where people have that with our music, is brilliant, innit?