Ready for crazy but cohesive collages of classical strings, bumpy dance beats and leftfield pop hooks? You better be ‘cos Clean Bandit have ambushed the mainstream with their refreshing blast of irreverent electronic/instrumental brilliance. But they aren’t easy to pin down...
Clean Bandit are one of those bands that are impossible to easily describe without doing them a disservice… or sounding like a clichéd music journo twat. Hot Chip meets deep house with added violins? A glitched-out AlunaGeorge on acid? Wonky garage with classical strings and mutated pop vocals? It’s a game of diminishing descriptive returns mainly because they manage to be so many things at once; but ultimately because they sound like no-one else around.
In recent months, they have rapidly catapulted from cult hipster concern to refreshing mainstream darlings too. In the week that we have been trying to lock down our interview, the quartet have played their debut performance at Glastonbury, seen their latest leftfield pop gem ‘Dust Clears’ hit the BBC Radio 1 playlist, announced a full autumn UK tour and laid down another set of tracks for their hotly anticipated debut artist album.
When we finally catch up with Jack Patterson — the group’s main writer/producer and unofficial spokesperson — he’s at a service station on the M6 on the way to another festival; Beatherder. We talk Sean Paul, violins on ice and their forthcoming album with him...
You have honed such a unique and instantly recognisable sound. How did Clean Bandit come together as a concept?
“Grace who plays cello in the band had a string quartet. I was doing some recording for them back in 2009 and basically started messing around with those recordings; playing around with the strings, using them as samples and adding beats and basslines. We decided to put a night on in Cambridge so hooked up with a vocalist and put together a set's worth of material very quickly, within about two weeks, in order to perform at it.”
Were you all from Cambridge originally?
“Me and my brother Luke are from The Wirral, Grace and Neil are from London, then we all met in Cambridge. Luke actually joined the band later on.”
There’s a crazy mix of sounds in Clean Bandit, but it’s all very musical. What were your formative influences?
“We all had fairly musical upbringings. Luke’s mum was a French horn player in Sydney when she was younger, she packed in playing with professional orchestras to do a philosophy degree. My dad was a DJ back in the day. He DJ’d disco and had a PA. He also had a pirate radio station in Bangor which he broadcast from the top of a church steeple!”
There’s obviously a strong dance backbone to what you do. What were your first dance music loves?
“I’m not sure actually, it’s difficult to say on dance music. When I was younger I hated anything electronic, I was strictly into live music. I was into jazz really — I played saxophone. I also played bass guitar in bands.”
What changed things?
“Radiohead… when they did ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ and moved to electronics it really made me think, wow — so I guess ‘Amnesiac’ was the first electronic album I was into. From that, Squarepusher was the first purely electronic album I got into.”
Your music videos have been consistently impressive and creative. Am I right in thinking that you produce them all entirely yourselves?
“Yeah we do. The band kind of operates as a production company as well. We do it all, from filming to editing.”
Who writes the treatments?
“A lot of time we don’t have treatments. We start filming as we are writing the tune and the song will be informed by what we film and vice versa. We see it like… we don’t make songs, we make music videos. Now with a forthcoming album we are getting as much music written as possible, so that’s changed a bit, but we see the audio and visual as elements that inform each other.”
Was there a moment when you were growing up when you realised the power of music and video together? A music video eureka moment?
“I used to watch so much MTV 2 and VH1 Classics when I was like 15 or 14. I guess the first music video I had was the Michael Jackson Greatest Hits on VHS. It had all his best and biggest music videos on it and I completely wore out that tape. Since I started working with Grace, who also spearheads the video side of what we do alongside me, we realised that she had worn out the same tape. I think Michael Jackson music videos are the pinnacle of that medium.”
The video for ‘Dust Clears’ feels like a particular triumph. Violins and skateboarding on ice, middle-aged figure skaters in cassocks, sunset dancing… where does it all come from?!
“Ha… one of our friends, well, his dad was a champion figure skater of Scotland when he was 17. He’s a really lovely guy but doesn’t really look like a figure skater, as you can see in the video. He’s always incredibly well turned out and wearing a really sharp suit. We just thought that it would be hilarious to get this guy in various positions… and he was up for it. We took him to the ice rink in Marble Arch and practiced some shots, which was brilliant, and it went from there.”
Where was the video itself actually shot?
“In Sweden, a couple of hours north of Stockholm, on an arctic frozen lake. An incredible frozen lake. The ice was so thick you could drive a truck on it.”
‘Mozart’s House’ felt like a real turning point for you, although it was well over a year old by the time it shot up the BBC Radio 1 playlists and UK singles chart. How did an older track pick up such momentum?
“We basically took a new track to a friend who does some radio stuff and he basically pitched that track as well, alongside ‘Telephone Banking’. Suddenly it got picked up by Huw Stephens who was in for Fearne Cotton, then Fearne Cotton played it. The next day, we just had an overload… first it was like lawyers, then booking agents, management, then label. It just picked up after that play basically, it was bizarre. We were just doing it as a hobby really.”
Were there any grand plans at all?
“We were moving towards doing it full time. I’d packed in my job as a architectural designer, I had been working in Russia doing exhibition design. I moved back here to pursue music and music video more seriously, I guess. Then that kind of kicked off.”
It feels like Radio 1 has opened up again. For want of a better word it feels like leftfield pop is back in… it’s certainly less formulaic...
“Definitely. It does feel that pop is in a good place at the moment and for us that’s really cool and really exciting. We like pop music and we’re excited by that genre, but to be able to twist it about a bit is really cool.”
Which pop artists do you think approach things from the most interesting angles?
“Probably Sean Paul (laughs).”
Why Sean Paul?
“I just think he’s great, that’s probably not the right answer to your question in terms of angles, but I just love Sean Paul! I have a lot of time for Shakira, I think she’s great.”
Do you feel part of any scene or movement or do you just see yourself as doing your thing? Is there anyone that you feel a musical affinity with that is out there at the moment?
“The support we had from Black Butter Records has been amazing and everyone there is completely on the right level and on the right track. When we were meeting different labels originally, that was just a total standout meeting. All the music they played us in that first meeting just completely blew us away. They just felt really current and really exciting musically.”
You’re currently working on your debut album, which is due out on Atlantic this autumn. What new areas will you be branching the Clean Bandit sound into?
“Some of it seems to be getting heavier, some of it is getting a bit more leftfield, some of it is much more poppy, so kind of branching out in all directions and also working on lots of different vocal collaborations.