Jungle Beat the Blues By Getting High, Heartbroken and Surreal
The British band talk break-ups and second-album jitters before the release of their new record, ‘For Ever,’ tomorrow.
Photo by Charlie Di Placido
There’s a 1986 Ford Escort XR3 that you might have seen in an early 2014 press shot of the British funk band Jungle. Back then, the group’s leading members seemed almost hidden – not just by name (not long before then they were known just as “T” and “J”), but also their placement in the photo’s mise-en-scène, inconspicuously settled toward the back as they were.
The pair didn’t appear in Jungle’s music videos, either. If you’d only watched 2013 visual “The Heat”, you might have assumed T and J were two black men with a flair for rollerblading and a penchant for green Adidas tracksuits. Those two guys from “The Heat” were the first adult faces associated with Jungle (an earlier video featured the headspinning B-girl Terra) and they also appeared on artwork for the band’s debut single.
In the end, it turned out the rollerbladers were Icky and Silence from the High Rollaz UK skate crew and T and J were Tom McFarland and Josh Lloyd-Watson. By removing themselves from their early press, perhaps they wanted to self protect from criticism or have someone else to hide behind if everything went wrong. They’d been in bands before, failed ones – “indie dross”, they say when we meet. But with Jungle, they wanted to create a conceptual world, inspired somewhat by Gorillaz and heavily stylised along Wes Anderson lines – a scenic, sun-drenched place featuring a rotating cast of characters and a distinct but hard-to-define feeling.
It worked. Their self-titled debut album picked up accolade after accolade. Shortlisted for a Mercury Prize, certified gold, Jungle were adored as much by ASOS shoppers and NME readers as they were drivetime radio mums and dads looking for something to pump through on the school run. They were booked for festival after festival after festival. Syncs rolled in hard and fast too, like this advert for the car brand Toyota, set to “The Heat”. Like Alt-J or The xx, their music was as sellable and commercial as it might have also been deemed alternative and cool.
When the time came for Jungle to write their second album though, everything came apart at the seams. “You know where musicians have this weird thing when they’ve made it? There’s nothing fun or exciting going on...” says Josh, leaning into a chair in east London’s swanky Ace Hotel. He brings up Noel Gallagher (a fan, along with the NME, festival and mum crowds) as an example. “That’s what the writing suffered from with some of those bigger bands, where they’ve made it and then been like, ‘now we’ve got fuck all to write about.’”
The duo had writer’s block, basically. As they put it on the almost mournful second album single “House in LA”, they spent “two whole years on the rewrite”. They couldn’t repeat the sound of their first record, a strange and at times thrilling amalgamation of police siren samples and 80s British soul, told with the eee-ooo-aah-ing head voice of The Bee Gees. Or maybe they could, but they would need to widen their scope. And before they could do that, life needed to properly happen.
When Jungle returned with the trailer announcing their new album, they brought the Ford Escort with them. Instead of sitting on the sidelines and directing the Jungle world, they were the only people in the video – the protagonists in their own story. Having both been through a break-up and at times lived on seperate sides of the Atlantic, they envisioned this car as the place in the Jungle universe where they would come together, “sitting with the door open, like the trailer, talking through stuff, smoking a joint and playing different things on the radio.”
Jungle admit it’s a strange concept for their second album, For Ever. Then again the guys were in the studio when they came up with it, and that usually means being stoned. More autobiographical than their debut, this album is born from uncertainty and growing pains. “You’re never going to change me, I’m already changed” they sing on the warm, golden-hour ready track “Cherry”. “On the first record we were like ‘don’t fucking say ‘love’, that’s cheesy," says Josh. "But I think probably every track on this record says ‘love’ in it. So that’s what it’s about. By my count, only three songs on For Ever actually feature the word “love” but I get his point.
Dressed in clothing that could be from Cos but is likely far more expensive (this is Noisey, not Vogue), the pair sit in awkward positions around the table, so we form a strange triangle. I’m opposite Tom. Josh, the more talkative one, is on my left. They speak almost without prompt about everything from pop music (Josh – “‘New Rules’ is a pop song. ‘One Kiss’ is a pop song”; Tom – “I don’t count what’s on Radio 1 as much really, there’s no artistic integrity in that”) to Instagram. In a relatively peppy, loose conversation peppered with laughs, we spoke about the journey leading to the release of this album, their fear of not being the biggest band in Britain and what, exactly, the Jungle sound is.
Noisey: You went to LA, then came back, and then you went out there again. Is that right?
Josh Lloyd-Watson: The press release that went out is a bit sensationalist on the whole ‘band moved to LA’ thing – it didn’t really work like that. I fell in love with somebody who lived there and gatecrashed for a bit. Tom was still in London and we were working back and forth. It’s more about the experiences of that place, the break-up and what we went through to make the record. It could have been recorded anywhere.
Four years is a long time.
Josh: Totally. If you look at actual dates, our debut was released in 2014. For us, that record was like a weird, building record where people were coming to it a year, two years after we toured it. And the band grew from that. It wasn’t like we were already massive and then it was four years. We spent two years on the road going “where are we going?” and not thinking there was another record to come. It wasn’t really about that. Then we started writing and went straight back into it like, ‘yeah, let’s do this’. But ‘hang on a second, what’s it about?’ You have to have a reason to write a record and a lot of it was waiting for shit to happen, in our own life. At this point right now after going through – well, we both went through the break-ups, which kind of brought us back together in a shared experience. Because everything was good after the first record.
It went gold.
Josh: Yeah. And it felt like, you know, ‘Well done!’ And then I suppose we were kind of looking around going… cool. And for us this record was...
Tom McFarland: Trying to find something tangible. We wanted to make music that to us felt really real and like it was our story.
Josh: Yeah just that tangibility and emotion. I think you’re getting it from everyone. We had two records that came out over the course of us making our record, which was Blonde obviously and Bon Iver’s 22, A Million. Both those records are quite considerable left turns for those artists, so that pushed us into the world of “House in LA” – songs that weren’t necessarily us or what we thought we were. We’d gone out of the first album thinking ‘Oh, we’re this sort of band.’ And ultimately that can be so stifling because then you’re stuck in a box, trying to recreate “Busy Earnin’” again and no one really wants to fucking hear that.
How long were you living in LA for?
Josh: It was on and off for a year and a half. We’d started working on this record. Then I met this girl after we played with Underworld at Hollywood Bowl. That took over and to some extent the creativity probably died a little at that point because I was happy, which is really fucked up. If you look at the first record and the struggle after being in a failed band, multiple failed projects and people not really giving a fuck about anything you do, it then opens up that door to having the drive to want to prove something. If you’re in love and everything is good and happy, you get quite complacent. The break-ups for both of us were very much ‘Sort it out, you’re going to write about it.’ A lot of things in the songs are weird indirects at ex-girlfriends and moments of holiness within yourself at coming to terms with something, like “Cherry”, and basically the journey.
I was always intrigued about what you would do next, because the first album had a lot of familiarity to it.
Josh: It’s difficult. We had a label guy from a different country who was like – ‘you’re lucky you did this record, because for me your first record was perfect, you should have just left it and not done any more music.’
Tom: In his head he wanted us to break up, start another project, do something else.
Josh: But I think fundamentally there are better tracks on this record. There are moments on the first record that are first record moments – “Platoon”, “Busy”, “The Heat”, “Time”, those songs were moments that we’ll never get back.
Because they were such huge singles?
Josh: Well, they’re sonic moments aren’t they. “Platoon” is a weird sounding track that is what it is. You can’t ever recreate that. The Jungle sound can be anything essentially, that’s the weirdness of it, which leaves the door wide open with options. That can be completely clouding in some respects. Especially on this record with the introduction of strings. There are two polarities between the band. If you look at something like “Platoon”, then a track like “Home” – which is just an organ and one vocal – they’re quite far apart. We just want to be as open as possible with what we can create.
Tom: I’m not comparing us to Radiohead in the slightest, I’d never do that. But put “Idioteque” next to “Creep” and you’re like ‘what?’
Josh: But [Thom Yorke] ties it all together and the believability ties it all together. If the song’s good, the song is good. Whether it’s reggae or bashment or drum’n’bass or whatever, if it’s a tune it’s a tune.
Do you still feel like you’re creating a world?
Tom: The world is still there and we’ll still create that world, but we’ve now got to own that and step into that world as narrators. One thing we’ve learned is there is no point in making art unless you’re accountable for it in some way.
Josh: Unless you’re Banksy.
Tom: It’s like writing an article as a journalist and putting “anon.” What the fuck is that? That piece of work is immediately invalidated, because no one is writing that and going, ‘that’s my opinion.’
Josh: We’re living in the century of the self, essentially, which is the Instagram generation. But it’s kind of been going on for 20 years. It’s getting us more to an accelerated point where it’s about ‘you’, it’s about ‘You’, and that wasn’t the case before. It was more elusive than that. Even the way we have to have our own Instagrams now, it’s bonkers. We don’t even have that big of an Instagram following but we’re above bands on the bill that have ten times the followers. We’ve played after people who have a million followers and I’ve never heard of them, so what the fuck’s going on? We’ve got 40,000 followers and sold 700,000 copies of the album. Where’s that number on that. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It really doesn't. Maybe we’ve got loads of 60-year-old fans.
Tom: I think that’s probably the answer.
I guess the followers don’t translate to record sales. Also, I really hate this shit – I’m trying to get rid of my phone.
Josh: It’s a lot. It’s so addictive and what it does to you is so damaging. Even this morning I was half asleep and went straight for Instagram on my phone. I thought I was slowly waking myself up but all of a sudden I was pumping myself with images of what I’m constantly comparing myself to. I’ll see a picture of Arctic Monkeys playing to 10,000 or 20,000 people and be like ‘why aren’t we playing to that many people yet’. It’s already a stress. Or someone who’s got a fucking six pack, and then I’ll be like ‘I’m fat as fuck.’
Do you feel weird when this happens [a Jungle song has just come on in the hotel]?
Tom: Always. The worst is when you’re with mates because they’re like “waheeey.”
Josh: It makes you think that somebody in the cafe knows you’re over here and puts it on.
Tom: That’s paranoia.
Josh: That’s all the weed talking. This is obviously going to be written about in the interview, isn’t it? This is, like, a moment. And then their song came on!
Tom: Shazam it. Wait. Who is this?
Josh: We should Shazam it actually, get our Shazam numbers up.
I've interviewed people before who have said they don't recognise their songs anymore when they hear them out.
Tom: It's weird. Sometimes we'll be walking through the shopping centre and someone will be like 'Your music's on'. I'll be like 'what?'. You have to listen quite hard to realise it's that weird bit you've completely forgotten about in the middle of the song.
Josh: This is what people would assume is a classic Jungle sound and an arrangement of a song. It’s got a feeling. And I think ultimately that’s what we look for in Jungle is a feeling. I can’t tell you if this is good or bad, but it’s got a feeling. It might be quite poppy, it might be fucking alternative.
It’s hard to pin down what that exact feeling is but it’s something that works really well live.
Josh: I don’t know either. We’re constantly looking for it. If you listen to “Busy Earnin’” there’s an element of paranoia, euphoria.
That’s also probably the weed.
Josh: Radiohead do it. Michael Jackson has always done it. It’s very much in “Thriller”.
Tom: I’m smiling but I’ve got a knife in my hand.
Josh: It’s got a feeling of uncertainty with joyful confidence.
I guess that’s why this album works for you because you were uncertain with what was happening in your life at the time.
Tom: It’s good to feel unprepared with what you’re going to release musically. Like Bowie always said: “I never felt happy before a release. I knew it wasn’t the right thing to release if I didn’t feel uncomfortable.” He wanted it to be a step into the unknown, rather than going, ‘I know this track is going to do well, I know my fans are going to like this.’ But that’s the coolest thing: it makes you feel more alive. If we were sitting here resting on our laurels, pumping out Calvin Harris beat after Calvin Harris beat...
Josh: There’s definitely a knowledge of what those songs do against other songs. “Cherry” for example, or “Casio” – that’s fucking real music to us. Then you have this other layer where Jungle is almost in an advert, weirdly. But there’s this realness underneath it. And we’ll always be pushing to the realness, but you need songs like that to bring people to it because nobody really discovers the left field stuff, and to go on and do what we do and keep making music you have to make the singles – as much as we want to be like Frank Ocean and be able to fuck all of that off.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.