London Grammar's Big Picture
We met up with the UK trio in LA to talk love, climate change, and their long-awaited second album, 'Truth Is a Beautiful Thing.'
London Grammar already has plenty reason to dub its long-awaited return a success. On a bright March morning in LA, the UK trio is coming off of a sold-out show at Hollywood's Masonic Lodge, an appearance on Corden, and more than one million views on their new video for the John Hopkins-produced "Big Picture." But, in typical understated fashion, the group remains cautiously optimistic about the step back into the spotlight.
"We were a little rusty, maybe," vocalist Hannah Reid says of the performances over breakfast at their hotel. "A tad rusty," she decides, smiling as she eyes bandmates Dan Rothman and Dominic "Dot" Major, who chuckle in agreement.
For those who caught the Corden set, or who were at the band's cozy gig the night before, "rusty" isn't exactly the word that comes to mind. "Tender," if the reaction of the latter's doting 200-person crowd was any indication. Or maybe "intimate," a word often ascribed to the kind of moody, R&B-inflected pop the group deals in, but one they've made something of a specialty. Or maybe even "nervous,"—after all, it's been four years since the group's acclaimed debut If You Wait.
"You just develop a tour tightness which is kind of—it doesn't matter how much you rehearse," explains Major, who helms drums and keyboard alongside Rothman's guitar. "You can't actually get that without doing shows. So, I'm sure it'll come back."
In the time since the band met as students at the University of Nottingham in 2010, its members—now approaching their late 20s—have grown up, with much of that time spent on the road. As with the release of their debut, they've been in little rush to churn out new music, focusing instead on taking inventory of their experiences to make the album they want rather than need.
The result is their sophomore LP, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, out June 9 via Metal & Dust/Columbia. The album packs plenty more of Reid's arresting vocals and the mercurial dynamics of its predecessor, though this time pushed to moments that verge on apocalyptic. The record feels at once more expansive and more stripped down from London Grammar's past work, confident in its vulnerability as the group tackles everything from torn relationships to global warming.
"Lyrically, I think the first album was a lot younger," Reid says. "It was probably more about any kind of relationship that you have with one other person. Whereas, I think the lyrics on this album, they're more about a personal experience I had with myself after being on the road for so long with the boys. In a way it's kind of more intense."
We joined the band to talk about their time off, the return to the studio, and opening up in the face of their growing fame.
Noisey: You've recently returned to performing. How does seeing the audience's response to the new songs affect your performance, especially given that some of them are pretty personal? Is there a kind of emotional feedback loop that happens?
Rothman: I think feedback loop's quite a good way of describing it. You play the song, you see the reaction, and then it informs how you play it the next time, and then that changes the emotion and it does become like a loop like that. I think that's generally how most things work, full stop. It's certainly the case with touring. The more you play it, the more you change the performance and then you begin to understand how people react to certain parts of the set as well, which is really important.
Let's talk about "Big Picture." When did you start writing it?
Reid: I wrote the song a while back, maybe 18 months ago, I think. And I kind of just wrote one note on the piano, just like really really simple. Then I just took it to the boys and they made it much better. Then we collaborated with John Hopkins as well on the production side of things, which was amazing. What it's about is quite complicated. A friend of mine, basically, had a really difficult time when we were touring and something kind of terrible happened in his personal life. It's [about] when someone does something really shitty to you, basically. Everyone can relate to that. So, when someone else goes through it, you then think of a time that you've experienced that and it just was kind of really simple. Lyrically it's a really simple message. in a way. It's kind of like. "Fuck you"
The way the song builds kind of mimics what's in the lyrics. Was that a response to lyrics or was it more visceral than that?
Major: Yeah, for sure, I think partly response to lyrics, and partly that's what we tend to do quite raw as well. And I think when we worked with John, the thing that's amazing about him is that he's very sympathetic to the style of the original piece, especially considering the way he works. When he works on other stuff he kind of, we didn't actually work physically with him. We kind of, he basically added production to the track but he uses a lot of the things that are already there, like guitars and vocals to turn them into the soundscapes. I think that kind of using the canvas that already exists makes it more special.
How has working with others like John Hopkins and them in on your dynamic influenced how you create?
Rothman: There's an element of collaboration with any producer that we work with because a lot of the demoing we do most of it on our own, if not all of it on our own really. So the tracks are always in a certain place before we then go to a producer and collaborate with them. So you're always being informed by that process and changing, developing. And even John doing his production then informed the sound that we went forward with for the whole album, cause that was quite early on in the process. That was the first piece of music where we were like, we're really happy with this. We had a box, one track actually ticked off, it was probably the first track to be ticked off. And then that definitely informs, I thought it did, the sound of the record.
What's been going on since releasing your first album? At what point did the new project start coming together?
Reid: After the first album got released we toured for sort of two and a half years. Once we had finished and came home, we kind of needed to re-adjust and settle down again for a little bit before we could be creative again. Once the process started to happen, it was quite difficult. When you've been on the road and you're not making music, you kind of have to re-find each other as a band. I think that's why the second album is the difficult one. We definitely had to do that and that was intense, but once we had done that then it flowed more and more.
What was different, how did the touring process get you away from that or change the dynamic?
Reid: It just stops you from making music. You just don't have the time. You're on a plane, you're not in the studio. You're not surrounded by instruments, you're exhausted, you're at soundcheck. It's just a completely different thing, for us anyway. So it does have an impact on creativity, definitely.
You've said that recording this album reminded you why you were doing this in the first place. Why are you doing this in the first place?
Major: Just purely for the love of the music. When we started out, there was obviously no pressure, and these guys had been playing before I actually joined the band, and I think it was just a really innocent, pure form of—I just sort of came along and was jamming with them.
I mean the first time I actually played with Hannah was that gig because I was jamming with Dan a bit, and then I sort of came along and just jammed with the jam band. It's just a really thoughtless process. In the sense of now, when you go back to doing the second album, I think there's just that inevitable pressure of there being another presence in the room, which is basically just the pressure of knowing the people that you're actually going to listen to. Because the first time you don't really think that anyone will listen to it. Or you just don't worry about it and so that is difficult. And so eventually you forget about that and you manage to sort of shut that out, and now I don't really feel that person as much now. Whereas, I think at the start of the second album process we all felt that quite a lot. That you're worrying about what you should be doing, as opposed to just doing it and not thinking about it.
Can you talk more about that?
Major: Well it's like, what your roles are. You're thinking about what people expect you to do maybe and I think also, I remember the first time I put "Hey Now" up on the internet, which is the first thing we released. We all kind of went back to Dan's house and we were sitting in his lounge and we're like "Ah shit, ten people listened to it, 20 people listened to it." That's how much you don't think about whether people are gonna listen to it in the first place. I remember a friend of mine saying 50,000 people had listened to "Hey Now" on Soundcloud and that was just nuts, because it's like a whole stadium full of people. And now, you put a song out and it's just a whole different type of pressure. None of that really matters, but what matters is if the music's good or not.
Would you say that was the biggest challenge of returning to the studio and songwriting this time around?
Rothman: I suppose that probably does come into it. I think what Hannah was saying before about maybe not having probably done enough writing and recording whilst we were on the road means you just become a bit out of practice of it. It's like anything, if you don't practice at something you're gonna not be very good at it anymore. But fortunately, I think we all really loved being in the studio. So, we were enthused when we went back in. But it is also difficult to maintain that enthusiasm in the studio and make sure you're still committed to working hard in the studio, because it can be a bit tiresome at points if things aren't working or things aren't sounding very good you kind of can't be asked. Or you lose drive. That's just another part of it. We had that on the first record. In some ways I think maybe, from my point of view, worrying about if people listen to it. I felt like there was a bit of that on the first record anyway. I think it's always been in our mind. In my mind, I never had any doubt. We were always intending to make something that people were gonna listen to on the first record. I wanted as many people to hear it as possible. There's definitely an element of pressure the second time around. You're worried about repeating yourself, or not repeating yourself, or sounding the same, or not sounding the same. Those are the kinds of things that can disrupt the production phase. The writing thing is slightly different. I think fortunately Hannah was in a place where she was writing what I deemed to be very good music at that point where even after a long period of touring, fortunately.
Reid: I definitely wrote a few shit ones. There was some rusty songwriting going on there for sure. It's like for every ten you write there's one that's good. But that's fine.
Rothman: That's part of the practice I suppose when you get into it.
Did you go into this album with an idea of what you wanted the album to be, or was it more stream of consciousness?
Reid: Yeah, the second one definitely. Stream of consciousness is a good way of describing it, I think. Especially lyrically, thematically.
Lyrically, I think the first album was a lot younger. It was probably more about any kind of relationship that you have with one other person. Whereas, I think the lyrics on this album, they're more about a personal experience I had with myself after being on the road for so long with the boys.
Also, a lot of it is about—I didn't really realize this to this extent, but we all feel quite strongly about climate change and the world, and there's a lot of apocalyptic lyrics in there as well. In a way it's kind of more intense, lyrically. There are still classic love songs on there like "Rooting for You." And "Big Picture" is a love song as well. There's different imagery in the lyrics, which kind of is why we went for the single covers that we went for. We shot them in a desert, so they look very apocalyptic. Very red, very barren, and we're kind of just these floating figures just in this really barren landscape.
What are some examples of those other thematic elements?
Reid: There are probably two songs that lyrically sum up the theme the most, which is "Oh Woman, Oh Man," and another song called "Bones of Ribbon." Particularly "Bones of Ribbon," the lyrics came out of a recurring dream I kept having where I would wake up in a desert and I couldn't find Dan and Dot. I didn't know where they'd gone, and it was actually a really distressing, awful dream. I realized that I couldn't really walk because I was just made out of bones that were kind of made out of ribbon, basically. Which sounds really intense. I'm totally okay everyone, it's fine! But I think that dream was about how touring can make you really isolated. You rely on each other so much. You just become each other's world, and that was a huge adjustment coming home. So I think it was about that but also, I think I really subconsciously worry a lot about the world, and that's where the song came from.
How do you see music's role as an influence on conversations about those bigger picture issues?
Rothman: I think we all are obviously fascinated by politics and environmental issues and all sorts of shit generally that's happening.
Reid: I don't think we take up the responsibility to necessarily stand there and say something, but when something affects you, you will just write songs about it because it'll come out in your subconscious anyway. So you end up saying it without saying it explicitly. I think that's what all three of us do all the time, is just things that affect us will just come out in the music.
Major: Also, I think a lot of music, for example growing up listening to a lot of classical piano music and a lot of that music was written and was influenced creatively by the stressed times behind it, but even the fact that it exists as a form of just escapism is related to it. You can sit there and listen to a piece of piano that was written while [someone's] entire country was falling apart around him, but for that small moment you can kind of relate to exactly the same thing, which is really important in any music.
Many people tend to see music as either an escape or a release, but they can actually be two sides of the same coin.
Rothman: The entertainment industry always flourishes in times of financial depression or war or anything like that. Or times like when Trump is President.
Major: It's a trade that will never go out of fashion as well, you can train at so many things in the world, and musicians have not been traditionally the highest paid people in the world, but they would always be in demand because what they offer will never go out of fashion.
From the start, you've been a band that's taken its time to release music—it comes out when you are ready, and not just because it can or because it's there. Which is kind of counter to how the industry and is set up and functions these days. What that a conscious decision? Do you feel pressure to keep up in that sense?
Rothman: We're not sitting there thinking like we need to get albums out. Sometimes, for some bands, the creative process and then the creation process are one in the same thing, where I think ultimately for us it's not. We're not consciously doing that. To be honest, everything happens so fast anyway in the music industry, there's no point in trying to chase anything that's like, "We need to get something out quickly," because it just happens. All that matters is, obviously, that it's ready. It just takes us time, and that's just inevitable. We've always been a kind of studio band in the sense that sonically, on the first album, we discovered what we would sound like together, over a period of time. We didn't just meet up like some bands do and then jammed and then that was the sound, so I think that would just always be the case.
Let's talk about one of the other new singles, "Rooting for You." When was that recorded, and what does that touch on?
Reid: I think that's probably the first song we wrote for the album. I was singing that song in soundcheck three or four years ago—I hadn't realized it had been that long, that's really scary. It was just a shower song, and then eventually when we came back from touring I finished it. I wrote all the lyrics and it took about a day to actually record the demo, and then we worked on it with Paul Epworth. He produced the track and added all this atmosphere. Dot rewrote the piano part to make it this beautiful, kind of ethereal thing, and Dan added this amazing guitar that's like another voice, basically, to the song. For me, lyrically, it's maybe the most emotional love song that I've ever written. It definitely means a lot, and it's a love song, basically. It's about not being with someone who you wish you were with and what that's like, and saying, "No matter what happens, I don't know what's gonna happen but I'll always be rooting for you because you're an amazing person." That's what it's about.
Hannah, you've said you suffered from stage fright, which doesn't necessarily match up to the feel of this album, which is more intimate but also more in-your-face compared to the last one. And your audiences are only getting bigger. Is that something you've reconciled? What's allowed you guys to open up in that way?
Reid: For me, the whole stage fright thing has been an ongoing journey. I'm really trying to get better at not being so introverted, and actually talking about what the songs are about helps a lot. Just learning to be more open about that. Hopefully I'll get less and less introverted and nervous as time goes on.
Rothman: I think it's a big part of our production process. When we're making the tracks, trying to make them a bit more in your face, if possible because I definitely always push that. And I've tried to do that with the guitar sound definitely, make it a little bit more, a little less soft. I think that's something we've definitely. [Laughs] Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work, because we are pretty soft music at points. But I think sometimes maybe people are critical of that, at first listen they think it can be a bit soft, I think underneath there there's some attitude. I hope so, at least. That's what we try to do. So it's good that it comes across to an extent, but obviously the lyrics are very intimate and the sentiment is very intimate and we want it to be atmospheric and all of those things. Dreamlike, and it's like a balance between the two, we've tried to always tread that line.
Reid: It's always interesting because I do believe that the guitar plays a massive role in that. I think that I can really get in my own head about the lyrics and I'm just kind of doing my own thing. And I think Dot does the same thing with production. I think that both of us can be like, on another planet, and I think that Dan... The actual guitar can be the thing that sort of roots the song to the ground.
Major: I think the first album, the most consistent thing was probably actually Dan's guitar. Because if you hear Dan's guitar, it's like immediately, "That's London Grammar", do you know what I mean?
Rothman: These guys biggin me up! Yeah carry on, crack on, yeah.
Reid: It's true, and I think the guitar on this album, he would never say himself, but it has this whole new sound to it.
London Grammar's new album, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, is out June 9.
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.