London Grammar Comes To America

The trio open up about stage fright and how it's important to not say stupid things to reporters.

Oct 10 2013, 3:15pm

It’s a balmy Thursday afternoon and London Grammar are perched on a balcony overlooking a palm tree-canopied, glassy pool facing the Hollywood Hills. There’s not an audible screech or honked horn, even though rush hour traffic is beginning to pile outside. This quiet oasis is a rarity on the Sunset Strip, where pools often overflow with day-drunks, but—if you’ve listened to London Grammar’s intimate and atmospheric debut If You Wait—it makes sense that the trio would be posted up here.

“I was thinking about jumping in a pool last night and I was fully clothed,” guitarist Dan Rothman says. “We got really drunk at the bar next door.”

That previous night, the band played their first US show at LA’s Troubadour. Rothman, joined by keyboardist Dot Major, nearly got into trouble next door at Skybar—the Mondrian Hotel’s glitzy club that’s centered around a glowing pool. As he tells the story, singer Hannah Reid interrupts him, “You would have gotten chucked out,” reminding him that our conversation is being recorded. She reminds him of this three times throughout our meeting.

That’s okay, though, because with this trio’s current trajectory, they should probably be wary with what they say to reporters. If You Wait is one of the few albums out this year that you could lend to your mom and she’d probably never give it back. It’s slowburning with sparse guitar riffs and restrained vocals that, for many, recall The xx. But, surprisingly, the band member’s personalities are pretty much opposite of restrained. At the previous night’s sold-out concert, Reid called out her ex-boyfriend who was in attendance and asked the crowd to give him a round of applause because he inspired her “first good song.”

“It’s funny because we’re not miserable people at all. But that’s just the record that we made,” she says. Major adds, “We put all of our depressing energy into the record so we can be silly.”

Despite their late night, the band is fully composed the next day. Reid looks well-rested, despite the jet lag, and refreshed in a white crocheted tank top, her favorite high-waisted acid wash jeans, still-white Chuck Taylors, and with her shiny blonde hair pulled into a tight bun. While Rothman drunkenly contemplated jumping into a pool with his clothes on, Reid turned in early. She’s the ringleader of the group, keeping Rothman and Major in check both in songwriting and interviews. When Rothman disses Niki & the Dove’s Instinct album cover (“It’s just terrible”) or drops the f-bomb while we’re talking, Reid shoots him side-eye. But, even though she’s the least likely to party, she empathizes Rothman and Major’s need to blow off steam: “I can see why performers end up going out and drinking a lot because you’ve got so much adrenaline after a show. I just lay in my bed awake for hours.”

Reid stops herself at half a glass of champagne to preserve her semi-classically-trained voice. “If I have one drink, I can feel it in my voice the next day. And because I was compared to so many female vocalists—Adele, Florence Welch, Lana Del Rey, Jessie Ware—I want to be as good as possible live.” Off stage, Reid’s voice is faint and nearly monotonous. She’s most emphatic when talking about her friends from Nottingham University—where she met Rothman—that she has a hard time being apart from while on tour. But she still carries herself like a singer when she’s not performing, often self-correcting her posture. Her hyper-awareness is something you’d expect from a choirist, not someone who only took singing lessons from ages 14 to 17. “The worst thing you can do for your voice is go from really low to really high,” which she does in songs in like “Wasting My Young Years,” “Strong,” and the band’s spacey cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Games,” which ended their set at the Troubadour. “It puts a strain on the muscle. So, I lose my voice quite a bit.”

Major, the group’s other soft-spoken introvert, and Rothman are at their loudest when talking about their music. Their confidence comes from knowing that they broke through the hype cycle, which has plagued many young bands who’ve hastily churned out new releases to keep their names in conversation. “Usually a band puts a song up online, it garners a bit of attention and the band is signed. Suddenly, that band’s got pressure to write an album and if they take more than six months to do that, they’re suddenly not current anymore. For us, we got signed off Hannah’s voice and a few demos so early on. They gave us a year and a half and properly developed us. So that was the difference,” Rothman says, explaining how they transcended being a buzz band. “And it meant that when we put ‘Hey Now’ up, and it garnered all that attention on the radio, we had the next song straight away and then the album was not far behind.”

But even after a year-and-a-half incubating period, Reid still gets paralyzed by stagefright. A pivotal moment in overcoming it happened after they had released “Hey Now” and Ministry of Sound organized their first show for a couple of thousand people, including a representative from Radio 1. Before the show, a sobbing Reid told Rothman she was going to quit. “No one understood how terrified I was. Stagefright was my phobia.” Her fear stems from having to share her songs with so many people, a feeling, for her, that’s comparable to letting thousands of people read her diary. “When you’re writing in a comfortable environment, you don’t think about when you’re going to sing them to people. The songs are so personal.”

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Before their LA show, Reid nearly broke down again. “You told me last night you were going to quit,” says Rothman says. “But not seriously,” she quips, “Now I know it’s bullshit.” Rothman’s teasing isn’t unwarranted though Reid got through the set without faltering once and when the little girl who stars in the video for “Strong” came on stage for a duet, Reid coached her through it. “She sounded nervous. She had the wobble. But that added to it so much,” Major says. It was an undeniably adorable sight that Rothman refers to as their Live Aid moment. “That’s the weirdest thing that has ever happened. I was just playing guitar, you were kneeling down, and there was this little girl.”

The little girl lives out of her dad’s car in the music video for “Strong” (below) and receives a dazzling high-wattage and definitely-illegal fireworks show from him when he launches them off his fire suit. “It’s a simple idea but the video is about the aesthetic,” Reid says, referencing the slow-motion shower of lights in the night sky paired with hazy shots of the trio on a bridge, staring off into different—a motif they repeated in their album art. “It’s hazy and kind of has an LA quality where if you look at the skyline here at night it doesn’t hurt your eyes,” Rothman says of the cover. The trio uses the same color palette for all of their visuals, including the artwork for If You Wait, and draws from the same wordbank to describe both their aesthetic and music: dark, moody, slow-motion, and heavy, which gets tossed out the most when they talk about the album. It was shot in LA, along the city’s longtime punch line of a river, which is more of a concrete passageway littered with shrubs and trees, and is a makeshift camping ground for LA’s burgeoning homeless population. “There’s something quite dark about it in the beginning because there’s uncertainty about what the dad is doing,” Reid says.

But “Strong” is darker than its video leads on. Hannah wrote the song about being catcalled. “It’s happened to me and all of my girlfriends my entire life,” she says, folding her hands on her lap. “I was followed by someone in a van when I was 13 years old.” Most recently, in college, Hannah lived in a flat with seven other girls and they’d all have to deal with unwanted attention when they were on their way out for the night, clad in heels and dresses. “Nothing bad has ever happened to me or any of my friends, but the catcalling is enough to make women self-conscious. To be objectified like that from such an early age has an impact on how women view themselves.”

When I ask if her on-stage outfits, consisting of relaxed fit jeans and simple tees, are a stylistic reaction to being objectified, Reid says, “I’ve wondered about that. I think that’s just who I am on stage. I’m quite chilled out really.” London Grammar’s stage clothes are just about the only component they haven’t labored over—they’ve actually gotten sloppier since they posed for their buttoned-up album cover and press photos. Reid has worn an egg yolk-stained shirt, thanks to a cake-baking accident, on stage a few times—and Rothman is quick to remind her that her “jumper had a stain on it” when they worked with Disclosure on “Help Me Lose My Mind.” But Hannah, just shrugs it off. “I made a joke about it on stage. I was like, ‘I’m really sorry. But I don’t care.' “At our first show, people were asking Hannah what she was going to wear and trying to get stylists, now we do what we want,” Rothman says. “Hannah wears whatever the fuck she likes.”

London Grammar have fought to preserve all of their ideas while walking a tightrope between being on a major label and having indie sensibilities—which is possibly the reason why If You Wait had a muted reception in the indie community, while making a big impact abroad, landing in the UK top 10. “When someone tells you what you should do, it’s hard not to get really miserable about it,” Reid says, with Rothman and Major echoing “yeah” in unison. “We decided we had to stick together,” Rothman adds. “It took time to learn how to do that because I revered the people we were working with. I was scared— we’re a new band and these are the people that were paying for [the album].”

Reid, however, took one of her frustrations as inspiration for a line in “Wasting My Young Years.” The song’s lyrics read like a scorched-earth LiveJournal entry about people who have pissed her off, from her current manager to an ex-boyfriend. “I told our manager to fuck off once. I was like, ‘Don’t tell me what to do’. But you need those disagreements to figure out who you are. If I had been left alone in a studio to write the album, it never would have been released. I’d still be making changes.”

Marissa G. Muller is a writer based in Los Angeles. She's on Twitter@marissagmuller

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