Having marked the end of their five-year hiatus with an anniversary trip down memory lane, Bombay Bicycle Club are learning to look forward. Reintroducing Jack, Jamie, Ed and Suren – determined seekers of positivity in a world of doom.
Jack Steadman doesn’t much enjoy having his photo taken. His bandmates aren’t particular fans either, but for him, it’s a real struggle. There’s the decision of how to pose, how to be, how seriously to play it. “Anything visual basically, anything where you’re being filmed or photographed, is not something you initially sign up for.” His gaze traces the cracks in the floorboards, flickering upwards only to meet his watch, or to catch a bandmate’s eye. Any three of them respond in kind, instinctively willed to make a funny comment that’ll put him at ease. Once the camera is away, and the conversation opened, his shoulders drop. This, he suggests, is a much happier space to inhabit.
Joined by guitarist Jamie MacColl, bassist Ed Nash and drummer Suren de Saram, Bombay Bicycle Club emerged in 2009 as one of the more technically proficient offerings of the underage scene. Having played together since the age of 15, they racked up their fair share of festival slots and EPs before their debut album, ‘I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose’, solidified them as leaders of a wide-eyed youth movement, tiny pinches of hip-hop and post-punk seasoning their restless guitarwork. Critically, it did okay, but culturally, it meant something more. Incubated in the hearts of bookish teenagers, it laid the groundwork for their slow-burning, metronomic rise to the top of the touring circuit. A rise, which by December 2014, had them standing on stage at a 20,000 capacity Earls Court, knowing that they were about to shut the whole thing down.
“I think I got everyone together for a little… chit chat,” Jack admits, a wry smile on his face. “It must have been some time after Earls Court, and I don’t think it came as a surprise – I think I just said that the next album I wanted to make, I wanted to be something different, and not a Bombay project. But that wasn’t the only reason for going on a break at all – I think everybody needed to get out of the bubble that we’d been living in for our whole lives; our whole adult lives anyway, the formative years. From being teenagers to our mid-twenties, the whole time we were being defined as Bombay Bicycle Club. Being a teenager to being in your mid-twenties, we spent being defined by being Bombay Bicycle Club. That’s who we were. I think we were all a bit like, is there something else out in the world?”
His bandmates are quick to corroborate the amicable nature of the break, citing their own exhaustion at the relentlessness of the touring-recording cycle. “The latter half of 2014, I remember going to all these amazing places, but the excitement of touring had just worn off,” Suren admits. “Seeing all these cool things and playing shows just became a bit mundane, which obviously shouldn’t happen. We kind of needed that time away to reset and experience a bit of life outside the band, to be able to look in at it from the outside and realise what a special thing we had. I think now that we’re back together making music again, there’s a renewed appreciation for everything. Everyone’s lives stayed pretty intermingled – Jamie and Ed lived together, I was working with Ed, everyone was slightly involved in Jack’s album. All the relationships were definitely still positive. But I think if we’d had gotten straight into recording and then touring another album, I think it would have imploded.”
Having diffused the threat of implosion, all four members kept busy. Jack became Mr Jukes for his guest-heavy jazz and hip-hop-inspired record ‘God First’, and Ed became Toothless, a manifestation of his own writing experimentations outside of Bombay. Suren played drums for both (amongst other session and touring work), and Jamie went back to school, packing in a three-year degree, Masters and a wedding, at which the band & friends played a supergroup medley of “indie bangers”. All was well and healthy, but for Ed, in particular, an itch had returned – the sort that couldn’t be sated solo.
“I guess I can only speak for myself, but in doing my own record, it highlighted all of the things I took for granted being in this band,” he says. “In the two-ish years I was doing that album, I realised that I would be totally up for doing Bombay again. Going from a point where I was totally happy doing my own thing to realising that I would be very excited if there was a chance to do it again… and then that coincided with a ten year anniversary. These things work in different ways for different people, but I think everyone kind of came around at a similar sort of time.”
Said ten-year anniversary of ‘I Had The Blues’ lent the band a fairly unique opportunity to test the waters for their return. “It’s odd because when the album came out, it didn’t do particularly well; I don’t think it even went inside the Top 40, and we certainly never played gigs as big for that album cycle as we did for the anniversary,” says Jamie. “It’s not like revisiting something that is widely considered to be a classic; it felt like a very intimate and special relationship with our fans. We were teenagers singing songs about being teenagers, that was where the connection lay. What was interesting about these gigs is that it also seemed like there were new sets of teenagers discovering it and getting really into it, which was really cool. That was definitely a catalyst for doing a new record – there’s no point coming back and being a heritage reunion act that milks the circuit every five years. I’m the oldest, and I’m only just 30, so yeah, that would be a bit naff. I hoped we had a bit more to offer than nostalgia, and I think this album proves that.”
Confusion over younger fan reactions aside (“kids were messaging to say that the new songs ‘slapped’ or were a ‘bop’ – those are good things right?” queries Ed), the hardest hurdle to overcome in the quest for new music was one of confidence. A self-confessed overthinker, Jack’s concern was that in the time away, he might have lost the knack for crafting quality Bombay Bicycle Club songs. “For me, it was writing ‘Eat, Sleep, Wake’ that changed everything,” he recalls. “It wasn’t like we had loads of songs in the bag, but it was just the first song where everyone replied instantly saying it was great. How it works is I send song ideas to everyone, and so I’m just usually sat by my computer, manically refreshing Gmail. You know it’s good when the response comes back really quickly, or sometimes our manager will call rather than email. That’s when you’ll be like, ‘yes, it DOES slap!'”
In many ways, ‘Eat, Sleep, Wake’ is, in fact, the outlier of ‘Everything Else Has Gone Wrong’. At large, the record’s subject matter is one that depicts the tension between anxiety and catharsis – recognising that some days are tougher than others, but that there is usually some small moment of joy to be found if you look hard enough. Both lyrically and melodically, ‘Eat, Sleep…’ is something altogether more straight-forward – a dreamy look at the all-encompassing nature of burgeoning love, a nostalgic return to the energy of their earliest work.
“‘Eat, Sleep, Wake’ would probably fit on any of our other records, lyrically speaking, and I think maybe it was because of it being one of the first songs to ease me back into writing.” Jack agrees. “As the songwriting progressed over the course of the year, I think I got more confidence to write more about my own introspection with the world around me, and a bit more personal than just the typical boy-meets-girl. For me, a lot of the songs I was writing were not necessarily about everyday stress and anxiety, but more of a pervasive feeling that I couldn’t really get my feelings across to people, for my whole life really. And so the music is more like me finally finding the tool to be able to do that properly. It’s not really about lyrics – often people think it’s all about the words that you write, but it’s always just the music matching the emotions that I’m feeling, and then the lyrics are there because we’re in a band and y’know, you need words.”
He sits back in his own thoughts, and Jamie chips in, ever the conscientious friend. “I think as well, and I can say this as an observer, it was easier to write about yourself way back on ‘I Had The Blues…’ or Flaws. Whereas as you get older, you maybe want to keep more distance between your personal life and the songs.” Jack nods, and Jamie continues. “That said, to me, it feels like the first one that has lyrics that we wouldn’t have written as teenagers. Whereas the last four, I could kind of place them all within that context of being young, and the concerns of being young. I guess it’s the first album we’ve done, maybe ‘Flaws’ aside, where we’re not trying to hit people over the head with melodies and hooks.”
This sense of relaxation is audible in both the record and the way each member speaks of it. One suspects that the opportunity to take stock, leave the room for a couple of years and come back to still find it full is maybe enough to make a band realise that they might have some longevity after all. Having made the decision to work with a producer (2014’s ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ was self-produced by Jack), the ‘Everything Else…’ sessions forced them to get comfortable with shelving the idea of perfection. Teaming up with Jon Congleton (Phoebe Bridgers, Cloud Nothings, Wild Beasts), the new approach was revolutionary – if the first take worked, then it was going on the record.
“I think he taught us to not sweat the small stuff, basically,” says Suren. “The last album we had our own studio and all the time in the world, too much time to deliberate over the tiniest little things. We were kind of striving for perfection, whereas with this album it was very much you get a good sound or a good take, it might even be the first take, and Jon is like cool, let’s move on. You realise that in recording things 100 times, you can definitely lose the character of what you’re actually trying to capture.”
Alongside Congleton’s laidback attitude, Jack also cites his time as Mr Jukes as a pivotal teaching experience of the benefits of letting things go. “I think what I did with that record definitely influenced this one in terms of empty space. I had all these ideas in my head before doing Mr Jukes and on ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’, they were all just pouring out into this very dense album. I think I got a lot of that out of my system by doing a completely jazz and hip-hop album. Since then, I’ve been able to sit back and relax a bit, strip back some of the songs and just not have as many colourful, eclectic world sounds going on. I think the record sounds better for that. And then the other big thing that has stayed with me is a more relaxed attitude to shows and touring – I used to be very neurotic and very anxious about playing live, worrying about not only my voice but about everything being perfect. When you go on tour for a while with a nine-piece jazz band, it’s a completely different school of thought, and that really made an impression on me. It was more of this idea of if you relax, you’ll play better, and if you make a mistake, nobody cares. That was a great thing for me to learn – I think I definitely needed that.”
This record also provided an introductory opportunity for Ed to flex his newly-honed writing skills. Both ‘Good Day’ and ‘People, People’ on the record are attributed to his pen, slotting seamlessly into the songs that Jack had already been working on. “It wasn’t like I was always harbouring this secret ambition to write in Bombay, but a by-product of doing Toothless was definitely that I came back to the band more confident,” he explains. Ed was also the band’s champion for ‘I Can Hardly Speak’ a demo that had been knocking around since the last album sessions. “Every time the conversation came around to what we would record I’d put that one forward, and everyone would be like nah, but then because Jon works so fast we had time to try it out, and now it’s amongst people’s favourites. Am I smug? Maybe a little bit…”
Refreshed, renewed and with the right hint of smug, what awaits is the process of sitting back and finding out what the general public make of their return. The musical landscape has changed a lot in the last few years, and all four men recognise that many of their guitar-led peers have fallen by the wayside, in favour of less traditional rock acts or those who have chosen to put politics at the forefront of their offering. While an album titled ‘Everything Else Has Gone Wrong’ comes heavy with socio-political connotation, the band, and particularly Jamie, graduate of International Relations and War Studies, (not to mention nephew of left-leaning singer Kirsty McColl) are keen to stress that it is not their intent to dine out on performative political messaging. If they aren’t wanting to be political, do they instead view themselves as an escape, a place of musical relief?
“I don’t… I don’t love the sense of escapism argument, because in some ways it makes it seem like you’re ignorant of the world today, and I’m not crazy about that idea,” ponders Jamie. “But there are four people in the band, and unless it’s a single issue – I think we definitely all agree on things like Climate Change, or Brexit, but when it gets down to party politics, I definitely feel a lot more conflicted about it. I made a documentary about protest music for the BBC, and I left that project thinking that maybe we invest too much in cultural figures to try and explain complicated political ideas. I’ve read a lot of academia on contemporary politics and international relations, and there are no answers there, let alone asking Ed Sheeran how to solve the Northern Irish border debate. I also think there’s a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon at the moment – if you look at something like the Mercury Prize, there’s solid proof that there are commercial and critical rewards for being party political.. That’s obviously a good thing if you genuinely have something to say, but I sometimes feel like people are making more out of what I see as politically tangential music, and expanding it to be something more than it is, and then not being able to meet people’s expectations. What I definitely believe is all artists should be able to express their political views and not be punished by it.”
Ed is liable to agree, but has a slightly more positive outlook on where the work of Bombay Bicycle Club might sit in people’s lives, as an extension of the good it’s done within themselves. “The bigger picture is definitely not looking good, at least from where we stand. But within that, even though the album is dealing with anxiety, it’s about finding positivity. I think the record really feels like four people who are more comfortable with themselves, and more settled,” he says. “Obviously with the lyrics, there’s a lot of worry in there, but musically, having watched what we did before, changing so much between records, it feels quite erratic, and this one feels much more organic and relaxed in the way it was recorded, the way it was played…it feels more relaxed to me. While there is a lot of stuff going round, doing the band and making music and having those things to focus on makes me feel very positive at a time where you look around and realise things aren’t going fantastic – there’s a lot that can be built upon if you look in the right places.”
His bandmates wander back into the room, and murmur their agreement – never forceful, never fighting over one another to be heard, but knowing exactly when to chip in with support. Everything else may have gone wrong, but this four-piece coalition has never been stronger. Now that’s a club you can put your faith in.
Taken from the February issue of Dork. Bombay Bicycle Club’s album ‘Everything Else Has Gone Wrong’ is out now.
Words: Jenessa Williams