The Xcerts: “We have exceptionally high expectations for ourselves as performers”

With a new album on the way and a slot at a festival that’s, by this point, essentially home from home, THE XCERTS couldn’t be more welcome at 2000trees. So long as they stop leaking the line-up.

Words: Alexander Bradley
Photos: Jennifer McCord

The Venn diagram of people who love both 2000trees and The Xcerts is almost a complete circle. The festival also loves The Xcerts. The band reciprocates. Everybody wins when the pop-rock trio adorn the line-up. And, like with all loving relationships, there are bumps in the road sometimes too. Someone gets a bit too excited and prematurely spills the beans on the final headliner for this year’s line-up and causes a meltdown on social media.

“I was given a loaded gun, and I pulled the trigger. What the fuck do you expect from a frontman?” Murray Macleod defends, laughing. “I was given the green light by someone who works for us. I didn’t actually look at the poster. I didn’t check if Trees had officially posted it, which, of course, being in a band for this long, of course, I should have done. I did wonder why we hadn’t received any tags with that poster and think, ‘That’s weird nobody has posted about it’.”

Continuing to plead his case, he describes the perfect storm of fuck ups that led to the leaked line-up. “My parents were down, so I posted it very quickly on Instagram stories and went for a lovely lunch for two hours and didn’t look at my phone. Then I came out of lunch and looked at my phone and felt like we had been cancelled. That’s how I imagine that feels but obviously way worse. It was a very simple human error. I thought it was funny, and then I really cranked out and had the cancellation feeling once it started to spread on Twitter. Then I started to laugh about it because no one got hurt.”

And the festival, thankfully, forgave them pretty quickly after a few panicked messages. “We still love you,” the organisers messaged afterwards. “That shows the enduring love of 2000trees. Even when we fuck up, they’re there for us,” Jordan Smith, the band’s bassist, adds.

Despite some wry jokes about how they expect to plummet down the line-up in the future, the whole affair fortified the relationship between the trio and Trees.

Sure, there are other festivals that The Xcerts have played. They had a “terrifying and amazing”, in Jordan’s words, time opening the Main Stage at Reading & Leeds as a last-minute stand-in that was a huge bucket list moment for them as a band. But, it’s in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds where they get to live out their rock star fantasies. 

“It’s so strange, the time we first played it, up and down the country and especially in England, we weren’t playing to big crowds,” Murray recalls. “That festival, we drew a big crowd from the off, and it was really confusing to us, and we thought it was a fluke. And then it continued to happen as Trees got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

“We’ve never once walked off stage at 2000trees not thinking we just had a great time”

Murray Macleod

In the years that have followed, The Xcerts have played on pretty much every stage 2000trees has had. Surrounded by actual trees, deep in the forest and on a tiny stage, they’ve played stripped acoustic sets and embedded themselves into the history of the festival when playing ‘Aberdeen 1987’ unplugged in the middle of the crowd.

Murray reminisces, “It’s such a simple little trick, and I don’t know if anyone can hear it past a certain point because it’s basically 360, and you’re engulfed by people.

“Apparently, I was the first person to do it, which is a nice touch because a few people have done it after. But I think I pinched it from watching a Frightened Rabbit video of Scott Hutchinson doing it.

“The first time I did it, it felt really special to do because it wasn’t anything pre-determined, just unplugged the guitar and ‘I’m going to do this, this will be fun’. It was a nice, off-the-cuff piece of magic.”

Less magical, was Murray’s appearance with Twin Atlantic when the fellow Scottish friends headlined in 2018. “I was out of my mind. I should not have been on that stage,” he laughs.

The less said about that, the better, but each appearance by The Xcerts at the festival seems intrinsically linked with the major milestones the band have passed in their careers.

“We’ve had quite a few defining moments as a band there, and that’s probably why the expectations are so high for it to be a good show,” drummer Tom Heron admits. “I remember when we had just released ‘Feels Like Falling In Love’ and it had been out a couple of days and had one radio play or something like that, and then we played The Cave, and we played it last, and everyone was singing along. It was so bizarre but such an amazing moment.”

It is a strange synergy between the two where it feels like The Xcerts and 2000trees are inextricably connected. The festival keeps on bringing out the best in the band, while The Xcerts’ performance is usually a standout moment of the weekend too.

Murray explains, “For the three of us, we have exceptionally high expectations for ourselves as performers, so usually our bickering happens if I hit two bum notes and I’m beating myself up – we’ve always been like this, we’ve always strived for our own version of perfection – but we’ve never once walked off stage at 2000trees not thinking we just had a great time.”

And Jordan is quick to back him up, adding, “It speaks to the magic of that festival where we are exempt from all those usual anxieties and things you’d be stressed about at a normal festival where you’d have a bit more work to do to win over a crowd whereas, with Trees, these are our people.”

“We couldn’t drip feed this new sound to people; you have to just kick the door off”

Jordan Smith

So when they head to Upcote Farm this summer, there will be no better gauge for the vibrant new sound of The Xcerts and their upcoming album, ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’.

‘GIMME’ bursts in complete, scuzzy technicolour and heaps of attitude. Murray likens it to ‘Hollaback Girl’ with punk guitars. The video, despite its grungy grain, dazzles with energy and Jordan’s shock of luminous green hair bopping up and down. This was the introduction to The Xcerts like you’ve never seen them before.

“There was no other way to do it. We couldn’t drip feed this new sound to people; you have to just kick the door off and say, ‘This is what we are doing now’,” Jordan reasons. With the singles that have followed, the electro-pop style of ‘Jealousy’ and ‘Ache’ (for which they finally got long longtime friend Sam Carter to feature), they have shaped a perception of ‘How To Live And Let Go’. Those first neon-coloured syrupy spoonfuls of this album aren’t representative of the complete article, though. “It is all over the shop,” Murray boasts.

It’s a strikingly different approach from the trio, even more so when you hold it up to its predecessor. It’s a change born out of necessity, though.

“We knew we wanted to do something different from ‘Hold Onto Your Heart’ again,” Murray starts. “We felt like we could take the sound somewhere else. We released an EP in 2019 called ‘Wild Heart Dreaming’, and I felt like I was having a massive identity crisis where I foresaw our band going down a very beige route, following in the footsteps of – no shade on these bands – a band like Snow Patrol. What a lot of bands are supposed to do as you get older is conform, mellow out and play it kind of safe.

“We’re three total freaks that have never allowed our flag to fly as freaks. It’s true. We are freaks and geeks, really. When we clocked this sound that we wanted to make, it was like we were going all in to show our true character.

“It feels like this is one of one, and only the three of us could have made this record. We spent a year and a half talking about our favourite Tom Petty records, which is cool, but this is our band, and we need to take back control. We are always looking up at the giants and being like, ‘Let’s be like them and wear this because they do’, and it’s like, ‘No, let’s just do us’.”

Jordan enthusiastically agrees, adding, “It took five albums for us to realise that and discover our own identity, and two years of sitting around doing nothing probably helped that for us to look inward and go, ‘Oh! This is us?! We’re just fucking weirdos!’” he laughs.

“The unknown is exciting to us”

Murray Macleod

‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ ends up being the first completely authentic Xcerts album. They’re still a guitar band at their core, but bubbly synths and gospel choirs aren’t too far out of reach either. The difference this time around is they’ve taken “the inspiration, not the influence”. It’s an important distinction to make. No longer will an admiration for Tom Petty mean having the same haircut, clothes and sound as the late ‘Free Fallin’ singer. Instead, all their many influences will pass through them like reeds in a flowing stream. So sure, the smorgasbord of tastes on this album range from Blink to My Bloody Valentine, Taking Back Sunday to Tom Waits, Taylor Swift to Four Tet, The Cure to Charli XCX, but the accumulation of all of those comes out as the purest form of The Xcerts.

Even writing the album, they adopted David Bowie’s ‘découpage’ technique, where they clipped together bits of this and that to make songs. “We are students of the school of Bowie. We are creators. The unknown is exciting to us,” Murray says.

Taking that excitement for the unknown into the studio, the plan was to feel “uncomfortable”, according to the singer. The objective was to purposefully reject what would be expected of the band. But, at the same time, it seems like it was the most fun the band have had making an album. Jordan’s recollection is, “I haven’t laughed so much making a record before. You usually don’t laugh; it’s very serious. ‘We got nine days, so let’s just do this’. This was the exact opposite, and we just laughed the whole way through this. It was so fun.”

In many ways, the “fun” of making the album might have been relative to the lockdowns taking place at the time. With no foreseeable route back for live music and not knowing if or when this music would be released, the pressure was off the band completely. “We were like, ‘Well, if this is our secret swan-song of a record, then we are going all in’,” Murray reveals.

Steve Ansell, who produced the record (also of Blood Red Shoes fame), helped the band push to find out how far they could go. Murray remembers the producer’s mantra being, “I want people to hate this”, and “You guys are far too loved. You need people to hate you.”

It’s a bold approach, but it’s one that paid off. For those segueing from ‘Hold Onto Your Heart’ into this new album blindly, there might just be some strong, visceral reactions as ‘GIMME’ explodes in their eardrums.

Despite that, the fundamentals of The Xcerts are still at play. There is still a lot of love in ‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’. Originally designed as something of a concept record taking place over one night, the album was varying vignettes of a city from 9pm in ‘GIMME’ right through to the sobering up of ‘It Ain’t Easy’ at 5am. And in between those hours, there is lust, love, heartbreak and hate in all different directions.

‘Drag Me Up’ is a song about depression and self-worth in a toxic relationship, sitting back to back with ‘Everything I Can’t Live Without’, which Murray describes as “the most earnest song we’ve ever written”. Jordan follows up with, “Yeah, that level of vulnerability is a lot.”

“It’s scary to do, and it’s really hard. I commend any artist that can speak so vulnerably in song, and it’s just something we never fully felt comfortable with. It’s maybe the cutest song we’ve ever written. It is a cute song. It’s the loving embrace of a little tune,” Murray admits.

And from that point, in strolls the biggest pop number The Xcerts have ever dared to make. ‘Lovesick’ is “arguably the best song we have written in terms of pop songwriting,” according to the singer. With gospel singers and shimmery guitar lines, it’s a blinding pop song destined to become a firm favourite in a live setting. Placed in the middle, the song becomes the beating heart of this album, and a symbol of the success of what boldly going in search of their own limitations can produce. It’s hard to imagine the album without it… but it nearly didn’t make the cut. “That song presented a lot of problems to the point it was demoed in 2020, and we didn’t finish it until the day before the record had to get handed in,” Murray acknowledges. Intended to be this “big, soulful, summery, anti-anthem”, the instrumentation and production just couldn’t marry up. After eventually tearing the song apart and starting again, ‘Lovesick’ came together on the wire. The plan wasn’t to outdo and write a song bigger than ‘Feels Like Falling In Love’, but they’ve somehow managed it. It wouldn’t be the same album without it. 

“’Lovesick’ is really funny. It’s got some really funny lyrics in there. The whole record, to me, is about these mad juxtapositions; everything within the tracklisting is placed in order for a reason; we really took our time with it. It’s supposed to be a bit jarring until you get to ‘Our Friends Forever’, where the realisation of inner peace [comes in]. It is meant to mellow out with ‘Our Friends’. That and ‘It Ain’t Easy’ are a big sigh of relief, really,” Murray explains.

‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ becomes an album with many threads tying it together. It’s unpredictable, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a real thing. “Albums with one narrator can be quite selfish at times, and we’ve been guilty,” Murray admits, but they’ve corrected that this time around.

The album manages to be vibrant and joyous at times, but also he has also put into words “the gnarliest times” he’s experienced too. On the edge of those two extremes, The Xcerts have flourished in making this album.

As Jordan puts it, “It’s about redemption and peace, and the schizophrenic nature of the record speaks to what your head can feel like sometimes when you’re going through stuff. Anxiety can feel so erratic and all over the shop, and the goal is to come to this place of understanding in yourself and loving yourself.”

‘Learning How To Live And Let Go’ spends a long time getting to its destination of actually being in a place to “let go”, but the journey, the learning and the living, is just as fun. And if you’re keen to learn, then the first lesson is Friday evening on the Axiom Stage at 2000trees. See you there. ■

Taken from the July 2023 edition of Upset. 2000trees takes place from 5th-8th July. The Xcerts’ album ‘Learning How To Live and Let Go’ is out 18th August.