DJANGO Django’s exhilarating, eclectic debut album is like a whole Mercury Prize shortlist crammed into one record. Ahead of two homecoming gigs , they tell Fiona Shepherd how it all came together.
Each year the Mercury Prize throws up a judiciously selected shortlist of albums, ideally showcasing the sizzling spectrum of modern British music in its effulgent pop-rock-folk-jazz-soul-indie-electro glory – at least until some limp lettuce by Leona Lewis or the equivalent makes the cut.
But this year, there is an album on the list of 12 nominees which does a canny job of representing that spectrum all on its own, laced as it is with tribal rhythms, squelching analogue electronica, stoner harmonies, spacey psychedelia, surf guitar and soothing folk, perfumed with hints of tropicalia, Arabic top notes and Caledonian accents and shot through with love for the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and David Axelrod and the rockabilly rumble of Bo Diddley.
This record collection in a jar is the self-titled debut by Edinburgh-born, London-based quartet Django Django, purveyors of inventive art pop in the fine playful tradition of their Scottish forebears Franz Ferdinand and The Beta Band (with whom they share blood links) and contemporaries such as The Phantom Band (with whom they shared members), who have been in perpetual demand since their album was released at the tail end of January to rapturous reviews.
“It’s been one massive exponential ramp,” declares “synth operator” and Morningside native Tommy Grace. “To be honest, we were just delighted when we actually had the physical product, just because it had all been our own effort, it had taken a long time and we learned loads making it. If it had just been this culty album that a few people enjoyed we would have been over the moon but what’s actually happened has been astonishing.”
Django Django are such a distinctive proposition that they appear to have arrived fully formed. But their album was a fastidious three years in the making and the seeds of their sound have been germinating since three-quarters of the band-to-be were students at Edinburgh College of Art.
Grace, who studied drawing and painting, succinctly describes his alma mater as “a good place to go and get drunk and make artwork”. When not engaged in these noble pursuits, Grace would mess around with his keyboards and sequencers, singer/guitarist Vincent Neff would be writing songs and Grace’s flatmate David Maclean – younger brother of Beta Band keyboard player John Maclean – was making his way as a DJ. Meanwhile, at the other end of the M8, future Django Django bassist Jimmy Dixon was studying at Glasgow School of Art.
Individually, they all gravitated to London for work, love or study, though not before Grace, Maclean and other ECA graduates set up non-profit, artist-run gallery The Embassy. Neff was working full-time as an architect when he approached Maclean about collaborating on some home recordings.
The response to the handful of tracks they posted on Myspace was enough to convince them they should form a band. Grace had set up as a freelance graphic artist when he got the call. He still exhibits in Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery and, although art has been put on the back burner since Django Django took off, it has given all the members some transferable skills.
“The process of working just for yourself within your own limited means is something that was instilled in us at art college,” says Grace. “In the studio you try to think, ‘What can I do with this piece of clay, how far can I take it, what’s it good for?’ We have that same mentality when it comes to making sounds.
“Half the trick of working as an artist is trying to keep within your means – if you can do that you can buy yourself time, and that’s what we needed loads of making this album because we take quite a long time writing a song. It normally starts with the germ of an idea, maybe a guitar riff that Vinny has come up with, maybe something more electronic that I’ve done, and then we take that idea for a walk and see where it goes and after a while – after a long while – we might have a song which is its own little thing. We’re quite content just to sit on something and keep on working on it until we’re happy that it’s ready.”
What is so impressive about the results is how cohesive and natural a sound the group has forged from such disparate elements. Any similarities to the style and approach of the late, lamented Beta Band is purely genetic – both acts share a disregard for their contemporary pop climate and a bloody-minded determination to do things their way.
“We didn’t go for any quick fix even when we got signed and were asked if we wanted to work with a producer or go to a big studio,” says Grace. “We’re amateur musicians and if we were in a professional studio at that stage, it would have overwhelmed us.”
Instead, the entire album was painstakingly recorded in Maclean’s bedroom, using whatever equipment the group had to hand. “We’ve had producers and engineers come and see our set-up and they’ve just been astonished – ‘Oh my god, what were you thinking of? You recorded it with what sort of microphone?’ – and they’ll have a heart attack just thinking about it.”
Grace concedes that there will be progress when they come to work on their next album – it just won’t be progress in any conventional direction.
“It’s not like we can ever just write a song from start to finish on a guitar,” he says. “The production and sequencing is integral to the way we create so we wouldn’t want to change that, but certainly the whole palette of sound will be very different for the next album. The last thing we want to do is anything similar to the last track that we did. You need to be playful or you won’t invent anything new. You’ll just be going down paths that have already been worn for centuries.”
• Django Django play the Liquid Room, Edinburgh, on 24 October and ABC, Glasgow, on 25 October. The Mercury Prize is awarded on 1 November.
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