Django Django on being unconventional indie band

ART school band Django Django keep the right side of bonkers as they graduate from bedroom to studio, writes Paul Whitelaw

Django Django are  (left to right) Vincent Neff, Jimmy Dixon, David Maclean and Tommy Grace. Picture: Contributed
Django Django are (left to right) Vincent Neff, Jimmy Dixon, David Maclean and Tommy Grace. Picture: Contributed

DJANGO Django have impeccable timing. Though recorded in the depths of winter, their second album, Born Under Saturn, has arrived in time for spring. A cascading ray of neo-psychedelic sunshine, it’s the perfect seasonal soundtrack.

The first sounds you hear are a pounding Good Day Sunshine piano, a tinselly tambourine and a tight throng of blissed-out monks harmonising over an elasticated melody that most 1960s psychedelic pop groups would’ve killed for. The song is called Giant and it’s a delightful opening fanfare, guaranteed to put a smile on the face of discerning listeners everywhere.

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The whole album is full of such riches. Shake And Tremble sounds like Syd-era Pink Floyd on a beach holiday. Found You spikes its haunting madrigal melody with shards of discordant circus organ. Reflections finds that missing nexus between house music and the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s jazz standard Take Five. And so it goes on. Like all the best art pop, it’s adventurous and colourful yet always tethered to strong, memorable hooks. It’s tremendous fun.

“Music should be fun, that’s the bottom line,” says drummer and producer David Maclean. “Music is there to be enjoyed. You can pull it in any direction you want, that’s what’s fun about it. Avant garde music is as exciting as a great pop song, it’s just a different set of structures and rules. And if there was a set of structures and rules for us from the start it was to be accessible, to be poppy.”

Mission accomplished. Born Under Saturn and its Mercury Prize-nominated, self-titled predecessor are weird pop in excelsis. “In a way we push the weirdness to the back a bit, let it bubble there,” says Maclean. “I’m sure we could make all-out bonkers music if we were let off the leash, but I think what enticed me as a kid about The Beatles and Brian Wilson was the way they were pop but weird.”

Singer/guitarist Vincent Neff aptly describes Born Under Saturn as “a kind of beautiful sculpture but with a little tweak over its nether regions. We’re trying to write serious music but we’re not stuck up in terms of debasing it. We try to steer away from chord sequences that you hear all the time. Some of the melodies go on a roundabout journey, and obviously it’s a challenge to write stuff like that.”

Though they met while studying at Edinburgh School of Art, Django Django didn’t form in earnest until they moved to London in 2009. Their lo-fi debut album was recorded, according to Maclean, “with one mic and a couple of broken bits of equipment” in his bedroom. By contrast, the sessions for Born Under Saturn took place in the brave new world of a professional recording studio.

“For the first time we had a drum kit set up in a room, with all the amps plugged in,” says Maclean. “It felt like being a proper band for the first time.”

This drastic change of environment took some getting used to, as Neff explains. “It was kind of bonkers. They had loads of very nice vintage gear, so it was a bit like kids in a play-park really. For a while we did go a little bit mad and overload with it, but after a few weeks we started laying it back.”

The studio also provided one particular practical improvement. “It was a lot more spacious, you could make noise without Dave’s flatmates banging on the walls,” says Neff.

The brother of John Maclean from cult Scottish weird beards The Beta Band, David has inherited his elder sibling’s penchant for musical eclecticism. “I think that’s at the heart of what we do, just being influenced by loving and enjoying music. It goes back to me and my brother making mix tapes for each other. He would have soundtrack things going into techno things and folkie things. We weren’t trying to be quirkily eclectic, it’s just that we were excited by so much music.”

That explains why Django Django could never be mistaken for a conventional indie band. “This isn’t exclusive to art college,” says Neff, “but that environment brings together people who are open to experimentation.”

Though by his own account a reluctant drummer initially – “My background was DJ’ing, recording stuff on four-track, looping things” – Maclean’s dance-orientated rhythms are a vital part of their sound.

“I’ve always been interested in rhythms,” he says. “Whether it’s rhythm and blues, dance hall, hip hop, acid house, I’m always looking for them. So I’ve been combining that with getting the confidence to be the rhythm guy live. There’s something quite bombastic about hitting drums loudly, you’ve got a lot of power. And it took me a long time to get used to that, there’s a lot on your shoulders when you’re keeping the beat.”

A lo-fi soul at core, Maclean has little time for what he calls “classic rock drumming”. Instead he prefers the modest yet soulful grooves of Meg White and Ringo Starr. “People joke about Ringo Starr not being the best drummer in The Beatles, but I’ve always loved his style of drumming. It’s full of charm and character. And Bo Diddley’s rhythm section is something I was really influenced by. When you listen to that it’s so simple, it’s just a shaker, but the rhythm is what locks it.”

Warming to his theme, Maclean adds, “If you drop the roll from rock, you can end up with something quite stagnant. If it’s not rolling, it’s not moving. I remember as a kid being aware of what rock was and being turned off by it. That’s probably what pushed me towards being into hip hop from an early age. But these days I appreciate good music regardless of genre, just as long as it moves me.”

Given his views on classic rock, not to mention Django Django’s art school background, it’s difficult to imagine Maclean and Co hanging out in an LA bar stocked with hair metal throwbacks. But that’s precisely where they found themselves after a 2013 guest spot on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. This incongruous spectacle gained a further note of absurdity from the surprise arrival of a certain hirsute porn legend.

“There was a TV behind the bar, so we were just waiting for the show to come on,” explains Neff. “All these Mötley Crüe guys rocked up to see what was going on, and then Ron Jeremy came walking around the corner. He did a 45-minute monologue of all the stuff he’s been up to in his life. For some reason he took to Tommy [Grace, keyboard player], they developed this man crush on each other. It was like watching a father and son bonding. A strange experience.”

Strange indeed, yet somehow strangely fitting. Even in repose, Django Django are full of surprises. n

• Born Under Saturn is released on 4 May. Django Django play The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on 2 May and Glasgow on 3 May, venue to be confirmed