LONDON – So indie-guitar music in Britain is in the doldrums, is it? Try telling that to The Maccabees.
In a world of Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, the London five-piece are bucking the trend for young white British boys armed with a six-string. Not only is third album “Given to the Wild” their finest by far, but critical platitudes are being matched by commercial success: “Given to the Wild” is a U.K. Top 5 album and 2012 sees The Maccabees embark on their biggest tour to date.
As singer Orlando Weeks and guitarist Hugo White chat to me over a late-morning coffee in their favorite south London cafe (in their hometown of Clapham Common), not even their grounded politeness can mask their delight. “We feel like one of the bands who are doing alright out of it,” White says with a nervous smile, leaving Weeks to assess how The Maccabees have flourished where others have floundered.
“All that is rotational,” Weeks opines. “People always want a little bit of time away from something. It’s the same with pop music, that goes away for a bit, gathers its thoughts … although it has come back quite strong this time. It was an exciting thing to be high in the charts just to see what it felt like. And it felt adequately bizarre. But it doesn’t change any aspect of what we do. We still perform in the same way. We don’t get asked to do anything we wouldn’t want to do. We’re just doing what we set out to do, and it feels like perfectly legitimate and recognizable steps.”
It is peculiar to hear Weeks talk of recognizable steps. Odd as both he and White are not doused in stardust (their jeans-and-jumper university student chic means they are unlikely to get stopped in the street anytime soon) but also because musically, The Maccabees have developed out of all recognition.
First album “Colour It In” (2007) was solid and no more, but its followup, 2009’s Arcade Fire-influenced “Wall of Arms,” began to put flesh on the bones of their song structures. “Given to the Wild” completes an artistic growth few predicted: using others’ ideas as a catalyst rather than an end, it sees The Maccabees developing a sound at once anthemic and minimalist, a quantum leap from both their previous work and the peers they have left standing.
“I hope so,” Weeks says. “I think it would be a shame if it was a leap backward. You’ve got to keep thinking that the next one is going to be the best one, otherwise there is not a lot of point doing it. So, whether that is a leap forward or not, we have to believe that we haven’t got to the summit.”
“We wanted to do something that was ambitious for us,” White interjects. “And that doesn’t mean a big-sounding record; it just means working on arrangements and different types of songs that push ourselves. We wanted it to own its own space. The fact an element of that still comes across, even though they have been worked on and there is a lot going on in some of those songs, is pleasing. The aim was for it to be a simple record.”
Sat across the end of a large wooden table at total ease with each other, Weeks and White still give the impression of being best friends — no small feat considering they, along with White’s guitarist brother Felix, Rupert Jarvis (drums) and Sam Doyle (bass), met as teenagers long before The Maccabees began. Hanging out “drinking on the common,” it wasn’t until relocating to Brighton in 2004 (Weeks went there for university) that The Maccabees made headway.
Weeks especially talks of that period with great warmth, and his past is obviously a preoccupation. He talks at length about the circumstances under which he grew up, and this topic infiltrated “Given to the Wild,” a perfect match for the wistful splendor of the music.
“I didn’t want to write about girlfriends,” he says firmly. “The only other thing I felt in a position to legitimately talk about and spend time thinking about was family and people around me growing up. That shift. If you think about one you can’t help but think about the other. That makes you nostalgic, and when you’re nostalgic you think about childhood and childhood friends, and how they are having children. I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of that in terms of expressing it. I think it’s worth thinking about.”
Elsewhere, nostalgia is not on the agenda. Before their biggest-ever U.K. gig in June, The Maccabees make only their second trip to Japan this week, where they are due to play their first-ever headline shows.
“If anyone comes it will be a triumph,” Weeks says with a hint of disingenuousness. Really? “I think so, definitely. I don’t feel like I impressed very many people with my performance. I didn’t do anything wrong, there was no horrendous incident where I embarrassed myself, I just don’t remember thinking ‘You’ll be back,’ ” he laughs.
“I’m sure it will be alright. It’s just that so early on we were excited just to be there. It wasn’t the greatest gig we’d ever done. That’s why it’s nice to go back and do your own shows. We can stamp our identity on it.”
The Maccabees play Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya, Tokyo, on May 24. “Given to the Wild” is on sale now via Pachinko Records.