LONDON – The big music story of 2013 hasn’t been the emergence of a bright new artist or genre. When people look back on this year they’ll think of Robin Thicke’s creepy uncle routine, Miley Cyrus giving oral pleasure to builders’ hardware or Kanye West’s Nietzschean rants about his fiancée’s bottom. This was the year when the music industry was overrun with twerking maniacs.
But among that bedlam, there has been a traditional success story — a debut album by a young British band that has, in the U.K. at least, outsold West’s “Yeezus,” Cyrus’ “Bangerz” and Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” London Grammar are three friends from university in their early 20s. Their debut record, “If You Wait,” says more about what it’s like to be a young person today than any of those released by big stars. Their self-effacing attitude and insecurity about the future has touched a nerve with a generation in a permanent state of uncertainty.
I head to Birmingham to join them for a few dates of their sold-out tour. Minutes after I arrive, singer Hannah Reid runs through the stage door. “Eugh, that man just tried to kiss me,” she explains, pointing back at a bloke waiting outside the venue who looks like he’s overstayed his welcome in his parents’ home by about 30 years.
The band’s guitarist, Dan Rothman, is fuming, but not out of brotherly protection. “Everywhere, Hannah and Dot (Major) get recognized. The other day I was at our merchandise table, selling fans posters with my face on, and no one knew it was me,” he sighs. “I think it’s because they’ve got better hair than me.”
True, you could spot Reid’s backcombed bob and Major’s unkempt bird’s nest in silhouette. But it’s more likely that the band’s burgeoning profile is unable to keep up with the runaway success of its music. The band has become successful without styling, social media or plunging necklines. They’re stars with little profile and, as Reid says, “We don’t feel famous.”
Perhaps that’s down to their unpretentious upbringings. All three grew up in the suburbs. Reid worked as a hairdressing assistant in Acton after school, Rothman went to the Jewish Free School in London and Major spent his teens drinking in fields near Northampton.
Rothman and Reid met at Nottingham University, where, in their first year, they shared halls, a malfunctioning toilet and a permanent smell of dampness. They spotted Major playing the djembe in the student union and the trio started writing together. They played around their university a few times, but it was all supposed to be a bit of fun. Rothman was studying economics. “I remember telling the band that I didn’t think I’d be able to do this much longer because I had to get a proper job,” he says. “Then three months later we were spotted, and from that point on it all changed.”
The band was signed to the Ministry of Sound label and given time to work on the record.
Now the record’s finished they say they never even tiff. It probably helps that the album went in at No. 2 and has sold more than 100,000 copies.
The band refuses to be drawn into the obsession with image in the modern pop industry. Early on, people creating “look moodboards” were quickly shot down. It’s not that they don’t like fashion, Reid says. She enjoys dressing up for a show, “the same way I would for dinner with my girlfriends.”
It’s just that’s not what they’re interested in. “I think when we started, all our team assumed that at some point we’d get a ‘look,’ ” Rothman says. “But they soon realized Hannah wasn’t having any of it. Now people come up to us and tell us they love that we just look normal.”
Perhaps because London Grammar is a band that actively refuses that kind of attention, there was an uncomfortable stir earlier this year when the Twitter account for the Radio 1 Breakfast Show posted: “We think the girl from London Grammar is fit. Do you agree? Text 81199 #Ladz.”
It was meant as a tongue-in-cheek joke from presenter Nick Grimshaw, but it was misjudged. After outrage on Twitter the tweet was removed and Radio 1 tweeted an apology: “We really regret the tweet. We got it wrong. We’re sorry.”
“I think it’s the first thing that’s happened where I felt out of control. I think they could have said much worse and more sexist things, but asking people to text in if they agree. … Putting my looks up for debate was wrong. And it’s just how casual it was. It does say something about casual sexism.”
Reid hasn’t spoken about the tweet before, and when I bring it up the boys bristle. This is a band that doesn’t want to be slagging off the biggest pop station in the country. “I don’t want people to get the wrong idea,” says Rothman. “Radio 1 has been very supportive. But that was a really weird thing.”
Reid says being “constantly judged” was something she didn’t expect about being a pop star.
“There are some things about the music industry people don’t realize,” she says. “Being a girl makes a difference. We ended up with a wonderful team, but I remember when we were first going for meetings with A&Rs, they would always look at Daniel when they’d ask about the songwriting (even though Hannah writes all the lyrics and toplines). In general, the music industry is so unreflective of society: it’s all men in the high positions — and a certain breed of man. And then there’s things that are tiring on a level you wouldn’t expect. When we were on (TV show) “Sunday Brunch” the other day my hands were shaking onscreen because I was so nervous. Somebody tweeted at me afterward to tell me I was a ‘c-nt.’ “
It’s miserable that the female third of a band takes the brunt of the abuse. But the band won’t be drawn in to seeing things this way. Instead, they close themselves off as a unit. Every decision they make “has to be agreed upon by the three of us.” They all abstain from social media for fear of getting embroiled in some brouhaha. After the last show in Birmingham they avoid the opportunities of a Friday night, sitting in the dressing room and eating snacks.
You could argue this isn’t as titillating as animatronic twerking. But while pop can be an escape, sometimes you also want it to understand what you’re feeling. Judging by these sold-out shows and their runaway success, there’s a lot of people who feel like this band gets them. In the year that pop went insane, London Grammar won’t let anything stop them from being normal.