South London quartet Athlete may worship at the throne of Pavement and Grandaddy while sounding like Steve Harley (of Cockney Rebel fame) jamming with The Beta Band, and new single ‘El Salvador’ may borrow it’s verse hook from Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated’, but there’s no doubt at this moment in time that they could well be the UK’s answer to the Flaming Lips.
You don’t believe me? Well let’s hear it from the horse’s, or rather drummer Steve Roberts and keyboard player Tim Wanstall’s respective mouths.
This is the biggest headline tour that Athlete have played so far. Are you surprised by how well you’ve been received?
Tim: Yeah, because we weren’t expecting that many people to
have heard of us.
Steve: It’s cool that so many people have come to see us play, and said to us after the shows how much they’ve enjoyed it.
You’ve toured in the past with people like The Polyphonic Spree, Mansun and the Electric Soft Parade. It must have been beneficial to the band.
Tim: I think it helped us a lot. We’ve definitely noticed, particularly
in Nottingham, where people saw us with the Doves and The Coral, that
a lot of people are coming along to see us again on the back of those support
Steve: And before that we’d toured with The Polyphonic Spree which was a great experience. I think places where you’ve been a few times you definitely notice the same people coming back and standing near the front singing along. I’m sure the radio has helped us as well, but there’s no quick route to getting yourselves noticed these days, so we’ll just keep on touring and touring.
Do you prefer playing live or being in the studio?
Tim: I prefer playing live when I’m in the studio... and vice
versa! I don’t think you can do just one of them and feel like you’re fulfilling
being in a band, because then when you’ve finished recording in a studio you
need to be able to take it to people.
Steve: I think that apart from all the travelling and being away from home, live is kind of easier work, in that you’ve done all the creative things in the studio and the feeling isn’t as intense, and you actually get to enjoy the fruits of all the work you’ve put in at the studio.
Your new single ‘El Salvador’ is due out on 24th March. What’s the song about?
Steve: It’s not about a summer vacation! It’s just an honest look at the kind of experience you get from being signed to a record label, sort of looking at some of the things that go hand in hand with being in a band that we didn’t really think about beforehand. And then in a wider sense, I suppose it’s about where you’re going and what kind of goals you’re setting for yourself, and what you’re prepared to give up to actually get to them.
Have you had any bad experiences from being signed up?
Steve: Not really, I mean the song’s not necessarily about any bad or good experiences, it’s more just saying about how strange the whole experience can be. We’ve got a little basement studio which is in Deptford, which is a slightly run down area in London, and we’ve been knocking tracks out there for a number of years now, and then once we got signed you’re suddenly going from that, to being on a major label where people make videos for you, and then it’s onto the tourbus for a drive around Europe, and then the managing director takes you out for dinner... It’s just about how that’s really strange, and how we’re questioning ourselves about what’s going on. At the same time though, it’s of course really good as well, because we’re being allowed to do what we want.
Do you tend to draw on mostly personal experiences when it comes to writing your songs?
Tim: Generally, yes. We tend to write about experiences of things
that have happened because it’s kind of natural, and also because it gives the
lyrics a feeling of being genuine. If you ever hear a band and you think they’re
whining on about their lives you can’t help but think “well actually, I don’t
think your life’s that bad!” and that doesn’t rub off well with people.
It can be a bit contrived, where bands have just sang this because it’ll sell.
The four of us all write our music and our lyrics, so if someone comes up with
something it’s not a case of the other three pandering to his ego and saying
“yeah that’s really great”, we actually criticise each other from time
to time, which makes songwriting more challenging, and we’ll talk the lyrics
through with each other as well, which in some cases has seen songs develop
fully from being just one person’s idea. Some of the songs are really personal.
I mean ‘Dungeness’ is about a day trip Joel (Pott – guitarist
& lead vocals) took to Dungeness and what he felt by being there…
Steve: I suppose in a way we feel we should be grateful that we’ve got this far. I mean, some bands feel it’s part of the act to have a cynical outlook or just be plain miserable. They may have their reasons but sometimes it all seems so staged. For us it would be wrong to adopt that kind of outlook because we’re about expressing ourselves in different ways, and being in a band isn’t about being miserable or depressed all the time.
How would you define the band’s sound?
Steve: The answer that we’ve prepared for this question would be that it’s a colourful collage of Casio rock, which I suppose doesn’t sound like anything does it? I don’t know really, I think we’re aware that our sound is fairly unique, and I suppose that’s down to us being creative with the sounds we really enjoy, which at the moment is a lot of keyboards and little electronic gadgets. Viewing it from a creative point of view we’re just trying to make something that’s 100% brand new.
Have all four of you got different influences and ideas that you bring to the band?
Tim: Yeah definitely. There’s some influences that we all share,
like the American lo-fi aspect of bands such as Grandaddy and The
Flaming Lips, and I think that is at the centre of what we’re trying to
achieve, along with the Beta Band and the Super Furries, but then
Steve, you’re really into hip hop…
Steve: …yeah. I think the main thing about Athlete is that we like moving away from the norm with our music, so if any of us discover something new that we really like, we might try and recreate those sounds as part of a middle eight or something. The first thing we’ll do is share it with each other, which is one of the most enjoyable things about being in a band, and then we’ll play around with it for a bit and see if anything materialises.
You seem to have a pretty healthy respect for each other’s tastes and influences. Were you all friends before you formed Athlete?
Steve: We were all friends long before we started making music
together. It just sort of came about gradually really. It sounds clichéd but
me, Joel and Carey (Willets – bass player) started jamming together…
Tim: …the other three formed a band during the Britpop era, and then Athlete kind of began when I finished University and joined them and we realised that we had a lot more to say musically than what was coming out of the Britpop scene.
Steve: We just got a bit fed up with that whole thing and started to question what music we wanted to create because we hadn’t really thought about it seriously and we suddenly had all these bands that we really liked opening all these new avenues. So we just decided to stop with the old band and start something completely new, and we discovered lots of bands that used a range of keyboards and electronic sounds, and we incorporated those into what we were doing. We realised we needed some extra help, at which point Tim had just come back from uni and it all made sense really for him to become involved in what we were doing. This is when we got the studio in Deptford and we just spent the best part of a year writing songs and experimenting with sounds and rehearsing until we felt it was good enough for other people to hear.
One of your songs, ‘Westside’, could be construed as being an attack on the Camden rock scene. How do you feel about that?
Tim: I think that whole rock scene is nothing more than a press
creation. It’s a shame really, because a lot of those bands have always been
there and yet been ignored. I suppose it’s good for some of them because they’re
now getting a chance to play in front of bigger audiences but at the same time
because the press have decided to jump onto a scene they’ve given it a shelf
life, which means that some of those bands will probably be fashionable for
six months and then just disappear. If they’d been allowed to build things up
slowly they might have been able to enjoy it more, as well as develop as a band,
but ultimately the press have destroyed all that.
Steve:…and also I think there are just so many bands who just copy what’s trendy at the time, and get record deals on the back of someone else’s hard work, which is a shame for genuinely creative musicians that are trying to do their own thing. These people are obviously more into fashion, yet get drawn into a music scene…
Tim: …The way the press works in Britain seems to be unique. I think it’s a shame, because the size of the record industry here in comparison to the rest of the world is pretty big, and the opportunities that that should afford people are massive, yet the attitude of the industry tends to work against you if you’re not in vogue. We’re quite glad that we’re not part of any scene because we’ve been able to build things up slowly as a result.
How has your relationship been with the press?
Tim: Quite good actually. When we released the ‘Athlete EP’ we got good reviews because of what we sounded like, not because of how we looked or because somebody was calling us the next big thing, so it was good to see that people who genuinely liked our music were writing about us, which is how it should be. It’s really annoying when you’re being told week in, week out, that some band are amazing and yet you won’t have heard them on the radio, you can’t find any of their records anywhere and yet they’re staring at you from the front of a glossy magazine every week! Everything is just so back to front.
Steve: It’s unfair on the bands as well, because it creates false levels of expectation which can only end in disappointment when it comes to actually hearing their records or seeing them live.
Your debut album ‘Vehicles And Animals’ comes out in April. Which songs are you most satisfied with on the album?
Steve: I really like ‘Le Casio’, the last song on the
album, because it’s so simple and yet we all worked really hard on that song
to get it to that point, and the sounds on it are there because we tried so
many things untill we decided that these were the ones that felt right. I really
like the melody and the fact that I play a keyboard solo…
Tim: I think my favourite is probably ‘Westside’ because it was the first one we completed for the album, and half of the track is actually the original demo we recorded years ago and sent out to record companies. It brings back good memories of our early days together as a band, and it gives me the most satisfaction. Playing live though, I really enjoy ‘Shake Those Windows’ because it’s taken us so long to be able to reproduce the way it sounds in the studio live, but since we’ve included it in the set, it’s been one of the most well-received tunes of the show, which is great considering not many people will have heard it before.
Will there be any more singles taken off the album?
Steve: There’s definitely gonna be another one after ‘El Salvador’, but we’re not sure what. It may possibly be a re-release of a song because we never really put loads of effort into promoting a single until now. Maybe ‘Westside’ could be re-issued, because it only came out as a limited edition pressing first time roundl. It would be good to take that to a broader audience. Maybe even ‘Shake Those Windows’ could be a future single as well.