London Grammar’s Dan Rothman and Hannah Reid met when they were undergraduate students at Nottingham University – the story goes that Rothman saw a Facebook picture of Reid with a guitar and sent her a message, interested to see if she wanted to make music together. The pair began playing music in bars around town, and before long their friend Dot Major joined them, bringing keyboards and percussion – not least of all a collection of African drums – to the group. In those days, they stuck to low-key acoustic covers, a sound very far removed from the lush indie/electronic ballads they now make – but the crucial element, Reid’s haunting voice, was always there.
“A few months after we played our first gig,” explains Rothman, “we were spotted by a record company, and there was a bit of hype that started developing around us. We hadn’t found our sound yet, we were still working on that, but people were all incredibly taken with Hannah’s voice. There was a lot of excitement around that, and that was probably the thing that really started it.” After fielding various offers, the band eventually found a deal they liked with Ministry Of Sound, and once signed they holed up in garages and studios to tinker with their haunting, sparse sound until they had it just right.
“We spent a year and a half making our album, but it was only in the last six months we found a sound we were really happy with,” Rothman says. Throughout the development process, the three worked to find an identity that was uniquely theirs. “I think a lot of bands build up a lot of early excitement,” Rothman continues, “then they rush into making an album and they end up with a sound that’s not necessarily theirs, an outside producer has created it for them. We didn’t want that to happen to us.”
The three members of London Grammar brought different influences to play, but Rothman says that they were all particularly inspired by the likes of Radiohead, The National and the xx. “We were listening to a lot of those three at the time we were making the record. I don’t know that we wanted to emulate them necessarily, but we liked that all those bands had a very consistent sound across each record, and that they had a sound of their own. We’re also big fans of movie soundtracks. Hannah loves Thomas Newman, and we’re all big fans of the Drive soundtrack, by Cliff Martinez. We tried to get a lot of those lush sounds on the album.”
I’m intrigued to ask Rothman more about the band’s connection with Ministry Of Sound, a label more generally associated with Ibiza-ready club bangers than with London Grammar’s particular brand of atmospheric indie. “Yeah, it was fucking weird, actually!” he says of the label’s initial approach. “They’d heard of us from a few people, and seen a few YouTube videos of us playing live, and they approached us about doing a remix,” he says. “We got to know them a bit more, and I was really struck by their approach, and their passion about music, and so we ended up signing with them.”
“I think with us, Ministry were quite interested in doing something that they had never done before,” Rothman continues. “They wanted to get into a new sound that wasn’t just dance music, something that was more alternative or indie, if that’s what you want to call it, and they were willing to give us time to develop our sound. They let us do it on our own imprint as well, which we thought was very important, because it gave us a lot more freedom. They were happy for us to do that – to give us a bit of money and let us do our thing. The deal with Ministry Of Sound was the best thing anyone could have offered us at the time.”
London Grammar’s debut album, If You Wait, comes out this week, and I ask Rothman what exactly we can expect from the release. “It’s more of the same, really,” he says a bit sheepishly. “There are a couple of surprises on it. There’s one song that’s a little more acoustic, that harks back to our original sound. There are some more dramatic songs on it as well. I think we wanted to make an album that felt unified sonically.” As for the more electronic sound of early singles like ‘Metal & Dust’, Rothman says the album does go into this territory a little bit. “There are a few tracks that are more beat-based,” he says, “and one or two that definitely have the influence of that ’90s electronic sound, especially of bands like Massive Attack.”
Earlier this year, London Grammar collaborated with fellow UK upstarts Disclosure on the track ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’, and I ask how this hook-up came about. “Back when we were starting out, their managers offered to sign us,” he says. “This is when Disclosure were just starting out themselves. We didn’t go with them, it just didn’t work out, but we remained friends and they got back in touch when Disclosure were making their record and asked if we wanted to be involved. We went into the studio and it happened really quickly. Hannah started singing some top line vocals, and the whole thing came together in about two or three days, which is really quick for us. They have an incredible sound and style.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN