Everyone has a COVID-19 story and every musician – particularly those that thrive on shared, communal live experiences – has felt the impact. Disclosure appear to be more cursed than most, though. The release of the Lawrence brothers’ new album, ‘ENERGY’, was pushed back by several months, while a festival-headlining world tour was scrapped. Guy, the elder of the two, was even struck down by the illness.
He’s now doing OK, albeit with lingering symptoms and worries about the infection’s long-term impact. “My breathing hasn’t been the same since,” says Guy. “It was like having altitude sickness, without the headache. I just felt permanently short of breath – I didn’t know if I was going to be two senses down forever. I’m just happy to be alive, to be honest.”
There must be some longevity – and considerable luck – woven into the Lawrence DNA. Almost a decade to the day from the release of their debut single ‘Offline Dexterity’ the Surrey brothers, Guy, 29 and Howard, 25 are still at the top of their game. Third album ‘ENERGY’, out today (August 28), is a pulsating collection that focuses on the frantic, house-led bangers with which they made their name on 2013 debut album ‘Settle’, eschewing the slower R&B sound heard on follow-up and most recent record, 2015’s ‘Caracal’.
Trinkets around Guy’s house in north London, where NME hosts a socially-stanced shoot in the garden, provide subtle reminders of the achievements so far. On the mantelpiece, a ‘Best Track’ NME Award from 2014, which they received for ‘White Noise’, flips the bird at us. Elsewhere in the house, Gold discs hang on the walls for the success of their second album, alongside shots from live escapades at New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden and London’s Alexandra Palace.
When I mention the countless times I’ve caught them on the road over the past decade, blank looks spread across their faces – apparently not an unusual occurrence. “It’s one of those things that’s difficult to draw on moments unless someone’s said, ‘Do you remember that specific night when we did this?’ Then it all comes flooding back,” Guy says. “There’s some hectic, blurry memories, for sure.”
Their debut album ‘Settle’, released in June 2013, kicked off what NME dubbed “Disclosuremania”, boasting pop hooks (‘White Noise’), club heaters (‘You & Me’) and some soon-to-be massive names (Sam Smith steals the show on ‘Latch’). The brothers Lawrence slipped into the mainstream before the EDM scene imploded, but never bowed to the quick’n’easy demand for big drops and a repetitive formula.
Every generation has a dance album that soundtracked their coming-of-age, and for many late ‘Settle’ fulfils that role; it clocked up a whopping 44k sales in its first week, and was recently named as one of the previous decade’s best-selling British debuts.
“I over-thought the last album – we let go a bit more on this one” – Howard Lawrence
“People would say to us, ‘You guys are going to be huge’, but we just wanted everyone to take a deep breath and a chill pill,” Howard laughs. He was scarcely 18 by the time breakthrough single ‘Latch’ was released a year before the album.
The duo returned in September 2015 with ‘Caracal’, which helped to build their fanbase beyond Britain. There was a hint of “second-album syndrome”, they say, in having to get something out quick to capitalise on the momentum. The guests, including The Weeknd and a-then ascending Lorde, coincided with their desire to ease the pace and lean into an R&B-indebted sound. It received mixed response critically, but was by no means a disaster. As Guy is quick to remind us: “It took us to fucking Madison Square Garden!”
“I’ve learned a lot from looking back at that record as well,” Howard says. “Musically, there are parts of the album that I cringe at a bit. There are parts that I over-thought and tried a bit too hard to be clever with or something. For this new album, we wanted to let go a bit more.”
Perhaps the most amazing feat is that Disclosure made it out of that era – and those blurry nights – relatively unscathed. The shocking, tragic death of 28-year-old DJ Tim Bergling, aka Avicii, in 2018, sparked a debate about the duty of care that record labels and management have towards their artists. The EDM scene, in particular, is flush with big money, glamorous nights out and artists who quickly evolve from bedroom beats to residencies in Dubai and Las Vegas, and with very little in the way to keep artists safe. How far can an artist be pushed before it all goes horribly wrong?
The Lawrence brothers have been lucky to have the same protective team around them since they were in their teens, but they’ve “been around people who are on that journey for sure,” Guy says. “I wrote a tune with Mac Miller [production on rapper’s posthumous single ‘Blue World’], and he was on the way back to recovery and health, and by all accounts it was just a tragic accident.”
“I’m glad we took time off. We were drained” – Guy Lawrence
Howard stresses that levels of excess aren’t isolated to the music industry: “There are people in all aspects of life that are going on that same path, but when it happens within the music industry and the eyes of fame, it looks crazier. I’ve got friends who are working on banks that are on that path too.”
The brothers took time off in 2017, after the release of ‘Caracal’, which proved a blessing for the brothers. Guy travelled for several months in Southeast Asia and now splits his time between London and Los Angeles with his partner. Howard, meanwhile, is still based in their hometown Reigate (and taken up a bit farming, too). But they acknowledge not everyone has it that lucky.
“I’m really glad we took that time off and we did do that for mental health reasons.,” Guy says. “I don’t think we said it or explicitly, but we were drained and we needed inspiration for life and music to be drawn from outside of the process of touring.”
The band played 331 live shows between 2013 and 2016, a stint that saw them take in festival mainstages, sweaty clubs and a brief Vegas residency with their Wild Life club night through 2016. The band were keen to get on the road for this album, developing their previous instrument-led production and incorporating a more-DJ like performance with mind-melting visuals to match, much like their heroes The Chemical Brothers. Those plans are on hold for now, but they’re not exactly missing the downsides that come with live performances.
“You get to do what you absolutely love for an hour-and-a-half a day, and then the rest of it is pretty difficult living,” Guy says. “It’s a jetlagged living for sure. You could plan a perfect day while you’re on tour – but if you haven’t slept three days properly before it, that’s just a terrible day.”
Howard agrees, though adds that the lifestyle took two boys from Reigate all over the world in the name of music. The hedonistic living of city-to-city as party starters in their early twenties must have been the dream, right?
“It is, but you try sleeping on a cramped bus with 12 farting men every night,” he laughs. “That part is definitely not fun.” We’ll take your word for it, Howard.
‘E‘ENERGY’ is a triumphant return to form. Clocking in at 43 minutes, it’s their shortest and sharpest album yet. There are no wasted beats or over-wrought jams – just scintillating house anthems with an array of special guest vocalists, including big names such as Kelis, Kehlani and Common, as well as the zeitgeisty likes of punk scallywag slowthai and Cali producer Channel Tres.
It’s a record that will eventually soundtrack festival main stages, but the pared-back approach doubles-up as a love letter to the smaller venues on the circuit. Their next UK tour, slated to kick off in January, is made up of clubs known for their sticky carpets and sweaty dancefloors, including beloved Brighton club Patterns and Kingston’s Pryzm. “We didn’t really think about where we want to play it live or where it’s for, because we don’t want to limit it in any way,” Howard says. “After we finish a song, we’ll realise, ‘Oh this would be a great song for 6am in Ibiza’, or it might be a great pop song.”
“When [people go off the rails] in the eyes of fame, it looks crazier” – Howard Lawrence
This lack of inhibition will come of little surprise to those who’ve been keeping tabs on the brothers in recent years. 2018’s ‘Moonlight’ EP was a sample-heavy collection that found them moving the focus away from their own vocals as they searched for inspiration in unlikely places. ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’, for example, starts off with barbershop quartet harmonies, and ends with the euphoria of The Beach Boys watching sunrise after an MDMA-zing night out.
The frantic writing process defined the feel of this record. It was written, recorded and finished last year, and the brothers said that in the early stages of writing they had penned up to 200 songs and opted to push forward with those that came the quickest.
And the surviving songs are bruising and brilliant: the album’s pulsating title track is filled with errant whistles and clattering drums – a bustling would-be anthem had the proposed summer of sport had gone ahead – while the skittish ‘My High’ combines US hip-hop sensation Aminé, slowthai and a high-octane rocket. Elsewhere Kelis confirms her place as a dancefloor queen on the bubbling opener ‘Watch Your Step’, and Blick Bassy’s turn on ‘Ce n’est pas’ is a serious groover.
Make no mistake: the Lawrences are enjoying a real purple patch. Of the 200-strong collection they worked on, roughly 15 per cent have been released across this album and recent accompanying EP ‘Ecstasy’.
“For our first two albums, and all the EPs and singles before that, I wouldn’t say they were written in a ‘rush’, but definitely in a very short timeframe,” Guy says. “They say have your whole lifetime to write your first album, but we didn’t have that either time – and it felt right to do that. But this time we knew we had a solid fan base to rely on and wait for us.”
There are expectations to confound now, though. While some fans will embrace a more restrained, considered approach, there will no doubt be those clamouring for pop and a Sam Smith-feature – but Howard and Guy aren’t too fussed about appeasing them.
“Mine and Howard’s favourite artists rarely did the same things twice because they were always moving and pushing forward,” says Guy. “You will lose some fans along the way doing that – and we know some people just want ‘Latch’ over and over again. There are holes you get stuck in if you give a fuck about what people say. If you’re not doing it for yourself and you’re only doing it for other people’s opinions, it’s not going to work. You have to be doing this because when you get out of bed in the morning, you make music not for other people, but to get something out of your brain and into the world.”
“We have some hectic, blurry memories, that’s for sure” – Guy Lawrence
The success of previous A-list team-ups makes it inevitable for fans to expect bigger names, but the brothers don’t overthink who they want to work with. They have a simple criteria: be able to sing or rap in tune; be able to write and contribute to the song; and, crucially, don’t be a dick.
Cameroonian singer Blick Bassy took it further than most on his outing ‘Ce n’est pas’, a groovy thing that eschews genre and language barriers. During their session, Howard would tinker with the melody and Guy behind the drums, with Bassy improvising in the vocal booth with whatever they gave him. He ended up singing in a dialect between French and several local languages from his home nation.
“He likes to take bits from all of them, build a vibe and make the right sounds with his voice for the song and melody,” Howard says, still in awe of the singer’s skills. They also point to Malian hero Fatoumata Diawara’s performance on ‘Douha (Mali Mali)’ as a highlight that sees them resume a fruitful relationship that began with 2018 single ‘Ultimatum’.
The topic of cultural appropriation and responsibility that white, male producers face in the industry is one they will continue to face in interviews for this record. When asked if they feel a level of responsibility to represent and credit their collaborators accurately, Guy insists that any sample they use is followed to its roots, and that they ensure the musician is compensated properly for their work. Sudanese musician Kamal Keila has credited the proceeds from the boys’ sample usage on 2018 single ‘Where You Come From’ as integral to helping fulfill his lifelong ambition of owning an exotic bird collection. Not every artist is that lucky.
“I think a lot of the anger or problems with using music from other parts of the world is that people aren’t fair with it or treat it with respect,” Guy says. “If you treat it with respect and all parties involved are happy with the work, that’s a beautiful thing. We should celebrate those synergies – music is a beautiful language we can all speak.”
With an artist like Diawara, they’re grateful not just for her musical ability and the skills she taught them, but that both were able to reach each other’s fanbase by being listed as featured artists.
The brothers are always keen to learn lessons from the artists they’ve worked with. One collaboration they’re particularly proud of: ‘Talk’, their 2019 team-up with R&B kingpin Khalid, which they describe as “biggest ever song”. It landed in the Top 10 of the US charts last spring and, at the time of writing, boasts a whopping 652m streams on Spotify. It operates at a slower pace for Disclosure, but all the hallmarks are there.
Howard claims this is just the tip of the iceberg, though. “You should listen to some of the shit I write at home,” he laughs. “I write rock sometimes!”
Perhaps that bombshell sums up where the boy-wonders are at these days. On ‘ENERGY’, they dip in and out of their own past, fusing together more primal moments with big names collabs – it’s an eye-bugging, mind-boggling listen. Now that the difficult first decade is out the way, expect the next 10 years to be equally adventurous.
Disclosure’s ‘ENERGY’ is out now