Forget the ‘tortured second album’ archetype. With ‘Born Under Saturn’, Django Django are comfortably embracing the groove that took them from bedroom experimentalists to one of Britain’s biggest indie success stories. Emily Mackay meets a band running rings around the world…
Once an art student, always a bloody art student. “The artist’s special position in society cannot be dissociated from the fact that unlike the rank and file of people he has always had the power to bewitch and enchant an audience.” These words are from the introduction to Born Under Saturn, the classic art criticism work from which Django Django’s second album, released next week, takes its name. The book explains the history of the idea of the artist as eccentric, melancholic, prone to madness, gifted and cursed beyond the ken of other mortals; an idea that runs through western culture from Renaissance artists and poets to our obsession with the Ians, Kurts and Richeys of this world.
It’s an old, old idea, and largely self-serving claptrap. So have Django Django, our presumably now tortured-second-album artists, fallen prey to a fame-induced melancholic humour? Nah, they just liked the name.
“I found the book in a charity shop,” says Django drummer and production maestro David Maclean. “I thought it was going to be about mythology and the occult, then I started reading it, and it was pretty heavy thesis. Interesting enough, but the title grabbed me more than what the actual book was about. Anything to do with mythology or the occult is interesting to me, or planets or outer space – anything that’s a bit mysterious. It just seemed to fit with the album image, so we nicked it. We tried changing it and calling it ‘Born Under Venus’ or ‘Born Under Jupiter’, but nothing really worked…”
It’s got a nice ring to it.
“It does, doesn’t it?” says synth man Tommy Grace. “Saturn.”
“A ring to it,” adds Maclean.
Some seconds later, I get the joke.
The irreverent lift makes sense; few artists seem less tortured than Django Django, magpie groove merchants who lift from dance, indie and world rhythms to furnish a bewitching, ever-evolving live experience that’s fuelled a rise – more mercurial than saturnine – from bedroom experimentalism to over 100,000 UK album sales, a Mercury Prize nomination, and, this summer, stage headliner spots at Reading and Leeds. Relaxing above the soundstage in RAK Studios, North London, before recording a live session, Maclean, singer-guitarist Vincent Neff, bassist Jimmy Dixon and Tommy Grace seem supremely relaxed, gently jovial, gratefully surprised by fame, quietly enjoying things. But they must worry about something.
“Probably stuff that’s not music-related,” says Maclean. “I don’t think you can worry too much about making music. We take it seriously and strive to make it better. But the actual making of the music should be a bit of mucking around and experimenting – I think that’s what we try and get across.”
That focus on joy has led to, on this un-difficult second album, subtler structures; rather than the attention-grabbing polyrhythmic pop collages of before, songs – contributed to by all four band members this time, whereas Neff and Maclean largely wrote the debut – grow and shift and change and jam the fuck out. Two of them – ‘Reflections’ and ‘4,000 Years’ – also feature sax work from James Mainwaring of Roller Trio, Django’s fellow 2012 Mercury nominees, who Maclean kept in touch with after being blown away by his performance at the awards ceremony.
“I wanted the songs to be stronger, and not shy away from choruses,” says Maclean. “On the first album, we’d have a really good song that sounded great and then we’d get to the chorus and be like…”
“…let’s have a drum breakdown,” finishes Grace. “We wrote the songs as we were producing the songs on the first album, they all went on to the computer and we’d collage them about, to try and make a structure out of them. This time it was quite often the three of us writing and having the whole thing down.”
“I was really pushing for everyone to write and write and get full songs that could just be played on acoustic guitar and they would stand up,” says Maclean.
That’s right, you heard the words to strike chill into any indie-dance fan’s feet: ‘acoustic’ and ‘guitar’. Fetch the shears! But fear not, Django Django haven’t turned troubadour.
“Live, we like to have long outros; the song finishes and then you get the 12-inch extended version where you go off in a groove,” says Maclean, “and we wanted to get that into the album a bit more… It always seems to go down live when people get the extended version.”
Another kind of stage performance played into the album as well; last year, Maclean and Grace wrote music for an Royal Shakespeare Company production of The White Devil, a bloody revenge tragedy by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster.
“If there’s any kind of darkness bubbling under the surface, it’s probably come out of that,” says Maclean. “The play itself is quite a dark piece, full of backstabbing and deceiving… I’d made some stuff on my computer in about 2005, not really knowing what to do with it, and when we did The White Devil I went back to it and found that a lot of it was quite gothic. So we got some of those tracks back up on the go and then the more we played with them the more we realised they could be good for the album. Tracks like ‘Found You’ and ‘High Moon’ – some of the darker, gothier stuff – came out of those writing sessions.”
Lyrically, perhaps some of that high-drama mood is creeping in, too; themes – again contributed to by everyone – are never dull, from betrayal in bank heists in the dark and driving ‘Shot Down’, via the eternal battle between day and night in the folky-psychy ‘High Moon’, to a man who’s made a deal with the devil in the percussive, slowly unwinding sultriness of ‘Found You’.
But Django Django are also interested in the dealings of this world. The band, made up of two Scots (Maclean and Grace), a Northern Irishman (Neff) and an Englishman (Dixon) met while studying at Edinburgh College of Art. Maclean was a staunch supporter of the Yes camp in the Scottish referendum, and remains so in the run-up to a general election in which the SNP could be the kingmakers in a Parliament with no one party having a clear majority.
“I’m not really nationalist or anything, I just think that countries should have their own power and own sovereignty,” he explains. “It’s not anti… I live in England, love England. I think even if I was English I would say, ‘Yeah, Scotland should probably manage their own affairs.’”
“A lot of people that I studied with – English people living in Scotland – voted for independence,” Dixon says. “Parts of the media and a lot of politicians would try and play it as the Scottish wanting to divorce from the English and it’s not about that at all; it’s about governing yourself and having independence from a government that’s 2,300 miles away.”
“It’s gonna be really quite exciting, almost, this election, which is something,” Maclean says, “because usually it’s quite predictable and boring.”
The future for the country is uncertain and exciting – so too for Django Django. Straddling as they do the vague camps of indieish, rockish, synthish and danceish (Maclean runs a dance-oriented label, Kick + Clap – see sidebar), there’s any number of avenues they could go down.
“It’s fun to have the two sides there to play live,” says Neff. “It means you can do unexpected things. Towards the end of a set might be quite raucous… we just have different facets to it.”
Perhaps at some stage in the future they might go outright Radiohead, and indulge their electronic tendencies to the full.
“I’m a huge fan of the ‘Kid A’ album,” muses Maclean. “I was thinking the other day that it’d be nice to do an album where you give yourself constraints like that. No synths or just synths… I think when you’ve reached the point in your career where you’ve made four or five albums, maybe then you start doing things like that to keep yourself challenged. But you have to be careful that you’re not coming up with a concept just for the sake of it that’s going to take away from what’s possible for the song. You want the song to be the best it can be, and if it needs a sax and a synth, or whatever it is, then you go for it.”
“We’ve got quite a short attention span,” adds Grace. “After writing a song that’s all guitars, like ‘Shake & Tremble’, you kind of feel like, ‘Let’s just do the opposite’. We’re quite flighty, sorta jumpy in terms of ideas.”
Long may Mercury, rather than Saturn, remain Django Django’s flighty, energetic planet. There’s enough to worry about out there. Why make art a torture too?