Though they now have a No. 1 album to their name, London Grammar are the emoti-pop megastars nobody seems to know much about. Jamie Milton tries to crack them
London Grammar are armchair philosophers. Between writing songs, they’ll pass the time in a studio discussing the meaning of life. The trio collectively cite fellow big thinker and entrepreneur Elon Musk as one of their heroes. He once claimed there is a “one in billions” chance we’re not living in some kind of computer simulation, The Matrix-style. “He gets really annoyed about it. He’s like, ‘Of course, obviously it’s a simulation!’” says singer Hannah Reid, when explaining their fandom.
Super-dark sci-fi series Black Mirror is another one of their shared loves, although Reid saw one about virtual reality and was too freaked out to watch the rest. Multi-instrumentalist Dot Major says a great deal of life is “so killer bees”, citing the Charlie Brooker-directed episode where drone-like insects take a turn and start randomly, savagely murdering people. You wouldn’t glean these obsessions when listening to the trio’s chart-topping second album ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’. There are no references to quantum physics, songs named after Stephen Hawking theories, or realisations we’re all being controlled by a higher species. Instead, they apply their big-thinking hats to topics everyone frets over – falling in and out of love, getting older but none the wiser, the early-onset mid-life crises twentysomethings tend to experience. They have an uncanny ability to make intimate subjects feel universal, like inner dilemmas are tormenting all of us – which is probably why they’re selling tons of records when most bands struggle to shift a handful.
NME finds the trio bunched together in an east London studio, necking down Chinese takeaways before having their photo taken. In between mouthfuls of fried rice, they’re discussing politics and Beyoncé. The three met and formed at Nottingham University, and despite graduating years back and being on the road ever since, you can picture them back in student halls. If this was Freshers’ Week, guitarist Dan Rothman would be the instantly likeable one gathering the troops to go to the pub, scruffy-haired Major would be the elusive muso blasting Pixies records from his room, while Reid would be in charge of the communal stereo.
London Grammar have often been accused of being polite, or boring. Behind the scenes, they’re far from guarded about their personal lives and interests, but when put on the spot next to a dictaphone, they tend to give diplomatic, catch-all answers. Their second album’s title “applies to whatever the listener wants it to apply to,” says Reid in the interview. What did they do when they found out they’d scored a Number One album? “Nothing too crazy.” Their recent Glastonbury set was “amazing”, they say, adding how it’s an “iconic place to play and we had so much fun doing the set”. Sometimes, their answers come across as fence-sitting and reluctance to offend. But maybe there’s only so much you can say about being one of the country’s biggest-selling bands, beyond just how overwhelming that must feel. And all three members are forthcoming about one topic: touring, and how it almost broke the band.
“Sometimes when you’re in a band you go a bit mad,” Major readily admits. “Everything is exactly the same – waking up, hotels,” he explains. He’s not giving some cry-me-a-river, touring-is-bad anecdote – he’s just stressing how on the road, the days can blur into one. “It’s the same simulation, but a recurring one,” Rothman adds. “You have 12 déjà vus in a row and you do go a bit mad.”
2013 debut album ‘If You Wait’ saw this somewhat shy trio thrown under the spotlight. Their strung-out singles, such as ‘Hey Now’, became radio mainstays. They even won an Ivor Novello award. They emerged at the same time as synth-huggers Chvrches, future rock titans Royal Blood and stadium-conquerors The 1975, and pressure was heaped on them to become a bigger band in an instant. In June 2014, they cancelled an appearance at Scotland’s T in the Park. The following month, they pulled an Australian tour. “The wheels were coming off a bit,” Rothman explains. He doesn’t go into specific detail, but back in March 2017, he told NME the band had “lost our minds a bit”. Reid has always suffered from stage fright, but nerves began to take over around this time. They’d been touring non-stop for a year and a half, jetting between different time zones and revisiting countries because the demand kept getting higher. There was no realistic full stop.
“Touring is this amazingly extreme experience, and in theory you should be connecting to loads of people every single night,” Reid says. “But actually, standing in front of a huge crowd with everyone there to see you, it isn’t a normal human connection… You can actually end up feeling more and more lonely as it goes on.” Reid hasn’t fully conquered her stage fright. She had hypnotherapy that “didn’t work” and she’s since simply tried to “understand why” she can experience such huge nerves, even though most shows go off without a hitch. “The more exhausted you get from touring, then if you do have stage fright, the less your body can cope with the adrenaline. But if we do things sensibly, it’s fine.”
Rothman also experienced the pitfalls of being overworked. He remembers playing three radio sessions on the same day of a gig, just to fill commitments. “The more exhausted you are, the more fractured your relationship becomes. We all ended up sharing a room for a while when we began, and it did get a bit moody,” he says, specifically looking at Major. “I’d wake up in the morning at 7am, and he’d be on his BBC news app with his headphones in so couldn’t hear his own sniffing. There’d be irrational anger!”
Collectively, they decided to honour some previously postponed tour dates in early 2015 before taking a proper, deserved break. “We left the airport and were like, ‘BYE, GUYS!’ and then after two days were like, ‘What are you doing? I’m bored…’” Reid jokes. Getting back into the swing of things wasn’t as simple as Reid suggests. After suffering burnout and then spending time apart, they didn’t immediately rekindle the magic of the debut when returning to the studio in 2015. “That was the most upsetting thing,” Rothman admits. “To lose that itch to get back into the studio. It wasn’t quite as strong as it could’ve been. It just took a couple of months.” The touring life can “give you everything,” Dot says, except your close friends. “The thing that’s missing is the people.”
The trio needed time to readjust to life back home and rewire. Reid caught up with her best mates – “my girlfriends”, as she often calls them – to “talk about our feelings”. “I’m such a girl’s girl,” she admits. “I used to live with several other girls at uni and I miss that a bit on the road. Not that we don’t talk about our feelings, but it’s not the same. It’s missing those friendships when you’ve known people since you were 11, and those people know you so well – you build your lives around each other. When you never see them, it can take a toll.”
On the surface at least, Reid’s default mode as a songwriter is to explore relationships. ‘Rooting For You’ relates the feeling of “missing someone”, and could easily have been written when she was thousands of miles from home, away from her best mates. But these direct, not-exactly-revolutionary tales of love could also shadow as political cries. Again, not something you’d expect from London Grammar. But sticking to their student roots, they manage to relate the anxiety of growing up into an increasingly uncertain world.
The album title, ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’, could be perceived as a retort to the era of fake news, but that’s something they deny. “It’s funny how it’s coinciding, people keep asking about that!” Rothman laughs. “I don’t think it was purposeful, [but] it’s funny how art, music or literature can reflect the time without even necessarily intending to do so.” Back into diplomatic mode, Reid makes it clear the trio aren’t a “political band”, saying, “I don’t know enough to be able to preach about anything.”
Still, between being interviewed and having their photo taken, they keep chatting about UK politics, their love of Jeremy Corbyn, and fears for the future. After all, it’s hard not to pick up a front page these days without getting slightly anxious about tyrannical leaders or nuclear Armageddon. Final studio sessions for the album took place when Donald Trump was being inaugurated – “Cheery times,” as Rothman jokes. Even subconsciously, a sense of fear rubs off on the record. There’s so much more going on than emotive break-up bangers.
The reason why London Grammar can never be pigeonholed: there’s always something else bubbling under the surface. And it’s easy to misunderstand what they’re about. They’re in the pop sphere, but they don’t write wall-to-wall hits. They’re signed to dance label Ministry of Sound, but they don’t soundtrack Ibiza club nights. “We’re in the middle,” vocalist Reid astutely admits. The in-between is often a risky space to work in, and it’s why many are still trying to figure out this band. Reid looks at their place in the world – not pop, not dance, just somewhere in-between – and calls it “the hardest game of chess ever”.
The trio are more than happy to fill their own niche, but staying there is the tough part. The challenge with ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’ was twofold – to keep their heads and not get turned by success, and to stay in their own unique lane while finding out who they really are. It’s a test they’ve passed with flying colours, so far. If Elon Musk is right and the world really is a simulation, here’s hoping a game-changing next chapter is already written in the sand.