The Maccabees Interview: Inside The “Traumatic” Making Of Their New Album ‘Marks To Prove It’

The Maccabees’ studio sits inconspicuously down a small side road, a stone’s throw away from the teeming concrete roundabout that forms the heart of south London’s Elephant & Castle. Surrounded on all sides by churches, it consists of two rooms, each roughly the size of your average master bedroom, decorated with paraphernalia accumulated from across their 10-year career – from a giant print of their debut album artwork to a Maccabees football shirt. It’s homely, but not fancy, and certainly not the largest space to accommodate five working men.

Singer Orlando Weeks wheels in on a charmingly clapped-out pedal-bike, yellow sunglasses on, joking that he looks like Wacky Races’ Dick Dastardly, while drummer Sam Doyle parks up his new motorbike, wryly noting the difference between their transport options. The White brothers – Felix (guitar, backing vocals) and Hugo (guitar, piano) – are sat tinkering at the mixing desk, while softly spoken bassist Rupert Jarvis potters around in the background. There’s a palpable sense of positivity in the air: the band are sitting on almost certainly their best album to date – one that could mark the endearingly reluctant stars out as next year’s most self-deprecating new festival headliners – but the triumphant mood is one snatched out of a long time lost in the wilderness.

After two-and-a-half long years of working on it in the same two rooms – they intermittently call the writing and recording sessions as “painful”, “tricky” and “traumatic” – The Maccabees are finally ready to release album four, entitled ‘Marks To Prove It’, on July 31. “I think if we’d just met each other and decided to do a record and it was this record, or it at least took the same amount of time [as this record], then we would have given in and said it wasn’t working,” Hugo says.

Though Orlando still draws and has a fondness for “a good walk” and Felix animatedly describes the time he recently got to play a charity football match with his life-long team, Fulham FC (“I hadn’t addressed in my head that footballers get naked in front of each other when they get changed, so that dressing room was a very bizarre situation”), during the Maccabees’ period of self-imposed studio exile there was an unhealthy lack of time for anything else. “Everything on this record has come from these two rooms,” says Hugo, who took on production duties for the first time. “There are benefits, but it’s tough because you’re not going anywhere else and you know for a long time that it’s just these walls.”

In the main live room, where Orlando, Felix and Hugo are sat today – inadvertently colour co-ordinated in varying shades of blue – the quintet started recording drafts of ideas, painstakingly putting to tape every single snippet of music that emerged along the way. But despite ending up with hours upon hours of recorded material, they didn’t actually have any, y’know… songs. And despite their noticeably different personalities – Orlando the artistic daydreamer; Felix the gregarious, excitable one; Hugo the more pragmatic realist – there’s a unified drop in tone when they recall the difficult period.

“Slowly, we compiled so much music that it was a pick and mix,” Orlando says. “Like you were just [mimes putting hand in a lucky dip bag]. We kept trying to find a system and there just wasn’t one.”

“Every single week we felt like the album might not happen,” says Felix, stopping his idle guitar strumming. “In that first year we did think, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t working.’ I can’t speak for everyone, but I didn’t feel like I was living a particularly anchored existence for a couple of years.”

Eventually, tangible progress came when they hit on ‘Spit It Out’ – a huge, atmospheric slow-builder that starts out like piano-led Radiohead and builds into the band’s most intense track yet and set the benchmark for what was to come. They implemented some structure to try and regulate the endless days and nights of “write here, eat here, do some hoovering”: strict 12pm–1am hours, weekends off. Gradually, the fog of repetition and worry began to clear and, despite the downsides of their base camp, Elephant & Castle itself emerged as the glue that would bind ‘Marks To Prove It’ together.

“The more we got into it, the more it felt like this area and the fact that it’s equidistant from everyone’s home was more and more relevant. We felt like we’d found something that we could hook the record around,” says Orlando.

“When we started making the record, it didn’t feel like there was any link, but then we realised that this circle of stuff is our life,” adds Hugo.

Elephant & Castle – the “circle of stuff” in question – has been home to The Maccabees for six or seven years now. All five of the band originally hail from different parts of south London, and have since moved in and around the Elephant’s bustling centre. The area is also a hotspot of social upheaval. Once an affordable, ethnically diverse area, its entire landscape is now being changed due to a £1.5 billion regeneration project.

The gentrification that occurs when money and the lure of creative cool are thrown into places such as Elephant & Castle is a common one, from the changing face of nearby Peckham to the proposed Artangel pyramid project in Elephant itself – an attempt to build an art piece on the site of former social housing building, the Heygate Estate, and received so much criticism it was later scrapped. Sure, The Maccabees might be adding a little cool to the area themselves, but far more than that, they’re locals watching the place they love slowly lose sight of itself.

“It’s one of those spaces that you pass through; there’s a sense of transience to Elephant which is why I think it’s been relatively untouched until recently,” says Felix. “But there are those slightly Chelsea, Kings Road-type estate agents popping up now that look really out of place and that’s a sign for something. A lot of people are being forced out of their homes because they can’t afford to live here.”

“Elephant is very unfussy and yet it has this extraordinary amount of life and all sorts of bizarre things and people and contradictions,” Orlando says. “It’s very sure of itself somehow and yet it’s going through a massive change and is losing that confidence.”

It’s this idea that sits at the heart of much of ‘Marks To Prove It’. Instead of the personal tales of friendship and family, love and loss that informed The Maccabees’ first three records, their fourth album turns the lens outwards, using “snippets of things overheard in the cash point queue or on the bus” to tell the stories of the characters that occupy the place they call home. ‘River Song’ – a rousing “city shanty” that builds from melancholy beginnings to a communally sung chorus – stems from “hearing a couple have a really sad argument heading up towards Newington Causeway” while the dappled, dusky atmospherics and blistering peaks of ‘Kamakura’ talk of the wayward action that occurs around pub kicking out time. The album’s title track and lead single, meanwhile, was born from watching people go by in Kennington Park and is the first of a three-part music video series that features time-lapse footage of the area.

Aside from its setting, ‘Marks To Prove It’ – titled to reflect “an area that’s going through a lot of change” – also loosely fits into the story arc of a night moving into the following morning, from the energetic kick off of the title track to the gorgeous lilt of closer ‘Dawn Chorus’.

“I was reading Night Walks by Charles Dickens, where he’s walking through the streets of London dealing with insomnia, and I think the record has that idea,” Orlando says. “In a way, it ends with what we started with on the last record [which reflected an opposite day to night cycle]. We felt like ‘Given To The Wild’ was a fresh start and this was always meant to feel like a continuation of that, but using none of the tricks. Finding a way to make an atmosphere that didn’t need lots of layered vocals and reverb and cinematic, wide-frame everything; trying to create a world that carried the same weight as ‘Given To The Wild’, but in a very different way.”

Taking that last album – one that earned them a Top Five chart placing, sold out tours and a giant, 8,000-capacity homecoming show at London’s Alexandra Palace – and channelling it through a new, direct and streamlined context, could mean that ‘Marks To Prove It’ is the album to push The Maccabees into the next league. For all its troubled inception, it sounds huge and joyous. “The older you get in a band, you realise that the sacrifices you said you were gonna make, you have made,” Felix says. “We’ve probably missed out on some of the things that anchor you, but we’ve had a pretty blessed existence these last 10 years, and I think this record is a hopeful record.”

With a forthcoming tour supporting chart-topping titans Mumford & Sons on the cards alongside high-ranking spots on the bill at Glastonbury and Reading And Leeds, the band will have a considerable platform to unleash their new album to the world. Typically, for a group who’ve spent a decade waving away any form of bravado like a bad smell, they’re reluctant to acknowledge the potential for a forthcoming tipping point. “I mean, are these songs really that much better!?” says Orlando, screwing up his face in embarrassment at the faintest suggestion of big-time success. But, after a recording period that could have split up lesser bands or even themselves several years back, The Maccabees, if nothing else, are finally content with a job well done. “For us, it’s the peak of what we are as a band – to us, it’s our peak,” says Hugo. “We’ve kept this thing together for 10 years, and people still care about it,” Felix says. “When you get to this point it’s pretty magical. Probably the biggest achievement of the band above any gig or record is that we’re still here and we still love each other, and we still have ambition to make something great. That’s really something, I think.”