Oisín Kealy meets the indie-rock trio turned overnight sensations
It is probably the sunniest day we have had at this point since the calendar turned 09, so it seems a shame to have to leave the light for a dimly lit dressing room in ABC2. The atmosphere is just as warm inside though, lead singer Shingai Shoniwa greeting me with a hug as if we were old friends. “We are going to do this whole interview through song, is that okay?” I oblige, but she unfortunately does not follow through with the promise, ruining my plan to release the interview under “The ABC Sessions” as their star ascends, which I am sure it will. Their tour has been going well, guitarist Dan Smith tells me. “It’s been a lot of fun, most of the shows have been sold out. Especially in the state of the credit crunch and all that kind of shit, in the middle it’s really tough and we feel really lucky”.
Listening to their new album, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a different band to the one that released the punchy ‘What’s The Time, Mr Wolf?’ to great critical but lukewarm public reception two years ago. New cuts such as title track ‘Wild Young Hearts’ and ‘Never Forget You’ seem to bridge a gap between rock and roll, disco and sixties girl bands: a jump from the urgent punk-pop they played before, and a move which has been instrumental in their breakthrough to the public’s consciousness.
“Well, Once you make one record you don’t want to make the same record twice,” drummer Jamie Morrison, “unless you’re the Kaiser Chiefs”. Shoniwa chimes in at this point, “Oh, three times”, letting out a laugh. Perched knees-bent on the arm of the sofa I’m sitting on, her position betrays a dislike of staying still – something to be seen at their gig later that night as she climbs barefoot into the audience to serenade the forgotten members at the back, myself included.
Speaking on the influences for this record, Shania looks to staples of the past. “There’s a lot of Bacharach and Bernard Hermann with string arrangements, there’s also an early eighties Fleetwood Mac ‘Rumours’ era filtering though as well”. Morrison acknowledges the influence of their contemporaries. “I’ve got a lot of influence from the bands we toured with and supported for the first record like Bloc Party, TV on the Radio, from a personal point of view, thinking about beats”. “Foals?” Shingai offers. “Oh yeah, definitely Foals”.
On the topic of supporting bands, I see that the group have advertised on each stop of this tour for local bands to support them. This is an opportunity that is not always given, most chart-topping bands having the one act follow them the length and breadth of the UK.
“That’s what all bands should do” Shoniwa asserts. “So many bands get signed when they are like ten, they never get to know what it is like to work their way up venues, not having rehearsal rooms, having to play gigs and club nights, that’s what gives you your armour as a band. There are so many bands out there that have never had to do any graft, they just get everything handed to them in their lap, and you can hear in their music there’s a bit of complacency”. Especially recently, I add. Shingai nods her head with a grimace. “Especially recently, everyone was getting deals man, in the last five years they were handing out deals like peanuts. Most of my friends had record deals, but now that’s been slashed by 40% since the recession hit”.
Aside from lending their exposure to these smaller acts, Morrison sees the support as a signature on each gig. “Now we can create our own evening, it’s cool to have someone else every night it keeps you on your toes a bit”. Particularly true with the local support act tonight, Young Fathers, filling the singular niche of bands which are one part Beastie Boys to two parts Backstreet Boys.
As a live band, Noisettes do nothing by halves. Smith outlines what they aim to bring to a live show. “Chaos, Theatre, to recreate the sound in a way that’s not static. We want the crowd to feel like we were really there”. The conversation turns to Michael Jackson’s upcoming sixty-night residency at the O2 and which of these nights, if any, will make the audience feel privileged to have gone. Shoniwa does not need to think before answering. “The last night. With the last night you see the truth”.
Dan laughs, “On the last night the curtain will go up and we’ll see it’s actually been Bubble’s singing all along”. Shoniwa shakes her head and counters with even more enthusiasm “You are always going to take the risks on the last night that you would never take on the tour”, relating this to her experience seeing Grace Jones, a woman the press have been quick to compare her to– not too unfairly, although she is proving a much more approachable interview subject.
When I ask them about what festivals they are playing this year, the sound check progresses to the drums, which punctuate the room at thunderous intervals of a second. Shingai points at my Dictaphone sitting on the table. “Shall we – speak – inbetween – thedrumbeats – just – in – case?” The band take turns to shout out their summer commitments, including V Festival and Isle of Wight- the latter being a favourite of Shoniwa’s. “You don’t go there to try and have the same wellies as Kate Moss. If you go to an island, if you go to Isle of Wight or Bestival, you are going with die-hard people who will queue to get on a ferry for the weekend on an island off the coast of England. Glastonbury,” she shrugs, “2 hour drive. There’s some kind of pagan abandon, people do things on an Island they wouldn’t do elsewhere”.
Asking about the importance of style to the band, the drums suddenly become deafening. This gives Smith a chance to display his secret talent as a mime, answering my question through exaggerated arm gestures, pointing to his sleeves, lolling his head, and finishing with jazz hands at the point the drumming ceases. At this point we decide it’s time to relocate, as much as I would love to have the band answer my remaining questions in a similar manner.
“For me it’s the childhood thing of dressing up” Smith continues upstairs, an open fire door letting in a bit of welcome sunlight. “I used to wear grungy jeans and t-shirts, so it’s nice to get a bit tarted up”. Shoniwa expands on it “It is important to feel inspired by what you’ve got on, if something puts you in a beautiful mood then it’s great”.
Like many bands of late, Noisettes have benefitted greatly from having their song synchronised in an advertisement, with ‘Don’t Upset The Rhythm’ reaching number two in the charts (and number one on iTunes) shortly after our meet, due in no small part to its inclusion in the Mazda spot. I ask about the return on the ad, not monetary but in terms of exposure. “That’s the most important thing,” Smith agrees, “It helped our radio profile, we never had a radio profile before”.
Shoniwa looks at it with a business head. “It gives you profile in the corporate world. The person who runs Island’s marketing used to work for Prêt á Manger. A lot of the labels have hired in special corporate guys to get them in money”. The Brit school graduate (alumni including Kate Nash, The Kooks and Amy Wine house) has no illusions about the nature of the business. “They would never have heard of Gabriella Cilmi, Her song was sitting around for a year and the radio wouldn’t play it, but as soon as she got the deodorant advert: ‘nothin sweet about me, yeah,’–” emulating her voice rather well while elegantly spraying an invisible canister into her armpit, “–then she got radio. Little things like that introduce you to people in corporate world who don’t care about gigs, they aren’t going to put you on the radio unless they see some financial ties. You can’t just have your manager going ‘oh, they’ve just come off tour with Muse’, you need more than that these days”.
A sober thought to end on, but the struggle seems to be over for this band at present. A few photos, a cursory sketch and a bar of “Vogue” sung by Shoniwa later and we part ways. Five years since their inception they have by all accounts arrived, and their packed gig tonight shows a band that deserve every word of praise that flies that flies their way.