Far From Devon: An interview with Metronomy’s Joseph Mount
After the Mercury-nods and the support slots for Coldplay, their fourth album Love Letters could finally see Metronomy cross over. Louise Brailey caught up with Joseph Mount, the creative force behind the band, in Berlin to find out where their next challenge lies.
From auspicious if grotty beginnings at Erol Alkan’s famous London, Monday night blow-out to recording in all analog studios and fielding requests from the gatekeepers of dad rock… Metronomy’s figurehead Joseph Mount has a vision, sure, it’s just that it keeps changing. Love Letters, the fourth album and the follow up to 2011’s Mercury Prize-nominated The English Riviera, sees him and his band bury themselves deeper within the fabric of pop classicism, a world buttressed in analog warmth and where the school of songwriting still knows the worth of a good shoop-shoop backing vocal. That’s not to say he’s retreated wholesale into the reassuring familiarity of Real Music—Metronomy were always going to be too odd for that—but rather to set himself a personal challenge. After all, as an ex-bedroom producer, Joe feels he has a point to prove. It’s certainly a far cry from his imagined fate as a “Four Tet type thing” anyway.
We caught up with the affable Devonian currently poised on the brink of full on mainstream success to talk forsaking modern technology, stalking your exes on Facebook and the nuanced relationship the English have with pop music.
I think it’s twenty seconds into Love Letters that you make a reference to being back at the English riviera, where you grew up, and listening to “Sleeping Satellite”…
… Are you a nostalgic person or is this something that you like to explore within your music?
I’ve never thought about it. I guess I’m pretty nostalgic, I don’t long for the old days, it doesn’t make me sad to grow up or anything. I also thought it sounded pretty cool to mention those songs from 1992. I guess after a period of time, after making a few records where I’m vocalizing it, I begin to realise that yes, perhaps I have a nostalgic streak.
In a way it’s easier—or somehow more encouraged—to to be nostalgic nowadays because you can just go on the internet and recall songs, games, people, whatever from your childhood—there’s Tumblrs dedicated to that.
It’s true. It’s like people getting drunk and trying to look at Facebooks of ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends. That’s kind of a pastime, everyone does that now.
I’ve always seen Metronomy, in a really unforced way, as working against the grain of contemporary pop music. Particularly on the previous album where you took something quite uncool—like Devon—and made it into something quietly beautiful.
What I was thinking about the last record I though, no-one knows about Devon—I mean in the wider world—no-one knows what it’s like, I can tell them what I want to tell them. I think with pop music it’s supposed to be like, you get people telling you about how they go to parties and how wicked everything is. You’re just told by someone that their life is really cool. And it’s funny because English people, English musicians, have got this whole thing about how their life isn’t really cool, like, “Oh I’m a working class musician, like I’m actually from quite a poor background.” In fact, you should be like, “No way, I’m really rich and partying all the time.” It’s a very English thing to be downtrodden and ashamed of yourself. So I thought this was a nice idea to present something in a real, “I’m from fucking Devon, yeah? You don’t know what it’s like, it’s really hot and there’s parties all the time.” I guess it’s not quite the same as what pop music at the moment is doing, but it was an idea I nicked from pop music.
English people have a complex relationship with pop music because it’s drilled into us to be self-deprecating. Instead you kind of end up with the idea of either the detached observer or the English eccentric narrative.
You’re right. It’s like the Arctic Monkeys moving to L.A. and it’s obviously really relaxed them. It’s not what English people do easily and I don’t think they necessarily should. And I think that’s why lots of American people find what I do to be particularly English. That kind of annoys me because I didn’t really think about that either.
You toured with Coldplay in America, did American audiences respond well? Did they even get you?
There was no one there… No, I’ve got no idea what that tour did for us in America in terms of sales figures, I’ve got no idea. I think if you’re going to a Coldplay concert and you see us, I don’t think you’d necessarily get it.
In the UK The English Riviera was your transitional record, not just in terms of crossover but in terms of your movement into classic songwriting. Did the fact that it was your most successful record by far give you a sense of validation—that this was the right direction to go?
It’s funny, each record that I’ve done there’s always been something that’s noticeably different. Like with the second one it was singing, with the third it was moving what I do into a studio. I guess with this one it was… I don’t know what it is with this one actually. Each time definitely there’s been people, maybe at the label, who’ve been a bit unsure of what it would be like but now I think they trust what I do. I do feel like it was validated in a way, like I knew it was the right thing to do. I knew it was the only thing to do. There was an element of me having a chip on my shoulder thinking people didn’t think that I was capable of doing something that sounded good.
What do you mean by ‘good’ exactly?
Because I was doing it in my bedroom or whatever and it kind of sounded like that [laughs]. I wanted to show people I was capable of making something that sounded really fucking good and so in a way I feel like I achieved that. I think for people who were maybe fans of Nights Out or the first record it might’ve felt, for that record to be the one that reached more people, wasn’t necessarily representative of the past.
And you’ve taken it even further with Love Letters. If you listen to Pip Paine (Pay The £5000 You Owe) and then that one it’s quite hard to reconcile the fact that these records are by the same artist.
I guess what I do has changed since then, and what I’ve thought I’m capable of doing. When I made that first album I was collecting all that stuff I’d done before, I kind of imagined that for the next few years of my life I was going to be a bedroom producer, a Four Tet type thing. But then it all changed. But it’s still me, I’m still the same person who wrote the songs. I started playing the drums when I was ten and at that early point, in my teens or whatever, I was just listening to The Beatles. Then I got into Nirvana, then I got into Wheezer and Lemonheads… Then I went through different phases, at one point I decided that it was all shit and I’m into hip-hop now—you know how that happens? Then I reached a point, when I was twenty-something when I realized that I didn’t have to like one thing. It was like a real, “Ah shit, this is fine!” I can like that Squarepusher record… I mean I don’t like him actually… but I could like a record like that and I could like the Ramones and The Beatles, it’s fine, I don’t have to explain myself.
Wasn’t “You Could Easily Have Me” meant to be your attempt at making something that sounding like the Ramones?
[Laughs] Yeah yeah yeah it’s true. It’s funny. That’s the other thing, whatever you’re absorbing or listening to, whatever you translate that into never seems to be what people take it for anyway. It seems like, on that first record a lot of those tracks I thought were a bit rocky but you listen now you’re like “Oh my god”—they sound like their own thing.
Coming from a drumming background do you have a different perspective on writing songs?
In the beginning it made me concentrate way too much on the rhythm section but I’ve always tried to make things a bit, like, groovy. I think that’s probably what it does, you want songs to have a feel, like a particular kind of rhythmical feel, and that’s the sort of thing a drummer would care about more than a guitarist. I do care a lot about melody but I imagine if you’re a guitarist and you try to write a song you’re thinking about technical stuff—guitarists are all a bit… twattish. But I think there’s tracks on this record, like “I’m Aquarius” and “Love Letters”, those songs are built for the rhythm.
The emergence of Metronomy came in the middle of quite an exciting time for a certain strand of mutant rock-informed electronic music—you played your first gig at Trash didn’t you?
I was talking about that the other day, about Erol [Alkan]. I used to get us gigs by basically going on the Trash website and looking at the links, like Liars Club in Nottingham, Chicks Dig Jerks in Birmingham and Razor Stiletto in Sheffield… There was this whole scene of people who were trying to do what Erol was doing in London but it totally worked. We went and played these places and it kind of made sense to be there. Playing Trash was our first London gig, it was a real seal of approval.
Which makes it even more remarkable that you’ve evolved to a band that records in Toe Rag studio, which is a wholly analog studio with quite a history.
Someone asked me about recording there and what I thought it would do for the band and I said, well, no one’s going to give a shit unless they do, and if they do they will probably be magazines like MOJO. Then I saw an English press girl who said MOJO are really interested in interviewing you and I was like, amazing!
Ha, no way! Are you trying to insinuate yourself within the rock canon a little, do you think?
No. It’s like, with the last record, I had some kind of odd agenda where I felt I had to prove to people that I knew about music. But because I produce, I try to now approach each record as a producer would and I try and think about what would be an interesting place for a producer to push you or take you. The main reason for doing something at Toe Rag was to force myself to write songs from start to finish before I recorded them. A lot of the songs on The English Riviera, well, just under half of them, were kind of done in the mixing of that album, they were finished way after the recording had finished. And that’s how a lot of people do stuff and it’s not a bad way of doing it but I just thought it would be really nice to feel like i was following something through and achieved it in a place didn’t have any modern technology. I’m totally pro computers and everything, but I often feel that if you can’t get something right on the way in and you rely on the editing then part of me feels like that’s cheating.
There’s an argument that so many people are recording on their computers now, often using the same software, that the idea of going into a studio—an all analog studio—is actually quite a radical idea.
For me it was more to change how I wrote songs. It was weird, the other day I was back on Logic trying to make some demos and I was using drum sounds and was like, “fuck me, this sounds incredible!” You know what I mean? There were kick drums on there which sound so brilliant and of course, that’s that sound from pop music I’ve heard. Then someone else was showing me this plug-in called a Square-pusher fire or something, it’s that Switch sound, the M.I.A. sound—it’s obviously the plug-in he uses. I was like it’s that easy, or not easy exactly, but it’s there. I think it’s kind of cool because half the world doesn’t care, they’re just listening to it and enjoying it.
But doesn’t that cheapen it?
It does a little bit. But if computer music producers make that their sound… It’s like Justice have a plug-in which is their sound. I think it’s quite nice in a way. I’m quite excited to start using Logic or a computer again.
Because it’s that easy!
You don’t really do remix work so much any more, which is a shame because you’ve done some classics, but is there an artist that might be able to tempt you back into the world of remixing?
I would be tempted, it would probably be like… Drake? If someone really surprised me out the blue, I would have to surprised by the fact they were into the idea. And I think someone like Drake I’d be like, “Oh, right.” So can you can email him and ask him to email me ~
Metronomy’s Love Letters is out March 7th, 2014 on Because Music.
Published February 24, 2014. Words by Louise Brailey.