Born of an unlikely restaurant interaction, Sleigh Bells is one of the most prominent indie acts of this decade. This month’s cover feature is an interview with singer Alexis Krauss on the duo’s new record, dream collaborations and Nov. 18 show at Wonder Ballroom.
It’s been a wild ride for London-via-Edinburgh foursome Django Django. What began as a casual project between Edinburgh Art College classmates David Maclean (drums and production) and Vinnie Neff (guitar and vocals) meeting up to drink beer and write songs in Maclean’s bedroom has in the span of two albums and three short years snowballed into an internationally praised outfit capable of selling out mid-sized concert venues worldwide. Django Django, the result of those initial bedroom recordings, was nominated for the Mercury Prize, given annually to the UK and Ireland’s album of the year, saw the band play in front of 60,000 revelers at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay festival and eventually went platinum, much to the shock of its creators.
The ease with which the band, which also features Jimmy Dixon on bass and Tommy Grace on synthesizer, was catapulted into the international spotlight is indicative of their overall ethos and the band’s member’s individual attitudes. Despite the heaps of accolades lauded on the band in recent years, one still gets the feeling that Django Django has to pinch themselves when they look back on what’s happened to them. Even once it became clear to Neff and Maclean that they had an album’s worth of songs and wanted to start a band around them, they figured the record would sell a few hundred copies and held out hope that maybe, at best, they’d achieve some cult success.
Songs like “Default” and the buoyant “Life’s A Beach” showed an impressive array of skills and showcased what might be the band’s greatest strength: their ability to channel a wide array of influences into a cohesive and originally sounding whole. African and Arabic influences popped up often on the debut, and when mixed in with other worldwide influences (take for instance the Latin-flavored backbeat on “Waveforms”) it becomes clear that Django Django’s members are well versed in a multitude of musical forms. It comes as no surprise that Maclean joined the likes of living legends Damon Albarn and Brian Eno in Mali to work on Albarn’s Africa Express project.
With all the unexpected success of Django Django and their subsequent whirlwind tour around the world, it seemed logical that the group would find it nearly impossible to repeat that record’s success, but with this year’s Born Under Saturn, the band showed no signs of slowing. Born Under Saturn expands upon Django Django’s melange of sounds and influences, resulting in a fuller, more bombastic sound. Although it’s clear the band has more tricks in their arsenal these days, the sound that made them so successful in the beginning remains and is expounded upon.
What also remains is Django Django’s wide eyed, “Is this really happening to us?!?” attitude, which is both refreshing and seemingly key to the band’s success. When I spoke with Neff on the phone recently before the band’s show in Lyon, France, I was charmed and impressed with his attitude and humble nature. For instance, when I mentioned the band would be playing a much larger venue when they return to Portland (The Wonder Ballroom versus The Doug Fir), he seemed pleasantly surprised. During our talk Neff seemed more like a mate you’d go have a pint or four with than an internationally touring rock musician.
ELEVEN: After the huge success of the first record, I’m wondering how that shaped both the recording of Born Under Saturn and how it will affect the live show. If nothing else, it had to allow you a bit more freedom in the studio.
Vincent Neff: Well it did in a sense because we had a producer and engineer and all that, but we wanted to really stay true to ourselves and what got us here. Being able to bring in outside people to focus on the technical stuff really allowed us to focus on the music. As far as the live show, it’s allowed us to do some cool stuff as far as a new stage design for this tour we’re pretty excited about.
11: Since Django Django is a far more fully formed band now that it has a few years on the road under it’s belt, was Born Under Saturn a more collaborative effort?
VN: It was definitely a collaborative effort and felt very communal, which was cool. We all have wide ranging musical tastes and bring different influences to the table.
11: What is the band’s recording process like? With so many influences, is it hard to range them in and focus them all?
VN: Well we’re all our own toughest critics and are very comfortable with each other, so that helps. If someone comes up with something lame they get dogged for it immediately [laughs], but in a nice way. We’re all good mates, ya know? Everyone brings their own influences and something interesting to the table on this one. The whole recording process was open and very unpretentious. We had a lot of freedom and it was quite fun. We’d suddently discover large parts of songs through happy little accidents, maybe someone coming up with a riff or something and we’d build on that. It was like a firefight of ideas going back and forth. In a good way.
11: David clearly brings a lot of African influences to the table with both his drumming and production styles, what are some influences for you personally? The band’s sound is both “out there” and very accessible, which is obviously a difficult thing to achieve.
VN: Thanks. Yeah that’s something we’re aware of, we want to be a pop band, but a smart one. Being accessible but staying original is definitely something we strive for. We think the audience is smart enough that if we stay true to what we want to do then they’ll come along with us. As far as me personally, my sister playing music when I was younger was a big influence. I really like weirdo pop bands from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
11: The band’s rise has been so meteoric and happened so quickly, what’s that been like from the inside?
VN: Yeah man it’s been wild. When we first started we never expected this to even really be a thing. I maybe hoped that at best we’d achieve some cult success, but we were looking into other careers, you know? There was no idea that it would become this big thing. At first I was just happy not to have a day job!
11: It had to be mind blowing.
VN: Oh totally, completely man. We had to learn to be a band, really. When we first started and were playing to 50 people a night we were awful [laughs]! But those early shows really taught us a lot and as the venues and crowds have gotten larger we’ve thankfully gotten a lot better.
11: Yeah the venue you’re playing here in Portland is much bigger this time.
VN: Oh really? Cool! We loved the place we played last time. The Doug Fir?
11: Yeah that’s it. It’s a great room.
11: Do any memories of your first trip to Portland stick out?
VN: Oh for sure man, we love Portland. It’s really one of our favorite American cities. It’s got a very European feel to it which I really liked. Tons of cool cafes, great clothing stores everywhere, cool bars, amazing record stores and lots of cool, healthy places to eat… which you really appreciate after traveling through the midwest and eating a lot of their food, [laughs] you know? »
– Donovan Farley
Django Django plays the Wonder Ballroom October 21st, you can grab tickets right here.