Release Date 10/10/2017
(Ribbon Music) NACC, SubModern
Two years ago, Django Django’s drummer/producer David Maclean was standing backstage at a festival in Chicago, chatting to a group of people, when he happened to raise his eyes skywards. “It was really amazing,” he remembers. “The sky looked like a massive sheet of marble. We were all just kind of staring at it. It triggered something…”
Maclean immediately made a note of the words Marble Skies, now the title of the band’s much-anticipated third album. It’s a very Django Django title, following on from their eponymous, Mercury-nominated 2012 debut album and its 2015 follow-up Born Under Saturn to underline their inherent wonder of all things natural and elemental.
After the rave-shaped grooves and expansive arrangements of its predecessor, Marble Skies is a more concise and focused offering which recalls the dynamic, genre-blurring music of their debut. “I think it’s the strongest body of work we’ve done, definitely,” says Maclean, who despite his drumming skills reckons he’s happiest when tinkering as producer of the band’s tracks.
Where Born Under Saturn was recorded in what Django Django regard as a “proper” studio, Angelic in rural Northants (the band surrounded by an eye-popping array of vintage synthesisers), Marble Skies found them deciding to return to the handmade, cut-and-paste approach of the Django Django album.
“We definitely felt like we wanted to take back control a bit more,” says singer/guitarist Vincent Neff, a twinkly-eyed individual possessed with an impish sense of humour. “Basically the last album was about 18 stone. This one’s about 12-and-a-half. The first one was done with a very limited palette because we didn’t have that much equipment. Then with the second we had everything. The process this time was similar to the first album.”
Having begun life as the bedroom recording project of the Scottish-born Maclean and Northern Ireland-raised Neff, Django Django evolved into a band with the addition of synth-obsessed Scot Tommy Grace and Yorkshire-hailing bassist Jimmy Dixon, playing anywhere from small clubs to warehouse parties. The four initially met at Edinburgh College Of Art, though didn’t properly get going until they had all relocated to London, where things quickly took off for Django Django following the release of a stunning run of early singles (“Storm/Love’s Dart”, “WOR”, “Waveforms”, “Default”) and their highly-acclaimed debut LP.
Upon their arrival, as a band Django Django were clearly a unique proposition, mixing the US garage rock of The Monks with the playful sonic voyaging of Beck, and adding a dash of the freewheeling, surrealistic humour of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
In the wake of their debut album’s success, this merry band of musical adventurers travelled the world, including visiting India at the request of the British Council. Elsewhere, Maclean accepted an invitation from Damon Albarn to travel to Mali as part of Africa Express, before all four members performed a show with Albarn’s amorphous troupe in Marseille.
By the time the tour for Born Under Saturn ended in Australia in January 2016, Django Django were both elated and exhausted. Maclean flew on to Los Angeles to lend his programming skills to the making of KT Tunstall’s KIN album, then moved back to his hometown of Dundee for a much-needed rest. Meantime, the others assembled at Urchin Studios in east London with Metronomy drummer Anna Prior to experiment with the idea of coming up with new tracks through loose jamming sessions.
“It was actually quite refreshing,” says Neff. “Just to have a different drummer and a slightly different sound with the way they play. Jamming stuff, you could feel immediately if something had a good energy about it.”
At the end of 10 days of recording, there was plenty of raw material to send up to Maclean in Scotland for him to edit and refine. It offered him more perspective on the initial part of the process. “They might not have thought that this particular bit they’d played was any good,” he says. “But it would jump out at me and I would loop it and build on that and send it back.”
Django Django are unusual in the sense that all four members contribute not only to the music, but also to the melodies and lyrics.
“A lot of the time it’s us just sitting around with a little melody and fitting words to it,” says Neff. “We don’t overthink things. Just whatever’s in your head, write it down, record it in.”
“We’ll often just write nonsense,” adds the dry, self-deprecating Dixon. “Sometimes it stays, or sometimes there’ll be a line that we like and we’ll build the rest of the song around it.”
“We just totally pick apart each other’s work basically,” says Grace.
Marble Skies sees Django Django, effectively, returning to the recording environment of Maclean’s bedroom, albeit in the form of their small, equipment-crammed studio in north London. “It’s like a gang hut,” says Maclean. “Kind of like my bedroom in that flat where we made the first album…just without the bed. We feel like we can just do whatever we want there.”
Parts of Django Django’s third album find them sailing into uncharted territories, not least the driving title track (propelled by Anna Prior’s drumming), with its echoes of Krautrock and Suicide. By contrast, the trippy upbeat rock of Tic Tac Toe, with its enormous echoing hookline, will excite fans of the band’s rockabilly-influenced elements, being cut from the same long recorded jam that produced WOR and Born Under Saturn’s Shake & Tremble. “So we’ve managed to get three songs out of that one jam,” Maclean says. “I guess they’re a bit of triptych.”
Meanwhile, the hazy Zombies-like summer pop of Champagne, which explores the joys and ills of alcohol, was inspired by a boat trip on the Seine that the Djangos enjoyed at the invitation of their label. “It was all the best wines and we got totally shitfaced,” Neff confesses with a grin. “But it was quite an experience coasting down the Seine.”
Those drawn to the more dance-orientated side of Django Django will find much to love in the twisted ‘80s electro pop of In Your Beat and the Jamaican dancehall-influenced Surface To Air, a dreamy-headed pop song fronted by Rebecca Taylor of Slow Club. The collaboration came as a result of the two bands meeting up at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas some years ago, where Taylor and Maclean in particular bonded over shared musical tastes.
“Me and her were having a drink and she said she was really into R&B & hip hop and dancehall,” Maclean recalls. “Tommy had sampled this dancehall record and put a synth and a melody to it, and to me it was just crying out for Rebecca to sing on it.”
Originally Surface To Air was conceived as a duet for Taylor and Neff, although the Djangos’ singer wryly notes that it was beginning to sound “a bit Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton”. As a result, in the tradition of Massive Attack and Primal Scream, it’s the first Django Django track to solely feature an outside singer. “It’s nice to hear those kind of moments,” says Neff. “When you’re listening to an album, it pulls you out of hearing the same voice for every track.”
Another more surprising collaborator on Marble Skies is Jan Hammer, the Czech-born, American-based jazz-fusion and electronic artist who shares writing credits with the band on the gorgeously floaty Sun Dials. The track started with Maclean sampling and then having Grace expand upon the piano riff from Hammer’s The Seventh Day (featured on the 1975 album The First Seven Days), before the band emailed the musician for his consent to use it.
If there’s a mood running through Marble Skies, it’s one of reflection on things past and present, and finding some kind of peace with your place in the grand scheme of things. This sentiment reaches its peak amid the hypnotic groove of ‘Fountains’, with its chorus refrain: 'Bigger Than You And Me.
“It’s just this idea of things constantly turning and moving on,” says Maclean, “and you’re just kind of part of it and watching it and helpless to time passing. But sort of becoming at ease with that.”
And so this is where we find Django Django in 2017: older, quite possibly wiser, but just as thrilling and unpredictable as ever.