Interview: Bombay Bicycle Club

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The alarm goes off at half-past six in the morning. Bombay Bicycle Club bassist and solo artist Ed Nash gets out of bed. He sees the sun come up, goes on a walk, has a coffee, perhaps some breakfast and then takes himself off to his home studio, where he reads for half an hour. Next, he’ll take care of the boring stuff: death by email is a fate that even famous musicians can’t avoid. Then, at about 10 o’clock, he’ll get started making music and will work until the evening, when his girlfriend gets home from her job as a veterinary nurse. Each night, like hundreds of other couples up and down the country, they will cook dinner. Perhaps they’ll watch television. Maybe they’ll read. Or perhaps play some music. Then, they’ll call it a night and go to bed. “It’s just that on repeat, which isn’t a bad life at all. But it would be nice to play some shows at some point,” says Ed.  

The hankering for live events is one many music lovers share: when the COVID-19 crisis put a stopper in Bombay Bicycle Club’s European leg of the Everything Else Has Gone Wrong tour, their fans were understandably upset. “The world as a whole has been affected, and then this industry has been completely taken apart, it’s been decimated really,” says Ed, reflecting on the band’s crew who have been out of work for almost a full year now. The future looks pretty bleak from where he’s standing: “Everyone’s gonna be in this for a long time, if they manage to stay in the industry at all; if there even is that much of a live industry left when we get back. Venues have shut down. Big logistic companies shut down. Rehearsal studios have shut down. I don’t think people quite realise how much is at stake and how much will go away.” 

The band has done their bit to amplify the work of the international hospitality sector campaign by We Make Events and UK Music’s #LetTheMusicPlay initiative. Ed even designed a band shirt, where the proceeds were given to their crew, who aren’t able to make an income from making music in the same way that Bombay Bicycle Club’s Ed, Jack Steadman (lead vocals/guitar), Jamie MacColl (guitar), and Suren De Saram (drums) can. It’s not just their own crew that they’re helping out, either. Lockdown EP Two Lives (an acoustic reworking of three songs from their January release, along with a Bonnie Raitt cover that gives the EP its title) raised funds for the charities Chineke! and Youth Music. Ed says: “It was when – and I mean, this is still very, very important, it wasn’t just a one off thing for us – Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests were in the media, and we did a lot of reading on it and we thought it was an important thing to look into and support.” 

Despite the monotony of his everyday routine, Ed is, all things considered, doing okay. He acknowledges he’s lucky to have a recording studio in his North London home that is big enough for the band to rehearse in when the UK government restrictions have allowed the separate households to meet. TheTwo Lives EP offered an opportunity to rework ‘Let You Go’, Ed’s least favourite song from the band’s fifth studio album, Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, released on 17th January 2020 after the band’s four-year hiatus. And, on 11th December, the band is also set to release a live album from their November 2019 Brixton show for the 10-year anniversary tour of their debut, I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose (released 11th August 2009). The band is also broadcasting a special live performance of the album on December 15th at 8PM GMT time

 

 

Bombay Bicycle Club’s electric guitar-fronted debut revolves around the theme of youthfulness, and was the product of demos produced by Steadman, honed under the expert guidance of producer Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not). The band recorded at Konk Studios, in North London. Ed says: “I was really shy, I was really nervous, I was really intimidated by being in the studio and working with adults in a very serious capacity. So Jim very much showed us the ropes in those sessions. For that album we played together for the most part, so drums, bass, and two guitars, and you can kind of hear it on that – it’s very live – and worked our way through it like that, with Jim very much steering the ship.” 

How does it feel looking back on a record which is both about youthfulness, but also encapsulates the band’s own inexperience? “Doing all this I Had The Blues stuff and looking back at that is a bizarre experience,” says Ed. “When we made that album I was 18 and I’m definitely not 18 anymore. So guess it’s just like looking at a diary or looking at old photos, you take stock of where you were and where you are now and understand it in a different way.” 

What’s changed between now and then? Ed says: “I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose came out when I was 18 and I’m 30 now. So growing up, being an adult, just being responsible and the best person I can be.” For Ed, the album is “fairly heart-on-its-sleeve, it’s very honest. I would say probably our most honest record, and a very good account of being aged 14 to 18.” Young, keen and excited as they were back then, Bombay Bicycle Club wasted no time in releasing their sophomore effort, Flaws, in 2010, which was followed a year later by A Different Kind of Fix, and So Long, See You Tomorrow in 2014. The November 2019 anniversary shows were a chance for the band to savour the record they rushed out as teenagers, then: “When we did I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose 11 years ago, we didn’t really play it through ever, there are a few songs that we would have played once or twice and then moved on. And we were so eager to move on from that record, just because we were young and restless so we didn’t really tour it for that long, we did maybe six months and then we started doing Flaws. And then Flaws went straight into a Different Kind Of Fix.” 

The upcoming live album is a chance for fans who weren’t able to attend the anniversary shows to feel a part of that moment in the band’s history as they play the record in full, as well as anyone who is pining for a live music fix to get their fill. “I really like it especially because you can hear the crowd,” says Ed. “From that recording, listening back to ‘Always Like This’, it’s our biggest song so it’s lame for me to say but you can hear the crowd singing along, it sounds fantastic. It’s real goose-bump giving stuff.” 

A band that induces a similar effect for Ed is the Osees: “Whenever they play I try to go and see them, it’s one of the best live shows. And the live album doesn’t quite capture the intensity of it, but you if you put that on in your living room and you’ve seen them before, you can kind of imagine being there.” He adds: “John Dwyer, the frontman of that band, is just unbelievably energetic. He must be in his late 40s now, he’s way more energetic than anyone else I’ve ever seen, a really charismatic, good looking guy. The rest of the band are amazing, super tight, and just put on a good show.” It’s this power for a live album to transport you to a specific moment in time which is really powerful, says Ed: “I guess that that’s the important thing with this live album and any live album: you’re capturing something that you couldn’t get in the studio. It’s something else.” 

But sometimes, a break from the live shows can be a force for good. Back in 2016, burnt out from their frantic touring schedule, Bombay Bicycle Club needed some time to live “normal lives” and pursue their personal projects, and so they announced an indefinite hiatus. Ed says: “It gave us the chance to grow up as normal people for a bit. I’m not saying that we were unusual people before, but we left school and we did the band. And that’s all we did. We were dedicated to it, we put all our time into touring and when we weren’t touring, we were writing and recording and rehearsing. Everything just rolls along and you become like a part of a big machine. And to stop doing that, spend time by yourself, living with your friends, seeing your family, having proper relationships, living a pretty normal life allows you to grow as people. So when we came back to it, I think everyone was a more rounded, happy person. And then the band was a better thing for it, everyone was able to speak their mind and communicate with each other in their own individual way, as opposed to being part of this bigger machine.”  

As a touring musician, not stopping can hamper creativity, or stop you from writing relatable songs. Ed says: “You’re not really living life, you have these amazing experiences, but you write a clichéd album about how you’re playing shows or you’re on an aeroplane or you drink too much or all those stereotypical things about touring bands. That’s unrelatable for people; you want songs about real life. A song like ‘Good Day’, which a lot of people can relate to, is a song about feeling down at home and worrying too much.” 

Certainly befitting many peoples’ current anxious states, ‘Good Day’ is one of the two songs from Everything Else Has Gone Wrong that Ed wrote instead of Jack. It’s a jokey track about how silly it is to sweat the small stuff, but there are political undertones to the lyrics that hint at big-picture problems such as climate change: “The melting ice caps in my drink / made me stop and think about / Think about time running out.” Ed says: “I was going through not the worst time ever, but a bit of a bad time; wondering what I should be doing, overthinking things, thinking maybe I should get a real job, but then thinking should I do music, wondering about my future, what I’m doing, worrying about getting old. And the idea of the song was, just stop being in your own head: “I want to have a good day, but I’m the only thing that’s getting in my way.””

Ed also co-wrote ‘People People’ with longtime Bombay collaborator, Liz Lawrence: “I guess that song is about friendship and companionship. Within that album there’s a lot of talking about the digital age and the rejection of that, though I would say less overt on that song.” He adds that the subsequent track ‘Do You Feel Loved’, penned by Jack, is “literally a song about the reliance on technology, and the rejection of technology to some level.” Although both tracks were written pre-pandemic, there’s definitely a tension between the idea that technology hampers meaningful human interactions, and the blunt truth of the fact that in 2020, digital connection has often been all we’ve had. 

During Bombay Bicycle Club’s hiatus period, the members pursued their own solo projects; Jack undertook soul/funk project Mr Jukes, Ed released music as Toothless, Suren played drums with Jessie Ware, and Jamie did a degree in War Studies, made a documentary for the BBC, and launched a campaign group to help under-30s get involved with Brexit negotiations. But despite their individual success, there was a yearning to get back together, certainly on Ed’s part. “I don’t think anyone realised what a special thing we had, and how much we were going to miss it,” he admits. “Jack and I went away to Cornwall on a writing trip, which we ended up doing quite a lot of over that year [2018]. And ‘Eat, Sleep, Wake (Nothing But You)’ came up. And that was one of the first songs written for Everything Else Has Gone Wrong. And when that came, everyone realised that there was something good to go on.” He added: “I really, really enjoyed playing that live, it’s fun. And yeah, it just reminds me of writing records with Jack and going to Cornwall that year, and getting the band back together as well: realising that we were doing it again and being excited by that.”  

Jack and Ed’s experiences as solo artists have definitely coloured the new release: as ‘Toothless’, Ed released a series of EPs and an indie rock album called The Pace Of The Passing (2017), with input from Marika Hackman, Tom Fleming and Liz Lawrence. But the moniker he originally chose for himself back then doesn’t feel necessary for the introspective alt-pop songs he’s been writing more recently: “I thought coming back to it two and a half years on it didn’t feel right to be using a moniker when I could just use my own name. I’m not ashamed of these songs, I thought it would be better to just stand by them.” 

The work he’s put out as Ed Nash since is lyrically driven in contrast to the experimental production values at the core of bandmate Jack’s solo endeavour, Mr Jukes. “I, personally, am becoming more and more lyric driven. I find it more interesting. Now, just spending time by myself writing, it’s really fun to move words around and play with that,” says Ed. He contrasts his approach to Jack’s: “I can’t say the same for Jack and I won’t talk for Jack, though I think melody comes first for him. That’s not to say that lyrics are an afterthought, but I think he writes songs through melody and harmony, and then lyrics come afterwards for him. Whereas with me, lyrics are more front and centre.” 

Their differing approaches to songwriting combine in Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, a record which is fittingly about turning to music when the world is falling apart. Has it been difficult for Ed to renegotiate his working relationship with Jack, having had a taste of being a frontman himself? “We were very content playing Jack’s songs, and still are. When we came back, there were one or two songs that I thought would fit in, which everyone was into, so I put them forward. That came from developing that skill, flexing that muscle, and there wasn’t really any negotiation in it,” Ed says. “I don’t think those songs are there for the sake of it, because I’m being placated, or anything. They’ve got a place in that record and they are different to what he’s doing.” 

When it came to recording Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, the band came to the table as “four people that know how to make records”. After recording part of the release in London at Konk Studios, they went to LA and stayed in an Airbnb in Silverlake. Ed says: “I guess the main difference between Jim Abbiss and John Congleton’s ways of working, is that John works unbelievably fast. His kind of thing is, “Don’t overthink it. If you’ve got a good idea, don’t think, just get it down.” His workflow is very, very quick so everything’s set up and good to go. And he works from 10 until 7. And then from 7, he’s out, he just goes home, he decompresses, as does everyone. And then you come back to it, you work really hard and then you leave. Whereas with Jim and Konk, and most of the other sessions we’ve done in our past, we have worked from 11 until 12 or 1 in the morning. So you have a much, much longer day, which is actually more intense. With John’s way of working you get everything done and then you go your separate ways, decompress and don’t think about it so much, whereas with the other one, you can kind of get lost a bit. I mean, they both have merits and they both have their disadvantages.” 

Commenting on his bandmate’s production skills – which allowed Jack to self-produce 2014’s So Long, See You Tomorrow as well as engineer his own success as Mr Jukes – Ed says: “I guess Mr Jukes fulfils a lot of things he wanted to do, with sampling and making records, having electronic beats and things like that. So he probably wanted to move on to something else when he was writing Everything Else Has Gone Wrong. And actually, having said that, there’s a lot of those elements still in it. So I don’t know… each album changes so much and I think with each new sound he picks something up, and learns it, gets comfortable with it and then it goes into his arsenal of things he can do. So actually, no, I don’t think he got bored or got satisfied with making that kind of music. I think he got very accomplished at doing it. And then it became another part of the toolkit of Bombay Bicycle Club and his songwriting. So those elements are in it; you listen to that record and there’s elements of Different Kind Of Fix, our first record, and of Flaws. I’d say it’s the most eclectic record that we’ve got as opposed to just doing one sound at the forefront.” 

He corrects himself. Perhaps eclectic is the wrong word; after all, So Long, See You Tomorrow was very eclectic in nature, with its world music influences, inspired by Jack’s travels to India and China: “Everything Else Has Gone Wrong feels like all four of the albums we did beforehand went into that in equal measure. Whereas each of those first four very much had a strong identity themselves, this one seems to be taking little bits from all of them.” 

The DIY approach is not one that Bombay Bicycle Club have shied away from, it’s been part of their identity since their very beginning; they self-released their debut via their independent label, Mmm… Records, and Ed also has his own label, brilliantly named Bangers & Nash. There’s an appeal to doing things yourself, because it speeds up the process. “At the moment, it’s very exciting to be able to do stuff DIY because there’s so much infrastructure. Like with my own music, I’m literally writing it, recording and then putting it on the internet with nothing in between and 10-15 years ago, I don’t think you could do that,” says Ed. “The music I’m trying to put out now – and I’m trying to keep it like this – I can just do everything myself, so I can work quickly. And I don’t really have to answer to anyone: I can do the artwork, I can record it here and write everything and then put it on the internet and people can get into it. I guess the trade off is “Jack of all trades, master of none”, it could sound better if I was working with other people. The covers could be more professionally done, more complete. I’m sure I’d get some different ideas when working with people. But I really like the idea of just being in control of everything and working fast. And that you know, with records, we decide everything ourselves as well. So being able to make those decisions is fantastic.” 

Technology has certainly democratised music production – you don’t need your own recording studio in North London to be successful: “You can make an amazing sounding album with just a laptop now. Not everyone’s got it, it’s still a privilege to have these things, but most people have the opportunity to make a very good sounding album and put it on the internet and for people to hear it.” 

It’s really easy to distribute your music on DSPs like Spotify, too, which Ed speaks fondly of despite ongoing music industry debates about the rates Spotify pays to artists. “I don’t have any ill feeling towards Spotify at all,” he says: “I think it’s an amazing place to be; being able to listen to any music you want, anywhere, without having a record collection. Kids can find anything that’s ever existed: nu-wave, punk, metal, they can flick between them.” 

“People hate Apple and iTunes but they basically saved music I think. People weren’t paying for music at all so at least now they’re taking some money and giving it back to artists,” he says. “I do listen to Spotify playlists, and the recommendations that the AI is giving me are absolutely amazing. It knows me better than I know myself.” But, there is something romantic about the old-fashioned music discovery method, too (this is, afterall, a man who writes songs about letter-writing: “Gonna write you a letter” promises the opening lines of ‘People People’). A friend recently gave Ed a box of records that he is currently working through. He says: “Most of it is completely terrible but one in five records is absolutely amazing, just a hidden gem. So I’m going through and just listening to a record when I’m cooking or getting up in the morning, which is really nice. Because an algorithm is not recommending it, you’re just finding something completely naturally.” 

It’s all very well and good having the tools to make amazing music at your disposal, but where does inspiration come from when you’re stuck at home, doing the same old thing, day after day? Well, there’s actually a lot of material to be found in the minutiae of the every day, says Ed, who is taking comfort in having a strict daily routine. Eat, Sleep, Wake, indeed. One of his current influences is the American singer-songwriter Bill Callaghan: “It’s quite minimal, especially the most recent album he put out this year, which I loved. A few backup instruments, but he is telling stories. He’s talking about his life. You know, he must be in his mid fifties so he’s singing about his kids and his replica eames chair and being middle aged and things like that, but it’s done in a really human and witty way that I love and I find it very personal.” 

Ed also likes Gillian Welsh; his friend’s band, Flyte; Liz Lawrence – who he is going to be releasing a Christmas cover with in the next few weeks – as well as Purple Mountains. The latter is the brainchild of David Berman, formed after his old project, Silver Jews, disbanded in 2009. Commenting on the eponymous release, Ed says: “It’s a really horrible, dark album but there’s something very nice about wallowing with someone or listening to something negative to uplift you.” But as well as wallowing, don’t be afraid to reach out and spark a connection with a fellow human, says Ed, who profusely apologises for forgetting various details over the course of our conversation, blaming it on the lack of human interaction he’s had in the last year. 

Those connections, even digital ones, are pretty special. Spotify dropped its seasonal marketing campaign ‘Spotify Wrapped’ the other day, and social media has since been flooded with fans sharing the details of the artists who have helped them get through the horrendous year that is 2020. Ed says: “This guy messaged me on Instagram and he said, “I love your band. I’m in the top 0.5% of your followers. Thanks very much.” And I replied to him. And I said, “No, thank you. That is really, really nice to hear. Thank you so much.” And I think he felt stupid or he was surprised, that I’d replied, but it did mean a lot that he sent me a message and was being genuine and nice about something we’ve done. It means a lot. So I guess if anyone has anything to say, or, you know, communicate or whatever, I’m on social media, we read the stuff. It’s great. It’s lovely to talk to people, lovely to hear what people are up to. And it does mean a lot.” 

It is lovely to hear what people are up to, especially bands as busy and selfless as Bombay Bicycle Club. For now at least, digital connections with our favourite artists will have to do in lieu of in-person concerts. But with promising news of the Pfizer vaccine, let’s take solace in the fact it won’t be ‘Always Like This’. To Ed, Jack, Jamie and Suren we say: So Long, See You Tomorrow.  

Words by Beth Kirkbride

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