Clean Bandit have defied expectations from the very beginning. Their experimental fusion of electronica and classical must’ve seemed like odd bedfellows back when they first played at their own National Rail Disco while still studying at University, but they immediately recognized their potential mass appeal.
Such resolute self-belief was vindicated in awe-inspiring style. Their debut album ‘New Eyes’ raced to 1.6 million sales, and was propelled by 12 million sales of their omnipresent global hit ‘Rather Be’ which was the world’s second biggest-selling track of 2014. The awards soon followed: a Grammy for ‘Best Dance Recording’ and then two Ivor Novello’s wins for the band’s multi-instrumentalist/producer, Jack Patterson, for ‘Best Contemporary Song’ and ‘Most Performed Work’.
The inevitable question that chases such success is simple – how do you follow it? Clean Bandit’s answer was a back-to-basics approach.
“It’s about being able to recognize that a song works as a piece of sheet music and a chord structure – like how a jazz standard has a chord structure, a melody and lyrics,” explains the band’s dominant creative force Jack Patterson. “You can that produce and render that however you want. It’s making sure that all of the songs have that solid foundation.”
“It’s a total contrast to how we made the first album, where it was all produced as it was written,” adds cellist Grace Chatto. It’s an approach that was particularly evident with ‘Telephone Banking’, in which their collaborator Love Ssega wrote the lyrics during its video shoot.
This creative process resulted in Clean Bandit’s anthemic 2016 comeback single ‘Tears’, which evolved from a minimalistic piano / vocal composition into the richly layered production which became their fifth domestic Top 5 hit when it was released earlier this summer; the single has reached over 80 million streams and is one of the most successful single releases of this year.
Written by Jack and Sam Romans, an early version of ‘Tears’ found its way to Simon Cowell who called Jack to ask if his X-Factor winner Louisa Johnson could perform it. His initial reticence was countered by Grace’s enthusiasm for Louisa’s talents, and soon both Jack and drummer Luke (the younger of the two Patterson siblings) were enthralled by her performance.
Always eager to collaborate with new vocalists, Clean Bandit’s second new track – the dancehall-tinged ‘Rockabye’ – featured an especially striking presence in the shape of Sean Paul.
“Why? Because we’ve always wanted to with him,” smiles Grace. “‘Temperature’ and ‘Breathe’ were such big songs for me growing up. Jack and I went to his gig in Shepherd’s Bush in 2013 and gave him our first EP. We both wanted to do something, but we’ve literally been on tour for three years and he’s been really busy as well. Eventually he and Jack got together, and Sean Paul recorded an amazing verse for it.”
Its story of a single mother battling to do her best for her child resonated with many people who lived through similar experiences. Also featuring the soaring vocals of Anne-Marie, ‘Rockabye’ has provided the band’s second UK #1 almost three years after ‘Rather Be’ had first conquered the charts. Moreover, aside from X Factor alumni, the single is the first UK #1 by a UK act in 2016 and now heralds Clean Bandit as one of just two UK artists to land two UK Top 5 singles this year.
“I’m really into dancehall music at the moment, so ‘Rockabye’ is really special and I want to make more songs like that,” declares Grace, adding that she’s appreciative of co-writer Ina Wroldsen’s contribution to the track. “It also has a super-hot sweet Scandinavia sound with a reggae element that’s reminiscent of a lot of the early nineties music that I love.”
The trio have strived to incorporate fresh sounds and textures into Clean Bandit’s emerging songbook. In addition to Grace’s love of dancehall, Jack has been inspired by the “confident, pure and very bold” production of Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’ album, while both Patterson brothers have experimented with modular synthesizers and acoustic sax techniques. “Those ideas have to work within a coherent album,” asserts Jack. “There’s no point in just throwing that in for the sake of it.”
Thematically, the rest of the new tracks follow the deeper themes that were presented in ‘Rockabye’. As Grace observes, “The lyrics are a lot darker but the music is full of full and joy, whereas the first album was often the other way around – particularly with ‘Rather Be’, the lyrics are so pure and happy, but you can hear sadness in the music. We’ve always been interested in juxtaposing different feelings within the music.”
It’s a stance reiterated with the upbeat ‘Disconnect’ which features Marina and the Diamonds. Grace interprets the song within the context of a break-up. “You’re constantly on the phone, looking up the person and wondering what they’re doing. You need to let go and disconnect from a relationship, but it’s so hard.”
“It feels very relevant,” opines Jack. “It’s talking about young people who seem to be completely consumed by technology to the extent where it’s suffocating them.”
While the band’s debut album ‘New Eyes’ magnified the attention on a range of rising talents, most notably Jess Glynne, the new songs boast a plethora of big names. There’s Sir Elton John, who introduced himself at a party by serenading his new friends with ‘Rather Be’; they all praise Craig David’s almost supernaturally precise vocal gift; and Zara Larsson provides the exuberant energy of music’s current breed of talent.
One person who isn’t present, however, is founding member Neil Amin-Smith who recently quit the band after a decade together. “We knew something wasn’t quite right,” states Luke. “But it was a major shock when it happened,” interjects Jack. “I felt sick and really sad.”
Grace: “It was a decision that he didn’t take lightly, but he was always one to do other things. After ten years, it was his time to do something else. He’s definitely irreplaceable.”
His exit is undoubtedly a blow, but it’s also one that has precedence in Clean Bandit history. The departure of vocalist Love Ssega felt like a devastating blow at the time, but it set Clean Bandit on a path towards collaborating with a variety of different singers. Indeed, as Ssega has recently returned for live shows, it feels as if the door will remain open should Amin-Smith want to return in some capacity in the future.
In the hectic life of a working band – shows, promotion and the myriad range of other activities that come unexpectedly along the way – moments of triumph can arrive in spectacularly mundane circumstances. News that ‘Rather Be’ had topped the charts was received by text as the band drove back from a gig in Manchester. For Jack it felt like a “weird, Christmas-type feeling”, but it was a lot for the then 21-year-old Luke to come to terms with.
“I just really wasn’t ready for it,” he admits. “It was never my goal. It was something that had happened that was completely out of my control and I was quite scared.” He soon adjusted to the situation. “It wasn’t so bad in all honesty,” he says with a glint in his eye, “because it’s not so bad being number one!”
As their reputation expanded exponentially from continent-to-continent, their world became ever stranger. Grace remembers a surreal moment being recognized in a small shop in Tokyo, and Luke is still struck by arriving in Jakarta to find so many fans waiting for them that they needed a police escort in order to get to their hotel – where what they thought was going to be straightforward interview instead turned out to be a press conference that recalled the mania of The Beatles’ heyday.
Fast-forward to Los Angeles: February 2015. It’s the Grammy Awards and Clean Bandit have just won Best Dance Recording from a Britcentric list of nominees which includes their old friends Disclosure and Basement Jaxx. And yet – as anyone can see – the award has been accepted by someone who most definitely isn’t Clean Bandit.
“We had no idea that we were going to win it, it felt like an absolute long shot,” recalls Jack. “And then Wes Clark, a mix engineer, ran up and accepted the award for us because he thought we weren’t there, even though we were like ten meters away from him.”
“It was quite chaotic,” summarizes Luke, before Jack corrects him: “It was quite annoying!”
Nonetheless, such an accolade means that it’s time to cut loose. Clean Bandit DJed at wild, celeb-packed scenes at the official Warner party at Chateau Marmont before heading to Sam Smith’s bash in the Hollywood Hills where Luke was the last man standing. “I’ve never seen you look such a state in my whole life,” chuckles Jack as Luke looks as sheepish as he surely did the next morning.
As well as representing a landmark achievement for years of dedication, a Grammy forecasts a glowing future for Clean Bandit in which anything is possible. They’re keen to keep pushing themselves, as evidenced by both their excitement for the expansion of their live band and by Grace and Luke’s passion for directing their videos. Clean Bandit have carved their own distinct niche in music, and fans the world over have embraced their individuality.
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