“We were mucking around with detuning guitars and stuff. It’s taking quite a basic, recognisable pop hook with something a bit unrecognisable.”
Dave Maclean, drummer and producer of East London group Django Django, is discussing ‘Hail Bop’, the opening track on the group’s debut LP, a record which proves that, 60 years on, pop music can still be strange, exotic and alluring.
Before a sold out show in Hoxton we’re talking to Maclean and Vinny Neff, Django’s singer, guitarist and main songwriter, a duo that, alongside keyboard player Tommy Grace, met at art college in Edinburgh, eventually making it into group form in 2008 after moving to London. They’re now augmented by Jimmy Dixon on bass.
To listen to Django Django songs is to be constantly surprised. You think you’re listening to a particular instrument, only to realise its something else. On ‘Hail Bop’, for example, after pulsing Moroder-ish synths, twittering electronic valve twiddling and ominous, echoing drums, a whip cracking rhythm suddenly snakes up. Then the detuned Hawaiian guitar kicks in, with Beach Boys harmonies giving a melancholy air to this strange pop. And then you do a double take – that beat is entirely made of handclaps. With this air of lateral thinking studio creativity Brian Eno’s ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ comes to mind. Maclean is pleased with the comparison.
“It’s that thing about people who love experimentalism and the avant garde but who also love three minute pop songs and harmonies and aren’t afraid to combine the two,” he says. With Maclean mentioning other influences such as The Beatles and 60’s Nuggets pop, the sound’s wide ranging however. Alongside the 60’s garage band stomp of ‘Default’, which sounds like a more upbeat and infectious Beta Band, you have the Bedouin pitter pattering rhythms of ‘Love’s Dart’ and the complex Middle Eastern air ghosting in on ‘Life’s a Beach’s’ twangy guitars. With rhythms beaten out on such humble ‘instruments’ as African shakers and even a coconut, one of the record’s successes is in how world music influences drift in naturally in the band’s oeuvre. “You can’t help but be influenced by East London,” Maclean says. “African music in markets or Turkish music in cars, it all seeps in.”
The effect of these foreign sounds drifting into the songs is to create moods that are particular and memorable; this precision of mood may also partly be due to the recording process, as Maclean and Neff explain. They again evince the band’s love of experimentation.
“It was never about setting up the drum kit, setting up the guitar amp and recording an album. It was about recording a load of songs individually, with different sounds on each song, which we then moulded into a Django album,” Maclean says. For him “each song was its own unique thing.”
Neff also explains how necessity was the mother of invention. “It’s just doing it honestly,” he says. “We had a really sparse drum kit so we used things like African rattlers and a coconut which gave a great trebly sound.”
There’s a haze of psychedelic complexity and bite to the group’s catchy pop, a sense of mystery. With all the strange instruments there’s also a slight feel of disorientation listening; when recording the group were determined to avoid the obvious, as Dave explains.
“The only concept on the record was to stay true to each song without worrying how it fitted with other things we did and also not to take the easiest or first route in recording. So instead of a drum kit we might just have a tapping on a phone booth or a sample of a snare drum.”
Music concrete was an influence, Dave says, “for the use of experimental noises and that thing of just recording snippets of sound and then looping them.” This ‘found sound’ approach may also help account for the strange feel of dislocation and dreaminess in the group’s sound, as might Maclean’s interests outside of music.
“Personally, I’m really into sci fi, esoteric, occult, weird things, “ he says, adding, “ trying to make the record we were trying to make something slightly escapist, that takes you somewhere, whether its Egypt or the Moon.”
As the record’s producer, all these influences were factored in. Intriguingly, he also says that as a kid listening to Sgt Pepper era Beatles he heard Monty Python in their music, “other things I’d seen or heard were mixed up in the harmonies,” he says. But the record’s foremost sonic influences were Giorgio Moroder and madcap 60’s producer Joe Meek, “with his twisted recording process and his love of reverb, echo and spacey sounds, bringing that to pop.”
The coconut’s on ‘Love’s Dart’, isn’t it?
“Yeah, that was the one,” Maclean replies, “kind of like horses galloping, coconut horses galloping over the desert sands.”
You might also add it’s a pretty dreamy track which indeed subtly shifts like the sands.
Django Django’s self-titled debut album is out on 30 January 2012.
Words: Stuart Gadd
Photo: Pavla Kopecna