The Maccabees are an oddity. Hard to describe by comparison and even harder to do so without, NME lauded them ‘the band that buried landfill indie’ back in 2010. It’s a clunky way of observing that the five Londoners were born from a moment that they came to define, only to kill it dead as part of the generation (see Florence, Bombay Bicycle Club, Vampire Weekend) that heralded modern ‘Alternative’. It’s a funny old label – essentially one of labelessness; a blessing to the adventurous and a curse to the cautious or self-conscious. To The Maccabees, it’s helped them to a slow-burning, ten year career, a cult following and, most recently, a flash point in the form of a number one album. Yet it’s never been harder to pin them down.
This is equally true as I wait on hold for Hugo White to answer the phone. The press relations middle man surfaces on the line to tell me that he doesn’t seem to be picking up. I wait to be reconnected, pondering my first question to the static crackle of rejection. It concerns a quote given by fellow band member Orlando Weeks to Nouse way back in 2007 shortly after the debut release – “an album should be a snapshot of what a band’s doing at the time”. With its plaintive, urgent songs, a conceptual backbone of urban evolution and a sense of wisdom absent from their previous work, what is the moment that Marks To Prove It is so viscerally capturing, a decade on from their first creative outing?
Finally connected and with pleasantries aside, White takes a moment before answering. “I think that’s a fair comment, and Marks is even more so a snapshot than on previous records,” he says of Orlando’s thought. He’s spectacularly regular; soft London accent, prone to puncturing his sentences with “kind of” – there’s no translation of the skittish creative you’d imagine finding at the centre of such complex music. “We made [this album] in our own studio and produced it ourselves – we didn’t go somewhere and have someone else come in and help us do it,” he goes on. “We did it all within Elephant and Castle, in the same place for a long time. And as it went on, that as an area started to form a lot of the ideas.”
You don’t need to feel far into the record to find this. The area of London is presently one of constant, refurbishing flux, and the artwork for Marks features the Michael Faraday Memorial, a textured steel box perched in the centre of a roundabout in Elephant and Castle – a tribute to one of the founding fathers of electricity. On ‘Ribbon Road’, Weeks repeatedly sings “Onward, headlong, night bus, stoned” over a tumultuous 6:8 rhythm. Marks To Prove It is a picture of movement, a window to a city in pursuit of, quite literally, ever higher levels of being. As luxury high rises trampled the area’s roots, the record grew at the centre of the crossfire, and became it in the process.
Hugo is always to the point, but takes his time. He strikes me as very thoughtful and very clever, perhaps only offering up half of what he thinks or has to say on any one topic. That isn’t to say he’s rude or guarded – the opposite is true – but I feel like to get to grips with his insights would take more than a twenty minute phone call, and we both know it.
That said, he elucidates freely on the band’s personal and creative journey from 2012’s Given To The Wild to the clearly comfortable place they’ve found themselves in with the Marks campaign. “When we released Given To The Wild we really didn’t have any idea if it was going to kind of close our career,” he tells me frankly. “We felt at the time that we’d made a record that was exactly what we wanted to do, but whether anyone else would agree with us that it was a good thing to do we had no idea.
“So the fact that it was well received and was our most popular, successful record we’ve done was a clear indicator that when making the next one we should find the way to do what we want and find a way that we’re happy. So that’s been a really nice thing – we haven’t felt pressured into doing anything that we didn’t want to.”
The band has taken this truism even further with Marks, expanding, in their creative liberation, into film. ‘Band documentary’ are now two words that strike fear into the hearts of ardent musos, ever since Katy Perry and One Direction took the once revered genre and diluted it for the masses, but The Maccabees’ Elephant Days – less a documentary and more an album companion piece – looks set to be a part of the restoration of the respectable music film project. Foo Fighters’ HBO documentary series Sonic Highways, Grohl’s “love letter to the history of American music” was an album accompaniment to be proud of, and last month’s The Reflektor Tapes, the predictably avant garde celebration of Arcade Fire’s latest tour, rewrote the rulebook for what a music film can and should do. Elephant Days widens the frame of The Maccabees’ latest snapshot, and with it the scope of cross genre artistry and the remit of the modern experimental band.
Some bands are so big they can take five years of festival headline and just do it every time, until people are really sick of you and you disappear
White describes the film, which premieres this month, as a “feature length documentary, following six different stories that happen around the area, with one of the stories being us making this album”. The trailer is surprisingly sentimental and implicitly political, with one narrator commenting “Elephant and Castle has never been the place to go and live, and that’s why I like living here” over shots of Arments of London, notorious pie and mash shop. “It was one of those things where you start it off not knowing – we didn’t know the directors who were making it, we didn’t know where it was going to end up, but all the stories unfold really beautifully,” White says. The decision to pursue such a bold project points to two things: a surplus of creative energy – always a promising thing to see from your favourite band four albums in – and a desire to raise the stakes and put on a show by creating more and more layers of spectacle.
This leads us on to the big question: having stormed the Main Stage this summer at Reading and Leeds, just how long must we wait until The Maccabees headline a UK festival? I expect Hugo to laugh the question off, but he tackles it head on. “It definitely seems like the obvious step. We’re edging on festival headline so hopefully, you know, we’ll see what happens next year –but there’ll be some stuff like that.” He laughs tentatively. “But we’re really keen to be doing that. The thing is when you’re so close to being able to get those slots you have to, kind of, figure this out and put on a bigger set and make it work. So hopefully – whether it’ll be Bestival or not, I don’t know. But something.”
Off the back of Marks To Prove It, it certainly feels like the time, and the Bestival slot is starting to look like a given – organiser Rob Da Bank said he’d “happily have them headlining” earlier this year. In completely embracing their freedom and genre-neutral appeal, The Maccabees have made their way to the top of the pack, and in politely evading the spotlight, they’ve simply encouraged it to chase them. With contemporaries Foals and alt-J cracking the spots atop festival bills, 2016 is surely their year.
“I think it’s great that new bands are starting to get those slots,” White says of the stagnating headliner pool. “Some bands are so big they can take five years of festival headline and just do it every time, until people are really sick of you and you disappear, so I think it is really good that bands like Foals are taking those spots.” The process of making that leap is a timely one that requires both longevity and a catalyst, illustrated by Florence’s Glastonbury headline fill-in this summer off the back of her strikingly personal How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. The act of embracing your profile and fanbase whilst throwing all caution to the wind and forgetting about trying to please anyone is what makes you a headline, household name. And if Marks has served to prove anything, it’s that The Maccabees have nothing to prove.