TWITTER brings out the slavering idiot in people, as London Grammar’s Hannah Reid learned late last year after she was the object of a condescending and sexist comment from a British radio station.
“We think the girl from London Grammar is fit. Do you agree?” hyperventilated the official Twitter account of BBC Radio One’s Breakfast Show. A conflagration ensued, with the broadcaster accused of stooping to the lowest denominator. The tweet was removed and mea culpas were offered. But the lesson was obvious: if you are a woman in pop, prepare to be judged on your appearance, not your musical prowess.
‘Fit-gate’ was nearly a year ago and yet it continues to cast a shadow over London Grammar, a soulful electronic trio who could be thought of as the missing link between Massive Attack and Florence and the Machine. London Grammar would rather leave it behind. When the tweet ismentioned in an interview with the Irish Examiner, the band’s Dot Major, mumbling, tries to change the subject.
“I’ve forgotten what it was all about really,” he says, glum and awkward. “Yeah….er….”
Anyone who has seen London Grammar in concert will know they can attract jack-the-lad types, who enjoy pushing to the front and shouting rude come-ons towards Reid. That has to take a toll?
“We’re lucky,” Major says. “If you look at the experience that Lauren Mayberry from Chvrches had, where she was receiving all these horrible remarks online, and wrote an article for The Guardian about it. We’ve never had that, to be honest. We’ve always been protective of Hannah — as have the fans. They are really kind to her.”
Three exceedingly shy former students from the English midlands, London Grammar make for unlikely superstars.
Their music is deeply pensive, though somehow epic and inclusive. They rarely consent to interviews; seem quite uncomfortable with all the attention since their early single, ‘Wasting My Young Years’, became a huge online hit.
In fact, they are upfront about finding the exposure overwhelming and exhausting —recently, they have had to cancel several shows, fearing they were on the brink of burnout.
“Lately, it’s got tiring,” says Major. “We have been going since before our album started [If You Wait came out September, 2013]. We’ve toured two years now. It feels we are reaching the natural end.”
With a weird and woozy sound that recalls the glory days of trip-hop, while feeling utterly contemporary, the band have become a ‘cause celébrè’ for tastemakers. It was widely believed If You Wait would win the Mercury Music Prize — when London Grammar failed to be even nominated, the shockwaves were enormous.
They were, however, honoured by the Ivor Novello awards this year, receiving the gong for best song (for their single, ‘Strong’). The scale of their appeal was obvious at the recent Electric Picnic festival, where they packed the second stage for one of the stand-out performances of the weekend.
“It’s unbelievable. We never expected to have this much success,” says Major. “It’s happened in different places, at different times, too, which has kept us even busier. It’s especially hard on Hannah, because of her vocals, which she has to protect. The touring is relentless and she has a delicate voice. We’re on the schedule you expect of a rock band. Which isn’t really the background we are coming from.
“Electric Picnic was especially memorable,” he says. “I’m not just saying that. After playing at Glastonbury, at the start of the summer, there was a period where everything felt underwhelming. Electric Picnic was the gig that picked us up. The response was amazing. I’ve mentioned it in interviews ever since.”
The group also thrilled the crowd at An Pucán pub, in Galway, recently, when they made a surprise appearance as part of the Guinness Amplify event.
Strangely, for all their achievements, London Grammar have not flirted with over-exposure. After 24 months of constant touring and promotion, there remains a sense audiences are only just becoming aware of the band. Major puts that down to their record label, Ministry of Sound. Better known for its clubbing endeavors, Ministry has a clear idea how it wants to sell London Grammar, opting for a less-is-more approach.
“We always knew we were going to go with Ministry,” says Major. “They’re massive and yet still an independent. And independent labels operate in fundamentally different ways from majors. With the majors, there are set rules and they won’t change them for anyone. This was the first time Ministry had signed a band and they wanted to tailor everything for us.
“That’s why we haven’t attempted to push it too much. We’ve had a lot of singles, a lot of exposure. Nevertheless, it isn’t as cutthroat as you get with many pop records. We’ve done it our own way.”
Reid, and guitarist Dan Rothman, met at university in 2009. Originally a duo, a year later they invited Major, a keyboard player and vocalist, to join. They were signed to Ministry by then.
Tellingly, the label was in little hurry to push them toward the spotlight.
“It was hard, because the songs weren’t ready for the world yet,” Reid told me last year. “You had no reference point — nobody had heard them, so you don’t know whether they are good or bad. Everyone has an opinion.
“We went through a phase of letting outsiders sway how we approached the project. Fortunately, we were able to come through that. We were a nightmare at times. The label was very patient.”
Curiously, the group’s music isn’t available on Spotify, the world’s most popular streaming service. This is exceedingly usual.
While there are feted examples of artists removing their material from Spotify — most notably/notoriously Thom Yorke, from Radiohead — for a new band to disavow the site is rare (major labels are known to pressure their signings into assenting to Spotify).
“It’s good there is a conversation about this,” says Major. “It is healthy people don’t just assume your music should be there. We get strangers going ‘I pay for Spotify — why isn’t your record on it?’ I don’t have anything against Spotify. But maybe you shouldn’t take it for granted that music will automatically be available for streaming.”
- If You Wait is out now