Bombay Bicycle Club return to Ireland next weekend for gigs in Cork and Waterford, writes
THE death of rock ’n roll has been predicted ad infinitum across the past 10 years. So much so you could be forgiven for thinking guitar music was already sitting in the coffin waiting to be loaded into a hearse. And yet there is, thank goodness, still room for quietly interesting keepers of the flame such as Bombay Bicycle Club.
“As long as you’ve good songs we really don’t care what it sounds like on the surface,” says frontman Jack Steadman, asked how it feels to be a rock band in a world where rock bands are considered slightly passé. “It’s never really about what clothes the songs are wearing. It’s about what’s deep inside.”
Ten years since their debut album, the London four-piece remain one of British rock’s most charming propositions, as their audience will be reminded when they play Cork and Waterford next weekend.
They’re full of surprises too. Steadman has a funk and hip-hop influenced side project, Mr Jukes. Guitarist Jamie MacColl is the grandson of Ewan McColl and folk singer Peggy Seeger (the late Kirsty MacColl is his aunt). Fans include Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who joined them on stage in London five years ago.
Why haven’t you heard from Bombay Bicycle Club recently, you are perhaps asking yourself? It isn’t because you’re not keeping up. In 2014 they announced they were going on hiatus. That’s usually what bands say when they are splitting up but don’t want to cause a fuss.
So it proved here. Despite years of solid success and sold-out signs everywhere from Dublin’s Olympia to London’s since-demolished Earl’s Court (where Gilmour joined them on a cover of the Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’) five years ago the four musicians had had enough pretty much. They needed to get away from the tour bus. And from each other. They were, they suspected, on the brink of falling out.
“We had no idea we’d be coming back,” says Steadman. “We could sense it was time for a break. We anticipated it was about to all get too much.
“This was something we had been doing since school. When you’re touring as long as we were what happens is that you completely lose your perspective on things. That is always quite dangerous.”
As he says, they were young and all they really knew was the band. Bombay Bicycle Club had come together when Steadman, and MacColl were 15 and attending Hogwart-esque University College School in Hampstead London (a secondary school despite the name, with such past pupils as novelist Will Self and athlete Roger Bannister).
They made an immediate impression. In 2006, while still at school, they won a competition at play at the UK’s huge V Festival. Twelve months later the NME named Bombay Bicycle Club “the hottest band to come from North London”. A debut album, I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose, followed in 2009. From that moment on, the pace never relented.
“If you think about it — from the ages of 18 to 20 or 25, that’s when you are getting your identity,” says Steadman (today an ancient 29). “When you are becoming an adult really. We spent all that time on the road together. We were like family. It’s because we valued our relationships so much we thought, ‘if we don’t take break now….’”
“The most important thing was for us to stay friends. You need that honesty in a relationship. In any kind of relationship. Sometimes it’s quite good to say, ‘Look we need to take a break’. You always come back stronger.”
Steadman didn’t spend his time off bingeing on Netflix or re-plastering the kitchen. He explored his love for funk, hip-hop and electronica as Mr Jukes. It was quite a departure. Then that should probably be expected, given that he wrote the Mr Jukes LP on a round-the-world trip by land and sea (he had set himself the limitation of no air travel). In Shanghai he boarded a cargo ship where he jury-rigged a studio and recorded the album.
He sampled jazz records bought in Tokyo and played piano one handed (because of the motion of the ship he was told to always have one hand on something at all times). “If you listen to the last couple of Bombay Records you can hear a shift in sound,” he says.
“It’s trying to be more electronic. That’s me attempting to get those sounds into the framework of the band. There’s only so far you can take those things before going a little over the top. So I thought, let’s just put these into a new project — and do it with no boundaries.”
Bombay Bicycle Club are too young to recall first hand the good old days when musicians could support themselves on record sales alone. Nonetheless Steadman has seen huge change across his 13 years in the business.
“Social media has become incredibly important. Even when we did our last album, we didn’t post on Instagram very often. It was more for fun: here’s a funny picture of us. Everyone would laugh. Now it seems a huge part of promoting your music. That is a big change. A positive thing is that a lot of bands are a lot more independent.”
They’re embarking on a short tour at which they will play their debut album in its entirety. After that they’ll be rolling out new material. Many of the autumn dates are already sold out. Among the handful of shows up coming is one at Cork Opera House (in addition to the All Together Now festival in Waterford).
“We did an Irish tour in 2013 but didn’t get to play Cork,” he says. “The last time we were there was almost eight years ago [at the Savoy in 2011]. We just wanted to come back. If you’re doing a festival it’s nice to play your own show, too.”
It would be negligent to let Steadman go without asking him for his David Gilmour story. How did an indie band from Crouch End come to share a stage with one of the great modern rock guitarists?
“We had a connection to him through our guitarist Jamie. We were playing Earls’ Court. It was going to be the last gig there. I’m pretty sure Pink Floyd played the first gig there. It would be nice symbolism, we thought, for him to come and play with us. He was really keen and super-up for it. It was very surreal though. It’s one of those things you don’t remember because it was so bizarre.”
Seven track EP Demos 2004-2008 is out now.