Their fourth album was their first chart-topper, proving The Maccabees are in it for the
long haul, says Ed Power
AFTER a decade plus of noble underachievement, last August, London indie quartet The Maccabees topped the UK album charts with their fourth LP, Marks To Prove It. ‘Overnight’ success following a decade of deafening obscurity took more than a little getting used to. Actually, it’s something they’re still coming to terms with. They feel blessed — yet it isn’t as if their lives have been flipped head over heels. Rags to riches tales don’t really happen in the music industry nowadays.
“There’s a story about Simon and Garfunkel driving to a gig in a beaten up van just as they were starting to break through,” says guitarist Felix White. “A song of theirs came on the radio and one of them turned to the other and said, ‘Those guys sound like they’re having the time of their lives’. Whereas in reality they were still sleeping rough in vans and what have you. There’s some truth to that — your world doesn’t change immediately. You carry on much as you always did.”
He doesn’t mean to sound ungrateful. Having released their first LP in 2007, it’s been a long road to the top for The Maccabees and they’re immensely proud at having finally achieved a commercial breakthrough (even if, in this era of stillborn music sales, reaching number one has lost much of its previous cachet, and lucrativeness).
“It’s a good feeling,” says the droll, straight-talking White. “Having been going for so long, to have a number one record wasn’t lost on me. You do take a certain satisfaction in that.”
The irony was that Marks To Prove It was the project that almost finished off The Maccabees. Two years in the planning, the album was beset by rows and rifts — “creative differences” that threatened to bubble up into something far uglier. In hindsight, White is faintly astonished the band are still a going concern. There were moments everyone involved wondered about their future.
“It took a LOT longer than we expected,” says White. “My brother [Hugo White, Maccabees’ second guitarist] produced and we were set up in our own studio in Elephant and Castle in London. We literally did everything ourselves: Putting in the carpets, the lot. It ended up to be quite exhausting at an emotional level — we hadn’t factored in how much hands-on time was required. When you’ve got an outside producer you roll with it. Here, the boundaries were a lot broader.”
They didn’t come to blows — but there was no lack of heated disagreement. “When you’re making a record that is difficult you have these moments of asking yourself, ‘Well is it actually going to work out?’
“The problem is that we went into it non-stop, without taking a break. When you’ve got five people trying to agree on something — well it’s not straightforward.”
Marks To Prove It is loosely thematic, though the Maccabees will pull a face if it is described as a concept album. During the recording, they were struck by the changes they saw taking place around them in Elephant and Castle, once a hard-knock suburb but increasingly the home of the mega-wealthy taking over London.
“Usually, you’d go off to Wales or somewhere to make an album,” says White. “Because we had our own studio, we became more part of the community. And I think that seeped into the record. We weren’t trying to make a political statement. But it was inevitable that the environment would have an effect, even if, at the time, we were not necessarily conscious of it. We made a movie too about the recording of the record but also about the people in their neighbourhood and how their worlds were changing.”
Early in their career, The Maccabees received considerable opprobrium in the UK on account of their upper-middle class backgrounds. With a lead singer named Orlando and two Ruperts in the original line-up, they had clearly not come of age in a depressive sink estate (they actually attended elite Alleyns School and knocked around with Florence Welch, later of the Machine). In Britain, their relatively privileged upbringings was used to thunk them over the heads incessantly. How dare they hail from the loftier echelons.
Causing further confusion was their moniker. The Maccabees are named for a breakaway Jewish sect from the year 163AD. Certain commentators floated the theory that the musicians were a quintet of god botherers seeking to subtlety brainwash the indie masses. In fact, the band had come up with Maccabees after flicking through a book at random and were about as devout as Richard Dawkins on a book tour.
A decade on, however, with the British music press much diminished, their origins are far less of a talking point. Indeed, simply by dint of being around so long, they are at that happy position where audiences judge them on their music alone.
“I wouldn’t say there was a great masterplan,” says White. “It isn’t as if we sat down and said, ‘Right each album will be that little bit bigger than the one before.’ A lot of the time you are stumbling through, trying to make it work. As a musician, much of your life is about day-to-day existence. That said, I would think that we are the best we’ve ever been — and also the biggest we’ve ever been. Ten years in, that’s a great position to find yourself in.”
JOB FOR LIFE
On the other hand, with time passing on, the five musicians are coming to a point where they don’t have the option of pressing a reset button. Rock’n’roll is no longer a juvenile lark. It’s their job. This has shifted perspectives somewhat. In a way, everything they do is graven in stone.
“You are aware of the permanence of stuff,” says White. “I try not to think about it too much or allow it bog me down. But that’s one of the reasons the record took so long, probably. You’re just aware that once you’ve made the record it’s out there and you can’t do anything to change it.”
The Maccabees play the Olympia in Dublin this Saturday.
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