With the release of a new album and a NZ show coming up, Madeleine Chapman spoke to London Grammar’s Dot Major to find out just what’s been happening for the past four years. Scroll to the bottom if you’re just here for the free tickets.
I never would have thought there was a place for London Grammar in the pop music scene. I don’t even know how to describe their sound so I’m going to steal a line from Rolling Stone and say it’s “blending trip-hop beats with ambient soundscapes and vocalist Hannah Reid’s huge, beautiful voice.”
That’s what did it, I suppose. That voice. Great Britain has long been the home of powerful-yet-not-quite-mainstream voices. Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Florence Welch, and now Hannah Reid of London Grammar. The trio responsible for their hit debut LP If You Wait is Dan Rothman, Dot Major, and Reid, though you’d be forgiven for assuming that Reid operates as a solo artist. Being the voice and the most publicised face of London Grammar, Reid is London Grammar to many fans. But what about Rothman and Major? I caught up with Dot Major to talk over their new album Truth Is A Beautiful Thing and how they benefit from being a band without recognisable faces.
How much of the last four years were spent working on the new album?
We ended up spending two years on the road with the first one. I think the thing with the first album is that as the profile of it grows then you have to keep doing more stuff to back it up. There were certain places where actually being there helped so much with the promotion so it was a long time. But after that we came home, we had maybe a month or two off, then we were straight into the second one. It took us maybe two years to do the second one which was pretty much the same as the first one.
With the songwriting process, you’ve said before that Hannah writes most of the lyrics. Was that division of labour decided early on or has that changed at all since you began?
It’s not that much of a conscious thing, it just happened naturally. When the band first started Dan would play guitar and Hannah would sing, then after I joined, the way we produce can change sometimes. Hannah, she’s a songwriter. I think at the very, very start, there were a couple of things that Dan used to get involved in with the lyrics. The way we write songs changes. Sometimes I might write something on the piano which we’ll all arrange afterwards, or maybe Dan will bang something out on the guitar and then she’ll write the top line to it. That part of it is quite changeable.
When you’re putting a song together, do you approach it differently knowing that Hannah’s voice can be used as an instrument aside from the lyrics?
That’s an interesting question. Sometimes. Hannah’s lyrics can change. There are certain times when she’s telling a story more and the lyrics are clearly the main focus of the vocals. But there are songs where we’ve written a musical sound for her and sometimes she delivers more ambiguous lyrics and in those ones, she uses her voice more like a phonetic tool. With certain words, it’s more the way they sound than the words themselves.
You said on the first album that you never made a conscious effort to create a single. If someone asked you to produce a London Grammar single, how would that be different from your usual process?
We’ve never conciously written things that are singles but sometimes we’ll have something that people from the outside think should be a single and then they tend to get more involved on our side and have more of an opinion on how it should sound. We had that pressure on the second album, definitely. I just don’t think it’s really something that works for us, to just write a single. That’s not our best scenario. We’ve never sat down and literally said “let’s try to write a single” but I think towards the end of the second album there was a feeling that maybe we didn’t have all of the music yet. For example, with ‘Oh Woman Oh Man’, we kept it in production longer. So we made like four or five versions of that song, which is exactly what happened with ‘Strong’.
When a song’s gonna maybe be a single you put more pressure on it and then you maybe miss the sound. So we had that a bit towards the end of this album where basically we weren’t trying to write a single but we were certainly trying to search for something else, maybe. Once we decided that we had a second album finished, we ended up writing three or four more songs after that. Sometimes it’s after, when the pressure’s off, that you end up writing the good stuff.
I heard a remixed version of ‘Hey Now’ on Suits years ago. What’s it like hearing your song remixed?
It’s so good, it’s amazing. I really enjoy it. I think there are a lot of remixes in the world and sometimes maybe there’s not enough care or value attached to them so they can be put out just for the sake of it. But we’ve had some really amazing ones. It’s fun hearing them in different contexts. Some of them end up having a life of their own. There’s one remix that Arty did of ‘Hey Now’ and that became really big in Ibiza when I was out there a couple of years ago. It’s cool, I’m really into electronic music anyway and obviously doing production stuff so I enjoy it.
Do you ever hear something in a remixed song and think you should’ve put it in the original version?
Yeah, definitely. It’s actually kind of inspiring. There’s a Bonobo remix of ‘Hey Now’ which some of the rhythm on it is amazing. The one that SG Lewis did of ‘Big Picture’, where it finishes up I think maybe we could’ve gotten closer to that in the original. So, of course, it can happen.
London Grammar is a band but when you hear it on the radio you hear a woman singing and you look at the albums and you see a woman front and centre. It’s quite an interesting dynamic in that female solo artists work with a lot of people all the time but they’re their own artist. Has it ever been an issue of blurring the line between a band and a collaborator and how it’s perceived by the public?
I think sometimes if you’re in a band there’s a worry that you think you should do everything really consciously as a band and make sure it’s all fair and even and that sort of stuff. But I just don’t think we’re worried about that. Hannah’s obviously incredibly talented and very beautiful, but she’s very self-conscious of being in the limelight and she doesn’t want celebrity or any of that stuff. So in that way it works well. The best thing about being in a band is we’re there for each other and protect each other. I think solo artists don’t necessarily have that. Sometimes they don’t get the right protection or don’t have anyone else in their position to talk to.
The way your band is marketed, it’s not a face-heavy approach. Are you happy to have a bunch of fans who don’t necessarily know what you look like? There are some bands who you almost know their faces more than you know their music.
Yeah, we don’t do a lot of press at all. We don’t do photo shoots or fashion. I dunno, when I think of bands I don’t think I would know what they all look like. If your face is more famous than your music then you’re probably more of a celebrity than musician. Which is great, some artists are like that, but I wouldn’t think of them as putting music first, in a way. But that all depends on how you approach it.
If you and a friend want to see London Grammar live in concert on September 30 at Spark Arena FOR FREE, simply find the spelling error in this article (grammar, geddit?) and email the correction to firstname.lastname@example.org to enter the draw. Entries close at 3pm on Friday, September 22.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.