Athlete – A 2011 Celebration

With Guitars are happy to talk all things Athlete. After all with a blinding Newcastle gig, as part of the band’s Stripped Back Tour, we meet an upbeat Joel and Tim, previewing Athletes release of ‘Singles 01-10’ and looking further ahead…

 

Hooks, harmonies and soaring rock anthems…. Awards, accolades and a tremendously loyal live following. People think they know Athlete, four charming men from South London, Deptford. The Ivor Novello Award winning English indie rock band comprise of Joel Pott (lead vocals and guitar), Carey Willetts (bass and backing vocals), Stephen Roberts (drums and backing vocals) and Tim Wanstall (keyboards and backing vocals).
Friends since the age of fourteen, Athlete took their wide ranging influences such as Grandaddy and The laming Lips and started jamming and practicing in the basement of The Bear, a pub which was converted into a church and sandwich bar, on Deptford High Street in 1999. They began recording there, before sending demos out.
The band had a high-profile debut, resultuing to domestic success in with their debut album ‘Vehicles and Animals’ was a platinum seller in 2005 after a 2003 release and Mercury Music Prize nomination, ”The Mercury shortlist put us in the public eye, and started a word-of-mouth buzz,’ says Tim. ‘We played V and Glastonbury that year and the vibe was brilliant” followed up by ‘Tourist’ which reached #1 and sold over 500,000 copies allowing this album to also go platinum. The second album, released in 2005’s (‘Tourist’), saw a change of tack. The jaunty, sing-along appeal of their debut was superseded by a deeper, more intimate feel, to great effect.
‘Beyond The Neighbourhood’, in 2007, was another major step. Self-produced, it was the sound of Athlete reaching out to the wider world. An upbeat affair that moved away from the darker undertones of Tourist, it found them making the music they wanted to make regardless of commercial concerns. Things moved on again with 2009’s ‘Black Swan’. A new label, Fiction, marked a more urgent approach. The opening track, ‘Superhuman Touch’, was a surging rock anthem that began with Joel asserting: ‘I’m on fire, nothing’s gonna hold me back’. Recorded in LA with Tom Rothrock, it added Californian sunshine to the band’s quintessentially English sound
Now, with Singles 01-10providing a bookend to their first decade, they are looking forward. This is the story so far, but Athlete’s race is far from run.

Without much difficulty recalling a packed, sold out night at Newcastle’s Cluny venue. Catching up with Joel and Tim was hugely enjoyable, my first opportunity to catch up with Athlete since 2001. Indeed, If it wasn’t for that pesky MP3 recorder destroying  my original short ramble,  a few weeks back, would have already made the interview available to the legion of fans that attended the bands ‘Stripped Back Tour’.So the ever resourceful band PR, Mike Gourlay, suggested an interview with Tim Wanstall, With Guitars and in particular Steve Janes jumped at the chance.

First of all, congratulations on surviving ten years! Most bands are lucky to have two albums, oh yeah and a third ‘greatest hits’ albums. To stay focused on good music for ten years is an achievement…

Just one of many….

”Why thanks very much.  It makes me feel old to say it but even over the last ten years it feels as time has gone on that the average life of bands has got shorter and shorter.  Everyone knows that the business of selling music is changing dramatically every year and one spin off is that labels are calling it time earlier than they used to.  So yeah, we feel very proud to have put out 4 whole albums plus the obligatory singles collection that we couldn’t say no to….”

In 2007 you released Beyond The Neighbourhood’ an album that reached No.5 in the charts were there any commercial pressure on the band to conform?

”Well we didn’t feel any in the making of the record because we were shut away in our own place having a bit of a self-indulgent indie trip which was thoroughly enjoyable and as the A&R from our first two records had gone to another company we had next to no input from Parlophone apart from a couple of visits during the whole 6 months of making it.  That wasn’t because of any bad relationship – quite the opposite, they are so trusting of their artists.  But once it was out there we certainly started to feel the pressure – it’s a shame but you get to know about things like airplay charts and what the “ship to shops” is and it kind of ruins the innocence of the whole affair of creating something.”

”It’s been brilliant actually – I have never tired of playing the same songs, the same way night after night for years. But playing them differently and on the whole to seated audiences in theatres and churches has made it all really fresh and for me it has felt like a celebration of all that we’ve managed to write over the years.”

The reaction to ‘Beyond The Neighbourhood’ must have felt pretty good, with the band doing your own thing and it worked so well!

”Well I don’t remember it like that – it felt like that record got the worst reaction of all four, critically, but i could well be wrong.  Instrumentally and in the poetry of Joel’s lyrics I’m really proud of what we achieved on that record and I know there are music-fans close to me for whom that is their favourite album but in retrospect I wish our A&R guy had still been around because I think he would have said we were missing a little of what people love about Athlete and we would have gone away and written a couple of extra songs and they would have been big singles!!  This is what happened on ‘Tourist’ you see….”

Change of record labels. Had you gone as far as Athlete could with the old label? Was it just new personnel un the offices?

“I think they felt we owed them too much money which felt strange after selling 1.2 million records but there you go.”

Then you move to Fiction Records which are a fantastic label, albeit on a major now.

”Yes we moved to Fiction which of course has a great history and in recent times has done amazingly well and of course should be especially lauded for being a part of Elbow becoming as big as everyone in the know felt they should have been for years and years.”

Really liked 2009′s ‘Black Swan’ great heavier album if you compared it to say, ‘Beyond The Neighbourhood,

”It is first and foremost a really strong collection of songs – the idea behind ‘Black Swan’ was that every tune should captivate in its raw element and not depend on the strings for emotion…and then once you were sure it did that, to put lots of strings on it!”

How is the ‘Stripped Back’ tour gone? For my part – I thought it was great, all crowd comments around me could be summed up in one word – “wow”

”It’s been brilliant actually – I have never tired of playing the same songs, the same way night after night for years.  But playing them differently and on the whole to seated audiences in theatres and churches has made it all really fresh and for me it has felt like a celebration of all that we’ve managed to write over the years.”

Guess every crowd on this tour are lucky to catch what I feel might only be a pit stop of a ‘greatest hits’ style tour and album, before you unleash the next instalment – we are due – every two years is a rough average, marking a new Athlete album.

”Yeah it’s been every two years on the odd numbers since 2003 so this is the first year to break that cycle.  Actually we’re all exploring individual paths at the moment so the if / how / when of another album is a pretty open book.”

Was it a reminder and a great trailer for it for The Singles 01 – 10? compilation? Was it enjoyable putting together the ‘Singles 01-10′ compilation or is it more of a label thing?

”It was very much a label thing – a contractual right they exercised to try and make some money out of the copyrights after we’d left.  But we took the line of getting involved and personalising it all as much as we could because it’s our music plus we really care about what people get in return for handing over hard-earned cash.  So we went through old photos and stories and memories and then fought long and hard over which B-sides to go for on the special edition extra disc.  In fact we invented a whole new voting system to ensure we got that one right – that system would have chosen David!”

Still shines so bright

Got to ask there is still life after ‘Singles 01-10′?

”As above!”

The Singles 01-10 is out in September expectations running high as they are at With Guitars that a massive European Tour, an appearance on the upcoming Late Night With Jools Holland. And in an attempt to upset the applecart; get your TV Promoter to try for a T4 special – it is about time, Channel 4 in general, had a good band on any of the music channels or Channel 4, instead of the trap they call music.

”Came out a year ago now so guess this question is a little old?…. The music guys at Channel 4 are good people actually – a couple of them have been at the front of our gigs since the very beginning!”

Favourite single is it from the earliest you cracked it or from Black Swan’ maybe – being the most recent album to date.

”’You Got The Style’ / ‘Wires’ / ‘The Getaway’ are the three for me…..”Could you tell With Guitars a little about 2003′s ‘Back Track’ how can a single pick not make the album at all?

”Well it’s a long story but basically Back Track was, with westside, the demo that we got signed on but it transpired that Dan who signed us had hated Back Track from the word go so under his influence we didn’t even finish recording it properly.  Further it got offered a big mobile phone advert before we’d even signed a deal and in the good old spirit of not letting corporations and rubbish tv programmes touch your music (no one can really afford to be so moral now!) we said no!  Anyhow it just seemed like a great idea to finish recording it and use at as the single for the collection – we had a lot of fun in the studio pretending we were ten years younger for a day.”

Preparing for that Newcastle Cluny interview, I was playing some old albums. Nice to hear ‘El Salvador’ and ‘Wires’ again, I know I have only pulled two out, but could you tell me something about each song? Not to mention ‘You Got The Style’ and ‘Superhuman Torch’ – do the singles feel as vibrant and important as when you first recorded them”’El Salvador’ is a funny one I think as it is such a strange collection of lyrics – i think I wrote lots of the verse lyrics and Joel did the chorus and middle 8 and we did it independently of each other and just glued it all together and I think it sums up the experience of cheerily being taken for a ride on a major label despite knowing it’s not gonna last forever.  But it has something about it – we actually stopped playing it for a few years for some reason and were quite taken aback by how disappointing people found that.  This guy really took us to task at a university ball we did a few years ago and it’s been in the set again ever since.  ‘Wires’ is ‘Wires’ – it’s one of those beautiful moments that you don’t see coming and it will live on and on.  We still get e-mails of how that song is a soundtracks people’s stories….”

I remember reading that you’re more of a studio band, with the last album tour (six weeks if I remember right) then this tour you’re racking up the experience of playing live, not that you need it but a modern day Neds Atomic dustbin or Mega City 4 I know Athlete are not., but I you happier with longer tours?

”I think the reference to being more of a studio band is to do with the way in which we have tended to make our music, particularly at the beginning.  The idea behind the six-week tour was just to get to towns that most bands don’t bother with.  Live has always been a big thing for us as I think it’s in that moment of realising that what we recorded is now shared by others that Athlete always makes most sense to me.”

Life on the road – good, tough or just boring?

”Long drives, poker, steak n shake, good single malts and so the list goes on.  It’s all amazing except that I leave my most precious people behind.”

 

Yet another highlight of the last ten years, here’s to another decade of success