Few pop bands would be so bold as to fuse string arrangements with electronica and house music, mixing classical and dance elements. But Clean Bandit are no run-of-the-mill chart outfit.
Built around a nucleus of Grace Chatto (cello, percussion, vocals) and brothers Jack Patterson (bass, keyboard, vocals, piano, violin) and Luke Patterson (drums, percussion), they’ve always prided themselves on being a genre-defying collective. And what started as a club night project in Cambridge in 2008 has led to major record sales, plenty of industry accolades, and three UK No.1s in the past three years.
When I tracked down Grace, she and her bandmates were honouring PR engagements before flying to Los Angeles, having been working on a video for new single, I Miss You, out next weekend. That’s the follow-up to their Spring No.1, Symphony, having also worked with Marina and the Diamonds and Sam Smith recently, those songs all expected to feature on a forthcoming second album.
They’ve always made their own promos, via Grace and Jack’s film production company Cleanfilm, producing videos for other artists too. Another string to this cellist’s bow?
“In the beginning there wasn’t really another option. We didn’t have any money, so it wasn’t like we could pay someone else. But then we got really obsessed with it. Now we spend as much time on the visual side as the music, really.”
That seems to sum up Clean Bandit’s ‘full-package’ approach. They’re with a big label, Atlantic, but I can’t imagine them being dictated to by some demanding record company mogul. Their 2012 debut single A&E was on London indie label Black Butter, and they’ve stayed relatively independent in approach since day one.
“Kind of, but it’s getting harder, the more it grows. It’s about control, everyone wants to be involved.”
But I get the feeling you’re quite strong-willed between you, although you must be torn on that – wondering if it’s best to let go and just concentrate on the music and the videos.
“I guess I’m quite controlling. I really find it difficult, I’ve worked so hard and for so long, starting the band about 10 years ago. I can’t really trust other people to just take over. Having said that, we are very collaborative, having worked with loads of people on the music, with different singers on every song. We don’t always write the lyrics now. We used to, but tend to write with lyricists now, and that’s been really amazing.”
Collaborations have been a big part of the band’s success story, the singles alone featuring luminaries from the world of pop, soul and rap such as Elisabeth Troy, Love Ssega, Jess Glynne, Sharna Bass, Stylo G, 2015 X-Factor winner Louisa Johnson, Sean Paul, Anne-Marie, and Zara Larsson, and those afore-mentioned unions with Marina Diamantis and Sam Smith. So who’s next in the frame? Who’s top of Grace’s collaborative ‘wants list’?
“I’d love to do something with Lana Del Rey. That would be amazing. And Bruno Mars I love.”
The stats alone are a bit scary. By last year they were up to 12 million singles and 1.6 million albums sold, associated mega viewings on YouTube and streamings via Spotify. Then came 10 million-selling festive chart-topper Rockabye, the longest-running UK No.1 in 22 years (nine weeks) and this year’s Symphony, selling more than six million worldwide. It’s been quite a journey, to say the least, their seven UK top-10 hits so far also including fellow chart-topper and global hit, Rather Be, with Jess Glynne in tow, as she was for further hit, Real Love.
Not bad for something borne out of a club night project in Cambridge (Grace and co. booking the likes of James Blake and Joy Orbison in those early days). where Grace first met fellow university student Jack. But I guess they’ve not veered too far from that original premise either. That aspect seems to remain at the heart of it all.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Their recent LA trip coincided with the trio unveiling various dates for an extensive Spring tour of North America, while – now they’re back – this Sunday, October 22nd, they’re set to be part of the BBC Radio 1 Teen Awards at Wembley Arena, where the band are nominated for Best British Group. And then come seven UK dates, starting at Glasgow’s Barrowland on Sunday, October 29th, threading through to Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, November 7th, including London’s Hammersmith Apollo on Thursday, November 2nd. Is Grace excited, nervous, or both?
“I don’t feel nervous yet, because it still seems a while away, but I am excited. We’re not actually touring in America, so those dates will be the next performances we do and the first time we’ll be performing our new single, so that’s really exciting. We’ve been touring all year really, playing a lot of the old stuff, but this will be really …”
Those UK dates include Cambridge’s Corn Exchange on Monday, October 30th. Is that a homecoming of sorts?
“It is, I’m from London, and Jack and Luke are from Liverpool, but I met Jack and started the band there, and it will be really emotional to go back.”
Considering your respective roots, the stars had to align somewhat for this to all come together.
“I guess. I don’t really believe in fate, but yeah, so much has to align … always. Things have developed in such an amazing way these past few years. If I hadn’t found myself living next door to Jack …”
There was clearly something there – you seemed to have clicked and realised you were on the same page.
“Yeah, he was always so creative and had all these kind of crazy ideas, and all kinds of projects. I just found that really exciting. I started the string quartet first, then built up a bit of a student audience in Cambridge, and then we decided to add the electronic beats. On paper, it sounded like it could be a bad idea, but come the club nights, there was this really electric atmosphere and we knew from that moment that we wanted to do something!”
There weren’t so many people doing that at the time, fusing electronic and classical elements. One prime example regularly featured on these pages is the multi-talented Hannah Peel, but few other contemporary acts spring to mind.
The ex-Royal Academy of Music student – who still performs with a band of singing cellists, formed with her father, the Massive Violins – was reading modern languages (apparently, she speaks Russian and Italian fluently) at Jesus College when she met Jack. She already knew fellow founder-member Neil Amin-Smith, another academic high-flier and part of her initial string quartet, and with Jack they added electronic and reggae beats to classical music. Jack’s brother Luke, then 14, joined on drums, the older bandmates putting potential high-flying careers on hold.
The concept must have raised eyebrows top their peers – highbrow and otherwise. Apparently, Jack put an architecture degree on hold to study at Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, the oldest film school in the world, and was on the brink of taking a job at the St Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts. Meanwhile, after years of study in Russia and a degree in Russian literature, language and history, trilingual Grace Chatto also had a perfect academic CV, as did Neil. Yet they put that all to one side to fulfil a burning ambition to get their home-made music videos shown on MTV, and haven’t really looked back.
There have been other projects along the way, Grace teaching cello at a school when Mozart’s House was released in 2013, until her appearance in the music video in her undies – a violin covering her chest – prompted her to be fired after a parent complained. But by the time the following year was out, Clean Bandit had gone global, the success of Rather Be opening many more doors, even if I struggle not to equate that with the annoying Marks & Spencer ad campaign utilising the song’s main hook.
While string quartets and pop don’t obviously meet, Clean Bandit were always about crossing perceived boundaries. What’s more, Grace was never squeamish about the classical world, the two going hand-in-hand for you.
“Definitely. I mean, they all come from classical music anyway. It is all the same thing. I’ve always been a fan of dance music and reggae as well as classical music.”
As we mentioned the club scene, I feel I should ask, are you one to hover awkwardly at the edge of the dancefloor, out there going for it in the middle, or happier hiding behind the nearest woodwind instrument?
“Ha! Erm … usually in the middle of the floor.”
Ah, that’s you, is it?
As she left this morning, I asked my 15-year-old daughter, who was extremely excited at me actually getting to speak to someone she actually recognised as a fully-fledged somebody rather than some ageing rock star, what I should ask. I then had to point out ‘she’s so cool’ and ‘I love her style’ weren’t actually questions.
“Ah, that’s lovely!”
But she did tell me to ask when that next album’s finally arriving.
“I think it will be next year now. We’re releasing this single soon, then …. we’ve got so many songs. We’re just trying to decide which should be on the album.”
What are we likely to get, style-wise? Is the more recent material more in line with something like Tears – something that went from a simple piano tune to a mighty dance track – or have you moved on again since?
“I’m not sure about Tears. That was a bit of an anomaly, I think, a bit of an outrageous stomp! I think Symphony and Rockabye are more in that kind of style. Again, I don’t really know, we’ve got so many songs, and all in quite different styles. We’ll just have to decide. I imagine it’ll be kind of similar to the first album, where the songs are very different, although we didn’t actually set out to do that.”
It’s fair to say that 2014 debut LP, New Eyes, has received plenty of airplay around this house, mostly in my daughter’s den, and appearances on Later with Jools and from Glastonbury Festival made me sit up and take notice too. Retrospectively, I discovered the wonder of 2013 second single, Mozart’s House. But … how can I put it … you’ve moved into more poppy territory since.
“Yeah, we have. I was actually listening to some old songs last night with some friends, our song Dust Clears, and kind of thinking, ‘Oh God, I kind of prefer this.”
Grace laughs at this, perhaps a little embarrassed at admitting that, even though she’s perhaps thinking along the same lines as me.
“I hadn’t really realised how different it was … until last night!”
I’m pleased she thinks that way, although … who am I to judge? The more recent singles have sold by the bucket-load. What do I know? But having made my stand, albeit subtly (hopefully), I carry on. In a sense you were a little more underground then, and I’m kind of hoping you head back that way … however happy I am for you to be selling so well.
“Yeah … interesting … I guess it’s difficult not to get swept away.”
The journey’s not been without tensions, you’d think, not least with last year’s departure of Neil Amin-Smith (violin, piano), something time didn’t allow me to get on to. Yet having spoken to her, I get the impression Grace definitely has her feet on the ground, in spite of all the commercial success so far.
She’s also not reticent to speak her mind, as expressed in her grass-root support of Jeremy Corbyn of late. And I’d like to think a political endorsement from the likes of Grace would make more young people sit up and take notice of the bigger picture. Pop music should always be part of the bigger picture, not just some fad and escape from reality. It’s a responsibility being a spokesman for a generation, I put to her, but she seems to express her own philosophy and emotions well in that respect.
“Oh thank you. I hope so. It feels really amazing to be able to be part of that. I was at the (Labour Party) Conference last week, and in the run-up to the General Election just talking to people online was really interesting. It’s such an important time, I think. We’re going through such a big shift, which is really exciting.”
Other notable moments along the way – again taking in that bigger picture – have included Grace playing cello and ex-bandmate Neil adding violin for charity group Band Aid 30 in 2014, among various other high-profile British and Irish pop acts, the latest version of Do They Know it’s Christmas? raising money for West Africa’s Ebola crisis.
So what means most – the Grammy Award (Best Dance Recording, 2015), the UK No.1s, Jack’s Ivor Novello Awards, the BRIT/Billboard Music Awards and 1X BBC Music Award nominations, the Band Aid 30 single, performing with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, or selling out Alexandra Palace?
“Probably the Alexandra Palace. I grew up literally at the bottom of the hill of the Ally Pally. I’d go there when I was little, to the ice rink. Performing there felt really special.”
And what do you see yourself as primarily these days – cellist, percussionist, vocalist, or activist?
“Erm … a cellist probably, and also a music video director. That takes up most of my time. A producer as well. Jack’s the primary songwriter and writes for piano and voice, then we produce the songs together, and think about all the sounds.”
Of course, the world of pop is notoriously fickle. If this somehow falls spectacularly away – and I can’t see any reason why it should as long as they play to their strengths – can you just go back to playing in your string quartet?
“Yeah, maybe. That would be lovely. I want to try and start doing more string quartet stuff now, and try and integrate that back into the band. It kind of worked quite well, and I think now the strings are becoming a bit more of an afterthought, because we’re so focused on everything else. It would be good to get that back into the core of what we’re doing.”
Well, if that ever happened, as a nod to your dance roots and pop past you could always resort to turning out in your underwear with the string section again, proving you’ve still got that edge.
“Ha! Yeah … that would be great!”
Clean Bandit UK tour: Sunday, October 29th – Glasgow Barrowland; Monday, October 30th – Cambridge Corn Exchange; Tuesday, October 31st – Bournemouth O2 Academy; Thursday, November 2nd – London Hammersmith Apollo; Friday, November 3rd – Birmingham O2 Academy; Monday, November 6th – Newcastle O2 Academy; Tuesday, November 7th – Manchester O2 Apollo. For ticket information, details on the new single and all the latest from the band, head to the official website or keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.