Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Times: Maccabees Article 229/1/10




I contributed to this piece by chief Rock critic Pete Paphides on old school Get Low cohorts The Maccabees, which featured in The Times on Friday. They are poised to headline the NME Awards Tour throughout February, a slot that has become legendendary for creating huge bands. The Maccabees may be on album two already (the unbelievably good "Wall of Arms") but the general public are still only beginning to become acquainted with this fantastic band.

You can stream the album on their Myspace


The Maccabees may yet become greats

The NME tour’s latest headliners may be the next big thing, but they remain modest enough to doubt their No1 potential


By Pete Paphides

A week to go before the Maccabees take their place as part of NME’s annual awards tour, but Felix White is nowhere to be seen. The group was due to convene at 11am today, but an impulse buy in the West End has delayed their 25-year-old guitarist’s arrival by a half an hour. When White does show up, though, he feels confident that the band will understand when they see his spoils. It’s a replica of the shirt worn by the Fulham legend Johnny Haynes during the club’s heyday in the Fifties and Sixties. His bandmates’ faintly approving gazes suggest he might have got away with it.

The roll call of previous headliners on NME tours over the past decade includes Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs. Only a year ago the notion that the Maccabees might be heading the bill in 2010 seemed unlikely. If the quintet, fronted by the art-school graduate Orlando Weeks, had a place in history on the basis of their 2007 debut album Colour It In, it was as one of a flurry of adrenalised indie combos squatting the space left vacant by the Libertines. And they knew it. Having seen several contemporaries — including fellow Brighton habitués the Kooks — rush into their second album only to see their audience seemingly disappear overnight, a similar fate seemingly awaited the Maccabees.

For their singer, Felix White’s brother Hugo, feelings of unworthiness centred on the fact that he had never envisioned signing a record deal in the first place. “When we started this, the idea was that there had to be more to the evenings and weekends than sitting on a sofa watching telly.”

The band’s early releases seemed to prove his point. Anyone with serious ambitions would probably think a little harder before releasing a single that paid tribute to the wave machine at the swimming pool in Battersea frequented by their singer as a child. The best thing about the Maccabees’ early singles was their joyfully incidental air. Toothpaste Kisses and About Your Dress were the sort of courtship memoirs young men are prone to write only if they think that no one is paying close attention.

The luxury of relative anonymity was one sorely missed by Weeks the second time round. With all the band decamped from London to Brighton, Colour It In had been mostly recorded while Weeks was still at university, working on his degree show — creating a series of screenprints based on Le Corbusier drawings of “the aims of architecture”. For what was to become their second album, Wall of Arms, the producer Marcus Dravs was drafted in to oversee the sessions. “He had just been working with Coldplay, where everything was high security,” Felix White says. “They even had to scan their own fingerprints to access files of the songs they had been working on.”

What Dravs encountered when he started work with the Maccabees was a band whose drummer had just left (Robert Dylan Thomas had entered rehab, to be replaced by Sam Doyle) and was seemingly on the verge of a collective panic attack. Before recording a note the group had argued, in Felix White’s words, “for a week about, I dunno, what the logos on our T-shirts ought to look like. It’s good to care. But perhaps not quite to that degree.”

Matters came to a head with the incident during the recording of Seventeen Hands that has passed into band lore as “Marimbagate”. Felix White smiles playfully: “You really wanted that marimba on there, didn’t you?”

Weeks can laugh about it now — well, shift his weight uncomfortably from one buttock to another at any rate. “The marimba was the least of it,” Weeks says. “I thought we needed choirs, string sections, epic percussion. I think that to be a top producer, though, you have to be a bit of a genius at psychology. Marcus was like: ‘OK. You learn the marimba part and play it, but it needs to be done in the next 15 minutes because we’re working against the clock.’ And I’m a lousy marimba player.”

Perhaps the Maccabees felt that they didn’t deserve access to expensive studios — not, at any rate, without making full use of its marimbas. “There’s a million ways to make a record,” Felix White says, “but only one record that you absolutely have to make. You need someone with a calm head to tease it out of you.”

If Wall of Arms emerged last summer to a modest reception it probably had something to do with the fact that songs such as One Hand Holding and No Kind Words had a muscular urgency that simply didn’t compute with people who knew how the Maccabees sounded. It was a period of critical quarantine that effectively ended when the group arrived at Glastonbury. Generally speaking, mid-afternoon sets on the second stage tend to pass forgotten the moment they have ended. During the Maccabees’ performance, though, something happened — and even Weeks noticed it. “No one was leaving. And then we f***ed up Precious Time and I could hear a sympathetic ‘Aaah’ coming from the crowd. In that moment I sensed something that hadn’t previously been there [with festival audiences].”

For all that, the singer’s body language still screams a painful lack of entitlement. Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor — his band are also rehearsing here this afternoon — walks in to use the vending machine, prompting Weeks to point out that his heart sinks when Hot Chip leave their studio door ajar and he hears how together they sound.

In fact, he sounds far more confident when he talks about his artistic exploits. The remarkable prosthetic lungs worn by Florence Welch on the sleeve of Florence & the Machine’s Lungs were designed and made by Weeks. “They initially needed an illustration,” he explains, “but if it was a sort of Victoriana aesthetic they were after you’d be better off making them. You start with rawhide, soak it to get it malleable, then cut it, stitch it and stuff it. That was the first time I had worked with leather. If nothing else it means I got to appear on a No 1 album.”

Having fought their way back into contention — that top billing on the NME tour acknowledges as much — it would be naive to discount the possibility that the Maccabees may yet get around to making a No 1 of their own. Part of a newly expanded edition of Wall of Arms, their new single — a reworked, retitled version of their song No Kind Words featuring Roots Manuva — shows a band reluctant to sit on their newly acquired laurels. In the hands of the rapper, Weeks’s lyric — “an appeal to a friend to sort themself out a bit” — is transformed into a hip-hop parable of karmic comeuppance. “He put his vocals over the track and we rearranged it and chopped it up a bit,” Hugo White says. “The moment he approved what we had done it felt like a success.”

In the studio café, though, it perhaps shouldn’t go unremarked that the Maccabees’ stubborn modesty continues to manifest itself at every opportunity. On the television in the far corner an MTV airing of the group’s new single prompts minimal reaction. Only when someone points the remote control at the sports channel does a silent reverence descend on the table ... well, one person in particular.

In the wake of the fourth-round FA Cup match between Accrington Stanley and White’s beloved Fulham, Roy Hodgson — manager of the London side — is pondering the performance of the League Two opponents who played far better than their 3-1 defeat suggested. “We struggled to get going,” says Hodgson, a picture of avuncular equanimity. “But what a magnificent show they [Accrington] put up.”

There are, according to Felix White, parallels to be drawn between Hodgson’s stewardship of Fulham and the current fortunes of his own band. “Do you know why this team is so great? It’s not about the individual players. It’s about a sense of collective identity. That makes them more formidable than anyone gives them credit for.”

At long last, a boast — albeit one of modest proportions.

Wall of Arms (Bonus Edition) is released on Monday by Fiction. The NME awards tour starts on Feb 4 at the 02 Academy, Newcastle (www.themaccabees.co.uk)

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