In most languages, Red means Danger. And Danger is often applied to a group’s second album. So as the Guillemots tackle the beast head on, all guns blazing, we pitched up at their Bethnal Green studio. Cradling a mid-morning cup of tea, we were entertained by the drumstick-twirling Fyfe Dangerfield, a coiled spring in a long sweater, and the rather more relaxed MC Lord Magrão, both pleased in their respective ways with the group’s sophomore achievement. So the title – an easy decision?
“You mean was there a choice of colours beforehand?” smiles Dangerfield. “Like mauve?! Actually we almost arrived at the title by default – it sounded like a Red sort of record, it’s very in your face. I guess Red has a lot of connotations of lust, anger and war, of stopping and starting – they’re all things that are themes on the record. We wanted it to sound like a bold sort of record.”
The band continue to express themselves through a vast array of instruments, some of which can be seen propped up precariously in the studio kitchen. Nor are these cheap old bin ends. As Dangerfield notes, “We never really want to make records that sound like they’re made in the year that they’re made. Things like the Bontempi that I’ve got here – a friend of mine rewired it, that’s how it sounds cool. We used that for the bass on Don’t Look Down, on the second bit where it all goes drum and bass. With this record we really tried to go out there on the sounds, but at the same time make it more coherent and poppy. It was trying to have these things that are thought of being mutually exclusive and blending them together.”
Recording the album was an exhausting process for the band, as Dangerfield and MC readily agree. “It had some fun moments but it wasn’t like it was a barrel of laughs the all the way through”, says Fyfe. “I suppose on the first record there was the childish excitement of making a record for the first time, and we hadn’t been jaded by touring, and I think that all came into this record. We stopped touring, had two weeks of not doing very much and then we were in here writing for the next record. “And we had all the festivals,” adds MC, busy rolling a cigarette.
Fyfe continues. “Yeah, I think it would have been a very different record without it, if we’d gone away to some island in a hut for a few months. That’s what the next record’s gonna be like, we’re gonna play live in a Caribbean hut! I think we always want to be very spontaneous when we record, and the record is made up of a lot of moments of spontaneity, but between those moments there was a lot of sitting around, waiting for good stuff to happen, being a bit bored and tetchy. It was making sure that the things that ended up on the record had that freshness.”
The band began the recording process without the vocals of Dangerfield, who didn’t sing for two weeks. “I didn’t want to!” he exclaims. “We just played a lot of bass and drums, set up a couple of kits, two or three basses, maybe one keyboard, and locked in as a rhythm section. A lot of songs came out of that, Don’t Look Down, Kriss Kross, Get Over It. Actually six songs on the record came out of us playing like that, two songs I’d written a few years before, and three we’d written on the road over the past year.”
We go on to talk about the live set-up, with the big arrangements of Red toned back somewhat. “Some of the stuff on the record is so hard to play live” says Dangerfield, “so rather than trying to replicate it live we find a way of playing it differently. I think the most important thing live is not that the detail shows through – that’s more for headphones – but that the energy comes across and that it’s very visceral. It’s been really fun just looking like we’re a normal rock band, stripping it down. We’ve always enjoyed doing things where we are just a simple band in a way. Definitely live this time around we’re trying to just think about “what does this actually need” and if need be, just leaving a space.”
Dangerfield pinpoints the change in the live approach. “I had an epiphany when I saw some footage of Jean Michel Jarre on the internet, and me and a friend were watching lots of his stuff. There’s an amazing bit, I think it’s Equinox in 1979, and it zooms out and there’s like about 20 keyboards around him! We don’t wanna go that way, much as I love him. It makes a difference that I can be upfront more, the front man rather than buried behind rows of keyboards. The throne’s gone, replaced by a humble piano stool.”
With two albums done, Dangerfield asserts that the band’s view of debut Through The Windowpane has not changed. “Not at all, I really love it. But everyone knew the next record would be different. There’s just no point in doing the same thing twice, and it’s the same with this record. I think we probably feel like we’ve gone about as far as we can go with production with this record. We’re really proud of it but we’re just craving where it’s the four of us just playing in a room next, you know? It’s good to keep changing. One of the quotes I remember was Miles Davis, where someone said to him “Why don’t you play ballads any more?” and he said “because I love ballads so much”. I think you’ve got to be quite hard on yourself in a way. When you’re making a record you put yourself into it and try and do the best you can do, and if you’ve done that you’ll never do it as well again.”
“We wanted it to sound like a bold sort of record…” – Fyfe Dangerfield cuts to the chase on the Guillemots’ second album.
They certainly pushed yourselves to the limit in Red – “to the edge of sanity I think!” says Fyfe. And all this without a main producer. “We tried working with an external producer and it just didn’t work at all, and we did this record with Adam Noble, he co-produced with us. It almost feels like when we’re recording that he’s another member of the band. When we did Windowpane that was for a while there was Chris Shaw co-producing, but he then left two thirds of the way through to go and work with Bob Dylan, which was fair enough! With Adam it didn’t feel like having a producer at all. I don’t know how he stayed sane to be honest with you, he was co-producing, most of the programming and all of the engineering!”
Such is the set-up at the Guillemots’ pad, with huge student-type kitchen, it’s a wonder they were able to knuckle down as they did. “It’s not like we’re in Barbados though, we’re in Cambridge Heath!” Fyfe points out. “There was not much to do except stay in here. As it went on it became enjoyable, and we’d work from 7 in the evening to about 2 or 3 in the morning.”
With reference to previous solo shows, are any of the band moving towards solo work? “We’re all gonna do stuff, definitely”, says Fyfe. “We all have solo lives outside of the band, and that strengthens what we put into it. I’m gonna do solo stuff, but then I think everyone else is too. It’s not like we’re in a relationship where we can’t sleep with other people!”
Dangerfield exudes a hyperactive energy as he continues to twirl his drumstick, unintentionally flicking open a copy of the NME with his picture on it before hastily closing the offending magazine. We talk about recent live shows, and his impression. “Really good! A lot of the people at the shows had already seen us play the new stuff before, so things like Kriss Kross and Get Over It were being received like old friends. It’s a really good gut feeling when the riff starts and everyone goes mad.
Even the record company are in the band’s good books. “We have a really good relationship with Polydor, I think it’s about as good as it could be with a record label. We were in a fortunate position when we signed with them that we could name the deal we wanted, which means we get the final say on things. Of the labels that approached us they were the ones who talked about music rather than record sales. To start with we were quite stubborn, then things came to a head about artwork on the last album and then we realised we’d been a bit unfair, the people there had been working a lot harder than we realised.”
“It’s not like we’re in a relationship where we can’t sleep with other people!” – Fyfe Dangerfield intimates Guillemots may have double lives as solo artists in the years ahead.
And on the pertinent issue of the internet, he notes “It’s becoming a lot easier to put things out, certainly, but when it comes to doing something like this we do think of it as a traditional thing, and we haven’t got the money to market it. In a way we want to step away from the business side of things, I mean we could do a Fugazi and count the money after every gig, which is really admirable, but I think we’re too…” “lazy”, interjects MC, “but it would be a bit too depressing, a bit like work”.
And does it ever feel like work? “Sometimes, but then I think you just have to stay grounded. Friends and family do that. Today our job is to talk about ourselves for four hours, whereas my girlfriend has to work in an office for seven. Emotionally you have to be careful though, as you’re making a living out of expressing yourself.”
Fyfe doesn’t come across as a person concerned with his own status as a potential celebrity – and a recent anecdote confirms that. “My experiences are best summed up by when we got invited to two fashion parties in the same night, the Elle style awards and the Vivienne Westwood launch. We went to the Elle after party and had free cocktails, then I ran into someone carrying champagne… and ran off… and then we had some champagne, and we both fell asleep! At the Elle style awards after party. And then we were woken up with a cab – so that’s how rock and roll I am!”
And with that our time is done, the seabirds heading on to a clutch of phone interviews. Their energy may have been spent on the new record, but the regrouping process is swiftly up and running.
Questions were put to Guillemots by Ben Hogwood and Michael Hubbard. Guillemots’ album Red is out now through Polydor.