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Sitting in the back room of their local Deptford pub, Athlete are trying to explain the development their sound has made on Tourist,
the quartet's marvelous second album. The last album was quirky pop.
And it was good quirky pop, says drummer Stephen Roberts, no doubt to
the agreement of fans who bought 2004's Vehicles And Animals and the judging panel that shortlisted it for the Mercury Award. But we wanted to push ourselves further.
We'll always love good melodies, agrees guitarist/vocalist Joel Pott. But pop in itself wasn't enough for this record.
Instead, when Joel, Stephen, bassist/vocalist Carey Willetts, and
keyboardist/vocalist Tim Wanstall began making plans for the new album,
they set themselves two goals. Goal number one was to increase the
richness of their music. We started playing each other records we
love, working out what we appreciated about them and how we could bring
that to our music, explains Joel.
They decided, for example, that they cherished the simplicity of Massive Attack's Mezzanine ( It evokes emotion by not doing very much ); the use of strings on Beck's Sea Change ( They're not just pasted in--there's a point to them ), and the whole mood of the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin ( It's just so big and bold and beautiful ).
They also realized how much they liked the balance that Neil Young
achieves between a grand sound and a lyrical intimacy--which brings us
to goal number two. We said, 'let's get more personal on these
songs,' remembers Joel. Let's be more honest and open.
But first they had to finish off almost two years of continuous touring in support of Vehicles
And Animals. It had all begun with a debut gig to a handful of mates in
a Deptford pub in March 2002 - the same month that their bouncing debut
single Westside was released in the UK. At that stage, they hadn't
even finished writing Vehicles And Animals, let alone recording it,
but the Deptford show set them on a path to success that would
culminate almost 200 gigs later in January 2004 with a triumphant
sell-out date a few miles up the road at Brixton Academy in London.
Success came gradually but steadily over those 22 months, We learnt to
be patient, admits Tim. Athlete were never a particularly hyped band.
Instead, as they played more gigs and released more singles, their
following grew. I think we built up a fan base in the way that bands
did years ago, says Joel. Rather than being told to like us, people
discovered us for themselves.
Following the release of the album's U.K. release, the summer of 2003
was a particularly fruitful time. Shortly after wowing the curious
masses at both Glastonbury and T In The Park festivals with their
euphoric live show, the band were delighted to find themselves
nominated for the Mercury Award. I think there's an underdog waiting
to be discovered by the Mercury every year, says Stephen. And that
year it was us.
By the time we played V (festival) at the end of the summer it seemed
like everybody there knew the record, says Joel. There was this
massive crowd of about 20,000 people, all singing along.
Following a European tour, the band headed to the U.S. to play a triumphant gig at SXSW, where they were hailed by Rolling Stone as one of 5 bands that shined at SXSW.
Afterwards, the band took a week off before heading straight into the
studio to start work on the album they had such clear plans for. The
touring had been great, says Stephen, but by then we were absolutely
itching to get on with making the next record.
Recorded in Sussex and London and mixed in New York, the result is Tourist, an album that, happily, more than matches the band's ambitions. Like Vehicles And Animals,
it's bursting with glorious guitar-pop hooks, but newfound confidence
means it packs a solid, emotional punch right from the off, as opening
song Chances builds to its rousing chorus on a wave of piano, soft
electro flourishes, and crescendos of epic strings.
While in the studio the band and record producer, Victor Van Vugt,
constantly challenged each other on the direction each song should
take. They knew the songs had to have good melodies but a touch of
something special was needed too. That's why Tourist
is full of subtle sonic swerves. The aching Half Light veers smoothly
into a flutes 'n' beats breakdown, a spirited gospel choir leads us to
the end of the uplifting I Found Out, Modern Mafia 's snappy strut
is built upon sleigh bells, and the soft-centered final track I Love
ends in a gentle flurry of electro bleeps. It's as sonically rich as
they'd hoped for.
And, just as they'd planned, the album's lyrics glow with an openness
and honesty. This record reflects our real experiences, says Joel. A
lot of it's about enjoying being away on tour, doing amazing things,
but missing people at home and figuring out how to keep relationships
It's dark in places and it faces some harsh realities, adds Carey,
but at the same time it's beautiful, hopeful and uplifting.
He's not wrong. The song, Wires, is the perfect case in point.
Although not a comfortable subject to talk about, Joel admits the song
concerns a harrowing experience. It's about a moment when you feel
like you could lose somebody you really love, he says. But the
feeling of relief when you realize they are going to be alright.
Written by Record Label