Coming Up For Dirty Air: The Survival Of Two Door Cinema Club
“So was it a wind up, this thing you posted on Facebook? That your 35ft giant inflatable fire extinguisher was stolen out of your lock-up…?,” I ask Sam Halliday, one third of Northen Irish indie rock outfit Two Door Cinema Club.
“Oh, no. It's gone, yeah, we're hoping people might spot somewhere…” he replies over the phone from Nottingham ahead of a gig at Rescue Rooms.
It’s the day before the release day the band’s fourth album and a week ahead of a headline set on the Other Stage at Glastonbury. After a week of intimate pre-launch parties from Leeds’ Brudenell Social Club to Dundee’s Fat Sam - “it’s definitely a blast from the past! Crowd-wise it’s perfect, so much fun. Though afterward it’s a wee bit awkward, all of us squeezed into these tiny backstage areas…” - tomorrow they somewhat incredibly actually have the day off. There’s a sense of a calm before the storm.
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It’s been 13 years since Halliday’s mispronunciation of fav local cinema, Tudor Cinema, gave its name to the new music project from a bunch of mates from Bangor Grammer School, and nearly a decade since debut record Tourist History landed to platinum sales and garnered them a cult and popular following.
Four albums later and Halliday, Alex Timble and Kevin Baird couldn’t look stronger than on 'False Alarm', exercising their creative muscle and reaching beyond the thematic and sonic experimentation initiated by Gameshow. But, as Halliday reflects, not all has been a smooth ride. After a a period of heavy touring and launching second album, 2012’s 'Beacon', the band neared implosion.
Recovering from an identity-crisis and addiction-induced involuntary hiatus, 2016’s 'Gameshow' represented a process of rebuilding: “It was very much getting to know each other again. The studio wasn't particularly comfortable,” the guitarist recalls hesitantly. “We're happy with what we came up with. But there was very much still a bit of anxiety there. We weren’t necessarily super close with each other and that makes things musically a bit restrained.”
Now, on 'False Alarm', the three seem to have hit their stride again, emerging renewed from the brink of dissolution: “This time around we're just having fun. I hope that comes across, not just in the music, but even the marketing, what we’ve done with the cover. We’re just having fun with it. Because what's the point in doing it otherwise?,” he asks rhetorically. “Now we've come through the other side of nearly not doing this anymore, being a bad way, personally with each other as well, I think we're like, ‘let's not do that again. Let's just have fun. Let's try and keep it fresh and exciting.’ I think we care less now.”
Free from that pressure to prove themselves, as when initially carving out room in an indie-saturated space, Halliday further credits an extended gestation and development period for the weirder-sounding edges to their latest LP, made with long-time production partner Jacknife Lee (U2/Bloc Party/REM) under their own label:
“I think maybe it comes down to just having more time,” he reflects. “The album probably took 10 months or something all in. There were a lot of writing sessions in LA with Jackknife and Alex. They spent a lot of time working on a few songs and just messing about with keyboards. I think there is a lot more room for experimentation when you have the time to afford that luxury.”
All synth pop and disco-funk vibes, their electronic sensibilities are far more fuller exploited here, as are 80s influences: “Alex was having a real experiment with synths. Whenever we talk to people about the album it’s about references from the 80s and I think a lot of it's to do with the actual keyboards themselves just being from that time and I think, sort of subliminally, the sounds that you stumble upon, are from records of that era. There’s a lot of Talking Heads, which I'm sure is pretty evident there, and David Bowie.”
The extra legroom also opened up space for fresh voices: “This time around again, the way it was spread out, we were able to collaborate with a few different people as well which was good fun.”
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‘Nice To See You’ features Zimbabwean vocal group Mokoomba: “We had just heard their record - it was one of those crazy records that Jacknife that would play to us, he has a ridiculous collection and constantly comes up with things that then inspire a track - and thought ‘it would be fun to sample this [for ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’]’ as getting them in the studio would never be an option. But then bizarrely, they were just playing in LA like a week later. It just worked out so nicely to be that they could actually sing on the record. We've always been intrigued by African music, and really drawn to the rhythm and sounds. It's really cool to be in a position where we could incorporate that into the album.”
Also featured is Chicago rapper Open Mic Ego: “Hip-hop is one of those things that we've always been massive fans of but it's never really felt like it was somewhere we could go. But having somebody who to do a verse on a song helps you get into that. I don't think any of us were of prepared to go down that route, I'm sure most people will be very happy to hear…” he comments with a laugh.
Although ruminating on similar themes to 'Gameshow' - and indeed, those well-explored by many an artist over the last few years - of how we survive in our politically-divisive, social-media-crazed epoch, there’s a clear shift in tone. The sting of anger gone, frustration and incredulity give way to tongue-in-cheek apathy and biting satire.
“Yeah there’s definitely a continuation in terms of themes, of how we as people deal with modern life and maybe we're not quite equipped to deal with it,” Halliday suggests. “But whereas during Gameshow. Alex was sort of struggling with the world around him and criticising it, this time around, it's more a point of view of like, ‘d'you know, what? We're all in it together, we're all guilty of doing things. We're all struggling with it but here, let's have fun and make the most of it.’ I think that's the sort of the shift.”
‘Once’ was inspired by the concept of everything being sold as a “once in a lifetime experience” along the lines of the “American Dream” while social media results in these moment lingering on in cyberspace. Bowie-esque vocals are broken up by anthemic chorus “Set the reaction/Ticket to ride/Reckless abandon/Time on your side” in ‘Satelite.’
‘Dirty Air,’ with lyrics, “The sky is falling, so pull up a chair/Everyone's watching like nobody cares,” carries of the sentiment of a generation exhausted by anger, ready to watch the world burn. “It's a horrible way to think,” comments Halliday. “But it’s like, day to day, getting stressed about things like reusing a plastic water bottle or something, how plastic is ruining the world, these little anxieties, you think, ‘What's this one water bottle going to do when other countries are now going through their industrial revolution and pumping out all these fossil fuels?’ You start to think, ‘What is the point?’ It’s tough.”
‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ meanwhile presents a cynical reflection on the way we are sold to, the perfect Instagram-captured picture of happiness, that seeps into your consciousness as you scroll a feed of friend’s filtered posts, at your fingertips if only you subscribe to/purchase such-and-such new lifestyle/product/app: “People expect to be happy all the time, which is sort of a lie. It's should be one emotion alongside another one. If you go out to a restaurant every night, it's not gonna be very special or you're not going to appreciate it. You have to experience the lows to enjoy the highs.”
Their live show as well as their marketing has had a makeover, leaving behind anonymity to present themselves more prominently: “We're definitely trying to bring that world on stage. The look is very much in keeping with the album. We've got a whole new light show and production, which is really awesome. It's definitely a step up from anything we've done before in that sense.”
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After recent Radio 1's Big Weekend and Glastonbury come headline sets at Tramlines, Truck and Y Not Festivals. And that’s before they even begin their album tour which includes the O2 Arena in the autumn: “It's a weird one, we've never released an album this close to summer before. We're deep into touring but we haven't really started yet. We're about to do a summer of festivals but our tour won't start until September. We’re really looking forward to that - festivals are fun but getting into our False Alarm tour is definitely what we're most excited about. You have so much more freedom on your tour to do your own thing.”
Not many of their ilk have survived the evolution of our music scene to hold their main stage headliner ground. Indeed, they themselves very nearly didn’t. They look to the likes of Metronomy and Foals (“they were always a massive influence on us and they're still smashing it”), acts whose careers were kicking off when the lads were in their teens, as examples of those have been able to remain relevant through constantly innovating beyond the confines of their ostensible genre.
“I think some people back themselves into a corner with a certain sound where it's very much the identity of the band. Whether intentional or not, I think we’re just more open between the three of us to do different things musically.”
In particular, he points to the well-trod “indie” label as a potentially loaded one: “We never really loved the whole indie thing as a genre. We were more influenced by alternative music - I don't know if that's the same thing. In my head, British indie is, not a dirty word - but it very much means a very few types of band.”
“I don't think we were ever really involved in that scene really which, perhaps, in the long run, has helped us out. Whereas in the short term we were like, ‘we’re missing out things,’ I think it's worked out for the best now, not being involved in a scene or having a particular sound. Not having restrictions in terms of instrumentation and things like that. We've definitely turned into more of a studio band now, where you have to actually figure out how to play the songs live after you've recorded them. I think that's good for freedom in the studio, to make whatever.”
A sure sign of enduring relevance is who turns up to your shows. And while Halliday had expected to see that same crowd - affectionately self-proclaimed “The Basement People” after 'Undercover Martyn’s line, “To the basement people, to the basement, many surprises await you...” - whose imaginations they had caught with the likes of ‘What You Know’ and ‘Something Good Can Work,’ he was pleasantly surprised to find their evident appeal to new fans:
“Whenever we came back a couple of years ago, we were expecting the fan base to be our age, like the people who were there the first time around,” he says. “But we're constantly shocked that the front row just seems to stay the same age. They're all still 18, 19. It's funny, you know, it's bizarre. So as long as that keeps happening, I think we're on to something pretty good.”
Age and having been through the wringer at the difficult second album stage has brought reflection, maturity and a self-confident steadiness, an awareness of the need to prioritise self-preservation, of sacrificing all to success being a false economy.
“There's a bad place we don't want to go to, where we went previously, where we got frustrated when things didn't happen. For perspective, you have to have time away from it. That's something we've learned the hard way. It's also about not falling back on the same patterns of just saying yes to everything and being on tour for 10 months of every year. Self-care is so important. I think that's something you learn as you get older, regardless of what profession you're in.”
“So yeah, as long as we're having fun and doing nice tours of our own, that's a good thing.”
As for the loss of that giant fire extinguisher, something tells me it was a false alarm...
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'False Alarm' is out now via Prolifica Inc / [PIAS]. For details of their upcoming tour, visit http://twodoorcinemaclub.com/main/
Words: Sarah Bradbury
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