“Let’s do it, let’s do it!”
The dictaphone is rolling and Busted are in the room. Charlie Simpson is irrepressible, seizing hold of the conversation like a rubber ball and pounding it across each of these four walls; Matt Willis is coy, a sly grin permeating from that instantly recognisable face; James Bourne is rather more taciturn, his thoughts and opinions expressed through the prism of more than a decade’s worth of experience.
They’re older, no doubt, but they’re Busted. It’s there in the interplay, in the subtle (and not so subtle) jokes, the body language, and the clear, deep-rooted respect that lies between three people whose lives changed irrevocably at exactly the same time.
But it wasn’t always this way. When Charlie Simpson left Busted in 2005 he famously (some fans would insist infamously) wanted to pursue something different – ahead of him would lie four albums with Fightstar, battling to gain respect in a rock community that largely despised his pop endeavours. For Matt and James, however, life would offer different paths – paths that simply didn’t intersect. Having lived out of each other’s pockets during the one of the most important and intense periods of their lives, the three simply didn’t speak for eight years.
At some point in 2015, though, James and Matt wanted to put this right. Pushing aside the dictums of the industry - “his people were speaking to our people, and all that” - the pair decided to get back in touch, to re-connect.
“Me and James went to meet Charlie because we wanted to do Busted again,” Matt explains. “We were at that point in our life. We’d had a few kind of things to deal with in the past. And it’s like: we just want to speak to him. We wanted to talk to him. So we rang him up, went round to his house and just sort of chatted.”
“At that point in time he wasn’t in the place to do Busted - he was just about to release a solo record, that was what he was about. And that was cool. But I think what happened from that is we talked about music, we talked about what we were into, and what we were listening to at the time. What kind of bands we were liking. I think something was very different than it was ten years ago, as we were all talking about the same stuff. Whereas before we were all talking about three different things.”
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The intense experience of overnight fame pushed the three musicians apart – ironically, leaving Busted allowed them to grow into one another, to mature and face up to opinions they may have previously disregarded. Charlie puts it simply: “We’d worked out that we’d been obsessing about the same albums at exactly the same times without even knowing it.”
“I guess the seed was planted at that point,” Matt adds. “What would Busted sound like in 2016? Now we know…”
It’s intriguing to compare these two different projects, to contrast Busted 2002 with Busted 2016. The pop trio found fame without even releasing any music, announcing their arrival to the world with the front cover of Smash Hits. When the trio reconvened, they did so in complete secrecy – even travelling to the United States to see if they could stand to be in each other’s company.
“We booked a studio in Philadelphia,” recalls Charlie, “just to keep it under the radar because if it hadn’t worked out we would have been under pressure with people talking about it, so we would have just said: look, guys…”
“Also I don’t think we were ready to talk about anything,” Matt interjects. “We didn’t know how things were going to go. We don’t have to explain ourselves, or go: well, we’re trying it out.”
And it worked. “We took a road trip to the city of brotherly love,” says James. “A road trip! And that was the first time we’d spent time together in eight years. Proper time.”
“I keep hearing this this ‘brotherly love’ thing... Why is it called that?” asks Charlie.
Matt looks across, slightly bemused: “That’s just what it’s known as...”
“Know what else it’s known for?” demands Charlie. “Fucking great Philly cheese steaks!”
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What would Busted sound like in 2016? Now we know…
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Working in almost complete privacy, the self-funded sessions allowed Busted complete control – something that contrasts wildly with the closing days of their first chapter. “The thing is, whatever we all feel individually about that time, about the music or the experiences and all that stuff… we had this support from our label where it was just relentless – one thing after the other, one thing after the other,” James recalls. “In a very short space of time a lot of stuff happened.”
“There was no break really between albums. It was like: album, then a single, another single, another single, then an ALBUM, then another single… it didn’t let up! And it got busier and busier and busier to the point where I think we were just losing our minds a bit.”
Matt winces at the thought of it. “You didn’t have a long period of time to adjust to that. It was like (snaps fingers) now you’re really fucking popular! It was crazy.”
“I think the old songs are great pop songs,” Charlie insists. “But I feel like Busted – the brand – was turned into something that we weren’t controlling. The label was turning it into something that I ended up having a big problem with. And it was the way that Busted was dressed up and the way it was being portrayed that I was like… this is just wrong. I understood why people had issues, but some of the things we were doing… and it was one thing after another, one thing after another… I just felt like it turned into this crazy fucking thing.”
“The music business moves so quickly on its own, anyway,” adds James. “One minute something can be huge, the next it can be completely forgotten about. Real artists need to develop on their own time, and they need the support to do that. I think it’s so difficult to find that for them. You can be signed in the fourth quarter and dropped before the first. It’s absolutely mental. I think it’s a shame that there isn’t more support like that for people who want to develop themselves and do it the real way.”
Severing their umbilical cord with Kensington High Street, Busted let ideas pour out of themselves in Philadelphia. Realising that something was actually happening between them, the trio hooked up with John Fields in Los Angeles to focus on some music – except they didn’t actually have any songs written.
Matt starts to laugh at the memory of it all. “I remember on the first day he was like, well what do we got? And we were like… nothing!”
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It’s open season. It’s a blank page.
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“We knew that we didn’t want to make a record that sounded like an extension of ten years ago,” Charlie insists. “We knew that’s the one thing we did not want to do. Otherwise, it’s open season. It’s a blank page: we set up a load of old synthesisers, we had a drum kit set up, and we wrote and recorded at the same time. In unison.”
“We went over to L.A. with no demos and we just made a record. And I think it’s the best thing we ever could have done because it’s made the record sound the way it does, and it’s a really fresh-sounding record.”
John Fields was instrumental in making this all fall into place. Chosen in part for his experience – he’s worked with both Miley Cyrus and Jimmy Eat World, two aspects of Busted’s Venn diagram – the producer also had a close relationship with James Bourne due to the songwriter’s spell in Los Angeles.
“Anyone that can have a lifelong career doing music is probably really awesome,” James says. “He’s one of those people who when you meet him you understand why he’s been able to have such a versatile career in music because he’s the most versatile musician ever.”
“He plays everything! He plays in bands, he makes records… he just lives the music dream. And he fucking loves it. He’ll go in there and he’ll play a song for us – he’ll find some song on YouTube and just love it, every second of it.”
The results aren’t a continuation of where Busted left off – rather, it’s the result of placing these three people in one room and saying ‘what if…?’ New album ‘Night Driver’ has markedly more electronic in tone, at times reminiscent of The 1975 – Alex Metric’s influence even pushes ‘On What You’re On’ towards Daft Punk. “I think it’s amazing to explore things,” says Matt. “It’s good to change it up, try new things… why wouldn’t you? You’re only here for a short space of time, and if you’re a big music fan then branch out and try things.”
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In an odd way, returning to what they know has been a freeing move for each of these musicians. “Writing Busted songs isn’t so much a personal thing,” Matt argues. “When you do a solo record it’s very personal, it’s you expressing your feelings. It’s more introspective.”
“You over-think everything because your name’s on it and it’s supposed to define you as an artist whereas Busted I think is our band and we love it, but then you go home and you’re you. You got to work and you’re Matt from Busted.”
How important was that solo period, then, in helping you adapt and absorb new ideas? He’s quick to reply: “Some things that you think are important when you’re 18 are just not fucking important when you’re 33.”
“Being in a band is not a selfish thing,” James argues. “It’s like a relationship. We’re all on the same boat crossing the ocean, and if the boat sinks we all sink.”
If the new album finds Busted working on a different plane, then perhaps that’s only apt – the pop landscape itself has changed irrevocably. Attitudes have softened, tribal lines have become blurred, with the rock community – which once so reviled Busted – now warming to some of the pop acts who have followed in their wake.
“We never claimed to be a rock band,” Matt argues. “We never came out and said: we are a rock band. But people will always pigeonhole you – they see things in different ways. We never said we were a rock band, we just liked making songs together, and doing that stuff. It was a pop band, really.”
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The lines have been blurred now...
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“The lines have been blurred now,” adds Charlie. “I mean, you can get 5 Seconds Of Summer on the front cover of Rocksound. That never would have happened ten years ago. Now, funnily enough, Busted possibly could have been on those magazines, because 5 Seconds Of Summer are. Back then it was so territorial. And I think that territorial element has come down a bit. And I like that.”
Returning to London the trio walked in to Warner Music and put a CD on the table: this, they said, was the new Busted album. “It’s easy to think ‘oh Busted, they sold millions of records, let’s sign them’ - and then just hoodwink it and see how we get on,” says Charlie. “That’s bullshit. We wanted to take our music to them, and have them buy into it.”
“It’s really good here,” James exclaims. “I like everyone that works on our band now, I think they’re all amazing. And everyone around us, doing stuff for the band, is just so brilliant. They all know what we’re about, and they like the music, and they want to help. They genuinely want to help us.”
So has the industry changed, or have Busted changed? Matt starts to laugh: “When we went to the studio in Philly I remember going up to bed after the first night and I went: well, Charlie’s exactly the same fucking guy he was 12 years ago! Exactly the same guy, we’re talking about exactly the same shit. It’s fun. I don’t feel any different.”
“Your responsibilities change, your perspective has changed. But you as people, you’re still the same dudes.”
James looks over at his band-mate with a rather knowing look: “But the industry? Completely. Completely.”
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'Night Driver' is out now.