Mixing live strings with electronic beats has been done before, but never on the scale of Clean Bandit. The group met studying at University while playing in a string quartet and got the idea to remix their recordings with electronic music and add lyrics. Their fresh and unique sound gained critical acclaim and their crowd grew with each release, as well as their festival performances. Released in the UK in January, their breakthrough single “Rather Be” topped the pop chart for four weeks and has made the top 10 all over the world. Their recently released and brilliant debut album New Eyes features a wide variety of vocalists, including Noonie Bao, Stylo G, Eliza Shaddad, Jess Glynne and Javeon McCarthy.
RS: In interviews you are always asked how y’all met and what your name means, but I am wondering what the logo with the square, diamond, circle and triangle means?
Neil Amin-Smith: Originally the band started out with four string players and now it is just Grace and I. Jack drew those four shapes as a plan to represent the four different stringed instruments that we wanted to make with those colors and those shapes. Obviously they are not conventional instruments, but Grace’s dad is a cello maker so we were hoping that he was going to make them for us - but it never materialized and we just liked the look and the configuration of them.
RS: You do a lot of your own design with the videos and everything, how does that go along with the music or how does the video fit the song?
Neil: The earlier videos that we made had a lot more interaction between the song and the video. For example, we have a song called “UK Shanty” with a singer called Eliza Shaddad, and in many ways we made that song as a soundtrack for the video, the song wasn’t finished when we started making the video. The video is sea-themed with a mermaid in it, and the song was given that kind of shanty flavor in order to sound like the video. Obviously with the pressures of turning things out and having to make an album for the record label, it is not always possible to have the video and track integrated. Recently our videos have been made after the song and we are still making them ourselves.
RS: I have noticed that there is a common theme of animals - like the pig in “Extraordinary,” the horses, birds, and dogs in “Come Out,” the fish in “Rather Be.” Are y’all animal lovers or big into animal rights or is there a story with that as well?
Neil: I don’t think that we are necessarily animal lovers but we all see the beauty in animals, for example in “Come Over” with the horse galloping in slow motion. With the pig in “Extraordinary” it is just by chance, we were in a field and there was a tiny, cute pig and so we just decided to use it. So a lot of times the animal stuff just comes by chance and we just happen to be inspired when we see one that happens to be in the way of our shot.
RS: How many times did it take to get the shot of Stylo G rapping on the horse in the “Come Over” video?
Neil: He had actually never been on a horse before so we had to send him for riding lessons in London before that shot. I can’t pretend that he was an accomplished rider by the end of it.
RS: Going to your music, how do you define a “baroque sonic approach?”
Neil: We never had an agenda to combine classic baroque and electronic music, but that was what we were doing. Grace and I were playing a little classical music and Jack was beginning to experiment with electronic sounds and so I guess it came from the desire of the three of us to play together. Jack had some recordings of Grace and I playing, so he started messing around with it and it kind of grew from that. It was never a conscious decision to combine the two.
RS: When you are making a song does it start with the beat or the strings that you play?
Neil: I think that the earlier tracks started from the strings and were based around the strings but now we have started our songs with the beat that Jack writes. The strings are almost adornments rather than the bedrock of the track.
RS: The album is quite diverse with the sound, how did y’all decide which style each track would be?
Neil: To a large extent that was kind of pushed by the vocalists that we worked with on the tracks. They are all so different- like the massive soul voices like Jess Glynne on “Rather Be” and Stylo G on “Come Over,” who is a Jamaican rapper, and then there was a much softer and an introverted approach with Eliza Shaddad for “Birch.” So a lot of that came from their influences and we did what felt appropriate and fitting.
RS: When you performed on the Today Show I recognized one of the singers as Elisabeth Troy. With each song there is a different singer, how are you handling the vocals for your live performances?
Neil: We have singers who tour with us; one of them is Elizabeth Troy who is on the album and Florence Rawlings who isn’t. Between them they are both really talented and they can cover most of it and we try and get some of the people on the album to as many shows as possible. If we are playing at the same festival as them we try and get them involved. We have performed with Stylo quite a few times and also with Rae Morris and Jess Glynne.
RS: When you do a show do people ever wonder why the Asian girl from the video isn’t singing with you?
Neil: Yeah, we are still trying to conquer the idea that she is Clean Bandit. Grace just Googled 'Japanese actress in London' and Haruka was the first result and she was amazing and actually ended up working as a translator and as the star of the video.
RS: When you were putting together the album and making your songs did you have any idea that “Rather Be” would become so massive?
Neil: I don’t think that we would have ever predicted the way that it has gone. We actually had the track finished by the beginning of last summer but hadn’t recorded it. We played it at all the festivals last summer and it really did well, and the audience reacted to it even though they had never heard of it. They were singing along by the final chorus and took to it more than some of the tracks that were already out. It was a sign that we had something a bit different on our end.
RS: With your music, you are kind of being put into the Nu-House category along with bands like Disclosure - how do you feel about that?
Neil: We actually did a concert with Disclosure about a year and half ago. There are a lot of really great and audience-friendly vocals and a lot of vocal-heavy and melodic stuff being made by a lot of dance groups in the UK. It is great for us to be part of that world with people like Disclosure and Duke Dumont.
RS: What is your take on all the club remixes? Do you have a favorite?
Neil: There is one by Gorgon City of “Nightingale” and it is a huge, heavy house banger and we have incorporated the drop of that into our live show, which is fun. The Magician remix of “Rather Be” is lovely and can pass into a club set without making it too obvious. I often play that one in my DJ sets.
RS: How did you meet up with Gorgon City for the “Intentions” song?
Neil: We were both signed to Black Butter and they were new to the UK. We released an EP of “Nightingale” and they put us together. Nikki did the vocal on that and then Grace and I played some strings for them and spent a day in the studio messing around and that is what came out.
RS: You just mentioned that you DJ, do you DJ as part of your live sets or is that separate from it?
Neil: No, separate from it, but I DJ as Clean Bandit.
RS: When you DJ, how much of the set that you play is your music versus other peoples’ music?
Neil: Actually it is increasingly more and more Clean Bandit. When I used to DJ no one knew who Clean Bandit was anyways and there was no pressure. Now a lot of people know “Rather Be” and some of the other tracks, so it is definitely a requirement to play more Clean Bandit. It’s great, I love to play our songs out and it’s fun to see them being played in a club atmosphere.
RS: After the Stylo G single, is there any chance that “Heart on Fire” will come next?
Neil: Yeah, I guess there are a few songs on there that might. We are actually working on new material, but I think that there is a lot on the album to be mined.
RS: Talking about new material; what kind of direction are you going with it?
Neil: It’s hard to tell, the track that we are working on right now has quite a housey feel to it and it’s more housey than “Rather Be” and “Extraordinary.”
RS: You have worked with some amazing singers, are there any singers that you would like to work with that you have not been able to yet?
Neil: We have all really wanted to do something with Drake for a long time, and I would like to do something with Janelle Monae as well.
RS: What would you like to say to all of your fans out there?Interview conducted July 2014.
Neil: Thank you. The past six months have been completely unexpected and mad for us and it’s been such an amazing pleasure to play where we get to.