In my previous life as a journalism MA student, I was given an assignment to interview an up-and-coming music act. I chose Clean Bandit, partly because I knew their cello player a little from school, mostly because I had a sneaking suspicion they were on their way to hugedom. At the risk of saying “I told you so”, they’re currently no. 1 in the UK charts. The elements that make Rather Be so striking (synths, classical strings, big joyful house choruses, unexpectedly soulful verses, mad and marvellous video) have been in place more or less from the start, but the pop runes have now aligned for them, and deservedly so.
To my shame, I’ve sat on this interview since March 2012. Seems as good a time as any to post it.
Clean Bandit can’t believe they are getting away with it. “I thought there’d be more die-hard classical fans, like, ‘You bastards! How dare you touch Mozart!’” says Jack Patterson, the band’s soft-spoken synthsmith and audiovisual mastermind. “But most of the negative remarks are more like, this is good but the strings sound shit. This would be a good tune if it didn’t have these strings on it.”
The drummer, Jack’s 19-year-old brother Luke, agrees. “Most are just – they don’t get it, but in a good way. It’s like, ‘What is this? Why does it work?”
So – what is this? “Classico-electronical doghouse”, suggests their Facebook page. On their new UK Shanty EP, dance beats and classical strings join grime, folk and trip-hop in the blender. Jack names Squarepusher and Hudson Mohawk among his influences, though he also confesses to a shady teenage past in an industrial metal band called Incestuous Sweat: “All the lyrics were in Latin.”
Clean Bandit began when Jack’s girlfriend, cellist Grace Chatto, asked him to produce some recordings of her string quartet, and he added beats and synths to them. Now, four years after their first gig in Cambridge, the band’s high-concept mashup is teetering on the edge of the mainstream. They have recorded a live Radio 1 session for Huw Stephens, and are being courted assiduously by record labels. “It’s kind of kicking off a bit now,” says Jack, putting it mildly.
As the band’s ambitions have grown, so has their headcount. Clean Bandit have an instrumental core – the Patterson brothers, Grace on cello and Neil Amin-Smith on violin – and an “orbit” of vocalists including folk singer Eliza Shaddad and rapper Jungle VIP.
Singer and MC Sswelafar, who studied at Cambridge with Jack and Grace, has been involved from the start, though he now spends most of his time studying chemical engineering. “He fires lasers into different chemicals,” Jack explains. “I think he’s working on his own blood now.” Sswelafar’s charisma drives Clean Bandit’s first two singles: Mozart’s House, built on samples from the composer’s String Quartet 21 in D major, contains possibly the only rap strung together from Italian musical terms.
The video for Mozart’s House was shot while Jack and Grace were living in Moscow. “We wanted to do some gigs,” says Jack, “but there was this incredible heatwave. All of the promoters had just left the city, and all the clubs had shut down because of the heat. So we made a video instead.” Filmed at a sixth of normal speed and then sped up to exhilarating effect, it scored a UK MVA nomination.
The follow-up, Telephone Banking, raised the stakes again – featuring scores of Japanese schoolchildren, and Neil and Grace playing atop a moving car. Clean Bandit’s videos are more than promotional tools, but they have been instrumental in raising the band’s profile – even picking up an endorsement from Michael Winner. “That’s it,” grins Jack. “Made it.”
The video for UK Shanty, featuring Lily Cole as a mermaid, was developed alongside the song itself. “When it was literally just that opening tune, we thought: wouldn’t it be cool to do a video in the sea, underwater. So the thing was a sea shanty music video, as opposed to an electronic sea shanty and a video for it.”
For all its slick production values, the video shoot came close to disaster. The underwater scenes were shot in a friend’s outdoor pool, which was heated using a pond pump and a cube of radiators welded together around a wood fire. “We had to make sure that water was always going through it,” recalls Jack, “because if the pump stopped, the water would start boiling inside the radiators and could blow the whole thing up.” At one point, one of the crew unplugged the pump by accident. “Suddenly we noticed the whole thing was vibrating. Pretty scary moment.”
Audio, video and Heath Robinson contraptions are all produced at the band’s Kilburn studios, which they share with photographers and fashion designers. The DIY ethic is a large part of Clean Bandit’s charm, and it’s also what has been attracting industry attention. “Record labels these days don’t have time for getting people out of bed,” says Jack. “They’re looking for bands who are ambitious and self-sufficient. I think they see us as good value, because they get a production company and a band all in one.”
For their next trick, Clean Bandit are pondering how to do justice to their sound in a live setting. “We’re working now on a really stripped-down version,” says Jack. “Getting a full string quartet in a club is difficult. All the speakers are pointing in on you, and a cello just acts like a big microphone and the whole thing kind of goes wrong. But we want to make something that is right for clubs. We don’t want to ever close ourselves off to a particular audience.”