Wide-Eyed and Busy as Hell: An Interview with London Grammar

In which we catch up with one of 2013's rookies of the year in Amsterdam.


It’s a cold blustery night in Amsterdam as I race to legendary local nightspot Paradiso to speak to London Grammar. The band - Hannah Reid, Dot Major and Dan Rothman – are the reason that Saturday night tickets to the London Calling festival sold out days ago. The bi-annual weekender is well-known for attracting future musical titans… The Libertines, Blur and Franz Ferdinand - they all cut their teeth at the event before etching their names into the rock ‘n’ roll book of fame.

It’s been an extraordinary year for the art-rock trio. Their debut album If You Wait - a deeply emotive LP that perfectly marries understated electronica to sublime vocals - crashed into the UK charts at #2. As if that’s not enough for a band that released their debut EP in February, they also featured on Disclosure's #1 UK album Settle, and headlined a sell-out homecoming show at Electric Brixton after touring the US.

Their amiable tour manager Sweeney sees me into their dressing room. He’s battling through a bout of food poisoning, but only has positive things to say about the band despite his malaise. Dot arrives next, bleary-eyed (he’s been out at fiery Amsterdam nightclub Trouw the night before) but still impossibly fresh-faced, looking not too dissimilar to Julian Casablancas in his prime  - but more on that below. Twenty minutes later Hannah and Dan arrive. They look even younger in the flesh: beautiful, outgoing, and eager to talk about their debut - one of PMA’s albums of the year. After a brief chat about Amsterdam’s (in)famous Red Light District I switch on my dictaphone and we’re off…

Benji: Well hello London Grammar. Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. We’re massive fans of you over at PMA. As I said before to Dot, we not only think If You Wait is one of the best debut albums of the year, but we think it’s one of the best albums of the year - period. So it’s great to be able to sit down with you and discuss the album in more detail.

Well, first off, we heard you’re big fans of The National – perhaps you can help us settle a long-running debate over at PMA about what is the best track off their last album, Trouble Will Find Me?

Hannah: [without hesitation] ‘I Need My Girl’!

Dan: Is that on the new one? [Hannah confirms it is]. I would say ‘Sea Of Love.' It’s a great album. We played Jules Holland with them on Tuesday and for us it was amazing just getting to meet them. Their dressing room was next to ours so we had a chat with them. They really were great.

Benji: The first time I saw them perform I was surprised by how charismatic their frontman Matt is, considering how introverted and depressingly dark some of the lyrics are to the songs…

Hannah: That’s the thing, when he’s performing he goes absolutely mental! And to speak to, well they are all really, really sweet gentlemen.

Dan: And when Matt’s performing, even when he’s going crazy, he’s also still introverted. It’s great to see. He pulls the mic down to my height even though he is over six feet tall.

Dot: Yeah it’s strange to see. You see a lot of people going nuts at a festival but it was weird to see in the TV studio. It looked really cool though.

Benji: They’re in Amsterdam soon; I can’t wait to see them.

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Benji: Getting on to your album, there’s some really interesting interplay between the vocals and the instrumentation. The way that you craft space is brought up a lot. How did it work when you were writing the LP, given that there are three of you, and you all have a different part to play? Can you talk us through how you bring things together during the song-writing process?

Hannah: Well first off, thank-you. We basically write our own parts and play around with it. Dot might, for example, write a piano piece and have some production ideas for a track, and then we combine that with Dan’s guitars, and then I will add my vocal part over it.

Dan: Yeah it tends to happen in different ways. And sometimes things can just come from a jam. We wrote a lot of it just from setting up in my garage in Hendon and going from there, and then adding production later.

Benji: You had a raft of heavy-hitters who were involved in producing and mastering the album - Tom Coyne, Tim Bran, Roy Kerr – they are all listed as being involved at some stage … Dot, you’re also listed as producer – how much of the band’s direct influence are we hearing on the final product?

Dot: What was good about the guys we ended up working with is that they really did allow us to do our own thing. They helped fill in certain areas but the longer we worked on it the more confident we became with our own work. We also revisited a lot of tracks in the run-up to the album coming out. ‘Strong’ for example, it didn’t sound right for a long time, but once we’d figured out the right aesthetics for ‘Hey Now’ then we went back to earlier tracks and used what we’d learned, to make things aesthetically similar.

Benji: Well the final product sounds great. In terms of the themes that are represented on the album, the lyrics touch on heartbreak, loneliness, anguish – they’re intensely melancholic at times. What are the key themes you wanted to signify on the album… and, given how young you all are, what experiences did they come from?

Hannah: [pauses for quite a while as if she’s thinking about it deeply]. I… I don’t know. There are some songs that are about heartbreak in a traditional sense, in terms of the end of a relationship and the heartbreak that comes with that ending. And then there’s the general heartbreak that comes with youth, in not understanding, in the human condition. [laughs ] I always feel really lame saying that…

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Benji: Ok then let’s move away from the melancholic stuff for a minute! Dot, how often do you get told that you look like Julian Casablancas?

Dot: From The Strokes? I’ve actually never heard that!

Hannah: I don’t see that!

Dan: I see that. You have so many lookalikes though! The main ones are Harry Styles, Frankie Cocozza, there’s Farris from The Horrors. There’s obviously a recurring theme with the hair. I think - with glasses on - Dot’s biggest lookalike is Sam Duckworth from Get Cape Wear Cape Fly!

Benji: My friend came down to see you guys in Chicago and he agreed with me; he thought you looked like Julian Casablancas - but with crazier hair…

Dan: Julian Casablancas. You should take that. He’s fucking cool!

Benji: Ok well back to the melancholy… You have these deep plaintive moments on the album. Are you melancholic people in day-to-day life?

Dan: [laughs] How do we come across now?

Benji: Not like that at all! Very upbeat…

Hannah: I think it’s kind of like we were talking about with The National. I would say that their lyrics are much darker than ours, but you meet Matt and he looks like the most pleasant and content man you could see. I think I’d put it down to me being a deep thinker and wanting to explore that side of things that are on my mind.

Dan: Also, when we were writing the record… we were in a much darker frame of mind. We were going through various pressures, some of which specifically impacted Hannah in terms of her lyricism. And Hannah’s voice projects a certain melancholy. So when Dot and I saw that in her voice and her lyrics we just went with that in terms of the music, and we really liked the direction the sound took, and the effect it had on people.

Benji: When you say “the effect it had on people”… Your music does elicit a very strong emotional response when people listen to it. The first time I heard the line in ‘Wasting My Young Years’ that says “I heard it takes some time to get things right”, it really resonated with me. It’s so often a thought process that people – young and old - use to justify staying in a relationship that is not working. And that line captures that perfectly. Are you deliberately trying to provoke an emotional response with people?

Hannah: It’s never deliberate. When we were writing the album we couldn’t imagine how it would make people feel. Especially with the lyrics, they just came out – almost like a stream of consciousness at times. So the deliberate intent was never there, it’s just now we see people and they tell us these songs have really had an impact on them.


Benji: Thinking about the future… I believe you’ve been booked to play Isle of Wight 2014?

Dan: [laughs] Have we? I went to that festival when I was younger, it’s a cool festival. I’d love to play there… But I’m not certain if we’ve been booked to play there yet. I think it was on a list of suggested festivals but nothing’s been set in stone yet.

Benji: Well what can we expect from you guys for the rest of the year and then in 2014?

Hannah: Sounds like we need to find out! Things get booked in and we don’t find out immediately.

Dan: We’re going to Australia at the end of the year. We’ll be touring Europe after this gig tonight. We’ll be doing a UK tour, then we have another American tour, then I think we head back to Europe. It’s pretty crazy. We’ll definitely be doing some festivals next year and hopefully we will get a chance to write some new music too.

Benji: Great! So we will see some new music at some point?

Hannah: We have a 4 week window to write some music so yes, hopefully.

Benji: You’re constantly on the road at the moment, and 2013 has such a great year for music. Are there any bands you can recommend to our readers to check out, besides The National…!

Dot: We do get to listen to other stuff. I love the Jon Hopkins album [John Hopkins: Immunity]. It’s really good.

Dan: We’ve just been given an album by John Wizards [John Wizards:John Wizards] which we’re liking at the moment.

Benji: Ok I hope you’re not tired of talking about this…You had what’s being called “the snub” for the Mercury Award. What did you think about that given that your album has been so critically acclaimed? Was there any annoyance?

Hannah: Well I think we actually submitted the album on the last day so there was only ever a longshot that we would have been in with a means to get on the list. We were disappointed, but not annoyed.

Dan: The media played it up a lot! We were made favourites to win it before we’d even been nominated, which is crazy. It’s unbelievable really that we’ve probably had more press from being apparently favourites to win and then not being nominated, than we would if we had just actually won it!

Dot: The main article on BBC News mentioning James Blake winning even mentioned us not getting nominated. That’s crazy.

We’re interrupted then – the band needs to prepare for the live show. We say our goodbyes and, after securing a promise from the band to create a mix of a track for PMA (watch this space!), I leave them to get ready for their performance.

They play a short but emotive set at Paradiso, and it’s a testament to the hypnotic power of Hannah’s otherworldly vocals that she transfixes the crowd despite problematic issues with the venue’s sound. I shouldn’t be surprised, of course – it’s just another incredible chapter in the ever-impressive narrative arc of the London Grammar story.

London Grammar released "Nightcall" – the latest single from their debut album If You Wait – earlier this week. Here is the video: