Behind every bad pun lies a degree of truth and when we said that Athlete are the sort of band that, wait for it, are in it for the long run there was a sense that like Parlaphone labelmates Idlewild they'd be a band that 10 years from their original carnation could be relied on to still provide the goods. Their first album "Vehicles & Animals" was the distillation of the quirky leftfield beeps and blips of the Beta Band mixed with the pop sensibilities of Blur. Their latest album "Tourist", preceded by the slow burning anthem "Wires", is an album which has seen frontman Joel Pott's take over Athlete in a coupe de tete. It's an album which in many ways is of the zeitgeist, but like fellow balladeers Embrace they look set to shift the public perception of who the band are with the next album. In an interview with Alex McCann, Potts reveals the third album is set to drop the ballads and bring in beats and electronica flourishes on their next release.
Q: We meet a couple of months after "Wires" was first released and now looking back at it you realize how much the song has really connected with people. Was it a surprise?
A: On that scale, yeah. Back in October when we were deciding the first single we were umm-ing and ahh-ing as to whether we should put it out. I think we all knew there was something special about the song, but the thought was that maybe it was a bit too risky as the first single. It's maybe not so obvious as the radio friendly hit. All the other singles we'd had previously had been the instant radio hits, but as you said this song has really connected with people
Q: The song was really personal to you, based around your newborn child being critically ill in hospital, and then it appears on the credits to Match Of The Day. It's pretty surreal isn't it?
A: I think a lot of people write songs that are pretty personal, but the actual words are much more universal that the original meaning behind it. For me obviously it means something, but when I sing it now it means I've got a great 2 year old daughter and that's what I think of. Whereas for other people they've all experienced losing or nearly losing something or someone that they really love.
Q: What happened though with the illness of your child and the life changing experience that happens anyway when you have a child. Was that what inspired this more mature and personal direction with "Tourist"?
A: I think so. We really just naturally came out with "Wires" and "Tourist" and they were more personal songs than the last album. We just felt this was a really positive thing and if there was one thing we wanted to develop from the last album was lyrically being able to move on. Whereas on the last album it was all four of us writing lyrics, this time I was like "I've got to sing this so if everyone else is writing lyrics I'm gonna have to take this away and that away to apply it to what i'm doing". I've taken a bit more of lead this time, which is a positive thing.
Q: "Tourist" does seem like more of a songwriter's album than the debut which you could tell was four of you jamming in the studio together
A: That's really good because the first album it really was the four of us in the studio. Carey would be there for hours trying out another bass line before we went "that's the one". And it would be all of us trying out every little line together. This time we've just given each other more space. Now I'll write a full song, I'll bring it in and we'll work on it together.
The great thing with new technology is you can transfer information really quickly. I'd end up recording something and Carey would take the song home on his I-Pod and work on a few ideas. So the next time we met he'd be able to come back with 4 or 5 different ideas and we'd be able to see pretty quickly what was going to work.
Q: In the process the rest of the band had to relinquish a certain amount of control. I'd imagine they weren't that happy about it
A: I think you can discover your freedom more individually. Tim's written a lot more on this album and for him he's had the freedom to come up with the main chord progressions. He'll come up with the main idea of a song and I'd go round to his house and sing the lyrics over them. And for Steve as well, he's been able to concentrate on his own, working on the beats and stuff like that. He's been really exploring the electronica side of things and that is something we want to develop on more in the future. I think now we've recognized each other more as individuals and recognizing what we're all good at.
Q: I remember the first interview we did with Tim and Carey prior to the release of "Vehicles And Animals" and they were saying the primary influences were Granddaddy and more beats based artists. Looking at you now as band, you can't even relate those influences
A: I think there's lot of influences flying around, but like you said we're very songwriter based now. With every song we felt we had to let it breathe in the way it should, not try and clutter it up and make it something that it's not. We are a different band on this record. We get on a lot better than now we did on "Vehicles And Animals". When you're all in on everything, there's more tension. I think we understand each other a bit more and touring around with the last album that did pretty well, we've all grown in confidence.
Q: 90% of the reviews I read have compared you to Coldplay. Does it feel strange that the comparisons are coming with this second album, whereas the debut got very few comparisons at all?
A: When I listen to both albums they both sound like Athlete, but I think people always have to draw a comparison. They tried on the last album and that was a really quirky pop record that was difficult to put into a box. Maybe this album there are some songs that are piano based and the easiest comparison with that is Coldplay. At the end of the day if they mean it as a compliment that's great; and if we're half as successful as them then...
Q: You only have to look at your own message board to see there is a very definite split between old fans and new
A: Yeah, definitely. I like that yer know cos I'm really proud of the first album. In a way I want the fans to be split. The bands that I'm really into, The Flaming Lips for example, have different fans that are into different albums. I want that. I want Athlete to be a band that people really don't know what to expect on the next album. Bands need to evolve otherwise it just gets boring. We had a period of about 2 weeks where we got a bit paranoid and started writing a load of songs that sounded like a cross between "You've Got The Style" and "Wires" and it was just really contrived. It was total bollocks and we just looked at each other and thought this isn't where we're at, at the moment.
Q: The previous time I'd seen you guys was October 2003 on the back of the Festival circuit and it really struck me the reaction and love the fans gave back. They'd literally sing every single line of every single B-side and album track you played that night. Now you've got that love coming back and you don't have to win over a crowd, do you ever look back on that first tour with Minuteman and, ahem, The Crescent?
A: I still remember those days and they were difficult, just playing to a crowd of people with their arms folded. We're having to do a bit of that again now when we go to new countries. In those early days we'd play with bands and they'd just split up, like we had some David Bowie-esque curse...in some cases it was deserved like the Crescent, but then there were good bands like Mansun.
Q: The mainstream music scene is very much in two camps. The likes of the Killers and The Bravery on one side and bands like Embrace and Snow Patrol in the other corner
A: At the end of the day what all those bands have in common, whether they're seen as cool or not by the music press, is they all have great songs. If you look behind the Bravery's haircuts and clothes they still have really good songs...whereas there have been other bands where there has been nothing behind the clothes. I think it is a really good time for music as the moment because even the bands that are getting over hyped at least deserve the attention.
Q: It's international with guitar bands taking over. Would you say that what's happening now is bigger than Britpop in a way?
A: I think it is because it's not a particular scene. You've got 80s thing going on, but it's not like everybody's signing those bands. I just think there's a lot of good bands out there that warrant being around and warrant selling a lot of records. In Britpop there were a few bands at the forefront who deserved the success they got, but then there were shit loads of rubbish bands that got signed off the back of it. That was the problem
Q: And back to Athlete. Are you writing for the 3rd album at the moment?
A: We're always writing. I think you have to. We can't really focus on it at the moment, but I think what's always been important to us as a band has been tunes. We want to try out some more riff based stuff and we're really encouraging Tim and Steve to develop that electronica side of things. I'm really liking the 80s side of things that's happening at the moment and you can't help but be influenced by that a little bit.
Q: "Vehicles and Animals" and "Tourist" are both mid tempo albums in the main. Will Athlete ever release an uptempo album?
A: Possibly. Of the first 3 or 4 songs I've written for the new album, one of them is really really uptempo. And the other ones are so mellow they probably wouldn't even make it onto the album. It's probably something we'd actually release under a different name and that's something I want to do, just a really low-key 7" electronica single.
Q: We've got to go now. Anything else you want to tell us?
A: We've been really trying to do a cover version as a band, but it never works out. What would be cover? Madonna's "Lucky Star"
Words: Alex McCann
Photos: Shirlaine Forrest www.shirlainephotos.co.uk
Athlete release "Half Light" on 25th April
The band play a short tour in April before playing Glastonbury and V Festival
They also support U2 in Manchester and Twickenham this Summer
For more information
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