While playing Chicago’s Lollapooloza during the Born Under Saturn tour cycle, Django Django drummer and producer Dave McLean gazed upwards to the sky, his bandmates soon followed suit. A crystallised, swirling red was sweeping across the sky, hanging brightly as the warm winds gently blew around the Great Lakes region beneath. McLean took note, scribbling down ‘Marble Skies’ as a potential album name. “We always try to have a name or piece of artwork that we work to, we put it up in the studio,” says lead-singer Vincent Neff, a Derry native. “It’s like a zeitgeist thing for us to help spur a collection of songs together.”
The unassuming Neff, along with the multi-talented McLean, synth-player Tommy Grace and bass-savant Jimmy Dixon, pierced through the indie-blogosphere into the mainstream after the release of their excellent eponymous debut album which saw them become critic darlings, earning a 2012 Mercury Prize nomination and countless plaudits for defying immediate sonic understanding.
The wilder, uninhibited ambitions of their polyrhythmic, genre-hopping debut were tapped into again with Marble Skies, this involved an element of reigning back control after an admittedly bloated sophomore release in Born Under Saturn. Speaking of the album’s recording process, where they reverted back to a dusty, North London studio, Neff muses “We had a co-producer in a big studio and there was a big desk,” emphasising the size of the desk ruefully. “Sometimes it’s a barrier to get in and make changes, at least when we are working in our own studio…really, we can do what we want when we want.”
Financial pressures and perceived creative shackles burdened the band, unsettling Neff in particular. “Obviously, the money pressure of being in a big studio isn’t really conducive to being very creative because you’ve got this thing sitting on your shoulder. There’s x amount of money going out of your account everyday hiring this place and all of these people.”
Brimming with soaring, magnetising hooks and luscious melodies, Neff says, Marble Skies is their most complete album thus far, and it’s hard to disagree. After tracks like ‘Default’ and ‘Hail Bop’ charted and became ubiquitous in 2012 indie-kid playlists, a pressure to reproduce hits was unduly felt. Preoccupied by nothing but their own creative whims and a hands-on approach to their craft, they buckled down and forced themselves into putting together a double-gatefold vinyl – five tracks on each side – which he says focused their attentions firmly.
“We thought on the second album that were was quite a lot of pressure, ‘oh, we need to write hits’ or tracks that have traction like ‘Default’. If you start out like that, you always fail. We’ve learned to relax and just write songs and to not worry if they’re big or not. It’s when you relax and don’t aim to make songs that are kooky or have a slight earworm to them that something happens. How do you create great music?” he asks rhetorically. Coy, with a hint of irony, he continues, “You can’t format great music. If it happens, it happens: it’s up to the gods, really.”
An outlier of the late-2000’s London guitar scene when they formed, polyphonic outcasts, cartoonish psych-billies, the group seceded from all trendy cultural cross-sections – grunge revivalists, bedroom-pop auteurs, a post-punk renaissance – to create a zany, Django Django cosmic radio channel. Inspired by nature, Marble Skies is stormy atmospherics peering through the balmy, summer sunshine. Therein, lie a deluge of references to climactic contradictions; air, heat, water, the ocean. The sun-bleached synths, grooves and harmonies proposition you.
‘Champagne’, Neff chirps, is a song with a dead-end town air to it. “If you ever get locked in Phoenix Park or something, and they lock the gates and you get this panic – nature is gonna get ya even though there is nothing to fear – city dwellers almost have a fear of nature.”
‘Surface To Air’ is the new album’s most immediately arresting cut, a sliver of sun-drenched electro-dancehall that has one classic Django Django component missing: Vincent Neff. Vocalised entirely by Rebecca Taylor of Slow Club, the decision lends itself to a “happy accident”, a deep appreciation of form changing, and an acute understanding of the live set. Name-checking Massive Attack and Primal Scream’s Screamadelica for their unconfined fluidity, Neff, along with his fellow Djangos, felt Rebecca’s presence was more suited to the track. “We were all in the studio, including Rebecca, and I recorded the vocals and it was fine,” he says. Open to fresh ideas and entirely comfortable with hearing a Neff-free Django Django song, he points instead to the vitality such musical endeavours can provide in a live-setting. “She’s gonna play live with us and stuff, it’s all about making moments in a set that people will remember.”
Neff recalls such instances of live experimentation with glee. He tells a story of how McLean would sometimes leave his drum-kit aside and, without warning, pull out a mic’d up cardboard box while everyone else would come off of the synths and play acoustically. “Having these memorable little moments is important from a viewer’s point of view when they go to see a band. We’re always conscious of the live set.”
Innovation – whether it’s dub-reggae rhythms on a psych track, funky disco basslines on a Beach Boys type surf-rock beat – is where Django Django pride themselves and their cut-and-paste mentalities. They interpolate a 70’s Jan Hammer piano riff in the gorgeous jazz-fusion ‘Sundials’ and punctuate ‘Surface to Air’ with dancehall classic Bookshelf Riddim. “Its cool drawing from origins and making music with that method and bring something new to the table,” continuing, “as long as you credit people and invariably pay them.”
When tasked with superficially dissecting the creeping prevalence of intellectual property disputes in music, most recently Radiohead and Lana Del Rey, Neff’s response is typical of Django Django’s output, self-effacing and sincere. “Sometimes you hear something and you think ‘that’s close to the bone’, I would hope that people come from a place that they didn’t know. Advertising companies taking people’s stuff too, I’ve heard a friend’s track on an ad and while it’s slightly different to his, it’s quite cheeky.”
Neff, forced to move back-and-forth between Donegal and Derry as a child during the Troubles, is, perhaps, unsurprisingly blase about fashionably “woke” and politically charged lyrics, instead savouring music as a tool of detachment, or escapism. Preferring relatability to polemics or unnuanced rattlings, Neff says a pressure does exist in 2018 to politically underscore art, but that Django Django are not that band. “If someone just starts banging on about Donald Trump in a song, I’m gone. I grew up in Derry, where the Undertones are from, and in a time when all this shit was going down, they wrote about chocolate and girls,” he says, before pausing momentarily.
“Yeah, all of this shit is going down around them but there’s still hope: you can still look at a beautiful sky and you can still enjoy a perfect landscape, even if there is a lot of crap going on.” Endless plummeting into readily available negativity no longer garner Neff’s eyes or ears, “I don’t look at the news anymore,” he chuckles, “I’m sick of it.”
With tours abound, TV appearances scheduled and the album released, the band look with fervour to the future. Collective Django whispers, he says, point towards the potential of a stripped-back LP, either skeletal live instrumentation or a straight electronic album, with no guitars. A sonic direction is never consciously predetermined, however, they prefer to let songwriting and organically sprung ideas dictate a record’s roots. “We’re always striving to move on from the last thing we’ve done. If we go to make an electronic album and someone comes with a great guitar track,” Neff says laughing, “we try to lead with the tracks.”
“We will never try to do a straight rockabilly or dancehall track, we always to try to modernise it and bring it back to somewhere within ourselves.”