The Ting Tings' multi-platinum debut, We Started Nothing, offered catchy, frenetic pop ditties that proved fun for club freak-outs, cross-training and everything in between. Jules de Martino and Katie White became overnight sensations thanks in equal measure to their sound and the ethos behind it. In almost every interview, the Manchester-based duo eschewed popularity and commercialism in favour of art and creativity. In kind, their live shows proved a real Breakfast Club of champions, with the art-school chic bouncing alongside power-poppers, DIY post-punks and second gen emo-lites.
So, could de Martino and White make lightning strike twice with their long-awaited follow-up, Sounds from Nowheresville? In short, not yet. The record dropped about six weeks ago, and though it might not be what the industry or Ting Tings' fans expected, de Martino says it's exactly what he and White envisioned when, halfway through the recording process, they deleted six songs the label loved, fled the country and started fresh. Pretentious, self-destructive snots or idealistic, uncompromising artists? You be the judge.
You were on Pink's Funhouse tour, which seems very focused on spectacle, whereas you and Katie seem quite focused on music. Did that influence how your thoughts about how to approach this record?
Jules de Martino: Well, the reason why we did the Pink tour ― even though we love pop music, we're a real DIY indie outfit. There are just two of us and we play everything on stage ourselves and write and record all our own songs ourselves in the studio. Doing something like the Pink tour where an artist like Pink ― who is probably completely different in terms of the way she sets up her career... like she writes with a lot of writers, works with a lot of producers, on stage with a lot of musicians ― it's the complete opposite way to work. A lot of people who know the Ting Tings know that we love a challenge, and doing something we wouldn't normally do, and going out on that tour, seeing a massive production, working in arenas everyday, I mean it was an experience. I don't think it was how we would like to put our show together, but it was such a great experience to do it.
It's definitely a different scene for you guys.
After the third or fourth show, we knew if we were ever going to put on big, big tours, what we wouldn't do and what we would do. In fact, it's kind of interesting you ask that question, because we obviously felt after the first album was so successful, we felt quite pressured in terms of our record company and management expecting this band could be this big pop phenomenon. And the problem is with the pop music is that a lot of celebrity is born out of being out, showing your face, selling out, branding and it's one of the sides of this industry that I think bores us the most. As far as being creative, writing songs, playing live and finding ways to play it live, and interacting with the audience on the internet, the actual red carpet stuff is really frustrating. We don't have a lot of friends in the industry because the parties just aren't that fun. We kind of steer clear of that a lot and I think with this record, we realized after some of those experiences ― the red carpets, the Pink tour ― could be great fun, but they meant we couldn't be so creative musically because there's a definite margin between running your life as a celebrity and writing the songs you want to write. In that celebrity mode, you have to write songs that are for radio and we just found that really difficult. I studied fine art, Katie did fashion, we just really wanted to go in the studio and make a record we wanted to make. When we started the second album, the whole thing was very similar, just obviously it blew up. We wanted to make sure we toured all the great clubs we loved touring, like we've been doing, the best venues in the world and we just missed it so much playing festivals every night. We really missed having that control. We've been on tour for four weeks now in the U.S., and we've already become an amazing act... [With stadium shows] you don't actually become that much better a band, but in these clubs, my God, it's just been an amazing trip.
When you were touring with We Started Nothing, you were on the road a lot and you hit a wall pretty hard at the end of 2009. Did that influence how you began writing Nowheresville?
Yeah, I do think we're quite an organic band. Anything we write has to be real ― ah, that sounds weird, but it's very difficult for us to sit down in a studio and be like, "Let's write a song! You go on piano, I'll go on guitar." It doesn't work like that with us. We have to be spontaneous, we have to be influenced. Just like when I was in college doing fine art, you can't think, "Oh, I have to paint a picture." Where I studied, you aren't tested by having to paint a picture in 25 minutes, It's not that kind of degree. The whole concept of studying fine art was finding out about artists and styles and fabrics and textures and formats and experimenting with them. Your grade is basically determined over the course of the year or two, depending on what you're doing, your commitment to art, your portfolio. And Katie's very much the same. Neither of us can actually wake up in the morning and say, "Okay, we need to get to work." We're blessed. As much as this is really finicky, hard work, being on tour, it takes its toll, we don't treat it like a job. If we did, we couldn't be creative. Each day something drives us to write a new song, to play the guitar differently and to try something new with the audience that night and to want people to feel that energy. If we don't have that when we perform or when we write, than we can't write. Our tour manager says to us each day, "You're the weirdest band I ever worked with. You get so much done and yet you don't have a schedule!" We don't have a piece of paper up on the wall telling us where we need to be. Imagine as artists that you had ten notes that you have be here, you have to be here, you'd never write! You'd never feel the freedom to be creative! So as much as we do interviews and stuff like that, phoners, that's great. If I'm writing a song and have to put the guitar down, that's great, you're going to get a better interview out of me and Katie than if we're sitting at a table with 20 phoners, one after the back of each other.
Obviously everyone asks about scrapping six of the ten original recordings. Did you feel that was about crafting something more creatively true to you guys or were in a bit of self destructive phase?
Umm, I don't know. At the time we were getting a bit frustrated about the position that we found ourselves in. People have to appreciate that the first record was ― once you sell a couple million albums and you have so many singles and we toured for two years with audiences going crazy ― the problem is that your record company and everyone you work with multiplies. It's no longer just us two in the studio. Suddenly you have 25 people who seem to know you better than you do. (Laughs) It's just part of the process and we love and adore a lot of the people we work with, but unfortunately, it's really hard to tell people, "This is what we do and this is the way we do it. We don't need limousines. I've got my own studio with Katie. This is the way we work. It's shambles and it's chaotic and it's crazy, but this is the way we work. I'm sorry to say, but no." And they don't like that. Nobody likes being told, "No."
We left the U.K. because we couldn't deal with explaining to people what kind of record we were making. We just couldn't. We shouldn't have to explain the record. Why do we have to tell anybody what song we're recording today? It was just bizarre. We never did that with the first record. We just wanted to create music and we wanted to do that again. When we went to Berlin, it was the first real move we made to, well, I wouldn't say escape, but to get some distance. We couldn't stay in Manchester anymore because things had changed and that's really sad, but when we got to Berlin, we felt free and liberated. There were still record companies and management at your heels and flying in and taking you to dinner and loving you, and again, they're beautiful and lovely people, but at the end of the day it's about finances and selling records for them and nothing else. Nothing else counts. And for us it's about being creative. There's a slight difference between selling records and being creative. If we can sell records because we've been creative, then that's an amazing situation. If we're selling records without being creative, then we're in a problem zone and that is we're doing music we don't want to do. The tour's finished, the band's finished, our career's over even with hits. It means we're going to start arguing and doing songs we can't perform live because they've been produced in a studio with writers and producers that just have a hit, so we had to get over that stumbling block. The only only way we could do that was the way we work. We listened to the songs that we had and everyone was going crazy, like they'll be our biggest hits for radio and everyone's going to love them because it's, like, dance music that everyone is going crazy about. We just laughed. We looked at each other and said, "It's not what we do." We're just not into having to make music in this way, so we erased it. That's what we do. When we make decisions like that about pressing the button, that's me and Katie at our best. We can live and die by the sword and we're not ashamed or frightened at all. We're on the bus going across the States, we have luxuries, but it's chaotic and we rock every night and that's how we like it.
It's exactly what happened on the album. We looked at each other and we were like, "What are we worried about? Let's just get rid of it." This is music that we don't love and that's all that matters. That's got to be the most important thing. So, when we pushed the button, they were gone. We didn't save them on another disc, we didn't have them in our back pockets or put them under the carpet, they're gone and it means we have no baggage to carry around. We're free. At that point, the label and everybody were very worried because they'd lost what was selling, I don't know, and we had this idea: write a record that is different because we wanted to surprise ourselves. We wanted to write a record that represented how we're listening to music, which is our MP3 player, because touring I can't carry around my records. I didn't want to be nostalgic about one form of music, with everybody saying, "You're the new punk band of the bloody decade." I didn't want to be told I was a punk band. Whatever band I've listened to in the past, punk or whatever, I adore it, but I didn't want to be subject to being one band. Me and Katie both felt doing music to wear a certain style of clothing in particular, what we feel is music today ― I mean, we go around the world and people dress in certain fashions or styles, but listen to music that is completely opposite to what they look like. That's what I feel music's become. There are people that look like punks but listen to boy-band music. We meet them every day, we think that's fascinating. People that download music that doesn't actually correspond to what they wear anymore. People are mixing up fashion in such a random way, it's hard to know what they listen to or what they're into. I think that's amazing. And we wanted to make an album that wasn't just confusing for confusing's sake, but actually said, "This is the decade you can do anything you want."
And there are such massive shifts on Nowheresville; it takes me to so many different places.
That's the objective. The objective is that you're allowed to. We go on stage every night and are having these great, great shows. I know why we're having these great shows. On the first record, we did exactly what we wanted because there was nothing else to do. Now we have options, but did exactly what we wanted and we're having a great time. That will win. If people listen to music and they're not swayed by press saying, "It doesn't sound like the music on the radio, it doesn't sound like Ting Tings' first album," if you can move beyond that and go, "Well, I'm not really looking to follow anything, I'm looking for a piece of music I actually enjoy, I want to have this record and play track eight or nine, I want to be surprised," then we are the band you need to listen to. If you need to read the papers and see what's current and you need to be involved in the new fashion, then this is not the band to follow. We've always said this. Everyone thinks we mean to be a really cool band, but we're not cool. We don't try to be cool. We don't follow anything. We're not massive music fans. We love art. I have a massive record collection, but I don't profess to be the biggest Led Zeppelin ― well, I have three of their records, sure ― but if I was to go on air and say Led Zeppelin were my favourite band, that would be lying out loud. I like Michael Jackson just as much.
One of things I was struck by is that the songs on Nowheresville could almost be in any order. It's almost like a mixtape, in that there's a purpose to the arrangement, but you could shift things around if you wanted to.
You're absolutely nailing it. I'm not going to go into the depths of what this whole album represents or whether it's right for you, but you're absolutely right. Again, the Ting Tings were borne out of mixtapes. We're a band that loved music and we loved feeling and energy and attitude and fashion, but we don't like being one of one hundred things we're able to do. It's evident in the way Katie dresses more than me. When she's going out, it's fucking weird. It's like she got dressed in the dark. But it works and it's her thing. She just doesn't conform to like, "Oh, well I have to wear this top because it matches, it's in vogue." She just fucks things up, man, like I've never seen anything like it. And yet, if I or my friends tried to fuck things up as much, we'd look terrible. You know what I mean? But musically I can do that. In the studio, I totally get that. Me and Katie will try to fuck things up, mess things up, make things not right. Not as in change things so dramatically that it's unenjoyable, but we want you to have fun and say good things, but we just didn't want every song to sound like the first album... We wanted people to listen to it and go, "What the fuck?!" And it might take people three or four months to get it. It's not an album ― well, there are still pop songs on there, there are hits on there. We're not trying to be underground, diverse, or so experimental with instrumentation it's inaudible. We're still writing what we think are catchy songs. We just didn't want to sound like anything else that we've sounded like. We were inspired by TLC on "Day to Day" for example, and that's a track that if somebody else had recorded it in a very L.A. production style, it would probably be a top five hit and no one would question it, but we get a lot of people saying, "That track 'Day to Day' is a fucking great tune but it doesn't sound anything like the Ting Tings." It's like, "Exactly! That's the point!"
That was one of my notes, actually, about that song. Katie's talked in the past about having that sing/shout style, but there's a lot more pure singing on this record. There's more vulnerability, perhaps, with putting her voice out there. Was is a conscious decision to step up the vocals?
I guess a little bit. When we were in the studio, there's obviously some rehearsal stuff that you deal with, the way we write and record, it's a working ― I won't say it's a formula, because it doesn't go according to plan and that's what we like about it, it's quite random, but at the same time, when it happens, we know when we're actually enjoying it, being real, playing our instruments properly and finding the gold. It runs hot and cold, and when it's hot we record and when it's cold, we just get frustrated and throw instruments around and leave the studio. It's a natural environment for any artist to work in.
However, with the vocals, what was really interesting is before we started to find our momentum on this record, every time Katie went to sing something in the studio, it didn't work and she was getting really frustrated, because we didn't have good songs at the time and like I said, we had that problem where we were trying to write for the wrong reasons. And in that experimenting period where we were like, "This is so fucking dull!" and Katie was like, "I don't want to be in a band that just has another hit record. We just gotta do something we want to do." We were looking. But what a lot of people don't realize about this band is that Katie has an amazing voice. And the one thing she hates is singing. It's phenomenal! In the studio it's amazing. I play guitar and we write something and she's just humming away. It's fucking unreal. It's like she's a diva, she's got these amazing vocals, and of course when I'm on the other end of it in my headphones, I'm like, "Do you realize you've got the most amazing voice?" and she's like, "That's fucking horrible you said that!" She hates it! She hates these big divas, these big voices from these solo artist queens, but she really doesn't like it. In a record collection, it's all gotta be quirky and kind of thrown away and punky. Almost like there's no effort. Any time there's a lot of planning or effort in a vocal, she can't stand it. She just feels like it's a fake. So I just said, "I just want to hear you sing, like a three-minute version, it doesn't have to be on our record." That's what happened on a few of these songs, like "Day to Day." She was brought up on TLC at school, so I think that helped her get over this issue of not wanting to sing. I remember, we played it for some people and they were like, "Who the fuck's singing?" And it's her! And "In Your Life" at the end [of the record], okay, at that moment we were stoned and in the studio, having a little bit of fun with a track that had some personal attachment to it for her, and when she sung that in one take, I was like, "Fuck. That's amazing." To be in a band where we feel like we can do that as well, it just made us feel like this is the album we have to make.