Joseph Mount, Metronomy

Metronomy's Joseph Mount chats festival headliners, perfect pop production and Solange vs Beyonce...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 19 Sep 2014
  • min read
Over the last eight years, Metronomy’s Joseph Mount has evolved from wonky electronic misfit into fully fledged pop juggernaut, with a Top 10 album and Mercury Prize nomination under his belt.

In the following interview for our M53 cover feature Pop Perfection, we unpick the threads of his latest retro-inspired album Love Letters, get his take on the art of pop production and hear why he’d rather work with Beyonce than Solange…

You’ve played some massive festival slots this summer – how did that go?
I guess after you’ve played loads of festivals there can be a routine element to it. But this time round we’ve been headlining and, for the first time, we’re out of the generic font on the festival line-up listings. As soon as you break out of the regular font and are allowed to use your own, you know you’ve made it! It’s been great. There are just so many festivals. We’ve done 30.

I guess it’s a bit of a cliché, but whatever goes on behind the scenes, once you’re there and people are excited to see you, it’s enough to make you enthusiastic. Especially if you have a crazy journey to get there and you’re feeling pretty eugh but everyone is happy to see you, then it’s fine.

How do you feel about your massive headline shows in December?
Oh yeh, we’ll have to see! They might get downscaled by then! Alexandra Palace is massive and I guess it just feels like a proper occasion. You say you remember us from ages ago – I remember us from ages ago too! I remember doing a gig round here about eight years ago. Before they built all this stuff, there was a weird, ravey warehouse that we played in around. So to go from that to Alexandra Palace, you can’t deny it – it’s a career. I can’t really do anything else now, which is quite an achievement!

Are you ambitious then?
Am I ambitious? Er, yes I am! To decide from quite a young age what you want to do, and then make it happen, is quite ambitious. You need some kind of ambition to get that. But for me, that wasn’t to be famous or be a millionaire, it was to do music and nothing else, really. So yeh, I think I’ve been ambitious. I’ve destroyed people to get to the top!

So there is a wake of severed heads in your path?
Yes! I think it’s funny in London because the people I knew when I moved here were all ambitious. I think there’s something about living somewhere where there are so many people all trying to do the same thing. I think that’s quite a healthy environment for young people.

Your live set has changed loads since your early days of matching lights and synchronised dance moves but you still put on quite a show. Is image important to you or is it more about the entertainment factor?
When I started releasing music and people started talking about live stuff, I genuinely hadn’t thought about it. I thought I could release stuff without having to play it live. At that point – when I realised I would have to represent it live – the two things – the recorded stuff and the live side – split off. At the beginning there were three of us playing my songs. It’s not like we all met in a romantic rock ‘n’ roll way, which is what I’d always dreamed of as a youngster. So I thought, if I’m gonna do it like that then I have to make it a show.

I like it when I watch bands that have an understanding of stage craft. I remember seeing the Mars Volta recently when they reformed at Coachella. It was one of the most boring things I have seen in the world. That’s so rude I reckon. If people have paid money – even if you hate each other and are just doing it for the cash – you could at least make it look like you’re grateful. So I guess that’s always kind of been the idea really. The idea of making an effort to dress up the same or do something special seems right, for my kind of thing anyway.

Do you get nervous before you go on?
Not any more. It really depends on the occasion I guess. The first few shows before the record came out were nerve wracking because we were playing new stuff. Or the first shows after a long break. But it is like riding a bike or whatever, after a few gigs you settle into it. Definitely over a period of seven years or whatever, it feels right that you should lose the nerves. But those first gigs were terrifying!

What about when you supported Coldplay?
That situation was the least nerve wracking because no one was there to watch us!

What about all those faces?
These places were 20,000 capacity ice hockey stadiums and you think you can’t see the faces but you can pick people out and see people. It’s much less nerve wracking cos you’re playing to half capacity and people are still arriving and no one is even there to see you. They’ve paid to see Coldplay.

It was actually a really hollow experience. Since the Coldplay support slot was mentioned on the latest press release I’ve been misquoted and things have been taken out of context. But in an honest, genuine way, all I’ve said before is it’s not as big a deal as it’s made out to be. It was interesting, but it teaches you more about what not to do rather than how to control 20,000 people y’know, sadly!

Love Letters has been out a while, how do you feel about that record now?
I think it’s brilliant! It’s weird, because you release it and start performing it, when you go back to listening to the record it sounds wrong. You need to give it more of a gap between playing it and listening to it.

But I’m really happy with it. I guess the process of making it was a big part of the idea - and that was a really exciting way to work. It was quite an unusual thing for a band like Metronomy to do in 2014.

Did you feel out of your depth at all?
No, which was a relief really. I’ve always had an interest in production so I understand the technical side of it. If I have any skills it’s understanding production.

At a pub quiz, do you have any specialist subjects? I don’t. I’ve never felt like I know anything about anything. But, over a period of a few records, I’ve started to feel like I’m an authority on how to make one.

All your albums have a very definite style and production technique. Does the idea come before you start recording and crafting them? Is it a conscious style choice or is it more natural?
I think it’s a bit of both. I think it’s that thing of the production side being as important as writing. For me, I think you could put any song from any album on a different album and record it in the way that album was recorded and it would still work together. The songs are all from me, they have the same kind of thing to them. But to me, it’s the production that makes the difference. So for each one, I decide to do them in a very different way because I want to learn how to work in a different way.

For musicians nowadays, because of the way you can work with a computer, it’s much harder to say where an idea begins. Before, it would have been, ‘Oh, I just sat down with my guitar and was thinking about this’. Whereas now when you ask someone, they might say they were mucking about on their iPad or whatever - it’s much harder to trace back to the germ of the idea.

Are you influenced by the sound and the output or are you just drawn to trying out new techniques?
I like instruments, I like buying instruments. I’m not that up to date with technology. For me, with production, it’s about giving an album an atmosphere.

It makes an atmosphere that you like or don’t like, an interesting place that you’d like to visit again and again. The new Wild Beasts record, which Lexxx co-produced, is like that.

For me, the people who do that mainly come from an R&B or urban background. The first N.E.R.D. album was inspirational for me. With all their productions they use the same drum sounds so they have this strange little world that they’ve made. Even that new Ed Sheeran song with Pharrell - I had no idea it was him but when it started it was like a Neptunes song so I thought, ‘I like this world. I’m happy here.’ And then I realised it was Ed Sheeran and I thought, ‘Ooof, there you go’. I guess I loved old Timbaland in his time. People like him and the Neptunes create their own worlds by having their signature sounds - I guess with him it’s his grunts!

The problem is, when I was a teenager and getting really excited about the idea of being in a band, you could still buy CD singles and tape albums. It was pre-internet, so the world I was obsessed with, and wanted to be part of, involved things like proper music videos and physical albums. Everything that I ever dreamed of happening has now dissolved!

You arrive in this modern music industry and all the things that you were really excited about aren’t quite the same anymore. It’s sad but at the same time I think that if enough people cling on to albums then maybe they will take on a new life of their own.

Do you think Love Letters adds to that? It’s full of pop songs and it was recorded traditionally…
Yeh, probably to a point it does, but there is also this kind of selfish thing of me just wanting to do what I want to do and fulfil my own little dreams, which I’ve had since a teenager. Hopefully there are a few people – young people most importantly, teenagers – who take an interest in why it is like it is and it maybe turns them on to other stuff.

Anyway, I guess all that stuff – social media and all of that – I feel like I’m too old! I’m not but to me it’s very odd. A lot of the early stuff that happened with Metronomy was done through MySpace but now if you think about MySpace, things have moved on so much since then and people have really harnessed the power of these things. You know when you see any band poster it has the Facebook logo and the Twitter logo and all this stuff… I guess everyone is aware they are advertising these companies but to me it’s just weird. I remember on the Nights Out album it has a MySpace address on it! It seems really normal to constantly advertise these huge companies who are not really helping out the music industry at all. I’m just trying to live my dream and forget about all these sinister things that you have to do!

Maybe it’s to do with the way you’ve always listened to music…
There’s definitely nowadays singles artist and luckily Metronomy sells albums, and enough to keep going. But then you get people who will sell two million singles but then not really do anything with their album. I’d much rather be able to make albums than be forced to do singles.

Yeh! I started making music on my own and I’d been singing stuff. In secret, I’d always put on a girl’s voice and sing into an old recorder in my bedroom. I’d imagine that the song was for someone else – I just hadn’t met her yet! So I’d sing these little high-pitched ideas that were actually quite elaborate and expressive because I didn’t think anyone would ever hear them!

The first song, Dancefloors, on Nights Out, is probably the first time I wrote and sung but I did that probably a year or two before the album was released.

I’d been doing it for a long time but it took a long time to feel comfortable with me being the person to sing.

Do you labour over the hooks or do they come quite easily for you?
So much of it is done without thinking, you know? If I’m working on the idea of a song it’s something hooky that will make me keep working on it. I think, for me a lot of the hooks are in the bass guitar or a different part of the track where you wouldn’t necessarily think to look. I don’t always think everything needs a top line. I’ve worked with a few other singers and I’m aware with more poppy stuff you do need to have a hook of some kind but for now, at least, there’s no one involved from a major label or something, telling me I need more hooks! So for now, at least, I don’t struggle over hooks too much!

Is there anyone you’d really like to produce?
I was talking to a publisher guy not so long ago and he was asking if I’d be open to the idea of working with other people. I said, ‘Yes of course, I’d love to work with other people’. And he said, ‘What would you think about working with Solange Knowles?’ And I thought, ‘I’d rather be working with Beyonce!’ She’s managed to turn herself from a member of a girl band into someone like Tina Turner. She’s someone who has very interesting albums and production, and an interesting style. So yeh, I’d love to work with someone like her. But then I love the idea of getting involved with someone who’s not a huge artist and helping them to find a style. Then maybe they’ll be the next Beyonce? I’d love to work with someone who’s young and hasn’t been altered by the industry.