Metronomy: pop perfection

Metronomy’s Joseph Mount chats to Anita Awbi about his shift from pop outsider to household name...

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 6 Oct 2014
  • min read
Metronomy’s Joseph Mount (second from right) chats to Anita Awbi about his shift from pop outsider to household name, his love of the album format and the art of pop production.

‘In secret, I’d always put on a girl’s voice and sing into an old recorder in my bedroom,’ sniggers pop auteur Joseph Mount. He’s recalling his early music-making years in Devon and Brighton, a time before Metronomy became a fully fledged band and an all conquering class act.

‘I’d imagine that the song I was writing 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 else would ever hear them!’

Things are different now. The world has tuned in. Over eight eventful years Joseph has somehow morphed his Metronomy moniker from klezmer-addled electronic misfit into full-scale pop juggernaut – without losing any edge. Now lynchpin to a gang of four, with a Mercury Prize nomination under his belt and a Top 10 album on the slate, he’s taking stock of the ride.

We’re basking in a warm slice of late summer sun that’s streaming across a quiet plaza behind Kings Cross Station. Talk turns from his early years as a nerdy bedroom producer and Warp Records enthusiast to his new-found status as festival-headlining pop act. Is this what songwriting success feels like? ‘For the first time we’re out of the generic font on the festival line-up listings,’ Joseph acknowledges, tongue firmly in cheek. ‘As soon as you break out of the regular font and are allowed to use your own, you know you’ve made it!’

Joking aside, he’s not far wrong. This year, Metronomy have headlined some of Europe’s most prestigious stages, and their latest album, Love Letters, has become their highest charting yet. Listening back to the wonky techno-inflected instrumentals of 2006’s debut Pip Paine (Pay the £5,000 You Owe), through the nervy pop songs of its follow-up Nights Out (2008) and the suave sophistication of third LP The English Riviera (2011), it’s easy to see where Love Letters’ perfect poise started life. Although the skills and know-how were evidently already there, this new retro-dappled set seems to have caught the public unawares - mainly because it’s revealed yet another weapon in Joseph’s well-stocked musical arsenal.

Back to basics

‘At a pub quiz, do you have any specialist subjects?’ Joseph enquires, taking a left turn in our conversation. ‘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,’ he says without pause. And that’s where, on Love Letters, the songwriting skill and production prowess have come together to create something more palpably pop.

The album was recorded, engineered and produced entirely at Toe Rag - London’s last completely analogue studio. Its production demanded a different level of care to previous records: songwriting and pre-production trouncing the post-production possibilities previously available to Joseph in the digital space.

As a result, Love Letters carries more intent and certainty than his earlier albums. ‘I’m really happy with it,’ he confesses. ‘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.’

In Joseph’s world, production is clearly as important, if not more so, than songwriting. Take any Metronomy song from any album, he argues, and the only real difference is its atmosphere. For him, making music is about sculpting an overall aesthetic to entice the ear. Mercury Prize-nominated album The English Riviera - a lush, stylised ode to the beautiful south coast, with its samples of lapping waves and seagull calls - is a case in point. Where its predecessor Pip Paine nervously fizzed its way around the grubby aftertaste left by the electroclash movement, and Nights Out carried a tangible air of mania, The English Riviera marked a significant change in gear.

‘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,’ he explains. ‘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 I was thinking about this”. Now when you ask someone, they might say they were mucking about on their iPad or whatever - it’s a much harder thing to trace back to the germ of the idea.’

Urban influence

While we chew the fat, talk frequently turns to the producers Joseph rates and the worlds they create. From Wild Beasts’ latest record Present Tense (co-produced by Lexxx), to Pharrell Williams’ N.E.R.D project or David Bowie’s self-produced album Diamond Dogs, it’s always the wider aural context that draws Joseph’s ear.

Outside Metronomy, he’s enjoyed extending his influence over a range of productions from the likes of Roots Manuva to Sophie Ellis Bextor and Kate Nash. And, as a go-to remixer, he’s retouched classic tracks by Air, Joakim, Lady Gaga, Lykke Li, Gorillaz, Diplo and Goldfrapp, to name a few.

‘Good production makes an atmosphere that you like or you don’t like; an interesting place that you’d like to visit again and again,’ he explains. ‘For me, the people who do that mainly seem to come from an R&B or urban background. 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”,’ he laughs.
 ‘I’m just trying to live my dream and forget about all these sinister things that you have to do!’

Changing places

I ask him where he sees his place in the music business these days. It’s all changed so much since he first got his leg-up through MySpace. Metronomy have become a solid album band in the old fashioned sense, and can easily shift a quarter of a million copies on release. They have a healthy touring schedule and a tight, in-demand live set. But Joseph’s never all over the music blogs with his latest mixtape or re-edit, and he doesn’t DJ out that often anymore. The band’s mandatory social media presence is also pretty low key by 2014’s standards. Instead, he puts all his efforts into the traditional LP format. So, is he happy with his lot?

‘The problem is,’ he says, ‘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!’ he laughs.

‘You arrive in this modern music industry and all the things 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.’

It seems as though the nostalgic lounge-pop vibe of Love Letters, with its heart-on-sleeve lyrics, whimsical melodies and archaic production, is paying homage to this bygone era. When pushed, Joseph’s the first to admit he hopes teenagers will take an interest in its aesthetic and seek out similar stuff. But the album’s old fashioned stance might also be a little kick against some of the wider trends engulfing the music industry. It’s now the norm for band websites and tour posters to display icons and logos for online media platforms like YouTube and Twitter, forcing acts to ‘constantly advertise these huge companies who are really not helping out the music industry at all’, sighs Joseph. ‘I’m just trying to live my dream and forget about all these sinister things that you have to do!’
 ‘I’ve definitely destroyed people to get to the top.’

Underneath all the musical clarity and daydreaming, I suggest there’s an agenda, a measured ambition. ‘Am I ambitious? Er, yes I am!’ Joseph says. ‘To decide from a young age what you want to do, and then make it happen, is quite ambitious. But for me, that wasn’t to be famous or be a millionaire, it was to do music and nothing else, really. So yeah, I think I’ve been ambitious. I’ve definitely destroyed people to get to the top!’ he adds, before breaking out in a cackle.

He glances around the sun dappled square, which backs onto Europe’s biggest building site. ‘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 performed in. So to go from that to Alexandra Palace [where Metronomy will headline in December], you can’t deny it - it’s become a career. I can’t really do anything else now!’

This featured in the autumn 2014 edition of M magazine (M53)

Read the full interview with Joseph Mount