A clean slate. That's where Leeds band The SunshineUnderground found themselves after parting ways with their management and thentheir bass player, Daley. Any walls of expectation or stereotype built over thecourse of two albums had dissolved and the optimistic trio of Craig, Stu andMatt saw that the space for creativity was actually bigger than ever."Musically, there were no limits, and it forced us to write songs in adifferent way" explains Craig (the band's lead singer), "We wereexcited by the idea of moving things around." !
It’s been eight years since their explosive 2006 debut RaiseThe Alarm - a dance-punk record described by The Guardian as “every bit asjerkily compulsive as The Rapture’s House of Jealous Lovers” - surfed the newrave wave into the UK’s wider consciousness. The cultural permeation spreadeven further when Sony released the album in Japan. Two sold out tours resultedin a cult following of which the quite bizarre stories include boxes of Yorkshiretea being regularly waved in the air at gigs.
Four years of touring, writing and recording passed beforethe band released their 2010 sophomore Nobody Is Coming To Save You. Theirtrademark explosiveness was still evident, but this was a more rhythmic andpatient affair, with tracks like ‘Here It Comes’ and ‘We’ve Always Been YourFriends’ showcasing a distinct artistry in the band’s songwriting. Another fouryears have passed since then, and now they return. And it’s like nothing you’veever heard from TSU.
"We wanted to make an electronic sounding record"recalls Craig, and in one statement a pipe dream they had harboured for yearshad the potential to be realised. But, to achieve this, they had to changeeverything. "We had always expressed ourselves in a band format: twoguitars, a bass and everyone writing songs around the drum kit. It was time toget our heads around production and beat programming. Nobody had set roles inthe band anymore." Guitarist Stu adds, "it felt like the weapons in ourmusical arsenal had grown massively in recent years and it was exciting tostart applying them."
For funding, the band looked to the crowd sourcing sitePledge. Within four months they exceeded their target. It paid testament to aloyal following built through regular and frenetic live shows. And it feels poeticallyjustified that the dedication of the fan-base should directly influence theircreative freedom. "There has always been somebody at a label looking overyour shoulder" begins Craig, "my god, I've spent most of my lifetrying to write singles for those people. And it never happens. All your bestsongs happen naturally. Luckily, we have loyal fans. That's why we could do itthis way. There is no outside influence."
At the live shows, this new formation is evident, Craig haspads and keys and drummer Matt Gwilt adds the same on top of his live lit. Butone of the main role changes involved band member Stu transforming himself fromguitarist to producer/programmer. "This is the area that has developed mostfor us" he explains, "over these last few years, we've reallyhomed-in on the electronic sounds that we feel work best. The tracks were writtenaround a drum machine and Roland's TR series (606, 808, 909) featured heavily.Slowly but surely, our hardware synth collection built up nicely, but welimited ourselves to a small number to give the record 'a sound'."
For lead singer Craig, the new approach gave him theopportunity to let some life-long influences start to impact on him. “I wentthrough a big period of listening to 80s/90s synth-pop and I still do. This wasa good opportunity to explore that, play on it, and get those Human Leaguestyle influences out. It's definitely something you can hear in the record.”
The overall result is an album nobody would have expected.Self-titled purposefully to hit home this feeling of identity, the hard beatsand glittering synths mix with The Sunshine Underground's original dance-punkorigins to create an almighty collection of contemporary club-pop. The aptlynamed 'Start' kicks things off: an arresting vocal house track that hits ahypnotic rhythm before exploding in colour at the five minute mark. 'Nothing ToFear' is similarly upbeat, but with a gritty funk bass line reminiscent of TalkTalk. And a mid-record respite comes in the shape of the slower ‘Battles’, anelectronic ballad with intricate percussion. But for Craig, "the firsttrack I want people to hear is 'Don't Stop'. It sums up the album for us. Itdisplays a lot of the elements of our new styles that I don't think anybody isexpecting. We want that 'what the fuck?' factor."
“All three of us write the songs and throw things in”explains Craig, “so you get bits of everything. In ‘Turn It On’ you get my 80spop vibes, but then you get Stu putting in the complicated guitar rhythms.”This variation needed stitched together, and producer Ross Orton (ArcticMonkeys, M.I.A., Toddla T) stepped up to the mark. His task was to blendstyles, but also ensure that they didn’t lose that “band” element to theirsound. “In the early days of writing, it felt fine for there to be no drums andguitars” says Craig, “but over time we started to reintroduce those elements,and Ross was great at bringing the band side of things back into it. Real drumsand real bass instead of all synth.” This move reintroduced the live drummingof band member Matt Gwilt, and his thunderous contributions began to reshapethe tracks. “We have ended up with a nice cross between electronic and live instrumentation.We are a live band, so that needed to happen and Ross was key to that.”
It is a dilemma everyband must face at some point in their career. Keep writing the same songs forthe same people, or take a risk and change everything? Reinvention is a modernfact of music, and for a band that derive their name from a Chemical Brotherstrack, moving ever further towards dance music has been more natural than weever could have imagined.