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Clean Bandit: What Is Love?

The very likeable trio of Grace Chatto, and Jack and Luke Patterson formed pop electronic powerhouse, Clean Bandit, back in 2008. They’ve shifted 13 million singles and 1.6 million albums since; and hit superstar status in 2014 with their first number one single, Rather Be, in collaboration with Jess Glynne. The following year, they landed themselves a Grammy; and in 2016, they were UK Christmas number one with Rockabye, featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie. In 2017, they topped the charts once more with Symphony, featuring Zara Larsson. In December 2018, they released their second studio album, What Is Love? - which has a great hip hop underbelly, and no less than 22 guest artists: Charli XCX, Rita Ora, and Craig David, to name just a few. I sit down with them at London’s Strongroom Studios to find out more.

“We put on this really cool production that involved levitation and flying; that was maybe a pivotal moment,” reflects Grace Chatto, with a smile. We’re discussing moments in Clean Bandit’s career so far that they feel have made the most impact. “Luke’s drum kit, my grand piano, and Grace - we’re flying in hot air balloons, and our instruments are suspended from these hot air balloons, basically,” adds Jack Patterson.

“Careful, you’ll give away the trick,” warns Grace.
“I won’t tell them how it’s done,” Jack reassures her.

They’re clearly a charming bunch, so I dive in, and begin asking questions about the new album, What Is Love? How does it differ from their previous work?

“There is a sound running through the album, whereas [2014 release] New Eyes was all over the place in that respect,” explains Luke Patterson. “Drum and bass, trap... This is more refined, I think.”
“And slower, isn’t it? It’s all slower,” smiles Grace.
“Even though hip hop is slow, you wouldn’t think it’s slow; it’s more of a head nod than a hip shake,” suggests Jack. Luke Concurs.
“Yeah, there is still hip movement, for sure,” Grace laughs.

The record came about organically, Clean Bandit tell me: there was no plan, as such, about the lyrical content; the only thing they did have a plan about was to try and approach the writing differently, as the first album was all produced as it was written.

“It was done at a computer, while making sounds straight away,” Grace explains. “But with this one, Jack wanted to write at the piano, with piano and voice; and it was clear that the songs worked in that kind of stripped back form. With the first album, some just wouldn’t work like that: like Mozart’s House, for example.”

“It’s already proving a successful way of working,” adds Luke, with a smile.
“And that’s because we are promoting it with stripped back sessions,” Jack explains. “And Solo is the only song I was worried about, but it’s actually fine – the production element was already happening while we were writing it, but we realised we could play the big bass line in the style of Nirvana, so it worked well!”
“Yeah, and you can sing the vocal chops – it sounds good,” says Luke.

What Is Love? features a diverse repertoire of artists. I ask the band when they first realised that oxymoronic styles worked together. After a brief silence, I decide to elaborate: I explain that I do lots of ballet, and love doing it to hip hop. It strikes a chord with Grace.

“Ooh,” she smiles, seemingly in approval of my oxymoronic passtime. Phew.
“I would say we realised this around the time we did Mozart’s House,” says Luke. “It was the first video we made, we put it up on YouTube, and it got loads of views - and we thought that was very cool. It’s catchy, but very unique, in the way it has classical strings mixed with weird synth lines - and there is a rap on it. “

Did it surprise them that people took to it that well?

“We thought people would like it, I think; it was only after we started doing it that we started thinking about it,” admits Grace. “Really, the first thing we did after the songs were made was perform them live in a nightclub; and people were surprised to see violins and stuff in the club, but it was an electric atmosphere, and part of it was the surprise of that mix. “We played Frank’s Cafe in 2010 – that was when we first played in London – and it was to 2,000 people on a roof in Peckham, and no-one knew us; they were all hearing the songs for the first time, and everyone was dancing.”

“That was a pivotal moment, definitely,” Luke says.
“We immediately started playing live, and could see that people were liking it; there was no period of time spending ages in the studio worrying how people would react; we just took it out to the stage, straight off,” Grace says. It clearly paid off.

It was clear that these songs worked in that kind of stripped back form.

Clean Bandit has such a great history of collaborations; I ask them what these guest artists bring to the table.

“Love Ssega is on the new album, and when we started, he was lead singer for three years; people don’t know that, but we were just a live band - we weren’t recording,” explains Grace. “He was doing a PhD, and we opened Clean Bandit into a bigger collective. So Love Ssega doing a song on this record is very special – Beautiful is the song, and that’s on the deluxe version of the album.”

“I guess they are all stars of their own genre,” suggests Jack. “Stefflon Don is in a different musical world to someone like Zara Larsson; and it lets us lean into those sound worlds with some credibility. It’s very exciting for us to get into those different genres of music, and to be inspired by those artists.”

“And Rockabye was never intended for Sean Paul to be on it,” Grace adds. “But we played it to him, and he came up with that rap quite immediately, and it transformed the whole song from what it was intended to be, originally – so it isn’t always intentional!”

What Is Love? has 16 tracks, and 22 featured artists. Was there a standout moment?

“Well, the funniest was Sean Paul! After we finished he showed us all these ‘fail’ videos – he was obsessed with fail videos at the time,” says Jack. “Watching them on his phone was such a weird situation, but very funny!”

“Yasmin Green is funny, too; she is just a comedian,” laughs Grace. “She does funny Instagram videos, but she is one of the two lead singers of our live band, so we’re touring with her the whole time. She is singing on the song 24 Hours – which is about falling in love with someone at first sight, and that moment completely changing your life. It’s one of our favourites.”

I ask if they believe in love at first sight.
“No... No... [pauses] No,” says Grace, as they all laugh. That’s a no, then. “But, I do believe one very small event can totally change the rest of your life.”
“I do believe in it, actually,” adds Jack.
And you, Luke?
“Yeah, why not!’ he grins.

Clean Bandit have worked with Tove Sterke and Zara Larsson on this latest album; I ask them what it is about Swedish artists that interests them.

“Swedish people are just dominating music in a big way; there are so many great Swedish artists,” Jack insists. “A huge priority is given to creative people in Sweden, especially if they’re songwriters. You can get amazing support, and it’s taken very seriously.”

“But that’s not why we like Zara Larsson,” Grace laughs. “The first Hit Factories were in Sweden in the early ‘90s, which pioneered the premise of modern pop music - it’s groups of geeks writing great songs, and then they’re on the radio – people don’t know the hidden geniuses doing this.”

“But Motown did this, of course,” Jack points out.
“Yeah, though this is a new type of thing,” says Luke.
“The producers are different: it started with Ace of Bass, which was crazy, because it was four Swedish people who no-one knew at all; and Denniz Pop produced [Ace of Base hit] The Sign, and suddenly it was number one in the US for six weeks! And since then, that group, with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, have really dominated writing for everyone.”

I ask Clean Bandit if they’re more at home on the stage or in the studio.

“Both have ups and downs; there’s no way you can get the same response in the studio than you can live, but then it’s just really nice being in the studio,” reflects Luke.

“It’s nice and warm in the studio, isn’t it?” says Grace, snuggling slightly. “But then it got very warm during the festivals – it got intense, sometimes it got so hot, I didn’t think I would be able to continue... Especially in those outfits!”

“Mine melted,” adds Jack, to Grace’s surprise. How?! “Well, our outfit had our logo on the back, and I realised it had literally melted during a show.”

The first Hit Factories were in Sweden in the early ‘90s, which pioneered the premise of modern pop music.

Conversation turns to Clean Film, the band’s video arm: they make their own videos, so the cycle, as Grace puts it, is kind of live, studio, then filming.

“The combination of all three is really important to us, as they’re all so different; if we were on tour the whole time, it wouldn’t be good, and the same if we were in the studio the whole time – so this makes it a nice balance,” Grace explains. “They’re all different paces of life: the studio is super intense, and live is a different head space, as when we go on tour, we just play the same stuff every night, and get shepherded here and there, so it’s like you become a kid again!”

“The tour manager says ‘wake up’, basically,” laughs Luke.
“Bang the drums... now!” says Jack.
“And we’re all in this bus with bunk beds, driving round, playing cards,” whispers Grace.

The new album is about different stages of love... Right?

“[pauses] Yeah, different types, and different stages: different stages of romantic love are discussed, but then there’s family love in Rockabye; motherly love, and the sacrifice that goes into parenting, which is an unusual theme in pop music; and one called We Were Just Kids, which is about being brothers - Jack and Luke are obviously brothers – that’s featuring Craig David and Kirsten Joy.”

“Craig was absolutely amazing to work with,” says Jack. “Every vocal he did was so perfect, to the extent that we assumed we had been playing the same one back each time!”

Conversation turns to the Clean Bandit album launch, which took place in Japan at a Buddhist Temple: why Japan, exactly?

“Because they love us, and we love them,” says Grace, sincerely. “In the very early days, we went there with Jack and Luke’s mum and dad – a family holiday to Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka - and fell in love with everything there, so when we were thinking of ideas for the Rather Be video, we found an excuse to go back there.

“We filmed it in a fish market in Tokyo, and made friends there, and we never knew at that point that the song would be such a big hit, but when it did get big, we went back to Japan and saw the people who we made it with. It’s a big place for us; we’ve been seven or eight times, now.”

“We are more emotionally attached to Japan than any other place in the world, actually,” reflects Jack.
“We do a collaboration with a Japanese band, End of the World, and the guitarist is playing on Baby, our new single; we have done a lot of stuff with them, we toured with them across America,” Grace reveals.

I ask the band if they can share any standout Clean Bandit moment from their career so far?

“Hmm,” ponders Grace. “It’s hard to say, but we really enjoyed recreating our first album with a symphony orchestra; and we performed it live on Radio One with the Royal Philharmonic, and a small choir. That takes some beating.”

It does, indeed. Thanks to Clean Bandit and Atlantic Records for their time, and to our friends at Strongroom Studios for their formidable hospitality.

Interview by Rae Clara Gray