By Rob Barbour
It’s been a while since Warner Music Group updated the over-sized portraits of big-hitting acts which adorn the walls of its London headquarters. Plan B and Lily Allen still take pride of place in the waiting area, while Ed Sheeran – tiny guitar slung over his tiny shoulder – languishes behind a reception desk.
Two storeys removed from the wall-mounted pop royalty, Marmozets vocalist Becca McIntyre and guitarist Jack Bottomley are recovering from the lengthy train journey down from Yorkshire. Dressed head-to-toe in Rock Star Black, the duo introduce themselves before flopping down onto a sofa and getting stuck into a couple of bowls of ramen.
“I’m good at talking and eating,” McIntyre says, proving her point through a mouthful of noodles. Following a brief moment of low-level drama as she reassures her guitarist that he isn’t tucking into a bowl of chicken (“it’s just very good tofu”), we’re free to discuss their new album, Knowing What You Know Now.
That the twosome are so relaxed is impressive, and not just because they’ve spent their day traveling two hundred miles to have repetitive conversations with music journalists; it’s been a rough couple of years for Marmozets.
Following a critically-lauded debut album – 2014’s The Weird & Wonderful Marmozets – which took the frenetic math-rock/hardcore hybrid with which they’d made their name and sculpt, rather than tame, it into a collection of thrilling, modern songs, the band spent the following year building a reputation as one of the most exciting live bands in the UK. Much was made of their ages, too – some of the band still in their teens when the record was released. The general consensus being: if they’re this good now, how good is the next one going to be?
Then in August 2015, McIntyre suffered a serious knee injury which resulted in a 12-month, medically-enforced hiatus from performing. A four year gap between albums can be fatal for an established band, let alone a new one. And while at the time of writing, the record hasn’t yet been released, it seems anticipation for it has only increased in their absence.
“I don’t think we’ve lost any momentum, which we were worried about,” Bottomley confirms. “It seems to be that we’re doing better than we ever have been. We’ve had songs playlisted on the radio, Radio 1 premieres – things we’ve never had before. Everything’s stepped up a gear, which is great to come back to. So we’ve kind of got away with it.” He smiles. “In a nice way.”
Of course, McIntyre’s injury was widely-reported in the rock press, and she thinks people’s inherent empathy has played a big part in the warm welcome back the band have received.
“I think people understand that there’s realism behind [the band’s absence]. If we were a band who just made up stories for the sake of it and people thought we were actually sat around doing nothing… People just understand what life really is, and sometimes things take a little longer.”
Doing the vocalist justice in print is difficult. A warm and engaging presence, she’s prone to lengthy, high-concept flights of verbal fancy which make more sense in person than they do written down. The band’s family dynamic (Marmozets consists of two sets of siblings) is in full effect: Bottomley’s role in all of this seems to be to let his bandmate do her esoteric thing, before offering more concise quotes and anecdotes (and nerdily enthusing about various pieces of recording equipment).
People are respectful towards art, McIntyre explains, because “it comes in weird shapes and forms.” And as for the wait endured by their fanbase, she’s clearly grateful: “You can’t ask for that. You can’t ask people to be patient.”
“But we had to be patient too. To get the album right, the way we want it to be.”
The “difficult second album” cliché exists for a reason. Not only is it the first time that a band begin the recording process under a weight of existing expectation, it’s also the point at which they either compound or confound their sound. That the band who released 2011’s Passive Aggressive and 2012’s Vexed EPs are even in this position, promoting their second major-label album, is unlikely enough. But that they recorded it with bona fide legend Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Pixies, Jimmy Eat World – among many, many others) must mean there are huge expectations here – on the part of both band and record label.
The man who recorded rock-club classics like Feeder’s ‘Buck Rogers’ and Dashboard Confessional’s ‘Hands Down’ is not, I posit, someone a band approaches if they want to defy expectations with a low-fi, Steve Albini-style noise-fest.
“Well, no,” says Bottomley. “You’d go to Steve Albini.” Cheeky bastard.
Knowing What You Know Now is unequivocally a more commercial album than its predecessor. The band’s DNA is present and correct, but like a superhero in their origin story, it’s been tinkered with. Rearranged. The riffs are still jagged, but the songs are more fluid; McIntyre’s voice is still a remarkable instrument, but that ferocious roar is rarely deployed; instead, along with the usual singalong fare, we’re treated to Kate Bush-esque theatrics on slower, atmospheric tracks.
Much like labelmates Biffy Clyro, whose Warner debut Puzzle divided existing fans but set them on the course which took them into 20,000-capacity arenas, it seems that Marmozets have refined their unique sound into a version sufficiently palatable for mainstream audiences. Bottomley seems to find the word “palatable”…unpalatable.
“It’s still definitely us,” he explains, “But I think if you were to listen to five seconds of every song on the first album and five seconds of every song on this album, it’s – I don’t want to say ‘diluted’ because that’s a horrible word as well…”
“It’s just more chilled,” offers McIntyre.
Bottomley finally settles on “smoother”. But they balk at the idea that this is some conscious step towards fame and fortune. The first time I spoke to McIntyre, around a year ago, I made the mistake of suggesting that the album would necessarily be “more polished”. She was not impressed.
“No!” She laughs. “I guess it’s because in my head, I don’t like that word. ‘Polished’. That’s definitely not what we’re about. I guess if I was a girl that looked polished, then my music would sound polished. But that’s not the case.” She looks at Bottomley and laughs again. “We’re keeping it real, baby, aren’t we?”
“The album is sort of clean [compared to The Weird & Wonderful],” Bottomley semi-agrees, “But it’s captured the energy. That’s the main thing we didn’t want to lose. You want it to sound massive, and you want it to sound great. But you need the energy. Gil did it in a way where it’s recorded really separately and crazy, but it still sounds like it’s in a room. Just through a really mint PA!”
By “separately and crazy”, Bottomley is referring to Norton’s unorthodox process of recording in a seemingly random order, and banning the other band members from the room when another is recording. The end result was that, a couple of weeks into recording, the band hadn’t heard a single song and had to compare notes with each other as to what they’d actually done.
“Then he’d call us all into the room, press play and it was like, ‘holy shit!’”
“But everyone’s heart was in it,” McIntyre says. “So it’s going to sound like it’s all there.”
More than anything else, they think, the album reflects the growing-up the band have done in the last 4 years. “It sounds like us, at the age we are now.”)
“You learn new sounds,” she explains. “You get new visions. You wanna play more. You hear yourself sing in a different way, you see yourself play in a different way. You’re looking at genres you’ve maybe not looked at before. That’s all kind of where it goes to with the album, you know?”
She pauses, before offering the summary: “All these things we’ve learned, that we put in.”
In other words, that title isn’t just a snappy idiom – it’s a description of, and explanation for, the evolution in Marmozets’ sound. Of the difference between the band who recorded The Weird & Wonderful, and the one with which we’re faced several years later.
Deliberate career move or organic progression, there’s no denying there are some potential future anthems on Knowing What You Know Now. In particular, closer Run to the Rhythm and the surprising ballad Insomnia feel designed for rooms far, far larger than the clubs to which they’ll be initially confined.
“Obviously they will sound better in those bigger rooms because the tempo’s a bit slower and songs like that do often sound better in rooms like that. It’s somewhere we’d like to be! It’d be nice to play that song in a huge room-”
“It’d be a dream!” McIntyre interjects.
“But it’s not something we thought about when writing. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s write an arena rock song!’”
“We don’t write like that,” agrees McIntyre. “We don’t write for pop stars.”
I press the point – fans who were surprised by the track ‘Captivate You’ on The Weird & Wonderful are going to hear Insomnia, and Me & You (a heartfelt, almost rhythm-section free song about McIntyre’s late grandmother) and wonder whether they’re listening to the same band. That must be something they’re prepared for.
“With both of those songs, it’s…” Bottomley searches for the right word. “Not a risk, exactly, but it’s something we haven’t touched on before. If people enjoy that, it could open the door for where we could go with that sound in the future.”
For McIntyre, writing these bigger, anthemic tracks was about having confidence. Confidence in her own ability, and confidence in her voice as an instrument. “I’ve really had moments where I’ve tried to write songs myself and I went through a place where I thought ‘I’m not capable of doing this myself because I can’t play an instrument’. But it’s about trying.”
Marmozets are a bundle of contradictions, but that seems to be exactly the glue keeping them together. They claim not to think about writing arena rock songs – and I believe them – but then asked if there’s any one venue they really want to play by the end of this cycle, they’ll admit to having an ambition to play Brixton that’s so strong, they turned down a support slot with Refused because they don’t want to play until they can headline.
“None of us has even been in the building,” says Bottomley.
“And we won’t go until we play there!” McIntyre finishes, emphatically.
Like the recording process for Knowing What You Know Now, Marmozets seems to be a collection of ideas, ambitions, and personalities in total disarray until the last minute. They’re ambitious (McIntyre: “I want to know that we’re going to be able to do this for the rest of our lives”), but can’t convey that ambition via any kind of specific milestone. They’re technically precocious, but apparently write and play without any specific direction.
And as much as they’d hate the phrase, Becca McIntyre and Jack Bottomley are rock stars. It’s just that they’re entirely relatable ones, who constantly compliment each other’s work (McIntyre “smashed” her vocals, bassist Will Bottomley “smashed through” his parts) and perform drunk renditions of Celine Dion at karaoke nights (McIntyre: “That happened once!” Bottomley:“It was memorable”).
As we wait for a lift back down to reception, the twosome notice a new addition to Warner’s photo wall: a picture of five fresh-faced Northerners.
“It’s us!” McIntyre exclaims, with genuine excitement. Explicitly ambitious or not, they must be hoping this album will eventually take them off the second floor and down into reception. Maybe they’ll replace Ed Sheeran.
Knowing What You Know Now is out now on Roadrunner Records.