Dollars to Pounds: Night Engine

February 14, 2013

San Francisco-born Kim Taylor Bennett fled to Europe at 11, currently resides in London and once played guitar onstage with Green Day. She’ll report on new British music every other week.

Weddings. No longer simply the scene of overflowing tear ducts, awkwardly intoxicated uncles and regrettable drunk fumblings, weddings are apparently the new meeting ground for bands and unlikely supergroups. Not long ago I spoke with the duo Alpines, who first met at an organized love-fest, and last year I heard of one band manager whose wedding entertainment consisted of a revolving cast of members from The xx, Florence + the Machine, The Big Pink, Jack Penate and Spector (and even Adele and Mark Ronson, if rumor is to be believed). Now, it turns out Night Engine drummer Lee and bassist Ed also initially crossed paths playing at their mutual friend’s wedding. Except when Ed approached Lee about checking out his band, Lee’s response was tepid—he's a trained jazz drummer after all. Indie rock? Pssht! But Lee gave the demo a listen and was bowled over by Phil’s songwriting. Along with keyboardist Dom, the quartet cemented a musical partnership barely 12 months ago.

Last week, FADER premiered their debut video for “Seventeen”. Seemingly shot in a red-light district basement, this jagged cut of synth-driven pop perfectly encapsulates Night Engine’s appeal. The nods to Bowie, Talking Heads and even The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand are clear to trace, but what’s also apparent in the fuzzed-up fury of “Treat Me Like a Baby” and the confrontational funk of “I’ll Make It Worth Your While” is that these songs were built for darkened dancefloors and wild, whiskey-fueled abandon.

Stream: Night Engine, "I'll Make It Worth Your While"

Welsh classical-singer-turned-popstar Charlotte Church reviewed “I’ll Make It Worth Your While” with the comment, “You start your Monday off with this, it’s going to be a good week.” Are you going to put this on a sticker on your record? DOM: I think we should. We should put it on posters! She digs us hard! ED: That was great. I think she was one of the first people to listen to the music who spotted the positive aspects of our influences and she seemed to get it. She really understood the musicianship behind Phil’s voice. Where some people don’t know where to place it, she really has that vocabulary and background. It was cool to get compliment from someone quite different to our sound.

Phil, when you sing live, you’re quite an aggressive performer. Is this a conscious decision or a genetic predisposition? PHIL: I didn’t realize it was so aggressive—I thought it was quite romantic. Hah! No, I think particularly live it’s about you making sure you acknowledge an audience. Like the photos, we don’t want to be looking away trying to look all cool. That’s boring. Look at the audience; they’ve come to see you. I’m sick of people playing to themselves on stage, you can’t just be stuck within yourself. I don’t think we’re a band that can do that and I don’t think it matches the music.

Which goes hand-in-hand with you playing shoulder to shoulder at the front of the stage… LEE: It’s about having a connection with the audience so there’s no dividing line between us. The way the songs are written is really direct and it should be a really instinctive experience. You should be able to dance to it and enjoy it without standing there trying to look cool.

“Seventeen” begins with the line, “Seventeen, a handful of murders”. Not your average coming-of-age tune then. PHIL: It’s about a 17-year-old killer who has grown up in a criminal environment from which he can’t really escape. He’s young, so he feels looked down upon even though he’s the only one who can take action. There’s also this helplessness that he can’t get out of the situation and he can’t change the way he is. He’s loosely based on the character of Pinky in Brighton Rock. I think being looked down upon is a theme that runs through a lot of our songs. It’s frustrating when people think because you’re a bit younger you know less or you can’t be as good, but in this case that’s expressed through the eyes of a man who kills a couple of people.

That theme of being condescended to is also in “Treat Me Like a Baby.” Was that sparked from a specific conversation? PHIL: I was talking about something I really liked and the person was like, “Oh that’s just like one they did in the ’70s,” and it was almost like a putdown. I can’t be born knowing every single thing that happened in the history of music. You have to discover it yourself. “Well, that’s been done before." Well, fuck off! Don’t patronize me because I haven’t researched everything that happened 20 years before I was born!

What do you think you each bring to the table in Night Engine? ED: I’m a great driver. Haha! We worked for a really long time to get our performance top-notch and I think we’re all meticulous musicians, so when it comes to the live show we can actually perform as opposed to just playing the music. PHIL: Dom brings the biggest knowledge in terms of references and it’s taking that knowledge and applying it to his playing. Dom has the best understanding of the technicalities of sound within the band, which is a really lovely thing to have. It’s like having an in-band producer. DOM: Lee is very good at organizing… LEE: Are you serious? That’s what you’re giving me!? Ha! I would say the way Phil writes songs is really driven by rhythm. I guess it’s that Talking Heads influence—things are very percussive as opposed to howling solos. I think that’s what me and Ed work really hard on: making sure there’s just this underlying and instinctive energy, driving everything along.

Was that synergy evident when you played in the wedding band? LEE: I don’t even remember hearing Ed! He was on the trumpet. DOM: Lee’s the most upfront and honest. If we have a problem, he’s the one who says, "I’m not happy about this, I don’t like this," which I think is very, very valuable. When we’re all in a fluster Ed is the one going, “Actually can we all just calm down!” Lee works us up, Ed calms us down. ED: I’m like the in-house counselor and driver.

If your music was the soundtrack to a movie what kind of movie would it be? LEE: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is the best film ever made. ED: No one could write an album as good as that film. It’s got the best opening scene.

Do you have to be high to find it amusing? ED: No, no, no! Nine AM with a cup of tea: perfect!

From The Collection:

Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: Night Engine