Dollars to Pounds: CYMBALS’ Art-Pop Is the Harvard University Press Meets Whitney Houston

CYMBALS’ art-pop is the Harvard University Press meets Whitney Houston.

February 14, 2014

"I’ve got to be at work at 7:30AM. I wanna just be like, 'It’s cool, you can do this, you can live this life if you want to.'"

Selim Bulut is a music writer who lives in London. He has the most meticulously organized iTunes folder in the land. He’ll be writing about some of the excellent music coming out of the UK every other week.

CYMBALS are a charming little art-pop band from London who make songs that seem very unassuming and unpretentious on first listen but are, secretly, loaded with hooks, complex songwriting, and incredibly clever lyrics. Earlier this month they released their second album, The Age of Fracture, and they’re buzzing from its release when we meet before a sold-out show at Islington’s Electrowerkz. Finding a quiet place in the venue to record the interview proves tough, with security ushering us along whenever we seem to find a comfortable spot. Each new location seems to be less glamorous than the last; what starts off as a chat in a private room near the bar ends with the five of us are huddled inside the dressing room toilet.

A bit has changed since CYMBALS released their debut album in 2010. For starters, the new record has seen them settle into being a proper band. Previous years saw them undergo various lineup permutations, but their current configuration is the most consistent they’ve had since they started: singer/guitarist Jack Cleverly and keyboardist Dan Simons remain from the first formation, with the rest of the group fleshed out by bassist Luke Carson and drummer Neil Gillespie, two schoolfriends from Ireland who used to jam with CYMBALS at house parties. Before that, members were coming and going on a fairly regular basis. Case in point: at one point during the interview, Neil points excitedly to a feller at the bar across the room. “That guy played drums for a few gigs!”

“He filled in at the Camden Crawl!” Jack Cleverly laughs, before turning back to me and adding dryly, “We played the Camden Crawl a few years ago with Charlie XCX and Disclosure—so we’ve obviously done really well out of that.”

It’s this witty, down-to-earth attitude that really characterises CYMBALS. Their music is jam-packed with lofty references and allusions—The Age of Fracture is named after a book by Princeton academic Daniel T. Rodgers, for example—but they carry a good sense of humour about themselves that separates them from many of their ever-so-earnest, straight-faced contemporaries. They’re genuine about making the music that they believe in, and they bring that enthusiasm to both their music and their energetic live show.

Stream: CYMBALS, "Erosion"

Tell us a bit about the book called The Age of Fracture, which inspired your new album title. CLEVERLY: We wrote these songs over the last year or two, and I read the review of the book in the London Review of Books during that time. The review captured the idea of the book, and I had that boom!, that really interested moment. It’s about this idea that everything’s quite complex, it’s not about these big grand narratives, and that everything’s more subtle than that, more diffuse…

See, I don’t really encounter too many bands who are so open about the influence of art or poetry on their music. CARSON: We should just appeal to the academics. That can be our selling point. CLEVERLY: You know we were on a blog on Harvard University Press? That was a big day. I actually had an email exchange with Daniel T. Rodgers, the academic who wrote the book. I basically said that the worst thing we could do is summarise his book in song. That would be really shit if people were like, “Daniel T. Rodgers wrote this book, and this pop band have done a three-minute version of it.” GILLESPIE: He liked the music, didn’t he? You sent him the files. CLEVERLY: Yeah, he loved it. Well, he liked it. That was a concern though—we were like, “How far can you go?” Because in the past, we’d have a song like “Like An Animal” that was secretly based on this Thomas Mann book. You can’t tell people that, because that’s ridiculous—they’d be like, “Fuck off, it’s just a song. Who gives a shit?” But then there was this tipping point where it was just, like, fuck it.

As a counterpoint to all those academic ideas, though, you were also really influenced by groups like The Gap Band and Whitney Houston on this record, which is as populist as you can go. SIMONS: Well, a couple of our earliest songs started out as Whitney Houston covers. CLEVERLY: The drumbeat on “Winter 98”, that’s taken from The Gap Band… wait, are we gonna get sued by all these people? I bet The Gap Band’s licensing people have a blog bot that picks up any mention of them.

All those bands have very shiny, polished production, which has rubbed off on your new album, especially compared to your older stuff, which was a bit rougher round the edges. CARSON: This is the first record that me and Neil have been involved in since the start. So there’s four of us writing, meaning there are more options, so you’ll naturally have a bigger sound. GILLESPIE: Plus getting [the album's producer] DREAMTRAK in turned it from this three-piece, post-punky, live, demo-y recording into actually having multiple synths, a technical approach to what we could achieve and doing more stuff in post-production rather than just releasing the raw demos. CLEVERLY: I think our concern was getting too polished. The thing we wanted to do at the beginning was electronic music with instruments. We really love dance music and wanted to cover it—so that it sounds like a shit version of it, but then that will be its own thing, so the limitations kind of shape it. But on this we were like, [throws hands in the air, adopts silly voice] “No limitations!”

CARSON: I always get scared when I read reviews, because I think “synth pop” is such a dirty word. We’re, like, four white British lads trying to be groovy—we need to be a band and keep our guitars nice and loud. CLEVERLY: But I read about my favourite band from that set of influences, Change, and one of the guys in the band was an Italian businessman… the funkiest band ever, yet one of them was an Italian businessman! SIMONS: We don’t have that person. Well, unless someone wants to give us a load of money… CLEVERLY: That’d make everything really easy.

On not having money, there’s a very independent spirit to what you do—it’s pop songwriting, but it’s not trying to aggressively cross over. CARSON: I just want to be in one of those bands that’s cool for people who are 30 years old and have a job, but who want to live the dream. I mean, I’ve got to be at work at 7.30AM tomorrow. I wanna just be like, “It’s cool, you can do this, you can live this life if you want to.” GILLESPIE: Doing this around a 40-hour week is good, though I do wonder how much more we’d achieve if we had a bit more time. CARSON: If we had more time to write songs with the band, would it be more time to write amazing songs?

CLEVERLY: It’s difficult working out music around a job; it takes time and it takes effort, and if you’re just slogging away and it starts being difficult, then you stop having fun. So quitting what we’re doing and going out on a limb and just doing a tour might actually be really depressing! CARSON: If we were locked in a studio for forty hours a week rather than three hours then maybe we wouldn’t be friends.

CLEVERLY: We say keep it fun, though, but sometimes people think, “Oh, it’s just a laugh, they don’t take it seriously…” CARSON: We take it very, very seriously. SIMONS: We take fun very seriously.

From The Collection:

Dollars To Pounds
Dollars to Pounds: CYMBALS’ Art-Pop Is the Harvard University Press Meets Whitney Houston