Spending time with London five piece Nimmo feels a little like being one of six kids skipping class. When I first meet them, it’s just before Christmas in 2014, and frontwomen Sarah Nimmo and Reva Gauntlett, the band's core songwriting team, are sitting in the recreation room of a West London studio complex, tugging at their sleeves. Bassist Josh Faull spins a pen around his fingers while drummer/producer Jack Williams chomps on a bowl of cereal. The tone of the conversation is that of excited schoolroom gossip—they’ve caught glimpses of the elusive R&B star Frank Ocean and original Spice Girl Geri Halliwell in the corridors of the building lately—and you get the sense that these wide-eyed 20-somethings think they don’t quite fit in.
In reality, they have every right to feel confident: the band are here to record their as-yet-untitled debut album, due out on Columbia this year, with production from James Murphy collaborator and DFA Records co-owner Tim Goldsworthy. A few weeks before our chat, they debuted some of their sprawling new material at a sold-out show at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, emerging from a haze of dry ice with a fistful of expansive, pulsating pop songs. Working with a Prophet synthesizer they bought from London-based Canadian producer Caribou—the one he made his romantic last album, Our Love, with—they’re channeling the New Order’s classic melancholia with the intricate, bluesy electronica of New York duo Darkside.
As of this writing, the band only has two singles online, but Nimmo has been working up to this point for a long time. After a 6th Grade teacher made them reluctantly sit together at their north London school, Nimmo and Gauntlett became such good friends that they got separated for talking too much. As teenagers, they began meeting up after school to make music. “It wasn’t like we were guitarists,” says Nimmo. “It all started with wanting to write songs. We tried putting on my sister’s jungle CDs and singing to that, but we were like, this is too hard. So I taught myself guitar, and Reva learned a bit as well.” After a couple of gigs as a folk duo, they fell in with Faull, a “rudeboy with a violin,” and recruited Hannah Rose, a friend’s little sister, after hearing her virtuosic saxophone playing through a wall. All four went to university in the British seaside town of Brighton, where they met Williams, who introduced more electronic elements to their sound.
“The way I look, and who we are, I can stand on stage and not bat a fucking eyelid. I’m so proud of everything we’ve got.”—Sarah Nimmo
These days, Sarah plays guitar and sings lead, while Gauntlett provides extra vocals and zig-zagging synths. Faull takes bass, and Rose, keys. Starting at university, under original name Nimmo and the Gauntletts, Nimmo spent around seven years managing and promoting themselves and accepting every tiny gig they could get (think: misguided trips to Paris to play 10 minute sets, and appearances at village fêtes). But if packing five people and their equipment into a tiny car to tour the country’s bars seemed like a lot of trouble to go to for very little reward, those years of endless gigging are finally paying off now. “We’re such a live band,” says Gauntlett. “After seven years of every fucking gig on the spectrum, at the end of it, you’re just happy that those people have bought a ticket to come and see you. We’re not annoying pubs any more. They’re voluntarily listening to us!” If anything, Nimmo's thrilling live sets now have a little too much energy; Nimmo says that her management are paying to “literally train me not to sing like I’m singing to a pub. They’re like, seriously, calm down.”
The band’s fortunes changed completely in March 2013, after Gauntlett spotted that British supermodel Agyness Deyn had included a MySpace demo of their downbeat, frustrated love song “Change” in a BBC 6 Music playlist. “I found it when I was googling us,” she says—“probably to see how many people were slagging us off.” The band tweeted at her to say thank you, and took a shot in the dark by asking if she’d be in a video for them. Deyn went one better, and nonchalantly sent them a video for “Change” that she’d already written and directed herself. A short and sweet comment on feminine beauty ideals, the clip was a magic wand for Nimmo: major publications took notice, and offers from management companies and labels came flooding in. French indie label Kitsuné released two of their self-produced singles—”Jaded,” an ode to tough love, and “Others,” a simmering pop song that asks an age-old question with a fresh sting: Do you think about the others when you’re alone with me?
The lyrics that Nimmo and Gauntlett write together brim with the sort of candid familiarity that comes with chatting about life and relationships with your lifelong BFF. It helps, too, that their voices make so much sense together: on record, their harmonies cling together as if glued, and in conversation, they're so good at finishing each another’s sentences that if you closed your eyes you might not know which was speaking. “Me and Sarah have this thing where it’s quite easy for us to write songs [together], because we’re always going through the same thing,” says Gauntlett. “We live parallel lives. Sarah will be like, ‘I feel like this,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Fuck off! Are you serious? I’m feeling exactly the same at the moment.’” It’s that direct empathy that makes their songs such a punch to the gut. “The most honest place to write from, for me, is at a time when I’m going through something slightly challenging,” says Nimmo. “I think that’s the most honest form of love song, when it comes from the worst part rather than the best part.”
Their raw new songs dive right into those rock-bottom experiences, even while they stay dancefloor-oriented; “Early Doors,” in particular, is a propulsive jam that hangs mournfully on a hook about being exhausted. Meanwhile, lead single “Dilute This” is a radio-friendly hit with bitter lyrics that detail how it feels to realize you’ve grown apart from someone you loved. “We’re the type of people where, if we feel like shit, we find the best way to [feel better] is to go out and have a good time,” says Sarah. “When I feel like shit, I listen to quite hard, upbeat music. That’s really cathartic.”
As Nimmo puts it, recording the album has been “weird, roundabout process,” one of figuring out how to capture on record both the cathartic honesty of their songwriting and their larger-than-life stage presence. In some cases, that learning experience involved going back to their DIY roots. Many of the final mixes include live recordings that were made in their first, self-funded studio in Dalston; the album’s lead single, “Dilute This,” includes a large section that was captured on a single mic in the middle of a rehearsal room while they jammed. At times, Nimmo and Gauntlett found they had to get away from London—to Bristol, and various spots round the British countryside—to just be with nothing but each other, their guitars, and “usually wine." Nimmo refers to that period of traveling and re-writing as their “six month rampage.”
Hearing the fruits of their labor at Field Day in June 2015 shows they've come a long way from their beginnings as a pub band. Their harmonizing, guitar-swapping vibe is fluid, their brand new hooks sticky enough to catch on by the end of their set. “We’ve grown in this kind of organic way that a lot of bands don’t really anymore,” Gauntlett explains. “A lot of bands record in the studio, get [a single] out, it gets loads of blog action, then they play their first live show and it sells out. Whereas we’re the kids that were in the back of the pub, playing to no one, for like, seven years now.” As a five-piece, today they play with the confidence of a band whose debut album is a long way in the past. “I can stand on stage and not bat a fucking eyelid," Nimmo continues. "If we didn’t have that, all those years behind us, maybe I’d be more open to feeling scared.”