Clean Bandit is made up of brothers Jack and Luke Patterson, Grace Chatto and Neil Amin-Smith. After coming together in college, Jack and Grace moved to Russia to further their education. They ended up making music together and invited Neil and Luke out to record their first hit, “Mozart’s House.”
After initial success with the track on YouTube, the band made the decision to pursue music full time. They started cranking out the beginnings of their debut album, New Eyes, and released their hit single “Rather Be” to overwhelming acclaim in the UK.
The single went platinum in several European countries and blew up when it migrated to the U.S. I sat down with Neil to discuss Clean Bandit’s unique fusion of dance music and string instruments, and learn a little more about their accidental, phenomenal success.
Where are you right now?
We’re in Charlotte. We drove all the way here from New Orleans and just got off the bus.
Nice! So you and Grace are classically trained. How did you anticipate music to play a role in your life before Clean Bandit happened? Did you want to be musicians in a chamber orchestra?
When I was younger I envisioned myself being a classical violinist, but by the time I got to university I didn’t want to do that anymore. I realized it’s not a life that I really wanted. I sort of stopped thinking I would be a musician even though I still played music a lot of the time. Then we just got into Clean Bandit and even without us pursuing it from the beginning as a career, it just gradually snowballed.
What roles do the four of you take in the creative process of producing and writing your tracks?
Jack is our primary writer and producer. It usually starts with some instrumentals from him and then we all gradually weigh in. Grace and I will add some string parts on top. The vocals are often a collaboration with the singers that we work with, but not always. With someone like Jess Glynne, we actually had written “Rather Be” before we presented it to her. Conversely, with the track “Heart on Fire,” we had instrumentals and then Elizabeth Troy came back with the vocal line herself. The process is quite different every time.
How does it feel to be in the dance music world, coming from your more classical background?
That’s sort of a funny one, because Grace and I are actually the ones in the band who have more of an affinity with dance music. Jack played a lot of jazz and was in a rock band.
Grace and I ran a club night at university where we would book producers to come and play and I even used to DJ. As a band, all our early gigs were in clubs because those were the only gigs we could get. So we’ve always felt comfortable in a dance music environment, even though at the beginning we weren’t really making dance music. It was much more hip-hop stuff.
In dance music recently, actual instrumentation has been on the rise. Whether it’s saxophone in tropical house, or you guys bringing strings into Clean Bandit. Do you have any thoughts on this resurgence of live instrumentation in dance music?
I think it’s an exciting thing. Many people think that dance music has become too souless, and I don’t think it needs to be. That kind of live instrumentation can bring warmth back into the music.
You are bringing back a style of house music that is from a much older era, like your single “Stronger,” with piano driven melodies and R&B vocals. What musical influences inspired you to bring back this sort of style?
Obviously, stuff like Chicago house has been a big influence but also a lot of UK garage, in terms of the vocals in particular. It’s always a hard question because the four of us have such different musical tastes. And Jack, our main producer, he doesn’t really listen to any music.
Last month in Russia, Grace gave a speech in front of 30,000 people in Russian in support of equality for people of all sexual orientations. How did that go? Do you intend to use your spotlight to advocate for human rights issues?
The day before we went to Moscow, Grace and I had a discussion about whether we were comfortable playing in Russia given the attitude towards queer people. We decided that it would be a positive thing to do because if we made some sort of statement to make clear what our position was, that maybe some people would think about what we said. We had some T-shirts made that read, “All Love Is Real Love,” which was based on the name of our song “All Love.”
If you have a platform, I think it is important to use it for something you believe in like human rights issues. Equality is something that’s important to us.
Looking toward the future, is there anyone else that you haven’t worked with yet that you’re looking forward to working with or would want to? Maybe a Sam Smith collaboration?
That would be great! We talked to Sam Smith about “Rather Be” actually when we were first looking for a singer on it. His album hadn’t even come out yet. He was just someone we knew because we had played quite a few festivals with him. Sam’s got a beautiful voice.
We are starting to look for people to work with on our second album. “Stronger” was originally with Ollie from Years and Years. He actually wrote the chorus for “Stronger” and we originally recorded it with him. It’s now with a different vocalist but it would be great to do something else with him because he’s one of the most impressive vocalists coming out at the moment.
How does it feel to have this sort of renaissance here in the States? Initially “Rather Be” and the album were huge in the UK and then, as a lot of music does, it migrated over here a few months later. Is it like falling in love all over again with a new crowd of people or does it feel a bit old at this point?
We just played SXSW and I really loved it because it reminded me of our days playing smaller stages at festivals in the UK. It’s almost more exciting playing to crowds where some of them know us but a lot of them don’t. It’s their first encounter with us and I really enjoyed having that second honeymoon because it rarely happens in the UK anymore.
What are your musical plans now besides touring? Is there a new album or EP in the works?
We’re playing a couple of new tracks on this tour. Hopefully there will be a second album in early 2016.
Have you ever been to San Francisco before?
We played there last September at The Fillmore, which was such a cool venue. They made us an amazing poster.
What can the fans expect for the show this time? Do you travel with vocalists, or what’s the setup?
We’ve got a lead vocalist, Elisabeth Troy, who is also on the album on the track “Heart on Fire.” She sings everything live. We also have two backup vocalists, one of whom raps – it’s called the New Eyes rap – and another one who also plays keys. We’re still trying to get visas for them, so I can’t guarantee they’ll be at the San Francisco show yet.