Bombay Bicycle Club: „We wanted to do something that people would take notice of and some people would potentially not like“

The interplay between the past, present and future is a theme that crops up several times during my conversation with Ed Nash of Bombay Bicycle Club. It’s appropriate really: despite still being barely in their mid-thirties, the foursome (completed by frontman Jack Steadman, guitarist Jamie MacColl and drummer Suren de Saram) have achieved enough for several lifetimes already. Having got together in the mid-2000s at secondary school, they quickly achieved every teenage band’s fever dream, by winning a competition at only fifteen to open V Festival. By their mid-twenties they’d released four critically acclaimed, diverse albums, headlined festivals, been nominated for and won coveted industry awards, but it left them burnt out, no longer feeling those highs. In 2016 they announced a three-year hiatus to variously pursue other ventures (Nash has since released solo material as Toothless while frontman Jack Steadman has put out two records as Mr Jukes), travel and embark on university degrees. They even sold a lot of their equipment, believing the band to be truly over, but found they simply missed each other too much. In 2019 they returned with their fifth studio album “Everything Else Has Gone Wrong” just in time for Covid to derail its campaign and tour. 

This time, though, the joy of creating and playing together has being sustained, resulting in their sixth album “My Big Day”. It’s their most diverse album yet, quite a feat from a band whose expansive back catalogue already spans indie rock, folk, electronica, pop, dance and world music. It’s also their most collaborative project to date, featuring guest appearances from a range of artists similarly diverse, including Chaka Khan, Damon Albarn and Holly Humberstone. Nash still sounds incredulous, that Bombay Bicycle Club now possess the status that made the likes of Albarn, when played a demo of “My Big Day”, unable to resist picking up a guitar and pleading to be part of its world. To fans of the band, the appeal is self-explanatory. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of this club? It’s clearly a joyful place to be, as we discuss. Our conversation also takes in the unexpected turns that led to some of these collaborations, as well as why putting two fried eggs on the album cover was so important.

So, tell me about the album. I really love it! How are you feeling about playing it live and it being released into the world?

Well, we’ve been in a rehearsal room for the last 10 days kind of working out how to play it live, which is always a strange thing to do. You know how music’s made now, and especially with this record. It was made over the course of about two and a half years, and you work on the songs so much over that period of time. With music and production now, songs can develop and some of them you’re playing on for a bit, some of them you’re not even playing on, some of them you’ve played on so long before and then you’ve kind of moved the stuff around on the computer. Then all of a sudden you come back to it and you’re like: hang on a second, we’ve got to work out how to do this. It’s the beauty of making albums these days, and you get bonkers records like the one we’ve got! And I don’t think you could do it without working in that manner. But working out how to play it live is always a bit of a struggle, and especially with a record like this. I’m really looking forward to it. I think we’re doing a good job with it and it’s been some of the best rehearsal and live music preparation we’ve done, genuinely. I know everybody says that, but this is particularly exciting because the record is completely bonkers! It goes from being quite heavy, almost desert rock music to UK garage to hip-hop to all these things, and I really like it. I hope people like it. I think going into it we were prepared for people not to like it, because I think if you do something so kind of all over the place and experimental, there’s a good chance you might not take everyone on the journey with you. But I’m delighted with it. I’m delighted with how everything’s coming together as well. 

I guess you’ve been a band for so long as well. Now that my son is twelve, it really hits me that you guys weren’t much older than that when you started the band. It must be hard, if you don’t constantly innovate, to keep it fresh. And you seem to still really like each other, which is probably pretty remarkable too!

Yeah, that’s always been part of the band, because we started so young. We started when I was fifteen and we’re all in our early thirties now. We’re still comparatively young for how old the band is. At the beginning, because we were so young and we were working it out, it changed so quickly in terms of genres. It was very straightforward indie rock at the beginning and then we started being influenced by other things. We were just learning about music and listening to it ourselves, which is why there was such a quick progression. That obviously sat very well with us. It was fun and people latched onto it, so it became something that the band was known for. Then with this album, again, we had got to this point where we know how to do all these things and we’re fairly confident with playing and recording music, so I think we were just like: let’s make something that encapsulates and brings in all the influences from things we’ve done before. Instead of trying to please other people, we were like “Let’s just keep doing this!”. It has been a long time! I imagine we’ll keep doing it as well. It feels like a core part of how this band works.

It is a really eclectic album! But like you say, I felt like it pulled on lots of things that you’ve done before and kind of elevated them at the same time. Did you always see it as a really collaborative vision?

I don’t think we ever plan on what a record’s going to be like at the beginning. There’s broad strokes of things like “let’s focus less on singles”. The other albums have one or two standout singles. This one doesn’t feel like it has that, but I think on the whole it’s more adventurous and strong. I think we kind of decided on those broad strokes, and then you just start putting pen to paper and see what happens, and this album’s what came out of that. I think because of the time we took off the band beforehand, and particularly Jack (Steadman)’s time doing Mr Jukes, which was a very, very future-heavy, collaborative project, we’ve come back to it and we’ve been excited to get other people in to expand the song-writing and the singing and playing beyond the core four of us. I think that’s probably why it happened more than planning for it, and I think especially with features at the moment – people do it in quite a cynical way sometimes, because they know people will want to listen to a song because it’s got someone else on it, as opposed to it being for the right reason. All of the features on this record, bar one of them, are people that we knew or had worked with before, so it was always quite a natural, spontaneous thing as opposed to just a cynical way to look good.

It really felt like that to me. All the collaborations are really diverse. I know there’s one in particular that you’ve been keeping secret. When I first listened to it I was trying to work out who the voice was and then I was like “Oh My God, of course! It’s Chaka Khan!” I heard it was accidentally leaked on a UK breakfast TV show though! 

(Laughs) Yeah! It’s not their fault. I don’t think anyone had warned them that we weren’t speaking about it at the time. They had a physical record in their hands and they just read it off the back, because it’s clearly an interesting thing to talk about. It’s one of those things. You always hope you can do the surprise, but they didn’t mean it! So yeah – we got Chaka Khan on the record, which is completely, completely insane! She is the feature who of course we don’t know personally and we hadn’t worked with her beforehand. We had that song, “Tekken 2”, and we loved it, but it wasn’t quite right. It’s kind of this 70s disco-y song with this huge ending so we were like, “let’s get a feature for the end of it”. We were going through artists, and it was Damon Albarn who was like, “you should get Chaka Khan for it!” And we were like, “that is obviously not gonna happen”! But there’s no harm in trying, so we sent her the song. And out of everyone, she was like, you know, it was a very straightforward – I was going to say transaction but it wasn’t transactional, because she and her team were unbelievably supportive and pleasant. I think she just really liked the song! So she was like, “OK I’ll do it.” And we were like, “what the fuck? OK, cool… Wasn’t expecting that!” So Jack went to L.A. to the studio she works out of and recorded her, and that was that. It was really, really, unbelievably generous and exciting for her to be involved in it. I mean, she didn’t have to do it. I think it was just because she liked the song!

I love that Damon Albarn hooked you up with Chaka Khan! That’s incredible!

Yeah! I mean, he comes from this world of Gorillaz and all that, so the way he thinks is clearly on another level to what would be achievable to us! No one in their right mind would just be like, let’s get Chaka Khan on this. It’s completely outside of our world!

It is amazing when she pops up on the video as well. I think that is such a joyful song. Talk to me about “Heaven”, your collaboration with Damon Albarn. Again, I think that’s one of my favourite tracks on the album. 

Thank you! That’s another bizarre story. We had a song that was very different from “Heaven”. It had the beat and a few of the melodies, but not the main part that he sings. Jack was playing Damon the song – they’ve worked together on some other projects and we wanted to get his opinion on some of the songs. Jack was playing him the demo just literally for his opinion, and instead Damon was like, “hang on a second”, and he picked up a guitar and wrote the main part of the song that he sings. Then we found ourselves with this Damon Albarn feature on the record that we didn’t ask for or intend for! He just wrote the part and said did we mind if he sang it, and we were like, “no! Of course you can sing it – we’d love that!” He’s one of our heroes. Both Chaka Khan and Damon Albarn – you kind of pinch yourself. It’s pretty cool that they’re on this record. And then from him doing that – we had this bare bones song with the structure from Damon and Jack singing, and we were like, let’s really push this to the max, because the album we’re making, everything is going to the extreme, so we got an orchestra on it and there’s a string section and a horn section, the whole shebang on this record, which we’ve never done before, and I don’t think…if we hadn’t got Damon Albarn on it and it hadn’t become this grand, huge, epic song, we wouldn’t have done that. So you find yourself naturally being pushed in these directions that you wouldn’t find yourself going in if you sat and planned it. 

And again, that’s such a different and, as you say, non-cynical way to look at a collaboration as well, as enhancing your own art. I also really liked the way the collaborations all reference different musical decades: you’ve got the 80s, the 90s, quite a few younger, newer artists too. They must be very influenced by Bombay Bicycle Club as well, so even though you’re still quite a young band, you’re actually in that role of influencing up-and-coming artists as well.

That’s another surprise. Because as you say, we were always younger than our contemporaries, because we were so young when we started, and we’re still relatively young for the amount of time we’ve been doing it. To see a whole new generation coming through, who are influenced by the music we’ve done, is pretty surreal. And actually, those three artists – again it wasn’t cynical. Holly Humberstone was a fan and Jack did work on her record. And Nilufer Yanya – we had a dressing room next to her at a festival, and she was a fan of our work too. So, I think you’re right – there is a split in the record and actually, maybe this is thinking too much about it, to me it feels like this record is where we are taking stock of the past and looking at what we’ve done, which is a fair amount now, but also looking to the future and thinking about what’s next. And I guess you have the split in generations there. All of those three collaborations with younger artists came about because they were fans or we’d met them in our own capacity as musicians. We didn’t just call them in for the sake of it.

The other track on the album I love, which is maybe the maddest, is “Rural Radio Predicts the Rapture”. I could play that to people, and they would never guess it was a Bombay Bicycle Club track! You do have quite a few songs though that are great electronic tracks – I don’t think you get enough credit for that!

That track really does push the boat out maybe the furthest, aside from the orchestra. It’s great fun to make that kind of music. It’s a very, very different experience, putting the record together and playing it live. There’s two songs we haven’t worked out live yet and they are “Heaven” and that one, because we’re pretty stumped about how to do it as a band. They’re completely different approaches. We’ll work it out and find a way of doing it! It’s fun. It does provide quite a lot of challenges, because you almost need everyone to get the head torches on and get samplers and drum machines out and become a different band for it, but I love it.

It’s a really joyful album. I really felt that, and obviously the album artwork as well – how did that come about? It does look like you’re not taking yourselves seriously. It’s very much about having fun?

Can I ask you what you think of it? I’d be very interested, before I answer that. You can be as honest as you like – I won’t be offended!

Haha! Well, obviously some of your artwork is really, really beautiful. My favourite album, that I’ve got a t-shirt of the cover of, is “So Long, See You Tomorrow”. I know the new cover has really divided opinion, and I wasn’t sure at first, because it’s not a pretty album cover. It’s literally fried eggs on a face! But I get it now in the context of the album, because when I listened to it, the first thing I thought was: this is people just having such joy in making music. I wondered if it was about just not taking yourself seriously, or is there more of a story to it?

Sorry, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot! I was just really interested to hear someone else’s opinion who’s spent time with it! I think you basically hit the nail on the head there. This is our sixth album and with the other ones we thought a lot about them and wanted to do something very aesthetically pleasing. And it’s not that we didn’t think about this one, but like with the record we wanted to do something that people would take notice of and some people would potentially not like. And actually, as it’s happened, a lot of people are really annoyed with this record cover, because it doesn’t look good! I’m really happy with it! I love it, and I think it suits the music but we’re well aware that it’s quite an aggressive, confrontational cover, which was the intention. I think it was pushing back on all the stuff we’d done before, which was very tasteful illustrations and things like that, so to point to this change in direction and then to get the sense of joy across. That was the idea of that photo and I think you completely hit the nail on the head there because it’s silly. I think it’s good. I think there’s a lot of creativity and interesting stuff there. You have to be able to put yourself on the line a bit and take some risks and have fun with it as well. We all brainstormed a bit at the beginning and had serious ideas of making these sculptures and making it aesthetically pleasing, and then there was a photo of a guy with an egg of this face, and we were like, Let’s do that. I think people will talk about it and have an opinion, and a lot of people don’t like it! I don’t think many people are doing album covers that they know are going to divide people, which is probably a good thing!

Where did you find the photo?

It’s another mental story. We had this original picture which was a man with two eggs on his face smiling and it was from the early days of the internet when you had image libraries. It was just an image from that. We tracked the guy down who took it, who’s now in his 60s or 70s, who said he didn’t mind if we used it but he didn’t have any release permission on it, because it’s so ancient. We talked to a few people who said, “don’t do it. That’s a bad idea! You can’t just make an album cover if you don’t have permissions for it.” So, the image on the front cover of the record is us re-creating the image. We made a few fake fried eggs, and we went to a casting agency and found a guy that looked like the guy on the previous cover and literally recreated it, which was a weird day, when you look around you like, what am I doing?! This is a silly use of my time! But it’s all for the greater good. I’m really happy with it. And I do appreciate that it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing thing we’ve ever done, but hopefully people can get on board with that being the point to the whole thing.

It does really fit. It’s like the video for “My Big Day” as well: the news programme reporting on all the absurd everyday events that people find such joy in!

Absolutely. I really love it!

Photo © Tom Oxley