It is doing no disservice at all to London Grammar to say that very little happens in their songs. Talk to Hannah Reid, Dot Major and Dan Rothman and it’s soon clear that they’d take that as a compliment, though; that what the three of them prize above all in music is space, understatement – even silence, if that’s what a song needs. This approach – “actually, that should be ‘obsession’, Hannah corrects – has resulted in a debut album whose emotional impact is out of all proportion to the musical content of the songs. The result of 18 painstaking months spent writing and recording, its eleven tracks are testament to the trio’s innate understanding of the roles that subtlety, contrast and restraint have always played in great music. “That’s how this all started,” says Dan, “and it’s always been our primary goal, to keep space in the music. The way that, say, the guitar and vocal interact is massively important to us.”
We first heard that interaction last December, when the trio posted the track Hey Now online. A brooding, haunting song, as a mission statement it made plain London Grammar’s intent: Dan’s measured, minimal guitar and Dot’s caressing piano lines and punctuating percussion are precision bombs, always on the point of explosion but, tantalisingly, never quite detonating, their sonic architecture entirely at the service of the song – and the vocals. Okay, let’s talk about those vocals. Perhaps the most endearing thing about Hannah is how absolutely unaware she seems to be of what an extraordinary singer she is. Crystal clear yet rich with vibrato, confiding yet detached, imperious yet vulnerable, Hannah’s voice translates the sound pictures the band obsess over in the studio into raw emotional reality. As Dot puts it: “I know the word is easy to misuse, but I do think Hannah’s voice is truly unique.”
Hot on the heels of Hey Now, May’s Metal & Dust EP twisted the knife further, and strengthened the impression that here was a band with something new and compelling to say, but with the courage to say it as economically as possible. By the time the single Wasting My Young Years appeared, any doubts about London Grammar’s significance had disappeared. Overwhelming precisely because, both lyrically and musically, it drops hints rather than shouts in your face, the track’s sepulchral, desolate, after-hours alt-soul captures everything that is so ensnaring about the band’s less-is-more music-making. Following its release, the buzz built and the chatter grew: you started to overhear people at gigs saying, “Have you heard that new London Grammar song yet?”, and you realised you were witnessing that thrilling moment just before a band explodes.
Hannah, Dot and Dan met at university, bonded over a desire, a need, to make music, and who now, like age-old friends, tease and bicker with one another – and, as Dan puts it, “Fight tooth and nail over only one thing, which is how to do what’s best for the songs. But not in order to achieve perfection. You have to avoid that trap. We really believe that the beauty is in the imperfection.”
Don’t let that remark fool you that they are casual about what they do. On the contrary, they are stop-at-nothing perfectionists, sometimes to their own frustration, and sometimes, each concedes, to that of Ministry of Sound, the label to which London Grammar signed just after leaving Nottingham university and now home to their imprint label, Metal & Dust Recordings. “We were incredibly lucky in that we got spotted at that point,” says Dan. “If we’d signed with someone else it might well have been different, but they wanted to nurture us, and that’s what we needed. A lot of young bands don’t have that time. They were really clear about how to do things, they sort of didn’t want us to exist but to start again from the very beginning.” The band exchange glances. “Okay,” Dan adds with chuckle, “I’m pretty sure they thought the process would be quicker than it was.”
You don’t hurry this lot, though, as everyone who works with them has discovered. Heavily Involved in every aspect of the making their album, even they admit that there came a time when the tinkering and the tweaking had to stop. “If something isn’t completely right, it really sticks out for us,” says Dot. “We tend to agree about deleting stuff more easily; when it comes to putting something in, there are more disputes.”
“Of the three of us,” says Dan, “I’m probably the quickest to go, ‘It’s fine as it is’. At one point while we were making the album, we got too caught up in putting too much on the tracks and losing that sense of space, so we then went through this process of deleting everything we could.” “If I’d had my way,” adds Hannah, with a wry smile, “we’d probably still be in the studio. I’m a nightmare like that. We wrote a couple of new songs earlier this year, when we were in the studio and actually meant to be learning how to play them live. But Dan stepped in, as he usually does.” Her bandmate is having none of this. “I’m always being accused of that,” he says, looking mock outraged, “because I’m sort of the business head. But there were times during the writing and recording process when I just sensed that it was time to put something out, that if we didn’t release Hey Now, we’d miss our moment.”
Well, they didn’t miss their moment. It’s right here, right now. The album is – finally – ready, new songs such as If You Wait and Flickers possessing that strange duality of lament and defiance, that beauty that is somehow at once icy and suffused with warmth, filled with textures, colours, shadings and interjections that are barely there, but which achieve a devastating power. The next single, Strong, is the final, killer blow. Building – as you would expect from London Grammar – from nothing, from the barest of bones, Hannah’s finest vocal yet propels the song to its climax. It’s a song you finish listening to and then find yourself thinking: very little has happened, but everything has changed. “The longer we’ve gone on as a band,” says Hannah, “the more we agree on what we’re doing and why. You eventually reach a point where you find your place, and you realise your music has found its place, too. You just know.” She’s right: they have found it. Now it’s your turn.