ON YOUR MARK…: THE MACCABEES FINALLY FIND FINISH LINE FOR FOURTH ALBUM MARKS TO PROVE IT
BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Many musicians might agree that, not unlike life itself, the process of making music is a marathon and not a sprint. If that’s true, The Maccabees epitomized that philosophy in the writing and recording of their fourth studio effort, Marks to Prove It, the follow up to 2012’s Given to the Wild. It took the South London five-piece – Orlando Weeks (vocals), Felix White (guitars), Hugo White (guitars), Rupert Jarvis (bass) and Sam Doyle (drums) – over two years to complete the task of delivering their new 11-song soundscape, which is out now digitally in the U.S. (click HERE to buy), with a special physical edition to be released exclusively in the U.S. this fall.
As the extended period of its production would suggest, Marks to Prove It is a meticulously crafted album that deserves to be heard from start to finish, uninterrupted by outside distractions. As their titles imply, songs such as “”Kamakura,” “Silence,” “River Song,” “Slow Sun” and “Dawn Chorus,” among others, will take you on sonic sojourns, while the opening and title track introduces the record with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball hitting the side of a building.
I recently spoke with frontman and main lyricist Weeks about several of the songs on Marks to Prove It and came away convinced that The Maccabees have produced a magnum opus that could prove to be the collection that ensures they’ll leave their mark on music for some time to come. One more thought: if Marks to Prove It was to be defined by a license plate frame, it would be the one that says “Always Late…But Worth the Wait!”
Orlando, thank you for your time today, and congratulations on this record, Marks to Prove It. The overall sound of the album – minus the opening title track, and more on that in a second – has a very The Verve and Richard Ashcroft solo vibe, and I hope you take that as a huge compliment because that’s what it’s meant to be. That said, what is the overall lyrical theme of the record?
I think there’s not a kind of total blanket theme, but I think I was definitely trying to make sure that I was using underground words and just trying to find ways of having slightly more of a story for each one of the songs, and having them set, if and when possible, as close to or around our studio in Elephant and Castle, South London. So that’s kind of where I was getting the starting points for songs and building songs around snippets that I’d overheard in the area of people’s conversations; [like] the top deck of a bus, or whatever. So I think it was a bit of that. It was trying to be rooted very definitely in the every day, and try to celebrate that and not see that as a limitation at all.
I wanted to emphasize album because it is a great record to put on and listen to from start to finish. And thank you for that. So I have the download, Orlando, so I guess the downside of downloads is you don’t get the booklet. I’m certainly a guy who loves to dig into the lyrics, so I don’t have that at my disposal, but from listening to the record, the theme that I got out of it was maybe that the only constant is change. Is that fair to say?
Yeah, I think it definitely plays a part. Being in an area of London that’s going through a lot of change, and also being in the same studio for days, so you notice any change. A lot of people have a much more kind of rhythm in their day-to-day, but the thing of being in a band is that more often than not, you don’t. And so when you’re in the same studio every day for two-and-a-half years, suddenly you do notice those things…and they’re much more amplified; you know, the passing of and the changing of.
Let’s get into some of these songs. First of all, are you familiar with the saying “going from zero to 60 in six seconds?”
You mean as in a kind of car thing?
Yeah, yeah, sorta speak. Well sonically I think the album kind of goes from 60 to zero in that it kicks off with the title track, which is certainly a rocker, and then there’s a lot of layers and tempo change through the entire album. So my question is this; is there a danger of the opening track being so hard rockin’ and upbeat, and then the general tempo of the rest of the album being far less than that? Do you know what I’m saying?
I get what you’re saying. I think that what we thought was that, musically, whenever we listened to the record, it just always sounded better at night and we wanted to try and have the track listing try and reflect the kind of arch of it; the nighttime. I always think that the first song is the kind of last throes of daylight and then the outro is the kind of slow dissent into evening. So in a way it’s kind of like a preface and then that outro is what sort of lulls you into the general mood of the record. We wanted it to be the first single cuzz we sort of felt like we’d been away awhile and we wanted something that sort of blew away the cobwebs a little bit, and so we thought that song did it better than anything, and it was the only place that that song would have fit on the record, and we definitely felt that it needed to be on the record. When you hear it as the intro to the second song, suddenly it…sets the mood, and then you fall out of the kind of blistering tempo and into something a lot more lulling and woozy.
Perfect! Perfect, Orlando. You said exactly what I was thinking and feeling while I was listening to the record, much, much better than I did (laughs).
Ah. I’ve talked about it a lot more.
Yes. You’ve lived with it, certainly. So obviously you tap down the tempo considerably with the second song, “Kamakura.” Is this song about the city in Japan, or the Kamakura Period of history? What was the inspiration for this one?
Felix had this initial piece of music that he’d written after spending a couple of days in Kamakura when we were on tour in Japan. We’d had a very hectic run of touring and all of a sudden here was this place that he found wonderfully peaceful. When he played me the initial idea, that kind of ascending chord thing, it felt very kind of hypnotic. It was sort of gentle; it was lulling. And I didn’t want to try and match that; I wanted my side of things to be the opposite of that. It’s about kind of kicking out time (closing time in America) and the unease that is felt around then and all these kind of odd soap operas that go on outside of pubs where people have been drinking all day. And yet there’s a comradery in it; that midnight choir feel about everyone coming out, and yet it’s slightly hard to tell sometimes if people are getting a cuddle or a throttle. That’s where I was coming from. I felt like he’d set it somewhere so specific that I would set my accompanying lyrics and melodies and stuff in a very different place.
It’s a beautiful track. And there are so many good tunes on Marks to Prove It that I’d like to ask you about every one of them, but obviously we don’t have the time for that, so let’s talk a little more about some of the ones that made the biggest impact on me. When “WW1 Portraits” really kicks in, I was reminded – in a very good way – of The Waterboys and Mike Scott’s vocals in particular, when you really get wailing there. Again, is that a fair comparison to make?
I’ll be honest, I’ve never listened to The Waterboys, but you explain to me what The Waterboys is to you.
I would say in a word it’s big, it’s big music! It builds. That’s the way I would describe it; it’s powerful.
Well it feels comfortable in its skin, I think, and then it kind of settles into itself. And lyrically it’s about, well, I’d been to see this exhibition about World War I portraits and I felt like, here are all these extraordinary paintings of these idealized and, and, oh what’s the word here…
Yeah, but it’s like a presumption of heroism, but these are men who haven’t proven themselves but yet they’re painted as though they’re heroes to be; heroes in waiting. And I just thought that I would go home and try and write my own propaganda. So that’s what that was about, just trying to create an idealized version of someone. So yeah, and The Waterboys thing you’d have to ask someone else, but I’m glad that you think it’s big. We wanted something with some muscle.
Very cool. “Spit it Out” starts with a pretty piano and a beautiful vocal on your part, of course, but then again it builds to sound a little haunting before it settles into explosive. Take us into the recording session for that song.
I had the piano thing for a long time and I’d always felt like it should just sit in that sort of intro world, and then Sam had that sort of slightly thuddy, stomp-along thing that the drums do, and then the boys Felix and Hugo) just followed the chords; both doing the same thing so it feels like it’s got that weight to it. On previous records I think we would have recorded guitar and guitar and guitar over and over and over to make that thickness, but we found it was great if the two of them just did it slightly off each other then you get that weight. And so that was that, really. We had a guy called Laurie Latham (producer, Echo and the Bunnymen) come into the studio when we were writing for a few weeks, and that song was one we had, but we’d sort of lost faith in it…and he revitalized our faith in it. It almost didn’t make it and then Larry told us, you gotta be daft if you’re throwing that away.
Well I’m glad it survived cuzz it’s certainly a favorite of mine on the record.
You mentioned the piano piece, and I mentioned it as well. Piano plays a big part on this record. Was it a conscious band decision to incorporate more keys on the album?
Well there’s a couple of things that happened. I’d started playing it more, and so did Felix and Hugo just because there was one in the studio where we were working, in our rehearsal room. It turns out the room was The Jesus and Mary Chains’ originally, 15 years ago or something, and the piano was left there. So we got it tuned up and that’s what’s on the record. So I think in a way it just sort of enforced its personality. I’d also bought a Wurlitzer and we had this piano that had survived the culling of whenever The Jesus and Mary Chain had left that studio.
It was meant to be. Let’s talk about “Ribbon Road.” The best way I can describe it is epic. Talk about that track.
We wanted that to have a feel of like at this point in the arch of the nighttime we’ve had the kicking out time and now you’re into this section of trying to get home, or onto the next place, and so you’ve got that kind of night bus mentality and the top deck bubble that exists. I don’t know if it happens so much in other countries, but in the U.K. the top deck of a night bus has a very definite sense of theatre, and that was kind of what it was about. It can be incredibly alienating, and on all public transport, you’re part of it and yet entirely on your own in many ways.
That’s an interesting observation about public transportation; you’re literally inches away from people but yet everyone is in their own cocoon.
Yeah. But in a way when you get on the top deck of a London night bus quite often you can have a good party on the top deck of a night bus, now and then.
I mentioned The Verve at the top of the conversation, and of course I mentioned The Waterboys. Going back to your early days of listening to music, who left the biggest musical mark on you, and maybe left so much of a mark that you said, I wanna make music for the rest of my life?
Well I think growing up I didn’t really listen to a lot of music. I remember I loved that Fugees record, and I kind of thought that was all I needed. And then Felix, who was a friend of my little brother’s, used to spend a lot of time at our house. He’s a very good teacher, without meaning to be, and so he’d just sort of play stuff, and that got into my head a bit. He played a lot of Oasis and stuff, and I’d always had The Beatles in my life, but I’d never sort of seen it as music, if you know what I mean. It was just sort of the accompaniment to a car journey. I just never thought about it like that, really, and then when I was about 19 I decided I just needed to do something other than watch TV. I got given an acoustic guitar that I could basically tell it wasn’t in tune but I had no idea how make it in tune, and then a friend of my mum’s had been in a band in the 80s called The Jags and he taught be a couple of bits and pieces and taught me four or five chords and suddenly I had a way of convincing myself that I wasn’t just watching TV; I was watching TV and writing songs. I thought, I’m pretty limited here, so I started finding people that were slightly less limited than I was and that was the beginning of the band. In terms of bands that I thought were great, I loved The Clash, Interpol, I loved Franz Ferdinand when they first came out, and remember going to see The Vines and thinking this is amazing. I started listening to Joy Division because of Interpol, and The National because of Interpol. And then we used to watch (U.K. TV music show) The Old Grey Whistle Test DVD and (The Band’s) The Last Waltz DVD as a band and say, oh right, ah, you can have two people singing at once, f**k (laughs).
And who know, Orlando, you might get turned on to The Waterboys after this conversation.
I think I will. My mate was playing me Jim O’Rourke the night before last and so I think that and The Waterboys might be a pretty good compliment.
There you go! Final question for you: it took over two years to paint the sonic landscape that is Marks to Prove It, so if the album was a painting would you describe it as a self-portrait or surrealism?
A friend of the band and a really great writer said that he thought that if it was a painting it reminded him of (English painter and printer) Patrick Caulfield (1/29/36-9/29/05), and I thought that’s a pretentious thing for someone to say. He explained himself by saying that in almost every Patrick Caulfield, and this is true, there’s the presence of people and yet there’s hardly ever any people. And I felt so flattered by that comparison, and for those reasons, and so I think that’s a very fitting and astute piece of commentary on the record and I’m very touched that someone would think that because I love Caulfield and I love the thinking behind that.
Cool. Well now I’m gonna have to look him up.
Yeah, you’ll love it. It’s amazing stuff. I think you’ll like it. It’s great.
Cool, thanks. Orlando, thank you, and again, Marks to Prove It is an album in the truest sense of the word, so congratulations on that.
Are you guys gonna be in the States any time soon?
Yeah, we’re coming out there in October.
Great, well we’ll look out for tour dates and look forward to that. Take care. It’s been a pleasure.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Orlando Weeks of The Maccabees, please visit and “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.