DISCO TECH: THE TING TINGS TRANSFORM CLASSIC SOUNDS INTO CURRENT DISCO DITTY’S ON SUPER CRITICAL
By: Jim Villanueva
Katie White and Jules De Martino from the UK duo The Ting Tings were on a mission to party and play till the break of day when they landed on the non-stop drink and dance till you drop island of Ibiza ahead of getting down to work on their third album, Super Critical. As Jules explains, “Immediately we met some of the most eccentric, interesting people and started to listen to their stories. As writers, the one thing you do is listen to stories all day long and that’s really how we started to think we could hang out here. We wrote about eight songs. And then by complete fate we met Andy Taylor from Duran Duran. We were going thru a very interesting phase of becoming independent on our own record label. Andy’s quite rebellious and he’s quite renowned for wanting to do things his way and he really supported us.”
Under Taylor’s tutelage and – according to Katie – the effects of “smoking a load of weed,” The Ting Tings went about shaking their groove thing by unapologetically trying to tap into the sights and sounds synonymous with legendary New York clubs like Studio 54 and CBGB’s. “Our favorite kind of music, as a band, is like late 70s early 80s,” says Katie. “A perfect song is like ‘Rapture’ by Blondie where disco, punk and new wave kind of collided for about a year. For us, we always go back to those bands for references across all the albums.”
A heavy dose of disco, a pinch of punk and more than just a note of new wave permeate the nine tracks found on The Ting Ting’s current album, Super Critical, which we discussed in depth during the second to last stop on the duo’s recently wrapped brief U.S. swing. Following a Super Bowl party performance with the one and only Grandmaster Flash and some European press dates, the UK twosome will return to America in March to perform at SXSW in Austin. They’ll kickoff a fresh round of 23 U.S. dates on March 23 in San Diego. The trek comes to a close April 23 in Dallas. No word yet whether Jules will be packing his all-white Saturday night Fever suit.
I call your sound Disco Tech – T-E-C-H – because on this record you modernize the sound of classic disco. Is that fair to say?
Katie: Yeah I think it is. We’re quite a strange band because every album has sounded different. So definitely on this album we’ve really gone disco, we fell in love with Studio 54, CBGB and all that kind of era. We would sit there and go can you imagine Studio 54 and the glamor of it and the music and the way people danced. We found this photograph of Diana Ross in the DJ booth at Studio 54 with [Chic member/producer] Nile Rodgers DJing and we said look this is how we wanted to perform it [Super Critical] live if we do a club tour.
Super Critical is your third album. While recording it, did you find yourself becoming more and more super critical of your work?
Jules: Less I think, ironically. We’d been through a tough time with the second album [2012’s Sounds from Nowheresville]. We didn’t feel comfortable where we’d got to with so much success on the first record [2008’s We Started Nothing]. Remembering we were a band that started independently; we made our own records, we sold our own records, we did our own house parties in Manchester and then the success came with both the label and globally just touring for two-and-a-half, three years non-stop on that first album changed our lives incredibly so. On the second album there was a lot of pressure for us to be red carpet darlings and we couldn’t manage that. We wanted to get down to the nitty-gritty, to the music and we wanted to challenge ourselves in the writing field. Record companies today don’t like change. You become something, you sell three million albums; keep doing it. We really wanted to experiment as writers and it just felt like things were getting out of hand at that point. Moving on to the third album, being independent we found ourselves back in our own skin. So I think we were less critical in the third than we would have been on the second.
The record starts with the title track. Can you give me a little bit of background on how that track came about?
Katie: That was something we wrote midway thru and we hate saying it because we sound like teenage boys but it was a bag of weed that was in the studio and it was called super critical and it just looked so 70s; it looked so of that time and it was such a cool word and we said that would be a great album title, that would be a great song title. It was quite an easy thing to write about because it’s such a great word. We love finding good words.
More specifically, what was Andy’s contribution to the making of the record?
Katie: For us the most meaningful contribution was just his rebellious heart. Every time we thought could we do this he would just kind of prop us up a little bit; he was just that real moral support. And he’s just good fun and full of amazing stories. I was born in ’83 so I missed Duran Duran, really. Obviously their songs resonate over the years, but I didn’t know he was in a band called Power Station after Duran Duran with Bernard Edwards of Chic. I didn’t know that Nile Rodgers had produced a Duran record and Andy was such a huge fan of Nile Rodgers, that he was his real hero. So we had this affinity strait away and we spent seven, eight months in the studio just completely getting off on that era, listening to all of that music, jamming, smoking a load of weed , forgetting about our worries and it was perfect.
I mentioned before we started our conversation that my daughter Angela is part of your PR team. Here’s a quick anecdote: I lobbied before Angie was born to name her Rio. Obviously I didn’t win. Which leads me to a perfect segue to talk about the song “Daughter.” Jules?
Jules: “Daughter” was a track we had demoed and it was much more punk in its original format. And when we started working with Andy in the studio we tried to smooth it out and get more R&B going on in the backbeat. We have a little thing called a Chaos Pad, it’s a little effects thing that has a pad on it and you can run your fingers across it and it distorts the sound. And immediately it gave the whole track life. And then Katie went back in and did the vocal again and it started to really happen again. Obviously lyrically from Katie’s point of view it was very much about young girls coming home late and getting in trouble, like wait till your father gets home.
Katie: Forgetting your morals, really. It’s kinda like at some point in your life you go oh my god I forgot I was someone’s daughter; I better have a word with myself.
The first thing fans heard off the record was “Wrong Club.” So how do you know when you’ve walked into the wrong club? What makes a club the wrong club?
Jules: (Chuckle) How long have you got? We’ve had so many bad experiences of going around the world and being invited to parties and clubs and most of them are dreadful. The best ones are the spontaneous ones; the best nights are when you don’t over plan. I think the song is more about having a meltdown where you’ve been wasted and you’re drunk and you’re going like what am I doing here sitting in the wrong club.
Katie: You’re quite emotional because your booze or whatever you’ve taken has worn off and you’re just about to puke.
Talk about the juxtaposition of the down lyrics and melding that with the upbeat tempo.
Katie: Well they’re our favorite kind of songs really. I think they are most people’s favorite kind of songs. You’ve either got your super happy songs, just blatantly feel-good. But we prefer bands like The Smiths because they have quite pretty melodies that you wouldn’t necessarily put a depressing lyric with them but that’s what makes it quite powerful what you feel when you have something that’s got a bit more of a moaning emotion. We’re not that great at writing love songs and so we always moan in our songs and it’s quite nice to put it with something that sounds quite beautiful and pretty.
Jules, you said that making this record was like “partying in your bedroom.” How would you describe the atmosphere in the studio?
Jules: The fun starts when you’ve got a lot of songs written or at least three-quarters written. Once you’ve got that kind of sensibility in your songs then the party begins because the recording process – particularly in this case with Andy – once we all knew we were on the same page sonically and we knew what kind of record we wanted to make, I don’t think we’ve had as much fun in the studio, across our three albums that we had with this particular album. We were punching the air every day with sounds we were putting down. With this record, because we were partying so much with it, Katie found herself literally just going over to the mic without headphones and she was just dancing and singing; she was nailing it in just one take. You feel it in the record. It’s a different record to any other record we’ve made solely because she didn’t have cans on. So I think the whole record was very free the way we laid all the layers.
Let’s talk about “Communication” – the song and human communication, or lack thereof. What can you tell us about the song?
Katie: The song was something Jules had started on the iPad. We’d seen this documentary on 10cc about how they’d made the song “I’m Not In Love” and how they’d put every not on the spectrum onto a mixing desk and then played the mixing desk like a keyboard. So we totally wanted to have some of that. We spent three or four days putting the vocals down, every note, and then just having fun playing it.
Let’s talk about communication, and specifically social media and whether we are in fact disconnected or more connected via the plethora of social media. I’d like to get your take on that.
Jules: God that’s probably the most unanswerable question that you’ve asked. That’s a really tough one. We struggle with it as artists, as writers and performers we struggle with it greatly. In 2007 when me and Katie first started The Ting Tings we were running a MySpace at the time…and we would go god there’s 10 people that said they liked our song. So it was hugely important, massively important to us at the time just for our confidence let alone success. And we’d imagined that that was it, that the music industry had changed and the internet was blowing up for musicians and it influenced and inspired us to be as strong as we are today. Ironically, what we also learned about it is that the internet will not sell your music and no one can find you on the internet because how are people gonna discover this little bitty band in Manchester called The Ting Tings. There’s so much music online and so much choice that the avenues are just getting smaller and smaller and smaller. So it’s kind of a really weird weighted question; I want to answer it because I want to be able to tell you that we know enough about our audience, that we love our audience, we want to say that we connect and we can deliver stuff directly to them, but it’s really tough. It’s being governed and controlled in a way by labels still and people still that make it very difficult – particularly for new artists – to get discovered on there; it’s saturated. So, I don’t know the answer to that. It’s definitely a good thing to have but it’s not the answer.
It’s kind of like a needle in a haystack.
Katie: Yeah because there’s thousands and millions of blogs now but there’s only the handful of ones that everybody says are the ones that can make or break careers. But then you’ve also got your Twitters and Shazams and that is not manipulated. So there’s brilliant sides to it where you can kind of see what people are actually thinking.
Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you want to throw out there?
Katie: No we’re good, I think. Nice questions.
Jules: No, you’ve covered it. Really cool, thanks.