It was the Spring of 2004...
For reasons I never quite fathomed, London's trendy music scene seemed to have been taken over by those kinds of indie bands that specialise in the maudlin, the melancholic and the frankly depressing. One afternoon I tuned in to a certain alternative radio station and heard five such songs played back to back. They might as well have branded the segment 'music to slit your wrists by'. I'm not saying the experience left me actually suicidal, but, when juxtaposed with the sunny day outside, surely I wasn't the only one left a little bit depressed by said station's dirge heavy playlist?
So you can imagine my genuine joy when I first got my hands on Grand National's 'Kicking The National Habit'. Here was new music that glistened. That boogied. That riffed. That bounced. That brought a smile to your face, made you nod your head, tap your feet and adopt that half dance half walk thing you do sometimes when you're walking from your desk to the kettle (that's not just me, right?).
And yet, get this. Despite the boogie, and the bounce, and the upbeatness, each one of the songs on this album possessed more substance and feeling than all five of those depressing dirges put together. I'm not saying Grand National saved my life in the summer of 2004, but they certainly cheered me up.
But this isn't about my life story. It's about their life story. About how London boys Rupert Lyddon and Lawrence 'La' Rudd combined their musical skills in a North London attic to create some of the most exciting new music to come about since the dawn of this here millennia. About how they navigated the always-chaotic often off-putting music business, whilst paying their rent by playing the cover bands circuit. And about how they finally struck a deal that brought their music to the wider world, and then the even wider wider world. And how, now, three years on, they are ready to unleash a second awesome long player. This is the Grand National story.
"It kind of happened by accident" Rupert explains. "It was just after New Years 2001. I knew La because we were playing in cover bands together. I suggested he come over to my place to put some vocals to some original tracks I'd been playing around with. And it kind of clicked straight away". So much so, two of the duo's most popular tracks, 'Playing In The Distance' and 'Peanut Dreams', came out of that initial post-New Year collaboration. "I remember listening back to that early cut of 'Peanut Dreams'", Rupert continues, "and thinking 'this stuff really has legs' - I really pleased with what we'd done".
What clicked more or less straight away was the 'formula' which became the 'Grand National formula'. Though it was a little while before Rupert and La started calling it that. That formula remains today as the boys put the finishing touches to their second album. This is how it works. Rupert is the production genius who single handedly creates the musical element that is so rich that most people not in the know assume they work with a whole orchestra of musicians. La is the words man. It is he who subconsciously writes and delivers the lyrics (sometimes emotive, sometimes quirky, sometimes nonsensical, but always catchy) that makes Grand National's songs so extra special.
"Rupert does all the scientific twiddling", La explains, employing some technical jargon to explain the Grand National process, "then I come up with the lyrics. They generally come straight away, as soon as I hear Rupert's music, in a kind of stream of consciousness. If a song is going to work it comes together quickly".
"La is the first stage of A&R for Grand National in many ways", Rupert adds, "I'll come to him with a string of ideas - we had over forty for the new album - and his reactions determine which ones we develop".
With the formula in place, Rupert and La quickly became quite prolific in their home based music making, so that before long they had built up quite a repertoire of great songs. "Once we started to get our name out there quite a few labels expressed an interest in releasing a single with us. But by that time we were like 'but we've got a whole album ready!".
Getting noticed in this media saturated world of ours is, of course, no easy matter, especially when you're creating songs as musically involved as Grand National but with only two of you - Rupert and La could hardly do the gig circuit populated by the aforementioned dirgy indie bands. Though ironically they were probably actually gigging a whole load more than most of those bands, because they were paying their bills at that stage by playing cover band gigs, playing the music of Queen and The Police (knowledge of the latter was possibly why so many people made reference to the Sting-like quality of La's vocals, though actually I think La's voice is more distinct than Mr Sumner).
"We played some pretty rotten places" Rupert admits, recalling those cover band days, "in fact you wouldn't believe some of the gigs we did. There was this one place where the manager presented you a list of the songs he expected you to play at the start of the night, and the order he expected you to play them in. The money was OK, but it could be pretty soul destroying".
"But", La adds, "it was better than having a proper job. It meant we were free in the days to work on getting our first album together". For which we should all be thankful. But not being able to gig Grand National's songs at that stage, Rupert and La knew they needed to find a label to work with in order to get their emerging debut album out into the public domain.
"It can be very hard at that stage" Rupert admits, "and you have to feel for all the bands out there currently trying to get noticed. I'd been trying to get into labels for a while, then I met this guy through a workmate of my girlfriend who already had a deal. I asked him how he'd done it, and he said that he'd got himself a music lawyer, and that they were often so well connected that that was a way to get an in. So we approached a lawyer, and through her got ourselves our manager. And things started to get more serious from there. Certainly it gave us more focus, and provided the impetus to start transforming what we'd done so far into a debut album".
This was when the so called buzz started to grow around Grand National. It's also when Rupert and La started to learn how important your choice of label can be in the music industry. "There was a lot of interest in our early tracks," Rupert explains, "which was great, because it confirmed that it wasn't just us who thought we were on to something. But it can be very frustrating when people tell you they are going to release your music, and then suddenly stop returning your phone calls! You quickly realise that you need a serious record label behind you to properly get your music out there".
Things came together label wise when the guys met Sunday Best man Rob da Bank. "They were simply the first to say 'let's go for it'" Rupert explains, "and after experiencing a whole load of procrastination from elsewhere in the industry that was just so refreshing. Robby and the Sunday Best guys clearly loved the album, and would get properly behind it. So the deal was done".
And so, over three years after that first session, Grand National's 'Kicking The National Habit' was finally unleashed on an unsuspecting world in May 2004. And, as I said, not a moment too soon. Tasked, as music reviewers often are, to make comparisons between the Grand National sound and artists who had gone before most would refer to the likes of the Happy Mondays, and New Order, and, aptly given their cover bands past, The Police.
But this was the thing, while Rupert and La had combined some of the better elements of eighties and nineties British pop music in their sound, they had done so in a way that sounds very contemporary. Possibly even timeless.
"The original plan was to utilise a relationship Sunday Best had with a major record company to launch the album globally in one go" Rupert recalls, "but that relationship ended just before the album was released. Which at the time was a big disappointment, but with hindsight may have been a blessing in disguise. Because it meant, in the same way the album had organically come together over three years, we were able to promote it in a more gradual organic way too. Which is more work, but is probably a better way to do it. The music gets its own thing going".
Working with Sunday Best in the UK, and other independents in other territories, and in particular Recall in both France and the US, the release of 'Kicking The National Habit' was staggered over a two year period, with the US release coming in March 2006. Slowly Grand National's fan base grew around the planet - as the band was picked up by critics, DJs and record buyers alike as far a field as Brazil, Japan and America.
Of course once the album was out there, those of us that like to call ourselves 'early adopters' started to demand a Grand National live show. And while Rupert and La had shied away from transforming their fantastic multi-instrumental recorded sound into a live show previously, with more support behind them they decided now was the time to rise to that challenge.
"There was a bit of a 'how the hell are we going to do this' moment when we first started putting together the live show" La admits, "But like everything else, it came together organically. The album is so well orchestrated we're not a band who can just jam to get into the mood, but the more we gigged the better it got".
"There were a couple of less good gigs at the start," Rupert admits, "and I'm sure there were a couple of audiences who came along to see this 'buzzy new band' Grand National and left thinking 'what the hell was that?'. But it quickly came together, and suddenly we'd be playing a gig, somewhere in Europe, and we'd think 'hey, we've really got something here'. I think the live show elevates the tracks off the album. That's not to say the songs are different when played live, but its..." Rupert ponders for a second... "like the album, but with more spark".
The other advantage of spreading the promotion of the debut album over a two year period was it gave the boys more time to work on album number two. "We'd already started writing the second album before the first one was released" Rupert says, "but with us promoting 'Kicking The National Habit' throughout 2004, 2005 and 2006, it was only recently that we started to focus on getting a second album complete. Which was great, because it meant that, like the first album, this new one had time to develop. We were able to employ an 'it takes as long as it takes' philosophy".
And the new long player definitely benefits from that. Many artists suffer from rushing into their second album. They've spent their whole lives developing their debut, then a label rushes them into the studio expecting album number two to come together in a month. But the Grand National sound isn't really something that should be rushed. "It's better if I can try out lots of silly different angles before we decide what route to actually take" Rupert says.
Of course another reason why many bands have to rush their albums is because studio and producer time doesn't come cheap. But that's not a problem for Grand National. Rupert himself is the producer, and with a studio set up in his attic much of the second album has been as homemade as the first. "Except for the drums" La says, "we have some really expansive drums on the new album, and we rented a studio to do them". Which was probably a wise thing to do, if only to preserve good relations between Rupert and his neighbours.
The new album both continues and extends what we got from 'Kicking The National Habit'. There's a darker more obviously electro sound on some tracks, which may well lead to more Depeche Mode comparisons when the reviewers get their pens out. Others have an even more live instrumental sound than the songs of 'KTNH', perhaps influenced by the Grand National live shows that have evolved since the debut.
But throughout the sound remains very much Grand National. That's partly because there's definitely something distinct about Rupert's production technique - despite the eclectic results of his work. I find it hard to put my finger on exactly what that is but Rupert explains "there's always some kind of duality going on in Grand National tracks - a happy/sad thing, or fast/slow thing, or something like that". I'm not quite sure I understand what he means, but it probably explains why there is something musically distinct about Grand National.
Though the most distinct thing is surely La's shimmeringly good vocals, which stand out from the minute you first experience the duo and which ensure that whatever musical sound Rupert creates, you'd know this was Grand National. As Rupert says: "La has such a distinct voice it means I can go off on a tangent musically, yet it will still be the Grand National sound. I don't have to reign the music in at all, which is brilliant".
And brilliant it is. With A Drink and A Quick Decision' in my stereo, I am expecting many more happy days this summer.
Official Bio - Chris Cooke, 2007