Earlier this month, Alt-J was awarded the Barclaycard Mercury Prize at a ceremony in London. The award is given annually to the artist that produces the year’s best U.K. album, and simply to be nominated is considered an honor. For winners, however, the prestigious prize has been known to launch careers, as it did for bands like Arctic Monkeys and The xx. This year, Django Django was one of the bands honored to be nominated. They were even considered to be one of the few nominees with a legitimate chance to win before Alt-J’s name was announced at the end of the night.
Any description of Django Django’s music or review of their self-titled debut album, which was released in the U.S. in October, is sure to include the word “psychedelic.” The label is appropriate, considering the album’s expansiveness, its warbling, reverberating effects and the wide spectrum of imagery it evokes. To call them a “psychedelic rock band,” however, at least according to songwriter, producer and drummer Dave Maclean, is nearly tantamount to a slap in the face.
“We’re into film and art and ideas being the catalyst for what people call psychedelia, but we’re not sitting around looking at lava lamps,” he explains. “It’s not what we do. To me, acid house and techno are more psychedelic because they have a repetitive, trance-y build. I don’t think there’s such a thing as psychedelic rock, and if there is, it’s a bit tired and cliched. I think we’re just into ideas, symbolism and dreams and painting, all those things that make up escapism.”
The band learned to cultivate such abstract ideas, which aren’t specific to any particular artistic discipline, when they met in art school in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they studied painting and architecture. After graduating in 2002, Maclean and eventual Django Django synth player Tommy Grace ran an art gallery for four years before finally getting around to the whole music thing in 2007, when a pair of songs Maclean put on MySpace ended up receiving a little more attention than he had anticipated. People called for a 7” and people called for live shows, so Maclean rounded up his old classmates and obliged his new fans.
Earlier this year, British newspaper The Guardian gave their first proper album five out of five stars. “That’s when I thought, okay, we’re going to have to step up our game and it’s going to snowball from here,” Maclean remembers. “I think if they gave it two out of five stars we would have been working on our new album already.” Not long after The Guardian’s review they were shortlisted for the Mercury Prize.
Though trained as a painter, Maclean wasn’t without music growing up. His older brother, John, was a member of the Beta Band, a group to which Django Django is often compared, both for their eclecticism and their ability to combine traditional and electronic instrumentation.
“We grew up DJ-ing together. Not making music together, but making music and bouncing it off each other. We both had samplers and decks and stuff set up in our bedroom. I was always more of a producer type and I wanted to go make house and techno, and he was more band-oriented. I kind of ended up being in the band accidentally. It was a weird mixture of what I wanted to do and what I ended up doing.”
What Maclean wanted to do musically had far more to do with his background as a painter than making music as part of a band. His artistic sensibilities had largely been formed by repeatedly listening to DJ Shadow’s seminal album Endtroducing…, a brilliantly crafted pastiche of styles and samples.
“There’s a lot of similarity between creating collages and creating music in the way we record and cut and paste on the page,” he explains. “It has to do with being brought up through hip hop, as well. Thinking about the way Bomb Squad produced Public Enemy, or Prince Paul and De La Soul. It was like the music and the production were the same thing. You wouldn’t separate the two. It’s just putting samples together and having fun and seeing what happens. That’s the music, really.”
It almost seems redundant, then, to even take the time to mention that Maclean also produced Django Django in addition to writing its songs and playing drums.
Despite the sense that Maclean prefers a more clinical approach to song composition, pasting together scraps of sound in a darkened bedroom, over the seemingly more organic process of getting together with bandmates, jamming and seeing what emerges as a result, Django Django is a remarkably cohesive album. Though it’s very much an album made up of individual, stand-alone songs, it wouldn’t even be a stretch to call it a concept album. It’s as if all of its songs share the same soul, exuding the same sense of something akin to a wild, psychedelic caravan traveling across the Sahara.
It all goes back to Maclean’s artistic sensibilities, as well as the image on the album’s cover, an odd, computerized emblem hovering above a desert landscape.
”[The image] was a visual guide for the record,” says Maclean, who designed the cover himself. “It ended up being an almost spiritual entity guiding us through the album. I’m saying that sort of tongue-in-cheek, but it did end up shaping the album in some way, sort of giving us a visual touchstone.”
The album’s vibrant unifying tone also, oddly enough, can be traced to Star Wars. The band recently posted a list of their top 10 movies of all-time to their Facebook page, and amongst several little-known films, like what one might expect to appear on such a list posted by former art school students, was the Star Wars trilogy. They’re all too good to pick just one, the list explained.
“It’s like in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which is jungle-y,” Maclean notes, speaking about the feel of Django Django’s debut. “The first one is kind of desert-y, like our first album. So maybe the second one will have a kind of snowy landscape. It’s more thinking about the overall sound and feel. Whether you want to ditch guitars and go synth-ier. Whether you want it to be cold or have a warm analog sound. It’s like anything before you start, whether it’s painting or whatever. It’s important to get it visualized in your own head before you start.”
Whatever direction Django Django does decide to go for their next album, I think it’s safe to say that they won’t have to worry about being forced back to the drawing board by a two out of five star rating from The Guardian. Plus, like I said, the Mercury Prize is awarded annually.