The Ting Tings: Back from Nowheresville

Music Features The Ting Tings

It felt like quite the momentous occasion. In the autumn of 2010, British alt-pop duo The Ting Tings—vocalist/guitarist Katie White and percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Jules De Martino—held a top-secret summit meeting in the conference room of their San Francisco hotel, while their road manager stood guard, arms folded on his chest, shooing any potential interlopers away from the door. Settling into a comfy couch, De Martino flipped open his MacBook and—with a fake drum-roll flourish on the table—prepared for the ceremonial unveiling of brand-new tracks, intended for the follow-up of the group’s smash 2008 bow We Started Nothing. Outside the group’s close-knit camp, no one had yet heard the Berlin-composed cuts, not even its label, Columbia.

Nervous anxiety hung cloudlike in the air, as De Martino hit play on a bouncy new number called “Guggenheim,” while White leaned forward in her seat, expectantly. Had they conjured up another monster, along the lines of their breakthrough hits “That’s Not My Name” or “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” which had been prominently featured in an Apple iPod commercial? They really wanted an outside opinion. An objective viewpoint from the press. So they previewed five more equally-kinetic cuts, then sighed with relief over this lone writer’s verdict: To these ears, they nailed it, actually managed to recapture the ephemeral energy of that quirky, magical debut. They would be back on the charts in no time.

But when The Ting Tings’ second outing, Sounds From Nowheresville, finally hit the streets in 2012, those spunky songs were not on it—at least not in their original pop form. The Berlin sessions had been scrapped, and “Guggenheim” had been reconfigured—or overthought—as a spoken-word, hip-hop experiment, a skeleton essentially stripped of all its fun, funky flesh. Even with playful chant-along singles like “Hang It Up” to its credit, the album bombed, and the band—no longer a blip on the pop-cultural radar—basically disappeared. Now, as if from out of nowheresville, White and De Martino have reappeared with a stunning new third set, Super Critical, recorded on the Spanish island of Ibiza with Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor co-producing.

What happened in the interim? White sighs. With the last ill-fated album, the Mancunian admits, “I think there was just too many opinions. That version of ‘Guggenheim’ you heard? Some people hated it, and some people loved it, and as we were playing it for people around us, I remember our A&R guy at the time laughing, going ‘We had a board meeting today about what you should sound like, and nobody could agree!’ And at first, that was such a weird place to be, because our first album, we made ourselves—we didn’t seek anybody’s opinion, and nobody gave a shit. Then suddenly, there’s board meetings, and there’s that pressure.” She pauses. “It was a really odd, uncomfortable time, and I don’t think we work very well under pressure. I really don’t.”

Indeed. When White listens back to Nowheresville today, there are certain songs on it that she truly loves. But she also can clearly hear derisive lyrics aimed directly at the music industry’s jugular. She and De Martino found the process of penning a major-label sophomore disc so daunting, it proved nearly impossible. She doesn’t fault Columbia, which they’ve left. “You can’t blame them,” she cedes. “The first album was successful, so they’re saying ‘Right. Make another one. Make another ‘That’s Not My Name,’ and we’ll make you even bigger!’ And we were like ‘But we don’t want to make another ‘That’s Not My Name,’ because we already made it! Why would two creative people just want to make the same thing, over and over? That would be ridiculous.’ We were very unhappy, and just felt very cornered with a major label.”

The Ting Tings started by happy accident, anyway. White and De Martino had been signed to Mercury Records already as the more electronic Dear Eskiimo, an experience they loathed. Hanging out at a loose Manchester art space called the Islington Mill—where Johnny Marr had a studio—the pair decided to simply have fun with their next project and deconstruct pop down to its simplest schematics as The Ting Tings. “So the first album was really fun to write, because we were very naïve,” White recollects. “But it’s very hard to be naïve again, once your first album has been out and people have an expectation of you. You try to, but it’s really difficult. I remember on our first album, when we would moan that we were always tired, our manager used to say to us ‘Remember this feeling, because you will never have your first album, ever again.’ And it was a special feeling, because we wrote it from a very honest place and we didn’t expect it to be successful. Now, I think we’re always trying to find even 20 percent of that honest place.”

The more that White thought about it, the more she understood how intrinsic travel had become to the Ting Tings approach. So the team decamped to a rural farmhouse on Ibiza, where they resided for over a year and a half, through two desolate winters. Summers they spent infiltrating the bustling dance music scene, going clubbing almost every night and watching how world-renowned DJs brought crowds to a boil, then simmered them back down again. They imagined their band going in a similar oonce-oonce direction. But it didn’t turn out that way. And once they started palling around with Taylor—who regaled them with stories from New York’s classic Studio 54 days—a more retro, decidedly disco vibe began to emerge. In fact, the first song they all worked on together, the rollicking “Wrong Club,” smacked so much of vintage Chic that White and De Martino offered to play for that group’s legendary Nile Rodgers himself when they met him at the Montreaux Jazz Festival.

“Nile Rodgers was starting to work with other artists, so we told him ‘We’ve got this song, and it’s so influenced by you that you can hear it, instantly!’” White says, giggling. “And he said ‘Send me the track.’ But we’d just started working with Andy Taylor, and Andy had a history with Nile Rodgers—Nile had produced a Duran Duran record, and in a way, Nile Rodgers was like his idol. So we felt that it would be the wrong thing to do, to send the track to Nile. With Andy and Nile both involved, it might not be a Ting Tings record anymore, because they’re such formidable talents. So it was all meant to happen this way, and the album we made is weird-sounding, and not exactly like the ‘70s, because it’s got Andy. But then it’s got a New Wave influence, and it’s not polished or perfect enough, either. Ultimately, we just felt it sounded like a Ting Tings record.”

The best thing about the funky finished product? Edgy, angular sing-alongs like “Failure,” “Communication,” “Do It Again,” and the “Super Critical” cut itself are all shrewdly self-referential, documenting the musicians’ major-imprint experiences in a snarky, sneering fashion that clarifies the good sense of humor they maintained through the whole post- Nowheresville ordeal. “You’ve got these pop bands that churn albums out every six months, or every year, and they’re a machine, almost,” White says. “And we’re really not. We get unsure, or we can’t write for six months, and you’re bashing your head on the table, going ‘Why can’t I write?’ And then sometimes, we’ll write 10 songs in a day. We’re not a reliable commodity—it just happens when it happens.

“But we’re an odd band,” she continues. “We’re pop, but we’re not pop. We’re not indie, either—we’re not hipster-cool. We’re somewhere in the middle, and that makes us quite a difficult band to work with, from a label’s point of view.” Already, she’s formulated some wild plans for the next Ting Tings record—she wants to either record in Nashville, or stalk Fleetwood Mac anchor Lindsey Buckingham long enough that he agrees to produce the group. “And can you imagine if we actually managed to drag Lindsey Buckingham into a studio, in Nashville?” she gasps. “That would be our dream!”

There is only one other Super Critical confession that White feels compelled to mention. Perhaps a caveat—or a come-on—to Buckingham, wherever he is. “We smoked a lot of weed while making this album,” she says, chuckling. “And it sounds like a pathetic, teenage-boy thing to say, like ‘Oh, yeah—we smoke weed!’ But I actually think that it helped us, because we stopped over-thinking it. The pressure was off, and we could write again.”

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