Ignoring trends and fads, London’s Bombay Bicycle Club goes global on its fourth album.
English-born 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge was the sort of artist every medium seems to produce now and then, one whose vision and technique lands so far outside standard practices that it changes the direction of the art form. Using unwieldy mechanics and frequently putting himself in physical danger to get the images he was after, Muybridge captured several now-classic landscape shots of the American West in which humans appeared like small toys, afterthoughts of creation dwarfed by the craggy vastness of the wild countryside. But today, as he was in his lifetime, Muybridge is best known for his innovative experiments in representing locomotion photographically, multiple series of still images recording human and animal movement designed to be viewed in the “zoopraxiscope,” a forerunner of the film projector, invented by Muybridge himself.
Muybridge’s famous multi-image projects The Horse In Motion and Boys Playing Leapfrog—in addition to anticipating the technical processes of motion-picture projection—also advanced the science of human perception. His pieces offer some of the earliest manipulated illustrations of the phi phenomenon, the optical effect by which related images perceived in a sequence create the illusion of continuous movement. Muybridge fortuitously appeared at just the right moment to exploit a public and scientific craving for the study of movement: The “phenakistoscope,” a handheld device developed in the 1840s that created strobic motion effects with a disc, upon which was printed a sequence of still images, was especially well-suited to his work in early stop-motion technology.
But one piece in particular, entitled “A Couple Waltzing,” offers a slight variation on the photographer’s usual single-figure or landscape studies. Here, in a simply but elegantly drawn pairing, are a well-dressed man and woman locked happily in a light embrace, forever dancing, as the wheel spins around and around—as indeed it must, for the illusion of movement to carry over and to bring us back, always, to where we began. In a career marked by brainy experimentation, it’s a singularly human—and endearingly romantic—entry in Muybridge’s catalog.
All of which may seem a very roundabout way to come to the point, which is—in case you’ve been wondering—Bombay Bicycle Club’s new album, So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vagrant). But the heart of the LP is just this—this cycle, the wheels that spin and carry us through time, through the world, through love, loss and love again, and set us back on top. It’s a big-sounding, wildly ambitious record, and one that will likely emerge, if we can hazard a prediction, as one of 2014’s most rewarding releases.
The cover art is our firstF clue to content: a Muybridge-esque illustration by U.K. postmodern art-deco designers La Boca, depicting a man and a woman walking in opposite directions under a diurnal cycle of sun and moon. Following their own paths, they separate, but at the top and bottom of the sequence, they meet up again. And again, we assume. And again … and that is, as we’ve said, the heart of it: the separation and return.
On paper, it looks like a lofty concept for a pop group. But Bombay Bicycle Club is a very unique—and uniquely complex—pop group. A series of three albums over as many years, supplemented by a handful of singles and EPs, brought BBC a slow rumble of appreciation in its native England. But each one seemed the work of a band uninterested in developing a consistent aesthetic: 2009’s buzz-heavy I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose was a mostly straight-ahead indie-rock affair; follow-up Flaws was a surprisingly reserved, but gorgeous acoustic album; A Different Kind Of Fix, to date its best-received album popularly and critically, added beats and electronic rhythms to the guitar-led punch of its debut.
By rights, the band’s fourth album ought to be the one that brings BBC the recognition that’s so far eluded it in the U.S., because So Long, See You Tomorrow is, even on first listen, an album that announces a sea change in a group’s approach, in the vein of Revolver or Pet Sounds.
That’s high praise, but So Long is, among other things, the most sonically complex of all the band’s records, pulling in looped beats, Eastern melodic forms, processed sound and other materials that coalesce—gradually, and almost before you’ve realized it—into delicate pop structures. “I think that’s a fair way of putting it,” says frontman Jack Steadman, who composes and arranges the bulk of BBC’s work. “You want the consistency of the song format. But how you get there doesn’t matter.”
And it’s the “how” that really marks So Long as a step in a most ambitious direction. Over a series of weeks traveling in Turkey, India, Tokyo and continental Europe, Steadman collected sounds: rhythms, melodies, public music, film music, all the diverse soundtracks of popular culture in the spaces through which he rambled. When it came time to assemble the album, that motley collection of sounds became the loop-and-sample basis not only for individual songs, but the structure and sequence of the record from start to finish.
“I’m glad that comes through,” he says, warming to a topic he’ll talk about in depth. “I think when people hear (world) music, they often dismiss it. Like, let’s say, Bollywood soundtracks: A lot of people hear it and think, ‘Oh, that’s cheesy, it’s awful.’ But to me, some of that stuff is absolute genius. I’m always kind of on the search for those elements. It could be Bollywood, it could be Turkish music—could be anything, really. I’m always trying to find aspects of those pieces of music I can take something from.”
So, here we have a young band that made its bones with cerebral indie rock, then stripped its music down to acoustic bones, now pulling in forms and models from world music in order to replenish the seed of its songwriting. Though it might sound like culture-mining, Steadman’s accretive approach to sampling and restructuring global music for this record actually makes it sound more a pastiche of forms than an appropriation of outside elements.
The sound, in other words, remains the band’s own, only now using flourishes and formal experiments that expand the melodic range far beyond what it’s done previously. The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin is a fair comparison point both structurally and sonically, opening up as it did Wayne Coyne and Co.’s punk and experimental aesthetic to much more spacious and melodic forms, and changing the group’s character in the process. It’s a gamble—perhaps less so in the case of BBC, which hasn’t really stuck with one aesthetic for its previous releases and has less to lose as a result; but still, it’s a risk that might or might not pay off in the final product.
“It’s tricky,” says Steadman. “You want to take what’s there, in the samples, and make it work differently, make it sound a bit cooler. Some of the samples are great, but, of course, some of them have a tendency to sound like something a band would play on a cruise ship, or something. The best of it, though, it’s like the people who made that music didn’t care about it sounding clean or perfect. They just wanted it to sound alive.”
Beginning with the sparsest sets of lyrics, melodies and bass lines, BBC slowly built up the music on So Long by adding samples and loops early enough in the process that the international character of the music was woven into the songs as they took shape. Instead of either element—pop form or sample—predominating, as on so much so-called “global” music, the resulting record sounds organically built, very much the product of careful construction.
Assembled and recorded over a year and a half, in fact, So Long is the Bombay Bicycle Club album that took the longest to produce. Part of that length is due to the LP’s structural intricacy, but much of that deliberate approach grew from the fact that this is the first BBC album to be produced by the band members themselves, with Steadman at the boards for much of the process.
“We definitely took our time with it,” he says. “You couldn’t force it. And we knew, whatever the result was, there was going to be no one to blame but us. It’s weird, but working with other producers, I’ve always had a tendency to hang back. I can almost get complacent in that situation; I think, ‘Well, this guy’s a great producer, and he knows what he’s doing. I can just sort of turn it over to him.’ We were 100 percent responsible for this album.”
BBC’s most complicated record, in other words, is also the first record to be created and presented solely by the band proper. Guitarist Jamie MacColl (grandson of English folk legend Ewan MacColl and American folk singer Peggy Seeger) observes that, in a strange way, this album is thus “probably the one that sounds most like Bombay Bicycle Club.”
So Long, See You Tomorrow establishes its m.o. early, with the slow fade-in of “Overdone” establishing the melodic pattern, then pulling in a wash of reeds, strings, percussion and commanding chords quickly behind it. Steadman’s processed vocals and harmonics, forward in the mix, add a psychedelic flair to the lightly Eastern resonance of the instrumentation. As the songs swell, recede and crescendo into each other, you get the sense that So Long was mixed as a song suite; and though the album occasionally slows to a stately pace (as on the icy piano-driven “Eyes Off You”), most of the rhythm is mid-tempo-to-upbeat, resulting in a record that moves seamlessly and joyfully from cut to cut.
What you won’t hear much of, interestingly, are the guitars BBC has relied on up to now to drive the music. For a band previously so steeped in guitars—and especially one with the live-show following BBC enjoys in England—that’s probably the riskiest move of all.
“That was a little unnerving,” says MacColl. “I had to really let go of my ego a bit for that one. Most of what I’ve done in the band has been contributing the guitar lines, but for this one, we ended up basing the music around much different instrumentation.”
“There was definitely a bit of panic when we first started putting the record together,” says Steadman. “It became pretty clear that (the music) was never going to sound like the record. So, eventually we had to decide that that was OK, that we didn’t have to be completely faithful to the record. I think when people come to see live shows, anyway, they want to hear something different. So much of what we’ve been doing, when we’ve been playing these songs live, is reworking some of them, trying to approach some of the sounds using guitar effects.”
It’s fitting, in a way, that the group should be taking up guitars to move the songs onto the road, as it’s been doing for several weeks now. The theme of the album is cyclical, after all, and the idea of return is shot through it. When Steadman’s conversation traces back to the cover art, in fact, he makes that point quite forthrightly: “They split, the man and the woman, at the top of the record, and then they meet up again. It’s like any relationship, or any vice you might have: There are moments when you think, ‘All right, that’s it, that’s the end of it, no more.’ And then you find yourself coming back to where you’ve been.”
Around the world and back is where Bombay Bicycle Club went to get the sound of So Long, See You Tomorrow. If the world—the wider world—takes notice of it, the band might find its own circles expanding. And that would be fine symmetry indeed.