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WHEN MUSIC POPS, WE TURN IT UP

Exclusive: PopBytes talks with The Ting Tings

Exclusive: PopBytes talks with The Ting Tings
December 2, 2014 ALEX NAGORSKI

The Ting Tings Super Critical

When The Ting Tings exploded onto the music scene with their dynamic debut album We Started Nothing in 2008, it seemed that the pop / rock world had discovered the latest jewel in its crown.

After a string of infectious hits, the band’s star was on the rise as they were featured in Apple commercials, performed at MTV’s Video Music Awards, toured with Pink, won award after award, and much more. But when their second album, Sounds from Nowheresville, was released in 2010, critics weren’t as kind to the UK artists and the success they enjoyed was quickly forgotten.

Four years later, The Ting Tings have reemerged bigger, bolder, and better than ever. Consisting of members Katie White and Jules De Martino, the band has just independently released their superb third album, Super Critical (iTunes), a passionate and unique love affair between the genius sound of their first record and their recently discovered affinity for Studio 54 and 1970’s disco. I chatted with White about the band’s evolution, the new album, their upcoming US tour, and more.

The Ting Tings Super Critical

How do you feel you’ve grown and evolved musically between Sounds from Nowheresville and Super Critical?

What we found quite interesting is working with somebody else in the studio because it’s always just been myself and Jules. Both Jules and I have short attention spans so we would literally write songs and change them 30 times within the space of two days, and then have a nervous breakdown, hate it, and that would be it. Having somebody like Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) in the studio with us, he’d go, “stop. Get away from the Pro Tools, don’t touch anything, go home, sleep on it and come back and listen to it tomorrow.” It was just a revelation to us because we’d go home hating it, then come back the next day and hear it with completely fresh ears and be like, “We love it! We love it!” That was a huge revelation for us and I think it really opened our minds to working with other people on the next album. We were always quite against it because we thought “oh god, no” and worried that they’d change things too much and we wouldn’t sound like us, but it was actually a much more endurable process.

So how did Andy end up working on the record in the first place?

It was completely random. We moved to Ibiza to record this third album and this guy walked into the studio one day. He looked kind of freaky and I had no idea who he was until he revealed that he was Andy from Duran Duran, and we just became friends. He’s really entertaining and has an amazing story. He’s a complete lover of every kind of music.

What happened was we kept getting asked to write for other artists and we were quite nervous to do that because we were in the middle of recording our album and we were worried that starting to write songs with other artists in mind would disrupt our whole brains. So Andy asked us to come to the studio once a week and kind of dump some ideas on him and then leave him to it, and we thought that was great because we wanted to work with him. But we were also a little frightened because he’s our friend so we didn’t know what we’d do if the songs that we worked on together ended up sounding like shit. We were worried that it would be really embarrassing and ruin our friendship.

At the same time, it was the perfect opportunity to do something that wasn’t so pressured. So we went into the studio one day with him and we recorded a song and we actually finished it in one day. But then we listened to it and thought, “Oh my god, we’re not giving this to anyone. We’re keeping it for ourselves.” And then we didn’t end up leaving the studio for 9 months and we were like, “you’re co-producing our entire album.” We had never worked with anyone before and it was just amazing.

We were in Ibiza, which is a beautiful island off the coast of Spain and we didn’t go to the beach once. We didn’t even go to one restaurant. We just stuck in this bunker, basically, which was hot and humid, and just had the time of our lives fantasizing about writing music and he’d tell us about how he used to go to Studio 54. It was just an amazing experience.

Why did you choose to go to Ibiza to write and record? What was it about being in that specific setting that inspired you so much?

It’s definitely become a thing for our band now that we go to a new place every time that we record. We love to feel almost like a new band and because there’s only two of us, it’s hard to feel like that. After our first album, I remember my mom saying, “Take time to remember this feeling because you can only be a new band once in your career.” It’s a very special moment because you’re not jaded and you’re not worried about how somebody will critique your songs, you’re just working out of complete naivety, which is a great place to be. Obviously by your third album, you don’t feel that same way. You’ve toured and you’ve seen all the reactions and it’s a lot harder to make decisions knowing what you know. So for us, we wanted to try to get back enough of that feeling to write new songs and get really excited again.

We’d been to Ibiza to rehearse for about four weeks before we went on tour. We finished touring Spain and we didn’t want to go back to England. We wanted to go somewhere nice and so we said, “Let’s go to Ibiza!” It’s got a really odd and interesting character because it’s kind of the place where it’s crazy party central in the summer. It’s so famous for its clubs. And then in the winter, it’s just the people who don’t know when the party stops or there’s weird, fun characters who have lived there for years in their own funky houses in the middle of nowhere with their hippie lifestyles. We just found it quite fascinating.

It’s weird because we didn’t actually make up any music that sounded like Ibiza, which is so bizarre. We kind of made the opposite. It was all techno and EDM that would be playing in the clubs in Ibiza and we’d go to them and party and have a great time. But then we’d go back to the studio with Andy and realize there was never even a single song that you could sing along to. They were all just beats that you would need horse tranquilizers to enjoy – which is ok, but we thought there might be another way.

So then we would talk about Studio 54 and we’d imagine ourselves being there. It was so glamorous and all champagne and cocaine and a bigger thing about that was that the BPM of those records from those days was a lot slower, so the dance floor would move in different ways. You can’t dance the same way to beats today, it’s almost like people are kind of jerking around and that’s it. But when you look at the footage from the 70’s, people really danced and it looked really cool. So we wanted to write a record that people could dance to. We loved going to the clubs in Ibiza but it is quite interesting that we made a record that doesn’t sound like it. It’s a bit ridiculous really.

The album really is heavily influenced by pre-EDM nightlife and 1970s New York. Aside from being able to dance to it, what is it about this disco-infused sound that you wanted to explore and what challenges did you face folding this into your signature pop/rock sound?

No challenges really, no. Especially because we had Andy helping us. Andy was in a band with Bernard Edwards out of Chic. When he ended Duran Duran, he started a band called Power Station with him. Nile Rodgers really showed him a lot. What was interesting was that because we were making our own version of that sound, it didn’t end up sounding pastiche, and was instead a weird mix. It’s not totally 70’s. It comes from all three of us, and I wasn’t even born in the 70’s. Then there’s Andy, who took all this influence from Nile Rodgers but played it in his own way as well. I think it was actually pretty easy to write because we made such a good team and had such a love affair in the studio.

You’ve openly discussed that you had a lot of difficulties making your second record. Do you feel that with this third one, you’ve found your footing and are ready to in a way, reboot the band?

Yes, definitely. It will be different. We put the album out on our own label this time. I remember when we first started as a band, we put out “That’s Not My Name” and “Great DJ” and all that all on our own, and obviously we were really scared. Then record labels came knocking on our door and like any new band, we inevitably signed with one to get things going. We wrote that first album in our bedrooms, all on our own. It was pretty much finished and then we signed it to Sony and had an amazing time.

We’re a difficult band because we write completely pop songs but if we try to just be a pop band, we fail miserably at it. We don’t function as pop artists who have huge teams around them and writers. It takes us 2-3 years to write an album and pop artists don’t function like that – they have writers and producers consistently churning out hits for them. And they do that beautifully, but we’re just not that band. We’re just an awkward band that’s almost indie in our mentality but we can’t write indie rock because everything that comes out of our mouths is pop, so we don’t really fit very well with either.

When a major label gets a rock band, they know how to work that. They get the right magazines and do what they need to in order to get the cool points. And with pop bands, there’s another way. As a band somewhere in the middle, we were nobody’s baby. We were always so polite to them but they’d ask us to do things like go walk red carpets and we’d just say, “no! We’d rather sleep at home and be miserable all night!” and that’s just not how it works when you want to sell records. By our second album, there was a meeting that we heard about where there were like 20 people discussing what we should sound like and we just thought, “What the fuck!” We’re the wrong band to work like that. We’d totally fail with 20 people, all who have different opinions of what our second album should sound like.

We’re just much happier now. It’s a totally different approach and we’re putting out the record we want when we want, it’s not like we’re timing it based on a projected chart position. Just like bands like The xx or London Grammar, you don’t feel like it’s forced upon you. But if it’s a good album, maybe over the course of the next year you’ll think “wow, that band has really picked up momentum,” so that was the way we wanted to work on Super Critical. It was less pressured and more creative.

What artists/albums were you listening to the most during the writing/recording of the album?

We listened to Diana Ross, Donna Summer, and we listened to a lot of Chaka Khan’s early and funky stuff. I became a big fan of Fleetwood Mac, but that was more about the songwriting. It wasn’t so much the sounds of the records but the song melodies. I’ve got an obsession with Stevie Nicks.

What’s your favorite song on the record and why?

I’ve got two. One is “Wrong Club” because it’s one of those songs that sound really uplifting but is really quite depressing when you listen to the lyrics. It’s got a real melancholy feel to it. I’m a big fan of bands like The Smiths, who were masters at doing that. You hear this beautiful song and you listen to the lyrics and they’re about getting run over by a bus and you just think, “That’s amazing!” I also really love the song “Failure.” We wrote that song with the most sugary, syrupy melody. We wrote the melody first and thought it was too sickly sweet for us so we wrote a song about being failure and thought it’d be fun to make such a sweet sounding song be about failure. I love it. I think I just like miserable songs.

Obviously the name Super Critical comes from a track on the record, but why did you feel it was the best title for the album as a whole?

We named it, in all honesty, after a bag of weed in the studio called “Super Critical.” All three of us were like, “is that really what it’s called?” And then you think about it and “critical” is really an amazing word. So then we started to write the song and we wanted to subvert the word to mean a few different things, and we couldn’t think of a better word to name our album. It sounds funky and could mean 2-3 different things that people can read into, whether it’s something to criticize or it’s a moment in our career that’s super important, so we liked that aspect of it a lot.

There’s a hilarious scene in Horrible Bosses in which Charlie Day’s character sings your hit “That’s Not My Name” during a cocaine binge. What was it like seeing your song used in the film that way and are you looking forward to the sequel?

It was brilliant. I found it very funny. I am really looking forward to the sequel, I thought it was a good film. It’s very surreal seeing your song used for a coke binge in a car in a movie.

Currently, you’re touring in Europe, and next year, you’ll be embarking on a headlining tour stateside. Aside from hearing the new album live, what can fans look forward to from these shows?

I don’t usually like to read things about us because it usually gives me a nervous breakdown, but I saw somebody write on Twitter, “If you go see The Ting Tings, don’t expect a nice, polished pop show” and it’s really not that. It’s disorganized and it’s raw. Even though the new album is very smooth, we still manage to bend the songs to sound rough around the edges. It’s just how we like to perform.

The Ting Tings Super Critical

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he primarily focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. After growing up in Poland, Germany, and Russia, Alex spent several years living in New York before moving full-time to the Berkshires in Massachusetts. To read more from Alex, check out his blog, Headphone Infatuation, and follow him on Twitter @AlexNagorski.