Nothing But Thieves: "You always want to be the biggest band in the world"
Nothing But Thieves have spent the past few years touring all over the place, and it nearly broke them. For album number two they escaped to America, and have come back kicking.
Published: 9:15 am, September 11, 2017
If there’s one day that captures Nothing But Thieves’ story so far, it’s 12th March 2016. Their self-titled debut album has been out for a number of months, and the band are seeing a following grow and grow before their very eyes. Early in the evening, they play main support for stadium titans Muse in Brussels, grabbing attention with their other-worldly fuse of anthemic rock laced with that underlying tint of darkness. Thousands are converted, furiously typing into their phone reminders to ‘DL NOTHING BUT THIEVES’ when they get out, and as they leave the stage, their message has been delivered. For any other band, that’s a successful night.
Try leaving the venue straight away, bundling into a van - and driving all the way to Amsterdam to headline a festival. Too good to refuse, that high on the stage has fizzed through Nothing But Thieves from the very start. By the time they finish their set at about 2am, their eyes are set on returning to Brussels to support Muse once again the next night. Nothing But Thieves aren’t about waiting around for the golden ticket to land on their lap; they’re hell-bent on bringing everything they’ve got right to the faces of all who come near.
“D’ya know what?” points out guitarist Dom Craik. “I feel like being in this band, and the past few years - that’s been my university. I didn’t go to university myself, so that time was mine definitely - I mean, I learnt a lot of life skills and got drunk a lot after all.”
Lesson one when it comes to Nothing But Thieves: that unspoken bond that you find in all bands is intensified in everything they do, a gang of mates who together have taken themselves around in the world. That surge from meeting and playing together from the early days of school life in Essex into a band who seamlessly managed to cover the globe over the course of two years through an unflinching belief in what they do. It’s why they find themselves tucking into a Monday lunchtime meal on a top floor overlooking East London, recalling memories of recent runs where feverish crowds continue to wrap themselves around the band’s every move and why, in ‘Broken Machine’, they have an album primed to deliver a statement of where they go from here.
“It’s really refreshing,” notes frontman Conor Mason. “Not just for us, but for fans too. It’s great to be able to start again; it almost feels like we’re a new band again.”
“Reinvigorated really,” interjects Dom. “Having that established fanbase is a huge difference from where we were with our first album, and there’s this sense of having to live up to people’s expectations. We made sure that we were prepared for that next chapter, so we weren’t just going blindly into the studio, and the standard of what we’ve been writing has just been growing and growing.”
‘Broken Machine’ is a record triggered purely from a band who have realised their position on stage, born out of the surroundings of their self-titled debut - an album packed full of runaway singles that nestled perfectly in festival fields wherever the Nothing But Thieves train pulled into town. A diverse blending of primal alternative rock, soaring melodies and dense hits of pure human emotion, its impact not only still stands - but can be felt in every decision and note of ‘Broken Machine’.
Looking back on their debut now, the band have a clear perspective of how to take things up another level. “With the first album, we started writing it when we were like 18 or 19, and we were just finding our feet as writers, and that’s why the songs sound all over the place,” details Conor. “I think this album is a real snapshot of nine months to a year of us writing and getting better as a band, what we were going through on the road, what we were experiencing and what we were seeing.”
“That was our main concern with the first record,” continues Dom. “We were worried that people would think it was all over the place, and being conscious of that made us lean in a certain way to making this record slightly more cohesive.”
With the likes of ‘Ban All The Music’, ‘Trip Switch’ and 'Wake Up Call’ to name but a few, Nothing But Thieves firmly emblazoned themselves across the darkest twists of modern life. Going from the local pubs to the biggest stages of them all, its ever-increasing returns can have an impact on a group of young musicians all discovering and learning as it came to them. The world came to them, and learning how to handle it was a balancing act.
“We’d been a band before all of this,” points out Dom, looking around at his bandmates as they kick back with the courses laid in front of them. “But the furthest you would go is Chelmsford or up to London whereas this was a different ball game. We found ourselves in different countries, sat in vans for hours and hours, we had no money, using crap gear that kept breaking. All of that was, I wouldn’t say a shock, but we were exposed to it all for the first time - so we were learning how to deal with that while being quite young too.”
Full of immediate moments that required more than a few pinching clicks, it’s the sort of story that every person holding a guitar and playing with others in Saturday night bars would dream of. “Maybe last summer, when we were doing festivals, we went to South Korea and headlined a stage to like 10,000 people which was a weird one, realising we actually were doing okay in places you’d never expect” remembers Conor.
“Yeah, those are the moments where you don’t expect something like that to happen - where you’re caught off guard a bit, and you feel there’s a ripple of your music translating across the world. There’s a lot of friends of ours who are in bands who do well in the UK and Europe but trying to get to America or Asia is just out of the question. We aren’t doing anything particularly different; there’s just something resonating which is still amazing.”
“It all ties into the fact which we’ve been talking about,” picks up Conor. “Every decision we made, say a tour here or a single there, we were driving the car so to speak. It was never trying to catch-up to where we found ourselves, we were really pushing things up the hill, and we knew what the stretch of road coming up looked like. It never plateaued or went downwards; we just kept building and building.”
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Photo: Corinne Cumming[/caption]
A US tour here. A string of TV show appearances there. Dates continuing to fly in and a hunger to put in that effort of getting out in front of people wherever possible. It’s a relentless schedule that seemed only to expand, and even with that burning need to play live, it began to take its toll. Life on the road is a harsh one, a lesson Nothing But Thieves began to see as the nights in the van continued.
“It did nearly break us,” states Joe Langridge-Brown, the ever present figure on the right of the stage, who began to witness its effects within the bond of mates. “I think we toured too much, and it reached a point where we had to look at each other and decide to stop things.”
“We know our limit now,” comes back bassist Phil Blake, “which I think was a really important lesson to learn.”
“What fucked us,” elaborates Joe, “is that because we took every tour that came our way, and kept being given those opportunities - things just got busier and busier and never let off.”
Dom sits and contemplates for a second. “We were pushing it a bit. In hindsight, it was the right thing to do but I think we went a bit hard, we wanted to do everything we possibly could and play every gig that we were offered - now we just think, okay we might die if we keep doing this, so let's think again.”
“Even when we came off tour though,” picks up Phil, “we would spend time thinking about getting home and recharging our batteries, but then after a while, you start thinking, ‘Well, we haven’t worked so hard to simply sit on our arses’. Plus Dom can’t be on his own at all.
“I get bored easily,” answers back Dom. “It just doesn’t suit me at all, but I remember finding myself sleeping as if I was sleeping on a tour bus. With me legs and arms together, which was really odd.”
By the time the band placed their name across the hallowed signs of Brixton Academy in December 2016, Nothing But Thieves were a band in-between the success of what their hard work had laid out in the years past, and the fever-pitch vision for what would come next. When they played ‘I’m Not Made By Design’ live on that night, it formed more than just a neat new song into another landmark moment, but instead reached across the past and the future with an insight as to where they were fixed on next.
Formed during those many hours and days together, Nothing But Thieves had a blueprint for what they wanted their next album to be, pulling together life on the road into a record of potent power and hitting like a raw kick to the gut. Winded in the best possible way, it’s a progression on everything Nothing But Thieves can be.
“I think because we wrote the album mostly while we were still on the road, you’re automatically thinking about how it’s going to translate in the live setting,” points out Joe. “It made us think about what’s missing and what we wanted from this album, and this time around I think we knew how we wanted the album to sound - compared to the first album.”
“When we toured for two and a half years, we realised that we wanted to make that live sounding record,” explains Conor, “and a bandy kind of record which was a reaction from fans coming to live shows along with our own reactions to everything going on around us.”
‘Broken Machine’ is brimmed with those reactions, and in turn comes out as a cohesive illustration of wrestling with demons, the world and that natural instinct in the face of everything chucked at someone trying to live in the modern age. Recorded with renowned producer Mike Crossey, the band honed everything they had into one pot in his LA studio, working tirelessly on an album that never sits still.
Taking the foundations of what they’d formed together, in the studio ‘Broken Machine’ fleshed itself out into full plumage - snarling at one moment with a rabid intensity, devastatingly raw at the next and begging to be digested over and over again, setting up shop in that part of the mind reserved for impulsive singalongs.
From a time spent in LA together in the studio for 16 hour days, running headfirst into their big Friday night parties (which would usually put pay to any weekend they could have spent wandering the city’s streets), Nothing But Thieves are a band doing exactly what every band should be. Enjoying it.
“Ironically, we really felt like we were back at home there,” points out Phil. “Everyone that was working with us, and being out there was just like being with your mates all the time doing something we’re so passionate about, and that put us so at ease.”
Freedom is scrawled in huge letters across ‘Broken Machine’, managing to balance a diverse set of tracks with a refined sensibility which comes from a band realising who they are, what they stand for and who they want to be. ‘Amsterdam’ could easily be their biggest card-calling track to date, while the heavy breakdown and apocalyptic spirals of ‘I Was Just A Kid’, ‘Particles’ and ‘I’m Not Made By Design’ are all unrelenting in their scorching touches. From the chilling shape-shifting pulls of ‘Afterlife’, or the thumping and spitting electro-trance beats of ‘Live Like Animals’ to the devastating battles ringing out of its title track, the soaring ‘Sorry’ and the intoxicating ‘Soda’ - don’t ever think you have Nothing But Thieves covered. There’s a whole world to explore after all.
And it’s in that essence that Nothing But Thieves embrace their future. They’re five mates who found each other, fixed on capturing human emotion and a tangible desire to go forward - and have had the most surreal three years as a result of it. Every moment is valued, every stage is conquered, and by being so connected to that ride, things are only going to get bigger.
“You always want to be the biggest band in the world,” declares Conor.
“There’s the soundbite,” jumps in Joe. “You hear that a lot but I think the way we talk about it is focused on how we actually go about it. It’s about building things up step by step, like how Foals have done it - redefining themselves on each album and now at that stage of headlining festivals.”
“I think it would freak us out and be pretty unhealthy if we had just suddenly become this huge band,” continues Dom. “I don’t think we’d handle it really well, so the fact that it has been gradual and allowed us to find our feet has been great. You have time to learn from your mistakes.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever had those moments where we feel accepted,” points out Phil, cueing agreed nods around the table as they finish up their lunch. “I think there are battles every day and we’re constantly fighting. I’m glad that we have that fight.”
Broken machine? Why, that’s what makes them human after all - and Nothing But Thieves are savouring the moment. Now that’s living.
Taken from the October issue of Dork, out now. Nothing But Thieves' album 'Broken Machine' is out now.