Back in England before & after touring America, Felix White of The Maccabees talked with QRO. In the conversation, the guitarist discussed their new record, Marks To Prove It (QRO review), their last tour with Mumford & Sons (including Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers), playing everywhere from Mexico to Australia (and even Glastonbury), not thinking about the next record, balancing set lists, wave machines, Elephant & Castle, and more…
QRO: How was your recent American tour with Mumford & Sons, including the Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers?
Felix White: It was magic. It was really phenomenal, especially given that the first time we met them, we both were playing the same songs to about four people, which was us four, in pubs, so it’s really incredible to see friends do that.
I think the ethic of the Gentlemen of the Road Stopovers is quite cool, getting local bands, no branding, and the effort that goes into it – it’s pretty magic.
QRO: I liked, with the Gentlemen of the Road shows, they went to places – not out-of-the-way places, but instead of New York City, it was like Waverly, Iowa…
FW: Yeah, right. They did that in England, as well. We recently did one with them in Scotland in Aviemore, which is right out in the mountains of Scotland. That can’t be anything but a good thing. The whole town came out – it’s sort of an event for the whole town, people in that town. I think that goes back to the origins of what the festival experience kind of meant in the first place, really, which is a nice thing.
QRO: How does opening a massive tour like that compare with your regular tours, like coming up in October in North America?
FW: I love playing music. Loads of time you have to make yourself present in the moment, and you can usually make it work, wherever it is. The older we get, the more we go along.
To be honest, I always prefer Maccabees shows. Whether that’s to lots thousands of people or very few people, in other parts of the world or wherever. I like our own gigs, and I like the people – there’s always a general spirit that comes with it. I like having some sort of context for our band and watching us, gives you a bit more freedom to not necessarily just play the upbeat numbers or whatever it is. I like that about Maccabees shows.
QRO: How was playing Glastonbury (QRO recap)?
FW: Glastonbury’s really great. Last we did Glastonbury was… I think maybe, six years ago? I don’t know why – I think we missed it last year, because it was a year off.
Glastonbury’s just incredible. You’re very aware you’re just a small part of something bigger. I think it’s the probably only festival where they sell the tickets before the line-up’s announced. It’s sold out, but no one knows who’s playing, so the festival itself is always bigger than any band that’s there or whatever, which definitely does frame it in a different way, and it feels like a different place to be in because of that.
QRO: In October you’ll be playing Mexico City, in between the two weekends of Austin City Limits Festival. Have you ever played Mexico before?
FW: Yeah – Mexico is the best! We did a festival a few years ago (Corona Capital 2012), and then we did our own gig in Mexico City. We’ve been desperate to go back ever since, actually.
I’ve heard lots of people say how much Mexican people tend to like a specific type of English band. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it just seems like there’s some kind of weird affinity there; it’s really incredible.
When the record’s been out, and we’ve tried to a lot of this type [of press], replying to people on Twitter, whatever it is, a huge amount of people write from Mexico. Apart from England, the most people. I don’t know what that it is; it’s like a strange anomaly, but it’s cool.
QRO: I think I have heard that before, from another English band…
FW: I think they really love The Smiths in Mexico, which I quite like. I like the idea that songs that are inspired by the rain in Manchester can travel across the other side of the world, and mean something direct and specific to people from a totally different part of the world. I think that’s super cool.
QRO: You’ll also be in Australia around New Year’s – have you been Down Under before?
FW: We did a festival called Groovin’ the Moo (2012 – QRO photos). We did it with other people, because the bands all travel together, all the time. I’ve seen Flavor Flav take his clock off at security; I’ve seen that five or six times, and that never gets boring…
QRO: With all of your touring, how do you fight ‘tour burnout’?
FW: It’s hard, especially the older you get. When we think back on how we did it like ten years ago, I can’t believe how we survived. I suppose it’s just when you’re younger, your body can just put up with a lot more stuff.
I think the older you get, sometimes the more you crave having personal space. And that doesn’t necessarily come with touring. And that’s something you’re always fighting with, trying find moments to yourself.
When you start a band when you’re nineteen or twenty, everyone’s in it for exactly the same reason: everyone just wants to be part of a gang, it’s exciting, it’s all new. Like now, we’ve been doing it for like twelve years, people get different things out of the band. So it has to be much more malleable, sensitive to each other, because people enjoy different aspects of the band. That’s part of touring that you just have to work with, really.
QRO: How did making Marks To Prove It compare with making your previous records?
FW: It took longer to come into place than the three before. From the start, we had rather a good idea on where we wanted to head, what the specs of it was going to be – this one, it wasn’t easy to come to that conclusion, there wasn’t much consensus for awhile. It took longer to get it going.
Once we got in there, then, we just realized that we wanted to make a record that sounds like we’d done it, sounds like we did it, sounds like how the band playing in the room does sound. Weirdly, I don’t know if we’d ever properly done that before. So this time was supposed to have a real sense of space and area, no layering, not fell it was over-processed. And that’s what’s given it its identity.
QRO: Is it easier, this far into your career, or do you feel less pressure, making a record, compared to say your first or second record?
FW: You kinda do feel it. It’s not like feeling it from outside. Because it feels like we write music a lot in the band, and we got kinda a democratic process, everyone’s got their own ideas – the pressure actually comes from how you’re gonna be able to sort it all and end up with something where everyone in the band can go, ‘Alright, yeah, that’s mine, I’m proud of it, and it’s better than it would have been, if it was just me.’ That takes a real lot of work, to find that tiny little tunnel to fit into. That’s a challenge.
But I feel we really did it this time. I really feel so proud of this record.
QRO: Are you already thinking about the next record?…
FW: No… no, no, no, no, no. We’re not too worried about the future anymore. We’re just trying to enjoy the little moments this record brings, try to be in the moment.
I think in life in general, it feels like panic about what’s gonna happen. Sometimes it’s good to stop and acknowledge the work you’ve done, and try and enjoy it.
QRO: How do you do your set lists these days? I suppose you have to do primarily Marks right now.
FW: It’s slowly creeping more in there, because once the record’s been out, and people get to know it. It’s slightly weighted to the new record, but I think there’s quite a few songs from each record before it, basically the singles.
QRO: When you tour a new album, how do you prune the prior set list to make room for the new stuff? Is it just that a number of songs get played less frequently, or are there some that are dropped entirely (especially from the prior record)? Or both?
FW: It’s an interesting dynamic: sometimes you stumble across something that works, and then you keep doing it, by the hundredth time you’ve done it, you’ve kinda sucked the life out it, and there’s no more spontaneity to the show anymore, and you kind of start boring yourself with the mechanics of it. So more than anything, even if something works, whenever it feel right, just to move things about, just so that you don’t know exactly what’s coming each time, because it sets your mind on the order quite a little bit. It’s quite nice to have that new song that we haven’t played for a little while, or whatever it is, just so everyone feels a bit more on their toes, get everyone’s head together that way. There’s a subtle diplomacy, a subtle art to making set lists over a tour.
You do see a band playing a set at the start of the year, and playing the exactly same set two years later. It might be quite hard to keep the passion for the moment when you’re doing that, again and again. It must be hard not to feel like you’re going through the motions.
QRO: What new songs do you particularly like playing live?
FW: On the new record, I like playing “Spit It Out” a lot, and I like playing “Marks To Prove It” a lot, and “Kamakura”. They all sound like the most complete Maccabees songs we’ve ever made, and get across various aspects of the group in one reduced; it feels like an achievement.
QRO: What about older songs?
FW: It’s hard to listen to the older songs, especially songs from the first album, because it’s like hearing your voice back on the phone or whatever, or seeing a photo of you from ten years ago, it makes you wanna eat your insides, you know what I mean? And it’s kind like that when you listen to a record that you made ten years ago, especially for the lad that sings lead.
But I love playing “Precious Time”, because still realize that there’s a lot of musical ideas in there. Every time we play it, it feels quite deeply sentimental, because you realize how long you’ve been with these people, and how long its lasted, and how the song still means something to people now, even if they weren’t around at the time. Yes, it’s beautiful.
QRO: You mentioned earlier about down-tempo vs. up-tempo songs on a set list. How do you balance that? I noticed that you had a mix of both on the new record. How do you handle that for live settings?
FW: On a support tour, it’s hard to put the down-tempo ones in there. That’s why having our own shows on this record, they’re gonna be an experiment to just see how those little intimate moments work.
I’ve said it a few times before, but the nice thing about this record is that it has evidence of each of the records before. When we used to play sets, it was really hard to put across the new record next to the first one, because they kind of jarred against each other. They seemed to be giving a different thing. But this record has kind of a summary to it, which hopefully shines a positive light on the records before, which we hadn’t been able to do in the past.
QRO: Are there songs you can’t play live, or just don’t play anymore (like off the first record)?
FW: There’s a song off our first album called “Latchmere”, which we didn’t play for a long time. And I think it was because Land [Orlando Jones, vocals/guitar], the lyrics are about a wave machine in a leisure center, and I think he started to freeze up at the idea of being in his thirties and still singing about a leisure center. Especially the first few notes, “Swim, swim, swim, swim”.
But we’ve thrown it back in recently, because it became clear to us that the new record’s about celebrating small things, and that was about celebrating small things, so that’s actually come back around.
Video for “Marks To Prove It”:
QRO: Did you do your parts for the videos for “Marks To Prove It” and “Something Like Happiness” in the same place & same session?
FW: That’s a good spot – that’s exactly it, we just filmed all that. That was a logistics thing and aesthetics thing; one because we just filmed all three video performance bits at the same time, did it three times. That was a pretty genius move at that time, because in videos you have to hang around like fourteen hours to get like one scene, so that was a time saving exercise for the whole band.
And also the three videos are like a trilogy, showing different aspects of Elephant & Castle, which is the area the studio’s in. So they kind of all tie-in together, anyway, so it makes sense for it to be the same rehearsal space, shot in each one.
[note: the third video is going to be “Spit It Out”]
And latest news and tour dates here: ymlp.com/zT9pLi
Video for “Something Like Happiness”: