There's an innate chemistry at work in The Districts.
The band have known one another since grade school, and there's an implicit sense of trust, of mutual respect in their work.
Very much a band in that classic, unified sense of the word, it's a facet that comes to the fore in those emphatic, crunching live shows.
The Districts flew into Europe at the weekend, playing a headline slot on the Clash Stage at Brighton's mammoth Great Escape festival.
Singer Rob Grote took time out to chat with us about forthcoming album 'Popular Manipulations'...
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Your last album ‘A Flourish And A Spoil’ arrived in 2015 – when did you begin to focus on something new?
We were definitely… I think by the end of touring the last album we all started wanting to make new things, without necessarily having any clear idea about it.
Towards the end of touring the last album is when some ideas were starting to come round. I started making some new demos, and writing some new stuff. But then – especially for this one – we definitely had a bit of a process with it, where we knew we wanted to change things up a little bit, and we knew we wanted to alter some things and the best way to do that – to us – was to just write a lot, and to try and narrow it down.
I feel like a lot of times when we want to do something collectively we don’t necessarily know how to articulate it, or what it is. We get that through the process of writing a bunch of songs. And that’s where the downtime comes into play as being helpful, because then we’ve got time to write a bunch of stuff. I was making a bunch of acoustic demos in my room, then we’d go to our practice space and we’d write ‘em again.
Definitely, the initial ideas were coming out before, while we were still touring. Then we had the downtime to really focus on it, and hone in on it.
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Towards the end of touring the last album is when some ideas were starting to come round.
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How important is the city of Philadelphia to The Districts as a band?
I would say so. I mean, I feel like a lot of East Coast cities have a similar feeling to each other but I’d say Philly in particular has the vibe of a lot of East Coast cities with this gritty feeling to it… but that’s also way more affordable than New York or Boston or D.C. or anywhere like that, while still being a large city.
We definitely love it here a lot, and because it’s pretty affordable there’s a good community of artists and musicians and different people doing creative things. A lot of our friends are involved in similar things that they find inspiring or are interested in. So there’s a lot of mutual support and stuff like that. And definitely just the fact that our rents aren’t… like, if we were in New York we’d all have to be working non-stop just to be able to pay our rent.
There’s no way any of us could survive off music if we were there. Like, here we would be able to dedicate way more time to making music, and just not have to deal with the extravagant price of rent.
In the press note you mention themes of alienation encroaching on the music. Is that a personal thing, or something widespread in the band?
It was a lot of things. A lot of things were happening mentally for us all. I had a pretty long relationship that ended during the process of making the record. And we all were having this weird… we all had a lot of anxiety about the world around us in general – as I’m sure a lot of people do. Technology scares me. And I was spending a lot of time alone for a while, to the point where social situations sometimes became more difficult, because I was not putting myself in them a lot. I think that’s something we’ve all felt amongst ourselves.
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I think definitely some of the feelings were influenced by political elements...
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It’s interesting. Our perceptions of the world were changing. I think this past year with the election cycle I think a lot of people have come to question a lot of what we previously believed. I guess there’s a lot of hopeful feelings for people leading up to the election that felt like our world was moving in a positive direction, and I think we as a band all felt quite disappointed and alienated by the result of that.
It came as a shock.
So is this a political record, then? Or is it more tapping into that wider atmosphere?
I think definitely some of the feelings were influenced by political elements, but the rest of the songs dealt with personal feelings and things like that. Some came from myself, but a lot of the new stuff took on a narrative kind of thing, where I was less writing… I was writing a bit less about myself personally. It was definitely in there. I was influenced by that, by writing from a more removed, observationalist tone.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all of these kind of things. The title was… a lot of thought was put into how people manipulate and use each other for personal gain or just to feel OK about themselves. Which I think is influenced by personal stuff that was going on, and definitely political elements well – manipulating people’s perceptions of things.
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And you produced the record yourselves?
Originally we were going to do the whole thing with John Congleton. We did four of the songs in LA last May. We did a session with him in May, and we were going to finish it with him but there were some scheduling issues that were taking a little bit of time to schedule stuff, and we were recording… what was originally going to be demos at a studio in Philly. Which was nice because we hadn’t really recorded near home for a little bit. So it was refreshing to just go a couple neighbourhoods over and record.
We recorded these couple of songs – including ‘Ordinary Day’ - that were going to be demos, and then we finished the demos and sent them to our label, and we didn’t have any more recording time booked with John. We all just kind of realised that we really liked how the demos turned out. So we ended up just recording the seven other songs ourselves, with our friend Keith as engineer, because they turned out so well. And then four of ‘em were produced by John. But John mixed all of it.
Does that independence mean that your approach to songwriting shifted?
Yeah. It was definitely really cool. At first we recorded ourselves, and then John was the first producer we worked with ourselves because we got along really well. But our friend Keith who was engineering, we all make music with him in other capacities. He’s our really good friend, and we knew each other really well now so he might as well be part of the band. So it was like… we all understood immediately what we were going for, and there didn’t really need to be much conversation, it was just going for it. It was nice.
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Pretty much all of them usually start out with me in my room with an acoustic guitar...
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‘If Before I Wake’ is a real highlight – who took the lead on that one?
I mean, pretty much all of them usually start out with me in my room with an acoustic guitar. So that one was one of the more quite literal ones, in the sense of… I literally woke up in the middle of the night when it was stormy one time and then the next day wrote this song, almost off-handedly. Like, this happened last night so let’s write a song about it. And I ended up liking it! And that was fun.
We were talking about using drones, and for most of the song it has a D note droning through it. I really like that one. The middle section can be read one of two ways, but the more funny way of it being a perverted prayer to God is my favourite.
A perverted prayer?
It’s the desperation of being beyond a lover… It’s romantic, in that sense.
‘Why Would I Wanna Be’ is the shortest track on the record – did you think you had simply said all you needed to say?
That one was also just a pretty different song. Breaking out the falsetto a little bit to sing! That one there were barely any lyrics in the song. It just repeats. A lot of the songs during the songwriting – both lyrically and musically – we were talking a lot about the idea of restraint.
We are a really loud band and we really like those moments, but we wanted to accomplish those cathartic feelings, or emotional high points or pinnacles in the songs in different ways, without having to play a loud part. Doing a lot of subtracting, whether lyrically or musically… playing with restraint, lyrically or musically. I would say that song is probably one of the more restrained moments, y’know?
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We were talking a lot about the idea of restraint...
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You mention catharsis, there, where does that come from on this record?
I don’t know – that’s a good question! I feel like a lot of times music can be therapeutic but I feel like the process of making it… to me, is usually more therapeutic in the sense of creating things being intellectually stimulating. That just feels good. I don’t know if I’ve ever solved a personal problem by making music, but I’ve definitely felt the escape of the joy of making it is more the valuable thing that I enjoy with it.
Escapism has tremendous emotional value.
I would say so. A lot of the making of these songs, this album… was me trying to shed a lot of things. Whether it was my preconceptions of what our band sounds like for when I’m writing a song, or my voice has changed. The way I like to sing is just different now. And at first it felt like it was wrong for me to change it because I didn’t before. And I think for realisation that we could use the music we made to get into a character or to not sing about myself. Or to sing about myself but for a way that was very different to how I experienced it.
Realising some of that stuff was freeing, both from the creation of the music and also for me personally. To feel like I didn’t have to what I have been up to this point. That was escapism in itself that was very valuable, and definitely very helpful.
What was the main thing you think you learned from making this album?
I don’t know. I’d say probably that sense of un-restricting ourselves, and finding power in that, of not having to be anything we thought we were. Trying to embody something for the sake of what it is, what the song is, not who our band is. And I think we found a lot of creative freedom in that. It was empowering on a personal level. It makes me feel like we can make whatever we want. And knowing it will be us by default, because it’s us making it. That was a freeing, cool, experience.
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'Popular Manipulations' will be released on August 11th.