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New Music to Know: London Grammar Brings the Sound of Young Britain to America

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Scott T. Sterling
Scott T. Sterling Scott is the rock associate producer for Radio.com....
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(Courtesy of Columbia Records)

(Courtesy of Columbia Records)

It was impossible for the members of Britain’s London Grammar to hide their excitement as they hopped out of a tour van in front of West Hollywood’s legendary club, the Troubadour last month to launch the band’s first American tour with a sold-out show.

The young trio of singer Hannah Reid, guitarist Dan Rothman and multi-instrumentalist Dot Major took in the storied club’s façade on Santa Monica Boulevard with wide eyes, happily snapping pictures of each other and the band’s name on the marquee.

Back in their home country of England, London Grammar is already a sensation, with the group’s debut album, If You Wait, landing at No. 2 on the UK album charts in its first week of release, second only to the Arctic Monkeys’ blockbuster LP, AM. The band’s minimal and dynamic, not to mention dramatic, sound has drawn comparisons to the xx, but Reid’s rich, powerful voice sets London Grammar apart from their influences and contemporaries alike.

Here in America, many music listeners first encountered London Grammar thanks to breakout British house music act Disclosure, who featured the band on their song “Help Me Lose My Mind,” off their Mercury Prize-nominated album, Settle. Reid’s distinctive vocal styling elevates Disclosure’s tasteful dance track into an album highlight.

“Basically, Disclosure heard a demo of the song ‘If You Wait,’ and they just liked my voice and asked to collaborate with us,” Reid explained of the song’s genesis after she and the guys settled down in the Troubadour’s front bar area for a chat. “It only took two days in the studio with them. They work really quickly. They’re really nice, very talented, especially considering they’re so young. I wrote the topline with [Disclosure member] Howard [Lawrence] and we took it from there.”

When asked about her dream collaborations, Reid said, “I would love to work with the National. Or Beyonce, you know.” Major chimed in, “Beyonce would be amazing.”

London Grammar’s inclusive sound would find them right at home alongside either of those acts, with If You Wait trading primarily in taut and emotionally engaging songs that take a wide-angle look at life in the 21st century from the shrewd eyes of three well-educated young Brits. The trio met while studying at University of Nottingham back in 2009.

Musically, the album veers from stark, sparse arrangements like the title cut, which matches Reid’s voice with just a piano, next to tracks laden with electronic elements, like the subtle washes of bass rumbling underneath songs like opener, “Hey Now.”

The low-key hip-hop beats that power songs like “Stay Awake” have even caused some to toss the term “trip-hop” around, citing parallels with such ’90s U.K acts as Portishead and Massive Attack.

“Most of these songs came together pretty quickly,” said Major from behind a sweep of hair when asked about the creation of the band’s full-length debut. “We’d work out melodies as a group, and then Hannah would write lyrics to the music, sometimes in the span of ten or twenty minutes.”

“The only thing that took a long time sometimes was production,”  Reid mused. “It was never difficult for us to find the songs, but the production was a real trick. Now more than ever, a song’s production can really mean everything.”

“It all depends on the song,” countered Rothman, the band’s self-professed “indie kid.” “There are some songs on the album that have been made complete by the production. Then there are songs like ‘If You Wait,’ that are just vocals and a piano, and sound great no matter what you apply to it. Those are the ones that are most special to me.”

Settling into the conversation, Rothman went on to break down how the album’s panoramic sound ultimately came into focus.

“There were a couple of key moments for us as a band. One was when Dot started to experiment with more electronic elements, that was a huge point,” he explained. “Another point was when we realized that we didn’t need to put too much on the songs. We made the conscious decision to just leave more space on the record.”

“It’s always difficult when you’re young and in a band, because you have to listen to other people,” Reid sighed of the process. “The way that you progress is by arguing with other people, because it helps you realize what you really want in any given situation.”

At the show later that night, the club seemed to be packed with more fans, friends and family, who sang along to many of the songs, than obvious industry types. Reid would point out Rothman’s mom and an ex-boyfriend in the crowd by show’s end. Even Grizzly Bear member Ed Droste was spied taking in the performance from the bar.

The trio ably performed most of the songs from their full-length debut including the band’s plaintive take on Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” –the original best known for its inclusion on the soundtrack to Ryan Gosling thriller Drive. For their song “Strong,” the band brought out the young female star of the track’s “music video to trades verses with Reid, whose voice is even more remarkable in a live setting. Major flitted between a keyboard, a drum kit and other assorted instruments to replicate the myriad textures of the album, while Rothman added clean, ringing guitars throughout the wide open spaces of the band’s sound.

“It’s honestly kind of nice to be over here right now, playing shows and introducing our music to a whole new audience,” Reid said earlier that day before the show, expressing genuine concern for London Grammar’s status as bona fide pop stars back in England, where they’ll be touring extensively into 2014. The band’s hope is that once they finish their trek overseas they’ll come back to the States to play their first American festivals.”Coachella would be brilliant,” Major gushed. “Tell them we’d love to play!”

“We love that the record is doing so well back home, and that’s something that can never be taken away from us.” Reid surmised. “We’re just really about the music, and want to make sure that comes across. We want this to be something we can do for the rest of our lives.”

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