Oxegen 09: Big Tings
Katie White and Jules de Martino -- aka punk-pop hit machine The Ting Tings -- have had many surreal experiences this past year. But being chased all the way to Ibiza by pneumatic glamazon Jordan surely ranks among the weirdest.
"We played 'Ibiza Rocks' last night and were told that a load of celebrities were coming down and wanted to meet us," recounts de Martino, sipping a restorative mineral water in the 25 degree shade. "Thing is, we'd invited a bunch of mates over from home. Typical Ting Tings: we went and threw our own party and never got to hang out with any of the celebs."
Was Jordan miffed? De Martino shrugs: he hasn't heard. Besides, it's not as if The Ting Tings -- an inescapable presence on drive time radio thanks to super-perky smashes That's Not My Name and Great DJ -- are exactly short of celebrity admirers. When Robert Downey Jr bumped into them in the Jonathan Ross Show green room a few months ago, he scribbled down his number and insisted they look him up if they ever got to Los Angeles.
At Christmas, Chris Martin phoned their manager enquiring whether The Ting Tings were available to tour with Coldplay (they declined -- partly because they reckoned the Most Boring Band In Pop wouldn't be much fun to party with). And Steve Jobs, Apple's brooding overlord, saw to it in person that the single Shut Up and Let Me Go featured in an iPod ad.
"We were playing the South By South West festival in Texas," says de Martino, a cheeky chappie east Londoner unencumbered by the usual rock star ego. "Katie fainted at the gig. She was dressed up in true Manc style and it was too warm in there. Anyway, afterwards we were approached by these Apple reps. It was the usual bullshit -- "love your band, here are our business cards". Another crock of shit basically. Three or four weeks later, our manager gets a call: Steve Jobs loves The Ting Tings and wants to build a campaign around Shut Up And Let Me Go. Of course we said 'yes'. Then there was a big logistical nightmare between managers and record companies. It was frustrating. So we said, 'you know what -- let's forget about it'."
At this point Jobs, who normally looms in the background while his minions scurry to carry out his wishes, took an unprecedented step: he sat down at a computer and personally emailed The Ting Tings. "He'd heard the band was frustrated with all the ifs and buts," says de Martino. "So he put it in an email to us, 'let's keep it simple -- here is what we do. If you don't want to do it, don't do it'. And we went with it -- the ad went out and Shut Up And Let Me Go sold a million copies in the States."
Musical odd couples don't come any more unlikely than White and de Martino. She's a 25-year-old former girl-group singer and archetypal northern lass with a penchant for throwaway pop -- meeting her, you can't help but be struck at how girlishly wholesome and un-rock and roll she seems. He's 35, a music industry veteran who has served time in more bands than he cares to remember (in his late teens he actually toured as backing musician to Bros). It's as far-fetched a duo as you can imagine: a chalk-and-cheese pairing united only by their love for giddy chart music.
"It's a very DIY thing," says de Martino of their song-writing chemistry. "I play five instruments -- when we started Katie didn't play any instrument at all. I'm always boring the pants off people trying out new sounds. Katie didn't pick up a guitar until 2007. On the other hand, she's got huge experience of pop -- she's a pop freak."
You don't have to spend long with de Martino to get a sense of his deep cynicism towards the music business. He's learned the hard way not to buy into industry "bullshit". Prior to The Ting Tings, he and White were part of the hotly tipped trio Dear Eskimo. Signed to Mercury Records, they had bucket-loads of cash behind them, and looked set to become stars.
For a variety of reasons, however, success never arrived -- and when the group's third member announced he was quitting to get a real job, the whole thing unraveled. The wrong side of 30, de Martino wondered if he was throwing his life away.
"It was really fucking depressing. We were more serious about Dear Eskimo than we were about The Ting Tings. That was something we tried to put together instead of following our instincts. After it went wrong it was painful. We put a lot of effort into it. It felt like we were writing decent songs. And it all fell apart. The other person in the group was like 'well, I'm getting a proper job'. I think he has a kid now. And me and Katie were looking at each other, thinking 'are we off our faces here? Are we chasing a dream that's never going to come true'."
Along the way, they received a sobering lesson in just how low a major label will stoop in an attempt to shift some records. "Katie was doing a course in clothes design. She'd go into the label with a scrapbook of ideas for the videos. And they would literally shove it to one side and hit Katie up for posing in men's magazines. They wanted to market her as a 'babe' and all that crap. We were sitting there going, 'fuck this'. Two months later, they were like 'well, fuck you'. And we got dropped."
Rather than follow their band-mate back to civvie-street, de Martino and White persisted. They started to hang about a Manchester art-space in the notorious neighbourhood of Salford. Working as bar staff and on-site artists, they would throw parties, inviting friends to hear them DJ and play some songs they'd bashed out in spare moments. By the third such event, representatives of all four major labels -- including the one that had shown them the door -- were packing the room and Red Hot Chili Peppers producer Rick Rubin was emailing in the hope of scoring a place on the guest-list. A year and a half later, de Martino is still taking it all in.
"You've got to remember, we were soiled goods. We were a band that had been dropped. Nobody thought we had any commercial prospects. We said to ourselves 'well fuck it, let's write a load of songs for the laugh'. One of those was That's Not My Name [inspired by Katie's unhappy experiences at the hands of their previous label]. We began to express ourselves in a very natural way. We put our first single out ourselves. So by the time the majors were knocking on the door, it was already all in place."
After their Oxegen main-stage slot, The Ting Tings have lined-up a 12-date arena tour of the US with label-mate Pink ("she's a great girl and has been through a lot recently, so she's at a point in her life where she wants to party and have a good time," says de Martino). Then they plan on relocating to Berlin, where they have purchased an old jazz club with ambitions to turn it into a performance space and studio.
"We're not like Bob Dylan. We don't write albums on the road. What we do have is a bunch of licks and ideas. We'll finish touring and then we'll throw all our ideas at the wall in a fit of enthusiasm and see what sticks. It's very spontaneous. It's the way that works best for us."
De Martino has to go in a minute. He's booked a rare evening off and plans to chill with friends. Spare time, he explains, is at a premium. So hectic is their life that on a lay-over in Los Angeles a few months back they even had to turn down the opportunity to party with David Beckham.
"We arrived to do an Adidas commercial in LA. It was in a studio and there was a big party going on. David Beckham was there. So was Estelle. Loads of others. We DJed a bit and threw some paint at the walls. There was a film crew shooting the whole thing. We could only be there for an hour. After that, we cleaned our hands and were gone. We didn't get to enjoy the social aspect of it at all. People have this idea of us partying all the time. But when you're as busy as we are, that's simply impossible."
The album We Started Nothing is out now. The Ting Tings play Oxegen's O2 stage on Sunday, July 12