Freed from the pressure of a major award win and that 'wacky' label, Django Django are breaking the US and loving it
It's great to win the Mercury Music Prize but maybe it's even better for it to slip between your fingers, says Django Django's Vincent Neff. You wonder if he's joking. Apparently not. "So many fantastic acts have got the Mercury. If we'd received the nod, it could have put us under pressure," he says. "It would have weighed heavily on our shoulders."
The way Neff tells it, missing out on the coveted album of the year gong might be the best thing that ever happened to Django Django.
Nominated for their self-titled 2012 debut, the quartet received lashings of publicity.
But now the dust has settled, it's winners Alt-J who must shoulder the expectations. From where Neff is standing – and right now that's a chilly rehearsal space in deepest east London – it seems a fair deal.
"This feels perfect in a way," says Derry singer Neff. "We were surprised how much exposure it earns in America. I thought it was a British and Irish phenomenon.
"We toured the US before and after the nominations were announced. The difference in our profile was striking. We met Alt–J in Tennessee a few weeks ago and they're working so hard now. Fair dues to them. We do half what they do, and we're knackered. I think it has played out okay for us. We're not complaining."
In a story full of surprises, Neff agrees that what's truly astonishing is how readily Django Django have been embraced in America. Graduates of the Glasgow art-house scene, they have succeeded where more fancied forerunners such as The Beta Band and Franz Ferdinand have failed, charming audiences across the US (and not merely in the traditional anglophile hotspots of New York and Los Angeles).
"You play to a crowd of 1,500 in a place like Ohio, before your LP is out and you think 'wow – how did we manage that?'," says Neff. "We did Jay Leno a few months ago. You watch those big American shows for the music. You never think someday it's going to be you up there. You step out and it is surreal."
This prompts an awe-struck anecdote about their run-in that same night with legendary porn figure Ron Jeremy, who sought them out upon hearing they'd rocked Leno.
"Our tour manager brought us to this old rockers' restaurant and bar in Los Angeles and Ron Jeremy walks in," says the singer. "He'd somehow found out that a band that had done Leno was around. He came up to say hello and entertained us with anecdotes. He gave us this astonishing 20-minute comedy monologue."
Maybe it's because Neff is Irish and thus relatively open minded towards American culture. Whatever the reason, Django Django have avoided the fate suffered by so many UK rock groups who, victims of their own insularity, go slowly mad touring America and return a shadow of their former selves.
"We enjoyed it," says Neff, "You get to walk around somewhere like Minneapolis for a few hours before a gig. You meet extremely interesting people afterwards, have a chat and, following that, it's off to the next city. You'd never get to do that in most walks of life. And the second-hand record stores are astonishing. We all came home laden with cheap vinyl."
Still, there is an unavoidable downside to storming the US. With one album and a handful of B-sides to their credit, Django Django have had to be inventive about their set-lists. When you're a bunch of scrawny unknowns, nobody cares that you turn up and perform for 40 minutes. If you're headlining in major venues such as LA's storied Fonda Theatre, more is expected. You have to put on a show.
"You find ways to pad it out," says Neff. "You throw in bass solos. You put in as many drum breakdowns as you can. The idea is to hopefully make the music better. Let's say they're not the songs they were 18 months ago."
They're itching to write again. However a year and a half of near constant touring has allowed few opportunities for working on new material. As soon as the current cycle of dates winds down (one of their final sign-offs is a headline turn at Longitude), they're heading straight for the studio.
"We have a bunch of ideas and we're keen to get motoring," says Neff. "We'll be spending two weeks in a studio in London in August and September. It's crazy – since the beginning of last year, that is going to be the first opportunity we have had."
A qualified architect – he quit his job as Django Django started to take off – Neff studied at university in Glasgow where he met the rest of the group (drummer and producer Dave Maclean is the younger brother of John Maclean of 1990s experimental outfit The Beta Band).
In 2011, they moved to London, intent on putting together a band. Rather than the usual route of playing the stinky 'toilet circuit' venues in the vague hope of catching some buzz, they approached their career from a different angle.
"We weren't interested in being cool," says Neff. "We did warehouse parties and dressed in weird costumes. We weren't trying to impress anyone. It wasn't about checking how everyone else was dressed. It was a case of 'let's have fun, let's dance'."
For their troubles, they were promptly labelled 'wacky' by the UK music press. When it emerged that an early single featured Maclean clacking on coconuts, their fate seemed sealed.
They looked destined to be pigeonholed as boggle-eyed eccentrics.
"We did eventually have to dial it down," says Neff. "You don't want to be too over the top. We still like having fun. As your audiences change and you play bigger venues you do need to adapt."
The band are immensely proud of Django Django, but they never dreamed it would take off to the extent it has. Nothing can prepare you for overnight success.
"Like anybody else, when you make music you want it to do well and you are proud of it.
"We never had any expectations. It wasn't written in stone that the record would receive any attention. The fact other people like it is astonishing. It's fantastic."
Django Django didn't win the Mercury, but simply being nominated brought their career to the next level. Others to have benefited in this way include:
Receiving a stamp of approval from the UK media raised Gemma Hayes' standing in Ireland and put her on the map internationally. She was nominated for her 2002 debut Night On My Side. Looking back, she is relieved she didn't win. The pressure would have been too much, she says.
Bat For Lashes
A delicious , delirious art-house project, Natasha Khan's Fur and Gold album went properly mainstream when it was nominated for the 2007 Mercury Prize. All of a sudden Khan was popping up in style supplements and basking in bottomless fan-love. She's has reigned supreme as weirdo-pop's foremost 'it' girl ever since.
Second album Two Dancers was nominated for the 2007 Prize – and suddenly the Cumbria pop nerds were everyone's favourite avant garde underdogs.
There was already a degree of hype, in Ireland at least, about Conor O'Brien's new project. After his album 2010 Becoming A Jackal got the Mercury wink, however, his profile fairly exploded.
Django Django play Longitude Festival in Marlay Park, Dublin, Friday next
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