The Long Blondes - they're so modern
Having famously dissed the history of rock The Long Blondes admit to Nick Hasted that they might be Mods after all
"We're very much a generation that crosses two borders," Kate Jackson, 28, says of the band she sings in, The Long Blondes. "We were born in the 20th century, but we became adults in the 21st. The internet didn't exist when we were late teenagers. I think we're quite aware of being children of two generations."
Perhaps this accounts for the strange mix of nostalgia and ruthless modernity that has defined The Long Blondes since they formed in Sheffield in 2003. They were a legendary shambles live back then, but by 2005 had still forged a reputation as "the best unsigned band in Britain". Jackson, who worked in a vintage clothes shop and proved startlingly photogenic, helped create a look of approachable, thrift-store high glamour, and made them stars.
When they were signed, to Rough Trade, the music on their debut, Someone to Drive You Home (2006) felt similarly home-made yet rigorously crafted: great pop made for pennies. The sleeve, by Jackson, showed Faye Dunaway from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) leaning on a Ford Cortina, a getaway car that wouldn't get her far.
Now back with a second, superior album, Couples, the Long Blondes, when I meet them in a York arthouse cinema café (minus main lyricist Dorian Cox, who is spending the day with his grandmother nearby) prove similarly suspicious of leaving their roots.
Boisterously at ease with, and contradicting, each other, they are a band trying to cling to a clear, uncorrupted sense of themselves. And, though their first website sought to ban listening to all "classic" rock influences (from The Beatles to Dylan), these turn-of-the-century twentysomethings look to previous pop culture to help define who they are.
"Dorian and I made references to popular culture this time, like on the song "Erin O'Connor" [about the enigmatic model]," Jackson agrees. "But that comes not necessarily from being nostalgic and wanting the past back – but appreciating a different form of entertainment and celebrity, where everything was less immediate compared to this internet age, where you can see whatever celebrities are doing throughout the day. Dorian wrote about Erin O'Connor partly because she doesn't seem to be part of that world, so she's timeless. We have a respect and a reverence to that. We'd like to keep a little bit of myth to pop music, and film culture, which I think has been lost."
"When we talk about pop music," says drummer Screech Louder, "we're thinking of Soft Cell or The Associates, at a time in the early Eighties when people could make music that was very weird and edgy, and could still be commercial as well. I was reading an article the other day about artists doing really successful first albums, and then the next one being complete commercial suicide – like Dazzle Ships by OMD, and Dexys Midnight Runners with Don't Stand Me Down. People were prepared to make really interesting music and take risks. There isn't a climate for that in the music industry now. I'd like to think we're going against the grain. We're also fortunate that although Someone To Drive You Home was very successful, it wasn't a runaway smash. We're not confined to repeating its commercial success with Couples."
"I don't think we exist solely in this era," Jackson considers. "We do hark back to The Associates and The Smiths and Soft Cell, and Blondie, and further back than that as well. I think people have a craving for a band like that at the moment, who've got their own identity, and stand alone from genres."
The Long Blondes seem a classic Sheffield band, with the domesticated glamour of The Human League's backing singers, or the small-time art-school poseur of Pulp's "Common People". In truth, though, Cox is from York, Chaplin Newcastle, Louder Birmingham, Jackson Bury St Edmunds, and bassist Reenie Hollis from Wakefield. Though they met at Sheffield University, only Hollis is left in the city now. Screech still professes a love for the place. But, as Chaplin recalls: "We were quite hated by the local music scene. We were viewed as abandoning it, because we were always playing down in London..."
Calling the new record Couples begs an obvious question as, the last time The Long Blondes were heard from, Cox was going out with Chaplin, and Hollis was going out with Screech. Do they plan, à la the White Stripes, to keep us guessing for the next 20 years if they're all still together?
"Do people not know?" asks Chaplin. "No one's going out with anyone. But everybody had broken up before we made it. And got used to it as well. Although, if you listen to Dorian's lyrics, some of them can be quite cutting." Adds Jackson: "I was listening to Rumours [Fleetwood Mac's notorious 1977 break-up album] the whole time we were making it. Screech loves it."
The pop-culture detritus that litters all Long Blondes records was more literal this time. Walking home from an Indian restaurant in London, where the band moved to make Couples, Jackson and Cox found some Forties swing and jive LPs in a skip. Their covers influenced Jackson's work on their new sleeve. And while Dunaway, and Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern in Wild at Heart, starred in Someone to Drive You Home's art, Ronnie Corbett makes a surprise appearance here.
"Dorian and I are obsessed with old British comedy films, and we were watching No Sex Please, We're British [the Seventies farce], with Ronnie Corbett, so he's on the sleeve," Jackson says. "The things you grow up with are a grounding. A comfort. It's not nostalgia, it's part of who you are." Another MOR cultural stalwart also found himself sampled: "Dorian and I were recording a B-side in Sheffield, on a reel-to-reel tape owned by a friend," she explains, "and we played it back, and there was this weird death-metal and backwards strings. It sounded like Twin Peaks. Then we thought we'd play it forwards, and it was Terry Wogan's radio show, from the late Fifties or something..." Wogan's cheery tones, and Kenny Everett's, duly made it onto the record.
Much more than a band defined by place or time, what The Long Blondes really remind me of, I come to realise, with their reverence for the right clothes and purist pop sense, are Mods. "Dorian and I, for years, were really strict Mods," Chaplin admits. "Dorian was the purest one."
"We do have a strict sense of identity about what we're doing," Louder admits. "There is a philosophy to The Long Blondes, although we're too strong as individuals to agree what it is. But we're not indulgent when we write songs, they're stripped down. I always wanted us to be Modernist – artistically exciting, but functional. Every little element of the record has an impact..."
So The Long Blondes are Modernist in every sense – from sharp clothes, to brutalist architecture? "Even the artwork's got clean lines," Jackson agrees. "We're an art-rock band. We see every element as equally important. Music, lyrics, artwork, how we present ourselves, videos, the website. Everything is us."
"We're incredibly controlling, probably to our detriment," Hollis says. "I despise being told what to wear. We all have different points where we put our foot down." You're alert to being corrupted? "That's exactly what it is," says Louder.
"We've always treated The Long Blondes as work," Louder says more seriously. "Not that it's a chore, but it's important. We care about it and we work hard. Having day-jobs in the early days means we all really appreciate this. We've done it where Kate drove us around. So now that someone else drives us, and loads our equipment, I'm constantly grateful. I still sometimes help load the gear and set it up. I really enjoyed the days when we did that for ourselves."
"We have fans who have watched us evolve from our very early gigs five years ago," Jackson adds, "and releasing singles on really small labels, to playing Glastonbury."
Says Louder: "I've just been reading a book about the hardcore punk scene in America, and it is like that sense of community with Long Blondes fans. This guy we know, Rob, comes to all our gigs. When we get to a venue in London he'll be there waiting. Knowing you mean that much to people means more than anything to us."
Couples has also seen the Long Blondes' sound move on from their early, amateur days. Where ex-Pulp bassist Steve Mackey produced their debut, DJ and Klaxons/Hot Chip remixer Erol Alkan is in charge now. "He's a method producer," says Jackson. "When he'd talk to me about the vocals, he'd say, 'Where do you picture yourself when you're singing this song?' And with 'Guilt', I said, 'Well, I'm outside, and I'm wearing a boob-tube and a little mini-skirt, stilettos and bleached-blonde hair.' He said, 'All right, we'll set the microphone up outside in the garden, and we'll catch the ambient noise of the traffic, and the London night.'"
For Couples, Jackson wrote new single "Century" and "I Liked the Boys". Cox, who was responsible for all but two of the last album's lyrics too, often writes with the voice of experience, though that experience rarely does his characters much good. They make him sound older than his years and, often, thwarted and vulnerable.
Though Jackson sings his words, she has said she'd never write herself into a vulnerable position. Is that because she never feels vulnerable? "No, the opposite," she says, laughing. "But I don't think I could go out on stage, at this point in my life, and be vulnerable. Because I change on stage. Singing Dorian's lyrics, I'm playing character roles. Until this album anyway, I've sung everything very aggressively, because that's how I see myself when I go out there, and that's how I want other girls to see me.
"I think 'Nostalgia' is quite a vulnerable song on this album. Although I didn't write the lyrics, when I was singing it in the studio, I think I cried."
The Long Blondes' new single 'Century' is out on Monday, the album 'Couples' on 7 April, both on Rough Trade