Now showing at Two Door Cinema Club – a story Hollywood could’ve writ. Full of action, intrigue, conflict and resolution, Reservoir Dogs meets Rocky meets A Star Is Born meets Love Actually. The elevator pitch: in 2008, three schoolmates from Bangor Grammar School in County Down – singer Alex Trimble, guitarist Sam Halliday and bassist Kevin Baird - form a band intending to add a pristine melodic frisson to the helium rock sounds of Foals and The Maccabees. Signing to French indie label Kitsune and all but ignored by the media, they build a DIY phenomenon by dint of relentless touring and a close connection to their online fanbase, nicknamed The Basement People.
Within two years they’re playing to festival tents rammed with 30,000 rabid Cinephiles, their debut album ‘Tourist History’ goes platinum on the back of cult singles such as ‘Something Good Can Work’ and ‘What You Know’, and they’re being mobbed in the street everywhere from Mexico to Tokyo to LA. Come 2011 their second album ‘Beacon’ – recorded with Jacknife Lee (U2, REM, Bloc Party) in his LA studio - hits Number Two in the UK and they headline Alexandra Palace and the O2, the ultimate modern-age success story.
Cue the drama. Six years of intense non-stop touring saw the band fracture and dislocate in the wake of 2012’s Number Two second album ‘Beacon’, ricocheting across the world to take a break from each other, battle their individual demons and addictions and discover who they really were after spending their entire adult lives inside the bubble of the band. When they reconvened in 2015, largely via email, to tentatively explore the idea of a third album, there was clearly more plot to unravel. Writing remotely (the trio spent five months pinging demo tracks around their inboxes from their home bases) and recording organically (again with Jacknife Lee in LA) allowed such disparate influences as Madonna, Prince, Chic, Kraftwerk and neo soul to infiltrate their sound, and the resulting album, 2016’s ‘Gameshow’, was a modernist pop triumph, and a Top Five hit to boot.
Setting out on tour again, however, was a leap into the unknown. “At the beginning everything felt very fragile because we hadn’t left on great terms after the second record and making the album was the beginning of this mending process,” says Alex. “We were still trying to get to know each other again so going in there was a little bit of trepidation, but actually it was amazing. Touring ‘Gameshow’ was the best touring experience I’ve ever had in this band. We were getting to know each other again and all preconceived notions of who each other was as a person was gone and it was starting fresh. It was just being mates again. We started from the beginning with everything.”
Having a brand new crew and an extra onstage member in guitarist and keyboardist Jacob M Berry helped oil the wheels too. “Nobody was comfortable when we started,” Alex explains, “which was the best thing we could’ve done. Everybody had to get to know everybody and it was kind of plain sailing from there.”
“I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would have,” Sam agrees. “We started off the tour in Mexico, and we just enjoyed being there. If that had been in the middle of a campaign a few years before we would all have been holed up in our hotel rooms and not being too adventurous – we were all enjoying being away somewhere fun like that. There’s an element of not taking all of that for granted now and try to make the most of it.”
“We stopped having a point to prove,” Kevin adds. “The success of the first and second record, and because we weren’t championed by a big outlet, radio or TV or whatever, it almost felt that we had to prove we deserved to be there and think ‘are we ready to headline festivals?’ When it came to the ‘Gameshow’ tour we let go of a lot of that and allowed ourselves to do what we do and be happy and thankful for that.
Finally all pulling in the same direction, TDCC felt like a brand new band, and one with a brand new audience. Rather than starting from scratch after a major career hiccup, the Spotify generation had embraced their early albums in their absence and TDCC slid right back on track. By the end of a far more stress-free and harmonious two-year tour they were back in the festival headline saddle, topping the bill at Finsbury Park’s Community Festival last July.
“It was properly doing that kind of show on our own terms,” Alex says. “From the ground up, we were working with the promoters on how it was going to feel, how the day was going to go, the line-up. It was the most people we’ve had come to see us at a headline show in the UK and it was so rewarding to have gone from the beginning of that album where we’d been off for three years and asking the question ‘are people still gonna let us do this for a job?’ to playing the biggest show we’ve ever played. That was a defining moment.”
And a momentum TDCC didn’t want to lose. So they gripped their future with both hands. They decided that working within the major label edifice of Parlophone had left them feeling more backseat than this self-made band were used to – “We felt we lost that a little bit on the third album,” Kevin says, “not the control but the machine was bigger and we didn’t enjoy that as much.” So, amicably, they struck out on their own, creating their own label with their management under the umbrella of Prolifica Inc and putting a deal together with PIAS that put TDCC firmly in control of their recordings, “at the coal face on everything… it’s much more rewarding.”
Alex sees the move as a sign of the band getting its mojo back. “If things weren’t so good we couldn’t have taken back control. It’s easy to be out of control when somebody else is running things but if we were dysfunctional there’s no way we could’ve taken charge of our career and run a label and put out our own music and had control over our own destiny, that wouldn’t have worked. But we’ve all found very happy and rewarding places in this band and this business and in our own worlds. Everyone seems very satisfied and content.”
Musically, too, they forged ahead. Taking little time off, in 2018 the band started emailing demos around again, careful not to change a winning formula even though they were geographically closer - Alex and Kevin had relocated to London and Sam back to Ireland. In search of direction, Alex made trips to Los Angeles over six months to work up ideas with Jacknife Lee. “‘Gameshow’ was very different from anything we’d done before,” he says, “that was born out of necessity - it had to be a reinvention. So then it was like ‘we’ve done something radical, what now?’ In the end it became an extreme case of following your nose. There’s songs that are a bit mad and go off-piste and we’re all making strange noises that we don’t usually make on these records and that’s where the excitement was. It became about following the excitement.”
The excitement led TDCC to their own skewed brand of modern pop music. Fourth album ‘False Alarm’ – recorded in relaxed and inclusive “come-and-go” sessions with Jacknife Lee in London and LA - is awash with the synthpop, disco and electro-funk elements that had begun creeping in on ‘Gameshow’, but sent spiralling left-field by broadside missiles of industrial rock, space pop and psychedelia. “I love the pop thing,” Alex explains. “I love experimenting and going to different places, I love doing things that are a little bit wonky and I love the idea of doing something we haven’t done before, why can’t we do all of those things at once? That’s what it was, doing whatever felt right… It sounds like Two Door Cinema Club – not a Two Door Cinema Club there’d ever been before but that’s what I love. We can always do something new but it always feels like something we’ve done.”
“We didn’t want to be afraid of anything, and to take ownership of anything that we liked,” Sam adds. “Certain effects on guitars or synth sounds that could be a reference to something that we hate, but trying to reclaim ownership of the sounds and try to make it interesting.”
So amid the synth gloss of ‘Once’, the pounding disco rock of ‘Dirty Air’ and the Chic funk of ‘So Many People’, you’ll find distorted, subaqueous boudoir soul akin to a sunken Jungle (‘Think’), or a two-minute interlude of multi-dimensional lounge pop called ‘Break’, which sounds like an AI trying to write a Beatles song. “The demo that I brought to Jacknife was a little more frilly,” Alex says, “there’s a lot of lovely chords in there. As soon as I played it to him he said ‘you’re doing it again, this is the McCartney school of song-writing you keep coming back to’. Jacknife stripped it down and built it back up from the beginning. He took all the drums out and put electronic drums in, saying ‘I’m not gonna let you do this as straightforward as you want to do this and I’m not gonna let it be a full song, it’s gonna be about a minute and a half’. It was one of the best things that could’ve happened in the whole process, him saying ‘I’m not gonna let you do what you did before’. It ended up in a really lovely place.”
There’s even an adorable piece of cranky art-pop in the vein of ‘80s Bowie or Talking Heads called ‘Nice To See You’ featuring Zimbabwe’s Mokoomba providing Afro-choir backing vocals and a rap verse by Open Mike Eagle. The Mokoomba connection was an example of sampling coming to life – discovering their music in a break during recording, Alex and Lee decided to sample the band for an ‘80s funk stormer called ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’, then noticed they were playing in town the following week and invited them to the studio to perform on ‘Nice To See You’ too. “It was phenomenal to see the impact that someone else coming in fresh on a song we’d been working on for a few weeks transformed everything,” says Alex. “We’ve tried bits and pieces of collaboration in the past and it’s never felt quite so natural, but this did, to let someone have a go and attack a song in their own way.”
Thematically, ‘False Alarm’ is a sister-piece to ‘Gameshow’, but by far the cheerier sister. Where ‘Gameshow’ railed against the accelerating dislocations of modern life and the detrimental effect on society of technology and social media, ‘False Alarm’ decides that if you can’t beat it, satirise it. “On the last record but I was really mad at everything, I hated the world,” Alex explains, “but ultimately we’re all part of it and we all do it so it’s a little bit more tongue-in-cheek with this one. A lot of our fans are kids and we have a responsibility to them not as consumers but as people. I don’t want to get angry and say ‘you’re being idiots, come on, this doesn’t make any sense’. You can do that in a way that hopefully will allow people to realise that this is kind of ridiculous. People are realising ‘I can’t keep living for the followers, I can’t keep living for likes’ and that’s a good thing. We’re a very fragile species, we need to realise our own absurdity sometimes.”
So the MGMT-ultra synthpop of ‘Once’ explores the way we define ourselves by likes and our online ‘fame’, and live vicariously through devices. “The phrase ‘once in a lifetime’ came out in conversation and I started questioning what does that mean anymore? When everything is captured on a camera or viewed through a screen, and if you can watch it a million times over, is it once in a lifetime?... There’s also this idea that you are a product, everyone’s building their brand.” “We all have our own value,” says Kevin, “and because someone’s got more followers than you doesn’t make them more valuable than you are.”
‘Nice To Meet You’ expands on that idea, tackling the disconnect between how our old friends present their lives as glamorous Instagram fantasies (and the inadequacies we feel as a result) but can’t bring themselves to expose their fears and failings in person. ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’, meanwhile, is the result of Alex coming off social media for a while, only to find himself able to see straight through the screen to the code of the algorithm’s matrix when he returned. “I started noticing what was going on a lot more in terms of advertising and what people and products were promising and how they were filtering it in amongst news stories,” he says. “It becomes a part of what you consume on a daily basis, so subconsciously you’re obviously gonna think that this is what I need and it’s gonna make everything better and I might be happier. The main thing that most companies and organisations are selling nowadays is happiness. It’s joy, contentment, as if that should be your natural state. Everything, whether it’s a phone or a sandwich or a car is guaranteeing to make your life better. I wrote ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ as this idea of trying to obtain this complete bliss, this idea of heaven that everybody’s trying to sell you.”
They have fun with the future too. If the infectious krautpop of ‘Satellite’ accepts that, as a species, we’re “in it together” – be it Brexit, climate change or any other man-made modern terror – the smog-clogged disco rock of ‘Dirty Air’ even has Alex lustily prowling a ruined city’s dancefloors, posing through the ecological collapse: “The sky is falling, so pull up a chair”. “I thought what if we celebrated the end of the world and just had a big party?” he grins. Later in the album, the internet comes to life and runs off, leaving a psychedelic Dear John letter to the humanity that abused it.
And occasionally Alex flips his screen inward, writing songs to help himself through his songwriting insecurities, or acknowledging the depths and layers of character that the band have been allowed to develop since their involuntary hiatus. It all makes for a wide-eyed, culture-encompassing leap forward for TDCC, a record liable to break, ruin and remould pop in 2019. And it’s only the beginning of the band’s unified and assured new phase. Best strap yourselves in for one hell of a Hollywood ending. A happily-ever-after set to run and run.