The School of London Grammar
ABOVE: LONDON GRAMMAR
In a world saturated with new music on a daily basis, it’s a bold move to sit back and let the music do the talking—which is exactly what British trio London Grammar chose to do. Comprised of vocalist Hannah Reid, guitarist Dan Rothman and multi-instrumentalist and producer Dot Major, London Grammar uploaded its debut track “Hey Now” to the Internet last December, without a press shot or blurb, and instantly found a cult following. Since then, the band has released the EP Metal & Dust and played almost every festival on the circuit.
We caught up with the band in an East London recording studio, in the lead-up to the release of their debut album If You Wait—the result of a “painstaking” 18 months spent writing and recording. Warm, unaffected and sincere, the well-spoken Londoners discuss the pros (and cons) of hype, how to handle stage fright, and that ever-present comparison with The xx.
HOLLY RUBENSTEIN: How did you all meet?
DAN ROTHMAN: I met Hannah in our first year at Nottingham University. We started playing shows together in bars and clubs and met Dot a year later, who was studying in the year below.
RUBENSTEIN: When did you start thinking that music was going to be a viable career option?
HANNAH REID: We were spotted by an A&R at a live show around the time that Dan and I were doing our exams. We’d just met Dot, and we’d been writing our songs for about six months. That was one avenue as to how things kicked off into us getting signed. A couple of months prior to that, Dan was talking about the future and saying he might have to go away, so we were really fortunate.
ROTHMAN: Playing live at that time was always a bit of fun. It was funny that out of that came all of this. I’ve been in bands before where you try really hard to get signed. We were really lucky.
DOT MAJOR: But we did work hard. We’d drive down to London to gig once a week.
REID: We’d made the decision that we wanted to write all the songs and make a body of work that we were happy with. We chose to put “Hey Now” out online, but we didn’t expect it to do what it did.
RUBENSTEIN: What is your vocal background, Hannah?
REID: I had singing lessons in my teens, but I never learned how to read music. The training that I had was immaculate, but it was in a folk-classical style. I had a really good base, and on top of that I’ve been able to build on and develop nuances of my voice.
RUBENSTEIN: Which female vocalists do you admire?
REID: Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Jessie J, The Cocteau Twins. They’re all masters of their genre.
RUBENSTEIN: Are you all best friends?
ROTHMAN: I personally can’t stand Dot! [laughs]
REID: It can be intense. If you work in an office, you leave the office and go home, whereas with us you never leave the office. So we are lucky that we are best friends.
ROTHMAN: These two are definitely my best friends… hopefully they like me.
RUBENSTEIN: How are you feeling about the imminent album release?
MAJOR: It’s really crept up.
ROTHMAN: The feeling is fear.
REID: I just try and not think about it. We’ve felt so lucky about everything that has come our way so far, and we can’t believe how it’s going. You’ve got to try and be chilled about it, which is quite difficult for me!
ROTHMAN: Once the album was done and we’d signed it all off, it was far easier to relax about it. It was like, whatever happens, happens. But I’m obviously still terrified to hear what people think about it.
RUBENSTEIN: Surely you can’t be that worried? You’ve had such huge support, both from the critics, and the fans.
REID: I think I get used to being in my little nucleus so much that I don’t really have a perspective about what’s going on on the outside.
MAJOR: We’ve definitely felt at festivals that the crowds have picked up, and that’s a great thing. We did a gig recently at Wilderness Festival, in Oxfordshire, and we actually missed our slot. We ended up doing a secret slot on a smaller stage after the rest of the bands had finished, but thousands of people turned up.
REID: That was magical. Definitely a career highlight. Glastonbury was also wicked.
ROTHMAN: Our first festival abroad was Melt, in Germany. That was a great surprise, [that] so many people came to that.
RUBENSTEIN: I heard that you used to get cripplingly nervous, Hannah. How are you handling the shows now?
REID: It just depends on the show. I’m a lot better than I was. We hadn’t gigged in 18 months, and then suddenly we were gigging in front of a thousand people. I was physically sick a few times! And I was recently, once! But I’ve just learned that it’s absolutely fine. You feel terrified, do it anyway, and feel great afterwards. A lot of singers do. I’m starting to love a side to the performing, but fundamentally I’m definitely a songwriter. Suddenly when you have to be a performer… that’s a whole different kind of pressure.
RUBENSTEIN: Do you feel that the hype about you has added pressure or given you a sense of security?
REID: It’s something we’d never change, and the hype has made our career, so we can’t complain about it. But in terms of the live performances there has been a huge amount of pressure to deliver.
RUBENSTEIN: Have you experienced a darker side to the music industry yet?
REID: It’s an industry where real business meets real artistry. You will always come into really difficult situations where your very experienced team might be telling you one thing, and you feel another. Whereas a curator wouldn’t necessarily tell an artist to add something to his painting. You either like the painting or you don’t.
ROTHMAN: That’s a very good point.
RUBENSTEIN: How does the songwriting process work between the three of you?
REID: Dan often writes a guitar loop first, especially in the earlier songs.
ROTHMAN: Then some songs are jammed out in the studio together, and Hannah has brought a lot of songs on the piano.
REID: We most often write our own parts, but Dan and Dot are like the other part of my brain now, so everything that they write influences the way that I write top line and lyrics.
RUBENSTEIN: You’ve said that you were listening to The xx in the lead-up to making the record. Did any other artists influence you while recording the album?
REID: I think everything you listen to sets up camp in your brain and will influence you further down the line.
ROTHMAN: I was listening to the Metronomy album a lot at that time.
MAJOR: The Alt-J album, too.
ROTHMAN: We went through phases, listening to Massive Attack, Fleetwood Mac, Radiohead. We all have different personal tastes as well.
RUBENSTEIN: Are you bored of being compared to The xx?
REID: I can only see it in Dan’s guitar because it’s very clean and uses reverb.
ROTHMAN: I listened to that record a lot when I was at university.
REID: It’s a comparison that surprised me at the beginning. I think our songs are really different. Less experimental.
ROTHMAN: But people are comparing us less and less.
RUBENSTEIN: If all three of you had to pick a desert island disc, what would it be?
REID: Michael Jackson’s Number Ones.
ROTHMAN: Hunky Dory, David Bowie.
MAJOR: The Original Blues, Fleetwood Mac.
RUBENSTEIN: Who should listen to London Grammar?
REID: People who like atmosphere and something they can sing along to.
ROTHMAN: I like to say we’re a blend of Fleetwood Mac and Drake.
REID: Hmm. I’m not sure about that comparison.
LONDON GRAMMAR’S IF YOU WAIT IS OUT SEPTEMBER 10 AND STREAMING NOW ON THE BAND’S WEBSITE. THE TRIO WILL PLAY GRAMERCY THEATER ON OCTOBER 8.