Right before Django Django shot a music video for the title track to its full-length 2018 album Marble Skies last spring, the band members figured they’d probably get fried from trudging around the vast open expanses of Southern California’s Mojave Desert while carrying around large flags. Instead, the result was just the opposite.
“We thought it would be really hot and we were worried,” admitted drummer/producer Dave Maclean.
“We got out there and it was so freezing cold. It was an unexpected climate. The sun was beating down, but the wind was like ice.”
Django Django used the downtime between appearing at both weekends of this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California—where the acclaimed London four-piece dance/rock group was a standout—to film the clip, play tennis and “live the California dream for a little while.”
Soaking up the atmosphere had an unexpected effect.
“That’s where I dreamed up the video for ‘Swimming at Night’ and some of the lyrics,” Maclean said. “It’s hard not to be inspired out there because of the landscape and the weird juxtaposition between the new towns and the sparse way that people live next to this kind of unforgiving landscape. It was weird being out in the desert.”
The intriguing “Swimming at Night” single is from Django Django’s new EP Winter’s Beach, finished soon after Marble Skies was completed. It originated with Maclean “singing some nonsense” into a vocoder and a “corny 808 drum beat” partially inspired by Zapp’s 1980 R&B hit “More Bounce to the Ounce.” Did the musicians have a sudden burst of inspiration?
“I think we’re like that all the time, and we get really antsy when we’ve sat around not making music,” said Maclean. “As soon as there’s any down time [singer/guitarist Vinny Neff] and me love being in the studio. We just jump in there and mess around.Our hard drives on the computers in there are filled with about seven albums’ worth of stuff. We will say, ‘let’s put some lyrics to this,’ do a bassline and we’ve got a track. I think we’re potentially quite a prolific band, it’s just you have to tour and find the time."
He continues, “Nowadays, more of the music industry’s changing where hip-hop and rap music’s all about dropping tracks and you don’t have to wait for vinyl to be pressed or the press release to be done. You can just shove it on YouTube, and it takes on a life of its own. That’s something we’d love to be a part of—just getting things up and rolling. That’s what inspired getting this EP done. Why should we wait for the next cycle to come around?”
One of the year’s most memorable music videos, “Swimming at Night” was helmed by director/animator Gemma Yin Taylor (Paul Weller, Alvvays, Sigrid), who has said the concept “explores the inner worlds within our heads by using mixed media techniques to achieve a tactile quality with nods to graphic styles from the 1970s and '80s.”
Formed in 2009, when Scotsmen Maclean and synth player Tommy Grace met Irishman Neff and English bassist Jimmy Dixon at the Edinburgh College of Art, Django Django put out an eponymous debut album in 2012. Dave had previously deejayed gigs for The Beta Band (featuring brother John), so he already “knew the ropes” of having a prominent music career. Still, “nothing can prepare you for making an album in your bedroom on a 90-pound budget and then you’re thrust onto television with a Mercury [Music Prize] nomination and your record’s selling 100,000 [copies]. It was a pretty crazy ride,” he shared.
The more expansive Born Under Saturn, recorded in a big professional studio, arrived in 2015. Reviews were mixed. In retrospect, Maclean said, “I don’t think we tried hard enough to shape it into an album. With Marble Skies, from the start, we wanted to make it ebb and flow like a mixtape. Hopefully that worked a little bit.”
The following year, Dave Maclean’s “head was spinning” from relentless touring. Burnt out, he was briefly hospitalized from exhaustion. As a result, the early sessions for Marble Skies saw Maclean work remotely from home as the rest of Django Django created songs elsewhere with drummer Anna Prior of English electronic band Metronomy.
Maclean said the musicians worked harder on Marble Skies than their previous two albums. His modular method of crafting soundscapes involves looping and adding snippets, taking them apart and cutting them up like making a collage from scraps of paper. He added, “It comes from when I started making music in the '90s. I was using a new sampler and a four track, sampling sounds from the television or bits of records and VHS video tapes. I wanted to make hip-hop beats and be a hip-hop producer. I was obsessed with Prince Paul, DJ Premiere, people like that.”
Once Django Django started, “With Vinny, I just kept that approach and he sung over the top. It became this weird mixture of sampling, drumming and singing. It got defined as 'indie music,' but the approach is like a bedroom producer,” said MacClean.
On Marble Skies, Maclean sampled Jan Hammer, Tony “CD” Kelly, Finn Vine & Zeben Jameson (from British comedy troupe The Mighty Boosh). Potential future sounds off his catalog of LPs are typically indexed in advance.
“I’ll start digging into piles of records and put Post-It notes on them, saying where and when the sample is," he explains. "Then I’ll record them, start looping them and someone might come in when they’ve got spare time and put a bassline over the top. It’s sort of like [the children’s game] Chinese Whispers. Maybe by the end of the track, the sample’s gone and it’s been replaced by a real drum kit. But the starting point was a loop of the sample. Often, it’s like pulling a record out at absolute random and [thinking], ‘What is this record? What can I get from it?’ That kind of thing."
Since Prior handled drums during the track “Marble Skies,” Rebecca Taylor contributed vocals on “Surface to Air” and “Sundials” and then Sonia Bernardo (who has worked with ex-Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera) added her pipes to “Further.” As a result, there’s a newfound feminine presence on the album.
Maclean explained, “Rebecca’s a friend of mine. I produced her first solo EP. Having her in the studio freshened things up. I think we felt like we could get away with more of that. The track that she sings on is a sample of a dancehall rhythm that’s been used by a lot of different people like Sean Paul. It’s a recognizably famous dancehall rhythm. At first, we thought, ‘we can’t sample that.’ Then, as soon as she sang on it, it made sense. It was almost like a ‘sound system’ edit, where we deejayed and she sang on it. It became something that wasn’t [just] the band anymore. I like when hip-hop artists take a famous loop that might’ve been used by [someone like] Biggie Smalls. You think you can’t touch that, then you turn it into something new. That was fun.”