It was when Django Django were playing Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations on the final day of 2013 that producer and drummer Dave Maclean realised how far his band had come since releasing their self-titled debut album almost two years earlier.
“We made what, at the time, I thought would be an obscure bedroom record and ended up playing to 60,000 people on Princes Street,” says Dave. “Every month we kept saying we were going to stop touring but the album kept growing.”
Born Under Saturn is the work of a band fired up by confidence and experience and propelled way beyond their humble DIY roots. It has all of the giddy art-rock imagination of the debut but splashed across a larger canvas. “Once we got into the studio it became obvious it would be a bigger-sounding record,” says bassist Jim Dixon.
“When we were writing the lyrics there were lots of references to rebirth, turning a new page and starting something again,” says Dave. “I guess that’s something we all felt.”
Django Django — Dave, Jim, guitarist Vinnie Neff and keyboardist Tommy Grace — met at art school in Edinburgh and released their first single, after moving to east London, in 2009. They took their time evolving a uniquely open-minded sound in which every influence is welcome but nothing sounds cluttered of forced. “We don’t stop ourselves going in any direction because we’ve all got very individual styles so it always ends up sounding like us,” says Vinnie.
Their debut album came out in January 2012 on Because Music and was lavished with praise. It was “updated psychedelia that beguiles and delights” (The Guardian), “consistently mind-melting and often brilliant” (Q), “bursting with ideas” (Pitchfork) and “gloriously, unpredictably new” (Mojo). By December it had been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize and named one of the albums of the year by Rolling Stone and NME.
Django Django kept meaning to come off the road and get back in the studio but the album’s popularity kept growing. They played around the world, performing memorable shows at such essential festivals as Glastonbury and Fuji Rock. They appeared on TV shows worldwide, including one curious French affair where they were forced to dance with Wicked Game singer Chris Isaak. They had a ball.
“It surprised me how totally varied one audience would be,” says Dave. “Young kids next to 60s heads who were into Pink Floyd. Two generations of a family would come out. I’ve never known such a bizarre cross-section of society.”
They also embraced other creative opportunities. Dave travelled to Mali with Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, part of a 20-strong contingent including Brian Eno, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and actor Idris Elba. The band subsequently appeared at an Africa Express show in Marseille, performing Skies Over Cairo with local rapper Malikah, and worked on the new album’s opening song Giant during a jam with African musicians at Albarn’s London studio.
Dave and Tommy worked on the score for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of John Webster’s bloodthirsty Jacobean tragedy The White Devil. “It’s a full-on play,” says Tommy, eyes widening. “There’s only about 10% of the cast standing at the end.” Dave established his own label, Kick and Clap, named after the club night he launched when he first moved to Dalston. “It’s my personal idea of dancefloor music – not just house and techno but weirder stuff as well,” he says. And Vinnie and Jim collaborated with award-winning artist Haroon Mirza at Stromboli arts festival last summer, at the foot of the island’s volcano.
After all this activity they were hungry to make album number two. “We built up momentum more than expectation,” says Dave. “We were keen to get back to making music. Going from a lo-fi bedroom record, sitting in your flat in your pjyamas, to playing to huge crowds, you learn a lot.”
Born Under Saturn was recorded at Netil House in east London and Angelic in Banbury, where the band had an entertaining night involving moonshine, a ouija board and what appeared to be a piano-playing poltergeist.
Like before, Django Django are blessedly oblivious to genre rules. You’ll find Beach Boys harmonies and Link Wray riffs crisscrossing with house music pianos, classical keyboard flourishes with Jamaican and African rhythms, and all of it flows. It’s the same dot-joining intelligence that made Dave’s instalment of the Late Night Tales compilation series, mixing Canned Heat and The Millennium with Outkast and TNGHT, so enjoyable.
“A lot of it has to do with growing up being more into mixtapes than albums,” he says. “I think that sensibility comes through. Since I was a kid I’ve always tried to see the connections and threads through music.”
Unlike the debut, which was largely written by Dave and Vinnie, the songwriting was split four ways. Songs evolved from fragments of ideas recorded on mobile phones, or flashes of brilliance during informal jams. Over time, the most promising seeds sprouted into full-blown songs, which would be teased apart and rebuilt by Dave in his producer role. “Growing up, I was into the Beatles and the Beach Boys,” he says. “This idea of 60s psych that was also really approachable pop music. That balance has always interested me. I love it when weird records become pop.”
Lyrics often emerged naturally from the sound of the music. Giant, for example, was so titled because its sound suggested a goliath’s pounding footsteps and Shake and Tremble’s rockabilly rumble suggested earthquakes. There are dark dramas like Found You, which draws on the myth of Faust’s deal with the devil, and Shot Down, a bloody tale of crime and betrayal. Jim wrote the sighingly beautiful Beginning to Fade while contemplating writer’s block. The atmospheric, synth-driven High Moon, says Dave, is about people who “come alive at night”. In Django Django’s songs the real is always merging with the fantastical and everyday emotions take strange and exciting forms.
Born Under Saturn expands on the slippery, undefinable brilliance of the debut, finding magic in the unexplored spaces between different kinds of music, and never doing the same thing twice.
“We thought we’d sell to little pockets of people and set up our own live shows in art spaces,” says Dave. “We never thought it would end up the way it did. Once that happens, you have to keep pushing. You can’t sit still.”