Some bands peer into the abyss. Others dive in headfirst. Others still find the abyss grows inch-by-inch around them, and only the greatest bands climb out.
This last of these scenarios is the story of Two Door Cinema Club, from the outside one of the greatest alt-pop success stories of the decade. It was fan-driven fairy-tale stuff; three seventeen-year-old schoolfriends from Bangor Grammar School in County Down – singer Alex Trimble, guitarist Sam Halliday and bassist Kevin Baird – form a band in 2008 inspired by the fresh mutations in post-landfill indie rock of Foals and The Maccabees, but with a succulent melodic twist all their own. Only plucky French indie label Kitsune wants to sign them and media pay them about as much attention as a tramp busking ‘Yesterday’ yet, ditching plans for university, they throw themselves into the perma-touring life, hungry for self-built success.
Gradually, it grows. Encouraging an online connection with their fans and taking time to meet people after their club shows, they build an ardent online fan collective calling themselves The Basement People. Concentrating their live efforts to promote 2009’s debut EP ‘Four Words To Stand On’ across the globe rather than in the UK, they spread Two Door Cinema Club membership far and wide. A nod in the BBC Sound Of 2010 barely touches the under-the-radar impact they’re making, as the fourth hardest-touring band in the world over 2010. That year’s debut album ‘Tourist History’, recorded at London’s Eastcote Studios with producer Eliot James and featuring such huge but radio-shunned tunes as ‘Something Good Can Work’, ‘Undercover Martyn’ and ‘What You Know’, is out for six months and the band have sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire twice before huge tentfuls of fans – 30,000 at a time – climbing guy-ropes, crowd-surfing and singing along to every word across the 2010 festival season force the media to wake up and smell the Cinemania.
“It’s the best possible way to break through anywhere,” says Sam, “if it comes from the people as opposed to mass media telling people what to like or whatever. The big moment was when we played Shepherd’s Bush Empire and radio had to go ‘hang on a sec, we didn’t tell people to like this, we should probably start jumping on board’.”
“It makes me feel really good when I think back on it,” Alex agrees, “although it was difficult at the time because although we had so much support online from real people, none of the big guys would acknowledge us. Most media ignored us at the beginning but looking back it’s great that we still persevered and made it through and eventually people started to take notice.”
And how. Fans clamber on top of their van in Mexico to mob them and steal Kev’s glasses. They’re chased through the streets by hordes of fans in Tokyo. Bikini babes and surfer dudes clamour around them in California. Jimmy Fallon’s on the phone, they’re suddenly given VIP queue-jump passes straight to the top of radio playlists and on rare days off, turning on the TV, they’re bombarded with their own music to the point where they annoy themselves. ‘Tourist History’ goes platinum – TDCC are declared the epitome of millennial guitar pop success, a new alt-rock sound and industry model for the information generation. What a ride.
Trouble is, when the dizziness kicks in, the ride doesn’t stop.
In six rare weeks off in 2011, TDCC holed up in a shared house in Glasgow to write second album ‘Beacon’, recording the album with Jacknife Lee (U2, REM, Bloc Party) at his studio in Topanga, Los Angeles. A mature, melodic and widescreen consolidation of their sound, with added New Order beats and M83 synth fuzz, it rocketed to Number Two and cemented the phenomenon that was pursuing them around the globe.
“Both albums that we did, the success almost chased us,” Alex explains. “We might tour the UK and nothing would really happen for us, then we’d leave and a couple of months later something would happen there. We’d be in America at the time where nothing was happening, then after we’d leave something would happen there. We were never really around to experience any of the big moments.”
“It’s like you’re planting all these seeds everywhere and it grows as you’re off somewhere else,” says Sam.
Their success really caught up with them at Alexandra Palace in London, though. “Ally Pally was phenomenal,” Alex recalls. “I was so sceptical at the time that we would be able to do that. It’s ten or eleven thousand people which, even in a big city like London, didn’t feel like something we could accomplish. I’ve a much healthier relationship with our success now but I had a very warped sense of where we stood in terms of other people’s perceptions of us as a band and I was very insecure about it for a long time. So to walk onstage in Ally Pally to a completely packed crowd and have all ten thousand people sing along to almost every song we played was an incredibly emotional moment for me.”
But between its autobiographical tales of life on the road – ‘Pyramid’ concerned a hallucinogenic ritual the band were treated to in Mexico, ‘Handshake’ was about the time a tramp tried to stab Alex in a London park with a broken bottle – ‘Beacon’ was full of hints of fracture. Homesickness, loved ones left behind, off-tour insomnia and dope dreams all crept into the likes of ‘Next Year’, ‘Sleep Alone’ and ‘Someday’ and the title of the album reflected how the band had become the all-consuming focus of their lives. They were, in effect, blinded by the beacon that was TDCC.
“We just pushed it too hard for too long,” says Alex. “We had so many opportunities to take a break in the six years or so that that lasted, but we didn’t. We toured for a couple of years and then we made a record while touring, we were in and out of the studio after festivals, back in making a record, then we were out on tour for another two years. And then again, we made the second record while we were still touring and then back out on tour for another two or three years. That’s not healthy for anyone. We became absolutely defined by the band and nothing else. That’s the point in your life, for most people, when you go out into the world and meet people and discover your values, your real interests; you form opinions about different things. As everyone has probably always known, from the outside we’re very different people and we were constantly afraid to deviate from what the idea of who we were and the band was.”
“If you imagine there’s three of Steve Jobs,” Sam adds, “all as passionate and the company means everything to each person because that’s all you do, but you’re all trying to pull it in totally different ways, it can’t fulfil everyone.”
“I think we’ve made music in past, maybe more so on the second album, which we didn’t necessarily want to make,” says Kevin. “We didn’t feel, ‘oh yes, we really want to make an album’, it was more like ‘we’ve got to make this album, capitalise on the momentum’. It’s like a business conversation when it shouldn’t be one.”
So, once two years of touring ’Beacon’ wound up with a sold out show at London’s O2 Arena in December 2013 and after their headline set at Latitude 2014 was cancelled when Alex was hospitalised with stress-induced stomach ulcers, the band – signed to Parlophone in 2013 – decided to take a lengthy break to give themselves space from each other, take their focus off the band and the rising passive-aggressive tensions within it, battle their various demons and work out who they were outside Two Door. Alex moved to Portland in Oregon and, after a period of troubled-rock-star seclusion, began exploring other creative outlets such as writing and photography – he toured the US in a mustang with a photographer friend for an exhibition entitled Mustang Margaritas – and developing an interest in eastern philosophies and meditation. Kevin moved to LA to conquer his anxiety issues and Sam settled in London, got married and enjoyed life as a house husband. When they reconvened in mid-2015, all tensions shed and free of the sense of contractual duty that had suffocated them (obviously we’re doing this now because we want to do it, which is a really nice feeling as opposed to ‘we kind of have to’,” says Sam), TDCC found a new lease of creative life. Largely via email.
“We realised, for whatever reason, at that moment in time it wasn’t going to work, the three of us being in a room together trying to write a song,” Kevin explains. “We’ve tried that so many times in the past and we were quite guilty in coming up with the thing that offended each of us the least rather than the best thing. So we did a lot of it over email, which was great. Everyone had that extra layer of protection of ‘I’m not in the same room, I can send an email, close my laptop, drop the bomb and leave’.”
Over the course of five months the band pieced their third album together from their home bases. “We shared it and commented on what each other had done, what we liked, what we didn’t like,” Alex says. “We threw our ideas on top of each other’s and pretty soon after we went straight into the studio [with Jacknife Lee in LA once more] and made it. It was so quick and organic and very naturally occurring. We waited until the right time and it was certainly the right time. There was no overthought, there was no anxiety, there was very little self-consciousness. It was very much a train-of-thought record, we got on board and we rode it until it was finished.”
Challenging themselves to indulge a wide and varied range of styles and influences stretching way beyond the traditional Two Door sound to take in Prince, Madonna, McCartney, Chic, Krautrock, neo soul and modernist pop, ‘Gameshow’ is by far their most enthralling and danceable record yet, albeit one full of the uncertainties of finding yourself and your place in the world. ‘Bad Decisions’ ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Are We Ready? (Wreck)’, the future funk first single, all tackle Alex’s discomfort with modern life, what he calls “the information generation” and the societal pressure to engage with the brain-frying online whirlpool.
“I discovered this term weltschmertz, the German word for being at odds with the world around you,” Alex says. “The fact that it was a fully coined term and related to so many people that have existed and do exist made me feel it was okay to not exist on the same level as everyone else, it was okay to be comfortable doing your own thing. ‘Are We Ready? (Wreck)’ was me… not attacking the world around me but outlining why I don’t really get it and why I don’t fit in with it.”
Elsewhere, their sense of dislocation is highlighted in ‘Je Viens De La’, a song inspired by a seminal 1960s sci-fi French film shot entirely in still frames “like a slide show about time travel” and ‘Game Show’ concerns the shallowness of the music industry games they were required to play, “the whole world that we were in and what was expected of us, the disparity between the life we were living, the life we wanted to live and the life we were expected to live. It did feel a bit like a game show at times, fickle, false, fleeting, feeling unable to wrap your head around it.” Yet Alex was happy to dip into the world of pure pop for ‘Gameshow’, writing the neo R&B pop hit ‘Lavender’. How do the band feel about embracing bigger pop elements? “I feel really good about it,” Alex says. “We’re not embracing the pop that’s going on right now in a melodic sense or even structurally. Sonically we went the other way and started to experiment a lot more with things like using samples and more electronics. The two biggest inspirations on this record were Bowie and Prince, for me at least. Both total pioneers who did whatever they wanted to do. They really straddled that line between insane pop and total avant garde craziness. Bowie’s death was a huge wake-up call to me that we’d lost one of those amazing guys and it suddenly hit me that no-one’s pushing that boundary anymore, so I thought maybe we could try that. We haven’t gone anywhere near as far out-there as Bowie did, but this could be the first step on the road to really pushing the boat out. There shouldn’t be a formula to pop music, but there is now. But you can do whatever you want. If you maintain that pop sensibility, if it’s within you – and all of us have grown up with great pop music – you can write those super-huge melodies but make the lyrics slightly more obscure. That give and take, it makes it far more interesting.”
Having relaunched with a trio of Irish shows in the guise of their own cover band Tudor Cinema Club and an ecstatically-received string of dates in Mexico, TDCC are back with creative fire in their loins and a whole new centred sense of purpose. They’ve had the fights. They’ve had the inertia. Now for the action.