The Sunshine Underground (TSU) are an English Indie dance band based in Leeds.
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The Sunshine Underground
A clean slate. That's where Leeds band The Sunshine Underground found themselves after parting ways with their management and then their bass player, Daley. Any walls of expectation or stereotype built over the course of two albums had dissolved and the optimistic trio of Craig, Stu and Matt saw that the space for creativity was actually bigger than ever. "Musically, there were no limits, and it forced us to write songs in a different way” explains Craig (the band's lead singer), "We were excited by the idea of moving things around."
It’s been eight years since their explosive 2006 debut “Raise The Alarm” - a dance-punk record described by The Guardian as “every bit as jerkily compulsive as The Rapture’s House of Jealous Lovers” - surfed the new rave wave into the UK’s wider consciousness. The cultural permeation spread even further when Sony Records released the album in Japan and their song “Put You In Your Place” was a big hit. Two sold out tours resulted in a cult following of which the quite bizarre stories include boxes of Yorkshire tea being regularly waved in the air at gigs.
Four years of touring, writing and recording passed before the band released their 2010 sophomore “Nobody’s Coming To Save You” . Their trademark explosiveness was still evident, but this was a more rhythmic and patient affair, with tracks like ‘Here It Comes’ and ‘We’ve Always Been Your Friends’ showcasing a distinct artistry in the band’s songwriting. Another four years have passed since then, and now they return. And it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard from TSU.
"We wanted to make an electronic sounding record" recalls Craig, and in one statement a pipe dream they had harboured for years had the potential to be realised. But, to achieve this, they had to change everything.
“We had always expressed ourselves in a band format: two guitars, a bass and everyone writing songs around the drum kit. It was time to get our heads around production and beat programming. Nobody had set roles in the band anymore." Guitarist Stu adds, "it felt like the weapons in our musical arsenal had grown massively in recent years and it was exciting to start applying them." For funding, the band looked to the crowd sourcing site Pledge. Within months they exceeded their target. It paid testament to a loyal following built through regular and frenetic live shows. And it feels poetically justified that the dedication of the fanbase should directly influence their creative freedom. "There has always been somebody at a label looking over your shoulder” begins Craig, "my god, I've spent most of my life trying to write singles for those major label A&R people. And it never happen.
All your best songs happen naturally. Luckily, we have loyal fans. That's why we could do it this way. There is no outside influence.” At the live shows, this new formation is evident, Craig has pads and keys and drummer Matt Gwilt adds the same on top of his live lit. But one of the main role changes involved band member Stu transforming himself from guitarist to producer/programmer. "This is the area that has developed most for us" he explains, “over these last few years, we've really homed-in on the electronic sounds that we feel work best. The tracks were written around a drum machine and Roland's TR series (606, 808, 909) featured heavily. Slowly but surely, our hardware synth collection built up nicely, but we limited ourselves to a small number to give the record ‘a sound’." For lead singer Craig, the new approach gave him the opportunity to let some life-long influences start to impact on him. “I went through a big period of listening to 80s/90s synth-pop and I still do. This was a good opportunity to explore that, play on it, and get those Human League style influences out. It's definitely something you can hear in the record.”
The overall result is an album nobody would have expected. Self-titled purposefully to hit home this feeling of identity, the hard beats and glittering synths mix with The Sunshine Underground's original dance-punk origins to create an almighty collection of contemporary club-pop. The aptly named 'Start' kicks things off: an arresting vocal house track that hits a hypnotic rhythm before exploding in colour at the five minute mark.
'Nothing To Fear' is similarly upbeat, but with a gritty funk bass line reminiscent of Talk Talk. And a mid-record respite comes in the shape of the slower ‘Battles’, an electronic ballad with intricate percussion. But for Craig, "the first track I want people to hear is 'Don't Stop'. It sums up the album for us. It displays a lot of the elements of our new styles that I don't think anybody is expecting. We want that 'what the fuck?' factor."
“All three of us write the songs and throw things in” explains Craig, “so you get bits of everything. In ‘Turn It On’ you get my 80s pop vibes, but then you get Stu putting in the complicated guitar rhythms.”
This variation needed stitched together, and producer Ross Orton (Arctic Monkeys, M.I.A., Toddla T) stepped up to the mark. His task was to blend styles, but also ensure that they didn’t lose that “band” element to their sound. “In the early days of writing, it felt fine for there to be no drums and guitars” says Craig, “but over time we started to reintroduce those elements, and Ross was great at bringing the band side of things back into it. Real drums and real bass instead of all synth.” This move reintroduced the live drumming of band member Matt Gwilt, and his thunderous contributions began to reshape the tracks. “We have ended up with a nice cross between electronic and live instrumentation. We are a live band, so that needed to happen and Ross was key to that.”
It is a dilemma every band must face at some point in their career. Keep writing the same songs for the same people, or take a risk and change everything? Reinvention is a modern fact of music, and for a band that derive their name from a Chemical Brothers track, moving ever further towards dance music has been more natural than we ever could have imagined.