We speak to the singer and guitarist of Django Django ahead of their performance at FIB, about milk-bottle mic-stands, dressing-up and finding reason… without too much reasoning.
Vincent Neff, the lead singer and guitarist of Django Django, is stuck in airport security with a phone battery that’s close to death. But rather than express any form of irritation regarding the situation, he apologises profusely, asks if we can start again in half an hour and runs away to find a charger. His adaptable attitude and cheerful nature seem entirely appropriate: here’s a man who made an astoundingly well-received debut with his buddies in a bedroom. They used milk bottles as mic-stands, phone-books for drums and a de-tuned, borrowed guitar as a bass.
Thirty-odd minutes later we are mid-conversation; Neff mulling over the band’s dressing-up habit in his melodic, Scottish lilt.
I usually ban my boyfriend from the room when I am conducting interviews; dismissing him to the kitchen so that I can chatter away without distraction. However, as he has his own deadlines to hit I allow him to stay at his desk, provided he keeps his headphones on and doesn’t look at me. Contrary to my instructions, I can tell that he is listening in from the stifled giggles and cocked head. After a lengthy, easy-flowing conversation I make my goodbyes (and Neff apologises for the slight delay in our conversation for the third time) and hang up. In a beat my boyfriend turns to me and enthuses “what a nice chap!”. Like his band’s music, you just can’t help but warm to Vincent Neff. Django Django, it seems, have a new fan.
Every time I hear your music described, the description is different. How would you describe your music?
I suppose it’s sort of a melting pot of all of our lives listening to different music. We all love different music – lots of different music – and I think that when we write music, in a sense, we don’t see it in any category. We just draw upon what we like. And that can be anything from folk music to space disco to you know… just anything really. And then it kind of condenses down into something. It’s a bit difficult to describe. We like a wide range of music, so we draw upon a lot of that.
"We never aimed to make it lo-fi. We aimed to make it hi-fi, although it probably was coming out kind of demo quality"
And would you limit your major influences to music, or would you say you are influenced by other things too, visual arts for example?
I think we are, yeah. Certainly three members of the band are artists and I went to art school as well. I think it’s a big component of what we do. Firstly, just in terms of the kind of process of the way we work; coming from an art school background, that kind of ability to make do with a small palette of materials and try and make the most of what you can out of it. Being at art school and not having much money but having to make models and paintings and stuff, you would have to think a bit harder about how you work and try and keep materials in a way. Also, we often used our friends (or the guys in the band) to do a lot of the videos and artwork - sleeves and posters, that kind of thing. So yeah, it all sort of ties together.
Talking about making do with the facilities you have, your album was home recorded and I understand you used some pretty un-orthodox recording techniques. Can you tell us a bit more about the process?
Yeah, it was recorded in Dave’s flat. Basically I think we had one guitar, which was Dave’s girlfriend’s. We would use it as the guitar and bass; we would tune strings down to make it sound – you know – a lower tone. And then I think he had a snare and a tom drum. We had no kick drum; we had no drum kit essentially so a lot of it had to be done digitally. But we thought that kind of lent itself, having this naïve element. Live guitar, a digital drum and a live recorded milk bottle being hit, or tapping out a beat on a telephone book. Different textures would work together; or be slightly interesting anyway. But often figuring out how to record a part would take days. Invariably it would be something like a milk bottle with a microphone taped to it, aimed towards an amp. We just sort of played with things and hit things around the room. Like a deodorant can or a telephone book. In some cases, going out and finding things. There are lots of good African and Caribbean markets around the corner from where we live; we’d find strange little drums or what looked like hardened vegetables hollowed out. It was kind of just playful in a sense. We tried to work hard on the songs, getting them quite strong, the best we could do; but then when it came to all the additional percussion we just went with it and didn’t really think about it too much.
Is that lo-fi, playful quality something you can imagine continuing on future releases? Or will you take advantage of the opportunity to work in studios?
We never aimed to make it lo-fi. We aimed to make it hi-fi, although it probably was coming out kind of demo quality. I think the way the album turned out, in many ways, was what we had always hoped for, in terms of quality of sounds. It just happened in the mixing and mastering process, we managed to get to that point. I don’t think we want to change things too drastically. We’ve got something that hopefully works for us and we are just going to see. We might get an engineer to assist with the actual nuts and bolts of recording, but as for an actual “producer” I don’t think we would do that.
Your drummer, David Maclean, takes a lead in terms of production. But in regards to the song-writing how does it work? Is it a collaborative process?
Well, I think the majority of the song-writing is done by me, with a couple of exceptions. “WOR” and “Zumm Zumm”, for example, are more of a jam and “Skies Over Cairo” began with Tommy. But I suppose I take a lot of the riffs and melodies to the band – or Dave – and then once we see what we’ve got Tommy will come in with a break and Dave will cut it up and kind of layer it all. It’s been a bit two-pronged: a number of tracks have come from live jams whilst other ones are probably more from me and Dave.
Your debut album was released via French label, Because Music. It’s a relatively small – albeit highly respected – label. What led to the decision to go with them?
Well I don’t think anybody else had actually offered us a record deal! At one point we were quite seriously considering self-releasing it, up to the point that they came on a board. We looked at their roster and they had Connan Mockasin, he’s quite a strange, really amazing songwriter and performer. He’s got quite a strange style about him that we all really like, so that’s something quite different. Then they have bands like Metronomy who are a lot more synth-pop, which is quite different from Connan, then they have Justice who are obviously massive. They’ve got quite a diverse roster in many ways, but they service the needs of each of those bands individually. They kind of tailor it. They don’t all sound the same, which is great. Some labels you have to have a certain sound to get on that label. When they heard the first tracks, the director just basically said ‘keep doing what you are doing’. Other labels – if we had got an offer from someone else – might have said ‘we’re going to put you in with Johnny-two-shoes, a big name producer and it’s going to get all cleaned up and polished up’. That is something we were very keen to avoid.
"We did medieval tunics for a while, they didn’t go down too well, the label boss was a bit horrified and put a stop to it. Which was fair enough! I think it was a good comment"
Moving on to your live shows, you seem to have quite a strong visual aesthetic; a lo-fi, experimental look with venetian blinds and dressing up for example. Where did that come from?
The dressing up thing: I think we wore safari suits first. Jim or Tommy found dead-stock, seven day safari suits down Ridley Road market, all of them in different shades of pastel. At the time we were just doing parties and late night places around East London and we thought we could at least make an effort; make it kind of exciting. When you watch “Downtown ‘81”, you’ve got this party scene and all these bands come on and they have a strange aesthetic; not necessarily too cool for school but something that is just quite fun. And then it just kind of melded from there. We did medieval tunics for a while, they didn’t go down too well, the label boss was a bit horrified and put a stop to it. Which was fair enough! I think it was a good comment. And then we just kept striving to do something a bit unusual, or at least make it a bit fun visually as well as musically. Something memorable without looking too daft!
The venetian blinds thing was when we were starting. It was prior to the album and we wanted to do something a bit different, a bit special. We integrated a friend of ours who is an artist from Scotland, Kim Coleman, to come up with a set-design and she had this idea for a venetian blind. Actually, prior to that we did a Roundhouse session and there is an art budget and a musical budget and we got her in. She started coming up with the idea then and she started rolling stuff out at certain shows. We can’t do it all of the time because it is quite expensive, but we try and do as much as we can. It’s that idea of … you know when you used to go and see someone like Orbital? Back in the 90s? Or The Chemical Brothers, back in the early days, it was a total visual spectacle. I suppose a lot of bands don’t do that, but it’s kind of inherent in a lot of dance music. Because, essentially it’s often just a guy on decks or a guy on a laptop and it needs to look a bit more special, to hide the fact that he’s not dancing around the place. But I think if you can harbour that up with a live aspect sometimes it’s really successful. So I think it’s something we really want to try and push the boat out on and see what we can do.
"We were kind of sporadic. We did two singles before we got on board with the cause. It was just a bit headless"
I understand you’ll be touring with Hot Chip. Are you planning on continuing to experiment with this aesthetic when you are with them?
Yeah, hopefully. We are never sure, we are always trying to keep developing things. We are developing the set all the time in terms of different textures, breaks and stuff. I think we’ll also try to keep developing the costume side and I think we’ll try and get a more permanent fixture on the lighting side if we can. So we’re not quite sure … but hopefully we will!
You first surfaced as a band about three years ago and then kind of seemed to disappear. Why was that?
Well there was a kind of learning to walk before you could crawl aspect to it. I think with the MySpace culture, you put a few tracks out via MySpace and everyone thinks you are a fully formed band, that are great live and you have all the components in place. Anyway: we hadn’t. We just had a few tracks and it was just me and Dave really. We put a few tracks out via MySpace and it started to spiral out of control a bit. We didn’t have Tommy and Jim on board and we started to get gig offers. In a way we had to kind of go away to catch up with ourselves and get the live set, get it working and just write more music really. We were kind of sporadic. We did two singles before we got on board with the cause. It was just a bit headless, there was no real leadership. It was kind of the opposite to the way you might do it in the 80s or 90s – where you play in pubs for like four years, you get loads of songs together, you are kind of confident and then somebody spots you in a club. It was the absolute opposite of that in a way. Essentially we had two or three songs when we did our first single so we had to go and write more. We have been busy!
Just one more question: I noticed on your YouTube page that you’ve stated in no uncertain terms that Django Reinhardt was not the inspiration behind your name – who, or what, was?
It was a record that Dave had which was called “Son Of Django”. I think it was an early 90s dance record. We had “Storm” as a single and we wanted to put it on MySpace. We weren’t going to put anything up until we had a name, so we were sifting round for a couple of days. We had the idea that we wanted the double name thing – you know, Liquid Liquid or Talk Talk – and he just had the record lying on the floor, “Son Of Django”. He called me up and said ‘what do you think?’ and I said ‘it seems fun, it doesn’t have too many connotations, it sounds a bit exotic … that will do!’. So that was the reason, there wasn’t too much reasoning.