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A Quietus Interview

Starting Over: The Ting Tings Interviewed
Stephen Dalton , February 29th, 2012 06:40

Stephen Dalton talks to Katie and Jules about Babylon an' Ting

It should be easy to hate The Ting Tings. Back in 2008, this unknown duo knocked Madonna off the top of the singles chart with their instant indie-disco classic 'That’s Not My Name', a brilliantly engineered blast of percussive punk-pop with a light sheen of Top Shop feminism. Sweeter than honey and addictive as crack, the song exploded into a global virus within days, selling four million copies and becoming an inescapable irritant.

'That’s Not My Name' was followed by an album full of equally splashy, spiky, hook-heavy sugar-rush party smashers. We Started Nothing sold two million copies, catapulting Katie White and Jules De Martino from their studio base at Islington Mill in Salford to rammed arenas and festival stages around the globe. Their retro-dayglo New Wave references - Altered Images, Bow Wow Wow, Toni Basil - were fun, but a little flimsy. Bizarrely, all these artists peaked around the time 28-year-old singer Katie was born.

Already seasoned veterans of several failed bands, including their short-lived trip-hop trio Dear Eskiimo, The Ting Tings might well have become a fluke, a footnote, a one hit wonder. But it soon became clear there was substance and subtlety behind their candy-coated Pop Art image. For starters their live shows were riotous, muscular, celebratory affairs. Imagine the White Stripes without their queasy undercurrent of incest and violence - plus much better tunes, obviously.

Now Katie and Jules are back with Sounds From Nowheresville, a kaleidoscopic second album which covers the waterfront from creamy R&B ballads to thunderous disco-rock anthems to Spector-ish girl-group weepies. Eclectic and confident, this is a mixtape-style collection for the download generation. Emotionally mature and musically broad, it blows away the notion of The Ting Tings as two-trick novelty lightweights. Showcasing their love of everything from TLC to Le Tigre, New Order to Nancy Sinatra, it is also a fantastic advert for Great Pop, a noble but long debased notion in these post X-Factor times.

Closeted together in a kind of air-conditioned holding cell in their record label’s opulent West London headquarters, 42-year-old Jules lurks behind a worryingly Dave Stewart-ish combination of chunky sunglasses, peroxide hair and dark beard. But Lancashire-born Katie is warm and chatty and engagingly northern as she tells The Quietus about her teenage girl-band roots, her indie credentials and the tortuous album sessions which almost destroyed the band…

You make unashamedly poppy music, but you seem keen to stress your indie credentials. Is pop a dirty word for you?

KW: We love pop, we really love it. But I think there’s a difference between manufactured pop and the type of band we are - we write and record and do everything ourselves, other bands have 20 writers, picking songs off a shelf that 100 people have worked their arses off writing for years. I think there is a difference. We are pop but they are super-pop, the plastic variety.

So it just comes down to good pop vs. bad pop?

KW: I dunno because these bands still make great pop, but I just think there’s a different mentality. It’s either celebrity-driven and you have this team… because we know that, as a girl in music, I’ve got a choice: I either write and record my own songs with Jules, and really put my self-worth into my writing and my work, or have a shitload of people doing it while I go down red carpet being the front person. I chose to write with Jules.

Jules De Martino: We are a DIY pop band, in essence. We love pop music, everything we do to is about great pop songs - but we just find it very hard to put our music down as a pop song. Going on tour, or recording in the studio, if it’s too slick or being produced by someone who makes great pop music, it just all seems to end up sounding too much like something we’ve heard before. I guess, at the end of the day, when you listen to our record it does sound like us - when you listen to a Rihanna record or a Jesse J record, they are both really talented but when you listen to their records it sounds like it was done by the same group of people. If it wasn’t for the fact that we are so hell-bent about writing and recording and designing our own covers and planning our own tours, I think our pop songs would end up sounding like everything else. But because we kind of smash it to pieces, and are determined not to sound like everything else - I think that makes a difference.

Maybe the problem here is that the terms ‘indie’ has lost any currency. Once it signified creatively adventurous music with a vaguely counter-culture attitude, then it became a convenient marketing term around grunge and Britpop, but now it mostly means woefully conservative guitar rock played by sullen white males. Does ‘indie’ mean anything to The Ting Tings?

JDM: In terms of style or fashion, no. Genres of music are so diluted this decade. The way downloading is going, we are now choosing track by track what you want to hear, rather than album by album or fad by fad. It’s getting to a point where we go around the world and you see a punk, a soul boy, or whatever, and I’m always shocked by what they’re listening to. Whereas if you go back a decade, or maybe 20 years, when you saw a hip-hop dude or rock dude you’d know they were going to like the genre they were dressing like. Today I never find that a fashion and a type of music corresponds any more. It’s so mashed up, so scrambled, and that’s actually quite refreshing. But going back to that indie question, if there was a bracket you could put this band into, I would definitely say we are indie in terms of our ethic - we work really hard, we control all the creativity. The problem for some people is we’re signed to a major record company, but you’ve only got to talk to our label to find out - not how difficult we are but how hands-on we are. We own our own studio, we decide exactly what our art, our look is going to be. Katie’s got an attitude that is temperamental - we deal with it, not management. We’re not pampered, we don’t have an entourage. Nothing is programmed without us approving every aspect of what we do.

You began making Sounds From Nowheresville still buzzing from huge worldwide success but the sessions turned into a long, slow, tormented process. Why?

KW: I think we do have to make ourselves unhappy. We did alright with the first album, we could have sat on a beach for months and patted ourselves on the back. It’s so weird though, you get that little bit of success but you go, ‘Oh, I’m not that interested in all the trappings that come with it, I want to write another good song!’ I feel like a failure if I don’t write a song every week that make me feel good. We do consciously make ourselves miserable on purpose somehow, and destroy a lot of situations. Maybe that’s why we took so long with this album - we had to get into a place where it’s not all on a plate for you.

JDM: We actually thought about splitting the band up in terms of: we made a record that was real and honest, why would we want to go back and make a record that isn’t? We’ve had our fix, wasn’t that good enough? That was amazing, we got to see the world. We had to get off tour, get to Berlin, look at our creativity, and be honest about why we want to write a second record - and then we found it. And I think we found it when Katie said the music that inspired her at school were Spice Girls and TLC, so let’s write a record like that. Then all of a sudden that opened the floodgates - we listen to music on MP3 players, we don’t carry record collections any more, I hardly listen to albums any more, everything you just hit a button and play the track. We wanted to make a playlist album that you can put on from start to finish and it didn’t sound like an old Led Zeppelin album, where you know how it’s going to end right from the start.

Sounds From Nowheresville certainly has more musical scope and emotional depth than We Started Nothing. What was the game plan when you began recording?

KW: To make a record that didn’t sound like an album, really, to reflect the way we listen to music. We just wanted the freedom to go: wow, we’ve just really got into watching old Nancy Sinatra footage, let’s try and get inspired by that. Or TLC, we love TLC, let’s try and get inspired by that. I think the second we did that it gave us so much more freedom and creativity. All the pressure of that first album, what people expected from us, it just took it all away. We felt so much better about writing songs, and we felt like we had a reason to write songs, Because up unto then, the first album was just purely partying, frustration, punk, me growing up listening to the Spice Girls then suddenly hearing Le Tigre… it was just this whole raw album. We weren’t in that raw place any more so we had to find it again.

What made you decide to record in Berlin?

JDM: When we finished touring the first album, the last thing we wanted was to be back in Manchester with people going, ‘Didn’t you fucking do well? Buy us a beer mate… ’ And all our artist friends there, trying to relive the parties we had, getting off our faces again. So there was only one place we could go - because we’d been to Berlin, we’d gigged there, we loved it but we’d never spent any time there. So we flew in from wherever the last gig was and it was minus 27 degrees, the snow was fucking four feet high, and we spent the first three or four weeks going: what the fuck have we done? It was horrible. We had this big old jazz club for our living accommodation, an engineer mate with us, and we were getting up at three o’clock in the morning - walking the streets looking for kebabs, and dodging the dog shit. Then we went to a club that was a freezing underground cellar with a load of German students or whatever, painting the walls, going crazy… and we thought: we just can’t get into it, there’s got to be something that is going to trigger this.

You ended up erasing most of those Berlin recordings - why?

JDM: We got to four months and we’d written about 10 tracks, and of course everybody at the label was telling us how we should do this - our fault for letting them in, we normally don’t let people in the recording but this was our label, we’ve made friends, it was like turning someone away from the doorstep of your party. So they came in and heard the four tracks and they were like, ‘These are fucking huge! Radio 1 will love this!’ And alarm bells started going off in our heads, because we’d never done that before. All of a sudden we had people telling you something is a hit before we’d even finished it. That’s really worrying…

KW: what was really interesting is, on the first album, everyone said, ‘Oh that will never get played on radio‘. So for people to say, ‘This will really get played on radio’, and you turn on the radio and it was just shite! We were like: Oh my god, we’re just going to blend in with all this shit!

JDM: So they all left Berlin and we were left in the void alone with our engineer guy. And we erased the six tracks. That didn’t go down well at all… but we were left with the four songs we loved, and we took them to the South of Spain for a change of environment. Then we did the rest of the album there, and in Ibiza.

KW: We had a good meeting with Rob Stringer, who runs Columbia, and he was going: ‘You know what? Make the record you want to make. It’s good for us to have a band that wants to make an interesting album, don’t feel the pressure…’ He even mentioned the Beastie Boys Paul’s Boutique as an example. We are terrible at slagging our label off but he did us proud.

Was there any truth to the stories that Jay-Z and Rihanna were guesting on the album?

JDM: It wasn’t true, we didn’t want to collaborate with anyone on this record. I think the confusion is because Roc Nation are our new management company, we’ve been working with them for about a year and half. They are obviously part owned by Jay-Z so think a lot of people just saw us hanging around with Jay-Z and it this got out of hand… but it’s absolutely never been talked about by us, collaborating with Jay. And the same with Rihanna, we got quite friendly with her and people took some pictures of us out in the States. But no, we were never going to do collaborations.

Quietus: Why did you move to Roc Nation?

JDM: We just wanted to try something new, and hip-hop culture has been so inspirational to us - we don’t rap but if you listen to a lot of our rhythms, there is a fusion. It’s not just one style of music, not just a punk or rock thing. Hip-hop over the last 20 years has been so amazing, it is the only genre of music that is allowed to have rock, opera, soul, funk and jazz running behind or in the music, and nobody fucking hits them for it. Whereas if you had a rock artist that had funk of soul or opera running through their music, their fans would be like, ‘You can’t do that‘. We’ve always played with the idea that we can do anything we want. So when we met up with new management companies around the world, nothing felt fresh, nothing felt like a challenge - until we met Roc Nation, they were the only supporters of change because they come from that area where everything’s possible. So it just worked - and then we met Jay and I was shocked, I thought he was going to be this person we had read about and seen on TV, but he was completely different. He is a gentleman, and probably the most well read person I know.

Katie, you started out in a teenage girl band called TKO. Did they ever have a sniff of pop success?

KW: No, we weren’t even signed. We weren’t like a pro band. It was just literally me and two school friends dancing around my mum’s kitchen, and then we got a local show in St Helens or somewhere, 10 bands below Steps, or five, I can’t remember. I think we played two real gigs. And we played at the local Brownies.

So you are not some stage-school brat with a secret X Factor past…?

KW: Absolutely not! I mean, I went to dance classes when I was little, but that was in the local working men’s club on Saturday afternoons. Ha!

Is this when you became a closet Le Tigre fan?

KW: Not when I was growing up at all, I was listening to the Spice Girls in the mid 90s, when was 13 or 14. I had a Take That pencil case. But when I got to Islington Mill from 19, 20, 21 onwards, suddenly I heard stuff like Le Tigre and The Gossip before they got big, just punky stuff - and it blew my mind. It just got me really excited, but because my childhood was listening to bad 90s pop I’m still quite partial to a bad pop record. Ha!

Le Tigre actually have a song called TKO, you didn’t name your teenage band after that…?

KW: No, but it ’s a very good song. I wish I was that cool.

According to some accounts, your pop career was launched by your father after he was given a large chunk of Lottery jackpot winnings from your granddad. Is that accurate?

KW: Erm, vaguely. My granddad definitely won the Lottery but that happened when I was 11, then all the family kind of fell out so I don’t really have much info on it. I didn’t really see my granddad, I only saw him sporadically, he seemed a very nice man but there was big family row so I didn’t really get that affected by that story, I was too young. My dad used to own a second-hand cooker shop, really working class, just doing his thing - but then he got some money from my granddad and managed a band from Manchester called Sweet FA, two girls who did a garage song called Flowers. He didn’t manage me, because I was 14 and probably really shit. Ha!

I have read many rumours that you two are a couple, is that true?

JDM: It’s not true. We get asked it quite a lot.

So are you courting at the moment Katie?

KW: I don’t want to answer that, but I like the use of the word ‘courting’ Ha! We’re not like a celebrity driven band, we don’t need to divulge stuff - and I don’t think anyone’s that interested, to be honest.

This is only your second Ting Tings album but you have both been in half a dozen bands before. Before you struck chart gold you had years of being hyped, hustled, knocked back, groomed, rebranded, flattered, flattened and dropped by major labels. Has that made you jaded careerists or fiercely independent punk-pop survivors?

KW: Oh no, it has turned us into jaded, cynical, keep ourselves to ourselves, concentrate on the music… because it really comes and goes if you don’t concentrate on the music. For what we’ve seen - and I’m still only 28 so I don’t profess to know everything - but the rest of it is bullshit. There’s some really lovely people in music but there’s a whole lot of vultures too, so for us the best thing is to stay away as much as possible, go and walk mountains, write our songs, go off around the world, and play to as many people as we can. Because it’s a great feeling. And that’s it really.