Dead Club City

Dead Club City

For many rock bands, there comes a moment when they have to confront a particular question. It’s one that has often inspired dazzlingly inventive and progressive work. Occasionally though, it only brings shame and derision. For Southend-formed five-piece Nothing But Thieves, that question became too loud to ignore while they gathered ideas for their fourth LP. So they finally asked themselves, “Is it time to make a concept album?” Released in October 2020, NBT’s third album Moral Panic presented their most adventurous work to date—absorbing drum ’n’ bass, hip-hop, Balearic dance pop and R&B into their sound. With the group unable to tour during the pandemic, their heads stayed with that record for longer than they normally might, and they eventually extended its universe the following summer with the Moral Panic II EP. They were keen to continue their sonic explorations on this follow-up but needed to ensure they were completely detached from Moral Panic. “A concept was almost like a tool to feel automatically fresh,” guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown tells Apple Music. “But it wasn’t lost on us that it’s kind of a cliché. ‘How do we do this and not make it too pastiche?’ was very much a daily conversation and consideration.” While starting to write songs for the record, Langridge-Brown pondered a few concepts, eventually settling on the idea of a city-sized members-only club. Here, the stories and characters within and outside its walls could reflect on the potential consequences of the way we live today. “The concept is pointless unless there is real-world meaning behind each of the songs,” he says. “Moral Panic felt like it was about the health of our society and what I was viewing on Twitter, the chaos of that. This album feels like it’s in the future—what the nth degree of [that chaos] is if things kept going. What might happen in this sort of dystopian, segregated, members-only city?” Read on as he guides us through that vision, track by track. “Welcome to the DCC” “This is the advertisement for this world we’d created. We were like, ‘Can this be a single, because it’s so conceptual?’ I think that was a lesson in giving fans and listeners more respect, as in, ‘People are going to understand that this is a metaphor.’ You haven’t always got to hold the listeners’ hands so tightly the whole way through a song and an album. As with a lot of the record, it’s a lot more sort of synth-based and widescreen, cinematic. That’s kind of how I hear a concept record, that sort of expanse—which really made sense with this city vibe. The riff after the intro changed massively in the studio. It had more of a Justice thing before, but then it turned into this Prince-style thing. With Conor [Mason, singer]’s vocal, as well, that was a big consideration. More ’80s-style stuff is what we’re referencing a lot.” “Overcome” “I’m a huge Tom Petty fan, so some of that definitely found its way into this song. I think I actually wrote about 80 different verses for this, like a stupid amount. What I found was that when the verse was getting almost too intricate, and you were trying to say too much, it was taking away rather than adding to the song. It felt like you really just wanted to curate this feeling of a road trip into the DCC—creating a world with the words rather than saying a load of things.” “Tomorrow Is Closed” “The first draft was written in 2019 maybe. We recorded it twice before and abandoned it. We went about recording in the wrong way. It was all a bit too soft, a bit polite. The unhinged nature of the song, it sounding a bit blown out and raucous, it’s part of the charm. It feels incredibly desperate, that song, and we had to record it in that way. Once we gathered some songs for the concept, it really welcomed itself into the world—with ‘the only piece of heaven I have ever had’, feeling like there was this desperation, there was no choice but to get to the Dead Club City.” “Keeping You Around” “This has more of a hip-hop-leaning thing to it, which has formed in NBT quite recently—for Moral Panic and Moral Panic II. That’s maybe a hangover from there. There’s also a ‘chicken or egg’ thing with the lyric ‘I’m still a broken machine, babe.’ The song reminded us a little bit of ‘Soda’ on [2017 album] Broken Machine—the nature of Conor’s singing, and, thematically, it’s got a particles thing to it. I don’t know whether the lyrics came because of the way the song was sounding, or that we leaned into that sound because the lyric allowed us to do that. I like this sort of peek, just a bit of a cue, from old NBT.” “City Haunts” “I think this was the first time I had the beginnings of the city concept. That initial chorus idea, with Conor singing in that very Al Green, higher register, soul-y thing, was a reaction to other stuff we’ve been doing. Conor said before that he feels he’s done a lot of the big, belting rock thing. In another effort to try to keep this fresh, he’s always creating singing characters. We have a list of characters almost, like Prince, Al Green or whoever, voices. When we’re the studio, it’s ‘Can you make it a bit more like this or more like this?’ I’d say this is a few new characters that Conor’s been trying on.” “Do You Love Me Yet?” “I think we really leaned into that disco thing. It’s got a Motown vibe in the chorus as well. Within the concept, this is the first introduction to a fictional band called The Zeros. I had this idea for one of the songs, which I later called ‘Talking to Myself’, being about this lonely character who’s been chewed up by Dead Club City. I was thinking, ‘Well, what’s different about this character? Maybe he’d be part of a band.’ Finding their way to Dead Club City, they’re trying for this level of stardom and success. I really revelled in writing in character. Obviously, there’s real-world meaning behind all the songs and it gave me an excuse to talk about the music industry in general.” “Members Only” “This took a bit of a left turn in the studio. It kind of felt a little dull before we went in. I think that was one of the songs we were less sure about going into the recording process. And then there was a lot of work in the studio that kind of made it feel a little bit more modern—the feedback loop, using that on the drums, and leaning into more of a hip-hop nature so it didn’t feel too rock standard.” “Green Eyes :: Siena” “Normally, as a writer, I find it quite daunting writing love songs. I’ve actually avoided it a lot because there are just so many. But because it’s got this backdrop of Dead Club City, it made it feel very, very fresh to write. Before the album, I think this is just after the pandemic, I went to a writing course by Jay Rayner, the writer and food critic. He did a course on writing about the same subjects a million times and making it feel different. For a songwriter, that’s invaluable. When you’ve only got two verses and a chorus and a middle eight to write about love, or something else that’s been written about a million times before, it’s incredibly useful.” “Foreign Language” “I had that lyric for a while, ‘Well, it’s a foreign language to me, baby/But I love hearing you talk.’ Once I figured out the concept, I was like, ‘Oh, that just works so well as a love story between someone who felt they were in the club and someone who was outside.’ That sort of cross-borders love story was what I was trying to get at. Dom [Craik, keyboardist and co-producer] really buried himself away for a long time in the studio, getting all the synth textures perfect. There’s almost like an orchestra of synths going on, which sounds amazing. I really love the guitar sounds that happen after the first chorus. It’s got a very harmonised guitar solo. To me, it was kind of the order of the day—feels new and old at the same time. It kind of feels prog. And that was another conversation for the whole album: It kind of feels prog, it’s got those notes, but it also feels different.” “Talking to Myself” “This lives quite well with ‘Keeping You Around’. They’ve both got that ‘The Macs: Mac Miller, Mac DeMarco’ sort of thing. I’d say it’s the same characters, the same band, as in ‘Do You Love Me Yet?’ It’s the fallout of that—this band have been chewed up by Dead Club City. It was pretty much a one-take thing for Conor. A lot of the time, he’ll do vocals and we’ll do a load of verses, then we’ll do load of choruses, and we’ll see what’s working better. But for that song, we were like, ‘Just give it one go the whole way through.’ I’m pretty sure nearly everything you hear is his first take. He absolutely smashed that.” “Pop the Balloon” “It’s an ending of sorts. It’s not a perfect ending. It feels very messy and noisy. And that’s really different for Nothing But Thieves to end an album that way. Normally, we’d end on quite a soft moment or, very purposefully, an emotional touch. This song felt almost like the start of a revolution or something. We wanted all the characters to be wrapped up into this big finale. I think it comes back home again as well. It comes back to ‘Welcome to the DCC’ with [the lyric] ‘Kill the Dead Club City.’”

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