In the Middle with Bombay Bicycle Club

Few albums are so permanently burned into the psyche of young twenty-somethings than Bombay Bicycle Club’s debut album, I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose. Just before the world was swallowed up by the coronavirus pandemic, the band held a ten-year anniversary show in Brixton, playing the album in its entirety. Recordings from the night in question have recently been released as a companion live album: a fitting tribute to a defining project in noughties indie rock.

The band wrote and recorded I Had the Blues… when they were still teenagers, and it acts as a talisman for every DIY-minded adolescent crafting their first songs on their dad’s guitar. “It was our debut album, which for most bands is the most poignant and special record,” Jack Steadman, lead singer and creative architect, tells me. “It’s famously the record that you get to spend your whole life making”.

“There’s something quite unique about a debut because you’ve made it on your own – it’s quite innocent the first time you put out music. You’re not sure whether other people are even going to hear it, and oftentimes you’re just making it for yourself in your bedroom”. Jack is incredibly soft spoken. “Once that becomes successful then you’re forever thinking about your fans and the image of your band in the public eye and stuff that is always hard to avoid. Does that make sense?” he questions. “I’m not very good at explaining things”.

“There is something special about a debut. There’s something beautiful about not being experienced and being naïve. You can practice your instrument every day and get better at it but it’s really difficult to learn how to do that again. That innocence found in the songwriting of your early music is something you can’t go and take a course on or go to school for – it’s almost impossible for you to be a kid making mistakes again”.

Looking back, too, it is clear to see how I Had the Blues… contained the beginnings of their explorations to new horizons, embryonic suggestions of how the band would shapeshift from that point forward. “My favourite song has always been the final track ‘Giantess’,” Jack reflects. “I’ve got such happy memories of making it cos it was the last song we recorded, and it represented pushing boundaries a bit more on new music in the future. I remember the producer, Jim Abbiss, saying, “Ugh, can we just go and make an album with ten songs like that?” cos he really loved that we were getting more into experimenting and playing around more with weird sounds. That was such an exciting feeling for me”.

I wondered if it was difficult for Jack to escape the feeling of being overshadowed by his earlier success, especially given that the band found success so young. “I mean you’d be lying if you said it wasn’t in the back of your mind,” Jack admits, but it seems that continuing to be inspired by new ideas and honing his experimental edge gives him a sense direction in knowing where to turn next. “My favourite record is always the last one we’ve ever done”, he says confidently – there is a beauty in continuing to create and innovate.

It seems a shame that the band’s planned trajectory over the last two years didn’t work out the way it planned, a cancelled world tour coming just after re-emerging from a three-year hiatus. “Yeah, the timing’s not been great for that”, Jack says jokingly. It may seem strange to release a live album in a world that currently has no live music, but the band has tried to mix and present the project in a way that attempts to recreate the energy of former shows. “When we first started playing this record, we had people invading the stage and people having fights, it was an incredibly chaotic and energetic experience. Obviously, no record can replicate that, but we’ve tried to get it as close to the real thing as possible”.

Lockdown for Jack has been creatively suffocating. “I am someone that always got their inspiration from travelling. I don’t think staying at home and making sourdough bread is the most inspiring environment to be in”. I am slightly surprised by this statement – it seems that as a frequent solo traveller he would be perfectly built for lockdown. “Oh yeah definitely!” he replies instantly, “I mean outside of creating music I’m very comfortable and happy with just being at home and pottering around, it’s just not the most conducive to writing a great piece of music”.

Amid the troubles of isolation, Jack has found solace in the discovery of new music. When I ask him how he has personally been staying afloat, he replies: “What I’ve been doing recently is just been buying loads of records which is quite dangerous. The best thing to do right now is buy music, taking some time to maybe buy some new records and support some musicians that you love. It’s kind of a win/win cos you could find a new song that becomes incredibly therapeutic to you and what’s happening in your life”.

Even though Jack can get lost exploring a world of new music in his bedroom, his creative process necessitates human interaction and a supportive network. It’s impossible for him to tell when a song is finished without the help of other people. “I usually do a quick demo and send it to everyone, and I know it’s great when someone calls me up,” he explains. “I just email over this MP3 and if you get a short reply back in a few days saying “Ah, that’s pretty cool”. But if ten minutes after you’ve sent it your phone starts ringing: that’s the moment I’m like “Fuck yeah! I’ve written a really good song”. He pauses. “So that’s, like, the greatest feeling ever”.

All images courtesy of Mmm…Records