Athlete are right on track

Ivor Novello award-winning band Athlete are back with a third album and are hitting the road. Emma Lee spoke to bass player Carey Willetts ahead of their sell-out show at UEA, Norwich.

Under starter's orders for a UK tour and with their third album just released, award-winning indie rockers Athlete are proving that their career is more of a marathon than a sprint.

Since releasing the acclaimed album Vehicles and Animals in 2003, they've been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, have an Ivor Novello Award for song-writing on their mantelpiece and have a back catalogue bursting with rousing anthems such as Wires, Beautiful and Half Light.

The band - singer Joel Pott, bassist Carey Willetts, drummer Stephen Roberts and keyboard player Tim Wanstall - have been friends since their teens.

In the late '90s, inspired by alternative American rock acts such as Grandaddy and Flaming Lips, they formed their own band, sent out demos (it seems quaintly old-fashioned now in the MySpace era) and released their first single, Westside, in 2002.

Although the latest album, Beyond the Neighbourhood, has just come out, the seeds were sown while touring their previous album, Tourist, in 2005.

And, as the name suggests, they've broadened their vision musically and lyrically.

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It was recorded and produced by them in their own purpose-built studio a stone's throw from their south-east London homes.

A more experimental record than its predecessors, beats are made from the sound of doors shutting, switches flicking and equipment being shaken, hit or dropped.

And they tackle big issues, such as the environment, conflict and terrorism head-on.

The first single to be taken from the record, Hurricane, was inspired by an article in National Geographic about the increase of typhoons on America's east coast which Joel had read, quoting a guy saying “it's just something we gotta get used to”.

Carey says that they enjoyed the freedom that having their own studio gave them.

“The writing started somewhere when we were touring the last record. We got our own laptops, meaning we could write on the road. Lots of ideas came from that.

“When we got home we decided that we needed our own place to record, so we built our own studio. It was nice to have our own place and not have to worry about spending a grand-and-a-half a day,” he explains.

And there was the added bonus that they could watch the World Cup on the studio telly without feeling guilty.

“It was all a bit of a gamble. I was incredibly nervous about whether we were actually capable of recording and producing everything ourselves. But as soon as we'd got cracking on a few songs it was clear that we could. That was a pretty amazing feeling,” Carey goes on.

“We did it differently to the last album. We would go into the studio with 17 or 18 songs and narrow it down. This time we went in with five or six songs written, worked on them and played around until we were happy with them and then wrote five or six more. We did it in little stages,” he adds.

He says that they consciously didn't want to make the album sound too polished.

“You can make everything perfect using [the music computer programme] Pro Tools and everyone can sound really good. But it can sound really soul-less if you don't have a few rough edges,” he says.

When it came to the lyrics, Carey says that while they ask a lot of questions, a lot of them go unanswered.

“Last time the album was very narrative - about things we had gone through and people we knew. It was very story-based,” he says. “For Beyond the Neighbourhood we were looking at the wider world. The world's a very different place now. We're worrying about our carbon footprint, Iraq, terrorists. And people talk about issues more, when three or four years ago they wouldn't have.

“I think it's brilliant that everyone seems more concerned and are becoming politicised and want to do things about it. But then they don't know what to do. And you feel like a bit of a hypocrite when you want a new mobile phone or a nice car. One million marched against the war in Iraq and it didn't make any difference. We need the people who think like this to become politicians, then it might make a difference,” he says passionately.

Maybe Carey should step up to the plate himself? He chuckles at the idea.

“But I don't know anyone who wants to become a politician. I don't think I'm the right personality for it,” he says.

Now they're free of the studio for a while, Carey is itching to get back out on the road.

“I'm really looking forward to getting out and doing a good string of dates. I know Norwich quite well - lots of my family live in Lowestoft. I always enjoy playing Norwich.

“Being on stage when everyone is singing your words back at you keeps us going back for more. The moment when everyone in the room is connected. It's only going to happen at that time in that place. And when I'm on stage I'm not able to stop grinning,” he says.

t Athlete play UEA, Norwich, on Wednesday, October 17. The show is sold out, but check with the box office for returns on 01603 508050. Athlete's latest album, Beyond the Neighbourhood, is out now.

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