Tom Findlay was in HMV the other day. The instore radio station was playing a song. A melancholic but at the same time uplifting song, soulfully old-school but technologically of-the-moment, rich with hazy brass and beats. If youre fond of sand dunes and salty air Findlay, absent-mindedly browsing the racks, nodded appreciatively. Top tune, that. It took him a good two minutes to realise that, hang on, that was his tune. It was At The River, a song he and his partner Andy Cato had dreamt up a few years earlier. Thats what happens when youre in Groove Armada. You create and pull together ideas in a poky little studio a house bassline here, a dug-out-of-the-crates sample there, stonking brand-new choruses everywhere and hey disco: a new song by your band. But pretty soon the new songs dont belong to you any more. They belong to clubbers, and gig-goers, and Top 40-watchers, and festival masses, and Lovebox regulars, and the three million people who own your albums. Even if theyre used to advertise cars, in one of the most iconic campaigns of the last couple of years, theyre still, at the end of the day, peoples tunes.Groove Armada cant help but create songs that burst out of studio and spread all over the place. At The River, If Everybody Looked The Same, Superstylin, I See You Baby these are towering songs of our times. But if youre restlessly inventive, you dont want to be defined by your past, no matter how shiny and brilliant. You want to move away. Or you want to move on. Findlay and Cato will readily admit that, a couple of years, ago, they considered knocking Groove Armada on the head. Theyd been going for almost a decade. Theyd achieved more than they ever dared dream theyd achieve since first meeting in 1995, starting their own London club night and releasing At The River, their debut single, in 1997. Theyd taken their revved-up live show round the world several times (Australia in particular loves Groove Armada). Theyd made four albums that reinvented the house music wheel, and played fast and loose with other genres besides. Theyd been Grammy nominated, and had everyone from Elton John to the Ibizan massive singing their praises. Their Best Of had flown off the shelves.So, Groove Armada had done their bit. But they were also stuck on the same label as Britney Spears and Steps. That got fairly depressing sometimes. You might be tired, and a little fed up, too. But then, as it always had done, the music came calling.
We toured the greatest hits album and were blown away by the huge groundswell of enthusiasm [from the audiences], remembers Cato. We were selling more tickets at Brixton Academy than Paul Weller But then, we were also DJing, just like wed always done, at house parties till six in the morning. It was all hands to the pump. It was hard to think about giving it all up.
There were a few choice big gigs last summer too, including an appearance at the Lovebox event in London, which Cato and Findlay also curated the giant, outdoor weekender in Hackneys Victoria Park may have been very different from the cult club night that spawned it, but the spirit of innovation remained the same.
We were doing a really good live version of I See You Baby thats very different from the Fatboy Slim remix thats on the Renault advert, says Findlay. Its got a big fat guitar loop on it its very different too from the more underground version that was on [1999 album] Vertigo. The greatest hits, and those shows, did help draw a line under all the stuff wed done before. But it was also rejuvenating.
There were further boosts. After some record label jockeying, Groove Armada found themselves, at last, on a big, proper label with, at last, decent support and creative input from a savvy A&R collaborator. Cato made music with his side-project Rising 5, and Findlay toured with his other band, Sugardaddy. Both kept up their DJing. And, finally, Andy Cato moved to Barcelona, while Tom Findlay stayed in north London.
That definitely shook up our working dynamic, Cato says.
After all those years sat cheek-by-stubbly-jowl in sweaty little rooms, smoking and drinking and thinking, I found the new set-up really liberating, says Findlay. And into that geographical/mental/emotional space, Groove Armada resolved to flood all sorts of song ideas, vocalists and styles. In the end they wouldnt have room for all of them And their plans for a double CD Saturday night/Sunday morning stylee would fall by the wayside.
But in its place came something far better: a focused collection of 15 songs each flowing into the next like the best kind of homemade mix-tape. In its place came Soundboy Rock.
Initially they worked separately on the tunes for their fifth studio album Cato in Spain, in the studio hes dubbed The Sweatbox, Findlay in the space he calls The Tom Tom Club in the basement of his house in Hackney. Musical files were emailed back and forth, the ideas fairly flying out of the pair; 19 tracks, mostly instrumentals, were quickly racked up.
Last August Cato went to New York to record contributions from a dreamteam of rappers and vocalists. Soul queen Angie Stone sat at the piano with the Groove Armada man, chain-smoking and exhaling lyrics over the punchy rhythms of Feel The Same As You. Later, once Cato was back in Europe, Rhymefest signed to Mark Ronsons label would add whipsmart hip hop block-party vibes to the pneumatic funk of The Girls Say.
Back in London, Findlay was working with Mutya Buena and hit songwriter Karen Poole. Cato had come across the former Sugarbabe singer via a Chicago-based website from which he sources a lot of his vinyl; he had no idea who she was. Pool, meanwhile, had been put forward as a possible collaborator by Groove Armadas new A&R man.
Findlay: That was a new thing. We always thought, were songwriters we dont need anyone else.
Cato: But the spirit on this record on this album was definitely lets just try it. Weve got nothing to lose, and nothing to prove. Its good to keep the door open to other influences.
The result: Song 4 Mutya, a huge, jump-around pop tune, sure to dominate dancefloors and airwaves all summer.
Back in Spain, Cato invited MAD the voice on Superstylin, their live MC, present and correct on every Groove Armada album to date to jam over some records. He came up with the phrase soundboy rock; Cato figured it sounded like a classic reggae chorus. So out came Catos bass (for a proper reggae rumbling bassline), and in came Hard-Fis Richard Archer on melodica. Cue the title track, packing a laidback reggae wallop in the middle of the album.
And onwards and upwards rolled the Soundboy buzz Tony Allen, formerly of Fela Kutis band and currently featuring in The Good, The Bad And The Queen with Damon Albarn, agreed to chip in. As did Candi Staton the legendary vocalist had appeared at the Lovebox Weekender. Her gutsy vocal and Allens bewitching drumming, as well as rolling piano chords and stabs of strings, combine to dazzling effect on the Philly-esque soul classicism of Paris. Candi pops up again on the dancefloor dynamite of Love Sweet Sound.
After many months and miles and emailed mega-files, Findlay joined Cato in Barcelona for six intense weeks of 20-hour days at the end of 2006. Over countless fags, Heinekens and pizzas they wrestled their many-limbed album into shape. And more collaborators kept joining the eclectic party: Simon Lord from Simian Mobile Disco added vocals to The Things That We Could Share, and Alan Donohoe from The Rakes did the same to the wonderful See What You Get . Welsh-dwelling American Jeb Loy Nichols supplies croony folk-vibes to Whats Your Version?, while Findlays Sugardaddy collaborator Tim Hutton supplies the chorus. Buzzed-about newcomer Jack McManus now with his own record deal brings spacey vocal ambience to the bleepy textures of From The Rooftops (imagine Erik Satie soundtracking 2001: A Space Odyssey).
But before all that comes Get Down. The first single from Soundboy Rock features the uniquely chewy vocals of Stush, a female MC from London, and a soaring disco-carnival vibe. Its energy and its enthusiasm and its sheer shake-your-tailfeather bounce typify Groove Armadas Year Zero approach to their new album.
Cato: The bassline groove for Get Down was the first thing I did for this album. We wanted to distil some of amazing energy we had with the live show, and this felt a brilliant start to that.
Soundboy Rock, then, is the sound of a band ten years young. Its an album teeming with ideas, featuring a roll-call of superlative talents. Its a testament to Groove Armadas core visionary genius that it all flows together like one seamless whole. Like the seasoned DJs they are, Cato and Findlay know that context is everything - that the highest high can be made higher still, that the mellowest pull-it-back moment can still pack a mighty punch. And if you can shape all that into one album, you might be onto something: a record thatll have you pogoing in a field, rocking on the sofa or bouncing off the walls in a club.
Tom Findlay: Dance music is in a period of transition. Its an interesting time, whether its Klaxons or New Young Pony Club. It felt right to make an exciting record that wasnt taking itself too seriously. We wanted to have a lot of different styles and vocalists, but give it a little flow... Pop is an attitude we believe in. And we believe in challenging ourselves. Both those strains run through the album.
Andy Cato: Theres a kind of no-nonsense attitude about this record. Weve been taking a storming live show round the world for ten years. We wanted to capture that energy for the first time on a whole CD. Aggressive might not be the right word, but ballsy is.
Groove Armada will precede the album with the single Get Down, featuring Stush on the 30th April (Columbia)
The album Soundboy Rock follows on the 7th May (Columbia)Groove Armada