anny McNamara is a neurotic bastard. “I don’t know why I’m so driven. It’s not…” He trails off. “It’s like we just sent Steve and Mickey to go and get beer. I couldn’t do it. If I was getting the beer then I’d have to get too much beer, the right beer, make sure the beer was got properly… Everything I do is like that. I have to give everything or nothing. I think bands need someone like that. Chris [Martin] is like that. I can tell Damon [Albarn] is just from interviews.” One time last year when the band were touring America, they stayed in LA. Danny got so trashed that he was found wandering around the hotel in the wee small hours wearing only his pants. At one point he stood in a corner, facing the wall, so a security guard wouldn’t see him. The security guard did see him, of course. It’s Mike who regales us with this tale. There are others. None of the rest of the band will share a room with Danny now – in fact they make him pay for his own rather than let the record company do it – because they never know what he’ll do. The rest of the band have long-term partners. A couple of them have kids. They need to sleep sometimes.
We’re in Richard McNamara’s studio at his home in West Yorkshire, doing a video interview with the band to cut up and podcast via their website, going through their history in minute detail to celebrate the tenth anniversary of them being signed, later this year. The band rehearse here every day for three hours from 2pm till five. Any longer than three hours together practicing would result in arguments, they know from experience. They’re a tight-knit unit, galvanised by a decade of insanity and hardship, and it shows—they banter like old friends, joke, do things for each other without a second thought. This kind of atmosphere, this camaraderie, this unity, is surely the reason why a lot of people form bands in the first place. That and the music. There’s a sofa which Steve Firth sits on and plays bass, a drum room for Mike Heaton (next to the toilet), a mixing desk, Apple computer, and stack of FX units and compressors and the like, guitars scattered about the place, and a piano and a keyboard plus various interesting-looking boxes of tricks for Mickey Dale. Richard’s guitar amps are in the basement of the barn. Danny’s vocal booth is sealed off with glass now, so the rest of the band can’t throw things at him anymore. We’re there till 10 PM when, a couple of crates of beer, two bottles of wine and no food down the line, Danny announces that he’s drunk and wants Steve to drive him home.
Most bands mellow out by the time they reach their fifth record. Embrace have got more energetic, more passionate, more motivated. It’s ten years since they were signed and they’ve made their fastest, most upbeat, most pissed-off record. It’d be their most eclectic too, if not for Drawn from Memory, their second album. Dry Kids, their b-sides compilation from last year, is pretty varied too. “Madelaine,” recorded in this room, is a scorched-earth ballad full of self-loathing. “Brothers & Sisters” is an outrageous punk-rocker with a blood-curdling Hammer Horror scream halfway through. “Feels Like Glue” is a nine-minute psychedelic excursion that’s perfect to listen to when above the cloud canopy flying to the Alps. This New Day goes, in the space of three tracks, from hyper-melodic pop anthem (“Target”) to dirty electro-groove pulse (“Sainted”) to bruised, lovelorn sweep (“I Can’t Come Down”). After that it gets really interesting—pyrokinetic rockers, revenge-fantasy grooves, car-crash pop with wild tempo changes. It’s comfortably their most accomplished album, and probably, finally, the one that best captures who and what they are.
Their re-enervation is understandable. Four years ago they were fucked; dropped, tired, skint, and out of ideas, time, and favour with fans, critics, and record companies alike. Their last album, the comeback, sold 600,000 copies in the UK. They ended 2005 by playing three arena gigs, their biggest headline dates ever, just to see if they could. They opened those gigs with a song they’d never played live before, just because they could. They’ve just had a number 2 hit single and been asked to produce the England football team’s official World Cup song for the summer. Their profile has never been higher. Danny can’t stand to pick up his guitar though. He hasn’t touched it for months. He hasn’t played acoustic guitar at a live gig for years. He learnt rudimentary piano before Out of Nothing but even that offers little consolation these days. “I get the fear when I think about it. I can’t write songs on my own anymore.” Which is just as well because they’re writing together now, jamming song ideas starting with a bassline, drum beat, or riff and seeing where it goes, so Danny can concentrate on melody (“I come in at the last minute and sing cos I'm a fucking work-shy fop,” he jokes), Richard on playing guitar, Steve on grooving, Mike on drumming, and Mickey on rolling out enormous piano hooks. “We always wanted to make a big rock album full of massive anthems, but it’s pretty hard to make a song sound big when it’s just you and a guitar,” according to Danny.
At the outset the band say they want this interview to be candid. Their cars were outside when we arrived—inauspicious things, small cars; cars for people with wives and kids, in some cases. Mickey’s is a bright green two-seater, but it’s a vintage one that he’s restored himself. There’s a Sub Pop sticker on the rear windscreen. Danny’s been talking about finally buying himself a car after eight years. All he ever seems to spend money on is taxi fares and takeaways.
“You know what I missed most when we were dropped?” asks Danny. “Making videos. Which is nuts, because if you ask anyone in a band what they hate doing most, they’ll say “making videos” because you sit around all day getting bored. But when Hut dropped us I thought to myself, “Oh no, I wont get to make any videos anymore.” Being bored while someone gets the lighting right is much better than slogging your guts out for nothing in a dead-end job. I don’t think enough successful musicians appreciate that.”
Some people hate Embrace; really hate them. In 2004 NME awarded Out of Nothing zero out of ten, only to give Coldplay’s X&Y; 9/10 six months later. In 1998 Embrace’s debut album had been awarded 9/10, and each subsequent LP scored an eight in the same publication. NME editor Conor McNicholas apparently pimped around the entire staff of NME and further afield before he could find a freelancer willing to pan Out of Nothing that badly. This New Day received a grudging 7/10. A couple of weeks ago Observer Music Monthly ran an 80-word review of This New Day which described the album as “so overblown and inspiration-free as to be worthy of national shame,” a comment loaded with irony given the World Cup revelation. It’s beyond hack-job and out into vendetta territory, as if scores are being settled, the same man-in-pub clichés trotted out as criticisms with scant attention paid to the actual music. Certain sections of the press may hate them, but radio programmers evidently love Embrace—current single “Nature’s Law,” their biggest chart hit at number 2, was also their biggest airplay hit even before it was released. This New Day, OMM and NME notwithstanding, looks set to follow up the success of Out of Nothing and then some, to say the least. There is a growing trend of grudging praise. Everybody wants to back a winner.
It’s been a strange ride for Embrace. Nine years ago they were hailed as the saviours not just of British indie rock but of music in general, and more besides. A lot of crazy things were said about them, a lot of things they didn't particularly want said. Before they had even released a single they were told by people in the music industry that they would be massive. Richard: “And we were like, ‘We are? No one asked us.’”
They were on the cover of Melody Maker months before they had an album out, the legend The Rock n Roll Band for the Millennium emblazoned in red ink above their heads. When XFM was launched with much hurrah in September 1997, head of programming Sammy Jacob said the London-based alternative radio station would succeed because “we can play Embrace on daytime radio and Radio 1 can’t.” Certain sections of the press claimed they were here to “save our souls” and the flaming hyperbole these claims were written in suggested that they actually meant it.
Bands since then have received hype, from the meta-machinations of Gay Dad and the so-hip-it-hurts back-to-basics hipster furor of The Strokes, to the recent net-sanctioned buzz around Arctic Monkeys, but while some of them may have had more column inches written about them than Embrace, few of them have been on the receiving end of so many outlandish claims. No one said that Welsh post-shoegazers Terris (five-minute hot bets with NME in 1999), for instance, would become an intrinsic part of the culture, as ubiquitous as television. The band have been taking the fall for these outlandish claims made on their behalf for the subsequent decade.
The success, the ubiquity, the pervasive cultural presence that Embrace were supposed to walk into at the end of the 90s was actually occupied, politely, by Coldplay (who supported Embrace in 2000, a couple of months before “Yellow” hit) some five years later. In the same way that The Stone Roses opened the door for Oasis and The Pixies for Nirvana, Embrace were followed by a bigger, less interesting band who seized their template and took it to the world.
“We played a gig live on Radio 1 in early ‘97, and right before we were due on they gave “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead its first play. It seems stupid now but at that instant I thought we could follow it. I thought we were the only band who could go onstage after that song and blow people away. You can call it arrogance or you can call it blind faith, belief… You’ve got to respect Radiohead as a band because they go all the way out there, right to the end, and sometimes they come back with a song and sometimes they don’t, but they’re willing to try and not many others are.”
They know what their weaknesses are as a band—“We could all play better” says Mike, bluntly—but they also know that those weaknesses are what mark them out from their slickly professional contemporaries. You like someone for their qualities but love them for their failings, perhaps. Danny’s voice has been a subject of much consternation over the years, but he maintains that perfectly technically sung songs would be lacking in emotion, which is what matters. Especially on the new album, he constantly pushes his vocals to the absolute limit of his range, risking ridicule should he fail. He’s a much braver singer than he gets credit for.
Lyrically he’s been criticised for being asinine and clichéd. “People can say what they want about the lyrics, but I know these songs mean more to me than any others. I was always writing about past experience before. Now I’m writing about stuff that’s happening right now. Maybe the draft version of “Nature’s Law” [released as a download] is objectively better lyrically, maybe it’s cleverer. But the lyrics in that version get in the way of the song. It might satisfy my ego more to have people think I write clever lyrics, but if it gets in the way of the song it doesn’t matter.”
There was an incident while recording the new album when Youth got Danny to hold a knife to his neck in order to get the required amount of anger out of him. He won’t really talk about subject matter, though. “Even Smaller Stones” is bitter and violent but so deceptively simple that it becomes obtuse.
After their debut album sold half a million copies in the UK, Embrace retreated for a year, keeping an anonymous profile with no gigs, no singles, no collaborations, and no public appearances at all for that time, choosing instead to make their second album as good as they possibly could. When it was finally released in March 2000, they thought Drawn from Memory would propel them into the stratosphere “like Bill & Ted,” according to Steve, that it would sell millions, unite people with music and love. It didn’t. There’s a sense of regret when they talk about it. Melodically perhaps it wasn’t as strong as their debut, but it was beautifully recorded and packed with tight, inventive musicianship, exciting arrangements, and an unadulterated humanity. “I like the fact that we got to make a psychedelic wig-out album,” says Mickey, both slightly forlorn and proud at the same time.
The multi-instrumentalist also says he’d like to go back to their third record, If You’ve Never Been, the album that got them dropped, and twist “God’s big tempo knob” to make each song about 10bpm faster. “It’s better than it gets credit for,” he assures. To date it has sold approximately 1/10th as many copies as Out of Nothing. At the time Danny had said “If the debut was underwater, and Drawn from Memory was jumping to the surface and gasping for breath, then If You’ve Never Been is swimming freely.” It contained an array of beautiful and inventive arrangements, but was lacking further in the one thing that had truly marked Embrace out at the start; memorable tunes. Looking back it sounds more as if they were drowning in a sea of paranoia and record company machinations than backstroking comfortably.
“We wanted to get away from what people were saying we were about, from that anthemic thing with the big songs and orchestras,” says Danny of their experimental wilderness years. “We could try and sound like Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada, but what’s the point?”
“It’s funny,” continues Richard, “because our manager says that every band he’s worked with, without exception, has hated the thing they do best, what made them great. We did for a while. But we’re comfortable with ourselves now.”
Danny’s trying to say something about the band’s that have risen in Embrace’s wake, but beer and frivolity are taking their toll. “There are so many bands, bands with guitars that care about ‘songwriting’, but they’re not like us. People can say we sound like so-and-so or so-and-so sound like us, whatever, but people who get us, really get us, they understand that we’re not like that. We’re more than that. We don’t sound like… it’s like Mike Yarwood. You’re not old enough for Mike Yarwood are you?”
Me: “I’m old enough for Mike Yarwood.”
Danny: “Yeah but—,” conspiratorially, “are they?”
Mike cracks up. Richard is biting his hand so he doesn’t laugh. We’re filming this.
Danny: “It’s like, I grew up as a kid in the 80s and you’d see Mike Yarwood doing Frank Sinatra-,” howls of laughter from Mike.
“Mike Yarwood impersonating Frank Sin-,” more howls. Mike is crying. Mickey has pulled his hat over his eyes. Steve is beaming like a child. We’re at it for five minutes. Every time Danny says “Mike Yarwood,” which he needs to say to begin the analogy, we all fall about.
“Fuck it. I’ve lost the thread. Fuck it.”
Later, catching us off guard…
“It’s like when Mike Yarwood does Frank Sinatra and he’s exactly like Frank and a kid can’t tell the difference ‘cos he sounds the same. You still know it’s not Frank though, because there’s something missing, something different. Because it’s Mike Yarwood.” Howls again, Mike with tears streaming down his face. But the point has gotten across, sort of.
“It’s like that with our band. We don’t sound like anyone else. We don’t feel like anyone else. People can tell.”
Sigh of relief. But not for long.
It’s a dangerous time for Embrace now. The World Cup song could blow up in their faces if it’s not dealt with incredibly well. Their music has always found favour with the people who choose the backing tracks to sports highlights, but this is something entirely different. They’re all over the news and all over the charts; at the time of writing their album is leading the mid-weeks and “Nature’s Law” looks set for a second week in the top ten, something they’ve never managed before. But no one’s immune, a fact they know only too well. People can resent success. Over-exposure has bittered many a fan’s affections. If things fuck up this time around they don’t have the security to carry on making music regardless. Day jobs would beckon again. A lot is at stake with This New Day. If anything is wrong with the record it’s the desperation, which could be seen as cynicism and manipulation if you catch a glimpse of it in the wrong light. But every song is a manipulation to make you feel something, and passion often gets mistaken for other things by those who don’t pay attention. If it’s been a crazy ride so far, it’s about to get even crazier.