Clean Bandit: A classical approach to pop music
- 26 May 2014
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
UK band Clean Bandit are introducing works by the likes of Mozart and Shostakovich to young audiences with their blend of electronic beats and classical strings.
The notion of mixing classical stringed instruments with electronic beats is not new, in fact it has been something of a Balearic favourite for decades.
Its use can be traced back to the likes of the orchestral stabs of Derrick May's hugely influential Strings of Life in 1987, through to more recent examples like Dutch DJ Tiesto's mix of Barber's Adagio for Strings, originally written in 1936.
Clean Bandit's classically trained members Grace Chatto and Neil Amin-Smith have proved the appetite for strings has not diminished and it has already earned them one of the fastest selling singles of the year - Rather Be.
"The way we use strings," explains keyboard player and bassist Jack Patterson, "they become more like a lead instrument with lead melodies and prominent counter-melodies, it's not a background texture led by big bass lines or synths like the Balearic stuff.
"But it does work well, linking those two worlds."
The band met whilst studying at Cambridge University where Patterson "fell in love with Grace and Neil's string quartet".
"It was their interpretations of Shostakovich, Janacek, Beethoven - these are the kind of people they were playing," he explains.
"[Jack] has a jazz background," adds Chatto. "He played in a lot of funk bands and rock bands before we started but he was experimenting with electronic stuff and we decided to make something together."
Patterson began recording their gigs and re-mixing the recordings, adding drum beats and electronic music. But he insists their musical relationship is a two-way street.
"We're in a funny position because Neil and Grace were serious classical musicians but they introduced me and Luke (his younger brother and the band's drummer) to a lot of dance music that I didn't know about. I was more into niche blokey electronic music like Squarepusher and Autechre and Aphex Twin."
They relocated to Moscow where Chatto was studying languages and began promoting local club nights.
"We put on club nights to play this music that we'd written just before graduation, just mucking about really. While we were in Russia we made the video for Mozart's House and that kind of kicked it off."
The catchy dance track, which features vocals by Ssegawa Ssekintu, has the band playing a section of Mozart's String Quartet No 21.
"Suddenly it got 30,000 views in a couple of weeks," says Patterson. "We thought this is what we're supposed to do, make videos."
It has since been viewed nearly 2,500,000 times.
Despite the online buzz, Patterson says they still faced naysayers in the industry and were accused of being nothing more than a cheap gimmick.
"We do get all sorts of complaints - we had some meetings with record companies and they were like: 'So why should we sign you? This is obviously a joke band', which was quite harsh.
"But I think in some of our music there's a lot of humour and some stuff we do is quite tongue in cheek, like Mozart's House. It's not a serious piece of music, it's fun."
Since Mozart's House introduced Clean Bandit to mainstream audiences, they have released another single - Dust Clears - and the monster hit Rather Be.
"We've had this big hit and we have this very different audience, like 12-year-olds drawing pictures of us," says Patterson.
But will they put aside their Rihanna, Katy Perry and One Direction long enough to enjoy some classical compositions that aren't necessarily accompanied by heavy beats?
"Hopefully they will listen to some of the bits on the album and maybe think, 'What's this?' and have a listen to something else."
Despite the band's name-checking of composers, of the 13 tracks on the new album, the majority are original compositions.
"On this album, it's only really Mozart," explains Chatto. "But this is, in a way, our second album because we never recorded our first album.
"We had about 12 songs which used different composers like Beethoven, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Janacek and Schubert and classical musicians used to come to our gigs and pick out pieces.
"But we only have two tracks, Mozart's House and the outro, which features Dvorak."
Rather Be became one of the fastest selling tracks of the year and topped the streaming charts for four weeks. It's regularly in Spotify's top five having been streamed nearly eight million times globally.
The video for the band's latest single Extraordinary has already been watched on YouTube nearly two million times.
At a time when revenues from downloading and streaming now makes up 50% of UK music sales, the band are riding the crest of a digital wave.
But being a predominantly digital band brings its own set of problems, chiefly the ease with which their music can be pirated and shared illegally online.
"If you put your music into a digital format, what you're doing is making the most explicit, efficient way of spreading it out across the world," says Patterson.
"You have to understand that when you do that, you're putting it into a code that can be passed on to anyone in a second."
As for the band's mysterious name? According to an early interview with the band, it was taken from the Russian phrase for "complete bastard".
"Kind of, its not quite as explicit as that," says Patterson. "It's quite an affectionate term, its more like 'utter rascal' type of thing.
"It was an example of what it could mean and it kind of stuck on Wikipedia."
Clean Bandit's debut album New Eyes is released on 2 June.