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The Ting Tings Make a Playlist

March 14, 2012
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Nearly four years have passed between the original U.K. release of the Ting Tings’ worldwide breakthrough debut album We Started Nothing and the appearance of Sounds From Nowheresville, the duo’s wildly eclectic followup. During that time, Jules De Martino and Katie White nearly called it quits before relocating their mojo on an MP3 player. The only way to understand what was at stake for them is to go back to the beginning.

The pair’s previous group, the trio Dear Eskiimo, was dropped by Mercury U.K. in late 2005 after they’d spent a year in the studio. Shell-shocked and embittered, White and De Martino returned to Islington Mill, an artists’ conclave in the Manchester borough of Salford, where they’d been living and working on the scrapped record. They took day jobs, and in their free time De Martino painted while White designed clothing. They started throwing parties where their artist friends gathered to smoke weed, have a laugh, and blast the records they loved—Talking Heads, Prince, the Smiths— with everybody taking turns as DJ. In time, these gatherings grew into organized events that became a major attraction for hipsters.

“Slowly, that turned into a creative process,” De Martino says of their club nights. “We started to write some songs and perform them at the parties. We put a drum kit on the little stage and I’d play records and drum along to them. Then I started creating loops on my loop pedal, and one day Katie picked up my guitar— she’d never played before. That moment was really the pair of us having gained the confidence to say, ‘Have we just become a band again?”

They had indeed. With everything the newly named Ting Tings wrote and recorded, “the attitude was based on spontaneity,” De Martino explains. The tracks they were coming up with were not only infectiously in-your-face but also absolutely distinctive; no wonder A&R reps started coming to their parties. In late 2007 the duo signed with Columbia, which released their defiantly DIY We Started Nothing in Britain the following May. The partners weren’t prepared for what happened next, as their little art project resulted in a chart-topping U.K. album and single, “That’s Not My Name.” They wound up selling two million albums worldwide. They’d become pop stars by accident.

“When we first started the band, we didn’t anticipate being successful,” De Martino acknowledges. “Even though we became a commercial outfit, we didn’t act or work like one. So when it came to making a second record after all that success, it felt completely different being in the studio, as you can imagine. It felt controlled, not free. We went to Berlin because we wanted to find a new experience, but we got caught up in this situation where we were no longer living and breathing the music. We were writing and recording knowing that the record label was coming in two weeks’ time, and hoping to impress them. And there they are, walking in with bottles of champagne and taking us out to dinner at the best restaurants in Berlin and telling us how amazing we were. It sounds like a cliché, but we found ourselves doing exactly what we swore we would never do again after the Mercury experience.

“Then we woke up and realized we’d written tracks that we didn’t like—whether they were hits or not. It felt like we were making groove music. The dance scene was becoming big again, everybody around us was going on about clubs and DJs, and every time we came up with a track that had a dance pattern, the record company was like, ‘This is gonna be huge, guys.’ And we were thinking, how are we gonna live with this record for the next three years on tour? So we scrapped it. We kept four songs and erased the other six off the drive. Needless to say, that didn’t go down too well, but we were lost. It was really the darkest period of this band.”

To make matters worse, Columbia took “Hands,” a track from the Berlin sessions, and released it as a single. “It was never meant to be this big hit,” says De Martino. “But it went on the radio in the U.K. when we were still trying to find a direction. At that point, we were seriously considering dropping the whole idea of trying to be this ongoing band. That first album was so beautiful the way it evolved and the way we toured—just plug in and play, get punked-out onstage. Why not just keep that moment special to our hearts and come up with something new that has nothing to do with the Ting Tings?”

White and De Martino realized they had to leave Berlin, which they associated with losing control. So they packed up their gear in a van and drove all the way to Murcia in southeastern Spain, where they rented a basement and set up their studio. “Everything we’ve got can be transported— you just rack it all up on these towers,” De Martino explains. “Then more gear arrived in a truck. We’d kept adding equipment ever since the first band, and now, with Pro Tools, you can write and record in even the most basic studio. In good times or bad, we’ve always got five guitars, two drum kits, a couple of old keyboard synths and a load of outboard gear that we can valve off and get some nice analog sounds. Obviously, the success of the first album doubled the size of the studio and gave us more facilities; that’s what we ended up in Spain with.

“And then something clicked,” he continues. “On my computer and my phone, I’ve got playlists: I might have an xx track, MGMT, Led Zep’s ‘Ramble On,’ a Madonna track, all in one playlist. It’s what makes me feel good. And because we were listening to music in that way, we realized that we had to make an album that sounds like a playlist. And that excited us—all of a sudden it was like at the beginning again: ‘We need to be in a band. We need to write songs for a reason now.’ And that’s where this record started. It’s not easy to do, because you’re punkin’ out on ‘Give It Back’ and then you’re doing an R&B kind of feel on ‘Day to Day,’ or a sort of Nancy Sinatra feel on ‘One by One,’ and you have to get yourself in that mood each time you write and record. That was the challenge. But we started working and the lyrics started to flow. We were angry at our record company, and if you read into ‘Hit Me Down Sonny,’ it’s about Sony.

“They’re being brilliant now, both in the States and the U.K. We’re starting small again, we’re not worried about mainstream radio, so we can go out on tour and be real. But it’s been a long process to make the record company understand that you can’t treat us like Ke$ha.

“We just did some shows in Paris, and they absolutely rocked,” De Martino says with a mixture of pleasure and relief. “It was Katie on the guitar and all the loops, me on the drums, full energy, everybody screaming. I was like, thank God. We came that close to losing it.”

Bud Scoppa has written for Rolling Stone, Creem, Rock, Fusion, Crawdaddy! and Phonograph Record. He’s a senior editor at Hits and industry-news site hitsdailydouble.com. His current outlets include Uncut, Paste, and Mix.

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