Don Broco: How darkness and despair led to Amazing Things
Ask Don Broco to recall the moment their astonishing new album was born and they whisk you back to New York City, October 2018. The band were a couple of shows into Mike Shinoda’s North American tour, where they were opening act for the Linkin Park star. Despite an exhausting schedule in support of third album Technology, the Bedford quartet were in high spirits, embracing the prospect of a night off in the city that never sleeps; the first case of COVID-19 more than a year away from changing everything.
The boys ordered a cab, which soon arrived and they excitedly climbed in. The air of fun didn’t last, though. The driver took a look at the passengers – singer Rob Damiani, guitarist Si Delaney, bassist Tom Doyle, drummer Matt Donnelly – and his manner changed. “A white driver saw four white guys and thought he could just be openly racist in front of us,” explains Rob. “He was going off on an anti-Muslim tirade, asking us what the situation was like in the UK, and how ‘terrible’ it must be to have so many Muslims. What do you say to someone like that in the moment?”
The four were left shocked by the incident, not just questioning whether they’d done enough to reprimand and educate the offender, but struggling with the fact he’d obviously viewed them as the kind of allies he could openly share such opinions with. “He even told us a group of girls he’d given a lift to had recently reported him to the police for saying similar stuff,” adds Rob. “As if to say: ‘Can you believe they did that?!’”
What’s truly unbelievable is that members of Don Broco were subjected to two more similar incidents within the space of a week; seemingly innocuous car journeys descending into hateful diatribes. On each occasion the band grew angrier and angrier with what they were having to listen to, but Rob knew that seething wasn’t enough. “I knew it was something I needed to speak about because it affected me emotionally,” he says of a conversation re-ignited across the world by the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Around the time of those alarming encounters, the band made the decision to write a new track to reward fans for their support, which they could debut at their London Wembley Arena show in February 2019. Their tour bus became the setting for making that ambitious goal a reality, with Si building the song’s boiling backing track, while Tom happened upon its catchy synth line, an electric version of a duduk, an ancient Armenian instrument.
And while Rob knew what he wanted to say in the song, he wasn’t entirely sure how to do so without shortchanging such an important topic. “I wanted to get it right. Melody and ‘feel’ usually come first with Broco songs, but when you’re talking about a topic like racism, the lyrics are so important. You have to ensure you’ve done enough to paint the fullest picture possible.”
Two-and-a-half years later, the four members of Don Broco are in a north London studio. The track they started back then, now entitled Uber, is long since finished, though not in time for the band’s Wembley show as intended (that accolade having gone to HALF MAN HALF GOD). “It’s not about Uber as a brand,” clarifies Rob of a song featuring the lyrics, ‘I been dealing with a driver who’s sorry for my lot / ’Cause my country got us mixing our blood / And it’s boiling his blood / And that’s boiling my blood / He won’t shut the fuck up.’ “It’s just a brand that’s become synonymous with getting a cab, in the same way that Google is shorthand for searching for something online.”
There’s an air of normality in the sunny streets today, as children walking home from school and clattering building sites both project the idea of future prosperity. Inside, too, the space thrums with chatter and laughter and the clicking of camera shutters. Nature, as they say, is healing.
Signs that things aren’t entirely back to normal are here too, of course. Navigating the building’s long corridors necessitates the wearing of a face covering, for instance, and when K! eventually locates the band, touching elbows by way of greeting is de rigueur. They’re well versed in protocol; back when they were finishing Amazing Things at the idyllic Decoy Studios in Suffolk, they’d take COVID tests every few days to ensure the safety of all present, which included producer Jason Perry, who first worked with the band 2015’s second album Automatic.
Conversations today are conducted at a distance, though the band don’t keep Kerrang! at arm’s length when it comes to challenging topics. Because while the four members of Don Broco appear unchanged from the ones who made Technology, something is different. Rob’s curly mullet continues to push proportions an ’80s wrestler would balk at; Simon maintains an extensive range of gadgets for making quality coffee on the go; Tom remains more comfortable discussing technical gear than himself; and Matt still possesses a Cheshire Cat grin that can disarm at 20 paces. But Amazing Things suggests they’re a weightier proposition – more mature, thoughtful, certainly weirder – and above all, very, very angry.
Listen to Rob discuss the meaning behind new song Uber, and the importance of feeling anger
“It definitely wasn’t conscious,” says Si of that rage, despite being central to developing the album’s sonics, alongside Tom. “Even if there’s a reference point in my mind that I’m trying to emulate, it won’t be an angry song or even a heavy song. I’ll try to give it the Broco flavour, which now defaults to being very angry.”
“I think it’s impossible not to get angry when you pair so much going wrong in the world while having so much time on your hands,” says Rob matter of factly. And it’s hard to disagree.
“In a lot of ways we weren’t ready to let Technology go,” Rob admits of Amazing Things’ predecessor, a watershed moment for the band. Prior to its creation, Don Broco didn’t even have a record label, making its successes – reaching Number Five in the UK Album Chart and playing the biggest venues of their career – even sweeter.
While Technology provided Don Broco with an invaluable confidence boost, it apparently wasn’t to all tastes. There was the blunt German ‘superfan’ who arrived as the band were loading in for a show in Germany while touring the album, and insisted on sharing his unvarnished opinion on it. “He said: ‘I don’t like it. I don’t like the heavy riffs or the distortion on the vocals. Don’t do those things on the next record,’” recalls Rob with a laugh he failed to muster at the time. “The amazing thing is, the next time we were in Germany he came back and apologised, as I think he saw how much what he’d said hurt me. He also said he’d not given [the album] enough time and that it was now his favourite, so massive respect to that guy.”
That kind of nuance and readiness to reevaluate rash opinions is missing from social media, though. And while Rob says Don Broco are lucky to have such positive listeners, he confesses to struggling with the bile he’s seen directed towards other bands. One example, in particular, has stayed with him for several years. “When Chester Bennington died, a video surfaced the same week of Linkin Park being booed while playing their new material [from One More Light] because it was softer than what they’d done before. There was a fan at the front of the crowd giving Chester abuse to his face. You don’t know what was going through Chester’s mind at that moment.”
This dark side of fandom and its sense of toxic entitlement inspired lead single Manchester Super Reds No. 1 Fan. Despite the song’s David Beckham-obsessed video, and Matt being a lifelong Manchester United fan, it’s absolutely not about Manchester United, as its opening lyric – ‘Creepy creepy calling me daddy’ – should confirm. Its punchy title refrain, however, was inspired by Rob’s childhood flirtation with support for the club, from the words inscribed on a keyring unearthed when his parents cleared out their attic. Once the singer tried it out as a placeholder vocal, nothing worked as well.
Hear Rob discuss lead single Manchester Super Reds No.1 Fan, and the story behind it
Not only do the words work well in situ, they exhibit one of Don Broco’s less celebrated gifts: their ability to create music with a frivolity that masks real depth – earworms so seductive it takes time to notice how powerfully their mandibles grip you. On Technology, Stay Ignorant was the notable example; seemingly a paean to the simple pleasures of an evening in the pub watching the football, its true message was that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, inspired by Rob’s response to The White Helmets, a Netflix documentary about war-torn Syria.
Amazing Things boasts many such songs. Suitably punchy opening track Gumshield deals with siding with an argument on social media in volatile times. “There were so many political upheavals and everyone wanted their opinion heard,” summarises Rob. “It felt like a scary time where you’d read something and agree with someone’s point of view, only for them to be torn down emphatically by someone else. When that’s happening all the time, you become overwhelmed and don’t know how to feel anymore. I began to have a feeling of dread and anxiety every time I was about to put something out there, at a point when people were being criticised for not using their platforms.”
Then there’s the 10-styles-for-the-price-of‑1 rush of Swimwear Season, which represents one of the album’s bleakest moments. “It’s influenced by writing this record over the summer, melting in a hot flat,” says Rob of a track acknowledging the seriousness the general population now takes the issue of climate change, while skewering the selfish consumerism that got us here.
“With so much shutting down over lockdown, you’d read about how amazing that was for nature and the environment. We’re so used to these things that make our lives easier, like driving everywhere and cheap flights, and you’re wondering if it’s a good idea that we just go back to those things. The reference in the song to ‘Mr. Perfect’ isn’t about someone who’s perfect, but someone having a life they take for granted, like many do in the west, while people on the other side of the world will have to pay a far greater price first when climate change results in rising sea levels.”
Anaheim, meanwhile, deals with surging expectation levels, specifically those the band exerted on themselves (‘Feeling like I don’t deserve this treasure / I’m scared I’m a fake’). It’s a meta exploration of the writing process for Uber, of the pressure to write a massive song within an aggressive timeframe when things simply aren’t clicking, all while trying to do justice to serious subject matter. “You’re feeling this weight upon you,” Rob reflects. “I was wallowing in this kind of songwriter depression, which was spilling into real-life depression, where you can’t focus on an everyday basis. Another track, One True Prince, is my retaliation to having those feelings, acting as an ego check to remind myself that I’m just a guy trying to write a song.”
Not everything is quite so deep and meaningful, though, which is a good thing because few bands instil a sense of fun like Don Broco. So the track Bruce Willis isn’t a critique of machismo, the diminishing returns of film franchises, or the perils of wearing a vest in middle age, but what happens when a singer consults his notepad of miscellaneous lyrics and likes the way ‘Yippee-Kay-Yay, motherfucker’ scans. Oh, and did we mention it sounds like Faith No More covering The Prodigy?
“Do you mind if I talk about this?” Rob asks Matt towards the end of our time with the band, as they prepare to discuss Easter Sunday, Amazing Things’ emotionally charged closing track – or, more specifically, the story behind it.
Matt nods in the affirmative, though he remains quiet.
Don Broco’s frontman and drummer have long used their voices to accentuate different sides of the band’s sound, with Rob taking on crooning and caterwauling duties, while Matt sugars the pill with his warm, high-pitched pipes. Their interplay has become a trademark over time and reaches a new level of productivity on Amazing Things – less a creative decision than a practical one. Making the album during lockdown meant that sessions were conducted via Zoom, not the easiest conditions for Matt to be at the drums, so he’d often concentrate on vocal lines, singing into the mic on his Apple earphones, with many of those early takes making it to the final record.
Easter Sunday is one of the more powerful examples of Rob and Matt’s melodic partnership, while uniting them in another way. It begins with slow, Blur-like guitar, before exploding into an agonised drone that declares: ‘Easter Sunday and you told me my brothers were gone.’ This is no work of fiction, though, or a piece of cryptic lyricism, but based on the tragic experiences of Matt’s father, who, within the space of about four weeks, lost three of his brothers to COVID-19.
“There was a fourth brother who actually went into hospital first, but he recovered,” reveals Matt. “It was a very emotional time. The fact it did so much damage within my immediate family left me wondering how bad things could get for everyone else I knew, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. At the time we focused on what needed to be done, so the grief didn’t truly hit until much later.”
Listen to Rob discuss his inspirations and responsibilities as a songwriter
As well as seeing his bandmate suffering, Rob experienced the tragedy from another perspective: his girlfriend’s best friend is Matt’s cousin, who’d lost her father. “It really knocked me for six. On Easter Sunday [last year], my girlfriend’s mum invited us to an online Christian service. I’m not a Christian – I’d probably count myself as an agnostic, always loving the thought of believing in something greater than myself and keeping an open mind. The whole time I was watching this service, I was wondering how there can be this loving, all-powerful God who allows so many people, including a family close to me, to suffer. After the service, it ended up being a bit of a recruitment mission for the church, telling us that God can save us, while I was at a point where I was feeling so angry. Everything came crashing in later and I broke down in tears.”
Because of the emotions attached to Easter Sunday, Rob reveals it’s his favourite song on Amazing Things. And that’s another of the many great things about the album: its MO – aside from delivering some of the catchiest, riffiest, barmiest tunes you’ll hear this year – is the tireless drive for silver linings and the promise that however tough things get, better days lie ahead.
“We’ve created something we were super-passionate about from nothing,” Rob says of the cathartic power of creation. “When things feel bad and aren’t going well, they can consume you and ruin your day, your year, your life. But if you can turn that into a positive message or something you can learn from, thereby giving that darkness and pain a purpose, you’ll feel somewhat better about it. If you can take something from things feeling like shit, then it isn’t all in vain or doom and gloom.”
It’s a refreshing take, though not necessarily one shared by many of their peers. There have been many rock records released during this period mired in the negativity and suffering of our current circumstances; so could Don Broco do what they do if they didn’t believe things will come good in the end?
“I don’t know,” says a bamboozled Rob. “That’s a good question.”
“If we thought touring was never going to come back?” wonders Si. “Could we do it in a world without live music? It would have to be a very conscious decision on our part.”
Given what the band have been through, then, does Amazing Things feel like the most important Don Broco album?
“I think so,” nods Matt.
“Yes,” is Tom’s more decisive take. “I think the break we’ve had [from touring] has given us the ability to assess and appreciate what we’ve done more quickly than with the other albums we’ve made.”
“Everyone’s life has been on hold, with the understanding that at some point we’re all coming back,” reasons Si. “So we, as a band, had to make it really fucking good. It can’t be alright, otherwise what have we been doing for a year-and-a-half? There’s going to be a tidal wave of new music coming, so to be heard above that you have to make something phenomenal.”
And have you?
“Absolutely,” the guitarist grins. “It’s a 10 out of 10.”
Don Broco’s Amazing Things is out on September 17 via SharpTone. The band headline Slam Dunk Festival on September 4 and 5, and tour the UK in October and November – get your tickets now.
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