Why The Struts’ New Album Strange Days Is The Record They’ve “Been Dying To Make”
For better or worse, 2020 has been a year full of surprises. Most of us, however, haven’t had lockdown interrupted by an international pop superstar popping up on social media to ask if we’re free for a chat. Given that he’s previously kept company with the likes of the Foo Fighters, Guns N’ Roses, The Who and the Rolling Stones, one might expect The Struts frontman Luke Spiller to be rather blasé about the fact that Robbie Williams casually called up for an afternoon natter about music, touring and UFOS, but to his credit, the flamboyant frontman has the good grace to sound a little star struck about his burgeoning friendship with the former Take That singer.
That initial conversation led to Luke duetting with Robbie on the title-track of The Struts’ new album, Strange Days, a 10-track collection which builds upon the promise of the quartet’s superb 2018 album Young & Dangerous, and showcases the Derbyshire band at their strutting, cocksure, gloriously glam best. Robbie isn’t the only star name on the set, either, as Def Leppard duo Joe Ellliott and Phil Collen, Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello and The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr. also make guest cameos – which can’t hurt the English band’s profile globally when Strange Days is released into the wild.
Having relocated to Los Angeles at the start of 2020, Luke and his bandmates – guitarist Adam Slack, bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies – are temporarily back on their native soil while their U.S. visas are being renewed, but speaking to Kerrang! today from Devon and the Midlands respectively, it’s all too obvious that they are raring to take on the world anew…
How has 2020 been for you? It’s obviously not the year that any of us were anticipating…
Luke: “In some ways it’s been extremely productive – with our new album being a result of that – but it’s been a really strange year in my personal life. I don’t think anyone will be coming out of this whole experience is the same person they were before it happened. Everyone has been reflecting so much, and making a lot of changes, and I’m curious to see once the world gets back to normal what similarities there are between all our experiences.”
Adam: “We’ve probably never had so much time at home because we usually tour so much, so it’s been nice having more time with our girlfriends and families. But I’m looking forward to when we can have ‘normal’ back, instead of this ‘new normal’.”
Were you both in the U.S. when the lockdown hit?
Luke: “Yes, I’d decided to move out to Los Angeles last December; something inside me was telling me to get out there, a strange calling, and so in early January I found myself there. Obviously, I let the guys know, and everyone kinda followed suit very quickly. We did a very small U.S. tour in February, and then the whispers about COVID-19 started happening, and everything just got cancelled. Technically we’ve never lived in LA before – that’s something that got slightly lost in translation in the press we’ve had – so this was us properly pulling up our roots and plonking them in LA for the very first time. And what a time to be there!”
Adam: “We weren’t exactly living the Hollywood dream – everywhere was closed, just like here. People were pretty militant over there, though, about mask-wearing from early on. One day I went for a run without a mask and car pulled up alongside me and a guy wound down the window and shouted, ‘Put a fucking mask on, man!’ I was thinking, ‘I’m on my own, in the middle of nowhere!’”
Luke, the introduction to I Hate How Much I Want You on the new album sees you telling Joe Elliott that you’ve got 10 days to make a new record: was the recording schedule genuinely that tight?
Luke: “Absolutely. The original plan was to go into the studio for 10 days and record three, maybe four songs, but everyone had such a burning passionate desire to get into it that by day number four we had six or seven songs done. And so we were like, ‘Hmmm, right, we’ve got five days left, let’s see what else we can do.’ By day seven all the instrumentation and arrangements had been comped and roughly mixed, and I spent the last three days laying down all my vocals. It was a perfect marriage of me working relentlessly on ideas for two weeks before that, and Adam creating a riff bank, so when we started jamming, with our producer John Levine on the piano, it was kinda effortless, which was really bizarre. It literally felt like a dream. I remember waking up on day four, thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ Not only was it really easy and exciting and fun, but the quality of the music was really strong.”
On your previous albums, you’ve had a fair bit of input from outside songwriters. This time around, because of the circumstances, was it literally just you four and John Levine putting everything together?
Luke: “Yes, and it’s a record that we’ve been dying to make. This one is so special because it’s showcasing what the band can do after touring relentlessly for the past six fucking years. It shows everything that we’ve learned from working with such great people in the past. Now we’ve graduated from songwriting academy.”
Adam: “It’s brilliant working with outside songwriters, but at times it’s possible that you can overthink things. Everyone has their ideas about what you need to connect with different radio formats, and if you’re not careful you can lose sight of what you wanted to do originally because everyone is pulling you in different directions. This record is definitely The Struts.”
So, we mentioned earlier Joe Elliott being on the album, with Phil Collen too. What’s your connection with Def Leppard – do you consider those guys friends?
Luke: “Yeah, everyone that has a feature on the record we’ve known for at least a couple of years. Joe and Phil have been massive supporters of the band for quite some time; we were already on Joe Elliott’s radar when we first broke in the States in late 2015. I’d been emailing him on and off for years, and our idea with Strange Days was that everything should be an experiment: it was about throwing caution to the wind to create something that we’ve never done before, and that extended to approaching the songs differently. I’ve been thinking for a while, with all the most successful songs in the charts, and the power of collaboration – especially in hip-hop and pop music – there’s a reason why those genres collectively are just crushing every single time. The original idea was to have a feature on every single song, but it didn’t quite work out like that, and I’m glad it didn’t. But when we’d recorded everything and I called up Joe and Robbie Williams and Tom Morello and Albert Hammond Jr. they all very quickly replied and said, ‘Yeah, let’s have a listen…’”
Adam: “The good thing about making this album during lockdown is that no-one was doing anything and so they can’t make excuses about being busy!”
Is Tom Morello a fan and friend, too?
Luke: “Yeah, Tom actually played with us in Nashville about a year ago, and we did a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark together – it’s actually on YouTube, a really cool video – and as a fanboy, every now and then I’ll watch it and be like, ‘Oh my God, did that actually happen?’ – and we stayed in contact. He’s such a lovely guy, and he did a fantastic job on Wild Child.”
People will have already heard Robbie Williams singing with you on the album’s title-track. Did you not know him at all before he suddenly popped up during your Instagram Quarantine Radio show?
Luke: “No! It was so bizarre how everything just fell out of the sky. It was literally three weeks before we were going into the studio he reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, can I call you?’ completely out of the blue. I was really taken aback by how open and genuine and nice he was, and I said, ‘Look, we’re about to go into the studio, if I come up with something, might you be interested?’ and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ While we were in the studio, every now and then I’d think, ‘Oh, maybe this is something we could have Robbie on,’ and that’s how the title-track came about. I sent him the rough version, and he was so gracious, and we ended up cutting the vocals on his porch in Beverley Hills. All the bird song that you hear at the beginning, that’s real, and a couple of planes went by and we kept that in too. It was a pretty unique situation.”
Robbie Williams is obviously incredibly well known, but was there anything you learned about him in the process of doing this song?
Luke: “It’s probably not a surprise to anyone, but I’d say I was struck by just how much charisma he has. When I met him it was very casual, and as a performer, I can relate to the fact that when you’re not onstage and not on camera you’re more laidback. But when the camera hit ‘record’ for the video, he suddenly went into ‘Robbie Williams Mode’, smiling into the camera, and dancing with an umbrella and I was just like, ‘Yeah, you’re a star.’ I don’t want to sound cliched, but he really has that X factor, and it was brilliant to see the cheeky, light-hearted, optimistic vibe he brought to the video.”
Adam: “I always hate the idea of bragging about anything we do in this band, but I’ve had plenty of people saying, ‘Oh, have you got Robbie Williams on your song? That’s so great!’ We’re very grateful for all his involvement.”
Foo Fighters famously fell in love with your band when they took you out on tour in America. Was there no option to get Mr. Grohl or Mr. Hawkins on a track?
Luke: “Well… that’s for a later date.”
Oh, there’s more coming?
Luke: “This is The Struts: we always have something more up our sleeves! The thought process that we’ve applied to this record isn’t just going to be thrown out of the window, it was a very happy experiment, and I think people can expect more things like this in the future. We’ve made a lot of great friends who are extremely talented, so we’re definitely going to be branching out more.”
Radio in the UK hasn’t necessarily picked up on The Struts in the same way that U.S. radio has, so has the presence of people like Robbie and Albert from The Strokes on the album made radio programmers in the UK take a fresh look at the band?
Luke: “Absolutely, and actually not just in the UK, but across the world. Radio 2 have just playlisted the title-track, which is our first-ever playlist add on UK radio… it only took us three albums, but we’ve finally made it! In Italy it’s become our highest charting song anywhere in the world, it’ll probably go Top 20, so it’s not just the UK. It’s a really exciting time.”
Given that America has embraced you so warmly, and you’re all living there now, is there not a temptation for you to say, ‘Fuck off Britain, you had your chance’?!
Luke: “(Laughs) Well, we always said we’d go where people wanted to see us, and there’s no doubt that America has been kind to us. But, actually, we play shows in Britain where we’re selling just slightly less tickets than at the big shows in the States, and fans are coming in their thousands, which is saying something, considering that we haven’t had any TV or radio presence at all here compared to America. We’re not giving up on Britain by any means!”
There’s one cover song on the album: KISS’ Do You Love Me. What made you choose that?
Luke: “Well, actually, I was a fan of the version that Girl recorded, Girl being Phil Collen’s band before he joined Def Leppard. I’d made a playlist of references that I wanted to pull out on another record we were working on, and that song was part of that. When we got about seven songs into Strange Days we had a bit of a… not a block, exactly… but a bit of a glitch, and we decided to just get pissed by the pool. The next day we thought, ‘Why don’t we just do a cover?’ and originally I wanted to see if Joe and Phil would be interested in appearing on that song, as that’d kinda go full-circle for Phil. But they politely declined, and said they wanted to do something new, and that’s why they’re on I Hate How Much I Want You. I’m glad they changed my mind, because they brought so much to that song.”
There’s been a lot of doom and gloom in 2020 so far. Is this a good time for The Struts to be returning with some razzle-dazzle and glamour and escapism?
Luke: “Absolutely. We’ve been very conscious of the times we’re in, and on the album there’s a bunch of songs referencing the current situation and offering positivity and hope. We’re optimistic about the future, and we’re one of the hardest working bands in the world, so I can guarantee you that as soon as the door opens just a crack, we’ll be kicking it down. We’re raring to go as soon as we get the green light.”
Adam: “I think in the past we’ve been guilty of not believing in ourselves as much as we should have, but now we’ve got an album to take on the world.”
The Struts’ new album Strange Days is due out on October 16 via Interscope.
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