The XCERTS: “We wanted to write songs like we were 14 again – nothing was off the table”

After five years away The XCERTS are back with new album Learning How To Live And Let Go: a record that originally saw the trio tackle their sense of identity and worth head-on, but has ultimately led the Britrock underdogs to find inner peace.

The XCERTS: “We wanted to write songs like we were 14 again – nothing was off the table”
Mischa Pearlman
Zak Pinchin

“Absolutely awful.”

“Literally one lame verse repeated over and over.”


“This is NOT GOOD.”

“Nah this is not it.”

“Yeah these dudes are wayyyyy too old to be like this lmfao”

“well....they had a good run”

These are just some of the comments posted on YouTube under The XCERTS' track GIMME, the lead single from new album, Learning How To Live And Let Go.

The band’s first new music since 2018’s Hold On To Your Heart, its video sees the trio – vocalist/guitarist Murray Mcleod, bassist Jordan Smith and drummer Tom Heron – performing the scuzzy, fuzzy, 100-second track inside a semi-decrepit room, the camera spinning around and upside-down, and zooming erratically, trying to keep pace with the song’s frenzied melody. It was, to say the least, a sharp left-turn from the direction the band had been heading in with their previous record and its anthemic indie-rock romanticism. But that shift was very intentional, as the trio explain over Zoom. They’re not in the same room – not even the same house – but you wouldn't know it from the way they talk to and riff off each other.

“We’re a very self-aware band,” explains Murray. “GIMME was meant to be divisive. We weren’t fucking like, ‘The people who loved First Kiss Feeling [from Hold On To Your Heart] are going to love this!’” Tom bursts into laughter. “Of course we knew!”

“But that was kind of the point,” adds Jordan. “We wanted it to kick the door in and make a really big statement. We wanted it to have an impact.”

In fact, the band had been encouraged by the album’s producer, Blood Red Shoes’ Steven Ansell, to do just that. He wanted them to make a record that people weren’t keen on, to say the least.

“He kept saying, ‘I want people to hate this record,’” says Murray. “We didn’t really get what he meant, but he kept saying it. He was like, ‘You’ve been in this lane where you’re kind of a cult act where people really adore your band, but your world will not grow until you start receiving hate.’ And then once we started receiving it, our world went like that.”

Murray brings his hands together, then moves them apart.

“He was completely right.”

And so, the band dug deep into themselves, and contemplated what they wanted to do with this record.

“I remember having a conversation,” begins Jordan, “where we were talking about how we wanted to write songs like we were 14 again. Nothing was off the table. It was like you play a riff and someone was like, ‘That’s fucking sick! Do that again!’ It was that excited 14-year-old energy again. I remember that conversation very clearly.” 

“We felt like we needed to somehow get back to writing from almost a naïve perspective,” says Murray.

So that’s what they did. But even through following Steven's advice, the trio didn't really want fans to hate the new stuff, and those negative comments did have an indelible effect on the band – especially with them coming back after a rather extended absence. Though Murray’s responses have since been deleted, he began replying to people – panicking over the viscerally negative reaction.

“If you’re the size of Metallica or The 1975,” says Murray, “you get a second chance. You can go again because you’re so big. But for a band our level, I was thinking, ‘Oh my God. Have we committed career suicide?’”

It was one of Murray’s good friends – Mike Kerr from Royal Blood – who put things into perspective for him.

"He said a really great thing that calmed me down quite a bit,” remembers the singer. “We’d just got the masters of the record after GIMME was released, because it wasn’t even finished yet, and he said, ‘Go for a walk and listen to the album and tell me how you feel about it.’ And so I did, and I told him, ‘I’m so proud of this album and I feel confident in saying it’s our best album yet.’ And he said, ‘Just remember this is exactly how you feel about the album before other people’s opinions skew your idea of it.’ And that was such great advice. He said, ‘You’re listening to it in its purest form. It’s your own personal secret, and the way you feel about it now is how you feel about the record.’”

Now that the dust has settled on that first single, the band – correctly, accurately – make the argument that Learning How To Live And Let Go isn’t actually all that much of a sharp left-turn when you take the whole album and their entire discography into account. In fact, there are elements of every era of The XCERTS to be found on this record. At the same time, it does explore and indulge the influence of other genres more than they have done before. It pushes the boundaries of their sound and and even breaks the fourth wall at times, as the band experiment with the fabric of the songs themselves. Perhaps more significantly, though, is the subject matter of these songs, which finds Murray in a mindset he hasn't been before. Because gone, largely, is the hopeless, hapless, broken-hearted romantic Murray Mcleod, replaced by the person he found himself becoming – ostensibly because of a toxic relationship – when writing these songs. It wasn’t somebody he particularly liked.

“Honestly,” he begins, when asked what prompted that shift in lyrical and thematic direction, “I just took stock of life and what I had actually experienced, what my friends were experiencing and what the band was experiencing at the time. We’re all romantic people, and I like to live my life in the mindset of being a romantic. In regards to any aspect of my life, I see the romance in it. And it took me a minute to realise that I just wasn’t in that place at that time. Like, the experiences that I had in my life weren’t romantic at all, and there really wasn’t that much beauty in the way I was living and the way I was acting and the way I was behaving, or in the things that I was seeing my friends go through.

"I couldn’t find the romance in it – it just wasn’t there. I could find it on Hold On To Your Heart and I could on There’s Only You, but this time around I couldn’t see it because it wasn’t real. Life was noisy and pretty broken, but the first few songs that I presented to the guys had this kind of forced, ‘Everything’s good, I’m going to find the beautiful in this because that’s what we did on the last one.’ But that’s not true to the way we create music, because it’s about being honest. That’s what our band has always been about.”

To that extent, then, The XCERTS are the same band they’ve always been. Although they're incredibly talented, they remain perennial underdogs of the British alternative rock scene, unafraid to shapeshift their sound and prepared to be less commercially successful as a result. Indeed, given that Hold On To Your Heart hit the Top 40, it would have been easy for them to make that record again and capitalise on the audience it found. But they didn’t. And ironically, that’s precisely why they deserve a much larger audience, because they’ve never been scared to just be themselves. It was that way when Murray and Jordan formed the band at the age of 13 in Aberdeen, and it’s been that way ever since. Will this be the album that gives them the recognition they deserve? It should be, because they were brave enough to make the record they wanted to make, rather than the one people wanted to hear. Despite the rough start, it looks like it’s paying off.

“The other day we played Belladrum festival,” says Tom, “and we opened with GIMME. Our sound engineer, who we’ve worked with before but not for a while, was like, ‘When I heard GIMME, I wasn’t sure how it was going to fit with the rest of your stuff, but as soon as you started playing it, it makes so much sense.’ That was really nice to hear, because I guess we weren’t certain either, to begin with. But I think as long as it’s us, I think people are going to hear The XCERTS in it.”

“Besides,” adds Murray with a goofy grin, “it’s now one of our most popular songs on streaming sites. We’re not going to fucking apologise for it. It's like wearing a leather jacket for the first time. You have to own it. And as soon as we had that conversation, there was no looking back. There was no fear. It was completely eradicated from the conversation, which is what we used to use as fuel to make records.”

“That was the impetus that gave each record its urgency,” adds Jordan. “We thought we had to be a little bit afraid. But this was completely the opposite of that. There was no fear. It was pure joy.”

Learning How To Live And Let Go is out August 18 via UNFD

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