"We like to have good pop tunes but couple that with weird sounds and mess it up."
Carey Willets: bass and vocals
Joel Pott: guitar and vocals
Steve Roberts: drums and vocals
Tim Wanstall: Keyboards and vocals
Athlete are a British four-piece band hailing from Deptford, South-East London. Although relative newcomers to the British music scene, they have already been nominated for the 2003 Mercury Music Prize, and parts of the music press are falling over themselves to praise the band's debut album. Armed with ridiculously catchy choruses and a down-to-earth manner, it looks like Athlete could well be a band to watch.
All the member of the band grew up together in Deptford, and have known each other since they were 14. However, it was only after Tim Wanstall left to go to university that the other three began seriously pursuing a musical career. They formed a band named Wondercub, and began to play the Camden club circuit at a time when Menswear were one of the most popular bands there. This was the early nineties, Britpop ruled, and everyone was frantically searching for the 'next Oasis'. Consequently, Wondercub were making fairly bland, jangly guitar numbers, and before too long attracted the interest of Island Records. This actually proved to be a bit of a problem for the fledgling band: "The record company interest made us question what we were doing", according to Pott. Apparently, they thought that if record labels were interested in them, they must be doing something wrong.
Rejecting the record deal, and moving slowly towards less conventional pop, the band eventually renamed itself Athlete in 2000, and struggled to find a new direction. Help was at hand with the return of Wanstall from university, equipped with a keyboard and a good knowledge of sampling techniques. This allowed the band to explore areas that had previously been inaccessible to them, as Roberts freely admits: "We had been messing around with effects and weird instruments for a while, but we were frustrated with our lack of keyboard skills. Then Tim turned up and everything clicked.". A year after that, and they released their first EP, Westside, which made enough of an impact to get them signed up to Parlophone Records.
Two more singles followed (You Got the Style and Beautiful), as well as touring Britain and Europe in a supporting role for The Polyphonic Spree, The Electric Soft Parade, Minutemen, Simian, and Mansun (though not all at the same time). Their debut album, Vehicles and Animals, was released in April 2003, and the single El Salvador was released to promote the album. Produced by Victor Van Vugt (who has worked with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, P.J. Harvey and Sparklehorse), it's a well executed guitar-driven album, relentlessly upbeat despite dealing with some difficult subject matter (England's race riots and raising children, among other things). It also has a fair smattering of electronic sounds and influences, although it sometimes sounds as if these came as an afterthought, and weren't part of the songs original vibe.
Influences and Critics
Critics have described Athlete's music as a mix between (among others) Steely Dan, The Flaming Lips, Grandaddy, Pavement, Gomez, Beck, Mercury Rev, The Beach Boys, XTC, Turin Breaks, The Beta Band, Super Furry Animals and even The Kinks. But then, this is just part of being the next big thing in British pop music - everyone compares you to those who have gone before. Still, the band don't seem to be too fazed by the comparisons. As Potts puts it, "I like it when people compare us to Pavement, Super Furry Animals or The Beta Band – those bands are a bit inspirational."
But not every comparison has been favourable. The NME had proven itself to be particularly schizophrenic in its dealings with the band, describing their music as 'wry, well observed and blessed with an easy sense of melody' or 'dolefully drippy piss', depending on the mood of the reviewer. The classic summation of their style, though, has to be: 'Turin Breaks with a decent drug dealer'.
Actually, it's unlikely that the band has a better dealer than Turin Breaks. All the members of the band are Christians, taking an active role in their local churches and performing at several Christian music festivals (admittedly before they were famous). This came as something of a surprise to me, since I'd listened to the album dozens of times before someone told me of the bands religious views. This, I suspect, is a good indication of their ability to keep those views to themselves, and not force them down the throats of other people. They refuse to comment on their religious beliefs in interviews, and certainly don't write songs that are particularly spiritual or doctrinal.
Perhaps because of these beliefs, or perhaps just because they are genuinely nice guys, the band come across as talented yet in no way arrogant - which obviously rules out any comparisons with the 'next Oasis'. The messages the band post on their official web-site are a clear example of this: "Yesterday we played at the Radio One Big Sunday. There were 75.000 people so it was our biggest ever audience, which was pretty nerve racking but fortunately we were distracted by the hilarity of being surrounded by the likes of Busted, Kelly Rowland and Big Brovas and their bodyguards.", or "We've even had a couple of Athlete banners in audiences which is strange for us, but nice all the same."
One Dutch journalist claimed: "These guys seem to have their heads screwed on properly and their feet planted firmly on the ground". Of course, they're still a very new band, so whether or not stardom will jade them remains to be seen. For now though, they're still incredibly modest in their dealings with their fans. At a recent concert at the Paradiso, Amsterdam, they returned to the stage to play an encore with an embarrassed look, and simply said: "We'll have to stop now as this is the last song that we know"
Currently completing another tour of Britain, Athlete hope to be releasing new material in October. The recent announcement of their Mercury Music Prize nomination has sparked a lot more interest in them, and it remains to be seen whether they'll live up to expectations. But, if the band themselves are to be believed, they're not that interested in living up to expectations. They have already rejected an easy road to fame as one of the last Britpop wannabes, and now feel that their music can stand independently of current trends: "What we wanted to do was create an album that was completely different to everything else out there. When we got signed, we were aware we didn't fit in with what was hip at the time. We thought that was a positive thing and we still do. We're not looking to be part of any scene. We'd rather start one of our own."
Westside EP (4th March, 2002) (on Regal Records)
You Got the Style (17th June, 2002)
Beautiful (4th November, 2002)
El Salvador (march 24, 2003)
Vehicles and Animals (7th April, 2003)
http://www.athlete.mu/ (official site)