Nine Songs: Groove Armada
Imagine having dominated and helped to shape the path of dance music for over a decade, only to find its direction suddenly dictated by a new form?
An iteration of electronic music that cared less about communal interpretation and rich orchestration than it did thumping beats and simple, saccharine motifs and championed solo identities as loud as the Las Vegas or Ibiza sound systems they were performing on.
That’s exactly where Groove Armada’s Andy Cato and Tom Findlay found themselves, having spent many years refining their craft into an immersive live experience, only to find that in spite of sustained popularity, they didn’t feel at home anymore.
“We found ourselves onstage after Laidback Luke and before David Guetta, or something like that”, explains Cato. “It was an impossible job. You'd stand there on the wings going 'I know what these people want to hear, and I know that we're not gonna do it,' and it's depressing. You can do it, you can knock that stuff out, even in what we would think is a classier way, with some nicer music, but you're still just banging, and it's not what it's about for us.”
With seven records and a number of Greatest Hits albums to their name, Groove Armada could sleep easier by downgrading their shows to smaller venues to play the music they wanted to play and focus more on their personal lives. Cato moved to rural France with his family to run an organic farm, while Findlay trained to become a cognitive behavioural therapist, with the both of them fitting in the occasional show, EP and compilation record when they fancied it and their newfound lives allowed them to.
It was a run of shows at the tail end of last year that pushed the duo to begin writing again, having not released a studio album since 2010. “The gigs were just good”, Findlay tells me. “We felt like we wanted to do a bit more live touring, we really enjoyed that process of being out with the band, and didn't think we could really do another Greatest Hits tour. We'd been playing new stuff in rehearsals and it sounded fresh, and I guess we’d got half an album in at that point. So then it was just like, 'OK, do we do this?'”
“It was a series of intense weekends, long 72-hour sessions,” adds Cato. “Phones off, loads of beers in the fridge. Back to the beginning for me and Tom, really.”
The result was Edge of the Horizon, their eighth full-length record. Breezy, spacious and understated in the face of towering hits from the past, from “I See You Baby” to “Superstylin’”, it reflects the duo’s pace of life of the past few years and the musical references that have soundtracked them.
But has the dance musicscape, and EDM’s prominence within it, become hospitable enough to allow for Groove Armada’s return?
“I don't really see that scene as particularly dominant anymore,” Findlay says. “I think we're lucky in that, if you hang around long enough you go from 'past it' to being legends, and we've managed to hang around long enough to get to that point.” Findlay cites their appearance at last year’s Boomtown Festival as a case in point.
“We were playing before Mike Skinner, and I was worried about that festival. I thought we were going to struggle, that it was gonna be a hard gig. But it was the opposite of that, it was 40,000 people and felt magical. It felt like having hung in there really worked for us. Tunes like "Get Down" sounded really vital; “Superstylin’” was off the hook. I'd love to feel that experience again, I was quite moved actually. An hour before the show I couldn't even go out and look.”
However excited Cato and Findlay feel about a new phase for Groove Armada, it’s clear that their lives have progressed in a way that keeps things in context, particularly given the events of the last six months. My first attempt to reach Cato is soon cut short after news of Storm Alex raging across France threatens two years’ worth of work on his farm. I speak to Findlay after a busy day of CBT therapy for the NHS. “This morning I saw three clients, and then I flipped back to thinking about the album, so it's all quite surreal. It’s very good for keeping perspective, we're just releasing a record, not saving lives.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly they both approach their Nine Songs from the perspective of a DJ, be that specific nights scored into their memory, or the moments amidst the drama of a set when their picks had the most power. It didn’t make the task any easier for them though.
“It’s impossible!”, says Cato. “As soon as you pick these ones you think, 'Oh no, actually I need to pick those ones.' But the first songs that come to mind are the ones you've got to stick with, because that instinct is usually right.”
Tom: “This is a bit of a recent discovery. A lot of this album is informed by a kind of yacht-rock sound - '70s American soul, AOR kind of vibe. I wouldn't call it a guilty pleasure, I'm completely out about it.
“I found that when I was touring - and a lot of touring artists will say the same thing - there's a struggle to come down from the adrenaline from the show. There were a lot of less adaptive ways that you can do that, but I wanted to find more adaptive ways of doing that. I found that getting on the bus with a glass of wine and some easier music really helped to calm me and bring the adrenaline levels down a bit.
“It sounds quite ‘70s and has a bit of prog-rock to it as well. I've been starting a lot of my lockdown barbecues with this track, it’s a great opener. The chord changes remind me of - and I never know how to pronounce it - Khruangbin, but the changes are really reminiscent of them. You think, 'Where do bands like this come from?’, the look and whole thing, but then you realise there's always something that's come before that's informed those ideas.
“But I really love CRAC’s stuff, and they made sense in terms of tracks like "I Can Only Miss You" on the new album, it's very much in that lane. It's trying to be easy without being cheesy - and I'm not sure I always get that right mind you – but that's the desire. It's the beginning of the evening when it's full of promise. When I've lit the barbecue, I've smoked something up, opened a can of session IPA and the evening feels full of promise.”
Tom: “This predates the FPI Project version and all of that, and I heard that tune for the first time in a rave when I was 16. I think I may have been dabbling with things for the first time, so it was a particularly enjoyable rave. A mate of mine Jools Butterfield played this tune, and I remember it as a moment in time. I'd never really liked house music before then, I was always into funk and soul, and I know it's not a house record, but it kind of obeys all the rules of house, so I thought, 'OK I'm gonna have to give this a go'.
“Richie Havens was an amazing soul, and we had so many good times with him. We played with him on the album Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub), he did two tracks on that and then he recorded with us again on the following album Lovebox. We performed on Jools Holland with him a couple of times, we did a few shows at Brixton and we played Glastonbury with him too.
“We even did a show at the Twin Towers, which is really mad. Only about a month before 9/11, we were up there on a DJ show and we were chatting to him and he told us how he used to play in the foundations of the towers as a kid, going back a long way. To have had an experience with someone like that is incredibly moving, you know?
“We were on a tour bus with him a few times and he was a real sweetheart. He used to hide a pack of Marlboro’s in his cowboy boots, because his manager didn't like him smoking, and he'd always have a sneaky one with us after the shows. He was an amazing man and a beautiful soul, and that record was really special to me. The original was by Holland-Dozier-Holland, it's quite a classic soul record, and he does a lot of covers, but this is more of a traditional set-up and band vibe, inserting that chugging piano into the cover.
“We've worked with a few really interesting people over the years, but he's the one I feel that I've had a relationship with. I think we came along at a point in his life where he was still going out on the road, but maybe playing to older audiences and doing jazz gigs, and then suddenly he was back up there on the main stage at Glastonbury with the kids, in his sunnies and cowboy boots. I think he just enjoyed that experience and energy, and it gave him a kick in a point in his life and we loved it.
“This one has got to be the most pivotal to Groove Armada, because it represents not only the live sound of us, which when I think of our 'achievements' in inverted commas, what we've done live and the way that we've brought house music to a live stage is probably the greatest, and to do that with him was amazing.
“Musically I think it represents a good fusion of me and Andy. He came to this endeavour as a bit of a house head, really influenced by Sasha, and I came from a boogy, disco background. I guess this tune is a tune that when we DJ together, we both love it equally. It brings everything that I love and that we bring to Groove Armada.”
Tom: “I like his disco stuff, but I love “Over and Over” more than anything he's ever done, it has this sort of wildness. I DJ quite a lot when I can, more on the funk side of things, and it's a really lovely record to play, because you don't need to mix it, you just slam it on and it's off and it's mayhem. It's a bastard to get out of mind you, because it's speeding up and down constantly, but I love playing it.
“You know when sometimes you feel a bit of ownership over a piece of music? It creates carnage on the dancefloor - that sort of jazz funk that you can really dance to. It's been sampled so many times as well, it's all over a couple of Moodymann records and they're right to sample it. That kind of chatter, you can really hear the people getting down in the studio.
“I think it was [DJ] Harvey who showed me this first. He was a really influential DJ for me, and grew up in the same town as me, or another guy called Tim Lee, who went on to start Tummy Touch Records. It almost certainly would have been one of them. I think I bought the record almost by accident, in New York from A1 Records a place on 6th Street, thinking I was going to be buying a Sylvester disco record, but I was pleasantly surprised.
“I think it holds up perfectly too. There's been quite a lot of re-edits of it released recently, and there's one by Kon, who's a re-edit genius, but he doesn't really nail it, because when you impose a structure on a piece of music like that it somehow takes the energy out of it. I do an annual festival called Meatopia, it's a meat festival in Tobacco Dock, and even there, where it's not a particularly 'cool' crowd, you can play a tune like that and its pure joy.”
Tom: “This one takes me back to lots of different eras and different parties. I spent some time in New York when I was in my 20s, and it definitely takes me back to that time, and a million parties in Cambridge.
“I guess you'd call it house music but it's right on the cusp of disco, with full live horns and great falsetto lead vocals. But it's at that point, that moment in time, the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, where I just wish I had been to those parties that people told me about, those Timmy Regisford parties. I did a few Mancuso Loft parties, but I never quite went to those great parties of the time, like the Larry Levan parties. I'm a little too old for all of that sadly, but I think of myself in that moment imagining I'm at one of those parties when this comes on.
“If I was DJing and the set had gone spectacularly well, I would always end with either this or "Promised Land", depending on how confident I felt. I love its musicality too. I've never worked out the chords, but I bet if you played it as a ballad on the piano it would still sound pretty lovely.”
Tom: “We played this one a lot when we were residents at Space, when it had that great indoor / outdoor terrace. I don't mind playing music for the floor, I've never been a snob about it, but I love it when you play a piece of music that has that ability to be super cool, but also super heavy at the same time. I think this tune ticks those boxes.
“To me it's what great house music should be about, which is uncomplicated. The bassline is insanely good, the beat's stripped back. It's sort of uncomplicated and deeply complicated at the same time. It sounds super simple, but I bet you it's a real bastard to make. This mix takes it down to what the core elements of house music are that I like - great bass-line, a great beat and a certain kind of moody basement ambience.
“My favourite parties are the ones where it's lights down, good sound system, no one's looking at the DJ or at each other, and certainly no cameras. It's heads down. That's my perfect night, I've been brought up in that environment, and I imagine this piece of music being perfectly at home there.”
Andy: “There are lots of moments encapsulated in this tune. When I was younger, I played a lot of jazz and blues, and then I started going out a bit when the house scene started in Leeds. There were some good nights going on, but the night I remember clearly when I decided that this is what I wanted to do, was when I went to a place called Shelley’s over in Stoke, to hear Sasha play.
“Everything about it, I could see it as if it was yesterday. The way he had the really long hair - because at the time the length of your hair was how long you'd been on the scene - and he had a really thin record bag. Everyone was carrying these boxes around, but he had this thin bag over his shoulders with very few tunes, because he knew exactly what he was going to do.
“I remember listening, knowing what a lot of those tunes were, but he was making other music out of them and I was kind of spellbound. Then as the night wore on and I got a bit less analytical, a bit more sweaty and my eyes closed, that bass came in, and when I heard that piano break for the first time... I've had lots of moments of absolute, blissful serenity, but I've never surpassed that.
“So that was a defining moment, the first time I heard it, but then I went and found what it was and got it from Eastern Bloc in Manchester. I got the train from Wakefield to get this record and brought it back. On one of my first paid DJ gigs at a little club in Wakefield, I remember mixing in something that it was perfectly in tune with, so you could bring the bass in for ages under the previous tune. When it kicked in, it was one of the first of thousands of moments as a DJ where every hair on your body stands up and you're just like, 'This is fucking paradise.'”
Andy: “This tune is so universally 'up', that very few can resist it. It soundtracked so many gigs on the Ibiza beach party tip and it never fails as that moment of togetherness. It's the definition of the Balearic anthem to me.
“I'm not a massive Chris Rea fan outside of this tune, and my main knowledge of him is "Driving Home for Christmas", which I can definitely live without, but whoever put this version together, working late in the studio or something... it's the juxtaposition between absolute classic piano chord changes that have this irrepressible energy to it, and the languidness of his delivery.
“It's a delivery that you would expect over an acoustic guitar, but it's put in this proper ‘90s, E-taking euphoria, and the juxtaposition is brilliant.”
Andy: “There was a critical moment early on when Groove Armada started, and it was a party that we used to throw in London in different venues. They were all two room venues; I would be in one playing house and Tom would be in the other playing funk and disco.
“After we had given all of our hard-earned cash to reserve a boat on the Thames to do a proper boat party, it turned out he was a conman and there was no boat, and so we were broke. We had to start again in a little one room venue and that was crucial, because we had to find a way of playing together. So from my side, for the first time ever I started checking out the drum machine end of disco, when they got it right in the ‘80s, pre-house really, and to try to find a way of getting in and out of Tom's funk into where I wanted to be for a bit and then back a bit.
“There was a golden era, with a team of producers who had all the skills of lab-coated studio guys who knew how to record drums, pianos and guitars in a way that we just don't anymore, but combined with the first set of machines. It didn't last very long before it went wrong, but there was a real golden age of tunes there, and out of all of them, the ones that I play the most often - because of its atmospheric intro, and the fact that when it kicks in it always goes - is D Train. So it's a tribute to that whole era in my life.
“I can remember sitting in the studio putting on tracks like this and thinking, 'How the fuck did they do that?' but also trying to reference things and get at least somewhere near. There's so much openness in it, whereas today we've got a lot of volume and a lot of compression, but nothing breathes. Whereas with those guys, even when it's devastatingly loud, it just breathes.”
Andy: “This is my favourite song of theirs, full stop. It's one of those killer bass-lines isn't it? There's only eight notes in the scale, and only so many noises, but sometimes the stars align and you get a thing that just has a vibe about it, and “Someone Great” is definitely one of those.
“I felt something by LCD Soundsystem had to be in here, because when we were doing our thing and sweating blood and tears over playing dance music live, it was a very lonely road. A lot of things went wrong, and we thought it would be a lot simpler to put some synths on stage and press play. We were doubting ourselves and the direction of it, and then when we started hearing their stuff from New York it was like, ‘That is fucking brilliant.’ It was really inspiring, and we thought 'We're on the right path here, but it needs to be more like them.' The whole way they delivered it live and everything was fantastic. It was a really important shot in the arm for us.
“We've said hello in the dressing room at our festival, but that's it. I've never spoken to James Murphy, which is a great shame for lots of reasons. Not least because I'd like to ask him about David Bowie.”