The Struts

As they gear up for the re­lease of their sec­ond al­bum, The Struts seem to have the world at their feet – and, some reckon, the fu­ture of rock’n’roll on their shoul­ders.

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words: Polly Glass Pho­tos: Kevin Nixon

As they gear up for the re­lease of their sec­ond al­bum, the Bri­tish quar­tet seem to have the world at their feet – and, some reckon, the fu­ture of rock’n’roll on their shoul­ders.

The Stuts front­man Luke Spiller, with his fash­ion-model girl­friend Laura Cartier Mil­lon, has hol­i­dayed in Maui with Steven Tyler. Queen cos­tume de­signer Zan­dra Rhodes cre­ated be­spoke out­fits for him. Dave Grohl de­clared The Struts “the best open­ing band we’ve ever had”. Be­fore that, they’d opened for the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses, and sup­ported Möt­ley Crüe on their last ever shows. And for the last cou­ple of years they’ve rou­tinely played to mas­sive au­di­ences in the US, as open­ers and head­lin­ers.

Back in May, a sold-out four-night res­i­dency at The Roxy in LA was added to this se­ries of ‘pinch-me’ mem­o­ries. Each show was at­tended by a guest list of mu­sic A-lis­ters, all of them af­ter a piece of The Struts: Guns N’ Roses drum­mer Matt So­rum popped by for a jam; Chili Pep­per Chad Smith and Crüe’s Tommy Lee joined in on stage; Juli­ette Lewis cheered from the au­di­ence; Struts bassist Jed El­liott’s girl­friend, Jade Thirl­wall, of pop chart-top­pers Lit­tle Mix, was an­other guest star; RATM’s Tom Morello dashed over to catch their show – af­ter his birth­day meal…

“You go to the af­ter-party, and you know some­thing’s hap­pened be­cause ev­ery­one’s lick­ing your arse,” Spiller says of those shows, sit­ting in a pub near Lon­don’s Koko where they’ll play tonight. Look­ing like a mil­lenial Fred­die Mer­cury in civvies, his eyes are softer, al­most pup­py­ish with­out stage make-up. “It was this typ­i­cal LA thing. Nor­mally you’re sat there and no one re­ally talks to any­one, but now ev­ery­one’s com­ing up and they want to be your friend, they want your num­ber, they want to take you out for sushi. I think we’ve been ac­cepted there. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.”

This is not what nor­mally hap­pens to an emerg­ing rock band, es­pe­cially with no ra­dio play, and rel­a­tively min­i­mal cov­er­age all-round in their home­land. Or at least it doesn’t nor­mally hap­pen these days – this is 2018, not 1973. But then The Struts aren’t ex­actly a ‘normal’ band.

Rewind a few years, and the four of them were squashed into a shared house in Derby, trekking up and down the coun­try in an old Ford Tran­sit to per­form for “like, two peo­ple”.

“That was when we drank a lot,” long-haired guitarist/co-founder Adam Slack re­mem­bers. “You had the front three seats and three seats in the back, and all the gear be­hind – and who­ever was most hun­gover would lie down be­hind the seats in a cof­fin shape.”

The only Derby na­tive of the band, Slack would spend hours in lo­cal pubs with Spiller (who moved there from his evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian fam­ily home in Bris­tol), writ­ing songs by day and try­ing them out at open­mic nights.

Since mov­ing to the States al­most three years ago, the band hadn’t spent time to­gether in Derby, but a main-stage spot at this year’s Down­load – where they de­fied the odds of the 1.40pm “pic­nic slot” and drew a mas­sive au­di­ence – pro­vided a good ex­cuse to re­visit their old stomp­ing ground.

“It was a cool re­minder of: ‘Wow, look how far we’ve come,’” Spiller says. “You know when you’ve been away for a while, and you come back and go: ‘I re­mem­ber this be­ing big­ger’…”

“I want to look back when I’m forty and think: ‘Yeah, we were f**king good.”

Since we last caught up with them, The Struts have es­sen­tially been ‘do­ing Amer­ica’ fol­low­ing the reis­sue in 2016 of their de­but al­bum Ev­ery­body Wants, a de­li­cious stomp of 21st-cen­tury glam rock, in­fused

Luke Spiller

with Brit­pop cheek and enough jazz-handed sparkle to make Lib­er­ace blush. Un­der the com­mand of In­ter­scope Records (who picked them up af­ter their pre­vi­ous la­bel re­leased Ev­ery­body Wants in 2014 with barely a word), they’ve had an ex­cit­ing but pun­ish­ing sched­ule. When they first ar­rived in the States there was a lot of booz­ing and par­ty­ing. Now, they tell us, they’ve “grown up” a fair bit.

“If you call the ‘A’ mar­kets your New Yorks, your LAs, your Nashvilles, we’ve been right down to Z,” bassist Jed El­liott rat­tles off with savvy pre­ci­sion. “We hit ev­ery nook and cranny in the States, we’ve been ev­ery­where. But by the time you’ve done that loop, the places you vis­ited first time around are ready for it again. So that’s why it doesn’t stop.”

“Ev­ery mem­ber of this band at some point in the last three years has had some­thing hap­pen to

them which is life-chang­ing.”

Luke Spiller

“And they [au­di­ences] dou­ble in size, y’know, which is cool,” Spiller adds.

Their trav­els have taken them through storms in Gulf Shores, Alabama, wild nights in At­lanta, Ge­or­gia, power out­ages in Cor­pus Christi, Texas, and fried in­sects in Mex­ico. “They re­spect that we go to their places,” drum­mer Gethin Davies says. “They’ll say: ‘No one ever comes here’, and have more of a re­la­tion­ship with us.”

“I mean, let’s be re­ally hon­est, it’s the real Amer­ica,” Spiller con­tin­ues. “Once you head out to mid­dle Amer­ica it gets in­ter­est­ing, be­cause the peo­ple don’t give a fuck. LA is LA, the crowd is what it is. And yes, there are nice peo­ple, but there’s a lot of fuck­ing scum­bags there as well; it can be very pre­ten­tious. In the mid­dle, peo­ple are friendly, there’s a sense of com­mu­nity there. And, yes, some­times mid­dle Amer­ica gets a bad name, but ev­ery­thing that we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced, they’ve been some of the most genuine, amaz­ing peo­ple.”

Some­how, largely in snatched blasts be­tween tours and press com­mit­ments, they’ve made their sec­ond al­bum, Young And Dan­ger­ous. Re­flec­tive of the con­tacts and ex­pe­ri­ence they’ve ac­quired since head­ing to the US (be­tween them they’ve been through breakups, grief, ex­haus­tion), it’s packed with am­bi­tious ar­range­ments, bolder pop el­e­ments, fun­nier lyrics (e.g. the joy­ous Tatler Mag­a­zine - “I can tell you now if any­one likes that song, there’s a whole mu­si­cal in the works,” Spiller grins), som­bre points, more deca­dence… It’s still clearly The Struts, but with more in ev­ery sense. “I think this record screams ‘orig­i­nal­ity’ in a weird way, once you re­ally start to lis­ten to it,” Spiller says. “There was a lot of homages on the first one, but these ones were a lot more in­stinc­tive. We know what we like, we know what works, we know where to push boundaries.”

It was also, how­ever, an ab­so­lute pain to pro­duce. “I hated ev­ery minute of it,” Slack says, laugh­ing. “We’d write a song, and then think we could do bet­ter. I mean, the amount of times we went back to songs, I think Body Talks has at least eleven dif­fer­ent ver­sions of it…They’d say: ‘Right, you’ve gotta write an al­bum and record it, and you’re go­ing on tour. First you’re gonna write in

LA, then you’re gonna fly to the UK and write there, then you’re gonna fly back. Oh, and then you’re go­ing on tour and then you’ve gotta go back and do this thing…’”

“It was in­sane,” Spiller agrees. “Me and Adam would ar­rive at a stu­dio in the UK and we’d flown in the day be­fore. We’ve got three fuck­ing days to write and record the next sin­gle – what­ever the fuck that is – and I’m fall­ing asleep with jet-lag at three in the af­ter­noon. Adam’s there play­ing the same riff for about half an hour, and then I wake up and he’s like: ‘What do you think?’ I’m like: ‘What?’”

Se­cur­ing a tour with the Foo Fight­ers at the end of the process al­le­vi­ated the pres­sure mas­sively. “That was the pay-off!” El­liott says, laugh­ing. “Hope­fully we’ll be able to write a lit­tle more on our terms [with the next al­bum],” adds Spiller. “There was an aw­ful lot of in­volve­ment as well with fuck­ing ev­ery­one, whether it was the man­age­ment, the la­bel… and we say yes to ev­ery­thing. If our la­bel told us to jump off a bridge we prob­a­bly would heav­ily con­sider it, be­cause of the pro­mo­tional value of it or what­ever the rea­son they come up with. So that was ex­haust­ing. But we needed to do that, be­cause we needed to show ev­ery­one that we were will­ing to try ev­ery com­bi­na­tion with dif­fer­ent peo­ple to get dif­fer­ent re­sults, and it worked in the end.”

Af­ter all that are you happy with it?

“Yeah, def­i­nitely,” Spiller says, nod­ding earnestly. “I mean, yes it was the most dif­fi­cult thing we’ve ever had to do in our ca­reer, but it’s def­i­nitely also been the strong­est thing we’ve ever done. I think it’s bet­ter than the first al­bum, the pro­duc­tion’s more edgy, the band has never sounded bet­ter, the lyri­cal con­tent is some of the most po­tent we’ve ever done. Ev­ery mem­ber of this band at some point in the last three years has had some­thing hap­pen to them which is life-chang­ing, and mu­sic finds rel­e­vance in that. I think peo­ple are gonna ab­so­lutely love it. And you know what? Even if

they don’t, I don’t think any of us care.”

It was the tougher per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences that fed into some of the most sat­is­fy­ing song­writ­ing – in­clud­ing new bal­lad Some­body New, writ­ten af­ter Slack split up with his girl­friend.

“It ended up be­ing one of the strong­est songs on the record,” El­liott of­fers. “And it’s just the four of us with acous­tics and an elec­tronic drum kit. It was re­ally in­cred­i­ble to make, ac­tu­ally.”

“It’s hard to hold a re­la­tion­ship down when you’re five thou­sand miles away most of the time,” Slack says, laugh­ing, if a lit­tle weakly.

So where is ‘home’ these days? Eng­land, with its fa­mil­ial ties, is one. Los An­ge­les, with its stu­dios and con­tacts, is an­other. Then there are their friendly posses in Chicago, Paris and New York, a de­voted fan base in Ja­pan… But it’s all short-term leases and tem­po­rary crash pads. With so much tour­ing, writ­ing, record­ing, meet­ing peo­ple and gen­er­ally be­ing The Struts, nam­ing a per­ma­nent base is nigh-on im­pos­si­ble.

What’s the long­est you’ve spent in one place in the last two, three years?

“Ten days maybe?” El­liott sug­gests.

“I think three weeks solid,” Davies reck­ons.

“We had some time off in Fe­bru­ary when the al­bum was be­ing mixed,” Slack says, “and we had about six weeks at home [in Eng­land]. That was the long­est we’ve had off since Au­gust 2015.”

So what drives this un­wa­ver­ing per­se­ver­ance? A con­stant fear of the ‘What if?’ – of los­ing any chances that come their way.

“At least now we can look back and think ‘we did ev­ery­thing we could’,” Slack says.

“Ev­ery time we got a call that said: “When you land you’ll be able to sleep, and then you’ll be in the stu­dio for three days. Is that cool?’ not once did we say no,” Spiller says af­fir­ma­tively. “It was like: “Yeah we’ll fuck­ing do it.’ Cos there’s al­ways some­thing in your head go­ing: ‘What if?’”

At 29, Spiller is a lit­tle older than his band­mates (Slack and El­liott are 27, Davies is 26). While you couldn’t fault any of them for ded­i­ca­tion to the cause – they have a tight, al­most broth­erly dy­namic – he seems es­pe­cially mar­ried to it. He doesn’t re­ally drink on tour. Dur­ing the afore­men­tioned stint at home, he re­turned to Amer­ica early to “tweak a cou­ple of cho­ruses and work on some vo­cals”.

“I want to look back when I’m forty and think: ‘Yeah, we were fuck­ing good,’” he says. “I think it’s one of those things that once you want to get bet­ter and bet­ter, ev­ery­body needs to be do­ing that. It’s part of be­ing a group, and it’s why peo­ple leave, it’s why peo­ple get kicked out – peo­ple make per­sonal changes, and if other peo­ple don’t step up it’s what hap­pens. This group has a way of grow­ing to­gether, and we are more self-crit­i­cal than ever. I pun­ish my­self for the good of the gig.”

Af­ter shows, the four of them cri­tique their per­for­mance be­fore they do any par­ty­ing.

“If I play a bum note on my guitar, I’m on stage say­ing: ‘For­get about it, just don’t fuck up again,’ and then af­ter­wards I’m like: ‘It was such a good gig, but that one thing…’ Slack groans.

“If I fuck up, I need to let these guys know be­fore they tell me,” says Davies, grin­ing.

“The great thing is, these days, when we do talk at af­ter­shows it re­ally is only one thing, maybe two things,” Spiller says. “Maybe Jed hit the wrong bass note, maybe Geth will trap his stick in the high hat and miss a beat or some­thing. And that’s it.” Laugh­ing, he adds: “Once it’s more than two mis­takes, then the ques­tions start hap­pen­ing: ‘What time did you get in last night? What hap­pened?!’” He’s half-jok­ing.

All this makes per­fect sense come 9pm at the Koko, Lon­don. Ev­ery­thing in The Struts’ glee­ful, dopamine-pumped set works im­mac­u­lately, with­out seem­ing stiff or over­re­hearsed. Eyes sharp­ened by make-up and adrenalin, Spiller comes to life, whip­ping the sold­out au­di­ence into hys­ter­ics and danc­ing with one girl brought on stage from the front row. She looks dis­be­liev­ingly happy; it’s like watch­ing an en­counter at a Justin Bieber con­cert, but at a rock show. From the giddy fun of Kiss This to new high­lights like Pri­madonna Like Me and Some­body New, they’re un­touch­able. What­ever hap­pens next, this is (as Spiller hoped) “fuck­ing good”.

Af­ter the show, the dress­ing room is a buzzy hive of man­age­ment, PR and me­dia types and loved ones, the band mem­bers in vary­ing states of down-dress­ing and de­light. Ev­ery­one knows it’s gone re­ally well. A sweaty Spiller beams from ear. A few feet away his par­ents and grand­par­ents smile po­litely, girl­friend Mil­lon chats with El­liott’s pop-star mis­sus on the op­po­site sofa, and Lit­tle Mix’s ac­coun­tant wants a word when we’re done. The mood is one of happy re­lief. All of them, Spiller es­pe­cially, seem able to re­lax now in a way they couldn’t be­fore.

“There’s more eyes on us now,” he’d told us ear­lier. “The hard­est thing I find about this job is ac­tu­ally ap­pre­ci­at­ing what we do. Some­times it’s hard to re­alise it, but right now it feels like, es­pe­cially as peo­ple, these are the golden years.”

On the stair­way to heaven? Cer­tainly the only way is up for (l-r) Jed El­liott, Gethin Davies, Luke Spiller and Adam Slack.

Luke Spiller looks set to join the list of to-the-manor-born, truly charis­matic front­men. “This group has a way of grow­ing to­gether,and we are more self-crit­i­cal than ever.”Luke Spiller

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