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.
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
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.”
“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