Disco Dreaming with The Ting Tings’ Katie White
The indie-pop duo finds musical inspiration (and Andy Taylor) in Ibiza
When most bands knock a surprise hit out of the park, they’ll do everything they can to replicate that success on their next at-bat. But the Ting Tings aren’t most bands. After they scored big with “Shut Up and Let Me Go” and “That’s Not My Name” off their first album, 2008's We Started Nothing, they were on track to rack up more hits with their second outing… or so said their very excited label reps. As their response—or, some thought, their undoing—Katie White and Jules De Martino deleted the record and started over. It wasn’t until 2012 that Sounds from Nowheresville emerged and failed to clear the bar that was set for them. The third time is always the charm, anyway, and the Ting Tings are coming back strong with the disco-colored Super Critical, which they co-produced with Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor and released on their own Finca Records.
Cuepoint: The U.K., Germany, Spain, New York… you guys have worked all over the world. How important is geography when you are writing and recording?
Katie White: I actually think it’s quite fundamental, really, to how we work now. We did Manchester the first time. The second album was Berlin. The third album was Ibiza, but mixed in New York. In a way, I think we’re addicted to feeling like a new band. Obviously, you can’t have that feeling twice. I remember our manager, at the time our first album took off, he was like, “Remember this feeling because you’ll never have it again.” You’re only a new band once. You only have that naïveté once. I think what we do, the reason why we dump our lives and move to a new country each album, is to get that feeling where you’re taking a risk, you’re starting a new life almost, you know? You’re leaving friends and family behind, people you’ve made friends with. You finally build a life in Berlin and then we drop it all and go on tour. Then we go to Ibiza and we start again. I think it is that feeling where you’re feeling quite new, really, that we’re trying to find. By finding it, we feel quite inspired to write.
The geography, where we go to, you think has an effect, but actually it generally has a weird effect on the writing. You’d think that, to go to Ibiza, you’d expect to make an EDM record, but we kind of made the opposite. We made a disco record and none of the DJs are playing that type of music in Ibiza. So, it doesn’t necessarily mean we go to a place and take the sound, but something happens.
Meeting Andy Taylor is one of the perfect examples of being in Ibiza. It’s like a random story—some dude out of Duran Duran. We had no idea who he was and, by the end of the year, he was helping us co-produce our record. You can’t really split those things.
An old picture of Diana Ross at Studio 54 was also part of your inspiration, right?
Obviously an image can have a vibe, but how do you translate that into a sound, into an album?
The whole time we were in Ibiza, we would go to the clubs that were playing EDM at, like, 128 or 130, at least, BPM. And you’d go out and people had taken a load of drugs and they’re… I wouldn’t really call it dancing. They were just kind of gurning and jocking, as you do from real relief. You work hard, you go on holiday, you get high, and you dance to music and forget about your normal life.
Because we lived in Ibiza, we would go to those places and go, “Oh, can you imagine what it would have been like in CBGB’s and Studio 54 and all those amazing clubs in New York?” And, around that time, we met Andy Taylor. For instance, the picture of Diana Ross, I picked it up and I was like, “Diana Ross. Studio 54. Nile Rogers in the DJ booth. Can you imagine if a band went into the DJ booth?” Because we were seeing all these superstar DJs have the time of their lives in Ibiza. And I was like, “I’d love to get in that DJ booth with a drum kit and bass.” On the high point of a typical DJ set where they’d get the crowd euphoric, imagine doing that with real instruments. As we were thinking that, we found this picture of Diana Ross and it was exactly it. She was in the booth performing with her band. Andy Taylor was so interesting because he was like, “I was there that night. I was with her.” He’s full of stories which made us fall even more in love with that time.
A funky, disco-era guitar is one of the happiest sounds in music and you guys always nail it. But then you also create some crazy, contemporary effects, like on “Daughter.” How much trial and error goes into getting the sounds just right or do you luck into some of it?
It depends. Some songs are completely smooth and then something like “Daughter,” which is a song that we had that we loved, but it sounded too vanilla and sweet. The song was supposed to be about an argument — an argument within a song. And we felt like, if we got something like a Kaoss Pad, which was a new toy we had and we’d been playing with it. We thought, “Let’s just stick it over the whole track and see what happens.”
It’s typical of our band because we love writing pop songs, but the second it sounds too pop, we seem to sabotage it a bit. We stop it from being that big, radio-friendly song and stick a few distortions so it hurts your ears. But then we find, “Ah, that’s acceptable.” We can write a pop song, but we’ve destroyed it a bit so it feels it has a bit more integrity. And that’s what we do. It’s the same with the song called “Failure” on the album. It’s such a twee, kind of sugary-sounding melody, so we subverted the lyrics and wrote about being a failure. [Laughs] That made it feel okay for us to write such a sugary song because most people would dance to it, but you have to listen to the lyrics, it’s like, “I’m a failure. Woo hoo.” There’s not much to celebrate, really.
[Laughs] You’ve said that, “It’s very Ting Tings to do a sad song with uplifting music.” It’s very striking because you guys are serious musicians making what seems like fun music.
Yeah, it’s a weird position.
I bet. Do you think most people take it all at face value or do they dig deeper? Or does that even matter to you guys?
We have the whole spectrum. We have people that just go, “Oh my God! ‘That’s Not My Name’ is so fun!” When we wrote “That’s Not My Name,” it was because I was 21 years old, been dropped by a record label, was feeling, at that point in my life, which is really ridiculous now, it was like, “Everything’s over, everything’s terrible. I’ve got no confidence.” I was trying to find an identity. And that song, people will go, “Oh my God, it’s about some guy forgetting your name!” To us, it was much more. But it’s fine when people do that. If it makes people feel good, that’s not a bad thing. I’m kind of glad that people don’t read into it or they’ll think we’re just miserable. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Some people, too, if they dig deeper, might touch on that self-sabotaging point. But, it’s not that you guys don’t want to be successful, right? It seems like it’s more that you don’t want to sacrifice your control and integrity to get there. Is that more on point?
Yeah. We’re such an odd band. And I think people never really know how to take us because we always harp on about how we’re DIY. We do everything ourselves. We write and record our own records. The whole creative, which includes merch. And then we write a big, shiny pop song. And the indie crowd that would normally dismiss that kind of music, they get quite angry at us because they don’t know where to place us within it. We can’t really help it. It’s just the way we work. We’re not a pop band and we’re not an indie band. We’re somewhere in the middle. And, sometimes, our songs hit at pop radio.
I remember when we were — it was either “Shut Up and Let Me Go” or “That’s Not My Name” on the first album — we were touring the States and we would somehow get invited into Top 40 radio in America. We would drive into the radio stations that were playing us. We’d drive in, where you go in to do an interview and say, “Hi, thanks for supporting us.” You’d kiss ass in the nicest possible way, you’d give them a big thank you, and you’d go to the next station. As we’d drive in, we’d listen to what was being played on the radio station and we’d be like, “How the fuck has our music got on this station?!?” Because when you hear the big productions and all that, and then our little, shitty record that we made in our bedroom and that sounds like it costs 50 pounds to master — and that’s how much it did cost — somehow has elbowed its way onto these pop stations. We were so intrigued by it. Even then it was like, “How have we done this?!” Sometimes in our career, one or two of the songs are pop enough to slip over. Other times, it’s just somewhere in the middle.
Your label, obviously, being businesspeople, they wanted you to re-capture that lightning in a bottle the second time around, right?
Of course, yeah. And, you know, that’s their prerogative. As a band that’s trying to be creative… if we’d have made the second album like the first album, I don’t think we’d be making a third album. We would have cashed in on it and we would be bored out of our brains feeling a little bit angry at ourselves because we just churned it out and probably killed off a load of people that are fans of the band. I don’t think people need to hear another “That’s Not My Name.” They need to hear we’re being creative and, occasionally, hitting on those lightning moments, like you said. It would have felt like not a creative place to be.
I actually know somebody — I won’t go into names, but he was in a band from many years ago — and he said, on their second album, they basically ripped off a song from their first album that was a big hit and they had a hit with it. And I just can’t think of anything worse than listening to our first album, copying it, just changing it slightly, and then having a hit. It’s just horrific! You might as well, I don’t know, pay someone else to do it and go on holiday. What’s the point?
Yeah. Well, it’s such a tricky thing, the intersection — and maybe it’s more of a disconnection — between art and commerce. Maybe art should never have been commodified — at least not in the way we’ve done it. Like you said, you guys have been DIY-ing it even when you were on a major label. What kind of model would make sense for a band like the Ting Tings or are you feeling your way as you go?
Well, we’ve created our own label. That’s what we wanted to do right from the very start, but we were spent. I remember we put out “That’s Not My Name,” “Great DJ,” and “Fruit Machine.” We put them all out on our own label in Manchester. We sold a thousand vinyls. We sent some to Australia. We sent some to Japan. And we were really excited, but we were so broke. When you have Sony Records… that’s what bands do. I wouldn’t say to new bands, “Do your own label.” Because it’s really hard.
But, after the first album and the second album, we were looking at being in the situation where we can put time and effort into our own label. And we’re distributed through [PIAS] that do distribution for all of our favorite labels, basically, from XL Records to Sub Pop. They’ve done amazing work. So you have this team of hundreds of people, still, but on the distribution side. It’s not part of the deal for them to tell us what we should sound like or what we present to them. We just give them what we make and they distribute it. For us, that’s the perfect scenario to be in. It’s a different approach and, as a pop band… as a perceived pop band, when we release this album, it’s not going with a bang because it can’t. It hasn’t had millions of pounds of marketing budget put into it by a major label.
It was a completely different approach that we wanted to do. We just wanted to release the record and then work really honestly and creatively for a year and see how that does, see if we’re wrong and go, “Oh, no, you can only do it with a major.” Or see if, over a year, if you build it and do good work, whether people will actually catch on to it. So, we’ll see. It’s an experiment, you know? We believe in it. We believe that we’re a much better band in that situation. I don’t know whether, in a year’s time, we’ll go, “Yes!” But only two people know about it. [Laughs] I don’t know.
But I like the approach. We spent two months, every night, Skyping with the video director. Never in my life have we done that. It’s five days before you’re supposed to shoot a video. You’re so busy, you’re exhausted. And it’s like, “Here. Take a peek at these treatments that a director sent in.” And then you turn up on the day and hope they don’t make your song look horrific visually. The video is the next important thing to the song because it’s a visual representation of your song. Especially with the Internet now, everything is visual. For us to just turn up three days before and hope the director’s not a weirdo, it’s quite a difficult thing to do. So, we really enjoyed this process. We feel like it’s slowly going to work. It’s a slower process, but it’s more satisfying.
And success means different things to different people. For some, being able to do it the way they want to do it and make a decent living is enough. You don’t have to be Taylor Swift.
Totally. We’re both really a million miles away from the celebrity-driven music career where your celebrity is selling it. Some people do it amazingly and I’m just awful. I can’t talk if I’m not comfortable. I can’t walk down a red carpet without going bright red. [Laughs] It’s all those things. I’ve probably been down three red carpets and I see the girls in front of me and they work it. They are really posing! And I think, “Oh my God!” I’d be so embarrassed to do that! I just want to go back in the studio. It’s just not me. I think that, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be successful. It’s just more of a band approach to being successful even though we write pop songs.
And you guys have had a couple of nice hits that you’re now going to have to play for the rest of your career…
Yeah! And we’re so proud of those hits. And we’d love the people around the world to hear our music. But I don’t think we would do it very well if we carried on making it the way it went on our second album where people were literally having meetings about what we should sound like. For us, that was… we couldn’t have done it. So, we’ll see if our way works or if we go, “Oh my God, what did we do?!?” But, at least it’s fun!
The lead singer reveals the mad musical science powering the band’s unforgettable videos and fresh new albummedium.com