"We felt it was very important that whatever we did in this time and space was its own entity..." - hmv.com talks to The Struts
After two albums that have seen them enjoy success in America with their hard-rocking, flamboyant style, British four-piece The Struts were already in the process of putting together their next record when the pandemic hit and everything changed.
Instead of proceeding with their original plans, the band felt that something different was needed for these strange times we're living in and set about a new project in which they would write, record and mix a whole record in the shortest time possible.
The resulting album, Strange Days, makes its arrival in stores today and ahead of its release, we caught up with frontman Luke Spiller for a chat about how they put it all together in the middle of a lockdown...
Your new album is out this weekend, you've taken a different approach this time and recorded the whole thing in 10 days, is that right?
“Yeah, yeah. Well actually, technically speaking the songs were written, arranged and finished, in terms of the writing, seven days in. So it was nine songs, one cover, and then the last three days I spent singing and doing various overdubs. So everything was done apart from the [guest] features and what they added to the songs. That was done throughout the month of May. But the songs, and the album as a whole, were done in seven days. It was crazy!”
So you didn't even have any of these songs already written at that point?
“It was a little bit of both. It would be a lie to say that there were no ideas, lyrics, or riffs that had sort of accumulated before going in, but the two weeks before going into the studio I was so excited I ended up just working two weeks straight, every day, working on tons of lyrics, tons of titles and a couple of song ideas.
That made the sessions so prolific, because you spend so much time pondering about what you want to say and the lyrical content, it meant that we could lay down a musical idea and then within 10 minutes I'd already have a complete lyric for it."
On your first two albums there wasn't much in the way of guest appearances or collaborations, until the re-worked version of 'Body Talks' you did with Kesha – this time there are loads of guests! What inspired you to do that this time?
“I was inspired to do it in the time leading up to the sessions. When I was looking at different genres, I looked at the Top 40, I looked at rap, I looked at the urban music scene, and I just can't believe that rock, in terms of a community, just doesn't seem to have features in the same way that pop artists or rap artists do.
“The best-kept secret about this album is how much it's been influenced by early 2000s rap music, like Doggystyle and Dre's 2001, these albums that I used to really enjoy with all the skits and the features, this complete start-to-finish vibe of a consistent world. And it kind of just inspired me, this whole album's an experiment so why can't we just call up a bunch of people and throw the kitchen sink at it? And it worked out.”
It's quite a range of collaborators on there, from Robbie Williams to Tom Morello. How did the Robbie track come about?
“Well, pretty much a year to the month, we were on tour. Everyone was at the bar, and I was giving myself a little bit of a break, so I was in the tour bus twiddling around with a guitar and I came up with the verse and chorus for what would become 'Strange Days', and it was just this idea. The next day we played it through, and at first, it was like this real sort of Oasis 'Supersonic' type thing! And then it just sort of sat there for a year. And then I was put in touch with Robbie on Instagram a couple of weeks before going into the studio, and we just got along really well so I did say to him: 'If we can write a song, would you be interested in joining me for some vocals?'. And he was like 'Absolutely'.
“So when about eight of the songs were done, I turned around and said: 'Look, Robbie is really interested in doing this, we should capitalise on it'. And that idea that I'd had, 'A Million Roses', which was what it was called then, it's got that old school Robbie Williams, Britpop vibe to it. So we did it, our producer really liked it, but it didn't really have a chorus. So then we started scatting and I was throwing in lyrics form another song idea I had, and once this melody started coming on I just sort of started scatting lyrics from a different idea and that was it, it was like magic. And then Robbie laid down his vocal with me on his front porch in Beverley Hills a couple of weeks after, which was fun.”
It's the title track as well, where did that come in the recording process? Did you know straight away that would be the album title too?
“Yeah, it was the second to last song that we finished, and then we finished everything with 'Am I Talking To the Champagne?', and I think we all looked at each other and went: 'It's done. We're done.' And once 'Strange Days' was created, even in its early form with just a piano – it was quite lazy, the first version – but even in its stripped-down form we were like: 'This is the special one, this has got something about it'.
When I was figuring out the track listing I was thinking: 'This can't go in the middle, and it's definitely not an ending song.' Champagne is an ending song. So, in the end, I was just like: 'F*** it, let's stick it right at the front. Bang.”
It's an interesting choice as an album opener in that it's one of the more ballad-type ones...
"Yeah, you know, there were no rules. It stuck out like a sore thumb on the album anyway, so why not make it stick out even more and put it right at the beginning? But it's nice because it really builds up, and by the time it gets to the end and crescendos with all the violins, you're ready for the next song, which is much more of an uptempo track. It really takes you on a journey, which is something I've always tried to do, but funnily enough, it's become a lot easier within this kind of process, going from one thing to the next?"
And then, of course, there's Def Leppard duo Joe Elliott and Phil Collen – how did you get them involved?
“Both Joe and Phil have been massive supporters of ours for quite a few years, even before we came to the States almost six years ago, Joe was always hitting me up every now and then, emailing, and before we decided to go in and create whatever we were going to do, I did say to Joe and Phil that we'd love to work with them. I mean, why not?
Did you have the song in mind already?
“My original thought was the song 'Do You Love Me', but I was going to refer to the Girl version, and Phil was actually the guitar player for Girl, so I thought it might be cool doing that version of the Kiss song and having Joe and Phil on it, so everything would come full circle. But they politely declined. They were like: 'Nah, we want something fresh.'
“So the next one was 'I Hate How Much I Want You', I sent that to them and immediately they were like: 'Yep, yep. This is it.' And the skit at the very beginning, we had another thing originally where we were in the studio and I was just taking the piss out of Adam [Slack, guitarist], but our thought it didn't set the song up as well as it could do. He was saying 'You need to make sure that everyone knows that Joe Elliott is going to be singing a song with you'. So I thought right, I've got it, and I was in Hawaii at the time, I called him up and said 'Mate, can I have got five minutes? I just need t record this skit. It was the second take, and that was it, it was done.”
Where have you been recording it all?
“We did the entire record at Jon Levine's home studio. It's a very modest-sized studio, he's got a grand piano in there and the drum kit, and that's about it. What we did was we had Adam and Jed [Elliot, bassist] and Jon himself in the control room with me. And that's how we basically recorded everything, with four of us in the control room and Gethin [Davies, drums] on his own in the live room. And then it was mixed by a guy called Claudius [Mittendorfer], he's done all of our other albums as well, and he's great. He really took Jon's raw energy and kind of exacerbated it a bit.”
So finally, touring is going to be a challenge for a while yet, what are your plans?
“Well, if we can't tour then I'm definitely going to stay productive, I've got a few things in the work that will definitely keep me ticking over. I also know that The Struts are sitting on a lot of really strong material that we'd started working on before lockdown, but we felt it was very important that whatever we did in this time and space was its own entity, so we've kind of put aside a bunch of other stuff. So if we can't tour, we'll just release more music. And then when lockdown is over, maybe we'll be selling out arenas, who knows?!”
Strange Days is available in hmv stores now – you can also find it here in our online store.