As they prepare to unleash their debut album, the Lawrence brothers open up about being underground, in the charts and the dreaded "crossover".
“I’d say to him, would you rather be in your car and listen to Nicki Minaj, David Guetta and Avicii or White Noise?” Guy Lawrence, the elder brother and member of Disclosure, is a little ruffled but his smile is constant as he talks about the author of a recent Vice article that labelled the duo as the crossover act that would kill the house revival. “And if he says [he’d rather listen to] those three artists, then I feel sorry for him anyway. Just don’t do a review on Disclosure because it’s clearly not your thing.”
Whatever implications you choose to take from it, there’s no doubt that Disclosure are the definitive “crossover” act of 2013. They started releasing tracks online back in 2010, when Guy was 18 and his younger brother Howard was 15, with their tunes largely consisting of garage inflections, dubstep-indebted bass and submerged, pretty vocal samples, before finding a bigger audience in 2012 with their remix of Jessie Ware’s Running and their breakthrough EP ‘The Face’. But it was this year that the brothers’ AlunaGeorge collaboration White Noise hit No. 2 in the UK charts, going on to soundtrack the fruit-and-veg-buying and driving-to-work experiences of millions and paving the way for other “crossover” dance acts like Duke Dumont and Rudimental to achieve the same. Within a couple of years, they’ve gone from being the kind of act that you stumble across by clicking on Soundcloud tags to one whose waveforms are completely covered by the blue lines that indicate a trillion comments. Because everyone has a comment to make on Disclosure – and it’s the resulting mislabellings, crossed wires and multi-faceted definitions that fill our conversation when I meet with them on a balmy Tuesday afternoon. We sit in a beer garden, trying to pin down the nature of pop, of EDM, and of Disclosure.
“The misconception is that we were underground before. We weren’t; we’ve always written pop songs.” – Howard, Disclosure
If he had to describe it to his gran, Guy says, he’d call it “dance music”. It’s pretty pertinent that he frames it in these cross-generational terms; it conjures up familiar images of micro-genre-obsessives (Guy winces as he talks about “future garage”) as a species restricted to the weird underworld of the internet, somehow happening away from the domain of real life and being impenetrable to older generations. Disclosure know they don’t suit this model of dance music’s consumption and categorisation – in fact, they’re wonderfully frank about it. “I would say that it’s pop-structured songs, like a mix of verse-chorus kind of songs with vocals on them, and then instrumental club tracks, all written in the style of, and influenced by, house and garage from the 90s,” says Guy. “That’s it. I wouldn’t put one word to it, because all the words that everyone comes up with are shit.”
Disclosure feat. Eliza Doolittle – You & Me
Howard, the more softly-spoken of the brothers, is disarmingly on-point when he summarises: “The misconception is that we were underground before. We weren’t; we’ve always written pop songs. The scene we were following was like Joy Orbison and Floating Points and Four Tet, and we love that stuff, we still do, but we were never part of that scene. They never embraced what we were doing, and I totally understand why, because we were making way poppier stuff than that.”
By “pop”, the Lawrence brothers are touching on a whole plethora of definitions – they mean what’s popular, what’s in the charts, but they also mean the soulful, classically structured songs that Howard listened to growing up, and that they both aspire to. While Guy spent his teenage years working through Gang Starr, Busta Rhymes and basically everything touched by J Dilla, Howard was buried in 70s and 80s soul and funk, attracted by the basslines (he says he got his first bass at the age of five, although Guy thinks he’s exaggerating – “I don’t believe you. We’re gonna fall out about this. Let’s ask Dad.”). This means that, although they avidly followed the dubstep scene of 2007/2008, when Guy got a fake ID and started going to nights headed by Loefah and Mala, that was never their biggest musical influence, or what they wanted to do. As Howard puts it, “It’s surprising how rare it is to find a dance act that can write a song. They can write beats, and make an amazing club tune, but they have no idea how to write a song.” Disclosure are clear on this; they write songs.
“That’s what happened with ‘White Noise’. Guy made this really cool techno track, then me and Aluna came in and fucked it up.” – Howard, Disclosure
Another thing they’re clear on: they were always going to put vocals on their music. This wasn’t a manager coming up to them and saying “Hey, have you guys thought about getting playlisted on Radio 1?” – it was the original blueprint, instilled in them from the beginning by the soulful melodies of the favourite music they’d held on to since childhood, and by the fact that Howard – who sings on several tracks on ‘Settle’ – has a damn good voice himself. The earliest tracks didn’t have top line melodies, Guy says, simply because the brothers didn’t have any microphones to work with at that point. “Also, I wasn’t sure if my voice had broken yet,” Howard interjects frankly. “It’s quite funny, people say ‘you need to go back to your old stuff’, but it’s not that old, it’s like four months old. And we are still making that.”
There’s no division between old Disclosure and new Disclosure in the minds of the artists themselves; just two people who, over the past couple of years, have gotten gradually closer to making the music they’d always envisioned themselves creating. The result is ‘Settle’ – a thrilling debut that moves seamlessly from the basement skitters of When A Fire Starts To Burn and the throwback, cheesy club ecstasy of Stimulation to a sensual duet with neo-soul star Jessie Ware and Latch, which Dummy still considers to be one of the best pop songs of 2012. Howard says that the way the album treads the line between the club and the radio was a deliberate balancing act. “That was a conscious decision. We wanted to get a balance between having the fully vocal, more ‘pop’ songs like Latch and songs like Stimulation with a more clubby element, because we do both of those things, and we wanted to make sure we got that across.” The in-betweenness of their sound comes from the way they work together – Howard says of their process, “I think generally the backbone of most of the arguments is that Guy sets out to make a really cool deep house track, and then I come and ruin it by putting a vocal on it. And then everyone loves it.”
“And I’m like, bruv, I wanted this to come out on a white label,” says Guy. “500 white label, that’s it. And he’s there talking about, like, the fuckin’ ‘top 10!’” Howard is unabashed. “That’s what happened with White Noise. Guy made this really cool techno track, then me and Aluna came in and fucked it up.”
“We didn’t get too heavily involved in making beats with just build-ups and drops; we focussed more on the structure of the songs and how to write melodies and lyrics.” – Guy, Disclosure
It’s easy to see this divide in the brothers’ approach in the way they talk about music; Guy is clearly the one who, as he tells me, would be one among 40 guys with their hoods up leaning over the DJ’s decks at the age of 17. He’s concerned with quality and with the process, and when he talks about what he likes to listen to, he sounds a lot like most dance music purists I’ve encountered: “It’s quite hard to find music that I like. Because once you’ve heavily got into J Dilla, with hip hop, nothing else is as good, so it’s really hard to find anything that matches it. So when you’re listening to new music you’re like ‘this is cool…but I would rather just be listening to J Dilla right now’. It’s just better…It’s the same if I’m listening to like Detroit techno, and I’m not a massive technohead at all, but unless I’m listening to like Juan Atkins or Derrick May or one of the original guys I just think ‘I’d rather just be listening to Juan Atkins or Derrick May right now’, because they’re just the shit.”
This sounds strangely like the claim that’s sometimes used against the brothers: Disclosure’s authority as purveyors of garage and house is brought into question by their age, since their sound evokes a time they weren’t alive to witness, and goes against the grain of garage worshippers’ veneration for stalwarts like Todd Edwards. So isn’t it uncanny, even hypocritical, that I’ve just heard the same nostalgic reverence coming from Guy’s mouth? When I push him more, he’s open and charming about it – he explains how the pair are aware of their perspective being skewed because of their age, and how they see themselves as separate to – even liberated from – any particular movement. “I feel quite privileged really,” he says, “because although we missed it – garage – the first time round, because we were only like 4, I think it’s good because it’s a big reason why…we’re making this music influenced by those things, but they’re not those things, you know? Because we grew up listening to songs it made our music quite accessible.”
“Bach used to take full lines of other people’s music and put them in his compositions and just invert it. If he was playing other people’s music back then in the Baroque era, I’m cool with doing it as well.” – Guy, Disclosure
“It’s great because we didn’t get too heavily involved in making beats with just build-ups and drops, build-ups and drops,” he continues. “We just forgot about that part of music and focussed more on the structure of the songs and how to write melodies and lyrics. I think it’s good. Obviously I would have loved to have gone to a mad mash-up rave in the 90s, that would’ve been fun, but I think it’s worth the sacrifice.”
Besides, the idea that anyone has a “right” to listen to or play certain things is inherently a bit silly. As Guy puts it, “it’s ridiculous when people say to us ‘you have no right to play garage, to play that stuff that out, to DJ that stuff’ – it’s like, I own those records, I bought them, what are you talking about? I’m just young. Anyone can listen to music, that’s what it’s for.” He adds, “Bach used to take full lines of other people’s music and put them in his compositions and just invert it – it’s like, if he was playing other people’s music back then in the Baroque era, I think I’m cool with doing it as well.”