Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Last night, Daphne & Celeste – the fabled pop stars of Ooh Stick You and U.G.L.Y. renown – broke their 15-year silence with the release of You and I Alone, a new track produced by madcap electronic visionary Max Tundra. It's quite a pairing: while Tundra lurks eccentrically in the electronic underground, Daphne & Celeste will be vividly remembered, for better or worse, by almost everyone reading this article. Their hit songs’ respectable chart placings, at #8 and #18 respectively, wildly undersell their ubiquity, from relentless airplay to pre-Tumblr meme-ification across playgrounds and pencil-cases everywhere. Not to forget their irrepressible appearances on Top of the Pops, sardonic video-countdown Christmas Turkey and, memorably (not least for Mark Lamar’s dad-at-the-birthday-party exasperation), Never Mind the Buzzcocks.
Today, the pair remain on their game: NYC's Celeste Cruz, a former door-officer at DIY venue Glasslands, spends her days quoting Kafka on Twitter and patrolling the Brooklyn beat at shows by Dum Dum Girls, Sylvan Esso, and touring showcases like Burger Records. Over in LA is Daphne, real name Karen DiConcetto, whose star is sharply on the rise. In 2011 she appeared in Jersey Shoresical, a crowdfunded Broadway parody of the reality show, after Mean Girls actor Danny Franzese asked her to star as Snooki. “I was the right height,” she says modestly. DiConcetto’s latest TV script, Recovery Road, which follows a recovering party girl in rehab, has just been commissioned by teen powerhouse ABC Family.
Meanwhile in London, Ben Jacobs, aka Max Tundra, has spent much of his time since 2008’s 'Parallax Error Beheads You' cleaning behind his cooker and eating biscuits. An intermittent office worker, Jacobs is chipping away at two albums, one projected for release under a secret alias sometime in the next decade, the other being new Max Tundra. Listening back to his 2002 classic 'Mastered By Guy at the Exchange' (Domino release, 9.3, all that) you're struck not just by how well it's stood the test of time, but by how time, in our sugary, K-pop-pumped, PC Music era, is in the midst of a triumphant catch-up. In light of the fantastically odd and strangely timely double-comeback, we Skyped the trio in LA to catch up.
Karen [Daphne], congrats on Recovery Road. Did you guys ever think of having your own show together?
Karen DiConcetto: "Oh my god, yes. The closest was probably… was it the apology show?"
Celeste Cruz: "[laughs] Oh yeah."
Karen DiConcetto: "There was a period where we thought it'd be really funny to have a half-scripted, half-reality show where we go and make amends and apologise to all the people that we insulted back in the day. Like, maybe we'll be their slave for a day, or do whatever we can to make things okay."
Who did you offend?
Karen DiConcetto: "Oh wow. It's a long list."
Celeste Cruz: "That's why we thought we could at least get two seasons out of it."
Karen DiConcetto: "Sometimes it was just miscommunication."
Celeste Cruz: "Some were hypersensitive too. Mel C was a little hypersensitive, because you were making an observation about the both of you."
Karen DiConcetto: "Yeah, I was including myself. But yeah, Mel C was not too thrilled with me. Sometimes it was just British words vs. American words."
Celeste Cruz: "Like the 'Muppet' thing."
Karen DiConcetto: "I said that Richie from 5ive looked like a muppet, and I don't know if it makes it much better, but I meant a muppet from The Muppet Show, which I didn't think was bad. And so when he saw that show he kind of went off."
Celeste Cruz: "We were like, 'Um, that means 'adorable Jim Henson character' in America.'"
"I said that Richie from 5ive looked like a muppet, and I don't know if it makes it much better, but I meant a muppet from The Muppet Show, which I didn't think was bad." – Karen DiConcetto, Daphne
Ben, you contacted the band via Twitter, right? I’ve heard you often tweet pop stars, semi-sarcastically offering production…
Max Tundra: "Oh, it's not sarcastic, no no! I'm obsessed with the idea of being a pop producer, absolutely obsessed. It's my dream job. So however outlandish it might seem, there's a part of me that thinks, oh yeah, Taylor Swift might actually see this, or at least someone who knows her who knows my music might reply to both of us and say, 'You should check this guy out!'"
Who else are you chasing?
Max Tundra: "Miley Cyrus is a bit of an obsession, 'cause I really love 'Bangerz'. And obviously she's collaborated with The Flaming Lips, who are very different to the music she makes, so she seems like an open-minded musician. I think I'm still relatively unknown, so it's still not necessarily the easiest step to take. But if you know anyone, or have any tips or suggestions, that would be gratefully received."
D&C, have you been listening to any K-pop stuff lately?
Celeste Cruz: "There's a Koreatown in New York, with a Korean market, and it's so fun, but they play K-pop on really big screens, and I went down a K-pop rabbit hole, and became obsessed. There's like 20 girls in one band. I don't know how they make money. How do they split up those royalties? But it's incredibly synchronised. The choreography, the outfits."
Karen DiConcetto: "It makes total sense that it's similar to D&C. Because there's such an eclecticism [on Korean TV]. It'd be like, half-cooking show, half interview-show."
What were your first thoughts about working with Max Tundra?
Celeste Cruz: "I thought it was a strange idea. People have approached us for comebacks before, so I always have ideas about it. When I heard the song, we were like, 'Okay this guy gets it in ways other people haven't.' I think the song does sound like a grownup, more mature Daphne & Celeste, and I don't know how he did that."
"People have approached us for comebacks before, so I always have ideas about it. When I heard the song, we were like, 'Okay this guy [Max Tundra] gets it in ways other people haven't.'" – Celeste Cruz
Ben, you set up a label, Balatonic, to release the track. Why now?
Max Tundra: "What's strange about the track is that we recorded it four years ago, but after we recorded it, we lost contact for maybe two years. And I just thought, d'you know what, I really wanna put this out. And coincidentally, there is this return to sugary pop."
Like who? I recently saw Bo En, who sounds a bit like you, playing with Spinnee from PC Music, Kero Kero Bonito…
Max Tundra: "Yeah, a lot of people have mentioned, in line with my music, the stuff on PC Music, which I am a huge fan of. What's interesting about the PC Music stuff is that some of it uses the kind of vocals which are abundant on the Daphne & Celeste album from 2000. So it wasn't the decision for putting it out now, but part of me thought, okay, people are receptive to a band that sound like Daphne & Celeste – even though their new [single] sounds nothing like their old one.
"And it certainly appealed to me that they were not necessarily loved by everyone, and I saw that as a fun challenge. I always try and do cheerful-sounding music – there's so much dreary, depressing-sounding electronic music out there, it does stand out and freak people out that major chords are used. And you can remember the melodies. And it's not buried in a load of washy reverb. So it does come across as quite sugary sometimes."
How do you two feel when someone brings up Daphne & Celeste?
Karen DiConcetto: It's always hilarious to see people's reactions over here in the US, because we didn't really do much here. Everyone knows Ugly though. If you say 'U. G. L. Y.' they're like, 'Oh, that was you?!'"
Celeste Cruz: "I'm really excited to see the reactions to this. Because, we were so manufactured the first go round that to have a say in some things, and the video artistry, and all that type of stuff – it's pretty cool to see if fans like what we've put together, as opposed to what someone told us to put together. Ben is very much responsible for the song, but I think everything else was collaborative."
It’s sort of low-key, at least relative to D&C and Max Tundra.
Max Tundra: "I wanted to do something that was still recognisably a Max Tundra production, but that was in quite a sharp contrast from Daphne & Celeste's original music. I found that quite an interesting idea, that I'd take this band who were real goofy kids doing silly songs, who've been away for fifteen years, and ask, what would they be up to now? And they've come back with this spooky, slightly peculiar song."
"There's so much dreary, depressing-sounding electronic music out there, it does stand out and freak people out that major chords are used. And you can remember the melodies. And it's not buried in a load of washy reverb." – Max Tundra
What do the song’s lyrics mean to you?
Celeste Cruz: "I'll be honest with you Jazz. I don't like this question. I just don't like, 'Here's what I think this song is and you'd better think so too.' [laughs]"
Karen DiConcetto: "I will say, at the end there's the bit that goes, 'Leland Palmer in the dark' – it does feel very Lynchian to me."
Celeste Cruz: "It's such a weird pop song, but it's also so traditional. I love that grounding. You have that safezone, you know the chorus is coming."
Karen DiConcetto: "It's true. I think it plays around with different realities, kind of dreamy. What's the term? Magical realism. That's how it feels to me."
Max Tundra: "I was like, what are they gonna think of these weird lyrics? But it's just, 'Yeah, we'll sing that! No problem!'"
I want to ask about the time you were bottled at Reading. I watched the video recently, and I have to say, it's taken on a sort of transcendent quality – there's the angry, ultra boys’-clubby crowd and you represent this threat to their turf. And your reaction is just total composure. At the time you said you found it quite funny, but is that true?
Celeste: "It's even funnier now – I think it's gotten funnier as the years have passed."
Karen DiConcetto: "The thing is, it ended up becoming our last hurrah. And I definitely agree with you – it was the perfect metaphor, and it was our last big public appearance. It felt like this stunt. it almost felt like it's disconnected from reality, in a sense. Because we were this manufactured pop band, playing a rock festival. It just felt like the biggest prank on…"
Celeste Cruz: "Everyone."
Max Tundra: "It was such a defining moment in the band's history that it's on their Wikipedia page. They are very sporting about it, but if you watch it, it is relentless. The volleys of bottles of piss. You don't know how people can produce that much piss. Some of it must have been apple juice. But they don't even blink. It's one of the most punk rock things I've ever seen. I don't know anyone who'd have the courage to stand up there and do that."
Celeste Cruz: "We'll run into people, and their view of that is always really concerned, and then people find it triumphant."
Max Tundra: "What a bunch of cowards in the audience though. You can imagine the sort of unwashed teenage boy who thought, 'Aw yeah there's two girls on 'ere? Fuck this!' It's so horrible, such a cowardly place to be."
Karen DiConcetto: "You know a wheelchair was thrown?"
Celeste Cruz: "People disliked us so much. People message us years later, like, 'That was one of the most fun times we ever had at a festival.' It's like, that's cool, I guess. But I'm really glad we didn't get hit."
Balatonic released You and I Alone on March 29th 2015 (buy).