The last time Felix and Hugo White were on stage at London’s Alexandra Palace, it was as part of The Maccabees, the band they’d been a part of since their teens and who were bowing out at the peak of their powers with three sold-out shows. When the brothers returned to the huge venue last November, things were very different.
With the band that had shaped their youth no longer in existence, the pair had begun a new project with their younger brother Will (formerly of mid-noughties indie band Talk Taxis and his solo project BLANc) and The Noisettes’ drummer Jamie Morrison, called 86TVs. They were back at Ally Pally to open for their old friend Jamie T, with no music then out in the world. “We were so unbelievably nervous for that gig,” Hugo recalls nine months later – and a day before the new group finally introduces itself properly to the world.
“We didn’t walk on thinking, ‘Oh guys, we’re kind of a fucking massive deal. Do you not remember last time?’,” Felix chips in.
Although the gig found them going back to the place that The Maccabees had perhaps their most triumphant and emotional performances, it also felt like a return to their roots, in a way. They lugged their gear into the venue like any fledgling band would and set up amps and instruments on stage in place of roadies.
“A lot of the time, those early years of a band are really where you look back and you’re like, ‘You know what, that momentum and the energy everyone had, the excitement for it and the first connection of things is actually magic that you can’t recreate’,” Hugo says. “To be able to be back in that situation and be aware enough and present enough and in a place in our lives where we’re so grateful to be in this scenario again is a beautiful thing.”
As 86TVs release their debut single – the sonorous, soaring comfort of ‘Worn Out Buildings’ – NME caught up with the band to hear more about finding the courage to write again post-Maccabees, how Johnny Marr influenced the direction of the band, and the magic of the bond between brothers.
Felix: “The nice thing about this project, in a lot of aways is it’s been our little secret between the four of us for about six or seven years. The Maccabees was such a big, emotional thing for the people who were involved in it and it felt like it took a little bit of time to rehabilitate and work out what was going to be next in life, because it seemed so unclear at the time. People had always said to me over the years, ‘When you do a band with your brothers…’, which wasn’t something I’d assumed that we’d do, but just as you naturally gravitate towards the things you’re closest to in moments of big change, me and Hugo and Will would go into the studio quite aimlessly and make instrumental music or just hang out.
“We’d toured with Jamie and The Noisettes back in the day and had kept in touch, so he came down [to the studio]. From that moment to now, it’s been about six or seven years of us using any spare moment we had while our lives grew alongside, we changed as people and worked out what our other lives were gonna be, and coming back to this little private space of making a band together and eventually getting the courage between us to write songs.”
Felix: “I felt like it was such a big thing that it was so hard to know how even to come close to matching it. The Maccabees, towards the end, was everything we’d dreamed of it being. So it just felt like, why would you ever come back with anything that wasn’t, in your mind, up there or gave you the same feeling?
Hugo: “In terms of writing songs, I think we were scared of that. For about the first year of the project, it was completely instrumental and we were writing music we thought could be a soundtrack or we’d get someone else to sing on. We were completely taking off the pressure of having to deliver things that could be seen as competing in that world with what we’ve done in the past. But once we realised there was a unity to this as a group, the next step was there’s got to be songs, because that’s the way it goes.”
Will: “I think we complement each other quite well because we’re all very different. There’s not anyone in the band that writes the same kind of song as anyone else in the band, but also the way that we all view music is very different. So a song that comes in really introverted will be wrestled with to make it extroverted – or the opposite, sometimes. Over this time, we’ve developed the ability to do that and see that as the strength of our band. Jamie can turn your song into something that’s got real power behind it, even if you didn’t intend it to be that.”
Hugo: “Lyrically, as well, we never discussed through the whole making of [the album] anything lyrics-wise between us. We demoed 20 songs on an iPhone and printed them as a 20-song piece of music, with nothing separated – you just listened to it in one go in an hour and a half. That was the first time that it felt – to me, anyway – there was something really special about how the songs connected together and the different points of view because we come from the same place but we live different lives. We created something bigger than what we were individually thinking and writing about.”
Hugo: “Yeah, that’s a really good example of that because I’d written it and it was initially a message about having patience and the reassurance of, when you’re going through something that you can’t understand, in time you will work it out. The lyrics Will sent me took a whole other side of it – the outro is such a positive thing and the uplift to the message that it needed. And again, without discussion, it was completing the picture.
“I think writing songs with your brothers and lyrically interchanging things like that is very different – there’s no way I could have given that song to anyone else to write for and the message would have aligned like that, and especially without communicating it or discussing it ever.”
Jamie: “It’s actually felt really, really natural to me as well. When you’ve got like minds and likened spirits, everything falls into place. The biggest thing for me, really, has been doing it for such a long period behind closed doors and being able to explore every direction. The whole things has just felt really special to me and the brothers have welcomed me as a brother.”
Felix: “As well as the musical things Jamie contributes, I don’t know if there’s another person in the world who would have sat down with us seven years ago with no prospects of any money, no record deal or any feasible job or understanding of what the end goal was, and just dedicated every spare second to going into a studio with brothers to work it out. Just his sheer willing to see something special in it and be in that room and hash it out made the whole thing happen.”
Felix: “I think The Maccabees had just split up, but I’d read Johnny Marr’s autobiography, which I loved, and it was a really striking time to read it because a lot of his life has been about reinvention and change. So there was a correlation in my head at that particular moment in my life with what Johnny’s book had said. I bumped into him at the NME Awards and said, ‘Can I send you some music? We’ve just been doing some instrumental music and we don’t know if it’s good’. So I sent him all these instrumentals, which was actually quite a brazen thing to do looking back at it.
“I found the email the other day – he wrote back saying, ‘I’m on multiple listens, it sounds great. For what it’s worth, I feel like you guys should sing on this music’. But it wasn’t like we got the Bat-call from Johnny Marr and were like ‘OK, our mission is to sing on these songs’ – we didn’t know how that was gonna work. It was literally three or four years later we realised if we all sing together, it sounds like lots of voices and one voice at the same time and you have that magical blood harmony.”
Hugo: “It’s been amazing. It’s been the best place to go and learn – we toured with Jamie T at the end of last year, and suddenly, we were playing to packed rooms with songs no one knows. You can definitely crumble in those situations if you haven’t got your shit together, so we learned our craft, and the fact we managed to unify and come off after every gig feeling like it was a proper show and as if everyone knew everything when no one knew anything, was just the best feeling.”
Hugo: “The album’s next year, but we’re really trying to get as many songs out now. We’re not putting out one song and then disappearing. We’re gonna roll it all out.”
Felix: “I just realised recently, when I hear new music, what that sensation is. It’s almost supernatural when you hear a song that you really love for the first time because, on the one hand, you feel like you’ve always known it. On the other, you feel like the more you go into it, the deeper you’re going to get. You intuitively know 100 listens later, you’re going to find a different thing every time and there’s life in it for you to live inside. So hopefully, people find those things in these songs too.”
86TVs debut single ‘Worn Out Buildings’ is out now