Tom Findlay was in HMV the other day, and the instore radio station was playing a song. A melancholic but at the same time uplifting song, soulfully old-school but technologically of-the-moment, rich with hazy brass and beats. "If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air…" Findlay, absent-mindedly browsing the racks, nodded appreciatively. Top tune, that. It took him a good two minutes to realize that, hang on, that was HIS tune. It was "At the River," a song he and his partner Andy Cato had dreamt up a few years earlier.
That's what happens when you're in GROOVE ARMADA. You create and pull together ideas in a poky little studio - a house bassline here, a dug-out-of-the-crates sample there, stonking brand-new choruses everywhere - and hey disco: a new song by your band. But pretty soon the new songs don't belong to you any more. They belong to clubbers, and gig-goers, and Top 40-watchers, and festival masses, and Lovebox regulars, and the three million people who own your albums. Even if they're used to advertise cars, in one of the most iconic campaigns of the last couple of years, they're still, at the end of the day, people's tunes.
Groove Armada can't help but create songs that burst out of studio and spread all over the place. "At the River," "If Everybody Looked the Same," "Superstylin'," "I See You Baby" - these are towering songs of our times. But if you're restlessly inventive, you don't want to be defined by your past, no matter how shiny and brilliant. You want to move away. Or you want to move on.
Findlay and Cato will readily admit that, a couple of years ago, they considered knocking Groove Armada on the head. They had been going for almost a decade and had achieved more than they ever dared dream they'd achieve since first meeting in 1995, starting their own London club night, and releasing "At the River" their debut single in 1997. They'd taken their revved-up live show round the world several times (Australia in particular loves Groove Armada). They'd made four albums that reinvented the house music wheel, and played fast and loose with other genres besides. They'd been Grammy-nominated, and had everyone from Elton John to the Ibizan masses singing their praises. Their Best Of… had flown off the shelves.
So, Groove Armada had done their bit. But they were also stuck on the same label as Britney Spears and Steps. That got fairly depressing sometimes. You might be tired, and a little fed up, too.
But then, as it always had done, the music came calling.
"We toured the greatest hits album and were blown away by the huge groundswell of enthusiasm [from the audiences]," remembers Cato. "We were selling more tickets at Brixton Academy than Paul Weller… But then, we were also DJing, just like we'd always done, at house parties till six in the morning. It was all hands to the pump. It was hard to think about giving it all up."
There were a few choice big gigs last summer too, including an appearance at the Lovebox event in London, which Cato and Findlay also curated - the giant, outdoor weekender in Hackney's Victoria Park may have been very different from the cult club night that spawned it, but the spirit of innovation remained the same.
There were further boosts. After some record label jockeying, Groove Armada found themselves, at last, on a big, proper label with, at last, decent support and creative input from a savvy A&R collaborator. Cato made music with his side-project Rising 5, and Findlay toured with his other band, Sugardaddy. Both kept up their DJing. And, finally, Andy Cato moved to Barcelona, while Tom Findlay stayed in north London.
"That definitely shook up our working dynamic," Cato says.
After all those years sitting cheek-by-stubbly-jowl in sweaty little rooms, smoking and drinking and thinking, "I found the new set-up really liberating," says Findlay. And into that geographical/mental/emotional space, Groove Armada resolved to flood all sorts of song ideas, vocalists, and styles. In the end they wouldn't have room for all of them And their plans for a double CD - Saturday night/Sunday morning style - would fall by the wayside.
But in its place came something far better: a focused collection of 15 songs each flowing into the next like the best kind of homemade mix-tape. In its place came Soundboy Rock.
Soundboy Rock is an album teeming with ideas, featuring a roll-call of superlative talents. It's a testament to Groove Armada's core visionary genius that it all flows together like one seamless whole. Like the seasoned DJs they are, Cato and Findlay know that context is everything - that the highest high can be made higher still, that the mellowest pull-it-back moment can still pack a mighty punch. And if you can shape all that into one album, you might be onto something: a record that will have you pogoing in a field, rocking on the sofa, or bouncing off the walls in a club.
Tom Findlay: "Dance music is in a period of transition. It's an interesting time, whether it's Klaxons or New Young Pony Club. It felt right to make an exciting record that wasn't taking itself too seriously. We wanted to have a lot of different styles and vocalists, but give it a little flow... Pop is an attitude we believe in. And we believe in challenging ourselves. Both those strains run through the album."
Andy Cato: "There's a kind of no-nonsense attitude about this record. We've been taking a storming live show round the world for ten years. We wanted to capture that energy for the first time on a whole CD. 'Aggressive' might not be the right word, but 'ballsy' is."