If HMV’s woes suggest that recorded music is no longer important, here’s the proof. Modestep are doing so well on the web, with their bouncy single Sunlight scoring almost 22 million YouTube views, that their debut album barely seems significant.
“We got really serious YouTube numbers very quickly, on videos we’d made ourselves. Record companies will piss away tens of thousands of pounds trying to achieve what we did without spending any money,” singer Josh Friend explains. “I think we all saw the HMV thing coming. It’s all about the internet now, and you’d be ignorant to think otherwise.”
Their online plays have given them a platform to set out their stall as a must-see live act and in the past two years they have performed 500 shows.
“We’ve just been so busy touring that it’s been hard to find the time to finish the album,” says DJ, guitarist and Josh’s older brother Tony. “It’s been a bit of an obstacle for us. Our career has worked regardless of the record, so it’s great to get it out of the way.”
Evolution Theory finally hits the nation’s few remaining record shops at the start of February, months after its original release date.
To be fair, Modestep’s fans are of an age group that is as likely to buy a CD as a Saga holiday. Their sound, a cacophonous collision of hard rock guitars and head-rattling dubstep bass, sweetened slightly by Josh’s soulful vocals, is the ultimate parental irritant. Modestep aren’t the first to stick dance music and heavy rock together, but the north London quartet are pretty unorthodox in their quest to unite genres. Not many bands would bring a dubstep cover of Slow Hand by The Pointer Sisters to a metal festival.
The band’s rise began on the web in 2010, when the Barnet-born Friend brothers, now 26 and 24, began uploading their electronic productions to YouTube. Their first significant work was a belated dubstep remix of Enya’s 1988 song Exile, which filtered her dreamy vocals and added a juggernaut’s worth of robotic bass sounds. It was picked up by the YouTube bass music channel UKF and they never looked back. “UKF is a phenomenon,” says Josh of the portal whose videos have been watched more than a billion times, and which has now expanded into a huge global concert operation. The UKF brand sold out Brixton Academy on New Year’s Eve and has also brought its artists to the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace. The “F”, somewhat inappropriately given the rowdy content, stands for the founder’s home, the pretty Somerset town of Frome. “I think they’re the driving force in electronic music around the world now. They’re the centrepoint for this movement.”
UKF’s anointing of Modestep as hot news in dubstep earned them their record deals with major labels Polydor in the UK and Interscope in the US, home of Eminem and Lady Gaga. “The boss at Interscope said he wants to make us as big as Nirvana, which was intense,” says Josh, though the music is very different and the singer’s chirpiness doesn’t suggest a Cobain-like approach to stardom.Radio 1 also played them to death. It was a headspinning situation for a pair who still operate from a house they share with friends far from the action in Eastcote, near Harrow, recording in a self-built studio in the spare room.
What they did next was just as important to their long-term prospects as their early reliance on internet popularity. Instead of remaining a studio operation, they hired a drummer, Matt Curtis, and then a guitarist, Nick Tsang (both 26), and became a live band that rocks as hard as the metal crowd. Now they describe themselves as “a rock band with dance influences”, not the other way around. Their songs To the Stars and Time both feature big squealy guitar solos on top of the electronic clatter.
Their first gig in their current line-up was a baptism of fire at Download in summer 2011, a hard rock festival in the heavy metal heartland of Donington Park. “Someone said to us before we went on, ‘I hope you like getting bottles of piss thrown at you,’” says Tony. “But as we got called to the stage, it was a packed tent of people shouting our name — there were mosh pits, circle pits, a stage invasion. It was absolutely insane and definitely one of the best experiences of our lives.”
They already looked the part. Tony in particular, with his patchwork of tattoos and fondness for wearing a scary yellow mask on stage, is more of a rocker than most. He lists Metallica, Slipknot and Machine Head among his favourite bands and tells me of his years as a trainee tattooist at shops in Mexico and Los Angeles. He highlights the clock designed like a speaker cone showing the time of his birth, a heart wearing headphones, and Michael Jackson’s moonwalking feet on the back of his neck, but spares me from the practice doodles on his thighs. He used to have a tattoo machine at home which he and his friends would get out when they were drunk, which sounds like one of the worst ideas I’ve heard. Now he goes to Eclipse in Camden for his body art.
It’s a tough balancing act, trying to fit into these different worlds. Modestep are already in the rare position of being featured heavily in both dance magazine Mixmag and hard rock weekly Kerrang! The latter, comparing Modestep to the Prodigy and American dance music’s bad boy, Skrillex, said: “These bands, even though the tools of their business include electronic beats and synths, all share that same energy you get from Metallica or Rage Against the Machine — a thumping, exciting rush of noise that just rocks you.”
This kitchen-sink approach probably won’t allow them to be all things to all men, however. As Josh sings on their poppiest song, Feel Good: “We can bring it back, making real music that may not be everyone’s taste.” It’s a right old racket, essentially. “I don’t think what we’re doing is the future of rock music or the future of dance music either — it’s just what we do. It’s our thing,” says Josh.
And especially in concert, music in 2013 doesn’t get any more exciting.
Evolution Theory is out on Feb 4 on Polydor. Modestep play Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527, koko.uk.com) on Feb 14.