When Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland began writing their debut album as Jungle five years ago, they were two studio hounds, deprived of windows, sunshine and fresh air, creating sounds to match the worlds they imagined. To play their early song The Heat, they pictured themselves in a nightclub beside a foreign beach, blocking out the unspectacular reality of a small room in Shepherd’s Bush.
The London schoolfriends succeeded in capturing that far-off feel with a sweltering blend of soul, funk, disco and modern electronica, sung in their united falsettos, and a series of memorable videos starring a roller-skating duo and a breakdancing six-year-old, all in Adidas tracksuits. Half a million people fell for that self-titled recording from 2014, a gold disc and a Mercury Prize nomination followed in the UK, and hundreds of live shows took them to places far beyond those they had dared to dream of as backroom producers. Then the fantasy became reality. Lloyd-Watson, 28, met a girl in LA and moved out there.
But the Hollywood finale will have to be delayed. Jungle have made a brilliant second album, out next week, and it’s largely about break-ups.
“The first record was based more on an aesthetic of sound. It was us finding our way. This time it’s about real emotion,” he says.
The LA romance didn’t last, so he came back, to find McFarland, 29, also splitting up from the girl who he met the week before the first ever Jungle gig. The new album is called For Ever because both couples had struggled to cope with the idea of such a commitment. While its predecessor was packed with fun grooves and shiny vibes, this one goes much deeper. House in LA, which has already been released, is a slow, sad, golden sunset of a song, with the pair singing: “Truly you care if I’m getting on that plane/So ask me to stay.”
“The first Jungle record was full of bravado because we had come out of a band that was a complete shambles, and we wanted to prove we weren’t part of that failure,” says Lloyd-Watson. He had played bass and McFarland the keyboards in Born Blonde, a quintet making spacey indie rock who were the NME’s Band of the Week in 2011 and released an album in 2012 but didn’t last.
“We were very concerned about the look and feel of Jungle, but there’s a big change on this album. It’s shocked us. We’re using the music to put our thoughts and feelings and fears into, rather than just thinking, ‘This has got to be a song that people like.’ We weren’t really doing that before.”
It sounds like making the new music was as much of a struggle as their personal lives. “The pressure of the second record isn’t a myth, as much as people try to tell you it is,” says McFarland. They wrote elements of dozens of songs but didn’t finish them. In their early days as a duo, Lloyd-Watson had done the bulk of the technical production work while McFarland, who was making money by managing bars in the evenings, would drop in to offer bigger picture ideas. “I won’t spend four hours working on a snare sound, but I’ll come in the next day and tell him whether those four hours have been worth it,” McFarland explains.
This time they were both permanently “in the sand pit”, as they put it, and lost a bit of perspective. An outside producer, Inflo, was brought in to tease out the best stuff last summer. He had worked on another example of a tremendous second album that expands and enriches an artist’s early sound: Michael Kiwanuka’s Love & Hate. “He came in and streamlined the whole thing, made us choose songs and finish them. We really got momentum,” says McFarland.
They’re an amiable pair, not shy but not obvious stars either. Lloyd-Watson talks more, McFarland sports more jewellery. They met when they were 10, and went on to attend Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith together. A significant part of their early buzz in 2013 came from their anonymity – mostly unintentional rather than their own attempt at Daft Punk’s helmets, they say. They simply released their first single, Platoon, together with the video starring extraordinary young breakdancer B-Girl Terra, a photograph of her in a memorabilia-stuffed bedroom and a press release that referred to them only as “J and T”, leaving out their full names and pictures.
“As soon as you start playing live, you can’t wear masks because it’s stupid and other people have done it. Everyone knew who we were as soon as we were on telly at Glastonbury,” says McFarland, dismissing the idea that it was a publicity stunt.
“We’ve been inspired by the way Damon Albarn has progressed with Gorillaz,” adds Lloyd-Watson. “These days he’s much more at the front with a spotlight on him. You want to see him, you want him to be telling you those stories. There’s only a certain amount of connection you can get from a sillhouette.”
To bring their music into the real world, Jungle opted to become a boisterous seven-piece live band rather than the typical dance duo prodding esoteric buttons behind a bank of boxes. They’ve already been back on the road for most of this year, trying out new songs such as the tribal thud of Smile and the summery strut of next single Casio, and are scheduled to play their biggest London gig so far at Alexandra Palace in February.
“The sound is always different in different venues, with different equipment. If this was predominantly an electronic setup there wouldn’t be as much variation. It stays really exciting,” says McFarland.
“A computer doesn’t react to an audience, but if the crowd roars, a real drummer will do something different,” adds Lloyd-Watson. “That connection with your audience is the most amazing part of it.”
They’re deep-rooted music fans, talking about deciding they wanted a career in music after seeing The Strokes at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2006. They claim to have taken slightly unlikely inspiration from early Kasabian material, rave about the latest material from James Blake, and Lloyd-Watson shows me a clip he filmed on his phone of French dance duo Justice performing live. “If we can put that same energy in, and 10 people come away from your gig wanting to make music, or draw a drawing, or just express themselves in some way, that’s beautiful,” he says.
As their second album arrives and hopefully finds the wide audience it deserves, it sounds like the hardest part is over. “We don’t have any expectations,” says McFarland. “The achievement has been in making this record and finishing it and it meaning this much to us.”
“With the first record, we were potentially looking for success and recognition. With this one the success is very contained to our own emotions,” adds his partner. “It’s a healing record for us.”
It should do the trick for a lot of listeners too. This Jungle book can still be a story with a happy ending.
For Ever is released on Sep 14 on XL. Jungle play Feb 21, Alexandra Palace, N22. alexandrapalace.com