The Maccabees can’t hear me. “You might want to say that again. We had the holy trinity of Elephant & Castle noise then: train, traffic and sirens,” shouts singer Orlando Weeks. After three increasingly successful albums, the last of which was a gold-selling Mercury nominee in 2012, the London band are trying to tell me about their fourth in a place hardly befitting their growing stature: an SE17 car park.
We’re in a sun trap outside Elephant Studios, where the quintet have been based for the past five years. It used to belong to The Jesus and Mary Chain. Adding yet more prestige, the Father Ted theme tune was recorded here. It’s noisy and cramped, but it’s home. Tired bicyles litter the stairwell, and only thin people can use the bathroom because of all the flight cases blocking the doorway. A mural of their first album cover, Colour It In from 2007, covers one wall of the studio. A small trophy shelf houses their Mercury nomination, an NME Award, a five-a-side prize for a football tournament in Brighton and a statuette from defunct lads’ mag Nuts, naming them “Best Tunemakers”.
They’ll need to clear some room on that shelf soon, because album number four is a mighty return. Still untitled and without a release date, it’s preceded by next week’s single, Marks to Prove It, which announces their re-emergence with a squalling riff, racing drums and newfound vigour. The rest of the album is grandiose and confident, taking its time to reach the big moments. It’s intelligent indie rock with depth to its noise, and though it sounds unlikely, the band say it’s infused with the spirit of their gritty Elephant & Castle base more than any of their previous recordings.
“We’d never made a record firstly, that sounded like we do at gigs, and also that sounded like an actual place. We wanted to be more specific, to try to make it sound like a band in that room,” says guitarist Felix White, 30. “There are quite a lot of layers to everyday life here. Once you’re embedded in it, it’s inspiring.” He’s a keen cricket fan who fiddles with a tennis ball, occasionally bowling it against a nearby wall, while we talk about his band’s ascent.
They’ve known each other since their early teens, and started going places with the band as university students in Brighton. An array of fancy forenames often sees them cited among the posh bands ruining it for honest working class guitar slingers – there’s frontman Orlando, the guitarist brothers Felix and Hugo White, plus bassist Rupert Jarvis and drummer Sam Doyle, but they refer to each other as “Lan”, “Roo”, “Fee” and so on, keeping it casual. Weeks was at public school in Highgate, though Hugo and Jarvis went to a Putney comprehensive, Elliott School. Felix’s early days at the Dulwich independent school Alleyn’s served him well. In 2013 he released a solo EP, Cosmo, that featured his prodigiously talented schoolfriends Florence Welch, Jack Penate and Jessie Ware.
That side project sounds like a welcome diversion from a recording process that has long been a struggle. The Maccabees’ third album, Given to the Wild, was made mostly at the celebrated Rockfield Studios on the Welsh border – famed for the recording of Bohemian Rhapsody and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis. Big name producers such as Tim Goldsworthy were involved, but the band had to take the tapes back to Elephant and finish the songs themselves to be truly satisfied with the sound. This time they started and finished it without outside interference, with Hugo continuing to learn how to produce the music himself. It didn’t exactly set them free.
“We ended up being a year into the process, exhausted, realising we had nothing, and not even knowing what we wanted it to sound like,” says Felix. “We had to start again. It took twice as long as it should have.”
The band’s writing process doesn’t help matters, either. Everybody starts on compositions individually, then argues a song to its eventual completion. It’s a coalition government in band form. “Everyone pulls in different ways, writes differently and wants things to be different. It takes a long time to merge those separate ideas into a strong vision,” says Hugo.
But merge they have, and the end result is worth the extra year’s wait. For too many bands recently, the debut album is the high point and it’s all downhill from there. The Maccabees are in the unusual position of getting better every time. The shift from their first album to 2009’s Wall of Arms was similar to the distance between the first two Radiohead albums, Pablo Honey and The Bends. The Maccabees went from singing about swimming pool wave machines, Lego and Toothpaste Kisses to sounding majestic, powerful and emotional – hyperactive youths to fully grown men of rock.
“With the first record, I thought we were doing great,” says Felix with a laugh, “but we were probably quite dismissable at the time among all those bands. When I look back and see how we’ve changed I do feel proud of it. There’s a certain survival instinct to it.”
Adds Weeks: “We had a song called Latchmere, which is about a leisure centre. It’s not really about that, but people take it as that. To begin with I felt more confident talking about aspects of childhood than I was talking about how I felt, about losing people or missing people, or where you end up.”
When we last spoke, in 2010, quiet Weeks described the band to me as “mid-table”. Today he’s still exceptionally nice and mild-mannered for a frontman, a tiny earring and discrete bicep tattoos of a windmill and a paper airplane indicating the smallest leanings towards being a rock star. The Maccabees still lack the hunger to be arena fillers that is so obvious in some groups once they’ve had a big album or two, but that’s probably a good thing.
“I’ve never really thought about what level I want to be,” says the singer. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a great gig at the O2 Arena. I’m sure people do make it work but I’ve always felt it lets the music down a bit.”
“We’re not trying to make songs for stadiums,” continues Hugo. “It’s quite obvious in people’s records when that’s the drive behind it.”
The London venue that the band enthuse about the most is the demolished Astoria. “Playing there was a monumental moment for a lot of bands – a really exciting place. It’s desperately missed as a place to play gigs,” says Felix. They make their live comeback next week at the underused Coronet, round the corner from their studio, where they hope to capture some of the grimy feel of old.
So rather than getting ready to take over the world, The Maccabees are having their Elephant & Castle moment. “I don’t think, if we were looking to become a massive stadium band, that we would have made a record that’s so Elephant & Castle-centric,” says Weeks. “We just felt very much a part of this area, coming here every day to make the record.” They may have kept it local, but their new material deserves to be heard around the world. The Maccabees’ upward trajectory continues.
May 14, Coronet, SE1 (0871 230 6230, www.coronettheatre.co.uk)
The single, Marks to Prove It, is out on Monday on Fiction