An exclusive interview with white hot English rockers The Struts
The Struts burst onto the American scene in 2016 with a retooled version of their then two-year-old debut album, Everybody Wants. Combining an arena-rock musical approach with glam swagger, the Struts evoke the sound and feel of a bygone rock era. But the young band from Derbyshire, England, is more than a Queen retread; their anthemic songs strike a chord with modern audiences.
There was an unusually long gap between the release of the revised Everybody Wants (March 2016) and the long-awaited follow-up, Young & Dangerous (out October 26, 2018). In fact, as the band kicked off its North American tour, the new album was still several weeks from release.
I first saw the Struts in December 2016, on their first U.S. tour; I was interested to see what changes two years had wrought upon the group. After the sound check for their October 10 concert at Asheville N.C.’s Orange Peel, I spent some time backstage with singer Luke Spiller and guitarist Adam Slack. We chatted about the long wait between records, the advantages of Dave Grohl being a fan, and how to work a crowd.
Young & Dangerous isn’t out yet, but the band has been rolling out new songs ahead of its release. Was there a conscious effort to write songs that are consistent with the sound and feel of the last album, or were you trying to do something different?
Luke Spiller: We definitely decided to progress. We wanted to create something that was joyful and a lot like the first, but we also wanted to push forward as well, if that makes sense.
Adam Slack: We wanted to make something that was similar to the first, but push it in a new way … like, try it with different sounds in the studio, and different synths. We don’t want to stray too far away because we didn’t want to alienate our fans or anything like that. But at the same time, we didn’t want to just reinvent the wheel …
Luke: Not like we invented the wheel.
Adam: We wrote a lot of music off the first album a long time ago. So, we’ve grown as writers as well.
Did you feel pressure to come up with an album to follow on from the success of the first one?
Luke: Especially after the reissue of the first, because the English issue – let’s call it “the original original” – was good, but when we signed with Interscope and we added four or five new songs. And it was just like, “Wow. This is so much more stronger.” Everything was finished, recording-wise, unlike the very first. So, from that moment on, it was in the back of everyone’s head that this is definitely going to be tough to follow up. Yeah, some of the writing actually even started earlier. “One Night Only” [released 2017] was going to be on the new album, but it was just one of those things where we really needed to get a song out there. So we put that one out just to kind of keep fans interested, and now it’s kind of like a bridge track. I mean, it was very, very tough.
Adam: We kicked off 2017 in the studio writing and stuff. We were working with loads of different people and none of it was clicking, and that’s what kind of made the pressure even more. It was like, “Shit. We’re three months into writing a second album and we’ve got fuck-all.”
Luke: We couldn’t get the right producer, the right chemistry. We were kind of just being yes-men for about three months. I mean, look, we wanted to please everyone; we wanted to trust in a lot of people’s advice. And to be fair, there were some great people that we found from those suggestions. Like Butch Walker, for example, and Jon Levine, another guy who really has given us great new sound, which features on this second album. But yeah, the first three months were painful.
When I last interviewed you in December ‘16, you were talking about how you had some time set aside to start writing. And there’s no delicate way to ask this: It’s been a fairly long period of time between the albums. Was that really just down to really not having the right chemistry?
Luke: Well, firstly, we don’t write on the road.
A ha. And you’re on the road a lot.
Luke: So, you do the math. I’m not not saying nothing happens on the road, but once you kind of get a feel of what the schedule is and the things that we do for our fans … for example, it takes up a lot of our time between the meet-and-greet, and we love having a good soundcheck as well, and we always capitalize on that time. I mean, honestly, there’s probably only a few hours in the day where you kind of want to eat, or wash, et cetera. And there’s so much for us to do. We’ve got to get ready, do the makeup, get our outfits all sorted …
Adam: And we didn’t want to tour. Other than the Foo Fighters [opening gig] that came later on in the year, we went on a tour in the summertime. And that was right in the middle of … we just wrote one or two songs and we were like, “Finally, now we know what we’re doing,” and then it was like, “Now you’ve got to go on tour for six weeks.” It was broken up like that
But the Foo Fighters tour was amazing. You can’t say no to that. So we managed to squeeze it all in, and then we finished the album off at the start of this year. And I can’t believe it’s fucking October already!
Luke: To make things even more difficult for ourselves, all of our time off was spent writing and recording. There would literally be a week here and a week there. Sometimes we would do a show here in the States, and then and we would fly back, and then we would be booked for four days in the studio in the UK the next day after we land. I was falling asleep while Adam was playing a riff; I could barely fucking keep my eyes open.
Adam: And I thought, “If he wakes up, it will be a good one.”
Luke: And the thing is, there was so much added pressure as well. We weren’t allowed to leave any of those sessions without a great demo. That was what was kind of expected of us. Because it costs money. [pauses a beat] No one said that directly, but there was definitely …
Adam: We wanted it as well. Where we were doing it, as well, was at this little island called Jersey, off the south coast off England. There’s nothing really there. So, we’d stay in a hotel, just me and Luke. We’d go to the producer’s house at 9:30, 10:00 in the morning and we wouldn’t leave until 10:00 at night. And it was just like, “Fuck.” [laughs] Thinking about it now, though, I actually can’t wait to do that again.
Luke: And that particular working experience, working with Ray Hedges in Jersey was – and is always – a joy …
Adam: Kind of. I mean, it is stressful.
Luke: It’s an absolute brain fuck!
Adam: Yeah, that’s a better word.
Luke: But it’s a fantastic, enjoyable brain fuck. We’ve known them – him and Nigel [Butler] for, it must be, eight years?
Adam: Eight years, yeah. And they were the ones that me and Luke first ever worked with, before we even had a ban. There are songs on the first album we recorded with them: “Dirty Sexy Money,” “Roll Up,” “Black Swan,” “Where Did She Go.”
Luke: They really helped us give us this sound of adding in these great synthesizers, which we didn’t really think about, and they helped us carve our songs into much better pieces of music, basically.
Adam: And great arrangements, as well, and stuff like that. Me and Nigel are quite chordy-nerdy. We’d sit down and, “Can we do this?” “I don’t know. Fuck it. Let’s do it!” And it was just really fun.
So … unlike the first album, you ended up working with just one producer for Young & Dangerous?
Adam: Sadly not.
Luke: No, and I don’t think, really, in the near future, we ever will.
Luke: Because we have such great results with different people. If you want something which is undoubtedly inverted-commas “Struts,” then we go to Ray Hedges; he can bring that out of us. If we want something which is a little bit more, dare I say, cutting edge and really forward-thinking, then we would go to someone like Jon Levine, who we’ve recently worked with.
Adam: We did “Body Talks” with him.
Luke. “Body Talks,” “People,” and he produced the finished version of “In Love With a Camera.” And you’ll hear on the album, there’s a couple kooky ones he’s done with us. So, yeah, we worked with lots and lots of people in different locations.
One of the most thankless tasks is being an opening act. When you were opening for Foo Fighters, did the audience just embraced you right out of the gate, or did you have to win them over?
Adam: All these people here tonight are pretty much all saw us with Foo Fighters. Look at all the Foo Fighters t-shirts. The people at the VIP event were like, “We came here because we saw you open for Foo Fighters, and we just thought you were amazing.” I think we’re going to see a very similar thing across the whole country, really.
Luke: I think the Foos fans are particularly receptive, which made our lives a fuckload easier. And to be honest, when I started doing “Under Pressure” with them, it was just circling across the internet, and for the fans to go to YouTube and their Facebook feeds or whatever and see that happening – Dave and Taylor [Hawkins] giving me a hug, and then Dave saying this amazing speech about us – it kind of started a bit of a wildfire. Especially on the second leg of the tour, the audiences were really responsive. I felt like that they listened to the music and were really getting into it. It was a really, really great experience.
Adam: A nod of approval from Dave Grohl goes a long way.
One of the things that impressed me last time I saw you – and it’s true again tonight – is how young the crowd is. Actually, it cuts right across generations.
Luke: It’s a real mixture.
Adam: I really enjoy that about our fans. I think sometimes it’s easy to envy the big pop acts, especially guy groups or boy bands and stuff like that. You can envy their success – and nothing on them, but – when you have a fan base of fourteen year old girls, it’s very rare that they kind of stick with you long. I really feel like our fan base is so great and varied; families, actually have emotional investment in the music. It feels very long-term for me. The people who are coming to the shows, some of them come thirty-odd times.
Another thing I noticed the last time I saw you onstage was how much you evoked the spirit of a ‘70s rock concert, and you did it without sounding retro. Do you consciously work at trying to get the vibe of the big arena-rock kind of thing, or does it just sort of happen?
Luke: Well, first and foremost, how I work the audience is just my taste. And I think my taste does have massive echoes from how Queen would address an audience, how Slade would address an audience; it’s a very English thing to kind of do. It’s kind of like Little Richard, and that’s just what resonates with me; that’s what I enjoy. I think what gives it the modern twist is where and how we’re doing it, and the music that’s behind it. It’s not like I’m talking about things that were only specific to 1972 or anything like that. But there is a conscious effort, especially in the music, that we don’t want to regurgitate a genre which – let’s be fair – has been milked to its limit. And what makes me laugh is when people turn around and say that we’re “saving rock and roll.” It’s very cute, but all we’re really trying to do is just play it. But we don’t want to copycat, if that makes sense. We want to push it in a slightly new direction which makes it more exciting.
I also couldn’t help but notice that most everyone in the audience knew the words, even though you weren’t all that well-known here two years ago. To what degree is your performance affected by the feedback from the audience?
Luke: Immensely. It’s always these two things in every show: every single song, every opportune moment, or every given moment, there’s something in my head which says I have to work them. Especially if I see the people just sort of nodding their heads. And especially with the new stuff; the new stuff is where you’ve got to get them going the most. People associate good times and memories with movement. For instance, when we play “Fire” now, I know I’m going to have to work them even harder. Because they don’t know it …
Adam: They might now. It’s been out on Spotify for a few weeks.
Luke: Yeah, but there are still cues. It’s like, “Okay. Not everyone is going to know this chorus. So, what I’m going to do is I’m going to get everyone clapping with every single chorus,” right? So, at least when the chorus happens, there’s something happening. Not everyone’s singing the exact words at the same time. A song “Could Have Been Me” or “Put Your Money On Me,” for example, or “Kiss This,” I can sort of take a little bit of a back seat. Just a little bit.
Because they know it …
Luke: Yeah, because they know it, and I can see everyone’s singing every word. So there’s no need for me to be pushing them.
Adam: They’re moving without you needing them to.
Luke: Exactly. But it’s the new stuff that you want to get them going even more.
But they don’t know the new songs. And the album’s still not out. Is it a challenge to be doing these shows without the album out there?
Luke: It just had to be done. As a band, we’ve been wanting to get out there and do our own shows for quite a while. Because it was almost the best part of a year that we were touring on and off with the Foos, and we were having to do all the old material. So, we started working up the new material in our spare time and in soundchecks, and I think we just got to a point where we were just getting really anxious to get out there and start playing new stuff, new show, new dynamic, new set list.