Athlete – who recently played at Chi – have leapt hurdles in their time. Keyboardist Tim Wanstall tells James Wilkinson about the struggle
Your first album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, you second scored you an Ivor Novello award, and yet after the third you were dropped by your label, Parlophone. What happened there? It’s an example of how things have changed. Even 10 years ago, labels were prepared to believe in you and weather the ups and downs along the way. But now it’s all geared towards how well it goes at the beginning, and if a song or two don’t go so well you’ll be dropped much faster. It’s a shame, but the whole industry is moving that way, so there’s no point trying to fight it.
You’re signed to Fiction Records (owned by Universal) now; how did the switch affect the band? As people, we’ve just taken as much positive inspiration as we could. In fact, we could have kept going with Parlophone, but we said no and exercised the right to get out. When the managing director called up to say, ‘Sorry, but it’s best if we call it a day,’ you could tell from his comments that he thought it was over for us – and for some bands it would have been. But we saw it as a new beginning, and it forced us to dig in creatively. It was that feeling of being an unsigned band again and having to prove ourselves. And we did; we ended up signing with another major company. You’ve got to keep enjoying [a music career] for what it is and accept that it’s not like other careers, where you get more money once you’ve reached a certain level of experience. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction!
Did your writing process change? With the money running out to tour America, we had to go with just the three of us [minus drummer Steve Roberts], supporting bigger acts and playing to 5,000 people who didn’t know who we were. These bare-bones sets would really show which songs worked and which didn’t, so for the fourth album, Black Swan, we made the demos on guitar and piano and chose the 10 best for the album.
Do you get sick of playing ‘Wires’? No. Actually, it’s a favourite of mine. It’s the song we’re best known for, but I like it for another reason: when we chose that for our first single [from the second album, Tourist] we had no idea how people would react. We knew it was the strongest song, but it didn’t seem like an obvious single choice. But it did really well, and even now we get emails from people who say that the song [which is about a newborn baby in intensive care] has been an important part of their lives. It’s special to craft something that not only lasts, but genuinely means something to people. I strongly believe in the idea of pure pop that comes and passes, but it’s great to have something that stays with you.