Athlete interview

Ivor Novello winners Athlete have overcome hurdles in their time. Keyboardist Tim Wanstall tells James Wilkinson all about it


It’s kind of weird –you were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize with your first album and your second album scored you an Ivor Novello award, and yet after the third album you were dropped by your record label. What happened there?
It’s an example of how things have changed. Even 10 years ago record 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 almost just taken as much positive inspiration as we could. In fact, when the managing director called up to say, ‘Sorry but it’s best if we call it a day,’ we could have kept going with them, but we said no and exercised the right to get out. You could tell from his comments that he thought it was the end of the day for us, and for some bands it would have been. But we saw it as a new beginning, and creatively it forced us to dig in. 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 that it’s not like another career where you get more money once you’ve reached a certain level of experience. In fact it goes in the opposite direction.

What are you doing at the moment?
I’m at the studio at the moment with [drummer Steve Roberts]. Going out to have dinner with my family later, which is a bit of a treat because I don’t have a lot of time at the minute.

Is it a heavy-duty job?
I never really think of it as a job, really, because it’s all-consuming and it’s really hard to stop. When you get home you mess around on the piano or the laptop and it’s really hard to draw a line and say, that’s it. And it’s just my life, really, to be honest.

What are you expecting from Dubai?
The only experiences I’ve had of Dubai have been stopovers when I’m going to Australia. Flying in for the first time with no expectations, going from barren land to all these gardens and buildings, is an incredible feeling. It’s one of those places that’s taken on almost mythical proportions.

You did some gigs in America without Steve. Was he getting a bit paranoid that you might all kick him out?
I don’t think so, but it was weird because afterwards we’d tell stories and say, ‘Do you remember this?’ And you’d forget that Steve wasn’t there. You’d be rubbing it in for ages. And now I’m getting that because [lead vocalist and guitarist] Joel and [bassist] Carey are travelling around radio stations in the US playing songs now. And now I’m following them on Twitter thinking: I know you’re getting…

…hugs from Kiefer Sutherland? We saw that one.
…yeah, and free drinks from a record executive, and free parties, and free food. Free food is my favourite thing! For me, anyway…

The best of Athlete

Tim Wanstall runs through his favourite Athlete tracks
‘Magcal Mistakes’ from The Black Swan (2009)

‘I do really, really enjoying playing this one. When you write a song and pass it around your friends, you tend to find that some songs are preferred by people who are also in bands. This is one of the ones they pick out. It’s less overtly poppy, but the sound’s really good.’

‘Westside’ from Vehicles and Animals (2003)
‘This was one of two songs that we got signed off the back of. And as soon as the tune kicks in, we get all those mental associations and feelings from the moment when we sent our CDs off to the record companies and people started coming to see us.’

‘Wires’ from Tourist (2005)
‘This is the song we’re best known for, but I like it for another reason: when we went with that for our first single 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 obviously it did great 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.’

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