New brilliant album "Kicking The National Habit" (Sunday Best) out now!
Every so often a group comes along that combines all the best music you grew up with together with a giddy hunger to push the envelope forwards into the future. That combine the angular guitars, pounding basslines and heady euphoria of New Order and the Mondays with the metropolitan nouse and witty introspection of bands like Blur. Grand National are that band . A pair of young Londoners about to release some of the best experimental pop songs this country has produced for, oh, too long. This National Saving Grace, indeed.
So who are the mysterious boys behind this intoxicating noise? Step forward Rupert Lyddon and Lawrence 'La' Rudd, two young men who have come to rescue us from karaoke pabulum and prefab retro garage rock. To add a little fresh lustre to our lives with their thrillingly strange yet simply compelling melodies.
You may recognise La and Rupert - that is, if you happen to have caught them in their previous incarnation, as members of a band performing cover versions of Police and Queen songs in pubs and bars around West London and Brighton. Otherwise, Grand National will be, for you lucky people out there reading this, an entirely new entity to be discovered and treasured.
Not that La, an ebullient 28-year-old with a nose ring from Weston-Super-Mare, and his 29-year-old, more reserved other musical half, who comes from Amersham, Bucks, are new to this game. Actually, they've been playing either solo or in various outfits for years. Rupert's musical career began when he was 12, while La was, from the age of 13, in a Police covers band, in which the precocious brat managed both the Sting (vocals) and Stewart Copeland (drums) parts - oddly, his dad, a ventriloquist-cum-comedian who swapped jokes with Ken Dodd and the late, great Bob Monkhouse, was also a drummer who encouraged his son to take drumming lessons as soon as he could walk and took him to see percussion legend Buddy Rich in concert when he was six. La was hooked, and not just because he liked the beat.
"At school, the hard boys got the girls, and I was only medium hard," he explains, "so I played the drums and started getting girls. Problem was, the hard boys got jealous and punched me on the nose." To toughen up, La found work on a building site. With his hands immersed in concrete, he would compose melodies and lyrics in his head, then transfer them later onto a Dictaphone. Rupert, meanwhile, was at the University Of Swansea. One summer, a mate suggested they head off to the West Coast of America. So, by day, he studied at the Musicians' Institute, and by night he pulled women and watched L.A. burn during the Rodney King riots of '93.
It wasn't until Rupert and La both moved to London that they hooked up and began honing their instrumental skills on the covers circuit. One day, fate intervened to propel them to the next level. Rupert, who was at this point delivering meat for a living, turned up with some prime cuts at a recording studio in Hampstead that happened to be temporary home to Primal Scream during sessions for 'Xtrmntr'. The Scream and Rupert struck up a friendship and soon the young musician found himself being offered free studio time.
This provided the self-confessed technophile with the opportunity to use the state-of-the-art studio gadgetry and apply his growing expertise to some of the material he and La had been acquiring since they began writing together in earnest three years ago.
The first song they wrote in tandem, before they had even arrived at the name Grand National, on January 3, 2001, was a track called "Playing In The Distance", which appeared last November on their debut EP, fittingly titled EP1 - incidentally, one of the Single Of The Weeks in the NME. "Actually," corrects his partner, "it's not about masturbation."
After "Playing In The Distance", and with the name Grand National in place, songs came thick and fast - or rather, liquid and lambent, given the lovely iridescent sound they chanced upon when they put all the bits together in the mix. La and Rupert were responsible for most of the instrumental chores, as well as the production and arrangements. Other musicians have been utilised since only very sparingly by the versatile pair: a little assistance on drums perhaps, a horn solo here or a bass part there. Mostly, though, the richly textured Grand National sound is down to La and Rupert.
"People are surprised there are only two of us. Most of our tracks sound like a band," says Rupert, although he admits they will be a six-piece when they play live this spring. "Most bands have just two strong characters anyway, and most classic songs were written by two people," they say, citing great partnerships from Lennon & McCartney and Jagger-Richards to Morrissey-Marr. "Any more than two and it gets diluted."
As for Grand National's music, they argue that it has an ambiguous quality: "There's a duality to it. It's half-light. Melancholic. British people do that well." But it can get confusing, as La explains. "Bands like The Smiths weren't depressing, that's bollocks - they were uplifting. New Order, too - that's celebratory music."
Their debut album Kicking The National Habit is as luscious and lacerating as it can get: "Drink To Moving On" features ringing guitars and some pleasantly laid-back singing from La that sounds like Sting in a trance. La came up with the bittersweet melody - "It's a cross between New Order's 'Regret' and The Flaming Lips' 'Race For The Prize'," he explains - while holidaying in India with his then-girlfriend. Rupert added the rhythm track back in his Tufnell Park flat. "La waffles to my music," says Rupert, pithily summing up Grand National's modus operandi. "Talk Amongst Yourselves" has deep harmonies, an electronic synth line, and choppy rhythm guitar that is pure Bernard Sumner via Nile Rodgers of Chic. "It's about getting over depression," explains Rupert. "No, it's about puking up in a toilet after going motorcross riding in Kings Cross," contradicts his partner. Adds Rupert, a bit more sensibly: "It's about the internal dialogue that stops you doing shit in your life." "Playing In The Distance" was described by Uncut magazine as like "'Roxanne' meets 'Born Slippy' with Alan Rankine of Associates on keyboards." It's also got the best trumpet solo on a pop record since Teardrop Expodes' "Reward" and a lyric - "we're not caving in" - that is quintessential Grand National philosophising. "Boner", a brilliant blast of neo-ska that betrays a love of The Police, The Specials and The Beat, is "about that ghastly 3pm feeling." Last track on what would have been side one is "Peanut Dreams", one of the first songs La and Rupert wrote after "Playing In The Distance". The bassline and guitar are like some dream meeting between Dr Dre and Joy Division.
"Side two" kicks off with "Cherry Tree", an ode to one-night-stands with a huge pop chorus, a guitar sound that recalls early-'80s The Edge and a lyric that goes, "Baptise my fries and capsize into everything/I stole your berries..." Huh? "It's a surreal way of saying, 'Let's get nuts deep'," explains Rupert, adding: "Sorry, mum." "Coming Round" is another hit single from a parallel universe where decent - i.e. weird, accessible - pop music gets in the charts. "Daylight Goes", about "getting someone you know out of the doldrums", features what sound like kettle drums, a Peter Hook-esque low-slung bassline and a bizarre reference to the actor Richard Harris. "North Sound Off" suggests the direction The Police should have taken after their best album, 'Regatta De Blanc'. Finally, "Litter Bin" - about "watching a mate go nuts" - is exquisite: imagine AR Kane and Talk Talk jamming in pop heaven, all shimmering guitars and aching chord changes.
It's a gorgeous coda to what will undoubtedly be regarded, in 12 months' time, as one of the key recordings of 2004. Just grand.