We've kind of settled on this phrase ‘electronic chamber music,’ which sounds cool but doesn’t really tell you anything,” Neil Amin-Smith says over the phone from London while attempting to describe Clean Bandit’s sound. In recent months, it’s a predicament he’s found himself in more times than he once thought possible.
The handsome violinist for the on-the-rise dance-pop outfit, Amin-Smith witnessed their breakout hit “Rather Be” top the British charts in January and stay there for four consecutive weeks—a feat that hasn’t been accomplished by a UK-based act since Adele’s “Someone Like You” went to #1 back in 2011.
And indeed, putting a black and white label on Clean Bandit’s music is no simple task. A giddy blend of beats, bleeping synths and glorious strings, “Rather Be” rode in on the current wave of retro-sounding deep house cuts infiltrating the airwaves on both sides of the pond. If Route 94 is the movement’s resident DJ, Disclosure its les enfant terribles and Kiesza and Katy B the reigning divas, then Clean Bandit are the classically trained conductors of the cool-in-the-club-again genre.
Oops—but there we go trying to categorize the group. In truth, Clean Bandit’s upcoming debut album New Eyes (out in the U.S. this June) is a diverse mix of musical flavors.
“All the tracks on the album are so different,” Amin-Smith explains. “There’s maybe something you hear from [each of] our personalities throughout them. They’re so different just in terms of the actual sound and the genres. And there are also different vocalists on each track.”
While a marriage of classical and dance music seems like an odd coupling, the three original members of Clean Bandit—Amin-Smith, cellist Grace Chatto and keyboard player Jack Patterson—fell together pretty easily in 2008, while studying at the University Of Cambridge.
“Grace and I have known each other for quite a long time through various classic music ensembles, and at university we were in a quartet together that I was leading,” says Amin-Smith says. “Grace lived with Jack at the time and he recorded some of our performances. Without telling us, he started chopping up the recordings he’d made and laid beats underneath.”
The three of them began staging live shows together, and a year and a half later Patterson’s younger brother, Luke, was brought in as the group’s drummer. Subsequently, a string of singles were released in the UK via indie label Black Butter between 2012 and 2013, with one, the trippy electro number “Mozart’s House,” cracking the Top 20.
However, Clean Bandit found that one unreleased song in their live repertoire was going down better with audiences than all of their available singles: “Rather Be.”
“We really rough-demoed it for a long time because it took awhile to find the right voice to go on the track,” says Amin-Smith.
Last year Clean Bandit’s label suggested a singer named Jess Glynne for “Rather Be,” who, at the time, was featured on an underground dance track called “My Love” by DJ Rowan Jones, better known as Route 94. Fast forward to 2014, and less than two months after “Rather Be” found its way to the top of the British singles chart, “My Love” followed suit, giving singer Glynne the distinction of being featured on two #1 hits that went on to be European smashes by springtime.
Speaking to Route 94’s Jones separately, he says he was initially caught off guard upon learning that Clean Bandit had used the same singer: “We didn’t even know she’d done that with them. So for her, it was just good luck.”
But let’s get back to Clean Bandit—and, in particular, their name. When asked how it came about, Amin-Smith warns, “It’s a slightly crap story.” And it’s one involving Jack and Grace, who were a couple at the time and living in Russia for a year.
“One of their friends used to call Grace this Russian expression, which basically means ‘total bastard’—but it’s meant affectionately,” he laughs. “The direct translation is ‘clean bandit.’ The translation is kind of weird, but at the time we found it funny. And now we probably find it a bit naff, but it’s too late.”
It truly is too late. On the heels of “Rather Be,” the worldwide release of Clean Bandit’s LP New Eyes was announced, along with a European tour and two coastal dates in the U.S. in June—one on June 17 at West Hollywood’s Roxy Theatre, and the other across the country on June 19 at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg.
“Our summer is already looking more exciting than it otherwise would have,” Amin-Smith says, noting the doors that have opened following their newfound success. “We’re playing at such incredible places and on such cool stages. That’s amazing for us, because playing live is what we started off doing. That’s always been key for us.”
“Rather Be” is available now on iTunes via Atlantic Records. Clean Bandit’s full album New Eyes will be available stateside on June 17