Noisettes: 'We've come to clean up the indie landfill'

Noisettes have stormed the charts with their bouncy new single - which sounds nothing like the ragged punk they used to make. Sell-out? Not in the least, the trio tell Paul Lester

Noisettes are in a TV studio just outside Paris - along with the Sugarhill Gang and singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman. They are just some of the attractions on Taratata, the French equivalent of Later... With Jools Holland. One of the biggest "new" groups of the year (they formed in 2003 but have only now broken through) and the only British band currently in the UK top 10 singles chart, they are rehearsing a familiar tune. Only instead of their ubiquitous No 2 hit, the Mazda-advertising Don't Upset the Rhythm, it's a version of Stevie Nicks's Edge of Seventeen, the one sampled by Destiny's Child for Bootylicious.

As if Noisettes' powerhouse vocalist Shingai Shoniwa wasn't enough, she's joined on the track by Peaches, the Canadian musician with a penchant for gender subversion, whose albums Fatherfucker and Impeach My Bush have placed her at the forefront of radical dance-punk. It says something about Shoniwa that she makes the flamboyant electro feminist seem rather unimposing, despite her half-shaved head and daunting reputation.

"I was surprised by how small and old she looks - she always looks so superfly and tall in magazines," says Noisettes drummer Jamie Morrison, he of the wild hair and penchant for plain speaking.

Actually, none of Noisettes is exactly shy. Guitarist Dan Smith, the one with the neat side-parting (he used to have a Phil Oakey-style lopsided fringe), white pointy shoes, tight white trousers and droll sense of humour, is the member most likely to remember "the gory details" of any band misadventure and get told to shut up by the others. As for Shoniwa, she's a bundle of mischief who smiles sweetly as she decimates all in her path.

"We've come to clean up the landscape and get rid of the male-dominated indie landfill," she says, casually removing her shorts to reveal a micro-skirt, striking a series of ballerina poses in the afternoon sun for the Guardian photographer. Noisettes, she proudly reports, have a female manager, as well as female backing singers and string players. "All those moody indie bands with their [male] roadies dressed in black, revelling in the misery of life - you're supposed to enjoy it, so fucking get on with it! When we go out and party after a gig, it's not just bouts of destructive energy. We look out for each other."

Shoniwa is as wary as she is bubbly. Later, on the band's sumptuously appointed tour bus, which they've just acquired from Take That, she defensively counters suggestions that Noisettes' imminent second album, Wild Young Hearts - a lush, diverse affair produced by Jim Abbiss (Adele, Arctic Monkeys) that flits between pop, jazz, electro, grunge, swing and soul - represents a calculated commercial advance from their 2007 debut of ragged punk and scruffy indie, What's the Time Mr Wolf? The dishevelled sound, she explains, was by default not design: they wanted Prince or David Bowie to do something magical and expansive with it, but they were, not surprisingly, unavailable. Nor was there any contrivance with the follow-up.

"Don't confuse punk with indie," she warns. "You're trying to lead us down an alley. Our first album had old soul, old jazz and old punk rock on it and so does our new album. It's just that the first one had fewer instruments and we produced it ourselves. But it also had songs on it like Never Fall in Love Again, which has Bacharach chords and could be a Johnny Cash country number, and Mind the Gap, which is a sort of jazz odyssey. Problem was no one in the indie or commercial worlds would accept us. So [this time] we were just trying to upgrade our sound. Anyway, indie is boring, dead and over, and thank God for that."

She needn't be suspicious: there is a long and illustrious tradition of bands changing direction between albums. She knows it, too; they all do. No sooner has the subject been raised than all three Noisettes demonstrate an impressive, almost encyclopaedic knowledge of rock history. "Radiohead changed their sound after Pablo Honey," says Morrison as he fiddles with a Nintendo DS. "So did Fleetwood Mac after Peter Green left." "Deep Purple were a psychedelic pop group before they discovered heavy rock," Smith adds. "Yes went all MOR when Trevor Horn joined. And Johnny 'Guitar' Watson was a blues guitarist in the 1950s; then he started playing the funkiest disco in the 70s."

Shoniwa warms to the theme. "Rush!" she yelps, drops of wine spilling from her glass as she proves herself unexpectedly familiar with the Canadian prog-metal trio. "They ditched the guitars, bought a Fairlight [synthesiser] and turned into ELO. And the Bee Gees, man, come on! One minute they're a country band doing songs like Massachusetts, the next they're singing disco in high-pitched voices. Obviously we don't know our music at all ..."

Although Shoniwa does most of the talking, Noisettes aren't just a magnetic frontwoman plus two faceless instrumentalists. Apart from being excellent musicians, the boys bring plenty to the table and help make Noisettes an interesting group in a period dominated by solo stars. Smith, who met Shoniwa when they were both studying at the Brit school, is 30 but still lives at home in Croydon with his mother, who is a poet and painter from Trinidad, and his Scottish father, a painter and a harmonica player who has jammed with Jimmy Page and recently gigged with John Sinclair, former manager of the MC5 and leader of the militant White Panther Party. (Smith is baffled to learn that his Wikipedia entry included a reference to his "racist" parents; it has since been changed to "artist".)

Morrison, who was born in Cambridge in 1983 to a yoga teacher mother and dentist father, is an oddity. Just when you think you've got him pigeonholed as your typical bluff sticksman, he'll tell you that he spent four years living with his ex-girlfriend in LA and hanging around with the likes of actor David Schwimmer, who he describes as "an incredibly dull but lovely guy". He admits that his "worst day ever" was last Sunday, when he discovered that his ex-girlfriend, who broke up with him a few months ago, had been in email contact with Smith. He opened up the guitarist's computer, only to find a giant image of her surrounded by screeds of text. "I just saw her face and started crying, for an hour straight," he says. It's all blown over now, though, and he and Smith are fine. Besides, he's already mooning over someone else: "I'm really into Lily Allen. As a character and for the way she looks. I can't wait to meet her. But," he adds, and he's clearly done his homework, "she's in America right now."

Shoniwa, 28, grew up in London surrounded by her musician uncles, who instilled in her a love of African music and classic soul. After leaving the Brit school she had stints as a burlesque dancer and considered joining a circus after training as a contortionist. Her mother, "a social worker for people from broken homes with learning difficulties", used to put on gigs at the Africa Centre and would often take her daughter along. Her father, who she says "passed away when I was younger", was a politician: "Well, he was an economist," she says, although she is reluctant to reveal more. "I don't want to talk about him," she says, "with a stranger."

Shoniwa does, however, refer to his "post-colonial politician friends with their Daimlers". She says she loves cars, especially vintage ones. "I never buy anything after 86. I had a yellow VW Beetle when I was 19, then a 1978 Mercedes 300 TD. I like cars with personality: Mustangs, old Porsches, 60s Saabs ... Dan's dad's got a 1930s Armstrong-Siddeley. It's beautiful - we used it in one of our videos." She even owned a black cab once. "I used to drive my girlfriends round London with the taxi light on. Whenever the barrow boys around Liverpool Street would call us over, all these half-naked girls would be flashing out the window, going, 'All right, love, how you doing?!' So much fun."

She says she doesn't fancy either of the male Noisettes because "it would be incestuous to think of them like that", although she does concede that "Jamie is most popular with the ladies in America where they like a bit of rough", and in Europe "they're attracted to Dan because he's dark and mysterious."

When Noisettes finally record their performance for Taratata later that evening, the audience, lulled into a stupor by a parade of worthy local musicians, erupt. They rise as one, applauding thunderously and shouting ecstatically as Shoniwa, barefoot but otherwise fabulously overdressed as a sort of sci-fi warrior princess, turns the studio into her own personal playpen. Meanwhile, Smith, with his orgiastic grimace, and Morrison, who bangs his sticks on the singer's behind as she glides past his drum-kit, transform Don't Upset the Rhythm into something that vaguely resembles thrash-metal jump jive. "There's a lot of drama in our music," she tells the suave presenter.

Backstage, the atmosphere is jubilant. Noisettes haven't struggled for five years to be blasé now. "We love being in a band," says Morrison, a towel over his shoulders, juggling several flutes of champagne. "We're in France playing on a great telly show, we've got a record at No 2, we're going to be in the Guardian - it doesn't get much better than this."

• Wild Young Hearts is released by Mercury on 20 April.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes...: The greatest U-turns in the history of rock and pop

The Bee Gees Unable to sustain their late-60s run of soft-rock and pop hits, by the mid-70s their career appeared to be faltering. Enter Ahmet Ertegun, who suggested that the brothers work with soul producer Arif Mardin. The rest is disco history.

Fleetwood Mac The version of the Mac with Peter Green and the one with California duo Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks at the helm are like two different bands. Suffice to say that the combined sales of 1975's Fleetwood Mac and 1977's Rumours make this one of the most commercially prudent volte-faces ever.

Status Quo When they started in the late 60s, with tracks such as Pictures of Matchstick Men, the Quo were a psychedelic band, and they looked like one, too, with paisley blousons and hairdos that suggested they'd been ingesting hallucinogens. Then they discovered riffs and denim and never looked back.

Scritti Politti In the late 70s, they were quintessential postpunks, all radical politics and scratchy anarcho-noise. Then main-man Green Gartside got ill and, following a period convalescing in Wales during which he immersed himself in R&B and lovers' rock, he emerged with a vision of a new Scritti: as purveyors of super-polished, hi-tech pop'n'soul.

My Bloody Valentine They were dismissed as fey indie shamblers and the high point of their career was a support slot with the Soup Dragons. Then, in 1988, as if out of thin air, they came up with the You Made Me Realise EP, which featured a sound so mindblowingly original and swirlingly inventive you could hardly believe it was the same band.

Hall & Oates The most successful duo in pop history have had several changes of musical heart: they started off as a folk outfit, essayed a sort of semi-acoustic soul on 1973's Abandoned Luncheonette, and went psych-metal-glam on the following year's Todd Rundgren-produced War Babies, before spending the 80s making new wave disco-rock.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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