Where there's Maccabees there's brass | Laura Barton

The Maccabees sing songs about Lego and toothpaste. They are also being hailed as the saviours of indie. So why have they joined forces with a brass band?

Download the Maccabees collaboration with the Dodworth Colliery Band

It's a blazing hot Sunday afternoon and, in a recording studio on the outskirts of Sheffield, several members of the Dodworth Colliery Band are measuring the width of an upstairs doorway. They have already shuttled through cornets, trombones, French horns, euphoniums and trumpets – but now, it seems, there might be a problem accommodating the timpani. "Nope," says one band member, with a sorry shake of the head. "We're going to have to take the door off."

The Dodworth musicians are here to record an all-brass version of the Maccabees' song Can You Give It? It forms the B-side of the single, which is released this week. The idea for the cover version came from the Maccabees themselves. "We had to do some B-sides," says Orlando Weeks, the band's bashful lead singer, who has just arrived with guitarist Felix White, fresh from the London train. "Quite a lot of the record touched on brass, so I thought it would be nice to go the whole hog. We didn't want to get another lot of remixes. Everyone's kind of heard enough of the rr-rr-rrrrow."

These are pleasing times for the Maccabees, a five-piece from south London who in May released their  second album, Wall of Arms, to critical and commercial acclaim. The Observer described it as "the meticulously evolved sound of a band aiming to breathe life into British indie", while this paper called it "a collection of atmospheric, heartfelt pop songs that frequently fly off at unexpected angles". It is, with little doubt, one of the best records of 2009, and the band are following up its success with a string of appearances at summer festivals.

Today's colliery band recording brings back fond memories for Weeks, who played trumpet in his school orchestra. "I really enjoyed being in a collective – the noise of it, playing at the summer concert," he says, above the breathy hum of brass players warming up next door, and the scrawling sound of a death metal band rehearsing in another studio. "Brass instruments look cooler than most instruments."

For White, school music lessons were less illustrious. "I was told I couldn't sing or do anything," he says. "So I had to play xylophone. Just the one note, again and again. My favourite note? Whichever note they gave me. I was just happy to be involved, yunno?" He recently received a letter inviting him to return to the school for a music event. "They said, 'We'd like you to do a speech about how much the school taught you.' I'm going to go back and smash the xylophone."

The Maccabees released their first single, X-Ray, in late 2005, followed six months later by Latchmere, a tribute to the wave machine at Latchmere leisure centre in Battersea. The original lineup was Weeks, White, his guitarist brother Hugo, bassist Rupert Jarvis and drummer Robert Dylan Thomas (who, after a stint in rehab, has now been temporarily replaced by Sam Doyle). The name came from Jarvis, who landed upon a reference to the Maccabees, a Jewish liberation movement from the second century BC, while flicking through the Bible. The band signed to Fiction Records, acquired a hearty following, and in 2007 their debut album, Colour It In, charted at No 24. The band achieved further exposure when their song Toothpaste Kisses graced an advert for a Samsung mobile phone. But, as endearing as their music was, it was hard to view them as anything more than one of a number of charming young indie bands enjoying success, a group who wrote songs about Lego, wave machines and toothpaste. 

Wall of Arms, then, was not the album most people expected. "They expected a twee-er, worse second record," says White. "But part of the fun is having a point to prove. We're in our early 20s, we're in a band, we've made one record – if you don't have ambitions to go further with a bit of fight, you shouldn't really be doing it." 

The result was a record that was darker, richer, more complex, and bearing the influence of its producer Markus Dravs, who has worked with Arcade Fire and Björk. "We were keen to have someone who wasn't going to bring a band in, record them as they are and push them out again," says White. "You do hear a lot of bands our age being treated like that: quickfire, get them in, with producers not thinking about arrangements and stuff. But Markus helped us realise some of our ambitious ideas – while talking us out of the ridiculous ones."

The ridiculous ideas included Weeks's ill-fated attempt to replace a guitar part with a marimba. "I would be desperately practising so that I would be able to play it fast enough, so that Marcus would say, 'OK, yeah! We can use the marimba!'" Alas, Weeks failed to champion it. "A lot of ideas," he confesses, "were replaced out of sheer ineptitude."

Many have commented that the new songs share a mood and intensity with Arcade Fire; this came not just from Dravs, but from the band themselves. "Arcade Fire are my favourite band," says Weeks. "We wanted to write songs that had spirit and were a little grander – in the way they make everything fit together. They do that amazingly. It's a distant benchmark but something to aim for."

The band, it seems, are also slowly learning the art of studio diplomacy. "If I say I want it to be raucous, or punk, or dead exciting," says White, "I know that's going to put Orlando off it." Weeks frowns. "Come on," taunts White, "deny it!" They both start to laugh. "So I don't use those words. But I do mean them. Instead I use, 'beautiful, spirited, experimental'."

They returned from touring Colour It In with a clutch of new songs that were duly scrapped. "We thought we had it sussed," says Weeks, "but we had to start again. The songs were rubbish. Really, really. I was listening to a lot of crooners – Roy Orbison, Richard Hawley. I was trying to figure out how to make that appropriate for us." 

Such casting around for styles may have something to do with the fact that Weeks – slightly built, self-effacing and a bit of a mumbler – does not fit the natural frontman mould. Asked about some of the more specific references in the songs he squirms and stutters, although he does freely explain Seventeen Hands: "It's about how my mum's side of the family started. My great-great-grandfather was a stablehand and he put all his money on a horse he'd been training that was 17 hands high. And it won. After that, he could afford to marry my great-great-grandmother."

However, asked how William Powers – a song about balancing love, lust and fidelity – got its name, he stares at the floor. "I dunno really," he says awkwardly. "I don't know why it's called that, really." Weeks also decided to learn the guitar for this record: "I've always felt pretty uncomfortable. That's why it's nice having a microphone stand if you're a singer, because you can hold on to that. But when you're playing guitar, you feel more part of everything that's going on."

It is early evening by the time the Dodworth Colliery Band are warmed up and ready to record. Weeks stands behind the mixing desk, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, looking out over a sea of bells, slides and valves. There is the scent of brass in warm air, a fluttering excitement of something quite magical about to ­ happen. And then it does: those tubas, trombones and timpani go rollicking through the tune. It is extraordinary, inspired and profoundly moving.

Weeks turns to White and smiles broadly. "That," he says as the band come to rest on the final note, "is wonderful."  

Can You Give It? is out now on Fiction. The Maccabees play T in the Park, Kinross, on Friday, then tour. www.tinthepark.com


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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