The Maccabees: last of the great indie guitar bands?

They were once dismissed as 'landfill'. Now they are critically acclaimed. Where did it all go right for the Brighton band?

Six years ago, the Maccabees appeared at the Brighton Concorde, a prestigious venue for any fast-rising band. There, singer Orlando Weeks had once witnessed one of the best gigs he had ever seen – Franz Ferdinand in April 2004 – and his bandmates knew the stakes were high. Unfortunately, everything erupted in mayhem.

"Brighton had just taken us as their own and this kid was hanging from the top bar," remembers guitarist Felix White. "It was crazy. The most passive people were the band. The bouncers were overwhelmed by the amount of people coming onstage. It ended up with fights, and they were dragging people off by their necks."

Briefly threatened with becoming the first band since the Sex Pistols to be banned from playing live, their next Brighton gig took place surrounded by police officers and as a result was "awful". The band couldn't even get into gigs as punters. "I went to see Ben Kweller and they wouldn't let me past the door," chuckles White, shaking his long locks. "I did a Laurel and Hardy routine with my mate – swapped hats and jackets and managed to get in."

Today, it's all very different: the quintet are about to play London's Alexandra Palace, port of call of every indie guitar phenomenon from the Stone Roses to the Black Keys. This on the back of critical acclaim for their third album, the sweepingly melancholic Given to the Wild, reviewers who once called them "landfill indie" showering them in comparisons with the Blue Nile and Talk Talk.

"I didn't think we deserved the 'landfill' tag," chuckles Weeks, more bemused than bitter, inside the band's cluttered Elephant & Castle enclave that was once the Jesus and Mary Chain's Drugstore rehearsal rooms. "But in a way it hasn't done us any harm. It was a nice thing to prove wrong."

Weeks firmly downplays any suggestion their success means his group are the last of the great indie guitar bands ("Anything like that must be taken with a huge pinch of salt"), but with big-selling guitar bands now almost as rare as the dodo, they have followed a method dating back to the Rolling Stones and the Who: forming like a gang in childhood, making gradually better records (initially on tiny labels Haircut and Promise Records) and then touring the world as mates.

"It's been a very nice way to learn who we are," considers the singer, who seems to be keeping level-headed in the face of what must be bewildering experiences such as following Public Enemy's Flavor Flav's outsize clock.

More debatable is whether the Maccabees have ever been a straightforward "indie guitar band" at all. Even when their primary influence was jerky guitar band the Futureheads and not David Bowie's Low and Kate Bush's Hounds Of Love, they incorporated brass into their sound, at one point even recording with the Dodworth Colliery Band. "Lovely people, great banter," sniggers White. "There was a wonderful episode when they realised the timpani was too big to get in, and we had to take the door off."

They recorded with British hip hop pioneer Roots Manuva, who rode in on his bicycle, parked it against the drum kit and toasted over their track No Kind Words, turning it into Empty Vessels in one take. "We wanted him to play with us at Brixton Academy," chortles White, but it didn't happen. "He said, 'Brixton? Last time I was there I saw the Police'. I said 'That must have been a while back?' He said, 'No, the Metropolitan Police."The band – mostly well-educated, well-spoken chaps with posh first names – aren't typical of an indie-rock phenomenon. Bassist Rupert Jarvis was a wannabe racing driver who studied automotive engineering. The first album Fulham fan White bought was Oasis's (What's The Story) Morning Glory? – "Noel [Gallager] talked about how anyone can achieve anything they want and you don't have to be super-intelligent. As a 16-year-old, that's incredibly powerful" – but these days prefers 80s atmospherics.

The quivering, engagingly fretful-voiced Weeks is the biggest curveball, a public-school-educated art student who grew up more interested in David Attenborough's naturalist broadcasts than music. Thoughtful and artistic – it was his idea to ask artist Boo Ritson and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy to do the band's artwork – he insists he doesn't feel like a frontman, and just happens to write most of the words and sing. At school, he was more drawn to images than language and he is surely the only indie rock singer to be massively influenced by Saul Steinbergan early 20th-century Romanian-born artist who served for American military intelligence, conveying messages in China. "Because his illustrative skills were up there in terms of being able to have a conversation with someone in a foreign language. I remember thinking how cool that was."

Equally, their fantastic voyage has rather hapless origins. When Londoner White – who Weeks played football with on the common – was forming a band, the future singer asked if he knew any other guitarists. "I said, '"'Well, there's my brother, but he's not as good as me." Hugo White was 16 and couldn't play a bar chord. Meanwhile, Rupert Jarvis was recruited on bass because he could play Purple Haze – but on guitar, not four-string. Naming themselves after a 2nd-century Judean army – a name a mate had spotted in a book – their first gig, at the tiny Pleasure Unit bar in Bethnal Green, was "awful." Things started to take off when they decamped to Brighton, using courses as an "excuse", and they still remember the thrill of playing to 20 people at the Free Butt.

Hugo White remembers their early days as running on "gut and instinct" – but they were nothing if not resourceful. When Mel Gibson was cast in the ill-fated film The Maccabees, the band used the newspaper headlines – "Mel wants to be a Maccabee" – on flyers for their gigs. "We took it seriously," insists Hugo White. "It was always, 'It's gonna be amazing when we play Brixton Academy'."

Still, he admits that back then they were nowhere near.Early releases consisted of EPs such as You Make Noise, I Make Sandwiches and songs littered with references to childhood: Scalextric and the Green Cross Code. Their 2006 single Latchmere[] addresses the complex subject of the wave machine at Latchmere swimming pool, while Lego hinges on Weeks's dramatic declaration: "And Mum said 'no' to Disneyland."

"It wasn't an anti-corporation sentiment," he admits, drily. "She just didn't fancy queueing." He admits he wrote about his childhood because, still finding his feet with words, he didn't feel "expert" enough to address more complicated issues. However, Precious Time[] – the standout on 2007's debut Colour Me In – convinced Elbow's label Fiction to sign them and, in Weeks's unusually mature musing on mortality, hinted at things to come.

The charismatic Weeks gives the impression of hidden depths but will admit only that he's a "worrier". He insists that nobody has died around the Maccabees but they did have a shock as to the transient nature of life when original drummer and childhood friend Robert Dylan Thomas entered rehab, and left the band.

"He wasn't very well, and what we were doing wasn't conducive to him staying well," considers Weeks, more quietly than ever. "It was very amicable and very sad." White remembers feeling emotionally shattered: "We were 22 and drained." But where Thomas was "skinny, nimble and played at a million miles an hour", actor-turned-replacement Sam Doyle is "muscular and groove-based". Through slowing down and becoming more reflective, the unlikely lads had found their sound.

To celebrate how far they've come, we end the interview trekking up to Ally Pally, to get a taste of where they'll play. On the way up the hill, Weeks admits that 2009's Wall of Arms and Given to the Wild mark a growing maturity and confidence. "We all think, 'We are the Maccabees,'" he explains, and the band clearly mean everything to him. "We don't want anything to bear our name that isn't right."

White, however, has more practical concerns. Gazing around the palace's stunning stained-glass windows and enormous spaces, the usually chatty guitarist suddenly looks overwhelmed: "Playing here is going to be really terrifying."

Went Away, the third single from Given to the Wild, is released on 28 May. The Maccabees play Alexandra Palace on 8 June.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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