On May 28th 2006, the four members of Athlete gathered in the studio they'd just finished building, a short hop from their south east London homes. Three days earlier, the band's 'Wires' single had been named Best Contemporary Song at the Ivor Novello awards. Now it was time for Athlete to make some new music. They picked up their instruments, took a collective deep breath and pressed the record button.
Nine months later, in February 2007, they pressed stop. The recording of their third album, 'Beyond The Neighbourhood', was complete. That night, the band went for a meal with some friends to celebrate. Afterwards, they piled back to the studio for more drinks and to listen through the new tracks in one go for the first time. "We all just sat there with these huge grins on our faces," remembers frontman Joel Pott. "When they'd finished playing, we were like, 'Yes!'."
'Beyond The Neighbourhood' is a record of true progression and real quality. Its songs are built around the same effortless hooks and snagging melodies that have been Athlete's trademark since their debut single, 'Westside', was released in March 2002. But the album glows with a newfound musical confidence, its self-produced songs showing big leaps in terms of ambition, scope and creativity. Lyrically, too, the album is a striking success, pinpointing the joys, confusions and uncertainties of living, as drummer Stephen Roberts puts it, "in this amazing world where so many mad things keep happening".
The seeds for the new album were sown while the band were on the road with 2005's 'Tourist'. That record was one of an extremely rare breed this century; a second album that outperformed a successful debut. Driven by two Number One radio airplay hits ('Wires' and 'Half Light') 'Tourist's double-platinum sales well exceeded those of the band's 2003 Mercury-nominated, platinum-selling debut, 'Vehicles And Animals'. As the band toured it around the world, hearing their lyrics bellowed back at them each night, talk turned to their next record.
For 'Tourist', Athlete had focused on specific albums for inspiration, by acts like Beck, The Flaming Lips, Neil Young and Massive Attack. This time, their ambitions were more general. "We knew we wanted it to sound more 'up' and more playful," says bassplayer Carey Willetts. "But that was as far as it went. We decided we'd write the songs and then see what suited them. We just wanted to have fun with sounds, without any limitations."
In that spirit, as the band toured around America on the last leg of the 'Tourist' tour in spring 2006, they began to experiment with the music making programme Reason on their laptops. With European electro acts like Efterklang and Apparat featuring heavily on the tourbus stereo, Athlete found themselves drawn to Reason's synthesisers, loops and beats, firmly embracing the love of electronic music that has always bubbled beneath their tunes.
The band were so pleased with the results that one of the tracks which began life on Pott's laptop opens the new album. Created together as their tourbus journeyed across the US (hence its title), the band didn't need to add much in the studio to the dreamy instrumental 'In Between Two States'. "It's got a great mood," says Pott of the track.
Instead, the band resolved to push themselves forwards. That drove their decision to record the album in their own studio without the services of a producer. "We'd always had a rehearsal space where we recorded demos," explains the band's keyboard player Tim Wanstall, "And bits of those demos had ended up on both of the first two albums. So we decided that rather than coming off tour, writing a few tunes and then going away to a studio for months to record them, we'd have a go at doing it ourselves, near home, with all our friends and family around us." He adds, "We just felt ready to take control."
Having found a suitable premises, the band built the studio themselves and set to work. "It was all a bit of a gamble," says Willetts. "I was incredibly nervous about whether we were actually capable of recording and producing everything ourselves. But as soon as we'd got cracking on a few songs, it was clear we could. That was a pretty amazing feeling."
The benefits of having their own space soon became clear. For starters, they could take breaks from recording to watch the 2006 World Cup on the studio telly without that familiar nagging voice at the back of their minds reminding them how expensive the hire of this studio and producer was. But, more importantly, it gave them the freedom to experiment. "We had our gear set up the whole time," says Roberts. "So at any point we could just press record and go. If we were writing a song, we'd press record, play along to a bunch of ideas and see where it went. Then we could listen back to it the next day and see which bits we thought were worth developing and what sort of sounds might suit them."
It was quickly obvious that there'd be more guitar on the album (so much so that the band have added former Weevil guitarist Jonny Pilcher to their live line-up). But their electro experimentation continued apace too. "We became a bit obsessed with the concept of 'organic beats'," says Pott. "The idea being that you record sounds from around the studio and then use them for loops." Listen carefully to 'Beyond The Neighbourhood' and you'll hear beats made from doors shutting, switches flicking and equipment being shaken, hit or dropped.
Athlete's last album, by Pott's own admission, "was a bit of a moody bastard". In contrast, 'Beyond The Neighbourhood' has a noticeable sonic skip in its stride, as evidenced by the stomping first single 'Hurricane'. But that track is also characteristic of the lyrical theme that runs through the album. "We're tying to figure out what we think about a lot of things," says Willetts. "From war to the environment to falling in love to dealing with death. Y'know, all the issues our generation is concerned and confused about."
'Hurricane' was inspired by an article Pott read in National Geographic about the increase of typhoons on America's east coast. "Within the first paragraph, this guy was quoted as saying, 'It's just something we've gotta get used to'. I was like, 'Is it?'. I think we're all questioning what's happening on this planet at the moment. Is global warming actually going to take us out? And do we really live in a world where millions march against a war and nobody in charge pays any notice?" "But the song is not defeatist," says Willetts. "I like that line that says we're not giving up the coastline so easily. That kind of defiance runs through the album."
'Beyond The Neighbourhood' further establishes Pott as a lyricist of rare imagination and insight. Following 'Hurricane', the stomping 'Tokyo' offers a tail of hypocrisy and the human condition; the claustrophobic 'Airport Disco' imagines a future where airports are used as nightclubs because flying is banned; and the breakbeat-driven 'It's Not Your Fault' finds hope in tragedy. That brings us to the gorgeous but biting 'The Outsiders' which, as Pott wryly puts it, "is about being English"; the skittering electro lullaby 'Flying Over Bus Stops', which is surely the most romantic song ever to be set on a London night bus; and the anthemic 'Second Hand Stores', a song inspired by a story Pott read about nature falling out of synch with itself.
The album draws to a close with 'In The Library', which is about "growing up and taking responsibility for yourself" and the tragic 'Best Not To Think About It', which Pott wrote after watching 'Falling Man', the documentary about those who jumped from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The final song is the heart-tearing 'This Is What I Sound Like', a track inspired by one of the Israeli agents in Spielberg's 'Munich' film. "It's about being confused," says Pott. "Not knowing whether you're a good or bad person, or what you're doing is right or wrong. It's really a summing up of the whole album."
'Beyond The Neighbourbood', then, is a guitar record soaked in electronica (so much so that a dub remix version of the album, 'Beyond Dub Neighbourhood', is in the can and due for release later this year). It's an album with big tunes, big ideas and a whopping great heart. And it marks a major leap forward for Athlete, without ever losing sight of what made them special in the first place. "This album is everything we'd hoped it would be," says Pott. "We're ridiculously pleased with it." And rightly so.