The sun is setting in Los Angeles one evening in early May. The Struts have just finished making their new album – effectively from scratch, in just 10 days – and Luke Spiller is motorbiking out to Joshua Tree National Park.
“I remember riding and thinking: ‘Oh my god’,” the singer says. “I literally couldn’t fathom the amount of work and material that had been accumulated and recorded to such a high standard. It was kind of mind-blowing. But it all sunk in on that ride. This feeling of: ‘Ahhh, this is what it’s all about.’ I was riding on an empty highway, with just some music on my airpods. It was a real moment of: ‘Wow, I can’t wait for people to hear this.’ I’ll always remember that.”
This is a very Luke Spiller anecdote. The motorbike, the music, the evocative snapshot of nostalgic Hollywood roguishness… Musically he flits between eras, but visually the 32-year-old embodies the sort of offbeat, old-world decadence seen in very few of his contemporaries. He’s sort of like a male Norma Desmond for the iPhone generation, with one eye on Queen’s deep cuts and the other on Noel Fielding’s hairdresser (and less prone to diva fits).
Completed by guitarist/riff machine Adam Slack, pop-star-pretty bassist Jed Elliott and powerhouse drummer Gethin Davies, The Struts are one of the main reasons we can all feel good about the state of rock’n’roll today.
Capitalising on their Britishness without veering into twee territory (the accent-less vocals, the self-aware lyrics, the nods to Queen, Mott The Hoople, Oasis etc), in the past few years they’ve torn through the United States, filled increasingly sizeable UK venues and set their sights on the music’s Holy Grail – major radio play and world domination. Nothing could stop them.
But of course a lot can change in a year. As of now, Spiller is “officially homeless” and is hunkering down at his parents’ place in the UK while all hell breaks loose in America. His bandmates are in similar a position, having left their Tinseltown digs and flown back to Blighty in the run-up to the release day of the new album, Strange Days, only to find themselves unable to return to the US.
“We did set up homes in LA, and now we’re kind of in the process of getting rid of it, and just…” Guitarist Slack searches for the words. “I dunno, surviving until we have a better idea of where and when we’re going to be working again, or where we’re going to be living. We’re in that limbo phase.”
This was not how 2020 was supposed to look. “It was going to be business as usual,” Spiller says over Zoom, sitting in his old bedroom. “There was going to be a lot of touring, a lot of promotion, writing here and there, like what we’ve done before on the previous albums.”
For the past five years, “business as usual” for The Struts has meant relentless touring and promo schedules, with writing and recording sessions squeezed in between flights, shoots and shows.
It’s reaped some brilliant results. Last year’s Young & Dangerous was a tight feast of pop sensibilities, gleaming contemporary production, and enough sparkle to make the Strictly Come Dancing cast look positively beige. Its predecessor Everybody Wants was similarly sugared up (but substantial), conceived in multiple stages and time zones.
None of this is to say that Strange Days is a sombre affair by contrast. It’s certainly not a depressing ‘covid fest’ either, as one may be tempted to deduce from its title. Written and recorded in 10 days, it’s exactly the young-firebrand rock’n’roll record that 2020 needed.
It’s also the band’s most old-school collection yet, drawing Stones-esque toe tappers (Cool) the glitziest of glam (I Hate How Much I Want You, featuring Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and Phil Collen), Rod Stewart-via-Laurel Canyon warmth (Burn It Down) and more into one loose, liberated whole.
You can hear that the band were not under pressure – from themselves or anyone else – to make radio singles. Ironically it’s their highest charting record by a long shot, landing in the UK Top 20 at No.11, and it saw them finally nail some heavyweight UK airtime, with multiple spins on Radio 2.
“We did go in saying: ‘Fuck radio, fuck everything, this is going to be purely for the fans,’” Spiller says, “and ultimately it could prove to be one of our most successful records to date. Because radio is really important. And anyone who says it’s not is talking out of their arse.”
“It’s a pretty happy album,” Slack says. “Strange Days [the title track, co-sung with Robbie Williams] is ballad-y but it’s hopeful. And a lot of the songs, like Can’t Sleep, Cool, Hate How Much I Want You, even Burn it Down, they’re all uplifting songs, which is nice in the fact that it has been a bit of a crappy year.”
He’s not wrong. 2020 has brought plenty of unwelcome surprises. Still, the band agree, without the biggest of them Strange Days wouldn’t exist. “If the lockdown and this massive pandemic hadn’t have happened, then this record simply wouldn’t have happened,” Spiller says with finality. “Talk about making the best out of a bad situation.”
Back in March, as much of the world migrated over to Zoom and set up camp there, The Struts were doing their best to stay sane by playing around with ideas and performing eclectic ‘Sunday Services’ on YouTube (lockdown banter and Spice Girls covers included).
Initially the prospect of some home time, after five years of barely sitting still, was enticing. They embraced cosy domesticity. Elliott and Slack went one step further and got puppies with their respective girlfriends.
“We just got a glimpse of what a normal life would be like,” Elliott says. “Whether or not puppies [which are still in LA] were a good idea, in hindsight I’m not sure.”
By the time the idea of recording was mooted – and it was suggested that the band quarantine together for 10 days at producer Jon Levine’s home studio – they were falling out of love with ‘normal’ living.
“We were kind of all going a bit mad,” Davies admits, “and that was, like, two weeks into it, I think. We were all craving it for a while, but then it was like: ‘Oh, actually this is kind of mundane.’ It fizzled out after a while. It made me appreciate what we do a lot more.”
Initial noises about making an EP turned into a general oh-fuck-it-let’s-make-an-album consensus, and on April 24 2020 (covid-tested and virus-free) the four of them arrived at Levine’s LA residence.
Scenes of rampant debauchery, obscenity, excess… No, actually a lot of pyjamas, empty Starbucks cups and sleeping on air mattresses. Passers-by (had they been allowed in) would have witnessed something akin to a big sleep-over or summer camp, pandemic-style.
Songs were written and recorded round the clock, broken up by one restorative day of drinking beers by the pool when emotions began to run a little high. For the four friends, who’d never made a record together in such a concentrated block of time, it was complete bliss.
Talking to them today, all the headaches and weariness generated by the global situation seem to evaporate as conversation turns to those 10 days.
“I’ve never been so excited to be writing music, ever,” enthuses Slack, who’d been storing up riffs and ideas in the preceding weeks. “Every morning I was just so excited, and it made me love songwriting even more than I ever had.
"I hadn’t had that feeling for years, probably going all the way back to when me and Luke first started writing. You’re going into this room and thinking: ‘I wonder what’s going to happen today? We wrote three yesterday! Are we gonna write another three today?’”
“We were literally writing rock’n’roll for breakfast, every day for ten days,” Spiller says. “It felt like a dream. I don’t know whether it was the fact that I was waking up so early and we were having long days, or maybe it was the particular strain of weed I was smoking, but it literally felt like a dream. We were making two to three songs sometimes in one day. Not only that, but they were really good!”
The real breakthrough, they agree, came when it came to writing and nailing the deliciously strutting, 60s-nodding Cool, from scratch, in less than a day. “I think the chains had been broken at that point,” Slack says. “‘Oh we can literally do whatever we want.’ That sparked the rest of the writing process, really. It was a really ‘cool’ moment. Pun intended.”
So you didn’t go all Lord Of The Flies or anything while you were locked down in the studio?
“Well, we were fighting over a giant conch shell at one point…” Spiller replies thoughtfully, “but that’s about as Lord Of The Flies as it got.”
“The bass part on Wild Child is actually Geth through a conch,” Elliott adds.
“It’s our secret,” Spiller says with a grin. “Our new sound."
“Our not so guilty conch!” a beaming Elliott adds. “Oh God…”
Slack puts his head in his hands.
Outsider infiltration came from perhaps the most successfully eclectic guest cast since Slash’s self-titled solo debut. For the balladic title track Spiller went to Robbie Williams’s Beverly Hills home, where the two of them recorded vocals on the ex-Take That star’s front porch.
Tom Morello, an old friend from a Nashville club gig, flew in guitar parts for the brilliantly heavy Wild Child (“It was loud,” Spiller remembers. “I don’t know why the neighbours didn’t complain”). Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr (he’d supported them as a soloist) lent chops to Another Hit Of Showmanship for a shot of 00s guitar-wave nostalgia. Joe Elliott’s mock phone call/opening skit for I Hate How Much I Want You was recorded in two takes in May (“I said: ‘Just… be as you as you possibly can,’” Spiller says, chuckling).
“We’re the only band in the entire world that could have Robbie Williams and Tom Morello on the same album,” Spiller says with unshakeable confidence. “Handsdown, no one else would do that. We’re the only band who’s ever opened up for McFly for a tour and then done the Rolling Stones. This is the kind of band we are.”
It’s come at price, though – chiefly that of their personal lives. Relationships have suffered or fallen apart. Prolonged time at home (not that any of them had fixed ‘homes’ for a long while), pre-covid, was nonexistent. Exhaustion got very real.
None of them are complaining about any of this, but you wonder if the enforced time off the road and tastes of ‘normal’ life have made them look at the business of being in a band differently? Or simply reinforced what we’ve long sensed: that it’s what they were made to do?
“It does make you sort of sit back and ask yourself: ‘What actually is important here? What do I want to get out of this experience called life?’” Spiller concedes. “Because being and doing who and what we are, it’s not normal. I don’t think we’re designed to live like this for extensive periods of time. So I think it’s kind of made our priorities shift slightly.”
He pauses, then adds swiftly: “But it’s not taken away our ambition.”
“It [being at home] was kind of a nice, welcome change,” Slack says, but…” He stops and thinks, tired but wired to the cause. “I’m kind of itching to go and play shows.”
World domination? It’s never off the table.
Strange Days is out now via Interscope/Polydor (opens in new tab).