The Xcerts: Love, Loss and a Year In Hell

IT’S WEIRD to think The Xcerts are veterans in the music game now, especially as the trio are now only in their mid-twenties. Although they didn’t put out their first album, In The Cold Wind We Smile, until 2009, the band actually began life eight years earlier, when vocalist/guitarist Murray Macleod (left) and bassist Jordan Smith were just 13. The pair put out a couple of EPs with former drummer Ross McTaggart, but it was really when Brighton-based Tom Heron replaced him in 2006 and the other two relocated from Aberdeen that things became more serious. Despite their youth, The Xcerts have always been old beyond their years, their songs driven by both wistful nostalgia and a raw and poignant romanticism – even on 2010’s abrasive follow-up, Scatterbrain. Yet neither are anything compared to their recently-released third full-length, There Is Only You. Intended as a triumphant record about love – albeit one punctuated by Macleod’s inherent penchant for melancholy and the anxiety attacks he’d been experiencing at the time of writing – halfway through its recording, Macleod’s girlfriend broke up with him, something which adds to the already heavy emotional weight of these songs. Yet there’s also a powerful sense of hope in the music – these are anthemic, catchy tunes, carefully constructed pop songs full of heart and soul. They deliberately set out to write a big album. They thoroughly succeeded.

You had high expectations for this record. Now that it’s been out for a while and you’ve seen people’s reactions to it, how have they measured up to your hopes?

Murray Macleod: “I’ve been totally surprised and not surprised at the same time. It’s quite an odd feeling. The overall reaction to the record and the reviews have been pretty overwhelming. I knew we’d made a great record. That’s not me being arrogant, but if I don’t believe in it, what’s the point? So I thought we’d written a great record, but sometimes you can think you’ve written a great record but it might not connect – and it seemed that pretty much instantly it had connected with people. So I’ve been pretty blown away by the response. Just before this record came out, I’d envisioned the Nevermind explosion – like, we would be in Europe and it’d be blowing up back home kind of thing. But realistically, because you know what music’s like nowadays – a record comes out and then the campaign’s done – what we wanted to achieve was just people still talking about it in six months. That happens to records that are really great and it constantly builds. Much like the War On Drugs record, how that’s just kept going and going and going. So that’s the kind of thing I’m aspiring to with this record, and it feels like it’s a real word of mouth record. With Scatterbrain, I think I was a bit naïve in thinking people would just be like ‘This is great!’ and word of mouth would…you know, it’s a difficult record to get into and I understand that now. But with this record, I think there is a real word of mouth thing and because eit’s so instant and accessible, when someone gets told about it, they put it on and the first song is Live Like This and it’s very instant and you’ll get it within 20 seconds of listening to that song, and I think people are really picking up on that. This is the most amount of conversation I’ve seen about one of our records, which is amazing, and I keep seeing the cover image pop up on Instagram and Tumblr feeds quite a lot, which is something a bit new for us. So yeah, the reaction’s been incredible. It’s not a Top 5 record in the main charts or anything like that, but then I don’t necessarily want that. I just want it to keep growing and it feels like we’re on the right path for that.”

But it did really well on the iTunes chart though, right?

“Yeah. It got to number 4 on the rock chart and to number 1 on the Indie Albums Breakers Chart, which is the chart, I think, if you’re on an independent label and you’ve never charted before. And yeah, it reached number 1 on that, so getting a tweet from the Official Charts Company saying ‘Congratulations to The Xcerts’ was pretty bizarre. All this stuff is great and good news seems to come in daily, but we’re still a long way from where we want to be and it’s a hard thing when the music industry is so political – that’s the ugly truth of it all, really. So we’ll keep working away, but this definitely feels like we’re going to bump up a couple of levels.”

**Do you feel you had to compromise in any way to reach those levels? Like you said, ‘Scatterbrain’ is such a hard, abrasive and difficult album to get into, whereas ‘There Is Only You’ really isn’t. So you obviously made a conscious move towards a more palatable sound. **

“Definitely. I think it’d be pretty obvious we’d be lying if we said we weren’t aware of it. We knew we’d moved into more accessible territory, but that wasn’t us saying, ‘We want to get on Radio 1’. That was never a conversation. But over the course of playing Scatterbrain for so long, the highlights when we would play live were the big singalong moments and that’s our favourite thing live. There’s nothing like it. I think it’s the same for the crowd, as well – they were most excited when they could sing along, rather than when everything was masked in distortion and you couldn’t make out a word I was saying. So we were really thriving on these big melodic songs, especially with what we were listening to – Tom Petty, early Foo Fighters, stuff like that – and it felt right and we felt very confident. With Scatterbrain, I think we maybe shied away from what we were capable of, and this time we were really confident in our playing and as a band – I think you can only write those kind of songs when you’re feeling strong within yourself.”

Are you feeling any extra pressure as a result of the attention that’s being given to this album?

“It’s really weird, because a couple of people have written on Twitter recently saying stuff like ‘I don’t understand the hype about The Xcerts’. And it’s so strange to think that now, because this record’s coming into people’s consciousness more, we’re getting branded as a hype band. I guess this happened to Biffy Clyro, or any band who’s been around for a long time and then one album breaks and they’re all of a sudden a hype band, but I don’t know. I don’t feel that pressured. We just want to be as great as possible and do the best that we can possibly do. I think there’s a bit more pressure to put on great shows, but I think we just have to enjoy it. This is the best our band has ever been and I think if we dwell on the pressure of what comes with that, we’ll stop enjoying it.”

You’ve been a band for over ten years now. How much of a part do you think that’s played in your success now, or is it purely just in terms of There Is Only You?

“It played a huge part. I think the people who got into us on In The Cold Wind… feel very passionate about that album, and it took me a few years to get that. But people do have a real affinity with that album. Some people stuck with us for Scatterbrain, some people didn’t, and then we had a new group of people come in on Scatterbrain and who love that album and not necessarily the first one. And then I think with this new record, the people who love In The Cold Wind… but didn’t like Scatterbrain have fallen in love with this album, the people who liked that still like this album, and the people that we lost have come back to this album. And then we’ve opened up a whole new door with the shows we’ve been playing and the bit of radio we got with Shaking In The Water and Pop Song. But realistically, it’s the people who have invested their time in our band that are the ones that are really shouting about it, and it really does feel like a team effort. So all those years of grafting have definitely amounted to something good with this record. We’ve dedicated our lives to this band and it is now starting to feel like we’re the band we’re supposed to be. And this does feel like a turning point.”

You were meant to tour the US with Brand New, who are big heroes of yours, and that fell through. I take it you were quite upset about that?

“Yes. I was heartbroken. But I would have been more upset had we not jumped on the Twin Atlantic tour and gone to Europe instead. And this is quite hard for me to say, because I was heartbroken at the fact we didn’t come to America, but it did kind of feel like perhaps it happened for a reason and we were meant to be in the UK and Europe – we were meant to be here when our album was released here. So yeah, it was heartbreaking, but maybe it worked out for the best.”

Speaking of heartbreak, the weird space-time continuum that this album was made in – the love and the loss and the whatever – has she heard it? Do you know how she feels about this record?

“No. I haven’t heard from her at all about the record or about the band. The closest thing I’ve heard from is her mum. She heard us on Radio 1 and she sent me a really lovely message, but that’s as close as it gets. Her mum and her brother, actually – they both got in touch to say congratulations. But she’s not been in touch.”

On the bright side, you went through that and it helped this record become what it is. So would you change what happened if There Is Only You had not become what it became as a result? Would you rather have the relationship or the album?

“Ah, man. Fucking hell! That’s the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. It’s a really hard one, because I feel people can – and I do this a lot – I feel people can romanticise mythology. The fact of the matter is, yeah, 2014 before we released our album, it was just hell on earth. I wasn’t functioning. I wasn’t a human being. It was a year full of breakdowns and anxiety attacks, so it’s hard for be like, ‘I’m glad I went through all this for our record and suffered for my art’ and that kind of thing. Maybe from a personal point of view and for health reasons, it would have been nice had I not been through what I’ve been through, but again on a personal level, I’m glad I’ve been through that and I know how it feels to truly hit rock bottom when it comes to love. So I don’t know. I don’t know. But I am glad the meaning of this record has intensified.”

The Xcerts are on tour now. Catch them at the following venues:

December 10 The Dome, London

December 12 Soup Kitchen, Manchester

December 13 The Haunt, Brighton