Good things come in little parcels. And the new Metronomy album, ‘Small World’, is certainly a welcome delivery. Joseph Mount, the band’s de facto leader, gives us the lowdown on their finest outing since ‘The English Riviera’ 

Great art might come out of adversity or political turmoil, but it can just as easily come from sitting around the house trying not to catch a deadly virus. Allow Joseph Mount of Metronomy to explain.

“At the very beginning of lockdown, someone asked me if this period would be good for creativity, and at that time I didn’t think anyone was going to write a very good record about the pandemic. And then I sort of realised that creative people will always find a way of using what’s there.”

While Metronomy’s seventh studio album isn’t directly about Covid-19, having the time to write has clearly been a silver lining for Mount, as ‘Small World’ is the band’s most focused long-player since 2011’s ‘The English Riviera’. And while he doesn’t refer to his own music as “great art”, there’s no denying the quality of the nine tracks. They’re acutely defined and in stark contrast to 2019’s ‘Metronomy Forever’, which made a virtue of being eclectic and disorganised – a scrapbook of musical miscellany.

Like many artists, Joe Mount writes an album in reaction to the last, and this one seems to be a response to the band’s career up to this point. He suggests it might be a “pivot” as he moves towards middle-age. It also means addressing situations with a newfound maturity – a word that he naturally laughs at in reference to himself. Meanwhile, musicians have been falling over themselves to distance their art from the pandemic in trepidation of a new inadvertent genre – the lockdown album – avoiding it, ahem, like the plague. Mount was wary, too, until he decided to step up and be counted.

“The basic idea behind the new record was to take the peripheral feelings and experiences of sitting at home and write about them, but I spent the whole time not really wanting to face the issue head-on. And then towards the end of making the record, I thought it would be unfair to use this whole thing as a basis for songwriting without actually confronting it.”

The two songs that bookend ‘Small World’ – ‘Life And Death’ and ‘I Have Seen Enough’ – don’t shirk from addressing the health crisis, if only obliquely. It’s as refreshing and daring as someone coming clean about a gap on their CV during a job interview. ‘Life And Death’ is a suitably bleak opener that evokes some of the ennui many of us felt while adhering to Covid rules. Thankfully, the only way is up, baby. Track two and lead single, ‘Things Will Be Fine’, is less apocalyptic, a pop song as catchy as The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’, lifting everyone’s spirits with its blind, avuncular optimism.

Then comes a wave of tracks with a Tin Pan Alley artisanship to them. ‘Love Factory’ and ‘Loneliness On The Run’ were quite possibly titles before any music had been written. Mount claims they’re almost those of a meta-character imagining what Metronomy songs might sound like written by a man who’s approaching 40 years of age (he hits the big four-oh in September). And then there’s a duet with Dana Margolin from Porridge Radio called ‘Hold Me Tonight’, which turns up the heat.

Although Mount has been with his partner for more than a decade, he tried to remember what it would be like to be tickled by the rub of love.

“There are two songs on the record – ‘Right On Time’ and ‘Hold Me Tonight’ – which might be the last time I’ll ever try to write about that kind of thing, because it feels so disingenuous when I’m doing it. It’s so false, to the point where it can’t really go on! But the great thing about Dana is she actually turned it into a true song. For her, it becomes something else because the words she’s singing are personal and real. And that rescues it from being mindless, in a way.”

Is Mount consciously making the leap to mature artiste on ‘Small World’ then?

“Yeah, it feels sort of like a more mature me,” he concedes. “Quite often it comes across as if I’m preoccupied with age, but I don’t have an issue with getting older in the slightest. It’s really more a question of, ‘At what point do I start to resemble the people who I find a bit embarrassing to look at?’. So I’m trying to grow older gracefully, basically.”

He hasn’t quite got the pipe and slippers out yet, though. When I suggest that he seems conflicted with inner turmoil, he rebuffs me. 

“There’s no conflict at all because I’ve found a solution,” he says. 

Last year Metronomy released an EP called ‘Posse’, featuring a host of up-and-coming artists versus Metronomy on some very funky and fresh sounding tracks. Peckham’s Pinty raps over the banging electropop of ‘Half An Inch’, Irish neo-soul singer Biig Piig appears on a dreamy synthpop number called ‘405’, and French-Korean chanteuse Spill Tab features on the Sault-like soul number ‘Uneasy’.

“While Metronomy is as popular as it is, there’s not as much time to do the other side of what I do,” says Mount, talking about the production work that has seen him successfully augment the likes of Robyn, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Roots Manuva. “I still feel quite in touch with young people’s music, and part of your job as a producer is to keep up. If you’re a good producer and an exciting producer, then you’re working with young artists, so I feel like there’s a responsibility to stay in that world. Production can be the outlet for more of that stuff, which doesn’t necessarily represent where I am in my own life and career.” 

Joe Mount’s musical journey started in the mid-90s in Totnes, Devon, where he comes from. So many of his songs still inhabit what he calls (with maybe only a hint of irony) “the golden age”. When I ask which golden age, he laughs and says the one that’s quite specific to him.

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A drummer at first, and a good one, he became interested in songwriting through observing his bandmates eking out songs and figuring out structures. He professes to have had the time of his life drumming for three years in long-forgotten West Country bands. His awakening as an electronic musician coincided with getting into DJ Shadow and Aphex Twin.

“I bought a little sampler, a Zoom Sampletrak, and I started trying to make beats like DJ Shadow.” 

Mount took the sampler as far as he could before getting his hands on an iMac G3 with a 4-track version of Logic from Computer Music magazine. 

“And then I started building songs,” he says. “You’re then taking yourself into a place where you don’t need to waste the time of other instrumentalists. You’re alone, and you can learn from your own mistakes, so it’s just your time you’re wasting.”

Isolated and absorbed in his own world, Mount was surprised to discover he was involved in a vanguard movement. 

“What I realised was like, ‘Oh, this is a sort of genre – a new genre of bedroom producers’. The whole idea of being a bedroom producer was actually a new thing, and I hadn’t realised I was actually a part of that. And so I would definitely consider myself an electronic artist.”

Metronomy’s experimental debut album ‘Pip Paine (Pay The £5000 You Owe)’ surfaced in 2006 – a charmingly lo-fi electronic collage, initially limited to 500 copies in an embossed fabric casing and released on the homespun Holiphonic label. Those songs were written and assembled by Mount between the ages of 17 and 21, with tracks like ‘Love Song For Dog’ featuring chopped-up drums he thinks “might have come from a well-known jazz record”, although that particular release is too obscure for it even to be listed on 

On 2008’s ‘Nights Out’, experiments began to coalesce with fully fleshed-out songs. This led to the 2011 follow-up and what many regard as Metronomy’s masterpiece to date, ‘The English Riviera’. The sleeve artwork and that of ‘Small World’ are similar in that they both idealise the past. The former features a Hockney-esque palm tree sourced from the late wife of graphic designer John Gorham, which used to adorn Devon Tourist Board posters from the 1990s promoting nearby coastal Torbay. On the new album, there’s a picture of a park in bloom close to Mount’s family home, which in his words has now “gone to shit”. 

I put it to Mount that he’s a West Country hauntologist, bringing this same period to life over and over, always with a sense of halcyon melancholy. The cry of seagulls at the start of ‘The English Riviera’, the spooky organ at the end of the pier at the opening of ‘The Look’ – it all evokes the ghostly grandeur of a former holiday paradise like Weston-Super-Mare. I interviewed Mount a few years ago, and when I hinted at this in more ambivalent terms, he dismissed it, saying it wasn’t an aesthetic and adding comically, “I’m not a rockabilly”. Today, he’s less circumspect.

“Really, it’s kind of like living a parallel life to the music. I’m sure painters do a similar thing where they keep coming back to the same root of inspiration. If I get super-excited about music, it reminds me of a specific time and place in my life, and that place kind of always seems to be Devon. It might sound pretentious but it’s a muse, isn’t it?”

Which brings us to the question of how Metronomy came to be signed to Because Music, the French label with an impressive roster including Justice, Christine And The Queens and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Mount explains that around the time of ‘Nights Out’, most of the band’s nu-rave contemporaries had already been signed, and Metronomy were considered to be also-rans.

“The first label to put an offer on the table were Because Music, and although they were French, back then they did have a very small office in London. I was playing new songs like ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Radio Ladio’, and that’s what it took for them to be convinced they should sign me. Other labels were asking for more music.”

While Joe Mount may be a West Country hauntologist, he also sees his former home town through European eyes. He lived in Paris for eight years and has a French fiancee and two children who converse with their mother in her native language.

“In France, they have a much wider concept of what pop can be and what performance art is,” he says, in reference to the label taking a chance on Metronomy in 2008. “I’m not saying we’re performance artists, but their vision for music is much broader. 

“I was listening to a centenary special about James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ on the radio, and they were talking about how he aligned himself with Europe, seeing himself as a European rather than as an Irishman. I think part of that was because art and philosophy are a lot more everyman in Europe. It’s certainly the case in France.”

Partly thanks to signing with Because, Metronomy now enjoy sold-out shows in Francophone countries like Belgium, Switzerland and Canada. Moreover, as an Englishman in Paris during the mid-part of the last decade, Mount wrote with rising French star Clara Luciani and even produced a track for Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard called ‘Snapshot In LA’.

“It was a nice experience,” he says of the latter. “Marion is obviously very cool and everything, but I remember her talking about how she’d been on a school exchange to Hastings when she was young, and then you realise all these people know quite random bits of England.”

The final song on the new album, ‘I Have Seen Enough’, was supposed to be written in French and started out with the working title ‘J’En Ai Assez Vu’. Although Mount reverted to English in the end, the song retains a certain French existential sensibility and dread.

“Really, it’s about something happening in life that’s so horrible, you’re almost captivated by how horrible it is, and you can’t look away. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s even more French!’.”

He relates it back to the mixed feelings he experienced during the pandemic. 

“It was that thing of being quite afraid and being surrounded by all this horror, and yet, I was having a lovely time with my family and I almost never wanted it to end.”

Zut alors! Les sentiments contraires!

‘Small World’ is out on Because Music

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