STORY WRITTEN BY JOE SZCZECHOWSKI
For Digital First Media
When Katie White and Jules De Martino – otherwise known as the British pop duo The Ting Tings – decided to relocate to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza to write and record the album that would become 2014’s “Super Critical,” they expected to be inspired by the island’s world-class clubs and its thriving EDM (electronic dance music) scene.
The approach had worked for the duo in the past. Their self-produced debut album, “We Started Nothing” – an edgy mix of pop, punk, and dance music – was recorded on a shoestring budget at their home studio in Manchester, England. Released in 2008 on Columbia/Sony records, it became a worldwide success, and spawned the hit singles “That’s Not My Name,” “Great DJ,” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go.”
Three years later, White and De Martino traveled to Berlin, Germany to record the more eclectic, Beastie Boys-inspired “Sounds from Nowheresville,” an album De Martino describes as “a bit more left of center.” Released early in 2012, the album met with mixed reviews, and failed to match the commercial success of “We Started Nothing.” As a result, The Ting Tings parted ways with Sony.
“Especially in Europe, Ibiza is thought of as the capital of dance music,” White explains in a telephone interview. “It’s got some of the biggest clubs in the world, and all the big deejays play there.” White and De Martino are calling from Spain, where they are rehearsing for the second leg of a U.S. tour that kicks off March 19 at Houston’s South By Southwest Music Festival and makes its way to Philadelphia’s Union Transfer on April 10. “When we relocate, we feel we can find new lives, new friends, and a new something that’s going to inspire us,” White says.
So The Ting Tings found themselves in Ibiza, and they were in fact inspired – not by what the clubs of Ibiza offered, but rather by what they lacked. “We would go to all these clubs – the biggest clubs in the world with the best deejays,” White says, “but our impression was that the music is so fast, you can’t really dance to it unless you’ve taken a load of drugs – and nobody dresses up anymore!”
The only place in Ibiza that White and De Martino found the idyllic club atmosphere they hoped for was in their rented home. “We’d Google documentaries about clubs in New York in the late ’70s that had a completely different vibe to them,” White says. “We looked at Studio 54 and CBGB’s – all these clubs that now don’t exist – and we thought, ‘Could you imagine if those clubs existed in Ibiza, what an amazing time it would be? Imagine if the clubs had that elegance, and the music had that kind of funk and soul, where people would actually dance, because the BPM’s (beats per minute) were slower.’ That’s how we slowly became obsessed with the music of that era.”
One image in particular struck a chord with The Ting Tings. It was a picture that appeared in the New York Daily News in 1980 showing Diana Ross performing in the DJ booth at Studio 54 while Nile Rodgers stands behind the console spinning discs. “It just looked so glamorous,” White says. “I was like, ‘Can you imagine if a band went into the DJ booth? I’d love to have been able to get in that DJ booth with a drum kit and bass.’”
Along with the images, it was the sounds of that era – the music of artists like Chaka Khan, Chic, early Madonna and Prince – that began to inspire The Ting Tings to create the songs that would become “Super Critical.”
De Martino says that wait-to-be-inspired approach to songwriting is how he and White have always written together. “We’re not traditionalists,” he says. “I play five instruments, but we’re not the sort of people where Katie will pick up a guitar, and I’ll sit down at the piano and we’ll decide to write a song. For us, it comes down to finding a vibe. We could be listening to something fantastic and immediately want to be like them. It could be the Doors, or Radiohead, or we could be watching something on YouTube, and immediately we want to get up and create something as good as that. Or we could be traveling and Katie could send me something on her phone. It could be just a melody or a lyric, but it evolves into a new song.”
In the midst of White and De Martino discovering their new musical direction, they inadvertently found a co-producer and co-writer for the album in none other than Andy Taylor from Duran Duran. In what White calls a “typical Ibiza story,” The Ting Tings randomly bumped into Taylor while on the island.
“I didn’t have a clue who he was,” White admits. “He just walked in to where we were rehearsing – he still had the hair and glasses. He was lovely. He became our friend, but we had no plans to work with him.”
At first, Taylor offered the duo advice and moral support. “Jules and I would be in the studio all day and then Andy would call up and say, ‘Do you want to get a beer?’” White says. “And we’d go and hang out with Andy. After everything that we had gone through after our second album, we needed a bit of moral support. We were feeling a bit defeated after parting ways with Sony. He was brilliant – he stoked our anti-establishment feelings. He’s got quite a rebellious heart. ‘You can do it on your own,’ he’d say, ‘and you’re a pop band!’ He really supported the direction we were taking. It gave us the confidence we needed.”
Rather than pursue a recording contract with another label, White and De Martino opted to release the album independently on their own Finca (Spanish for “estate”) Records label. The project was fan-funded through PledgeMusic.
“What we also didn’t know about Andy was that he was in a band with Bernard Edwards (Nile Rodgers partner in Chic) called Power Station,” White adds. “Andy is a huge fan of Nile Rodgers – Nile has produced some Duran Duran tracks. The music that is Andy’s true passion is the same music that we were becoming obsessed with. We showed him the picture of Diana Ross performing in the DJ booth, and he said, ‘I was there that night.’ He would tell us these amazing stories about that time, which made us fall in love with it even more. There was just a point where we realized that we had to work with Andy.”
Taylor suggested recording “Super Critical” on analog, rather than digital, equipment. As a result, the album has a warm, organic vibe that perfectly complements its retro-inspired grooves. Songs like “Wrong Club” (which lyrically was inspired by The Ting Tings Ibiza experience), “Only Love,” “Communication,” and “Do It Again” are modern slices of addictive disco perfection – intended to make listeners immediately seek the closest dance floor.
On The Ting Tings biggest hits – “That’s Not My Name” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go” – White is part vocalist and part cheerleader. The songs call for her to fill the lead singer role with as much brashness as finesse. The more refined grooves on the songs on “Super Critical” called for a different vocal approach from White.
“Katie always been inspired by artists that sing with a lot of attitude and a lot of anger – people like David Byrne or Mick Jagger,” De Martino says. “Katie often took that approach to a vocal – walking in, taking it by the scruff of the neck, and attacking it – having fun with it. Katie has got an amazing voice, and it was apparent that she really wanted to sing on this record.”
One area The Ting Tings didn’t want to meddle with too much was their live show. Both White and De Martino play multiple instruments on stage. White sings lead and plays guitar, bass drum, keyboards, and cowbell. De Martino sings backing vocals and plays drums, guitar, and keyboards. They prefer to use technology, rather than additional band members, to fill out their sound.
“We don’t use backing tracks,” White says. “It’s all triggers with our feet that can be looped. It really allows you to change it up on stage. If the audience is really enjoying a particular passage, you can keep looping it and triggering it with your foot, so the chorus can go on for five minutes, or even ten minutes if you want. People don’t realize it, but that’s why I think it comes across well live and it feels quite authentic. It’s very flexible. We make lots of mistakes – it’s not the polished pop show that people might naturally expect.”
A few years ago, White and De Martino tried adding two additional musicians to the touring group. White says that while the sound was fine, the additional players didn’t fit The Ting Tings’ dynamic.
“They were so lovely and so talented, but we just ignored them the entire time we performed with them,” she says. “It almost spoiled the show. I think for us, the sheer terror of wondering how the two of us are going to make all this noise brings out an energy. You’ve got all these restrictions, because you’ve only got two sets of hands. So we’re constantly swapping instruments. We’re constantly looping things with our feet, capturing sounds, and things like that. In a way, that gives us our identity. When that went away, it just made us feel like every other band.”
Since the songs on “Super Critical” are so groove-oriented, for the current tour, The Ting Tings are bringing along Spanish DJ (Carles) Boix, who mixes live loops and samples during the performance.
“We had to think hard about how we wanted to perform the new songs live, because we like performing a bit punky and aggressive, and we knew that obviously that wouldn’t work as well for this album,” White says. “So we have Boix – who plays and deejays throughout and keeps the groove going – and we can just be punky and aggressive over it, and it still works.”
For ticket information, check www.utphilly.com