Lockdown may have closed the clubs, but according to Disclosure, people still need the escapism of dance music. Sarah Bradbury talks to the brothers who have risen to become one of the UK’s biggest electronic acts.
First published online and in print on 27th August 2020.
It is strange to think that there was once a time, not so long ago, when it was normal to find yourself pressed together with strangers in a sweaty club. The pandemic changed all that – unfortunate for electronic duo Disclosure, brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, whose long-awaited third album would surely have been the soundtrack to the summer.
Remarkably, though, ENERGY, which was due to be released in March, still hits the right notes in these straitened times.
“There are messages of courage and positivity and strength,” says Guy, the older of the two.
“Dance music has always been about escapism. I think that’s why it has continued to do well during lockdown. It’s what people want to hear in this time.”
It is 10 years since Disclosure released their first single, “Offline Dexterity”. The pair have since enjoyed extraordinary success: more than five billion streams, 4.8 million album sales, as well as Brit and Grammy nominations. All before either of them has reached the age of 30.
Across two UK No 1 albums, the duo traversed genres, from house to garage, dubstep to drum and bass, all the while spotting the right artists for impeccable collaborations. Settle, released in 2013, featured four top 20 singles, including “Latch” with Sam Smith and “White Noise” with AlunaGeorge. Caracal, from 2015, featured The Weeknd, Lorde and Gregory Porter.
‘The flow of ideas’
After a relentless touring schedule, however, Disclosure needed a breather. The time off allowed them to reset and return with a joyous electro album, recorded in a completely different way: rather than writing a specific number of tracks, they worked on a staggering 200, which were then whittled down to 11.
“The idea vaguely came from watching Sam Smith do it this way,” explains Howard. It wasn’t easy, though. “We killed 189 darlings,” laughs Howard.
“It was exhausting,” agrees Guy. “But we picked these 11 because they just kind of fell out of our heads. They were very quick, very fun to write. That’s what the word ‘energy’ is meaning with this project: it’s the energy in the room, the flow of ideas.”
Despite the radically different recording process, Disclosure kept some things the same, bringing in a slew of high-profile collaborators. Kelis and Common feature on “Watch Your Step” and “Reverie” respectively, while Slowthai, Animé, The Internet’s Syd and Kehlani all make welcome contributions.
Standout track “Douha” features the irrepressibly good vibes of Fatoumata Diawara from Mali, while Cameroonian Blick Bassy scats in French and his own improvised dialect on “Ce N’est Pas”. On the title track, preacher Eric Thomas provides the album’s thesis, urging: “Where your focus goes, your energy flows.”
“Each song is like a little memory of a fun day,” says Howard. “It’s like a diary: ‘Remember that time we met Common and we wrote a song with him?’”
I wonder, considering the Black Lives Matter movement, if Disclosure are making a statement by working with so many black artists. “We haven’t said: ‘Oh, we need to make sure we work with black people on this record,’ or something like that,” says Howard. “We just look for talent. We don’t mind what genre you’re in, what race you are.”
Part of Disclosure’s enduring appeal comes from their willingness to incorporate diverse sounds and influences. They put this down to first encountering genres, such as house, without a deep knowledge of the history.
“That naivety helped us immensely,” says Guy. “It means you’re not tied to a certain way of thinking. Your own fresh, unsculpted ideas help it to be original.”
Success also seems to have arisen from an ability to straddle the space between underground and commercial, one that they see as increasingly blurred.
“We’re playlisted on Kiss and Capital and yet we have a very humbling love from the underground still,” says Guy. “I just don’t think that there is a real divide any more,” adds Howard.
It’s a space they’re happy to inhabit, especially when it comes to live performances: “We’re in this beautiful place where we can headline Reading and then play at an after-party in a basement,” says Guy. “That’s the dream.”
With musicians for parents, there was perhaps an inevitability that the brothers would also find themselves in the music world: “They handed us instruments before we could walk,” recalls Howard.
The brothers formed their first fanbase by uploading tracks to MySpace, while still living above their parent’s auction house. Back then it was perceived as cool to be anonymous in the dance music scene. “That suited us just fine,” says Guy. “We always wanted our music to be a success, but we didn’t necessarily want to be famous ourselves. We’re not pop stars.”
‘An element of telepathy’
They understand now that there’s more pressure to be available to the fans. “You have to be willing to open up to your fans about everything,” says Guy.
“We’ve become better at that. But there’s still huge limits on what we will do and show our fans or the public.”
And how about working side by side all this time? After joking they might end up like the Gallagher brothers, they explain their ability to create seamlessly together is born out of a division of labour: “I do more of the songwriting, the chords and the lyrics and the melodies,” explains Howard, “whereas Guy does all the parts I don’t do. So we never really step on each other’s toes too much.”
They have been working together so long, “there’s an element of telepathy that goes on. If I’m hearing something in the drums that I want to change, Guy will already be changing it.”
Disclosure have just announced a “real life” tour for next year but have been embracing all avenues available to reach their fans.
“We’ve been trying to branch out to people in different creative ways,” says Guy. While locked down in different countries – Guy in LA and Howard in East Sussex – they have been using livestreaming platform Twitch to break down old songs online to show kids how they were made.
“That wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic,” says Guy. “So we take the positives where they come.”
But of course they wish they had the chance to present the album as they’d planned – live.
“Our natural state of being is playing on a stage,” continues Guy. “I’ve been playing drums since I was three. Howard’s been playing bass since he was, like, six. But we feel extremely lucky that at least half of our industry is alive and we can get up every day and do what we love still. A lot of my friends can’t do that right now.”
Do they think there’s a risk club culture itself is under threat?
“I don’t think anything will die off,” says Howard. “I mean, no matter what happens, there’s always going to be raves. You can’t stop people doing that. You can try, but it’s not going to ever work.”
ENERGY by Disclosure is out on Friday 28 August 2020