Marko Cutlesa talks to Example about Beatles, back catalogues and big tracks, ahead of his Groove Cairngorm headline slot in February.
Last updated: 26th Jan 2018. Originally published: 25th Jan 2018
After five albums, including the platinum-selling number one 'Playing in the Shadows', two number one singles and seven top 10 hits, there are few British pop stars bigger, or as credible as Elliot Gleave aka Example. He is a frequent festival headliner and plays to packed out arenas when he tours.
Yet the singer, songwriter and producer has not released an album since 2014. Not that he's been idle in that time. He's dabbled in film work, is a dedicated father of two young children and is always prolific in the studio, if not releases. The latter strength, alongside his distinct vocals, may go some way to explaining why the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Professor Green and Calvin Harris have requested to work with him.
But early 2018 saw Example return to the charts with his debut single for Columbia Records, 'The Answer'. It is the first of a new batch of Example material set for release in the year which are in a decidedly pop direction.
Marko Kutlesa caught up with him ahead of his headline slot at Scotland's Groove Cairngorm, find tickets below.
Many things have changed for you in the process of working on your new material, the first single from which 'The Answer' has just been released. For instance, you moved studio and you wrote in a different way. But rather than its inner workings, what differences in this forthcoming music do you think will hit existing fans first when they hear it?
I don't know, to be honest it's all so fresh. I've probably written between 100 and 150 songs in the last few years, so in my mind there could have been six different albums. There's enough to put out a house album, a pop album, a techno album, a dubstep album, a grime album.
There's so much stuff and it's constantly been changing, because my life's been changing, the people I've been working with have been changing, so if I were to put an album out in a month's time I've got about 10 tracks that are probably the most pure pop tracks that I've ever made. Some of them have bits of a club element, because my songs always have a club element, but it's probably the most pop stuff I've ever written. Big, global sounding, radio records. That kind of thing.
They're probably most similar to the songs from my second album Won't Go Quietly, which I suppose was a pure pop album. The third album Playing With Shadows was a bit darker, more trance-y, more dubstep-y, the fourth album was more rock-y. The new stuff's definitely closest to the style of Won't Go Quietly, particularly in tone and in production.
I read that watching Beatles on a documentary influenced you in some of the writing on this album. Which documentary was it?
Well, it wasn't really like that, it wasn't me sitting down and watching something specific. I think it was something maybe on BBC4 and there was this small section about how sometimes they would come in with a word or a song title and let that title dictate how the studio session would go.
It wasn't like a big inspirational moment because, to be honest, I've probably been doing something similar to that for the past 7 or 8 years, starting with a song title. I've got a list on my phone of probably 50 song titles that I thought were great, unique ideas that I take into the studio. It's just a way to make it easy, to be able to work to something and be inspired.
Are you a Beatles fan?
I don't know, who isn't? There's too many amazing songs to not be a fan, you know? If I had to pick, I'm actually probably more a fan of The Kinks and The Rolling Stones to be honest though.
I also read that the way Phil Spector worked, making many changes and alternate versions, has also influenced you on these new songs. How did you come to be interested in him and those methods?
Well, again, I'm not really one to sit down and study documentaries of old musicians and stuff. It's just that sometimes, if it's on in the background, I might catch a little bit. There was this documentary on Phil Spector and there was a section about him changing keys and tempos, trying different singers, in order to find what was right for the song. You're sat doing a song in the studio sometimes and it may sound like an 8 out of 10 and you might really have to experiment to get that magic.
Sometimes it might be changing the key, the speed, changing it from being a hip hop track to being a disco track, something completely different yet it still has the same lyrics and melody on the top, you've just switched it up. I'd never tried that process before. I've probably got about 400 unreleased songs and they're all just sat there, nothing happening to them when, in fact, if you sense there's something good in it, you're better off going back to it and trying different things to get the best out of it that you can.
Did you make any completed alternate version of any of the songs from this new album?
It's not like there are alternate versions. It's more like they are alternate to how they were when we started them. It's just the evolution of the song. Sometimes you write a song and you just leave it to a producer to finish, but I've been really involved with these tracks. Almost every track has started one way and completely evolved. I'd get the music off the producer and I'd sit there with my engineer and we'd attack it from different angles.
There are some songs from this album that I haven't even finished tinkering with. There's no release date set for this album and, to be honest, I don't know when an album might come. It might just be singles for the next year. In this market nowadays there's not much demand for albums. No one really cares about albums, unfortunately. It's all about playlists and Spotify, one off songs. So I may just be putting out singles.
How do you know when a track is finished and you've done all the tinkering you need to do?
You never really know. When I listen to some of my old songs there are bits I wish I could change. It's just knowing when to put it down, really.
And is there only you that informs that decision or do you have other people, maybe in the studio, who contribute to making those decisions?
Well, I have my engineer, who is one of my best mates. He was best man at my wedding and is the bass player in my live shows. He's involved in pretty much every track, whether it be in production or tinkering with lyrics with me. He might start the mixdown before the song gets finished. Quite a few others might be asked their opinions on it. I play stuff to DJs and producers I trust, I might invite some artists round to the studio and play it to them. My manager has some input, the label has some input. It's mainly me, but it's also everyone. I think most people probably work like that. I don't think there's anyone that does it all themselves.
Because performing live is a big part of what you do, you've previously had that aspect in mind while writing. You've always worked with lots of guests on your albums. Is there a risk in doing so that you won't be able to reproduce the tracks as well when you perform them?
Not really, no. I've worked with lots of different producers really, I've never really had other vocalists on my tracks, it's always been me. There are a lot of acts out there, like dance acts, I don't know... like Sigma or Chase & Status or Disclosure, who might have lots of featured artists on their records so, like you say, when they come to do it live it's impossible to have every one of those featured artists on the stage. So, inevitably vocals end up being on backing tracks.
Whereas with me, I've never really had features on my tracks so it's quite easy for me to perform all of them live. I've had lots of different producers work on my tracks, but that's quite easy. We get all of the parts of the music from them, then my drummer's up there triggering it all, with the keyboard, guitarists on top, so what you hear at the shows is probably 50% of the backing track of the original song and 50% live music. That's probably the case with most electronic pop acts at the moment.
On the new batch of songs you have been working with some female vocalists, no?
Yeah, there are a couple of songs with some female vocalists on.
Could they be a part of the live show?
I don't know, really. If we do a full European tour it's probably not going to be until September or October. Once I get a few releases out of the way I've got a few festivals this summer and then we can start thinking about a tour. I guess at rehearsals I'll know whether I need a live vocalist. At this stage, it will probably be only 10% of the show to have a featured vocalist.
There are a lot of the older hits still in the show, so if I do 20 songs there's probably only room for three maximum that might need a featured vocalist on them. So, I don't know yet whether or not it's worth taking a singer on tour just to do one or two songs.
What songs from your back catalogue do you think will sit more comfortably around these new broadly pop ones when you come to perform?
I can make them all work, to be honest, ha! Some of the darker, rockier stuff from before may not sit so well next to it, but our live show is a proper journey so whatever needs to happen, we can make it work. We always have remixes in there, bootleg versions, we often take the original versions and chop them up, play around with them and make them more appealing as a live song.
Your family has been cited as one of your biggest inspirations of late. Do you think there's ever a risk that young partygoers will not as easily be able to connect with songs which have more sensible, adult themes at the core than some of the songs written by your younger, wilder self?
Yes and no. Some of my biggest songs weren't about wild nights out. The whole vibe of the albums, especially across the second and third, there was a lot of chat about wild behaviour, but the lead singles were always more about relationships. The light and dark moments in relationships. That's what people always relate to. It's the same with the new single.
Plus, there are a lot of people who come to shows who have families young as well. So, if there are, then I speak to them about that. That works for them too.
If the lead single 'The Answer' and what you say about the other new songs is anything to go by, this year's releases are going to be massive and could see you touring quite a lot. Being so family orientated now, do you still have the same enthusiasm for going out on the road for long periods of time?
Well, it's tough to be away from the kids and the wife, but the way I always look at it is that if I'm going away for the next 3 or 4 weeks, yes, it's tough, but that affords you a certain amount of time with them afterwards. You might not see them for a few weeks, but then you'll have a whole month with them. I've just been in Australia for a month, I came back last week to promote the new single and I haven't seen the kids for 10 days, but I'm now going to fly back to Australia and have two weeks with them. So, it's swings and roundabouts.
Catch Example headlining a snowsports festival in Scotland, you can get Groove Cairngorm tickets below.