Nothing But Thieves have had what is surely one of the worst runs of luck for a band to experience during festival season.
Salmonella outbreaks, lost luggage at airlines… and having to cancel a gig in Budapest when their lead singer Conor Mason got hit in the eye by a piece of metal that broke off a sharp knife.
“It makes it sound like we were doing some cool circus trick,” guitarist/keyboardist Dom Craik, who tends to add a self-deprecating joke to the end of each sentence, quips from their label’s office headquarters in London.
“I was actually just cutting ginger,” Mason, 24, says. “Which is so un-rock and roll. The tip broke off and the one angle it decided to go was in my eye.”
Craik volunteered to be the one who had to tell a packed-out festival tent that the band wouldn’t be able to play, only to be told to “f*** off” by one irritable fan.
Arriving back from Shanghai, the five-piece then learned that the airline had lost all of their guitars.
“We call it ‘tilt’,” Craik says. “If your life is balanced, you’re OK. So hopefully we’ll balance it out when the album is released in September.”
Broken Machine, Nothing But Thieve’s second record, is an immense, ambitious piece of work – one of the best rock albums released this year – that showcases the band’s consciousness of what they’ve learned since their self-titled debut as well as the global events that have taken place in the past two years.
“There’s a level of thought that goes into an album that we never considered when we were kids,” Mason says. “We’d have email threads about the length of time in between the fade-ins, it’s insane. And the order’s really important for us, it took ages.”
Unlike many artists, who find it impossible to write in the cramped confinement of a tour bus rattling around the US and Europe, the band pushed themselves to write so they didn’t face the pressures of getting a second record finished in the short space between the end of their first tour and the beginning of a new one.
“Without any disrespect to other bands, it’s quite naive not to write when you’re on tour, because there’s such a cliche about the difficult second album – surely you would write on the road,” Craik says. “We had ideas banked up, Joe had tons of lyrics, and I’d become obsessed with writing down ideas.”
“It was actually quite good writing on the road, I think that’s why it turned into more of a rock record,” guitarist Joe Langridge-Brown adds.
“You do feel like you thrive off the adrenaline of the more ‘rock’ songs,” Craik agrees. “When you’re in a live setting and you see people going nuts to a riff.
”These guys were best for soundboard, so I’d try not to become too emotionally attached to stuff, which is difficult because I have issues with emotions.”
More brothers than just friends or bandmates, they crack jokes and never take themselves too seriously, and are constantly watching out for one another. While they were in America, jumping straight out of a tour supporting Muse into their own headline shows, and then over to festival season, they found themselves burning out.
“You don’t realise until you’re living it, that there’s no guidebook for being in a band,” Mason says. “I just went insane basically – it felt like I didn’t sleep for a year. But we got through it in the end.”
“It was really cool to see how we dealt with it as a group,” Craik nods. “Because up until then it was pretty smooth sailing: getting pissed and heading round the world. But at one point we were experiencing Conor’s demise, basically. So it’s nice to see the friendship working, and for us to be talking about these issues.”
“I’m really glad it happened in a weird way. It was the first, hardest thing I’d had to go through,” Mason says. “And the simplest way for us to deal with it was by talking to each other, and listening, and be as nice to each other as possible.”
“When you’re with each other for that long in such a confined space you can have a short fuse when you’re tired,” Craik adds. “I think it was a test of our relationship.”
During the tougher moments on tour, the rest of the band would go out and “drink through it”. But Mason would stay on the bus or at their hotel, constantly trying to ensure his voice would be at its best for each show, and that feeling of responsibility, and perhaps regret that he was missing out, affected him deeply.
“It was not knowing what I was dealing with, all these things I had to learn,” he says. “But now there are moments like when we were in China, and I texted Dom saying I felt jittery from the jetlag – sometimes that triggers me. And he just made me laugh, we had dinner. The simple things help.”
As everyone is still in their early twenties, their mums check up on them for time to time, and occasionally come to see their shows. Craik jokes that they may have to enforce a ban on the dressing room, however.
“You get to the dressing room and the rider’s already rinsed, it’s like a swarm of locusts. If the mums are coming you have to get extra booze in – they’re from Essex so you know, they love it.”
The band have been endearingly excited about the album release, which they say is “everything we did for the first album only better”.
“Only this time we’re still in the same place as when we started writing the album, so it still represents us, which is a nice feeing,” Langridge-Brown says.
“Soundwise as well, there were three components that we created,” Craik says. “We started so early with the writing, and it was trial and error that was guiding the way. The demos shaped more how we wanted it to sound in the studio. the third was picking the right producer [Mike Crossey – Arctic Monkeys, Foals] who was like the sixth member of the band.
“He was completely aware of our capabilities, and I think he loved bringing that out in us. We’re control freaks, me especially, but he was really cool with that.”
“He’s the first person who just let me do what the f*** I wanted with my voice,” Mason says. “If he thinks your idea’s good enough he’ll let you do it. He doesn’t have to take the reigns all the time, and he encouraged me to be as creative as possible.”
“The amazing thing I saw was that Mike managed to deconstruct Conor’s voice and give each one a personality – a name – like ‘Jeff’, or ‘Gary’, or ‘Siobhan’,” Craik laughs. “So you’d walk in and he had like 10 different characters.”
Broken Machine is far more direct than their debut, as the band point out, it seems virtually inconceivable that an artist would ignore events taking place in 2017 when releasing new material.
So on “Live Like Animals”, with its urgent, juddering guitar riff, Mason sings of how we “put our lives up for sale… get our truth from the Daily Mail” in a blistering critique that also praises the youth “opening their eyes” and protesting against hatred. And for “Sorry” and its accompanying music video, the band question our ability to hurt one another, the mistakes we’ve made and the responsibility to own up to our own failings.
“All the songs on the album are things that we’ve gone through or spoken about – Trump, religion, bigotry…” Langridge-Brown, who writes lyrics with Mason, says.
“Coming to terms with Trump was really weird because we were travelling through America at the time, and we’d be in the deep South with a weird radio station who’d ask you about it. And you’d say your opinion knowing you might lose a bunch of fans, the radio person would want a certain answer from you. But you can’t lie.”
‘Broken Machine’, the new album from Nothing But Thieves, is out on 8 September via RCA Records