The Go! Team on optimism, playing live, and Semicircle
Ahead of the release of their fifth studio album, Semicircle, producer and The Go! Team leader Ian Parton explains how the band's sense of utopia is needed more now than ever before
The Go! Team arrived in a technicolor explosion with 2004's debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike and have been dazzling fans ever since with their hyper-clash dance-pop. In a music universe increasingly dominated by solo artists, it’s not an easy time to be in a band. With album advances evaporating and recording budgets reduced to dust, many songwriters are wondering what the point is in assembling a gang of unpredictable musicians who will only gobble up any money you make from touring. The late 2010s are likely to be remembered as a time of pre-recorded backing tracks and laptops taking centre stage. Less is more. Hiring a brass section would be viewed by some as even more reckless than chartering a private jet.
Unless you're The Go! Team. When Brighton’s favourite purveyors of maximalist pop music hit the road for a UK tour in February, there will be no fewer than eight of them on stage – including two horn players. Achieving a profit will be challenging to say the least. But for team leader, songwriter and production wizard Ian Parton, it will be more than worth it. “I’ve got an aversion to laptops on stage,” he says. “Zero tolerance. I’ve always been into gangs. I like the idea of bands. I like the visual thing – particularly with The Go! Team. We all look and move differently. Some of us thrash around on stage, while others bring much more of a funk thing. It’s the clash that I’m interested in, and always have been, really.”
None of this will be a surprise to long-term fans of the band. Their debut LP still sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did in 2004, when it easily outshone the legions of lad bands offering little more than straightened hair. While angular guitar riffs were the order of the day, Parton served up a self-produced collection of songs that sounded like a demented garage band with a fixation on bubblegum dance-pop. Northern Soul horns, eclectic samples and piano melodies were blended to create something extraordinary. One critic described it as “a slap on the arse of complacent music-makers everywhere.”
That singular sound was brought to glorious life on stage when Parton recruited a six-strong live band centred around Ninja, a lead vocalist and rapper with boundless energy and unique dance moves. She returns on the band’s fifth album, Semicircle, along with current live players Simone Odaranile, Sam Dook and Angela ‘Maki’ Won-Yin Mak. It’s a return to a collaborative way of working for Parton after the previous album – 2015’s The Scene Between – became something of a solo project.
“The old line-up fell apart because people had kids and jobs,” he says. “It kind of fell back to the original Thunder, Lightning, Strike thing of just me. That record was very much about melody and hooks, rather than the classic Go! Team sound. [On] this record, there’s a new line-up – Ninja is back – and I was trying to include them as much as possible. I’m the one that sits listening to samples for months on end, but down the line everyone will get the call to come and do their thing. Simone’s an amazing drummer, and she’s all over it. It’s much more of a team effort – with much heavier brass, almost like a marching band in a way [but] the way marching bands never sound. I've taken the potential of it, rather than the sporty or patriotic versions you hear. It’s all been thrown together – that’s the feel. It’s going off, it’s not tight."
Parton sums up the Go! Team sound as "being about personality" and "voices rather than perfection". There's some kind of quality you can’t quite put your finger on. Never a man content to make the same kind of record twice, he decided to expand his idea of marching band-gone-rogue by recruiting a rather unlikely team of collaborators to sing on Semicircle. This led him to Detroit to record the city’s youth choir.
“Detroit is a city I have always been interested in,” he explains. “It kind of encapsulates the things I love – how music can be slammed up against feedback and noise, or bad ass rock music or whatever. In this case, I was imagining community choirs and a particular kind of sound. For me, it’s tightrope walking. I don’t want over-singing, gospel-types, and I don’t want kids’ choirs like St. Winifred’s (responsible for 1980s cringeworthy Christmas number one There's No-One Quite Like Grandma). There’s something about the sound of a teenage choir – the looseness of it, the lack of slickness, and the character. It was a voyage into the unknown really.”
Parton arrived in the Motor City with a firm idea of how songs on Semicircle would work. “I always build things up in layers, so the songs were pretty locked down at that point. It’s another feature of The Go! Team that we don’t have a uniform vocal sound across the albums – it’s about difference as much as anything. What song needs what kind of voice – one might need a choir, one might need a French accent. It’s about racking my brains and thinking about what it needs really.”
His trip to Illinois also offered the opportunity to explore Detroit’s incredible musical heritage. “I always had an interest in the counter-culture dimension of the city, and obviously the Motown thing.” Parton continues, “It’s always interesting to compare the myth with the reality. There is a bit of hype about urban decay and the city going down, which I didn’t really find to be the case. It’s an interesting place, visually. I take a Super 8 camera with me pretty much everywhere I go – there was stuff to film everywhere, from handwritten signs to fonts.”
Closer to home, as the UK lumbers towards a door marked Brexit like a gorilla with a hangover, ageing cynics may question whether escapist hyper-pop is a suitable soundtrack for these troubled times. Parton insists The Go! Team stand for the good things in life and offer a welcome respite to depressing headlines.
“It’s become a bit of an indie cliché, this whole Trump-y state of the world thing,” he begins. “I’m guessing all of the bands you’ve interviewed recently have been mouthing off about the state of the world. The thing you have to wrestle with now is dividing your brain in half. You either have to be completely switched on and know the score to keep track on everything... and the other half has to go 'No, ignore that shit and get on with it. They can’t touch us.’ I guess The Go! Team is part of that side – the 'fuck ‘em, we’re going to get on with our own thing.' A sense of optimism within reason. There’s lots of good things about the world.
“It’s almost like you can’t just be a band anymore. You’re expected to take an angle. I’m not that keen on the literal protest song because it’s so difficult to get right without it becoming a cringe-fest or a sledgehammer. I dig the idea of just getting on with your own vision. The Go! Team has always had this slight utopian vision to it – it’s not literally like my life is, but how I’m imagining what I would like it to be.”
As mission statements go, that’s a pretty damn good one.
Semicircle is released on 19 Jan via Memphis Industries
The Go! Team play QMU, Glasgow, 9 Feb