In anticipation of their forthcoming debut LP we chat to South London trio Dems to pick their brains on origins, influences and unlikely celebrity supporters
South London trio Dems (or Dan, David and Duncan) have been making waves in all the right kinds of electronic music circles for a while now – earning them reputations as natural companions to James Blake, The XX and Sohn. But such comparisons hardly do justice to their sound, which sits on an atmospheric spectrum where stiff, hard beats bleed into soaring melodies, producing tracks that manage to be both moving and uplifting.
Accompanying their unclassifiable cuts they’re attracting attention for their enchanting visuals – their most recent video was shot entirely in purple and features a headless man climbing trees – all of which they’re personally responsible for, with an aesthetic that extends to their stage wear: the boys have been known to perform in matching printed separates that typify the bold originality we’ve come to love them for.
In anticipation of their forthcoming debut LP, Muscle Memory we caught up with them to pick their brains on origins, influences and unlikely celebrity supporters…
When did you guys start playing as Dems?
Dan started about 3 years ago under the alias ‘Dems’. After getting some recognition for a couple of early tracks he moved from where he lived in Scotland back to London where we grew. At that point he got in touch with Duncan and me aiming to develop Dems into a band that could write more tracks and play live.
What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
Punk, Jazz, Drum n Bass, Garage. All sorts really. When we were at Brixton Academy recently, Dan and I were reminiscing that the first gig we’d ever seen there was a Pitchshifter concert. Our tastes are still pretty eclectic.
Did you all play in bands before Dems?
Yes all three of us played in guitar bands through school, and then afterwards. So I think when we came together to form Dems it was important to us all to try and play live music in a less traditional way – using samplers and computers, but then still keeping the live instrumentation that we had all used previously.
You have a very distinct style. What inspires your ‘look’?
The look we try and bring to the artwork and videos we make is always based in trying to create a narrative. Everything we do is about creating characters. It is the natural way to express the sentiment of the music we make.
You’re about to release your debut album, how long did it take to write and what can you tell us about the recording process?
The first draft of the LP took about a year to write. But then while we were waiting to sign a record deal through we ended up re-writing most of the album and only keeping two of the original tracks. We are much happier with the new version of the album, so it was actually lucky that we had time to dwell on the record. We write, record and produce all the music in our studio in Balham.
What’s behind the title “Muscle Memory”?
Muscle Memory refers as much to the process of performance and practice as it does to the narrative themes of our LP.
From the routines of the dancer and artist friends that we collaborate with, to the preparation and rehearsal of MPC drum patterns, vocal melodies and guitar riffs for performance, the body has an incredible ability to store memory in the fibres that make us move and we found ourselves constantly examining that process while we were writing the album.
At the same time the record covers a lot of bygone moments for us over the past few years. It’s in performance that we can really bring those subjects to life.
Your songs are incredibly emotive, and you have a deft ability to conjure a particular mood with the music you write. What are your inspirations when you’re writing?
Lyrically, a connection can be triggered by a passage from a favourite writer, or the smallest throwaway comment from an acquaintance that sums up how you’re feeling. Often it’s a question of grabbing a phone and speaking or singing a phrase that’s popped into your head before you lose it.
We have a kind of inspiration playlist that we are constantly adding to online, which features all sorts of music that resonates with us. There’s not one go-to artist that we automatically refer to.
You recently played a show in support of Azealia Banks. That’s quite an incongruous combination – how did that happen?
We got asked to play on her tour back in 2012 when we were still developing. We share the same booking agent and I think she’s got pretty open musical tastes. When she had a show in London this year she asked for us to support again. We dig her bravado and her fans get that while our show is different, it’s still confident and honest, like her.
Your video for “Sense of an Ending” is beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. What inspired it and the desire to shoot the whole thing in purple?
The video was shot in a day with one of Europe’s best tree climbers Waldo. He’s a friend of one of the directors Tom Mustill, and during a pre-production meeting Waldo briefly mentioned that he could climb a tree near the house he grew up in blindfolded. The story for the music video unfolded from there. The decision for the video to be turned purple actually happened on the train home, after everything had been shot.
You’ve said Muscle Memory has been described as carrying a “hopeful darkness” all the way through. What do you think that means?
Thematically, we’ve said somewhere that this LP chronicles our loves, deaths, breakups and engagements of the past few years. The music reflects that and I’m happy that people are picking up on it when they listen.
For example, we enjoy sculpting sparse, empty soundscapes and full, dark bass sounds, which can come across as both daunting and airy.
You produced the album yourselves – did you ever fear that you wouldn’t be able to achieve an objective distance from the work?
No. We’re good at being objective. So if one of us comes with a new track and it’s not working its obvious to the other two. It’s also very useful to be producing multiple tracks at the same time, as then you can go back and forth between them and keep giving the songs room to breathe.
What does the future hold for Dems? Are you going to be touring the album at all?
We have already started work recording the next LP. We will be planning a small tour of this album too, with a very special launch show for it too, lying somewhere between a live show and an art exhibition, with lots of musicians and collaborators.
Words: Maya Hambro