It is a calm, sunny evening in the flat, hipster enclave of North Park, San Diego as Bombay Bicycle Club warm-up for a show at the Observatory Theatre, one of their first performances in five years. With its warm sun, otherworldly desert fauna, and top-notch taco offerings, San Diego feels like the polar opposite of the band’s native England. But they are used to the foreign surrounds, having been in-state now for two weeks, finishing their new album, Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, at a Los Angeles studio. Taking a break, Jack Steadman, the band’s bespectacled lead singer and songwriter, strolls from the dark bowels of the venue under tall, skinny palms to a nearby bar to discuss the joys of beer, the merits of slow travel and what he has been doing over the band’s lengthy hiatus.
He had asked, “Can we go somewhere quiet?” and now we are some of the only patrons in a newly opened brewery called Belgian Beer and Waffles. Steadman orders the house lager on draft, his calm, zen-like demeanor striking a funny contrast with the fidgety, overly chipper man behind the register, who is probably just happy to have customers in this empty bar.
Steadman wears a blue-and-white striped button-down, reminiscent of an old-timey sailor. He has a chiseled chin and round, bookish classes over mellow, inquisitive eyes. With a low voice, he moves slowly as he speaks, his hand picking up and placing down his beer in mechanical, deliberate movements. His mop of coffee-brown hair is completely gone now, with only a round monkishly bare head remaining; a new look for a new start. Raising his glass and flashing a small grin, he says, “Cheers, mate.”
How’s it going with the new record?
We just finished it. We started in London with this producer John Congleton [St. Vincent, Explosions in the Sky]. He was amazing. We produced ourselves on our last record and took quite a long time. When you’re self-producing you’re not on any timeframe: You can always go back and change stuff. Looking back, I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to make a record.
Because there comes a point in a song where it’s time to leave it alone. Once you reach that point, and keep fucking with it, you’re gonna end up ruining the song.
There’s always some kind of beauty in a child-like innocence and doing things the wrong way rather than the right.”
Do you have a home studio?
I used to, for a long time. I recently got rid of it because I realized that I like going away to write music, so having a studio in London didn’t make any sense. I didn’t feel inspired there but felt like I had to go because it cost so much money. I was just sitting around not actually doing much. I like not writing music for a long time then going away for a few weeks and being really intense. That’s what I did with this record.
When did you start writing it?
About a year ago. Took loads of trips to Cornwall. It’s very quiet. I rented a place that overlooked the sea, which I really liked. There was nothing else to do in town. Everyone was, like, over the age of 80. For me it was perfect. All you can do is write music.
You were alone?
It was me and Ed, the bass player. He writes his own stuff as well. We had two little rooms. Sometimes when you’re by yourself writing—you start writing in the afternoon, you start drinking, then by one in the morning you’ve ruined the song, because you’re getting so excited by it. When someone else is there they can say, “Oh, this is cool but don’t do this.”
How long were you writing there?
We went a week every month for six months. It was a friend’s grandparents’ house. Working with John, he’s very quick. We’ve been so used to recording everyone separately and fixing everything once you’ve done it. But he’d get us all in a room, we’d record and he’d say, “That’s great, let’s move on.” It took us awhile to be convinced it was actually OK. But we’d taken so much time out [from the band], we wanted to do something a bit out of our comfort zones. If I sung slightly out of tune, he’d keep it, because that’s normal, that’s human. In a lot of music nowadays, everything is tweaked perfectly. He’s very old school in that way.
How do you describe the album to those who haven’t heard it?
It feels like a combination between our first and last records. You can hear it being a bit more rough around the edges, live and raw. To me, it sounds a bit more natural.
This is Bombay’s fifth record. Does it get easier?
No, definitely not. And depends what easy is. At the beginning it’s harder to express what you want in a studio because you don’t know how it works—you’re just a kid and you’ve never been in a studio before. It’s a lot easier to be more free and open with your ideas and less self-conscious. When you’re young, you’re a bit more bold and confident. The inverse of that is now we’re so adept at being in the studio, is that a good or bad thing? There’s always some kind of beauty in a child-like innocence and doing things the wrong way rather than the right.
I don’t see many bitters in the US. A bitter is flat, not cold. It sounds horrible but it’s delicious.”
During Bombay’s hiatus, you took a long trip. Why?
It’s something I’d been wanting to do for a very long time, but couldn’t because we were touring so much. I don’t know why or when it happened but I just started to really like traveling as slow as possible, not being in a rush. Flying, you’re just going from A to B as quickly as possible; I just find it really boring. Even in LA, I got a bus pass and started taking a bus everywhere, which takes two hours. You can get there in an Uber in ten minutes. But it makes me feel really relaxed. I just look out the window, listen to music, read a book. In my trip, I took that to an extreme and went from London to Vancouver without flying. From London, I took a train pretty much to Beijing, on the Trans Siberian Railway. I had one stop, in a place called Irkutsk, which they call the Paris of Siberia, which was very nice. I went to Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world. It was absolutely stunning. I went in February so it was completely frozen. I’d never seen a landscape like it. From Beijing I trained down to Shanghai. There was a container ship I managed to get a ticket on to northern B.C, near the Alaskan border, then took a bus down to Vancouver.
How long did it take you?
The whole thing was two months.
You were traveling alone?
Yeah. You end up meeting a lot of people. The further east I got into Russia, the friendlier people got. Siberians are just really cool people. I prefer traveling alone. I can’t handle the diplomacy of traveling in a large group: Where’re we gonna eat tonight? What we’re gonna do today? It’s like, I’ve got my list of things I want to do today so I’d rather do that than have the company.
What is your relationship to beer when traveling? Do you like to go to bars alone?
For sure, 100 percent. Especially on tour. If I have an afternoon free, I’ll go sit in a bar and read a book. Some people go to cafes. I’m ashamed to admit that I just go to a bar and drink beers.
Do you notice any differences in American and British drinking cultures?
I don’t see many bitters in the US. A bitter is flat, not cold. It sounds horrible but it’s delicious. It’s quite nutty and dark brown. Every pub in the UK will have a bitter. In the middle of winter there, there’s nothing more satisfying than a pint of bitter. In LA, I’m not really used to the heat. I’ve only been drinking Mexican beers. I tried a few ales and thought, It’s too hot right now. The American-style IPA is getting very trendy in London. I like it once in awhile, but I like a really bitter beer. The really zest, fruity IPAs—there’s a time and a place; I don’t drink them very often.
Is Bombay Bicycle Club a big partying band?
Not so much nowadays. We started so young that we got all of that stuff out of our system very quickly. We chilled out a long time ago. Now I feel like I’m an old man, but I’m only 29. Since being in LA, we’ve gotten very much into CBD and just smoking loads of weed, basically. It’s nice for us. I drink less.
What’s it like touring after such a long break?
It makes me realize how much I’ve changed, whereas before I didn’t think I had. A lot of people are stubborn. They think, I haven’t changed, I’m the same guy. When we were last touring, in 2014, it was so different. Now, just a simple thing, like getting my own place [in London] with my girlfriend, and becoming a bit more domesticated: having your comforts, a place you’ve designed and feel 100 percent comfortable in. Last night I was on my tour bus in my bunk and thought, This is horrible. I’m so hot. I can’t sleep. This isn’t how I would have designed this space. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because in my head immediately I was like, Shut the fuck up, this is great. But it made me realize how much I’ve changed. But with the band on stage, nothing has changed. We still have the same energy. Whenever we come off stage, we’re absolutely exhausted, which is probably why we don’t party much. It’s a real workout. Mentally, as well it’s a very strange experience being on stage.
I just always come off stage with so much stuff to think about.
Just how surreal it is.
You don’t get used to it?
Maybe because we haven’t toured in awhile, I’m just having it again now. Like, if you met us in the daytime, we come across quite reserved. But then you see us play and it’s the opposite. I think that’s why it feels so weird coming off stage. You’ve just been this other person for an hour. Not in a contrived way—it feels quite natural. But then you come back into your quiet reserved space and think, That was weird.