Dance to the beat of their drum

Text by Felix L. Petty

Photography by Alexander McLuckie and Matthew Ritson

Listen to "Jane"

"We were swimming off the coast of Spain, off our faces on pills, all naked. We had a moment and decided to start a band," is the jocular evocation of how Cymbals formed, according to their singer and guitarist Jack Cleverly. The reality, of course, isn't as glitteringly hedonistic as the myth, but Cymbals sound just like that encounter in the Mediterranean. As in, they sound like the fleeting euphoric moments usually associated with Ecstasy.

Cymbals actually formed in the summer of 2010, from the ashes of projects too numerous to mention. Sean Prendiville and Jack Cleverly had started jamming before Dan Simmons joined. Within a year they'd released Unlearn. A debut album defined by a restrictive yet expressive minimalism. Tightly wound guitar-lines coiled around a synth palette evoking an emotive nostalgia without straying into the maudlin. All offset by Sean's drumming, that purposefully sits on the extremities of every beat. The hands-in-the-air euphoria of House music now subdued to resemble an intimate party at 6.00am, with the sun creeping through curtains, shining soft light on full ashtrays.

That atmosphere is evoked on "Jane", the album's standout track. With its subtle shifts between just two synth notes, Cleverly's vocals whisper over the slightest of melodies to emotionally-wrecking effect. Yet its lyrical description of a party remains celebratory, with each moment being rejoiced rather than wallowed in. For Cymbals, transience gives emotional weight. The band set out to "imitate electronic music. To do live covers of house records," according to Cleverly. Rather than mimic the mechanical repetitions of House they always seem to be on the verges of disintegration, with Cleverly's guitar threatening to implode into a squeal of joyful virtuosity, his voice seconds away from collapsing into laughter.

Describing the band's sound as an organic interpretation of House music does a disservice to their emotional range however. Their songs veer from the humorous to the melancholic without missing a snap of that 4/4 beat. Despite the poignancy of Cymbals' songs, it is their wit that shines through. Our conversation is heavily punctuated by Cleverly's high-pitched laugh, with Simmons and he bouncing jokes between each other.

Like the songs, their gigs feel like a gathering of intimate friends. They tend to radiate the inclusive utopia of a Berlin warehouse party rather than the straight-faced pouting that other guitar-based dance bands often inspire. Strangers hug each other, people dance and fall in love. "We didn't want to be a band that you listen to and think, 'How serious,'" Cleverly explains. "Where you have to engage with how heavy someone's problems are."

The band forged their sound during lengthy practice sessions, in which members regularly swapped instruments. Prendiville had never played drums before joining Cymbals. "Sean turned up to play bass and I was on violin," Simmons explains. "There was a moment when I was playing violin, Sean was on guitar and Jack was drumming. I still wouldn't describe myself a synth player, though. But I like that, because all of us are playing a little bit out of our comfort zone. It occurred to me to try and get that House beat on a guitar by doing this really simple thing, without using many notes," Cleverly says. "We just wanted to keep the whole set-up really stripped back and make it sound minimal."

After Unlearn's House-influenced minimalism, the band have been preparing another two EPs of material for release. This has introduced fourth member, Neil Gillespie, to play drums with Sean returning to bass. The result is a more developed sound. No longer playing bass lines on the guitar allows Cleverly's technical ability to shine, freed from doubling up as part of the rhythm section. "Some of it sounds very thick with guitar," he says. "This song, "Intense Kids" is the difference, because the bass leads, rather than the synth. Sean wrote it, and he writes very simple chords with these beautiful melodies on top."

The erratic minimalism of their first year now heads towards a fuller sound and brighter future. "This is going to be the Cymbals sell out EP," jokes Cleverly about their new work. While, Simmons eschews self-reflection, preferring to keep momentum. "Once it's done you just move on to the next thing."

  • The Cymbals