Older, wiser and still sure they're the world's best band - prepare for a meaningful Embrace
Back in the Nineties their raging egos saw them branded obnoxious prats. As Embrace play Belfast this weekend, frontman Danny McNamara tells Chris Jones they should have had more sense (but, um, they are actually great).
Rock history is littered with examples of brothers sharing bands in varying shades of concord, from the combustible Reids in the Jesus & Mary Chain ("After each tour we wanted to kill each other, and after the final tour we tried," said Jim of he and William) to the Gallaghers in Oasis (Noel: "Liam only has two problems - everything he f****** says and everything he f****** does").
But Danny and Richard McNamara of Embrace seem to be cut from a different, more harmonious cloth.
"We present a united front!" laughs frontman Danny (43) of his brother, who is a year younger. "But we argue like cat and dog. We've never actually come to blows but he's thrown stuff at me. He threw a full Coke can one time and it missed me and hit Steve (Firth, bass), which was quite funny.
"We do argue a lot but it's always about the music. I guess that's what makes it so creative. We see things really differently - the way that he approaches music is very different from me. So it just makes it more creative, that friction between us.
"But as people we get on really well. He's one of my favourite people on the planet."
If it seems like a long time since Embrace were last around, that's because it is. Remarkably, they have had the same five-man line-up since 1995, well before they achieved any success. From 1998 to 2006, they were synonymous with that post-Britpop period when blokey British bands made epic, arena-ready indie rock songs and sold cartloads of records in the process. The Verve, Athlete, Doves … Those bands are all gone now, leaving Coldplay and Elbow to fly the flag - until this year.
Having taken an extended break following their fifth album This New Day (their third to go to number one in the UK charts), the Yorkshire band disappeared from sight for a full eight years until this year's comeback with their sixth, self-titled album. And it's been a triumphant return - a well-received record, a top-five chart placing and a very happy Danny.
"It's been great," he says. "I really love being in a band, it's an amazing thing to do for a living. Whether you like the band or not, this album is as good as anything we've ever done. Not a lot of bands can say that having been together as long as we have."
McNamara is an engaging, candid interviewee, and is forthright on the reason for the band's temporary split in 2006.
"When we got to the end of the campaign for the last album, we definitely needed a break," he says. "Commercially we were really successful, but we didn't feel like the fifth album was the best thing we'd ever done. We felt like we'd rushed it out a little bit and succumbed to the pressures that you get from the record companies and stuff to deliver. And while I'm still really pleased with a lot of the work that we did on that album, it could have been a lot better.
"So when you start then going around the world with it, it starts jarring a bit. You start thinking, 'I wish we'd done that differently'. Eventually it just gets to the stage where you really, really want a break and then (to) go back in the studio and try and do your best work again.
"I think us not being that happy with that fifth album is what's made the sixth album as good as it is. We wanted to make sure we didn't leave one stone unturned."
The comeback album is recognisably Embrace, but not instantly. With portentous synthesiser chords and spiky electric guitar, the opening track Protection initially sounds more like Depeche Mode or The Cure than the big, warm-hearted sound we're used to. But as soon as Danny begins singing, his voice is unmistakable. Although the sound of the album is different - its use of electronic drum machines has been divisive - Danny and songwriting partner Richard have not lost their knack for making the kind of anthemic rock music designed to fill arenas and festival main stages.
"We've definitely grown and I think this album shows that," says Danny. "That's why I think it's our best."
Up until This New Day, the McNamara brothers had always written songs together, but for that album it was a collective effort, and Danny admits that that was part of the reason that it wasn't so successful - and why they decided to return to the old model. "I think that was important," he says. "The music on the fifth album was great but it doesn't really have the depth that you get when you sit there with a guitar and just write until something good comes out. Generally, when you do that, you get the essence of a song first and then you build everything around it. Whereas when you're writing as a band you'll get all the music and it'll sound really impressive but sometimes you're just missing that soul that you can get when you're writing on your own. So we wanted to go back to that.
"But who knows, some of our better stuff has been created as a band - One Big Family and All You Good Good People came about in that way."
Those were iconic early songs for the band, the epitome of their enormous, galvanising sound. At a time when the likes of Oasis, Blur and Pulp were indulging in a bigger sound with every record following their Britpop heyday - the horribly bloated Be Here Now by Oasis being the infamous apex of the trend - Embrace were a bunch of newcomers taking them on with an orchestra of their own. And with that big sound came egos to match. In 1999, music writer Neil McCormick described their early interviews as the words of "a bunch of obnoxious, arrogant prats". Have the years changed them?
"I've thought about that," says Danny. "I think a big chunk was (the fact that) we just weren't very media trained. Most bands, when they come out, think that they're it, especially if you're from up north and no-one's listening. You have this attitude: everyone else is wrong, we're right, f*** the world. And then suddenly, everyone started paying attention and putting microphones in front of us. After working as a band for seven years and not getting anywhere, the feeling of 'I told you so' was too much to bear.
"People were asking us what we thought of the band, and we were like, 'We think we're the best band in the world'. And we did! And you know, in some ways I still do. In terms of being Embrace, we're the best there is. We're unique, we've ploughed our own furrow and I'm really proud of that."
McNamara didn't just spend the eight years between albums writing songs, however - he also bought, and then sold a Manchester nightclub at a tidy profit.
"I'd never done it before and threw myself in at the deep end, and fortunately came out of it not too scathed," he says. "I've actually read the book that Peter Hook wrote about the Hacienda and it was like that, but I recognised a lot of the pitfalls; a lot of the problems you face, a lot of the dramas were very similar. I guess I just dealt with them better."
The band have spent much of 2014 on the road again, having returned to the live circuit for a few shows at the end of last year - their first since 2006. Happily for their Northern Irish fans, the tour - and Embrace's year - will finish at the Limelight, where they played their last Belfast show eight years ago.
"It's a place that we all absolutely love as a band," says Danny. "We supported The Longpigs there (in the early days) and that was a great gig, and pretty much every single gig that we've done there since has been a highlight of the tour. So I'm really looking forward to it.
"It's a Saturday night - if we were playing in Belfast we thought it would be nice to do a weekend, so that's how it worked out. Whenever we go to Ireland it always gets pretty messy - we all really like Guinness!"
Embrace play the Limelight, Belfast, tomorrow. For further details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com
Minding their own business ...
Like Danny McNamara, other rock stars who've dabbled in business projects outside of the band include ...
New Order and The Hacienda - legendary as a business basket case as well as the epicentre of Madchester and an incubator of Acid House, Manchester club The Hacienda was owned by Factory Records and their flagship band New Order
Jay-Z and Roc Nation - Jay-Z has always had a strong grip on his own worth, from setting up his own record label in 1995 to the formation in 2008 of Roc Nation - a "full-service entertainment company" that manages Kylie, Kanye and Shakira among others. Jay also has interests in fashion, beauty products, sports teams and video games
Justin Timberlake - not content with his music and acting careers, JT also runs a record label, Tenman Records, which is a subsidiary of Interscope Records, as well as an eco-friendly golf course, while he also has a stake in basketball team the Memphis Grizzlies