Xcerts: There are enough sad records... we want people to dance and sing to our records
Ahead of their Belfast gig next month, Brighton-based trio Xcerts are serving up the spirit of heartland rock with a modern twist for their new album, Hold On To Your Heart, out today
The Xcerts have been playing their own distinct brand of alternate pop n' roll ever since frontman Murray Macleod and bassist Jordan Smith bonded at school over some shared trouble that saw the unruly pair sent to the deputy head's office.
The band have always held a modest yet impassioned following, but the stage is now set for Hold On To Your Heart to become the biggest record of their career, with its singles already eliciting extraordinarily enthusiastic responses live. In many ways, it's unsurprising that the new material is being greeted as warmly as their old favourites; Hold On To Your Heart contains some of the most infectious, effervescent songs in The Xcerts back catalogue, simple paeans to living life to its fullest no matter the hardships one suffers.
Recent packed-out shows and festivals - the band will play Bar Sub at Queen's University, Belfast, on Wednesday, February 21 as part of their UK tour - are strong indicators that the band's status as underdogs is soon to be relegated to the past.
"For the first time, it feels like people are on side and want us to do well," says Murray. "We're very fortunate to have an incredibly loyal following who want us to succeed - it feels like people are really rooting for us. I think they know how much this means to us and how hard we've worked. The three of us have stayed hungry because all we've ever wanted is to be in this band playing these songs."
Daydream was the song that provided the catalyst for the direction The Xcerts took with their new material, a joyous and jubilant ode to focusing on the light when all seems dark. "I remember us saying in the rehearsal room 'this song feels like our spin on Cheap Trick and Rick Springfield'," Murray recalls. "We had so much fun playing it and it dictated the direction that the rest of the album would go in. I think we used to be under the illusion that records need to be dark but life isn't like that. Hold On To Your Heart to me very much represents the light and the dark, because that's life, sometimes you're up and sometimes you're down."
The band focused in on the collective influences that first stoked their passion for music, songs discovered in their youth that evoke feelings of nostalgia and a longing for simpler times uncomplicated by the trials of growing up. The simple, infectious vocal lines of Petty, the optimistic storytelling of Springsteen and the lyrical romanticism of Waits all had a strong impact on the song writing of Hold On To Your Heart, but the band were adamant that they'd bring their own sensibilities to them and update them for a modern audience.
"The whole style of the song writing on this album feels very organic to me," says drummer Tom Heron, who joined the band in 2006 when Murray and Jordan moved from their native Aberdeen to Brighton. "When you're young and writing songs, you tend to concentrate on the music that is influencing you in the present. This album feels like we've remembered the music we grew up with, stuff like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen that have always been there because our parents played them and we listened to them from a very young age."
Hold On To Your Heart also took inspiration from the optimistic, coming-of-age yarns spun by film-maker John Hughes and set about attempting to capture the intangible feeling of hope and idealism that permeated the likes of Ferris Bueller's Day Off or The Breakfast Club.
"It's useful to have a visual reference that drives the song writing," Jordan explains. "Visualising those films in our heads drove the songs much further than if we'd just been shooting for some ephemeral concept of hope or longing. There was always a positive strand to his films."
Whilst the record is an exuberant cacophony of major-key melodies, joyous saxophone and jubilant piano chords, there is a dark centre at its core. These optimistic paeans to carpe diem couldn't have been written in more trying circumstances. A number of events prompted Murray to feel detached from the world around him, the break-up of a long-term relationship, the death of his grandmother and,then the death of a mutual friend of the band.
"The songs are coming from a really bad place," Murray says. "I'd become a really empty human being; it felt like my wires were all lined up perfectly and colour co-ordinated and then someone yanked them all out. I couldn't really relate to anyone, I was struggling to talk to people, I just couldn't go out and face the world.
"Fundamentally I just felt completely worthless, I just didn't know who I was and I didn't really care about who I was either."
The negativity that shrouded Murray's sense of wellbeing began to infiltrate the band's rehearsals as well, with early sessions proving strained. "Murray and I were going at each other head to head for a while there," Jordan admits. "It was difficult. Both of us would be in tears and Tom would be sitting in the middle looking awkward. We would always talk about rehearsal as work, this idea that it's a job that you had to put the hours in to, which is true, but it's glib. You're taking the joy out of it when you look at it like that."
Murray smiles, like a man recalling troubles that are now long behind him. "It wasn't fun. Some of those writing sessions were heavy, it was more like group therapy then it was practise. When me and the boys go into that practise room, we should be having fun. We've always said rock 'n' roll ain't rocket science; it should be simple and pure, just three friends getting together and getting loud but it was pretty hairy for a while there."
Sometimes things get worse before they get better and Murray's lowest point came after he moved into a decrepit bed-sit that came to be ironically known as 'the mansion'. No attempt had been made to rid the house of the black mould that covered the walls, the owners deciding instead that simply painting over it would make for a suitable living space. Sometimes he would wake to screaming from other residents and there was one incident when he returned home from playing a show only to discover that a man had been stabbed practically on his doorstep.
But it was despite these dark surroundings, or perhaps because of them, that the songs that made their way on to Hold On To Your Heart began to take shape. Murray recalls the genesis of We Are Gonna Live, an upbeat, joyful anthem about escapism that was written within this oppressive, mould-infested habitat as an example.
"It stems from a night where I was laying on the floor thinking 'this can't be it. This can't be me, this can't be my life and I ain't going down like this'. It was really beneficial for me to experience though because it was a dark place, the mansion was really rotten but it inspired me to move on and start again. I wanted to bring myself back and make myself feel better; it inspired me to find hope in the dark I'd been hiding in. I started to romanticise my negativity and that was the beginning of many of the songs that ended up on the album."
Murray may have been in the gutter, but his romantic optimism directed his gaze towards the stars. Songs such as Daydream, Feels Like Falling In Love and We Are Gonna Live are rousing odes to living life with a full heart and an open mind. "I want people to be there with me on the street corners or in the bars or in the mansion, the places where it all went down."
Reconvening with his bandmates with the bare bones of these songs in tow proved to be reinvigorating. His environment and these songs forced a shift in Murray's attitude, lighting a spark that ignited fire in the band's bellies to create something that would fill their lives with light.
"The three of us needed to create what felt like a life-affirming record," Murray says. "There was a real sense of hunger and a drive in wanting to make the songs explode out of the small room we were creating in. The outside world was completely forgotten about each time we stepped into the rehearsal space and in there, it was vital therapy."
As a result, The Xcerts have produced the most life-affirming collection of songs in their career to date.
"There are already a million amazing sad records and at the moment, we're not interested in adding any more to the pile," says Murray. "We want people to listen to our band and feel invigorated. We want to make people dance and sing and feel free, to show them that they're worth so much more than the pain they're going through.
"It's an arm around the listener and a voice saying no matter how bad things get, they will get good again. Those clouds are going to part and the sun is going to come glaring through. We want people to put on their headphones and feel like anything's possible."
Hold On To Your Heart is out today on Raygun Records which coincides with their UK tour. They play Bar Sub, Mandela Hall, Queen's University, Belfast, on February 21. Tickets, £13, ticketmaster.co.uk