Guy and Howard Lawrence, who started making electronic music as Disclosure when they were still in their teens, settled on the genre for the same reason that many teenagers choose their extracurricular activities: They wanted to do what would make them seem cool. The two brothers from the county of Surrey near London, now 24 and 21, respectively, come from a musical family — their father was a guitarist in rock bands in the ‘80s and their mother sang jingles and performed on cruises — but it was the avant-garde music of London clubs in the late ‘00s (Burial, Joy Orbison) that first gave shape to their own artistic ambitions.
“If we were going to write songs together, we were just looking for the freshest way to present them,” Guy, who is clean-shaven and extroverted, told me recently when I visited him and Howard, who is aloof with a scruffy beard, at a tony, high-rise hotel in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Both brothers started playing instruments as children — Guy the drums and Howard the bass — and share an easy and quietly intimate bond reminiscent of twins. “I would go to these clubs in the early days of dubstep and it was just the most exciting thing happening at the moment, like nothing you’d ever heard.”
Disclosure’s 2013 debut album, Settle, drew from the astral, moody music of the London underground but pushed it toward the light, using the more immediately gratifying tempos of house music and incorporating pop vocals. The result, a 14-song instant party featuring a catch-a-rising-star roster of vocalists including Jessie Ware, AlunaGeorge, and a then-unknown Sam Smith, made the Lawrence brothers vastly more successful than their heroes, and established them as the babyfaced darlings of an international dance music revival. Settle sold 1.6 million albums worldwide, generated over 300 million streams on Spotify, and was nominated for a Grammy (its biggest single “Latch,” featuring Smith, cracked the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified triple platinum).
Partly to reconcile with their heterogeneous musical upbringing, and partly to leapfrog a wave of soundalikes that rode in on their wake, the Lawrences decided to recalibrate on their new album, Caracal, out Sept. 25 from Capitol. They wanted to prove that they could make not just great dance music, but great music, period.
“We didn’t grow up listening to house,” says Guy, citing his and his brother’s pre-club love of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. “Even though we love it, we know loads of different types of music and there are still loads of different things we want to try.”
Caracal eschews the handful of sample-based floor-fillers like “When A Fire Starts To Burn” and “Grab Her!” that gave Settle its crackling heat, replacing them with wall-to-wall, verse-chorus pop songs made in studio with singer-songwriters like The Weeknd, Lorde, and Miguel. The collection is an impressive achievement by any measure, but, as Disclosure readies for its biggest shows to date at New York’s Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena this fall, the album’s slower tempo may befuddle fans who were primarily in it for the party. That’s OK with the Lawrences. “We make music very selfishly,” Guy says.
You have a rule on your albums that you only work with artists who you can physically get into a studio with, which is not the way that a lot of contemporary music is made. Why is that so important?
Guy Lawrence: Yeah, we don't ever send beats to anyone. If people want to write a song with us, than we have to meet up. That's how we do it. It's important to us because of the way we write. Loads of producers make beats and stuff but they don't write lyrics and they don't write toplines [melodies and lyrics], whereas we do, so it's like if we want the singer on the track, we don't want to just tell them what to sing, but we don't want to just let them decide what to sing either, we want to do it together. I think doing it over email or doing it over the internet works for some people, but it doesn't work for us. You lose that soul that we try and get in our music, that sort of classic songwriting that's produced in a fresh way.
How do you choose who you invite to collaborate?
Howard Lawrence: We don't just look for people who are good singers, we look for people who are good writers and nice people as well. We won't work with people with a big ego or anything, we just wouldn't get on. To us it makes no difference if someone's big or small. We've got Sam Smith, and Lorde, and The Weeknd, but we've also got Jordan Rakei, who's got 400 followers on Twitter.
Guy: I think he's got quite a lot now, actually, like 20,000. [Editor’s note: It’s a little over 4,000 as of late August.] But yeah, relatively unknown. We've got people like Kwabs and Nao, who haven't released full albums yet; we're all about supporting acts like that. Because they're just hungry, you know, they wanna work. They just wanna give and give. Sometimes if you work with big stars, they're just there and you tell them what to sing. That's not what we're about. But acts like The Weeknd, and Lorde, and Sam, and Miguel, they're all still so hungry.
Lorde's a great example. We knew she was a great singer and we knew she was lovely as a person, but we didn't know she was such an incredible writer. When we did this collab, she was so involved in every little thing. Not just the lyrics and the melody, but after we'd finished the song we sent it to her and she sent us this big list of stuff she wanted to change and all these little details you can't hear in the lyrics, in the drums or in the synths. It's cool. She pushed the song an extra 10%. It was the only time we've ever really done that with an artist, they usually kind of leave the production to us.
A lot of mainstream electronic music sounds like Settle now. It seems like if you turn on the radio in the U.K., everything is “deep house.” How did you approach following that up?
Guy: We just did what we wanted to, really. When we made the last album, people now look at it and say, 'Oh yeah, that brought house music back to the radio.’ Especially in the U.K., it brought forward all of these acts. But when we made it, that wasn't its purpose — we just wrote music that we like. Now that house music's back, it would be very predictable to make a solid album of just house. Why would we do that when we've already done it? The purpose is just to push things forward. We always want to do something forward-thinking and challenge ourselves.
Howard: That's the main thing. It's not like we're pushing forward the scene. We don't set off when we're writing a song to push the scene forward, we're just pushing ourselves. We want to outdo what we've already done.
"We're just doing what we want, and it's like, come with us if you want to hear it."
Guy: You hear house music on the radio all the time now and that's great, I'm glad the record helped to bring that forward. But now that's done, let's try something else. Let's bring R&B back [laughs]. It's only when you look back at what you've done, that's when we realized, Oh that's what it was for. We don't really know what it was for, we just write music.
Another thing to remember is all this music on the radio as well, these house songs that are getting to number one or whatever and then they just disappear. They're all kind of one-hit wonders. The artists behind them, 99% of them aren't going to put an album out next or whatever. They're just getting signed and getting played on the radio thanks to these big hits they've just made. I think people respect the fact that we're an album act and a live act. We're here to stay. We're not just delivering what the radio wants at that time. We're just doing what we want and it's like, come with us if you want to hear it.
The album format seems to come to you guys naturally, but many great dance music artists never make great albums.
Guy: If you're a producer or especially if you're a DJ, you don't need to write an album. You can get bookings forever — just release a couple of EPs a year, put a song up here and there, you can get any DJ bookings. And that's fine. But the songwriting for us is what's important. It doesn't matter if it's dance music or not, it could be any format. We just enjoy writing songs.
Howard: I think the majority of dance music producers come to it because they start DJing. That's how that get into dance music; they become DJs and then think "Oh, I can make some tracks to play in my set." Whereas we came to it from a musicians point of view, as did someone like James Blake, you know. He found dance music later in his life, and you come to it with a different perspective on the whole thing.
Guy: It's a very different way of getting into it and it effects massively what you make, and I'm still yet to meet someone who had the same exact background that we have, being a drummer and a bassist and listening to all that and then just getting into dance music and that's the genre you get into. It's definitely rare.
There are more midtempo moments on Caracal.
Guy: Yeah. There's a bigger tempo range, and if you took an average of all of it, it would be a bit slower. Probably around 110 BPM.
One of the consequences of that, though, is maybe you don't have the same huge, cathartic dance-floor moment on every song on the album.
Guy: Maybe. But I think when I watch a live act... When I watch a DJ, I get it — it's gotta be the same. You want the beats to maintain [a certain tempo]. But when you watch us, we're like a band. [In Disclosure’s live show, Guy plays an electronic drum kit, while Howard plays bass and keyboard]. We play a song and we stop and we have a chat and we play a song and we stop. It's nice to have those peaks and troughs in a show. You don't go watch a band play like [gestures as if drumming in a tight, rapid-fire pattern] the whole time. They do a jam, they slow it down, they speed it up. We wanna be more like that, you know?
Howard: Everything that we do, everything that we do, except for having electronic drums, is like things that a band would do. The only thing that makes us perceived as dance music is electronic instruments. I think as a songwriter, forgetting the production aspect of it, it would be such an obscure thing to only write at one tempo for your whole career. Songwriters don't do that. Imagine if every song on Thriller was exactly the same tempo. You need the freedom to change tempos so that you can do different melodies.
Does it concern you, though? The fact that you might evolve in a way that alienates you from big dance crowds?
"The only thing that makes us perceived as dance music is that we use electronic instruments."
Guy: No, no.
Howard: No, it's something that we really respect in other bands. All of my favorite acts ever have made an album at some point that I didn't like. And that's because to be really innovative and make really good music you have to just try different stuff. It's like Prince — he's one of the most prolific songwriters ever. He's made some of my favorite songs ever. But some of his records I don't like at all. And that's great. For someone to have that versatility I think is great.
Howard, one of your songs from the album, “Jaded,” is about electronic acts who use ghostwriters and ghost producers, which happens to be a hot-button issue at the moment. What did you make of the Drake/Meek Mill situation?
Howard: I’ve only just started reading about it. Meek said Drake doesn’t write his own rhymes?
Howard: I think working with people is fine, but if it gets to the point where you’re basically paying someone else to do your job, that’s just kind of stupid. Especially for producers. When they're not singing it, writing it, or producing it, it's like, well what have you done? You haven't done anything.
Guy: If [Drake's] not doing any of it, that kinda sucks. But if he's crediting that guy, if he's doing interviews like this and talking about it, cool. We work with loads of artists and with [songwriter and Sam Smith collaborator] Jimmy Napes, but we mention Jimmy in like every interview and big him up. I just think when it gets covered up, it's a bit sad. I love Drake, though. That new fucking cell phone tune [“Hotline Bling”] is just sick.
Howard, you’re a singer and a songwriter; and Guy, you’re primarily a producer. Could you see yourselves pursuing those things separately at any point?
Howard: Yeah, we do to a certain extent anyway. Guy's produced for some hip-hop artists and I did some writing on Sam's album and with Lianne La Havas. But I think all of the stuff that we'd like to do separately is so different from Disclosure that we'll always do Disclosure and just do that stuff as well. I don't think there would ever be a need for Disclosure to stop.
Guy: It'd be later down the line, as well. Probably when we’ve run out of ideas for ourselves we’ll just start giving them to someone else [laughs]. It's definitely something we'd like to do, for sure. There’s loads of stuff out there. Classical music, for instance, or I'd love to write some music for a film — stuff like that. But I wanna do that from my nice house in the country.
This interview has been edited and condensed.