The up-and-coming Clean Bandit are no strangers to Cambridge atlantic records uk

“We have played in Fez a couple of times. We kind of perched in front of the DJ booth and did a gig there.” If you’re going to measure a band’s success based on the floorspace of the venues they play, and I’m going to, then string player Milan Neil Amin-Smith’s words make it clear that Clean Bandit have come a long way since their beginnings in Cambridge six years ago. Their first gig was at a self-organised club night in the tiny and now closed Kambar but they’ll return next month to play the Corn Exchange as part of a UK and US tour.

Of course, you could also go by awards, and they’re not doing too bad on that front either; having just won the Grammy for Best Dance Recording with ‘Rather Be’, the band found themselves amongst Alt-J and Coldplay in the nominees for Best British Group at the Brit Awards, and with a Best British Single nomination for the track.

Yet the nomination announcements weren’t an entirely positive affair for Clean Bandit. While they were thrilled to have been selected, both Amin-Smith and fellow bandmate Grace Chatto commented on the lack of race and gender diversity across the nominees, an issue that cropped up again days later at the Grammy awards. While he insists that there is a problem to be discussed there, Amin-Smith clarifies, “to be honest I think I was slightly misinterpreted with my comments about the Brits. I wasn’t having a go at the actual nominations. Obviously Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, they’ve all had massive years and deserve the nominations they got. But I think, nevertheless, that there was such a lack of diversity in the nominations speaks of some sort of wider structural problem.” An increasing lack of government financial support for the arts may be “part of it” but Amin-Smith suspects it’s “even more entrenched and insidious than just financial support. I think it’s probably connected to so many different things like role models and aspirations and social mobility on a wider scale.” Nevertheless, he expresses dismay at the media’s reduction of a very complicated issue into “tiny soundbites”: “I think they just replayed me on Radio 1 saying ‘It was the year of the white man and that’s depressing.’”

Furthermore, he says, “it feels funny” making these comments as part of a band that is “known for coming from Cambridge”, a place with no shortage of privileged opportunities for young acts. Despite the notable lack of a student music scene, he insists that Cambridge is a pretty good training ground for musical success: “the May Balls just give you such a great opportunity to learn about live performance because [of what] you play on – we played on the same stage as like Dizzee Rascal and Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding at such an early stage and it meant that we were kind of used to performing on a big stage. The balls always hire quite amazing sound equipment and sound engineers. So I think we actually learnt quite a lot from that.”

The band’s signature sound of strings mixed with electronic music also has its roots in Cambridge when Amin-Smith and Chatto were in a string quartet and Chatto’s then-boyfriend/now-bandmate Jack Patterson began mixing their performances with electronic beats on his laptop. While they continue to irreverently mix genres, including reggae (‘Come Over’) and club anthems (‘Show Me Love’), their sound has evolved a lot since those days: “When we were playing in Cambridge our sound was… really quite Hip Hop and we sampled a lot of classical music whereas now we mostly make more house-y, dance-ier stuff and we mainly have original string parts rather than sampling actual classical stuff.” While the odd track like ‘Mozart’s House’ does contain pieces lifted directly from classical musicians, Amin-Smith says he doesn’t think “the actual classical influences in our music are that strong any more; it’s just that the prominent sound of a violin is still, for a lot of people, kind of the marker of classical music”. The majority of string compositions on 2014’s New Eyes, including those in ‘Rather Be’, were written by the band themselves.

Alongside their irreverent genre-mixing, Clean Bandit have always been notable for the importance they accord to music videos. Patterson spent a year at film school in Moscow and in the past they’ve exclaimed that they prefer to think of themselves as makers of music videos rather than of music or videos by themselves and funding from their record label has allowed the band some incredible experiences recently; “I think my favourite video to make was ‘Dust Clears’. Because we went to this lake in Sweden, which famously freezes over in such a way that it’s like glass, you can just see all the way down. And we were just skating around on that all day.”

Success has also significantly ramped up their tour budget; “this coming tour is quite a step up for us. It’s much bigger venues than we’ve ever toured before and so we’ll have a much bigger production.” Amongst all of this, are they tired of performing the song that arguably pushed them to the top? ‘Rather Be’ was released in January 2014, but Amin-Smith maintains that he “still love[s] the song. I guess the thing that makes me not get tired of it is that every time we play it to a different audience their reaction is always kind of new and fresh and when you’re on stage that kind of reflects to you, you feel the same thing.”

Jess Glynne, the featured vocalist on the track (and several others including ‘Real Love’) will be joining them for a few dates on the tour, including the Corn Exchange show, but Clean Bandit’s use of a different vocalist on nearly every track is something of a hallmark. Far from frustrating, this is “kind of quite thrilling because it gives us so much leeway to do something quite different. Even our single after ‘Rather Be’, ‘Extraordinary’… I don’t think Jess would have wanted to sing it and it would’ve been the right song for her voice but we were able to do that with Shana Bass who has a really amazing voice which is so different to Jess’. So I think it’s always just given us a lot more freedom in what we do”.

The band has built up “a really long list of people we’d love to work with” but plans for the new album, which Amin-Smith reckons will be finished by the end of 2015, have had to be momentarily put on hold; “we haven’t really had a moment’s peace. It’s been mad. We’ve got a month off – well not a month off but a month when we’re not touring– in May that we’re gonna use just to write and record”.

They’ve got a few months of touring before that ‘month off’ but life on the road may not be so bad– the group are “really excited” to return to where it all started on 8th March, with a few perks that is: “We’ll be staying in the Master’s Lodge”.