Back in 2008, an unknown pop duo knocked Madonna off the top of the British singles chart with an insanely infectious blast of bubblegum punk-pop called That’s Not My Name.
The song became a worldwide hit and was soon followed by a debut album, We Started Nothing, which sold more than two million copies. Katie White and Jules de Martino were suddenly transformed from struggling provincial outsiders to award-winning, arena-filling, globe-travelling pop stars. Even in an atomised age of niche markets and falling record sales, the Ting Tings struck a universal chord.
Almost four years later, pop’s oddest couple are back with Sounds from Nowheresville, a kaleidoscopic mosaic of musical styles from sugary R&B ballads to roaring disco-rock anthems to classic girl-group weepies. The duo’s agenda was to make a “playlist album” that reflected the eclectic manner in which music is consumed in the download age.
“The second we decided that, it gave us so much more freedom and creativity,” says White, the 28-year-old singer and lyricist. “All the pressure of that first album, what people expected from us, it just took it all away. We felt so much better, like we had a reason to write songs again.”
Instead of confirming the rock-band cliché of “difficult second album syndrome”, White and De Martino seem to be on blazingly confident form with Sounds from Nowheresville. But behind the new record’s air of brash bravado lies a tortuous story of doubts, delays and setbacks. Midway through recording they scrapped several months of work, and even considered quitting altogether.
“We actually thought about splitting,” says de Martino, the duo’s musical dynamo, drummer and guitarist. “We made a record that was real and honest, why would we want to go back and make a record that isn’t? We’d had our fix, we got to see the world – wasn’t that good enough? We had to get off tour, look at our creativity and be honest about why we wanted to write a second record.”
A veteran of numerous bands, de Martino is 14 years older than White. Giggling and gossiping together in their record company’s plush west London headquarters, this incongruous pair are clearly close friends, although both deny rumours they have ever been romantically linked.
“We don’t divulge stuff like that,” White shrugs. “We’re not a celebrity-driven band, we really don’t work in that world and we don’t use it to try to sell records.”
While de Martino plays it cool behind his chunky, retro-style sunglasses, White is warm and funny company, even when batting away questions she doesn’t feel like answering.
Long before the Ting Tings, the singer began her pop career in a teenage trio called TKO. But she insists this was just a short-lived hobby band, not the serious girl-group affair some journalists have claimed.
“It was just literally me and two schoolfriends dancing around my mum’s kitchen,” she laughs. “I think we played two real gigs.”
White first met de Martino when he tried writing songs for the short-lived TKO. Basing themselves at the Islington Mill arts complex and recording studio in Britain’s northern music capital of Manchester, the pair then formed a polished pop trio called Dear Eskiimo with another friend, but their record contract fell apart even before they recorded an album.
Regrouping as the Ting Tings in 2007, White and de Martino are now extremely wary of music business interference. They happily admit they write brash, catchy, commercial songs – but they insist they enjoy full creative independence.
“We love pop, we really love it,” White grins. “But I think there’s a difference between manufactured pop and the type of band we are. We write and record and do everything ourselves – other bands have 20 writers, picking songs off a shelf. We are pop but they are super-pop, the plastic variety.”
Sounds from Nowheresville was initially recorded during a deep-frozen Berlin winter, where White and de Martino hit a creative crisis, eventually erasing six of the 10 tracks they had recorded there. To make matters worse, a record company delegation from London had just hailed the tunes as guaranteed hits.
“That didn’t go down well at all,” de Martino laughs. Fortunately, after a few days of disbelief and frantic telephone calls, their label boss accepted this act of artistic rebellion. The pair were granted a fresh start in a new, sunnier climate.
“We were left with the four songs we loved, and we took them to the south of Spain for a change of environment,” de Martino nods. “Then we did the rest of the album there.”
The rest of 2012 is already looking pretty sunny for the Ting Tings. After signing to Jay-Z’s management company Roc Nation, they have a full schedule of tours and festival shows ahead. Meanwhile, pop’s oddest couple are already planning their third album – and once again, it might shock their long-suffering record label.
“We both agreed we want to make a country album next,” de Martino grins. “We think it would be a massive challenge, like this one has been. But that’s OK. We like challenges.”
Sounds from Nowheresville is out on Columbia today. For a review of the album, see tomorrow’s Arts & Life
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