Welcome to the Club
When Groove Armada signed with Jive Electro (the dance-music arm of Jive, the label that's home to 'N Sync and Britney Spears) in 1999, the nu-soul house-music unit was a cool London secret and not much else. Two years later, Andy Cato and Tom Findlay have created a top-of-the-line disco brand name that has swiftly associated itself with America's most elite cultural outlets and celebrities. The two former Cambridge residents have purposefully moved themselves out of their former U.K. obscurity onto the brighter stage of the global music scene with a series of right moves and proper connections. For Madonna, Groove Armada provided a soundtrack offering ("If Everybody Looked the Same" for the film The Next Best Thing) and two remixes (the "Groove Armada Club" and the "Groove Armada 12-inch" mixes of "Music"). They have provided warm-up DJ sets for signature Manhattan events by Elton John, David LaChappelle and Lil' Kim, modeled like man sluts in Abercrombie & Fitch's 2000 catalogue, and shifted about 300,000 copies of their sophomore full-length offering, Vertigo. Their jazz-funk house music (known as "nu-balearic" or "nu-med" back home because of its Mediterranean flavor) seems to have rung some bells for a whole mess of hipsters.
"Tom actually lived in New York for a year," Cato says, explaining the ease with which the pair has slid onto otherwise tightly packed East Coast dance cards. "We were there last year, and he knew vaguely where we were going. We went to Tunnel and to Limelight -- it was great."
Groove Armada's continued focus on the club/DJ aspect of its musical approach might explain why it's slotted for an August 15 spin behind the turntables at Boulder über club SOMA. (The venue's mastermind, Hardy Kalisher, apparently doesn't know any B-grade talents and certainly wouldn't book them into his club if he did.) This DJ mix-only appearance should work as a nice warmup for Cato and Findlay's Fall 2001 American tour, a continuation of a June trek that found them supported by a nine-piece band.
Patrons planning to attend can expect an event along the lines of the Armada's 2000 entry in the "Back to Mine" DJ-mix CD series (on the Ultra/DMC imprint) rather than the more bass-tastic stylings that permeate its upcoming long-player, Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub). The "Back to Mine" series -- which also includes selections from Faithless, Everything But the Girl and Danny Tenaglia -- is a looser format than most DJ-mix series, focusing on slower, post-club songs that might not otherwise make it onto a DJ's party-time playlist. Groove Armada's contribution to the mix includes pieces of soulful cuts such as Al Green's "Light My Fire," Mica Paris's "I Should've Known Better" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Description of a Fool." These types of soupy, organic beats characterize Goodbye Country's mellower moments.
Findlay's fine taste in tuneage seems to spring from his background in club promotion (he's worked in Cambridge, Manchester and London), as well as an affinity for funk vinyl. Cato, who established the ultra-obscure Skinnymalinky label, traces his musical origins to the days when he messed around with trumpets and trombones as a kid. The pair's mutual love affair with jazz, disco and house music led to their first incarnation, a mid-'90s London club night christened "Captain Sensual at the Helm of the Groove Armada." Influenced by such seminal scenesters as Tim "Love" Lee and the Idjut Boys, the Groove Armada night took its name from a cheeseball '70s discotheque in the northern city of Newcastle. (The event sounds similar to the vibe of Denver's own So What!, curated by DJs K-Nee and Style N. Fashion, that's run for more than eight years and is currently housed at Rock Island.) Something sexy and intoxicating must have been circulating in the world's vinyl bins around that time.
"Tom and I were becoming better friends, and we were deejaying together," says Cato. "And he was quite interested in doing a studio track." Their first single was "At the River," a swampy trip-house number that builds around a Patti Page sample lifted from "Old Cape Cod" ("If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air/Quaint little villages here and there...") and Findlay's trumpet (a skill picked up in Manchester). The floaty, nostalgic track is a post-club anthem, and one the band used to launch its first album, the European-only release Northern Star, in 1997 (handled by Lee's Tummy Touch label). The ubiquitous and infectious dig of "I See You Baby (Shakin' That Ass)" provided the four-on-the-floor kick that catapulted the band's second CD, Vertigo (Jive Electro), out of London and into the global dance-music charts in 2000. "I think it's worked out quite well," says Cato of the band's rise to superstar status over the last four years, in a feat of understatement.
The Armada's vibes-and-groove sound reflects a countryside recording process, hence the name of the upcoming album Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub). "We tend to get out of London," says Cato. "Hire a little cottage and admire the beautiful scenery. Basically, we always go for a couple of killer grooves and then do the arrangements from there -- maybe pull some samples from a rock-and-roll record." The image of the six-foot-eight Cato wandering England's Lake District, contemplating hot beats destined for DJ booths, is quite a mental picture.
But this type of bucolic setting is clearly reflected in the creamy rhythm beds generated on all of Groove Armada's recordings. On the new platter, a disc that sounds more organic than anything the unit's achieved to date, what sound like effortless displays of down-tempo programming mix with jazz samples and live pop arrangements. First single "Superstylin'" benefits from Jeru Tha Damaja's hip-hop vocals, while blues workout "Little by Little" continues Moby's Play-era exercises without sounding derivative. Legendary funk producer Nile Rogers and '60s songster Richie Havens add their own touches to Goodbye Country's sonic landscape.
"Having a musical background does help," Cato deadpans. "It's all those things like harmonies and chord progressions, which aren't very fashionable in dance music these days. But I can't help thinking that, long-term, they're going to help." It may not be rocket science, but the live instrumental backwash in the duo's recording process explains the density of its sound. Groove Armada's two years of road experience have also obviously contributed to its expanded sonic palette, even if the experience has been a frightening one.
"Sitting here in London, it seems like such a vast operation, we don't know where to start sometimes," Cato says of his band's stateside efforts. But its swing through the mountain-burg beauty of Boulder -- which won't require anything more than crated records -- should seem like old hat for Groove Armada, which deejayed the Sundance Film Festival's opening party at the Snow Park Lounge in Park City, Utah, last year. And as a band known for its appreciation of the live musical experience, maybe the Groove Armada boys will find time to check out some of Boulder's fine homegrown grooves as well.
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