It’s raining in London, and after a long day of practice, Athlete’s frontman, Joel Pott, is trying to wrestle his guitar into a cab and make it home to his wife and two small children. He sounds tired and harried, but engaging. As he tries to give the driver directions, he tells me, “We’ve got November weather early. It’s wet and cold, which isn’t a great combination.” Pott is only a few minutes from the refuge of his flat in Deptford, London, a place he relishes being. After all, he and his bandmates grew up in this area. Friends since they were teenagers, Pott, bassist Carey Willets, drummer Steve Roberts and keyboardist Tim Wanstall formed Athlete in its current incarnation in 2000, and quickly caught the attention of the record industry with their debut album, Vehicles & Animals, a quirky combination of synth hooks and Brit-pop. The record garnered comparisons to Beck, Pavement and Grandaddy, and netted the quartet a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize for best album. It also sent them on an arduous 22-month tour in support of the album. Moreover, the band was bestowed with a high hipster honor: Zach Braff chose their song “El Salvador” for the soundtrack of the film Last Kiss.
Anticipation grew, and when their sophomore effort, Tourist, showed a stunning progression in substance and melody, the group was asked by U2 to be the main supporting act for several of their U.K. tour dates. This time, their music began to make serious waves across the pond as well, bringing Athlete to the United States to tour with the likes of Snow Patrol and Switchfoot.
That’s a long way from Deptford, and for their third release, Beyond the Neighbourhood, Athlete knew it was time to come back home. “I think that’s partly why we ended up making this record in the studio right around the corner from where we all live in southeast London, because of friends and family that we haven’t seen for three or four years,” Pott says. “At that point, we all needed some time. We need to make a record at the same time. It was really good for us. I really enjoyed being at home. You can get out of the studio and finish and go down to the pub,” he chuckles.
Coming back home, though, certainly didn’t signal a regression for the band. Beyond the Neighbourhood finds them expanding further into the realm of anthemic Brit-rock for which Tourist paved the way. If the band is, as many suggest, the heir apparent to Coldplay, their third album is their most convincing claim to the throne yet.
But Pott feels that the record is merely a natural progression of what the band set out to do in the first place. “Ever since we set out with Vehicles & Animals, we’ve been trying to do something different than what we’d all done in bands previous to that, and then the same with Tourist,” he says. “We didn’t want to make another album that sounded the same as Vehicles & Animals. I think with Tourist we definitely developed in terms of melody, and I think this record combines how we’ve pushed ourselves melodically and arrangement-wise and the playfulness of the first record.”
“I think we’ve grown up, and this is a bit of a grown-up record, but still fun,” he adds, laughing.
GROWING UP THE HARD WAY
Growing up has been a big part of the band’s career. No longer just a group of teenage friends, Athlete have made their presence known in the U.K., are just coming to a boil in the States and will probably be a household name very soon. But the band hasn’t just grown up creatively. They’ve grown up as individuals, taking on the roles of husbands and fathers. Family, Pott says, has always been extremely important. “It makes it harder going away, but it makes it better coming home,” Pott says. “It’s always been important to us to stay close to our roots with our friends, and when we go away on tour having crew that are good friends, so that being on tour is not a drag.”
And when he’s home, being a husband and father of two young children has also helped Pott mature. Some of that maturity has come in dire circumstances. When Pott’s wife was expecting their first child, Myla, they faced one of the most frightening situations any young parents can face. “When Myla was born, we were actually trying to have a home birth, but stuff went wrong and so we rushed to the hospital, and it was a birth full of drama,” he says. After the complications with his daughter’s delivery had been sorted out, Pott thought the worst was over, only to find that more tense moments lay ahead. “That night, once I’d come home, I got a call from Zoe saying, ‘You’ve got to come back here, Myla’s just been rushed into intensive care.’”
Pott hurried back to the hospital to find out that his daughter had suffered a seizure. “So basically, we had this night where Myla had just had her seizure and they were just monitoring her in intensive care,” he says. “It turned out in the morning that they did loads of tests, and she was fine.”
Still, the emotions Pott felt during these trying circumstances stuck with him, leading him to write the song “Wires,” which details the experience of seeing his newborn daughter in a fragile state, sleeping in an incubator with wires and tubes coming from her tiny body. Pott recalls, “It was a few months after that I wrote this song about that moment from getting that phone call, and in that moment as well, when I was holding Myla’s hand through an incubator. They have little holes so you can hold their hand, and there was just this moment where I was holding her hand at 4 o’clock in the morning, exhausted and tired and emotional.” In the midst of this uncertainty, though, Pott had an inexplicable confidence that every-thing would be OK. “I was just looking at her, thinking, You’re beautiful. You’re going to be OK,” he says. “I don’t know why, but I had a sense that she was going to be all right.”
And she was. In fact, Myla is now 4-and-a-half, about to start school. As Pott arrives home and we continue our conversation, I can hear her talking happily in the background.
The experience Pott chronicled in “Wires” has connected with many fans on a deep level. The single became wildly popular in the U.K., being played up to 10 times a day on radio stations throughout the country, and even winning the Ivor Novello Award for Best Contemporary Song. Pott believes that the emotional appeal of the song is universal, even to those who have never experienced the circumstances that inspired it.
“When you hear a song that’s real, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been through that or not,” he says. “It connects with something you’ve been through or maybe you’ve not. It’s death and life, really. It’s one of those moments.” Ultimately, it seems to be the hope in the midst of these circumstances that resonates most strongly with listeners. “When you’re kind of feeling a little bit of life through a shadow of death looming in the moment, but you see a chink of light and a bit of life, that’s really powerful. I think people get that,” Pott says.
HOPE AND DESPAIR
That kind of depth, and themes of hope in the midst of despair, have worked their way into Athlete’s newest album as well. This comes through clearly in the track “Best Not to Think About It,” which features provocative lyrics that paint a picture of a couple trapped in a disastrous situation, forced to decide between two equally horrific options.
“I watched this program called The Fallen Man,” Pott explains. “I don’t know whether you’ve seen it or whether you have that out in the States, but it’s basically a documentary trying to trace this guy who was pictured falling from the Twin Towers. It was a pretty heavy program, and it’s a subject that I’ve been loath to touch, really.”
But it was an image Pott found he couldn’t shake. “I think it was just watching that program and imagining a couple in a really tense situation like that,” he says. “You love someone, and it’s horrible and odd to talk about. But those people who jumped, what they must have been going through at that time, making a decision to jump rather than be caught by the fire—it’s just really heavy.”
The program ultimately made Pott consider trying times in relationships, and the difficult decisions that many couples face. “I was thinking about those moments in a relationship that we all go through on a certain scale where, as a couple, you’ve got to make some serious decisions, and you’re choosing whether to go through them together or call it a day,” he says. “Basically, that song is just about choosing—however difficult it is—to work through it all together.”
If these ideas of hope in trying circumstances, unconditional love and commitment bring to mind Christian themes of redemption, it’s with good reason. The members of Athlete come from a background of faith. However, when asked about their faith as a matter of public record, they can be a bit cagey. Like many mainstream artists who have personal faith, they desire that it remain just that: personal.
Pott explains their reluctance to delve into these issues in a way that it seems wise. “It’s one of those things I don’t really go into much with people, because in a short interview it’s hard to sum up who I am and what I think or feel, or where I’m at faith-wise,” he says. “I think obviously I have faith, and whether that’s similar to you or the person next to me, I have no idea. I think it influences my gut and my values.”
Though the band may—perhaps wisely—stay away from overt assertions of Christian theology, it’s easy to see how Pott’s faith influences his songwriting as well. The album contains many introspective lyrics that at first glance seem fairly dark, but upon further inspection show glimmers of hope. It’s this dichotomy that not only shows Athlete’s growth as a band, but makes the songs intriguing. “I think in this album there’s a lot of contrast, and that’s just one song,” Pott says. “I often feel like I’m in conflict.”
The conflict Pott refers to is the conflict most feel in trying to be a better person, yet every day falling short of that goal. Pott has felt it often in his own life. “You are on a journey. You’re trying to figure out how to be a better person, not for your own sake, but for other people’s sake. I know personally every day you make mistakes, don’t you? It’s just inevitable. Every day you’re just going to be a b—- to someone, whether you just ignore someone or talk rudely to someone or shout at someone,” he says.
In fact, Pott wrote the song “This Is What I Sound Like” to remind himself of the person he knows he is. “I don’t want to beat myself up about those things,” he says. “I just want to move on and just strive to do better. I guess what that song is about is reminding myself what I can be like. I need to remind myself and not get too down about myself. At my core I’m a decent person, and I’m striving to be a decent person.”
Originally published in RELEVANT Magazine issue 29. If you enjoyed this article, consider visiting your local newsstand to pick up the latest issue or subscribe online and save up to 71% off newsstand.