For almost 1,500 years, Europeans used the supposedly mythical black swan as a metaphor for something which could not exist. Imagine their surprise, then, when a late 17th Century explorer spotted one, paddling down a river in Australia. "Millions of people had looked at the world in a certain way for so long," says Athlete frontman Joel Pott "But it only took one sighting to blow it all apart."
That, in a nutshell, is the Black Swan Theory, from which Athlete's majestic fourth album takes its title. "We read an article about Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book The Black Swan," explains Joel. "He was saying that our lives are made up of a handful of significant shocks, good or bad. That's exactly how our journey has been over the last six years. We've had lots of unexpected highs and lows, as a band and as people." It's those experiences which power ʻBlack Swanʼ. Well, those and some of the best tunes the band have ever written.
Since bouncing to prominence seven years ago with the spirited, electro-tinged, indie-pop of their Mercury-nominated debut, ʻVehicles And Animalsʼ, Athlete have established themselves among the UK's finest songsmiths. The south east Londoners have sold more than a million copies of their three hit albums (the other two being 2005's ʻTouristʼ and 2007's ʻBeyond The Neighbourhoodʼ); packed out venues across the land; picked up an Ivor Novello award; and topped both the UK's album and airplay charts.
"We've definitely experienced the joys of life," says Joel, "whether it's all those things Athlete have achieved, or the birth of our kids. But, like anyone, we've had really difficult times too." In the last few years, the band have lost close relatives, seen friends' marriages fall apart and suffered miscarriages. "The week [Athlete's 2005 hit single] ʻWiresʼ came out, myself and Joel both found out our partners had miscarried on the same day," remembers keyboard player Tim Wanstall. "That was definitely a black swan event for us. Until something like that happens, you don't really realise how fragile life is. And it definitely influences the way you look at the world afterwards."
ʻBlack Swanʼ, then, is a musical summary of everything Athlete have been through; the good, the bad and the ugly. But although its songs burn with literate emotion, this certainly isn't a downbeat record. In fact, the album begins with the hurtling FM rush of glorious first single, ʻSuperhuman Touchʼ, which catapults the album into life with the opening line, "I'm on fire and nothing's gonna hold me back".
The defiance of that lyric is particularly apt, given that Athlete made ʻBlack Swanʼ as an unsigned band. They parted company with Parlophone at the beginning of 2008, after the takeover of EMI saw budgets frozen and most of the team Athlete had worked with for three albums made redundant.
"The EMI we knew isn't really there any more," says drummer Stephen Roberts. Athlete were relieved to leave the label: in fact, they celebrated by having a curry and cracking open the champagne they'd been sent by Parlophone when they won their Ivor Novello for Wires. But that certainly doesn't mean the 15 months they spent without a label were easy. "Luckily, we'd already built and paid for our own studio and when we were in there working on the new material, we were on a total high," explains bassist Carey Willetts. "But there were certainly no guarantees that we'd get another deal with a big label. And until we did, money was extremely tight. There were a couple of times where we could only afford to pay our mortgages for another month. It was very scary at points."
In fact, due to lack of funds, Athlete were forced to travel to America without Stephen for a previously arranged five week support tour with Switchfoot, which they then had to play acoustically. "We were playing to 5,000 people a night, without a drummer," winces Joel. "It wasn't an easy experience, but it was a real positive to see what captivates people when you're playing to them totally stripped down. You really get a feel for which are the strongest songs." Night after night, the crowd's loudest cheers were reserved for new track, ʻThe Getawayʼ, a stirring tale of infidelity and communication breakdown.
"That reaction was a real boost," says Tim. "And it totally focused the idea that the whole record needed to be packed with the kind of songs you can sing along to at the top of your voice." To that end, when they returned to England, the band decided they wouldn't record the new songs until they'd been properly road-tested.
"A lot of people talk about us being a great live band, but we didn't think we'd ever quite captured that on record," says Pott. "We wanted it to sound like it was just us, playing together in a room. So before we recorded the songs, we did a tour of really small venues in the UK, to get us to the point where we were playing them well. And it really worked. By the time we got back to the studio, we knew the songs inside out."
Using money they'd begged and borrowed, the band set to work making the album with esteemed American producer Tom Rothrock (Foo Fighters, Elliot Smith, Elbow, Beck), who'd been convinced to come along for the ride, label or no label, after falling in love with some acoustic demos. The mixing had to be done ʻvirtuallyʼ, online. Tom in Hollywood and the band in Deptford! "It was great having Tom around," says Joel. "We knocked heads with him quite a lot, but I think all the best records are made when there's a little bit of stress around. We learnt an awful lot from him and he sharpened us in so many ways. Plus, the fact that one of the biggest producers in the world gave several months of his life to work with us after hearing a couple of demos was a real confidence booster."
Together they made ʻBlack Swanʼ, an album which positively glows with snagging melodies, rich musicality and the band's heartfelt tales of their own black swan events. After kicking off with ʻSuperhuman Touchʼ and ʻThe Getawayʼ, we reach another sure-fire future single, ʻBlack Swan Songʼ, a powerful, moving song about the death of Joel's grandfather. "I've never experienced death like that," says Joel. "He'd lived a long, amazing life and he was really triumphant and positive about it."
That song gives way to the defiant ʻDon't Hold Your Breathʼ, written after Joel's wife was admitted to hospital with a possible miscarriage while he was in Florida on the acoustic tour (happily, she was OK, and Esmae was born in November 2008). After that, the sighing ʻLove Come Rescueʼ deals softly with guilt and letdowns; the loved-upL ʻight The Wayʼ sees Joel thinking back to the early days with his now wife; and ʻThe Unknownʼ is the band's musical pep talk to themselves, written when they were running out of cash to pay the bills.
The album then reaches its climax with ʻThe Awkward Goodbyeʼ, an intensely personal tale of love slipping away; the snappy ʻMagical Mistakesʼ, a giddy gush of proud, parental love; and ʻRubik's Cubeʼ which, according to Joel, "Sums everything up. It's about puzzling through life, working it out as you go along and having to deal with its uncertainties. That's the magic of life, really." Together, they make for the strongest collection of songs Athlete have recorded. That much was underlined by the fact that, once the album was finished, the band quickly attracted the attention of several big labels. They eventually signed to Polydor's enormously successful Fiction imprint (home, amongst others, to Elbow, Snow Patrol, White Lies and Kate Nash).
"After everything we've been through in the last couple of years, it feels like we're starting again with this record," says Joel. "We made it without a label, without any pressure and without really having anything to lose. That's exactly how it felt when we first got together. In a lot of ways, ʻBlack Swanʼ, is like our second debut album. That's a pretty exciting feeling."
'Superhuman Touch' the single is out on Monday 17th August 09
'Black Swan' the album is out on Monday 24th August 09