English rock band You Me At Six is looking into the hopeful future of rock and roll on its latest album, VI, but it was a journey the quintet began with 2017’s Night People.
That’s when singer Josh Franceschi, guitarists Max Helyer and Chris Miller, bassist Matt Barnes and drummer Dan Flint decided to deviate from what You Me At Six fans had come to expect from the modern hard rock band’s first four albums. Night People still reached the top of the U.K. charts. But in the eyes of many fans and critics, it flopped. For the band that had previously garnered five gold records, climaxing with 2014’s Cavalier Youth, and even getting a top 5 rock radio track in the U.S. (“Room to Breathe”), Night People seemed like a step back. The band left its label the week the album was released.
But guitarist Helyer said it was a necessary step that led his band to its quick follow-up, the aptly titled VI. Making the 2017 album got the members’ creative juices flowing following an inactive couple of years. The stories of the band’s unhappiness making it were exaggerated, he said.
“I don’t look at that record with bad memories; we had a great experience,” Helyer said on a call from a freezing Poland, where the band was performing that night. “When we finished that record, we went straight into writing songs for … VI. Because of how quickly we were on that, it made the songs evolve. And, also, the risks we took on Night People; it made us realize we should take more risks and be braver with the new songs we were creating for this album.”
VI is a clear deviation for You Me At Six into territory like pop, Britpop, dance and hip-hop, at least in terms of production influences. Over 20 minutes, Helyer spoke often of the band’s desire to push its sound forward into new territories. If Franceschi and his bandmates weren’t able to get there with Night People, they finished the job on the new record, which the band released last October.
“When you look at the world of music right now, there’s no barriers anymore,” he said. “There’s more artists now doing bigger, braver, bolder moves in their music and their songwriting. That makes them happy. We just want to showcase what we’re about as five individual writers. We all have a wide taste in the music world, [whether] it’s from urban music, dance music, rock music. We have a wide palette.”
While VI has a few traditionally hard bangers, others have varied feels. “Losing You” was inspired by Bon Iver, Kanye West and Coldplay, Helyer said. “Pray for Me” pulled from downbeat Justin Timberlake songs. “Fast Forward” was inspired by Radiohead and Nirvana.
“There’s definitely a bit more of a brighter, shinier sound on this record,” he said. “Songs such as ‘3AM’ and ‘Back Again’ are the shiniest. It’s very nice to have that kind of contrast in a pool of songs that make you feel like you’re on a journey. You’re not getting the same thing over and over again.”
The members of You Me At Six never questioned what they were doing. They followed their gut, and because they didn’t sign a new label contract until after finishing VI, there was no one whispering in their ears that what they were doing was unconventional.
“Brit-pop” was never a dirty word for Helyer, who grew up listening to the likes of Blur, Oasis and Pulp. But more revelatory to him was how he had let his older sister’s love of R&B and hip-hop seep into him without even realizing it. While he was actively listening to Foo Fighters, he was also subconsciously taking in Justin Timberlake, Neptunes and N.E.R.D.
That came into play while he was writing “Back Again,” for which he was trying to create the unlimited excitement of Friday not, when opportunities seem endless.
“That was like a reference point,” he said. “What I think we’ve done on this record is captured emotions and things we’ve gone through over the past 12 to 18 months. Songs like ‘Losing You’ and ‘Pray for Me’ are a little bit mundane; about having a hard time and what’s going on behind closed doors. But ‘Back Again’ … is fun, upbeat and enjoyable to get a boogie on to with a gin and tonic.”
You Me At Six also tried to incorporate another element so popular in hip-hop right now by finding collaborators. That’s still not a very prolific trend for band-based acts, and Helyer said it’s at least partly why he thinks hip-hop has outpaced guitar bands in terms of popularity and growth.
The band tried to attract several partners but came away empty each time. Franceschi has recently said that non-rock acts didn’t want to mess with a rock band, while other bands were wary of giving up any ground to his band.
Helyer didn’t name names, and said rock artists are missing out on a vital opportunity while hip-hop artists are taking advantage.
“You see Drake collaborating with Whiz Kid. You see J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar join up on songs. Chance the Rapper will join someone like Saba,” he said. “They’re trying to push the boat and help each other out. I feel there’s been a lack of that in rock music. Everyone thinks they’re bigger and better, and they don’t want to cross-pollinate with each other.”
One of the few rock acts that has seen success by working outside its box is Bring Me The Horizon, Helyer said. That band’s new record includes an unexpected collaboration with art-pop singer-songwriter Grimes.
“We’re always up for collaborating with artists and pushing the boat a little bit farther and taking people out of their comfort zones,” he said.
But despite mostly positive reviews, Bring Me The Horizon is still facing fan backlash for seemingly leaving its metalcore origins behind.
“Your music taste changes over the course of your life, you know?” Helyer said. “As an artist … I always wanna push further. When we write music and I get nervous about what we’re writing, that makes me think we’re onto something good. Change is good. You always have to evolve. … I don’t want to recreate the same song over and over again because I [would] feel like I’m being lazy and doing a disservice for our fanbase.
“You can keep writing the same song over and over again, but how long will your fans stay there for that?”
After releasing VI in October, You Me At Six has been on the road throughout the U.K. and Europe. Though the band will kick off its U.S. tour just this week, the five members are already well under way to writing their next record, tentatively planned for a summer release of an LP, EP or individual songs.
The band never stopped writing after completing VI because the members didn’t want to potentially lose the vein they’re mining, and because of another trend more popular in hip-hop than rock
“We’re living in that world of ‘now-ism’ where it’s ‘how fast and how quickly can you react to making music?’” he said. “You’re starting to see that in the band format. Florence and the Machine released a new album last year, and she just released a new song. People are becoming wiser to the fact that you’ve got to keep feeding the world with music.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.