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‘Travel is an amazing way to fire your creative juices and stop life from feeling humdrum.’
Gems in this
For more than two decades, British electronic duo Groove Armada has been rallying a multigenerational legion to dance floors and festivals around the globe.
Since their 1997 debut, Tom Findlay and Andy Cato have amassed eight studio albums with chart-topping hits including ‘Superstylin’ and ‘I See You Baby,’ and collected multiple Grammy and BRIT Award nominations. Embracing everything from disco to funk, soul, jazz and house music, Tom draws his musical inspiration from independent labels and record shops. For him, the sentiment of DJing is akin to traveling, with exposure to new cultures, sights and sounds helping to fire his creative juices. Ahead of the pair’s final run of shows together, Exceptional ALIEN caught up with Tom to hear about Groove Armada’s long standing musical friendship, writing and recording across the globe, and his London Travel Playbook.
On growing up in Cambridge
Cambridge is a much bigger town now than it used to be. When I was a kid, it was dominated by Cambridge University. My dad worked there and my mom was a teacher, so I had an academic background. There wasn't much to do outside of school, but lots of kids learned to play musical instruments. I used to be in a band called Thumpasaraus People growing up — we’d play funk and disco covers. Maybe it’s because I’m connected with all of them, but it felt like a disproportionate number of people from Cambridge ended up as DJs: Harvey, Idjut Boys, The Nextmen, and the list goes on.
On following music to London, Manchester and New York
I spent a year in London in the 90s and around that time the radio station KISS had just started — it’s a bit more commercial now, but back then they were doing test broadcasts and playing a lot of old funk, disco and acid jazz. It was my first introduction to that style of music. Then I studied in Manchester for a few years, which is a really dynamic place. Every Saturday night we’d go to The Haçienda, back when [Graeme] Park and [Mike] Pickering were DJs. It was that post-factory era, but it was still really cool and vibing. That was my introduction to 90s house. Then I spent a year in New York and DJed a lot.
On the beginnings of Groove Armada
When I came back to London, I was in a job that I hated. But at the same time, I met Andy, the other half of Groove Armada. We used to go down to his studio on Cato Road in Clapham — which is why he's now called Andy Cato — and we’d make twelve-inch disco records on a label called Tummy Touch, which is still going amazingly. We put out EPs and called the act Groove Armada. Bit by bit, it turned into an actual career.
On your musical influences
I grew up really loving disco and funk, so I was really into all the obvious people like James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire. I also listened to Gilles Peterson. He was a big hero — still a famous broadcaster now — and I'd listen to his shows, write down the music, and wander around the record stores in London trying to find his stuff. I was never a massive lover of house music. Then early labels like DiY out of Nottingham and Nuphonic in Shoreditch, which was pretty near Tummy Touch, would put out stuff like The Loft series with David Mancuso and acts like Faze Action. They started what we called — and I don't know why we called it that — the ‘new disco scene in London’. That was very influential for me in terms of the music I wanted to make.
On a long-standing friendship with Andy Cato
We don't see much of each other, even though Andy lives in the UK now — he lived in France for a long time, before that in Spain. But we get on incredibly well whenever we're together, and it's really nice to see him. We were together all the time in the early years. I remember a studio we had in Tottenham where we wrote Vertigo. We used to work with Jo and Jess in the studio, then go back to their house and hang out on their sofa. Andy is now married to Jo and I’m married to Jess. So for years, we were with each other all the time. Now we need a bit of distance from each other, but we still get on incredibly well.
‘We've really written our albums all around the world.’
On how you create as a duo
In the first five or six years, we were together all the time. When we wrote Goodbye Country (Hello Nightclub), the album after Vertigo, we took ourselves off to the countryside and lived in a house in the Cotswolds for a year. We'd be in the same room, then we’d get up and go into the same studio, and have lunch together. After that, you do need your space. Then Andy started traveling, and these days, for music, we tend to work separately. We develop ideas separately and then we come together for a few days to mix stuff down. The last bit of finishing a tune is us together in a studio, but most of it is us working separately.
On the last live shows as Groove Armada
We're coming to Australia and New Zealand in November 2022 for our last set of live shows. It's been brilliant, and we could probably keep going for another five years; nobody would mind! But we feel it's a good time, and we're really proud of what we’ve done. The last tour has been lovely, particularly in the UK as we're playing to really multigenerational crowds. People around our age are coming to see us, but then their kids are also coming. That's really lovely and fun because you see the 18 year old jumping up and down, which is great — I've missed that.
On what’s next for you and Andy
We started writing some house music and trying to get some ideas together. We'll be DJing a bit next summer, but I don't think we'll ever go back to the intensity of touring we did before. Andy is very into regenerative farming — it's a real passion for him — and he spends most of his time doing that now. I work as a therapist three days a week for a university in London, and then the rest of the time I do music. We're doing other things with our lives now, which is probably a good thing after 25 years of doing the same thing.
On other exciting projects
I've also got a record coming out with James Alexander Bright — we're going to be called Bright & Findlay. It’ll be on this label that I love called Athens Of The North. They do old funk, disco and weird stuff.
‘There's something I still really love about DJing — it offers that same type of adventure that travel brings: I'm able to connect with the world and feel excited about being alive.’
On where you return to time and again
Ibiza is a big destination for us, and it's still so dominant in the music scene, particularly the dance music scene. That's the place I've gone back to every year for the last 25 years, and I've always really enjoyed it. New York is a place where I've always had a lot of fun. I love the record stores in New York — they're amazing! They stock stuff that we just never see in the UK. There's a particular store there called A-1 Records down on East 6th Street, that I have a pilgrimage to whenever I’m in town. I always come back with a suitcase full of records. We’ve also spent time writing in Buenos Aires. Barcelona was a big part of the Groove Armada story because Andy lived there for a while, and we pretty much mixed down the album Soundboy Rock there. We also recorded some of the early parts of Black Light in a studio in Barcelona. And then we spent a lot of time in L'Ouche, which is kind of like the Pyrénées in France, where we spent about a year. We've really written our albums all around the world.
On how travel inspires your creativity
More than anything, it keeps me alive and excited. Travel is an amazing way to fire your creative juices and break you out of feeling stuck or allowing life to feel humdrum. There's something I still really love about DJing — it offers that same type of adventure that travel brings: I'm able to connect with the world and feel excited about being alive. And that helps with my creativity. I don't think I'm a person that walks around with a tape, recording ideas, but I know that all the places have left an impression on me.
On the fondest memories and favorite venues to play
The memories that really stay with me are from some of the unusual places we've been. There's a venue in Melbourne called the Sidney Myer Music Bowl — one of my favorite venues in the world to play. I used to play there and hang out in a place called Cookie all the time. I remember playing at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, which was a real lifetime ambition for me. We also had a great week in LA, living in the W Hotel and playing at The Fonda Theatre. Going back to America is quite important, because so much of what I love about music has come from there. Just the awareness of the bands that have come before us and played at the same venues, like Irving Plaza in New York, and The Fonda Theatre or the Hollywood Bowl. It means a lot to me.
On your relationship with London
It's a great city to live in. Culturally and ethnically, it's incredibly diverse. I love living in cities like that. It means that the range of music you hear is about as wide as you can imagine, even just walking down the street and hearing the stuff coming out of people's cars. There’s also an incredibly healthy dance music scene in London, from grime to garage, house, jungle, drum and bass. It's a brilliant city for music. I think other cities in the UK have aspects of it as well — Manchester is incredibly vibrant and Bristol has the same cultural diversity — but there is something about London that is really special. It's a city that I love to live in, and I can't imagine ever wanting to live anywhere else.
‘There’s an incredibly healthy dance music scene in London, from grime to garage, house, jungle, and drum and bass. It's a brilliant city for music.’
On showing friends around London for the day
The Tate Modern is amazing, down on the South Bank by the river. The walk from St Paul's Cathedral to the Tate Modern is a beautiful walk, and the Tate Modern is a really amazing building. The art is great, and that whole area is very vibrant. Then, I might take them on a stadium tour of Arsenal [Emirates Stadium], because that's my team. Arsenal are brilliant. I'm a season ticket holder and if I can take friends to a game, I will. Next, Hampstead is really beautiful. It's a gorgeous park up in the north of London if you’re in need of some green space. It's about the most beautiful green space you'll see anywhere in the world. Then I’d take my friends for a cocktail — we can't take the kids — to a place called DUKES Bar down in Mayfair. It makes the best martinis in London and it's impossible to find.
On a good spot to spend a few hours
There are places for shopping around Kings Cross in this area now called Coal Drops Yard. Kings Cross was quite a downbeat, rough area for a long time. It's where a lot of the nightclubs were. Lots of those have now been closed, which is good and bad: what came in its place could have been terrible, but what they've done is really beautiful. It runs alongside a canal with all these nice independent shops, cafés and a free cinema by the canal. It’s a nice place to hang out.
On your favorite restaurants
There's a restaurant that I really love called Westerns Laundry, right next to the Arsenal stadium. They run another restaurant near me called Primo, and they're the two places I eat at the most, so they're the ones that I really recommend. They're really into organic wine and lots of sustainable food. They’re sort of healthy, but both really fun places.
On exploring Brixton
We just did a few gigs down in Brixton, and Brixton Academy [O2 Academy Brixton] is an amazing venue. It's one of the best places to watch live music. I was also really taken with Brixton as a neighborhood — it’s a very culturally diverse area that has been regenerated in a really positive way. I’d recommend walking up and down Coldharbour Lane. The energy around there, particularly on a Saturday afternoon in the summer, is amazing.
‘Brixton Academy is an amazing venue. It's one of the best places to watch live music.’
On a window or an aisle seat
I'm definitely an aisle seat person. I don't know why, I think because I feel a little less trapped.
On a song that best represents London to you
Probably something like ‘The Guns of Brixton’ by The Clash, because it brings a lot of stuff that's brilliant about London together — there are the baselines and a bit of punk, but also that sense of cultural mix. ‘The Guns of Brixton’ is definitely one that sticks out for me.
On London in a word
Somehow that word brings all the energy, color and cultural mix into one. London is a place where you feel a huge amount of energy and warmth, so vibrant is my word.