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Words: Sean Griffiths
Photos: Tom Horton
Anyone who’s seen one of AlunaGeorge’s videos could be forgiven for thinking the duo were dreamt up in a record label lab, then magicked into existence by a series of focus groups and a lengthy audition process. Their combination of esoteric and slightly leftfield beats with r’n’b girl-group sass is so bang on the money for a landscape peppered with Disclosures and Jessie Wares and a generation obsessed with unearthing 90s r’n’b that it’s surprising Simon Cowell didn’t dream them up. In fact, even the portmanteau that makes up their name (she’s Aluna Francis, he’s George Reid) has something of The X Factor about it. But in reality, the pair’s coming together was a much more organic process.
“I got in touch with her old band through MySpace because I wanted to remix them,” says George, the softly-spoken beatmaker and studio boffin. After that, Aluna decided the pair should get together and try to write music for her leftfield electronic outfit, My Toys Like Me, themselves.
“It was an excellent remix”, Aluna chips in with a sly smile.
The duo, both 25, are recounting their creation story to Mixmag in a hotel room, just hours before their set at Liverpool Sound City. Hidden away at the end of a maze of meandering corridors and stripped of the stark stylings of their photoshoots and music videos (the most recent of which saw Aluna as a corset-wearing Rapunzel in a council flat), the duo are clearly in off-duty mode. Aluna sits in the corner of a bed in glasses, black vest and leggings, her legs pulled up to her chin. George, in a checked shirt and dark jeans, flicks through some samples a friend who owns a clothing company has sent the pair. Remove the dictaphone and free clothes and it’s an echo of their early days working together: the two of them alone in a room, taking time out from their other musical commitments.
“We spent a day trying to write for my band and we got absolutely nowhere,” says Aluna of their initial sessions in 2009. “So then we thought, scrap that, and we carried on writing just for ourselves.”
“We were just pissing around,” laughs George, “but it was fun and very instant. I don’t think either of us had experienced that for a while.”
After a few months of writing together in George’s room, where the vocal booth was partitioned off by a towel over the door, Aluna was given an ultimatum by her old band to decide between them and George. She admits that it didn’t take her too long to decide.
The first track they speculatively placed on the internet in 2011, ‘We Are Chosen’, was instantly picked up by Super Recordings boss and DJ, Raffertie, and soon the duo found themselves playing their first gig at Kentish Town’s Bull and Gate, an ‘industry’ special where they had to nervously sound check in front of the whole audience. Accolades followed fast, including the No.2 slot on the BBC Sound of 2013 poll, a nomination for the Brits Critic Choice Award and a support slot for Disclosure which led to a chart-busting collaboration.
“We really like how they combine great songwriting with innovative production but without being so weird it alienates people,” says Disclosure’s Howard. “Aluna has a really unusual voice, and we always look for singers who have a strong identity.”
Like their collaborators, AlunaGeorge now find themselves in a whirlwind of hype and interest. Aluna, however, insists that from the inside, their rise doesn’t seem so instantaneous. “It might seem instant, but to us we seem to have developed as a band that people have passed around to each other. It’s hard to pin-point where it really took off for us, it just steadily built.”
While George came to production after going through the traditional middle-class rigmarole of childhood piano lessons followed by picking up guitar as an indie-obsessed teen, Aluna’s interest in singing stems from an obsession with what she refers to as “Scandinavian girl power pop”, citing The Knife, Robyn and Karin Park as major influences. While George admits with a self-deprecating smile to listening to a lot of Muse as a teenager, both agree it’s Radiohead where their musical interests meet.
In person both are softly spoken, polite and largely unassuming, but on stage Aluna is transformed into a commanding presence, full of effortless sass reminiscent of Aaliyah or ‘Crazy, Sexy, Cool’-era TLC.When Mixmag first caught them live supporting Disclosure at Brixton’s Plan B last December, a capacity crowd went from impatiently waiting for the main attraction to being collectively transfixed by the time the chorus of the opening number came around.
After jokingly admitting to being heartbroken when Björk singled them out as one of her favourite new acts without realising they were a duo (“she thought it was just Aluna!” he says), George admits he prefers to stay out of the limelight.
“Oh yeah, I’m more than happy to fade into the background,” he laughs. “I mean, just look at her!”
“When the band started, we knew what our jobs were,” interjects Aluna, who has landed several modelling jobs since the band took flight. “But you know, there’s a part of the show now where I have to play a tiny bit of piano with George, and I still get intense stage fright!”
After honing their stagecraft with a busy 2012 festival season, the pair have a raft of huge gigs lined up for summer, most notably Creamfields, where they’ll be the only live act over the three days. It’s a situation not uncommon for a duo; they often find themselves the sole live act in a sea of DJs.
“We played this dubstep rave in Zurich and it was quite bizarre as we really stood out. For us it’s important to give people something to look at on stage, so I use a lot of sample pads so the audience can relate to what’s going on,” says George.
“Now we have a live drummer and bassist,” adds Aluna, “which really adds something. And we’re going to increase the production for the festival season. Expect a big light show...”
Tonight’s gig is at The Garage, a disused car park in Liverpool city centre. AlunaGeorge are sandwiched between local singer Jetta and the daytime radio soft rock of Bastille, and the crowd is made up of the usual mix found at new band showcases. Industry A&R types mingle at the makeshift bar with over-excited punters carrying plastic pint glasses through the brimming crowd. It’s a huge room – reminiscent of those YouTube videos of original acid house raves – but judging by the crush inside and lengthy queue outside the venue, it’s one AlunaGeorge have managed to fill with ease. George is on stage giving the equipment a final once-over while Aluna waits in the wings, watched by a pit so full of photographers you could be mistaken for thinking you were at Glastonbury.
Dressed in leather hot pants, a silver mesh top and a white biker jacket, as soon as the first bars of the opening number kick in she commands the stage with a fierce presence pitched somewhere between Beyonce and Björk. Recent single ‘Attracting Flies’ and their Disclosure collaboration ‘White Noise’ have swathes of the audience singing back every word while tracks from their forthcoming album have people reaching into their pockets and grabbing their phones to fruitlessly hit Shazam.
With a packed festival season around the corner and album release imminent, those tracks won’t remain a secret for long.
AlunaGeorge play Creamfields on Saturday August 25