Rolling Stone Australia had a lengthy chat with English EDM phenomenon Example about his career, and his upcoming album, We May Grow Old But We Never Grow Up.
A genuine superstar with a myriad of top 20 hits and a couple of number ones under his belt, Australian-based Elliot Gleave, better known as Example, appears at first glance as an ordinary bloke. There’s a refreshing self-awareness and honesty about his demeanour that somehow feels at odds with what you’d expect from one of the most in-demand performers of today’s EDM circuit. His answers are not calculated nor do they feel scripted by a PR team, on the contrary, his general vibe is closer to that friend who’s a horrible central defender in your Sunday league team but who you know will be the first to back you up with the fists when the going gets rough.
Example is a rare case of an artist transitioning from underground rapper into Ibiza dance hero in just a couple of albums. His first effort back in 2006 was a self-published hip-hop remix record that featured deconstructions of well-known mega-hits of all genres, from ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears to ‘Paint it Black’ by The Rolling Stones. A couple of these tracks, particularly a parody of Lily Allen’s single ‘Smile’ called ‘Vile’ earned some airplay, enough to be noticed by Mike Skinner from The Streets, who ended up offering him a record deal with his own label —the now-defunct— The Beats.
Gleave was in his early twenties, freshly graduated from Royal Holloway with a degree in media arts. He was doing everything at the time, stand-up comedy, voiceovers, scripting, and video editing, with his sights set on one day being a film director. Music was just one of the many interests he pursued, and it happened to be the first to take off. By 2010, —four years and two studio albums later,— Example had already become an international sensation.
That diversity of interests echoes throughout a discography that refuses to settle on one genre. He started out being part of the crop of British independent hip-hop artists that emerged in the aughts (Dizzee Rascal, Professor Green, Tinchy Stryder) but since has navigated across a multitude of sounds, tiptoeing between trance, house, and dubstep.
Although there’s always a link to his underground roots in his work, Example today is a pop monster, purveyor of rave anthems with stomping beats, and infectious, singalong choruses.
“I think all my albums around that era were dealing with late nights and breakups,” Example reminisces about his early work, “My third album, Playing In The Shadows was kind of like, ‘I need to probably stop behaving like an idiot and settle down.’ And, you know, stop lying to my girlfriend at the time and stop spending nights in clubs and dark rooms until 3 or 4 AM with the wrong people.”
Crop top, yellow dyed hair, Gleave settles into a couch in his London home. “That album was very dark and quite gothic. It felt like, you know, here’s a guy who’s seemed quite depressed or down in a dark place… on the other hand, the music was very uplifting, it had lots of big, heavy drops in dubstep, and you know, EDM and so on.”
Playing in the Shadows was released by Ministry of Sound in 2011, reaching number one both in the UK Albums and UK Dance albums charts. The tracks ‘Changed the Way You Kiss Me’ and ‘Stay Awake’ also hit the top spot on the singles charts of the year, becoming perennial club hits.
Example took that massive success as the perfect opportunity to “do something which I probably will never be allowed to do again.” His following release, The Evolution of Man was a harsh turn away from the uplifting club bangers of his previous records, this was an abrasive, aggressive album inspired by his teenage love for bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. “My fourth album was like a rock album, I wanted to make electronic produced rock and metal,” he comments.
Established as a regular face in the biggest EDM festivals of the world, Example returns this year with We May Grow Old, But We Will Never Grow Up, set to be released on the 17th of June.
“I’m about to turn 40, and this new album comes out the week of my 40th birthday,” he takes a brief pause to think, “essentially, what the album is saying is, just because we’re getting a bit older, doesn’t mean we can’t still have fun.”
“I was so upset with myself for being a liar and a cheat,” Gleave opines about his most commercially succesful album so far, “Playing in the Shadows, you know, turned 10 last year. I look back at it now and even though it’s uplifting, there’s a lot of negative lyrics on that, it’s almost like hitting the self-destruct button.”
In that sense, Example’s new record goes in a diametrically opposite direction, “this album is very hopeful” he says, “there’s some tracks about the feeling of falling in love and keeping love alive… it could be in love with a person, it could be in love with music, it could be in love with a night out. It could be in love with your kids.”
While We May Grow Old But We Never Grow Up traverses through garage, house, rock, and techno, all familiar roads in Example’s discography, at the same time it takes new, unexplored avenues. “The main genres are UK garage and Drum and Bass, which I’ve never done before. I’ve probably had twenty DnB remixes so far, but I’ve never had an out-and-out DnB single,” Gleave explains, “then there’s three tracks which are UK drill, you know, it’s quite heavy, almost like gangsta rap beats.”
“The new album is very much rooted in UK culture production-wise, but sonically, I just think it’s very cinematic. Nearly every track feels like it could be a soundtrack to a television commercial, or an epic sci-fi film or something.
“There’s lots of really emotive strings, piano, and guitar chords. We’ve also put a lot of processing on everything to make it sound extra gritty, and make you feel like you’re in a dreamscape.”
From the very start of his career, Example’s deep, resonating vocals have been the most distinctive feature of his artistic brand, the one thing that unifies his wide-ranging output and sets him apart from the other players in the EDM market. “I’m a bit pitchy, almost a semitone out of key even in the studio. I’ve always been more about the performance, maybe because I grew up listening to grunge music. I love Kurt Cobain so much,” he says, “When I’m in the studio, I’ll listen back to my vocals and find I might be slightly out of key on a few notes. But the performance is so powerful that I’m like, fuck it, let’s just tune it. I’d rather stick with that.”
Over time, the pressure of success made him alter his approach slightly, a push to evolve from the days of the raw, fire-spitting rapper he was back in the late aughts. “You know, I took singing lessons, maybe nine years ago,” Gleave recalls, “once I started headlining festivals and playing arenas, I was like, I’ve got 50,000 people out there watching me, man, am I risking embarrassing myself? So I decided to take some singing lessons. By the end of it, the main thing I got from it was that I learned how to do vocal warm-ups correctly so I didn’t lose my voice on stage. I learned breath control, which obviously helped my rapping as well.
But after about five or six lessons, the singing teacher was like, ‘you don’t need singing lessons.’ She was like, ‘you’re so unique, I don’t want you to lose your tone nor this gravel in your voice. I don’t think you should come and see me anymore.’”
Example’s new album shows him at the top of his vocal prowess, rapping faster, and singing better than ever before in his career. “I think singing wise, it’s the easiest I’ve ever sung,” he confides with a self-satisfied grin, “on Playing in the Shadows, on tracks like ‘Changed the Way You Kiss Me’ and ‘Stay Awake’ I’m delivering kind of like Depeche Mode, you know, like that really oversung ‘80s style sort of soft rock.
On this new album, it’s a lot more breathy. And it’s coming from a different place than my chest and my throat… it feels softer, more grown-up, more effortless… I don’t know, probably it’s the fact I’m about to turn 40. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve calmed down a lot and I’m a dad. Now when I’m not on tour, I’m basically just a stay-at-home dad. So because of that, and probably without realizing it, I’m singing a lot softer.”
Growing up, settling down, and having a family, the new record revolves heavily around his evolution both as an artist and as a person, something probably foretold in the lyrics of ‘Daydreamer’, the 2012 hit he wrote with Flux Pavillion.
We feel like our work is done
And sit and wait for the sun, so young
And we’re all daydreaming now
Don’t have to be told
Don’t have to grow old
“It’s important that we never lose touch with our youth,” Example states emphatically, “just because we’ve had kids and we settle down and we spend a lot of time working, that doesn’t mean we can’t still get out on a Friday or Saturday night and let our hair down or go to a festival and get a bit crazy.”
By design or by chance, We May Grow Old But We Never Grow Up is an album with an Australian soul. Most of the project was written in the country, with the collaboration of Brisbane-born songwriter Brooke Toia AKA Penny Ivy, and producer James Angus, known for his work with Camoflage Rose, Last Dinosaurs and The Veronicas. The record is also packed with features by Australian musicians, with the participation of Tommy Trash, What so Not, Nerve, and Lucy Lucy, among others.
“I lived there when I was 21 for a year, and just absolutely fell in love with the place,” Example elaborates on what Australia means to him, “You know everyone else sort of left university and walked straight into a job in London. I just wanted to be free from it all and work out what I wanted to do in life. I lived in Bondi Beach by myself, it was the first time in my life that I’d been truly independent… I remember getting an apartment for the first time, setting up a bank account, and starting applying for jobs. It was kind of scary, but as a result of that, Australia feels like a sort of Holy Grail. It felt like this sort of mecca of exploration and finding myself and who I should be.”
A few years down the road his parents ended up moving to the country, and in 2011, he met former Miss Australia Erin McNaught when she interviewed him as part of her job on MTV. “And then obviously I met my wife there, and my kids are Australian as well. They live there and go to school there. London to me is still very exciting culturally and musically. But it’s not very exciting in terms of raising kids.”
Example’s heart is definitively set in the land down under, but when it comes to football, it’s a whole different matter, “It’s a very special country. I consider myself Australian for all intents and purposes, but I probably still support England in football.”
We May Grow Old, But We Will Never Grow Up is set to be released on the 17th of June via BMG.