Dance

How Jungle Moved Past Heartbreak, And Label Constraints, With Their New Album

Jungle
Filmawi*

Jungle

“Freedom,” Josh Lloyd-Watson muses, “is in the mind.” Over Zoom, the British producer, multi-instrumentalist and one-half of the modern soul duo Jungle is imparting the spiritual lessons he has absorbed over the past year-and-a-half. During this time, he says, he has achieved a personal awakening, thanks in part to reading spiritual author Eckhart Tolle. 

“Tolle says how we subscribe to our own thoughts and that’s what creates our egos: what we tell ourselves about our stories and who we are,” he explains, “that they don’t really mean much, so we can let go of them and be essentially free from these stories of what we tell ourselves and what we’re capable of.”

When Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland started Jungle in 2013, they still felt that they had something to prove. Friends since their school days, they had previously joined a band called Born Blonde, which was signed to (and then dropped by) a major label before their first release. Scarred by the experience but determined to make a fresh start, they released early Jungle singles “Platoon” and “The Heat,” hooking audiences on their quirky, dance-focused, Adidas-obsessed music videos. After signing with XL Recordings later that year, Jungle released their 2014 self-titled debut album, which went gold in the U.K. and was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize.

Despite the project’s immediate success, “There were periods where we felt a little bit trapped by the success of the first record,” Lloyd-Watson told Billboard in 2018. Avoiding the notorious sophomore slump is challenging enough for artists after a high-performing debut, but Jungle’s 2018 follow-up, For Ever, presented an additional and unexpected obstacle to navigate: heartbreak. On opposite sides of the Atlantic (Lloyd-Watson in L.A. and McFarland in the U.K.), both men ended romantic relationships around the same time. 

Their combined experiences built the foundation for For Ever, on which they expressed their sorrows with laidback grooves and a dreamy, California sunset sheen. Though writing the LP was cathartic for the duo, Lloyd-Watson says now it was also emotionally and creatively “difficult” to make: “Maybe we didn’t get that one right.”

On Jungle’s third album, Loving In Stereo (out Aug. 13), the duo are in a much happier place, both musically and personally. Lloyd-Watson and McFarland left XL and formed their own label, Caiola Records, where they now have full control over their music. That newfound freedom allowed the duo to expand upon what Jungle can sound like and how they can work: quickly, intuitively and without rules. 

It’s how you get an album on which a chest-swelling disco sermon (“Keep Moving”) can share space with a hip-hop track featuring rapper Bas (“Romeo”) and a beachy rock song (“Truth”) — all different sounds, yet all still decidedly Jungle. “Ultimately,” Lloyd-Watson says, “anything we make is us.”

How are you feeling about the new album?

I’m excited. It’s the best record we’ve ever made. The first one… there was a naivety to it. The second one came with a lot of pain and heartbreak and it was difficult to make, so it was a bit like, eh, maybe we didn’t get that one right. This third one’s brimming with confidence and we’re just proud and really excited for people to hear the songs. When I look back on previous records there are songs which I would definitely take off now, but I just don’t think there is one on this.

It’s a new era for Jungle. It’s like a rebirth. It’s everything we wanted our music to be in the beginning, but executed sonically. 

Do you ever get butterflies?

I think so, especially with this record. There’s an element of excitement, especially when you know it’s good. I feel it, and that’s what this record is about. We chose tracks that we liked and thought were good and that made us feel something, and that’s the main difference. 

We’ve gone independent now and it’s just opened the roof on what we can do. This record wasn’t A&R’ed, and for me, it’s the best record ever because there’s nobody telling us what the music should be. It’s up to us. That in turn creates a sense of responsibility to make it good, because we’d only be letting ourselves down if we didn’t. It’s not like you make something and check in with someone like, “Is this good?” That’s a classic major label thing, where you get an act and they make something and it’s like, “Does the A&R like it?” You get into this back-and-forth, and I don’t think that’s what art is truly about. It’s about belief, confidence and pure expression. 

You did say that labels are basically banks.

Oh God. (Laughs.) It’s a bank with posters on the wall. But that’s sort of what it is! I’m not shy about saying that. When you start out in the industry there’s a certain reliance on those things. You’re young, you’re naive — you just want to be accepted. After doing it for eight years now, we built that confidence and realized we don’t need those extra voices because they confused our process. The good thing about [labels] is that they give you a seal of approval and they can help you launch, but at some point there are too many cooks. The fewer people who are involved with art, the better.

I want to talk about the beginning of the album, “Dry Your Tears” and “Keep Moving.” They’re separate songs, yet the first plays perfectly into the second, and even the titles themselves feel like two halves of one action: dry your tears and keep moving. Can you talk about how and why the album starts this way?

We had this track called “Don’t You Cry Now,” which is on the Japanese B-side -- it has this middle eight which goes, “Dry your tears.” We were looking at the intro for this album, and had recorded these amazing strings and vocals for this “dry your tears” thing. It just worked so perfectly. 

For us, it was about: “It’s okay, you don’t need to cry about it; you don’t need to be overly indulgent about the pain of your past.” It then flips into this uplifting message. There’s a self-reference to [For Ever], the heartbreak and upset of where we were. It’s also a reference to the creative process and a difficult second record for us creatively: stop crying and get on with it.

You shared that Loving In Stereo’s title comes from one of the first songs you and Tom wrote together almost 20 years ago. Tell me about that moment of revisiting something from so long ago and being like, yes, this is it.

That song was written when we first met. I lived down the road from him and we played guitar together, and then we wrote this song together in his parents’ basement called “Loving In Stereo.” It was a jingly-jangly folk song and… I don’t know, the title just stuck with us. 

We were looking for something and it just sort of popped up -- I think I saw the speaker on the desk that just said “stereo” and went, “Oh, I remember that thing.” It reminded me of a weird ‘90s album, like a Supergrass or Brit-pop album, but at the same time it had this feeling of Otis Redding where it was like, loving… in stereo. Then it reminded me of those amazing ‘60s records that I love so much. It also had this full-circle nature of our journey together, so it resonated on multiple levels… and it’s just kind of catchy!

In 2016 you said, “You have to have a reason to write a record.” If your debut album was about proving yourselves beyond viral first singles, and For Ever about healing after heartbreak, what’s the why behind Loving In Stereo?

Deep down, it’s about spiritual growth. Last year everybody went through a difficult time. I definitely went through some sort of spiritual awakening of mind and body and understanding how important it is to just be. It can sound a little wishy-washy in some places, but if you buy into it… That energy level that we all operate on feeds into everything: your state of being, your creativity, your happiness… 

On our second record, we cared so much. It was really important. I suppose in a way, [this album] is about letting go. We were kind of afraid to do that. Our second record was very difficult to make and let go. Because of that spiritual growth, this one became easy and quick to make, and really fun and enjoyable to listen to. It was such a beautiful space to be in and now I’m trying to push that into every area of my life.

Tell me about the creative process behind Loving In Stereo. What changes did you make from For Ever to ensure you kept moving forward musically rather than retread old ground? 

Accepting the first idea and not overthinking it. Staying true to the first thing that made you excited about it is really important. We also didn’t put any limitations on what it could be or where that inspiration could come from, who could sing on it. For example, working with Bas, that situation just happened naturally. Imagine thinking, ‘We couldn’t put a rap song out’? It would have just gone in a drawer. 

We also just didn’t take it too seriously. It’s easy to go, “This is really important,” and that’s ego coming back in. We started Jungle to escape from our own egos. It’s why the name, branding and logo are there: because it’s not always about us. We don’t want to be in the music videos. That’s where it’s holy to us, when we can escape into them. 

This is the first time a Jungle record has featured vocalists. What prompted you to bring new voices into your universe, and what do they bring to the table that you might not have had originally?

We’ve always been inspired by Daft Punk and Gorillaz. With Gorillaz, Damon [Albarn]’s always going to be there writing it. Sometimes he sings on it. He’s the energy that drives the project forward. When it’s a collective, you work with all these incredible people. Bas and Priya [Ragu] are part of that, but it wasn’t forced. I hadn’t heard of Bas until he walked into our dressing room in Coney Island and introduced himself. I don’t care who he is, how big he is or what he’s done to clarify whether we can make music with him. It’s about an energy, a connection. When we were in the studio in the U.K. we texted him and he was in the U.K., so he came through, we played him one of the beats and he just started writing on it. 

Same with Priya -- she’s got an amazing voice. We heard of her through our manager when he started working with her and we said we’d love to do a session, not at all intending to do a Jungle song; just for the love of making music. We tried something out that was more upbeat, maybe for her record, but at the end of the day I thought we should do another track. So we just started at 5pm and we had to be out by 6. I was running around the studio trying to get the drums down. It was the spontaneous feeling where I discovered the more you rush music, the better it is.

Bas’ track “Romeo” and another track, “Truth,” are such curveballs on the record, yet they still sound like Jungle.

We’ve been making hip-hop beats for years, even way before Jungle, being inspired by Dilla and Knxwledge. I love that stuff, and that’s what I want to make. We learned our craft doing that. We’ve done loads of collaborations with rappers — they’ve just never been seen because they’re still on a hard-drive. 

It’s interesting, because you live a life of what you actually make musically, and then you have another life of what people know you for musically. Sometimes they’re vastly different… So yeah, “Truth” is an interesting one. I like it because it’s another song that just happened. There was a point when it wasn’t on the record and we wondered, ‘Is this us?’ But ultimately anything we make is us, whether it’s classical music or hip-hop. 

The beginnings of Loving In Stereo preceded the pandemic, but how did Covid affect the production process or even the meaning of your songs over time?

We were making Loving In Stereo as a reaction to our last album. We wanted to make it quickly because the one before had taken longer, and we didn’t want it to be overly emotional. All those things led us to make higher-tempo and more uplifting music. The timing of it was interesting because it’s reflected in the real world — now it almost means more than it did before. It’s a beautiful thing.