Few bands get to spring a surprise six albums into their career. Even fewer do so in as dramatic a fashion as You Me At Six do on their simply titled new record, VI. They know what you probably think of them – “The emo pop-rockers from Surrey,” as guitarist Chris Miller puts it – and once upon a time you would have been right. But not for a long time, and certainly not on VI, a record that switches moods and styles with breathless confidence, from devastatingly defiant rock to joyously uplifting pop. It all but drips with melodies and moods. It’s the kind of record a band makes when they are in love with all the possibilities of music. VI is not what you might expect a You Me At Six album to sound like.
“We’ve always been a band that straddles styles,” says singer Josh Franceschi, sitting with his bandmates outside a London bar on a warm, early Summer afternoon. “We’ve always had that pop sensibility, but we’ve tried not to pigeonhole ourselves – that’s come from other people. If we want to make another six albums, we have to to maintain the foundations of what makes this band good, and we have to be contemporary and forward thinking.”
“We’re five individual blokes,” guitarist Max Helyer says, “but when we mash together in a band, something great happens. I’m not saying it happens every time, but sometimes something unbelievable happens.”
You Me At Six needed something unbelievable to happen with VI, because by their own admission it didn’t happen with their last album, Night People, released in February 2017. As a band, they were too tied up with their own business affairs, they didn’t write the songs to do their talent justice, and they created an album they felt was too samey, too linear, always travelling in one direction.
This time round it wasn’t just that something had to change. Everything had to change. New label – they now have their own label via AWAL/Kobalt – new management, new work ethic. Before Night People, they hadn’t written any songs for three years, which they think was a contributory factor to the album’s flatness. That said, Helyer suggests, it was a necessary record – “It was a step in a different direction for us, musically. It was a breach, and every band needs to have that record where they make a breach.”
VI was about opening that breach, and letting the full scope of their creativity flood through. They began writing as soon as they had finished Night People, but things really started to catch fire last November, when they went for a writing session with Eg White, whose versatility has seen him write with and for Adele, Linkin Park, Florence + the Machine and Kylie, among scores of others. That first session yielded immediate returns in the shape of ‘Losing You’ and ‘Fast Forward’, the album’s opening track, and one of its two lead songs, along with ‘3AM’. Helyer and White had been watching a clip of Radiohead at the Grammys playing ‘15 Step’, which gave Helyer the idea for a riff. “I said, ‘Let’s get heavy and industrial on those electronics, make it uncomfortable listening.’” For bassist Matt Barnes, it’s a song dramatic enough that it could transform their career the way Mountains changed Biffy Clyro’s.
And while Franceschi’s lyric is about making changes to his own life, it’s not hard to interpret it as a call to arms for the band: “When you feel the fire has gone / Pour some gasoline on it.” He sees the parallels. “It’s a self-reflective song, but it’s indicative of where the band was at. You’re only ever one track away from reigniting the momentum or reinventing yourself artistically, and that’s what that song represents.”
Working with White opened the floodgates, not just to songwriting, but to sounds, because of his experience in electronic music. It gave them a vision of how many different directions were open to them. “For Miracle in the Mourning, we knew we wanted to have this dancey element, and almost R&B feel in the verses,” says drummer Dan Flint. “But it’s always going to sound like us. Even if we wrote a hip-hop song, it would sound like You Me at Six.”
Former Athlete frontman Joel Pott also came on board to write – helping out on ‘3AM’ – and the group were rejuvenated by the outside contributions. “It’s about accepting there isn’t just one route to the end goal,” Franceschi says. “We embraced that idea. We’re creative people and we want to learn from other creative people. You want to improve, not stagnate, and maybe Night People was creatively quite stagnant. Bringing in new people with fresh ideas, ideas we’d never have, has been so exciting.”
Recording began in January at Vada Studios in the West Midlands, with producer Dan Austin, who became like a sixth member. The sessions were so fluid and fluent that the band completed 11 songs in just 34 days of tracking. “Sonically, Dan blew our minds,” Flint says. “And that inspires you,” Miller adds, “because you want to learn stuff from him.”
Still, though, this is very much You Me At Six’s album. As Franceschi explains, their new management had warned them they should not assume a producer could magic up greatness. “They were saying from the word go: ‘It all has to come from you. Don’t go in there thinking you’ve got a few good songs and they’re going to make it into a great record. Everything has to come from you.’” But what Austin gave the band was the sense that there were no limitations on what they could do. “The whole thing was a flow of creativity non-stop,” Flint says. “And it bounced from one person to the other.”
Only when they made the album they wanted did they think about who might want to release it, and when they played tracks to AWAL/Kobalt, they found people to match their enthusiasm. “From then on they wanted to be involved,” Flint says. “They made us feel we couldn’t really refuse. We’re on our sixth album, but we’re still pretty young. We’re not a heritage band, and no one should market us like a heritage band. So to find another label that can match our ambition is impressive.”
What Flint says highlights the most rema rkable thing about You Me At Six: they’re still only now entering their late 20s – they were teenagers when they made their first couple of albums. That means they still have hunger – they know they’re too young to be touring off past glories. In fact, they’re young enough to still be releasing their first album. And if VI were that first album, it would be hailed as one of the most exciting albums by a British band in years – uncategorisable but familiar, raucous but mainstream. You can almost bathe in their excitement about the record they’ve made – they compete with each other to spill out their thoughts and their stories, they nod supportively at each others’ observations. “We’re not nervous about this record being different,” Flint says, “we’re excited. Our fans have grown up with us and they want to hear the music we like.”
“I’m just excited for people to hear it, because we believe we’ve made a great record,” Helyer says.
“You have to make music for yourself,” Franceschi concludes, “because without authenticity people are going to smell the bullshit. None of us are going to into this with any fear, because we’ve made something we can stand behind.”
You Me at Six are about to change the way you think about them. Be excited.