How do you manage to remain enigmatic while selling out Alexandra Palace and booking a four-night, 20,000-capacity residency at Brixton Academy?
For all their artifice and deliberately shadowy PR, much of the answer for Jungle has always lain within their output. When they first emerged in 2013, their embrace of the aesthetics of mystery - going simply by the initials J and T, failing to appear in their own press photography - was in itself nothing we hadn’t seen before. Taken in conjunction with the sound of their early material, however, there was a sense of genuine mystique.
Here were two guys from West London making music that, at its core, sounded like it belonged to Manhattan in the ‘80s - had it travelled there by way of any number of stylistic detours. It was music that embraced the poppier side of soul and the lighter side of funk, with the spectre of hip hop always lurking quietly in the background. The intrigue for the listener lay not in the carefully-cultivated anonymity, but instead in the opaqueness of what precisely made them tick as musicians.
These days, with this month’s incoming third record and years of touring under their belts - the latter, albeit, as just two players in a seven-piece band - we know more of the superficial details. That Jungle are childhood friends Josh Lloyd-Watson and Tom McFarland from Shepherd’s Bush, and that they started out as a simple bedroom-pop project, for instance. Even then, though, neither of them are likely to be recognised on the street; Josh, for his part, riffs on both astrology and spirituality when reflecting on his rise to almost-fame from his West London studio.
“Tom and I were both born in January, so there’s this hermit-like reservation, almost an Aquarian shyness to us,” he muses. “But then, I’ve got Leo on my ascendant, which is where the drive to perform comes from. That’s the split in Jungle: half wanting to hide away in the studio, half wanting to put on a show. When we started out, we loved the idea of having an identity to stand behind. Gorillaz and Daft Punk were obvious inspirations, but who I really looked up to was Justice - playing underneath that cross, like it was something you should surrender to. It’s weirdly culty, but I loved that! I thought it was really cool that I had no idea who Jai Paul was - at least until I met him, and he just turned out to be a normal guy. I like letting people tell themselves the story: tell them the ending, and they stop caring.”
“That’s the split in Jungle: half wanting to hide away in the studio, half wanting to put on a show.”
— Josh Lloyd-Watson
This isn’t to say the pair have been historically averse to pouring plenty of themselves into the music. On their second album, 2018’s ‘For Ever’, they mined their personal lives for inspiration; in turn, it led to a sonically more sedate affair than their self-titled debut, which Josh felt lacked a certain emotional heft. “The first album was ultimately made in a bedroom; ideas of grandeur executed in a shoebox way,” he begins. ‘There was a naïveté to it. We thought we were making Beyoncé tracks, just getting lost in it with no expectation or pressure. So, on the second record, we didn’t want to be silly or throwaway - we wanted to be serious.
“That’s part of the reason it took so long; we were waiting for things to happen in our real lives that we could write about. And the most obvious thing is heartbreak, but when it actually happens, you go through a breakup and it knocks your confidence. I think that meant that we ended up too risk-averse on ‘For Ever’. We were afraid we'd get something wrong.”
In short, the duo suddenly had plenty to lose after the success of 2014’s ‘Jungle’, replacing the fearlessness that made their debut pop with self-doubt. Accordingly, ‘Loving in Stereo’ - their effervescent third LP - is a sharp reaction against ‘For Ever’, which Josh now damningly dismisses as “soppy and indulgent". This time, there was to be no overthinking, and no considering ‘fun’ to be a dirty word.
“You get to a certain age, and the barriers begin to come down in your mind,” he explains. “I’ve mentioned Gorillaz already, but look at Damon Albarn; everything he puts out these days, you just get the sense that he’s pursuing what makes him feel good. He’s just a creator, he doesn’t care about genre, or who the collaborator is - as long as he thinks it’s cool, that’s enough. I think we’re making the transition to that mindset on this record; it feels like it’s only going to keep opening up from here. This is what Jungle was always meant to be.”
“You get to a certain age, and the barriers begin to come down in your mind.”
— Josh Lloyd-Watson
‘Loving in Stereo’ is a kaleidoscopic effort, one that strikes a smart balance between the uptempo and the contemplative. There’s disco swagger to ‘Fire’ and ‘Keep Moving’, funk odysseys in the shape of tracks like ‘No Rules’, and, for the first time on a Jungle album, guest features. The hip hop influence that has simmered for so long finally bubbles over on Bas hook-up ‘Romeo’, while they take a left turn to hint at jazz on smooth Priya Ragu collaboration ‘Goodbye My Love’. The overall mood is one of ebullience and, appropriately for the moment, freedom. If ‘For Ever’ found them in the emotional doldrums, is ‘Loving in Stereo’ a reflection of a turn for the better in their personal lives?
“Well, we’re all egotists, aren’t we?” laughs Josh. “It’s a record of hope, for sure. But we wanted it to feel universal, because if I put a Marvin Gaye album on, it’s suddenly less about what Marvin was going through and more about me - it’s the soundtrack to my day, and to my experiences. But it turned out weirdly neatly, because we went from tough times to feeling a lot freer and more upbeat when we wrote this album, and it was basically finished by February of 2020. Since then, everyone’s been through a version of that! So, that’s kind of nice.”
All being well, Jungle will return to London at the start of September for a four-night stand in Brixton. It’s a quantum leap beyond the goal Josh and Tom set themselves as kids, headlining Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a stone’s throw from where they grew up. “We had that moment, that moment of going, ‘This is it! This is where we saw The Strokes as teenagers!’ But, ultimately, it’s just one moment in time,” he shrugs. The pair’s bond has endured over the past decade, through ups, downs, successes and failures; their personal relationship continues to evolve, parallel to their music. “People will always want different things at different points,” Josh reflects. “Tom’s got a family now; he’s not going to be in the studio every night. It hasn’t been petals and roses the whole time, but I think we’ve always been pretty open about that with each other, and we’ve kept each other grounded.
“It’s about constantly keeping your ego in check - asking yourself, ‘Why am I saying this? Why am I resisting that? Am I creating tension for no reason?’ Ultimately, we’ve been pretty blessed. You just have to constantly remind yourself of that.”
'Loving in Stereo' is out 13th August via Caiola.
As featured in the August 2021 issue of DIY, out now.