Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2013

Courtesy of Hostess

So, why did English pop stars Mike Skinner and Rob Harvey name their new band after something as plebian as the Department of Transportation? “I don’t know really,” Skinner confesses from down the line in England.

What he later says provides some insight into how the ordinariness suggested by the D.O.T. acronym was the point where he and Harvey bonded and ended up working together.

“One of the things we share is coming from backgrounds that are not musical,” Skinner explains about the group’s oddball pairing, which sets his deadpan raps against Harvey’s emotive vocals. “Both of us have struggled with the question: ‘What purpose do we serve?’ In the music industry there is a lot of sitting around not seemingly doing anything. If you come into it feeling like you have to work a 9-to-5, it’s very hard. So all we’re really trying to do is make songs that are good enough that people want to buy them. Without sounding too Wall Street, we both have a sort of working man’s idea of what a song should be.”

Which is not to belittle artists that reach for the sky. “You do need artists who are up their own ass and lost in their own idea of art—that’s where the cutting edge is,” Skinner muses. “But ordinary working people in the north of England are never going to understand that. We need the cutting edge, but I don’t think The D.O.T. are ever going to be that because we have too much of a complex about wanting to do something that means something to people.”

Skinner, with his riveting hip-hop storytelling band The Streets, and Harvey, with his soul-bearing retro rock outfit The Music, were both at the end of the line with their groups when they joined forces in 2011. “I was demoing a lot of stuff for The Streets and just really liked the sound of his voice, so he ended up singing on three songs on the last Streets album,” Skinner recalls. “It was quite natural, really. We did a session together one day and wrote these three really good songs, and we’ve carried on ever since.”

The result, on their first proper album Diary, weds Harvey’s keening vocals to Skinner’s dope rhythms, but it’s neither The Streets with vocals nor The Music with beats. Skinner sometimes sings, Harvey sometimes steps back—the music has a timeless poignancy that comes from working with expert horn players and other session musicians.

“Usually I begin on the drum machine, and it ends with Rob finishing on the vocals—that’s how a lot of it’s come together,” Skinner says. “But it’s really relaxed. The Streets was quite high pressure in terms of there having to be a story. I’m rebelling against that now, which means that a lot of the songs are ambiguous. When music is melodic you can paint impressionistic pictures that don’t really need to make concrete sense. I’ve really been enjoying writing songs in that way, and a lot of them don’t have a storyline.”

Skinner was headed off to direct films when The D.O.T. came together, and his and Harvey’s videos—one featuring a modern-day Jesus for the song “Blood, Sweat and Tears” is particularly striking—provide a visual accompaniment to the album.

“The title Diary was a product of the video diaries that we’d been doing,” Skinner says. “To say that it’s more of a diary than any other album would be arrogant, but visually to be able to make the album look like one of our diaries was important.”

Skinner isn’t exactly sure where what some have called “a celebrity side project” is leading, but he’s comfortable with its present shape for the moment. “I think it’s important to see things through. I’m very erratic on a daily basis, and I have a lot going on, so I find it very important to really focus on one thing.

“The D.O.T. is in its infancy and we’re very careful for it to not set too quickly, for it to carry on feeling genuinely fun and unexpected. We wrote songs in big rooms with various people, and we wrote emailing back and forth, and I think maybe on the next album we might even write songs separately and then finish them off together. We have opted keep it as free as possible so it can still feel exciting.”

Liquidroom, Jun 13