Liz Dodd 15 February 2008

Sprinting (ok, walking briskly) the five minutes from the TCS office to The Corn Exchange, we indulge in a grumble. Never, we reflect, have we actually managed to conduct an interview on time. Artists – or at least, their PR – seem to have come to the conclusion that student press have nothing better to do than huddle among amps and keyboards in some drafty backstage cave while soundcheck runs half an hour late because the band decided, fifty-nine nights into a sixty-night tour, to hold an extended jam with whoever happens to be in the building.

Athlete, mild, predominantly religious soft-rockers that they are, were no different, hustling us (plus Dictaphone) back out into the rain because we had the audacity to turn up on time. A half hour (of grumbling) later, we are finally ushered into a dressing room/canteen, littered with such rock’n’roll accoutrements as hummous, olives and celery sticks.

“We found ourselves doing the major cities, and that’s what a lot of bands do,” Athlete’s Steve Roberts points out when we try to find out why the band are gracing our small town. “We wanted to do some slightly smaller places… I think around the 2000 capacity is kind of ideal. It’s enough people for it to feel like an event, but not to many so that you feel that you’re not as close to everyone.” Stadium rock – a title that has, like it or not, followed Athlete for their entire career – might be taken to imply, well, a stadium, but Athlete’s latest release Beyond The Neighbourhood is a conscious move away from Coldplay-esque pop. “We really wanted to make more live sounding album,” Steve explains. “I guess we wanted to make something that sounded quite electronic, but at the same time something that that captured the performance. We’ve been quite fortunate at our record company. We’ve always just gone with what we want and that’s what the record company is given. They’ve been quite hands off.”

Athlete’s record company is EMI, a label slowly imploding under the weight of Radiohead’s headline-worthy exit and the slightly bizarre news that Robbie Williams has decided to go on strike.

“In the next month most of the people we know might be gone,” Steve points out when we bring up industry woes. “The EMI thing has really affected us because the whole company is at a standstill. We’re just keeping our heads down and not try to worry about the industry side of things. That’s the worst thing for a musician to do. At the end of the day people will still want music – we’ll just carry on. The Radiohead thing is great. They’re in a position where they can do that, and they made an absolute fortune. They’ve sold records they manufactured themselves for £40. That’s a huge amount of money, and people are talking about it. It kind of forces the record companies to go ‘oh, we actually do have to take this seriously now…’ “

With an EP on the way – featuring, Steve informs us, acoustic versions of earlier tracks brought out for a Radio 1 event as well as a track from the new album – and an American tour in the works, Athlete don’t show any signs of slowing down. Nor should they – the Cambridge gig has sold out, and the crowd are as receptive to new tracks as they are to the greatest hits. “That hasn’t happened before,’ front man Joel Pott tells the crowd after a prolonged, venue-wide singalong to hit Wires. “Thanks.”

Athlete’s feel-good pop rock might not be your thing, but it’s both a laudible response to an industry crisis and a relief to their legions of fans to discover that when the going gets tough, the tough intend to retreat to their studio and do what they do best.

Liz Dodd