British band Clean Bandit would rather be daring and different

By Lucy Christie

These Cambridge University graduates are proud misfits. Grace Chatto reveals how classical musicians turned into pop stars - and how they almost killed a model

By Lucy Christie |

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Tea? So British! Clean Bandit (from left): Jack Patterson, Luke Patterson, Grace Chatto, Neil Amin-Smirt.

Being in a band is cool, especially when it means fame, riches, performing at festivals and appearing on MTV. Being in a classical string quartet doesn't usually hold the same appeal.

But try telling that to Clean Bandit, the musical geniuses behind Rather Be, one of the biggest hits of 2014. They combine classical music with electronic beats to top the charts. Oh, and they're all Cambridge University graduates.

There's no lack of musical talent in this group, which has Jack Patterson on bass guitar, keyboard, vocals and piano, his brother Luke playing percussion, Grace Chatto on cello and vocals, and Neil Milan Amin-Smith playing violin and piano.

They formed the band while at the high-flying British university, but how did they go from campus string group to chart-topping pop stars?

"It was Jack's idea, really," explains Chatto. "To take snippets of classical music and write stuff around it."

"Jack was my boyfriend so he was always at the house and heard us playing and one day we decided we wanted to do something together in a sort of dance music style so we started writing drum beats and bass lines around classical music. We had about 10 songs like that, completely based on classical music," says Chatto.

From playing piano underwater to plucking cello strings in a tree, the group doesn't seem content to be conventional. But just because they studied at Cambridge doesn't mean they always make smart decisions.

"We've done so many dangerous things," laughs Chatto. "The most dangerous video we made was for a song called UK Shanty. We had managed to convince this supermodel, called Lily Cole, to be in the video. And this was years before Rather Be so no one knew who we were and we didn't have any money or anything. But Jack wanted to make the whole video underwater."

Plenty of bands have released underwater videos, but Clean Bandit wanted to make an ambitious one with next-to-no money. They decided that if they couldn't buy any equipment to heat the outdoor pool they were using in the middle of the English winter, they would make it themselves. Most people would have had the sense to not even consider homemade electronics in the first place, but Chatto describes the experience as a "narrowly-averted disaster".

"It was really dangerous because if the pump failed, the whole thing would have exploded and the water would have gone live with electricity, and we were all really worried about Lily Cole being electrocuted," says Chatto.

When they're not busy nearly murdering models, the quartet spends a lot of time finding vocalists to perform. They don't have a fixed lead singer, and so need to find the right voice for each song.

So do they write their songs with a vocalist in mind, or does the track come first?

"It's always different," says Grace. " Rather Be [featuring Jess Glynne] was the first song we had completely recorded before we even thought about the voice. And then it took a long time to find the right voice and record it, but most of the other songs featured our friends, whose voices actually inspired the song so we kind of wrote the lyrics together," says Grace.

With so much going on, it's a wonder they have any time to squeeze in anything else, but Clean Bandit tour a lot, and they'll be in Hong Kong for the first time at the end of the month for Clockenflap (the Friday night at 6.45pm, to be precise). Our city can be overwhelming for newbies, but Chatto can't wait to get here, because she loves the thrill of the unknown.

"I actually know very little about Hong Kong. I had a friend at school from Hong Kong who used to tell me little snippets, but really I don't have much concept of what it's like and that's my favourite place to go to, when I don't know what to expect - especially with the band, because it's so exciting to go so far away, and play our music and see how people react in a completely new place," says Chatto.

Here's hoping they don't bring any homemade heaters too close to Victoria Harbour …