As concepts go, the stark, minimalist “Platoon” video uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo in June 2013 was ludicrously simple: A six-year-old girl named Terra, clad in a purple tracksuit on a gray, featureless soundstage, breakdances to peppy funk-pop. The tiny dancer starts off tapping her foot and ends performing a dizzying amount of headspins. It looks as much like a viral promo for Britain’s Got Talent as it does a music video.
The clip began to spread last September, eventually racking up nearly 5 million views. But as the clicks began to increase and the media took notice, the creators behind the music — U.K. funk collective Jungle — were hardly basking in the glory. At the time, the group’s ringleaders were known only as “J” and “T,” preferring to let the music and the dancer take the spotlight. Other, equally simple videos from the collective — which ranges from 7 to 30 members depending on the gig — would follow, all featuring breakdancing with only minimal mentions of the group who made the music.
“It’s all about getting rid of the ego, and Jungle, for us, was that place,” “J,” a.k.a. 24-year-old Jungle co-founder Josh Lloyd-Watson, tells Rolling Stone from his London apartment. “We’re in an age where people are so, ‘It’s all about this lead singer,’ and there aren’t many groups around that are just about a collective sort of spirit. The press tends to focus it on one or two people because they’re seeking that sort of leadership, and for us, none of us really want to stand up and be the leader. We quite like the name leading it.”
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Since the release of “Platoon,” the (mostly British) media attention has focused as much on unearthing “J” and “T” as the music itself. On the flipside, Lloyd-Watson and “T,” a.k.a. co-founder Tom McFarland, wouldn’t be worth discovering if their recently released eponymous debut album weren’t so good. The duo employ supra-Pharrell falsettos over bouncy bass lines and light, airy funk-pop for an innocuous, yet compelling, album you can imagine playing in the background of barbecues and pool parties. Still, even as the group’s music was getting more attention, Jungle remained reluctant to divulge their identities.
“If you go to a gallery, you don’t see a picture and then a portrait of the guy who painted it next to the picture,” says Lloyd-Watson. “Martin Scorsese doesn’t come on after the credits of one of his films. You don’t want to take the lead role because you don’t want to have to deal with that sort of expectation and responsibility of doing it because that then goes to your head and how can we then create music if it’s all about who we are, what we look like, blah blah blah blah blah.”
As is often the case, the reality is more prosaic than the mystery. Lloyd-Watson and McFarland met at the age of 10 in Shepherd’s Bush, a multicultural part of west London where Polish, West Indian, Lebanese, Somali and Irish communities all commingled. The duo grew up down the road from Town House Post Production studios, the famed studio known as the rehearsal space for the Who and recording home for Blur‘s The Great Escape, Coldplay‘s X & Y and Pulp’s This Is Hardcore, among countless others.
Perhaps inspired by the Britpop bands that worked down the road, the pair formed the psych-pop group Born Blonde, who released one album in 2012 before splitting up. “We were in a band for the wrong reasons,” McFarlane admits, “and not being comfortable with ourselves. [Born Blonde] was based around the search for success and recognition and fame and seeking that ‘Like’ on Facebook. We found ourselves texting people we haven’t spoken to in a year and saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a gig tonight’ and they just text you back, ‘Why is this the first time you’ve spoken to me in a year?'”
Forgetting your past is at odds with a particular strain of British music journalism that looks to reveal every detail of a musician’s life. “I challenge you to just put ‘J and T’,” Lloyd-Watson says during our interview. “I honestly challenge you to because everybody else…” The thought trails off, and while his tone remains amicable, the pair seem acutely affected by their past musical experience. It’s why, when the duo began recording their debut album as Jungle in their home studio in January 2013, they told no one about it, focusing more on organic word of mouth than, as the band puts it, the “desperation to succeed” that marked past musical endeavors.
Diverse as Shepherd’s Bush may be, the group relied more on their imagination than actual experience. “We were inspired by a lot by places we haven’t been, so the album feels a little askew,” says Lloyd-Watson. “It’s not like we went to Africa and listened to people playing the drums. It’s more like you close your eyes and imagine African rhythms or Rio de Janeiro or Miami and something goes wrong in the translation. We’re writing the music to soundtrack these places without actually being there and the music is what you imagine the sound to be.”
The pair started with “thousands of meaningless sketches” before coalescing their best drum beats and sounds for the tracks’ rough drafts. Like a live version of the Avalanches’ intricate copy-and-paste sampling pastiche, Jungle’s album draws inspiration from a variety of unlikely sources. “Drops” features the sound of Lloyd-Watson‘s bedroom door creaking open and shut. Ostensible drums are created out of a set of car keys, a Coke can pull-tab, a crunch of Pringles potato chips or a pack of cigarettes hitting the table. The group even resorted to physical self-harm. “I slap myself in the face a couple of times on ‘Son of a Gun’ because it sounds like a snare and that’s hilarious,” McFarlane says as the two begin to crack up.
The duo have only recently been able to quit their day jobs — McFarland as a bartender at a tequila bar and Lloyd-Watson as a pizza delivery guy/gardener/utility man — and earn a living through music. Making this transition, they’re still figuring out their place in the musical cosmos. “It’s weird because you can play to 10,000 people at Glastonbury and then go to Luxembourg and play to 50 people,” says Lloyd-Watson. “And then you go, ‘Where are we in between this?'”
There’s a simplicity to the melodies in Jungle’s music: an unbridled, almost childlike, enthusiasm that can rightly be called “pop,” though in a fractured, yet still danceable, form. As the group gets more known, you wonder if this simplicity will go away, lost as they approach greater success. “I hope it’s going to be easy to maintain because I think, fundamentally, that idea comes from our relationship with each other and how we base our friendship on being honest and not trying to overcomplicate anything in life,” says McFarland. “Because once you do that and start letting your thoughts control your process, it begins to get a bit messed up. The control that we have is overall ours, so if we can keep ours as simple as possible, we’ll be in a really good place in the future.”