With 'Rather Be,' Clean Bandit leading a retro dance revolution

With Rather Be, Clean Bandit are leading a retro dance-pop revival.
Sonically, Clean Bandit are taking it back to the early '90s. Publicity photo
Sonically, Clean Bandit are taking it back to the early '90s.Publicity photo
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Milan Neil Amin-Smith has a thing for pop from the past.

"I was flipping through my CD library the other day, and many of the compilations I have from the late '90s/early 2000s are R&B compilations," the violinist and pianist of British dance-pop group Clean Bandit said in a recent phone interview. "Those dance compilations, the ones I have are all, 'Very Best of Summer R&B!'"

It's not just R&B, though. Amin-Smith loves U.K. garage, early dubstep and other forms of bygone dance music. This is all pretty clear from Clean Bandit's 2014 album New Eyes, a glistening collection of crisp, melodic dance music driven by souulful, hypnotic, diva-like vocals.

Thanks to their smash single Rather Be with Jess Glynne, Clean Bandit, who next week play the State Theatre in St. Petersburg, are leading a retro-minded movement in electronic dance music. Whereas dubstep heavies like Deadmau5 and Skrillex bombard ravers with cochlea-crushing beats, and electro-house icons like Calvin Harris and Zedd are all about synth-powered, CO2-spewing anthems, artists like Clean Bandit, Disclosure (Latch) and Kiesza (Hideaway) are throwing dance music back to the late '80s and early '90s with singles that would sound right at home on an MTV Party to Go mix.

In some cases, the homage is literal — Clean Bandit does a killer cover of Robin S.'s 1990 club jam Show Me Love, while Kiesza covers Haddaway's A Night at the Roxbury anthem What Is Love. But in a larger sense, the popularity of songs like Rather Be, Latch and Hideaway suggests dance fans may be eager for a renaissance of deep house music, and perhaps an evolution of EDM as a whole.

"The dance crossover to pop is actually not that surprising at all," said 93.3-FLZ DJ Brian Fink, who serves as program director for parent iHeartRadio's dance-music channel, Evolution, and is the EDM Brand Ambassador for iHeartMedia nationwide.

"Music is very cyclical. If you look back at the '80s and '90s, dance music was very mainstream as well. Artists like Stevie B, Corona, La Bouche, Snap ... you could hear all of them on Top 40 stations like Power 93. Dance music has always been a part of the mainstream. Look at Madonna."

Amin-Smith said Clean Bandit wasn't trying to instigate some sort of EDM revolution with its sound, which mixes classical instrumentation into sleek, poppy beats, layering them with an array of guest vocals.

"I don't think we were ever really trying to emulate anything in particular with our music," he said, listing influences that range from jazz and Radiohead to U.K. garage acts like Artful Dodger and M.J. Cole. "It really just began as an experiment, how we made our music. We were just trying to work out ways to incorporate the classical stuff that Grace (Chatto, cello) and I were playing with electronic stuff that Jack (Patterson, bass and keyboards) was making, and then everything else evolved from that."

The United Kingdom has long been friendlier to dance music than the United States, and Clean Bandit's breakout "wasn't something we had ever expected to happen here in America," Amin-Smith said. But "as soon as we put it online, it went to radio in the U.K., and gave us confidence that people could connect with it."

If this is a fad, it's a sticky one. At this year's Grammy Awards, Rather Be won Best Dance Recording, a category that has lately been dominated by Zedd, Skrillex, even Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Most notably, each of Clean Bandit's fellow nominees — Disclosure, Duke Dumont, Basement Jaxx and Zhu — all create dance music in a similarly melodic vein.

"I wonder almost if it's coming to an end, that phase, that really house-y sound in pop music, because it sounds like it's everywhere," Amin-Smith said.

Fink doesn't quite think so.

"Have some sub-genres of dance music already cycled through? Sure, you could say that. But they haven't come close to dying out." He points to dubstep, which went from underground to mainstream but is now slowing down again; and progressive trance, which was huge 10 years ago, slowed down, and is now making a comeback. With the revival of an early-'90s style of deep house, "this generation is living through the epitome of a musical cycle."

Fink is even starting to see elements of Clean Bandit-style vocals and production coming from big-name DJs like Hardwell. "Artists that people are used to getting hard, progressive, festival-type tracks from are also producing deep and future house songs," he said. "Music is always evolving."

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