The electronic duo reveal the story behind their new album and address the criticisms of 2015's Caracal.

By Steven J. Horowitz
August 05, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Hollie Fernando

By the time COVID-19 shut the world down in early spring, Guy and Howard Lawrence were already masters of quarantine. The brothers, who perform as the British electronic duo Disclosure, had been laying low, taking some much-needed rest following a table-shaking run of releases — their explosive 2013 debut Settle, as well as its top-billed sequel, Caracal, in 2015 — and critically acclaimed gigs. “We were already self-isolating,” explains Guy from his London studio. “I spent all my f—ing time in this tiny room here, listening to loud noises.”

As the pandemic grew, what was initially billed as their musical hiatus soon became a breeding ground for creativity. Disclosure wrote nearly 200 songs for what would become their genre-hopping third album (Energy, out Aug. 28), which arrives on the heels of a pair of EPs along with the duo's production work for Mac Miller, Chloe x Halle, and Khalid (“Talk,” their collaboration with the latter, earned a 2020 Grammy nomination for Record of the Year).

Energy is a testament to its name, a palpable collection of songs that play like an aural Pangea of UK garage, Afro house, and Detroit hip-hop. The styles ebb and flow, but the record feels centered in its experimental spirit, driven by the same craftsmanship and mastery of dance music fundamentals that made Settle such a groundbreaking success. “The word energy for us has much more to do with the energy in the room, and that was like the 10 minutes that can make or break a song,” says Guy, of the inspiration behind the title.

The new album is a highly collaborative affair, with features from R&B singers like Kelis, Syd, and Kehlani, and rappers Aminé and Common. Also appearing are Cameroonian artist Blick Bassy and Malian crooner Fatoumata Diawara. “When we had been DJing, we always played stuff with that kind of influence in it,” says Howard. “It was just part of the repertoire of music that I listened to and enjoyed.”

Energy speaks directly to those inspirations.  Some are fairly prominent, including the Afrobeat rhythms of Fela Kuti on “Douha (Mali Mali)” and “Ce N’est Pas” to the off-kilter drum patterns of J. Dilla on interludes “Fractal” and “Thinking ‘Bout You.”  It’s the type of music that’s set the duo apart from the rest of the dance pack since their debut. “It might sound like an EDM crazy car-crash banger, or it might be some 10-minute Ben Klock warehouse roller," says Guy. "I think the music you're proudest of is the stuff that you make when you're being true to yourself, and you learn something about yourself every time you make a song like that." 

Disclosure, performing in 2014.
Matthew Eisman/Redferns via Getty Images

But Guy and Howard are also aware of their privileged space in dance music, and consistently acknowledge their sound is predicated on the Black music that inspired them and the Black musicians who architected their genre. There’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, especially coming from two white men born in Surrey, England, and the duo try to be respectful to the fact that they wouldn’t be in their position without Black artistry.

“Our entire career is based off of music created by Black people and also our entire upbringing, listening to music and learning the drums,” says Guy. "It's just something that's been there since I was one and Howard was six."

Those influences first seeped into their music on 2013's Settle, which was hailed as a paradigm shift in dance music. At the time, the genre was largely subsumed in festival culture and artists like Skrillex and Avicii, who ushered dubstep and big-tent EDM into mainstream pop. Settle opted for mood over bombast, dialing back the theatrics of contemporary dance music and proffering a tasteful blend of house hallmarks with sensible pop melodies. The community at large took notice. “That’s around the time everyone started to sound like Disclosure,” says Australian producer Flume, whose remix of Settle standout “You & Me” helped propel the track to become a UK hit. “It’s cool to see them making underground club bangers and also existing in the mainstream pop world. It shows you can have your cake and eat it, too.” 

The duo became an unlikely success story with “Latch,” featuring a then-unknown Sam Smith, which vaulted to the top of the Billboard Dance/Electronic songs chart, while follow-up “White Noise” with AlunaGeorge peaked at No. 2 on the UK Singles chart. The floodgates opened and the high-profile bookings began: Mary J. Blige sidled up to Howard’s deadpan vocals on a diva house remix of the Grammy-nominated “F For You,” and Caracal turned into a rolodex flex that some fans asserted played to the guests’ strengths rather than Disclosure’s own. “I can totally understand how people would perceive it in that way, and that's fine,” says Howard. “We’ve never been ones to strive to be in the spotlight ourselves. We just want our music to be successful. If anything, I'd be really happy with that as a result.”

With Energy, Disclosure planned to bring it back to basics, swapping out their live show where they played instruments for a more traditional DJ set. But they announced an international tour and cancelled it 24 hours later in March, right as quarantine brought the concert industry to a standstill. Guy now spends his days locked away in his studio, experimenting with new ideas, while Howard cultivates his green thumb by tending to crops (he recently planted over 1,000 trees on his property two hours outside of London). Energy completes the three-album deal they signed at the onset of their career, and after that, anything's fair game — perhaps they’ll release an EP, or maybe just some singles. For now, they’re content with putting out such a vibrant record, even if there’s no massive audience to enjoy it with in person.

 “The fact that half of our entire job is gone… I'm just happy that half of our industry is still alive and kicking, at least for us anyways," says Guy. "We’re two white guys making house music and people still seem to want to work with us. Hopefully it’s cool.”

This story appears in the September issue of Entertainment Weekly, out Aug. 28. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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