- TextPaul Moody
‘But I see it as a positive thing. This is a fresh start for everybody.’ In the wake of The Struts’ performance at the Victoria’s Secret Show, the band’s frontman and ‘21st Century Dandy’ shares his views on the state of contemporary rock
“Are we lacking showmanship in rock and roll?” says Luke Spiller, voice as rich as ambrosia pudding. “Yes. Am I complaining? No. Because it leaves a clear open road for me.”
Luke Spiller is the kind of pop star we’re told doesn’t exist any more. Shaggy-haired but doe-eyed, his disarming good looks instantly set The Struts frontman apart from the indie diaspora. However, looking like the lovechild of Noel Fielding and Freddie Mercury is only part of his appeal – onstage Spiller is transformed into his alter ego: ‘The 21st Century Dandy’. Wearing a tasselled gold leather suit – by Lady Gaga designer Ray Brown – he’s a priapic parody of decadent 70s rock stars, with a mindset summed up in Tatler Magazine, where he sings: “I’ll fly privately, bon voyage economy/ Exploring first world fantasy.”
“I think if you’re going to do what we do, then you have to present yourself in a slightly tongue in cheek way,” he says, sitting on a tour bus in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Obviously I’m trying to push things forwards. But I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t listened to David Bowie, T Rex, Queen or Oasis. Our aim is to bring the fun back into rock and roll.”
At any other point in pop history, you might suspect Spiller and his fellow Struts (guitarist Adam Slack; bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies) would be hosting champagne fuelled parties on their private jet. As it is, in choppy social waters where rock excess is seen as recherché, they’ve been forced to take the long way round. Having signed to US powerhouse Interscope in the wake of 2014 debut Everybody Wants, they’ve been on the road ever since, playing their own shows between support slots with rock’s heavyweights (The Who, Guns’n’Roses, Foo Fighters).
It’s a back-breaking itinerary, which has seen the band relocate to Los Angeles, only returning to the UK either to record or for brief holidays – they’re not due to play here until a short tour in February.
“Four years ago, we sat down with our agent and decided we would hit the markets other bands don’t go to,” says Spiller of their grueling schedule. “I’m not just talking about places British bands don’t go to, these are markets so obscure that even US bands don’t visit. The difficulty is that the US is so huge, it becomes a never-ending journey once you try to crack it.”
In the last week alone [at time of writing], The Struts have played shows in Destin, Jacksonville, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, and Tuscaloosa.
“You never know quite what to expect,” he says. “We played in Mobile, Alabama, the other night, and honestly it was one of the best shows of the whole tour. There were fourteen hundred kids there, and they were so loud it was insane.”
The hard yards are paying off. Dave Grohl recently described The Struts as the “best opening band we’ve ever had”, and their growing profile saw them accompany teen sensation Courtney Hadwin on the final of America’s Got Talent in September to a viewing audience of 12 million. Last night, they played the Victoria’s Secret Catwalk Show in New York, alongside established stars Rita Ora and Shawn Mendes.
It’s all part of a concerted push around second album Young & Dangerous. A hook-laden homage to rock’s analogue past, it’s fun, frivolous and impossible to dislike. It also flies in the face of contemporary pop mores.
“I know full well that a rock album won’t sell as much as urban music does. Some people might get discouraged by that. But I see it as a positive thing. This is a fresh start for everybody” – Luke Spiller
“Our sound is definitely an underdog sound,” says Spiller of their chorus-heavy glam rock. “I know full well that a rock album won’t sell as much as urban music does. Some people might get discouraged by that. But I see it as a positive thing. This is a fresh start for everybody. Once you smash the building down and you’re left with just the foundations — you can build on top of that and create something bigger and better and more fitting with the times.”
For Spiller, it’s a mission which began growing up in Bristol. Raised in a religious household – both his parents are committed Christians – he made his first stage appearance at ten, playing the pharaoh in a school production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat. However, it wasn’t until he saw the video for The Darkness’ I Believe In A Thing Called Love at 15 that he realised his extrovert nature could be put to good use in a rock band.
“My first alter ego was called Ace Phoenix,” he says with a smile. “Certain areas of Bristol are quite bohemian, so I could dress how I liked. I‘d be wearing make-up and crazy clothes and, for the most part, people didn’t bat an eyelid.”
It was only when the family moved to Torquay when he was 18 that Spiller realised that standing out from the crowd had its drawbacks.
“I would get absolute shit from so many buzz-cut pastel-coloured pricks,” he says with feeling. “I had this beautiful long brown hair and was wearing bell bottoms and velvet blazers, and they would constantly shout things like: ‘Alright darling’ at me. It was ridiculous. The way I react is that if someone says I can’t do something, then I’ll come back and do it even bigger and more exaggerated.”
Spiller’s revenge comes with Young & Dangerous. Freak Like You is an anthemic shout-out to his fellow outsiders, while Who Am I? – an irresistible disco stomp deeply in hock to Rod Stewart’s Da Ya Think I’m Sexy – finds the singer drawling: “Do what I like/No need to lie.”
“Obviously that song draws from my own personal experiences, but I think it’s also a fantastic anthem for young people who are struggling to accept themselves for who they are in 2018. It’s saying: ‘Call me what you like. I’ll still be who I am.’”
“I would get absolute shit from so many buzz-cut pastel-coloured pricks. I had this beautiful long brown hair and was wearing bell bottoms and velvet blazers, and they would constantly shout things like: ‘Alright darling’ at me. It was ridiculous” – Luke Spiller
Despite Spiller’s contagious positivity, it’s obvious that The Struts’ dedication to the cause has exacted a heavy emotional toll. Somebody New – written principally by Slack – deals with the aftermath of a traumatic break-up, while People finds him singing: “Friends I love come and go/Caught up lost in the flow”.
Does he ever wonder what might have happened had The Struts spent the last three years touring their electrifying stage show around the UK, rather than the States?
“Of course,” he says, as he gears up for tonight’s show in St Louis. “But I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I feel very lucky that we’ve put all this hard ground work in. We’re beginning to see the fruits of our labour – our music is connecting with people. And the cool thing is, when we come back to the UK we’ll be much better players.”
For Luke Spiller, the past really is a foreign country. For the 21st Century Dandy, however, the future is a clear open road.