Cover Story: Disclosure
Cover Story: DisclosureNovember 16, 2021
With seven GRAMMY nominations, three albums, and a slew of high-profile pop collaborations, Disclosure have become one of dance music’s biggest acts in the past decade. Ana Monroy Yglesias looks back at a whirlwind decade with brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, whose new DJ Kicks compilation is out now.
Guy Lawrence always thought he’d be a drummer in a band. Raised by two talented hobbyist musicians in a commuter town outside of London, he and his younger brother Howard were always surrounded by music. Despite their love for playing instruments, neither had big rock star dreams — and definitely no headline DJ dreams.
In the mid-aughts, when dubstep echoed across the U.K., Guy got bit by the dance music bug, especially when the sounds morphed into spacey territory with future garage. Soon, the two then-teenaged brothers began exploring electronic music production, and the seeds for the GRAMMY-nominated, chart-topping duo Disclosure were planted.
According to the Cambridge English dictionary, disclosure means “the act of making something known or the fact that is made known.” It’s only fitting that the two brothers would become a massive, internationally known and celebrated dance act just two years into their career — and manage to stay relevant and innovative in an ever-churning sea of DJs.
Of course, the track that put them — and then-unknown featured vocalist Sam Smith — on the map was 2012’s “Latch.” Howard was just 18 at the time and Guy was 21. As inescapable as it was, the pulsing, delectable housey dance-pop earworm took its time burrowing, and was a slow-burning success. Their debut album Settle followed in 2013, before “Latch” had blown up on U.S. radio.
“It’s funny, anytime I’ve told someone it was only a No. 12 song in the U.K. and never even charted [above No. 7 on the pop charts, which happened in 2014] in the States, people can’t believe that, because it was on in their cars for years. And you can still hear it every now and again,” Guy explains over Zoom from London.
“It’s the longest life for the song that we could have hoped for,” he continues. “It’s great because that was always the dream with Disclosure: it was not to make massive pop hits, it was to have a really long-as-possible career. And so, having a song with such a long life definitely fit that ethos of, ‘Alright, great, now we can tour for years.’ It came out in 2012 so it’s nearly 10 years ago, so it’s working.”
When asked what their lives felt like before their breakout hit, Howard posits that they’re not yet in the post-“Latch” era.
“It’s hard to say what it’s like after ‘Latch’ because it’s still going. We’re still touring off the back of that song in most places. [Chuckles.] I don’t think we’re after it yet,” Howard says, from elsewhere in London.
“People still buy tickets to hear that song — amongst others, hopefully — which is great. Yeah, it’s a hell of a life-changer,” Guy adds.
Disclosure – New ‘DJ Kicks’ compilation is out now via !K7. Buy it on Beatport.
While “Latch” was a defining moment of Disclosure ‘s career, they surely didn’t coast on its success, and it hasn’t defined their sound. They use each album and EP as a sonic playground to explore different styles and approaches to dance music production. The common thread is an aim to enter the project with a beginner’s mind and try something new.
Surprisingly, while working on Settle, Disclosure debut album, which was about halfway done when “Latch” dropped, the brothers didn’t have much of a mental database of house, or even dance music references, beyond the U.K. radio hits of their youth and the then-current dubstep acts they were into.
“For me, [Settle] was complete exploration,” Howard muses. “We’d only written about six songs before we started writing it and only about two or three of those were with vocalists. We were so fresh to the whole realm of creating music. I think it was just, ‘Let’s see what happens if we do this and if we do that.’ And, ‘Why can’t we make a house song that’s in six-eight rather than in four-four?’
“We didn’t have any frame of reference really. We were very uneducated in terms of dance music. We knew what was happening right at that moment, with Joy Orbison and James Blake, but we hadn’t really done our research into the history of house music and garage and, you know, the greats as it were. So we were just experimenting and seeing what happened. And I think that’s why that album, in particular, is quite unique sounding, because it didn’t really have any dance music influence.”
“Every project we’ve done, I think we always try to go into it with a very large level of naivety about what we’re doing,” Guy adds. “That’s why we’ve changed genre or at least changed style so many times, because an album for us is a tick[mark] of, we’ve done the exploration in that sound palette now. That’s why on Caracal there was a lot more R&B influence — and even some pop — and less garage. And then that’s why on ENERGY there’s African artists and different languages other than English. We’re just trying to go into these realms that we have very much no idea about. Because for us, naivety leads to free creativity because, like Howard said, you’re not constrained by rules.”
The R&B-tinged Caracal came three years later, in 2015, offering another Sam Smith single, new collabs, a darker sound and slower BPMs — the latter an intentional move to create different moods during their live shows. But just as classic house wasn’t actually a point of reference for Settle, R&B wasn’t really either for Caracal. The focus of the project was exploring more songwriting with vocalists.
“On Settle, we focused a lot on production. And it was all about the drop and the samples and the sounds. And so for [Caracal], we were like, ‘Let’s focus more on the songs.’ We wanted to write with singers for every song and focus on the melodies and the lyrics more because we haven’t done that yet. It felt exciting to explore,” Howard explains.
“On Settle there’s such a small narrow margin of BPMs,” Guy adds. “You tour those songs for a year or two and you just want to hear something different in the set. I always thought I was planning it like, ‘How will this affect the show?’ The whole Caracal tour, we would open with ‘White Noise‘ and ‘F For You‘ and then stop and then play ‘Superego,’ which is like 60 BPM. And it was just so much nicer, I thought, to have the crowd sort of dip and rise, because you don’t get that too much in DJ sets.”
In March 2020, only days before COVID-19 lockdowns were enacted across much of North America and Europe, Disclosure announced an intimate tour at smaller venues to promote their recently released Ecstasy EP — something of a sonic teaser for August 2020’s LP, ENERGY. Of course, these shows didn’t happen, nor did their appearances at major festivals including Coachella, Primavera Sound and Lovebox.
For ENERGY, Disclosure approached things very differently, purposefully writing too many songs and seeing all ideas through to the end, a creative technique they learned from Sam Smith. Releasing a lively dance album during the COVID pandemic was obviously not part of the plan, and with dance floors closed, it took on new meaning and purpose, spreading joy regardless.
“We wrote it and finished it all before the pandemic,” Guy explains. It was mastered and done in November 2019. And so we were honestly pretty gutted when the pandemic hit, for many reasons. But for the album specifically, we had always imagined that we wanted to present it to people for the first time on the dance floor.
“And luckily, it really took on a whole ‘nother meaning in life, because it basically ended up in everybody’s workout playlists. And so the energy of the dance floor was translated to the gym [laughs]. It was cool. We were getting tagged in so many TikTok dance videos and workout videos too. And a lot of people have said how that album, specifically ‘Mali Mali‘ and ‘Tondo,’ really helped them stay in a positive mindset and get through some really tough times.”
Disclosure are genuinely grateful that their music can be well received and connect with people both on and beyond the dance floor.
“For us to be able to release a dance music album in a pandemic, when you can’t do any shows — we count ourselves very lucky that we can be one of very few acts that can do that. And people still appreciate it. And now we are touring again, and we’re still able to do these big shows 10 years into our careers. It’s amazing. There’s not many people who get to do it for as long as we could,” Guy says.
As for the process, they ended up writing around 200 songs for ENERGY and picking only what they felt were the best — everything else went in the virtual trash bin. For Howard, who takes charge on the lyric and melody duties, this workflow was draining and disheartening, with the knowledge that most of the songs would end up never seeing the light of day. It was a helpful exercise for main producer/beatmaker Guy, as he clocked in more production hours than usual. They won’t be using this strenuous method again, though.
So, how did they narrow down the massive trove into a cohesive 11-track album?
“It was just the tunes that felt good after one day’s work without any multiple versions, really, without any rewrites, definitely with no re-vocaling. We recorded it on the day, and if it came out good, it came out good. We decided we weren’t gonna go through the process of chopping and changing a song and mutating it and getting all these different versions done, we’re just going to write as many songs as we could,” Guy explains.
“We were just like, ‘Let’s try and stay in the flow state as much as possible.’ And some days you’re in it, some days you’re not. I would say, all of the tunes on ENERGY were written — at least the chorus — in like 20 to 40 minutes, and then the rest of the song would come together and be recorded usually on the day.
“I was probably better at producing and mixing by the end of it than I was at the start, just because of the amount of hours we put in,” he continues. “So when I came to do the final mix of the album, I was 200 songs up from when we started. For me, it’s the best produced, best-mixed album that we’ve made.”
Disclosure followed it up with a more laidback process for creating the Never Enough EP, released in August. It felt like the way forward. Also, the recent freedom from their label contract has inspired them to explore the flexibility of release formats without the looming need to create another full album.
“The new EP is very much not that [the way we made ENERGY]. The way Never Enough came around was I went to the countryside with some producer friends. My friend Andy that I used to be in a band with at school, we just made beats; we made loops and ideas for three weeks. We made like 20 or something, and then I played them all to Howard. We picked our favorite five, and Howard wrote vocals for those five, and exactly what he wrote is what we put out immediately. That was much more fun,” Guy states.
“It definitely came out much more for the club, which was the plan. I think, hopefully, that way of working is here to stay, especially because we’re unsigned now. So it’s not like we’re compelled to write albums anymore. We’re completely free to do what we want.”
Howard says he imagined Never Enough soundtracking a festival, which it recently did for their mainstage set at Reading Festival. “We hadn’t played festivals in nearly two years, and we were itching to get back to them. So for me, they’re all kind of big outdoor festival stage [vibes],” he explains.
Collabs with a diverse mix of vocalists — including AlunaGeorge, Kelis, Channel Tres, Fatoumata Diawara, Khalid, and The Weeknd — are an important part of their music and have helped keep their sound eclectic and exciting. They have “no set way” of picking collaborators, with the most important part being their voice and if it will fit with their music.
Howard explains that when they get requests to work with artists “Most of the time it’s ‘No, thank you.’ And we are pretty picky, but it’s never really about who the person is; like, I’ve never looked up who they are. I just listened to their voice and think, yeah, that would sound good or no, that’s not gonna sound good.”
“The cool thing is, from doing this for 10 years, through choosing who we do and don’t work with in this way, it’s been completely equal across all genders and races and sexualities, and all of this stuff that everyone’s talking about so much now,” Guy adds. “Not once have we selected with any of that in mind. And if you look at everyone we’ve worked with, it’s literally everyone. So that’s really cool. It proves that talent is distributed amongst everybody.”
With an enviable career thus far that’s included many shows at beloved festivals and legendary venues small and large, it’s understandably hard for them to narrow things down to just a few career highlights. But if they have to pick a few, for Howard, a standout moment is when the one and only Sting came up to him after a show and said, “You’re a good bass player.”
For Guy, headlining Madison Square Garden was a massive pinch-me moment. “We grew up watching Led Zeppelin on VHS doing that. It’s like, ‘Wow, we are Led Zeppelin levels here.’ Like, surreal.” One of his other high points was playing the Other Stage at Glastonbury, the iconic dance music stage where game-changing acts like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy have played.
Even since “Latch” put — and kept — Disclosure on the radar of the mainstream, they’ve maintained a fanbase with diverse listening habits, and the difficult balance of b being pop radio friendly while staying relevant to underground fans. It’s hard to overstate their impact on dance and pop music.
As Billboard points out, Disclosure brought classic house sounds to the mainstream, at a time when massive drop, abrasive, cut-and-paste production EDM was exploding Stateside, introducing a younger generation to the sonic roots of dance music. They proved that house could once again — like it did in the ’90s — be pop without sacrificing quality. They’ve also continually demonstrated that massive dance acts and tracks can succeed without being formulaic or staying in one narrow, repetitive lane.
The artists and tracks that made teenaged Guy and Howard interested in making dance music are a small group of British artists, who shook the scene at the time For Howard, it was mainly Burial and Joy Orbison, specifically Burial’s “Archangel” and Joy Orbison’s “Hyph Mngo.”
“Pre-singing” James Blake was also one for both of them — Blake’s remix of Mount Kimbie’s “Maybes” and “Air & Lack Thereof” for Guy, and “Sparing the Horses” for Howard. Guy’s other big track was “Midnight Request Line” by Skream.
“Hearing that at a club when I was 16 through a decent sound system, my first time experiencing big sub bass, was pretty fucking great,” Guy laughs. “I’m glad I was alive when that was happening.”
What’s next for the lads from Reigate? In spring 2022, Disclosure finally get to tour Ecstasy, ENERGY and Never Enough across Europe, with more dates in other regions coming. They’re stoked on the new show, which they recently debuted during their headlining sets at Reading and Leeds. It has more of a DJ set feel with less instruments and more lights, lasers, and stunning visuals.
“It’s fucking mega. It’s back to DJing a little bit more. We’ve lost the instruments a little bit from the stage. There are still some drum machines up there and a few things going on, but it’s a much more rolling set [with a] club feel,” Guy shares. “By dispensing with the time we would usually have to take learning to play the songs live and getting all that right, we’ve put all that effort into the aesthetic of the show. So the lights and the lasers and the visuals, the design of it, that’s coming from us much more this time. The show we just did at Reading and Leeds, we’re going to be taking all around the world next year. I would just tell people to come and see it. Because I think it’s so good. I think it’s the best show we’ve done.” Disclosure.
Ana Monroy Yglesias is a Staff Writer for GRAMMY.com and a freelance music journalist based out of Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter.