Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs Finds Catharsis with ‘When the Lights Go’
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs Finds Catharsis with ‘When the Lights Go’September 8, 2022
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs‘ sophomore album was about a decade in the making. He began thinking about and working on material for it in 2013, a year after he dropped his critically acclaimed debut LP, Trouble. There was an album’s worth of solid material ready in 2016, but he didn’t really realize it at the time and didn’t know what to do with it. And he wasn’t in the best place emotionally, so there it sat. It was in 2019 when he began crafting When the Lights Go, the heartfelt, vibey album that reaches our ears on September 9 via his Nice Age imprint, although some of its ideas came from prior to that.
There is a sense of lightness on When the Lights Go, even as it grapples with heartbreak. He asserts that working on it was cathartic. Many of the songs had a year or two between when he wrote the initial demo and came back and completed them, so he was able to revisit them from a new perspective, updating the lyrics with the answers he found in hindsight.
“I’m really glad you think that it’s light and sunshiny, because in my mind, apart from a couple of tracks, this is my sad album about losing love, depression, and the apocalypse. There’s a lot of other music I’ve written over the last six years that’s much more hopeful, much more loving, and that stuff is not really on this record. A few people have said to me that they find it hopeful — if they say it’s hopeful to them, they’re right,” the British artist born Orlando Higginbottom says, calling in from Los Angeles, where he recently moved back to.
One of the undeniably joyful tracks, “Never Seen you Dance,” is a euphoric piano house-tinged bop about going out just to see your crush dance and “for the hope of one kiss.” Its earnestness is charming and seductive; you can feel the butterflies and anticipation of the early stages of courtship. It’s one of those songs that could get everyone at a wedding dancing. “When the Lights Go” feels like a continuation of this love story, sonically a bit deeper and synthier, yet still with that heartfelt desire for love and connection.
There are also songs about love lost and the pain relationships can cause — on opener “Crosswalks,” he sings atop a fuzzy synth: “I never been hurt, the way you hurt me. I never been in love, the way you love me.” It’s such a universal feeling, the complex and contrasting highs and lows a relationship can bring. While the lyrics are not clear if this is a present or past lover, it doesn’t feel stuck in the pain, instead holding all of the feelings equally.
Halfway through the album, “Sound & Rhythm” is a jolt of energy, and the only non-lyric-driven track. Higginbottom describes it as the “one track on the record that will sound good in the club,” and explains it was inspired by memories of being a teenager at Glastonbury, hearing the dance stages echoing across the field. There are some down-tempo tracks and ballads as well, and the album closer, “Thugs,” is a spacey, jazzy chill down.
Overall, through the upbeat, layered soundscape and the optimism Higginbottom continues to hold for falling and being in love, it’s hard not to feel that yourself. The seemingly endless chaos and destruction around the world can tend to make everything feel futile. But with When the Lights Go, Higginbottom reminds us of the beauty of falling in love — even if that relationship doesn’t pan out in the end — and the magic of dancing out your feelings. This is the record we need in 2022, and honestly, always, to remind us that love isn’t dead and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Across the record, you’ll hear a Yamaha CP-80 — formerly owned by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics — the instrument Higginbottom feels most connected to. He makes a lot of his sounds with cheap Casio keyboards with pedals, and the project also has a light sprinkling of Prophet ’08 and OB-6 poly synths. “I’m pretty low maintenance when it comes to gear. I really love instruments, but I’m not somebody who’s massively into compressors and preamps and stuff like that,” he explains. “Of course, sonics matter to me, but I am chasing the core harmonies and melodies and mood of the music. That’s the priority. It’s about the notes rather than how fat my kick drum is.”
“It’s not really a dance music album,” he continues. “Obviously, it’s related to dance music and there are dance tracks and electronic stuff on there. But for me, it’s an album of pop songs.”
Back when he began to play big shows after the release of and success of Trouble, he tried to make bigger, smoother tracks to fill these rooms. But that wasn’t him; he likes making detailed music. This sense of authenticity and openness can be felt throughout his discography, which includes a dance floor heater with Bonobo (“Heartbreak“) and an ambient EP based off samples of birdsongs his friends recorded (I Can Hear the Birds), in 2020 alone. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs will never go business techno.
“On Trouble, the singing was an accident, really. On this album, I just wanted to write songs. That’s why I think of it as a pop record. Trouble was definitely beat-driven, it was dance floor electronica. This is not so much about that,” he explains, reflecting on how his approach to making music has shifted since his first album.
“On Trouble, there’s a song, ‘You Need Me On My Own,’ which is the kind of mid-tempo song. [At the time,] I was really like, ‘This is a hell of a curveball. It’s not at 120-something BPM, it’s slower, and it’s got lyrics all the way through it.’ And now like all my music is kinda like that,” the “Forever” artist says with a laugh.
“And there’s straight-up ballads on this album. I think that is just allowing myself to make the music that I want to make and what excites me. Stepping into styles of music that aren’t maybe obvious to me is really fun. There was a demo track that was like a kind of Weezer song, and I really wanted that to be part of the record at one point.”
He chose the name Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs in an attempt to fly under the radar of the gatekeepers and make music that made him happy. He doesn’t even like dinosaurs! Not even when he was a kid. (He was into knights and history.) “I didn’t want to be told that my shit’s not cool by these dumbasses. I wanted to make something that they’re not even going to look at so they don’t get to choose if my career works or not. It’s going to be about me doing a project. Sometimes I know I’ve shot myself in the foot. But at the same time, there are days where I’m like, ‘Thank God, I’m not taking myself 100 percent seriously because this game is so silly.”
Looking back on Trouble a decade later, Higginbottom still likes it and has a sense of nostalgia for it. He’s surprised by some of his production choices, as he’s a better producer now, but wishes he’d felt its impact at the time. “I regret that I didn’t see what it meant to people. I didn’t allow the love in then. It’s still kind of hard for me to accept compliments.”
In the spring, he embarked on a busy string of DJ set club and festival dates, with stops at Coachella, Red Rocks, San Francisco’s Public Works, Brooklyn’s Elsewhere and Chicago’s Spybar. In October and November, he’ll perform his first live shows since 2013, to bring the album, along with prior music, to life for his fans in Europe and North America. When asked if he prefers DJing or performing live, he says enjoys both and sees them as incomparable things. One thing he’s always tried to stay away from is the chest-puffing, ego-driven side of DJ culture.
“I’ll never post a video of myself DJing with a crowd reaction, ever. I think it’s so cheap and whack. Sorry to every single person who does it, but please stop fucking doing it. DJing is as cool as being a coffee barista at this point. Everyone’s like, ‘Look at my fucking cappuccinos.’ They’re all the same, man. All of your club shots look the same.”
Higginbottom grew up in a home with three pianos thanks to his father Edward Higginbottom, who was a choir director and music professor at the University of Oxford. As he explains, he listened to and loved classical music as a kid and was a snob about pop music until he was about 13 when he heard jungle — it “just sounded like liquid gold.” Soon after, he got a turntable so he could listen to drum and bass and jungle records — there were also some dub, reggae, and Erykah Badu in the mix. To this day, classical, drum and bass, and jungle are still the sounds that move him.
“The history of British dance music, to me, is the history of immigration in Britain, and it’s about Black culture in Britain. That’s why we have great fucking dance music, because of what’s called the Windrush Generation coming over and showing Britain about sound system culture. In the ’90s in the UK, every household had reggae CDs, and everyone knew what dub was, and jungle was on the radio.”
He sees jungle and ’90s UK rave music as his sonic anchor point, as well as for the leftfield electronic scene he may or may not be a part of. When I mentioned there seem to be more leftfield dance producers finding success and being celebrated, he questioned if he was part of that group. “I don’t see myself as a producer. I see myself as a producer when I produce other people’s records. I’m an artist. I sing songs, and I write songs, and I make music.”
When Higginbottom started performing, he felt more openness with American audiences for different “weird, exciting and personal” iterations of dance music versus more snobbish purists at shows in Europe. Now, he feels that America’s influence on the global dance scene has made audiences worldwide more open and inviting to different styles.
He moved to L.A. in 2015 from Oxford, making friends in the local dance scene, including Loren Granich of A Club Called Rhonda and Simon Green (aka Bonobo), who had also moved from the UK around the same time. Higginbottom and Granich used to throw chill, intimate Monday night parties where the same 50 or so people showed up every week, which is where he got to know Green. They’ve shared music with each other ever since, and finally collaborated together in 2020 with “Heartbreak,” and its chilled B-side “6000 Ft.” The former even earned the duo a GRAMMY nod, Higginbottom’s first.
“One day, I was paying him a bunch of stuff. I played him the earliest version of ‘Heartbreak,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got an idea for this.’ It very naturally came together, same with the B-side. it was a sort of smooshing of a few of our ideas. And it was nice for both of us to do because it was a pandemic record, and it didn’t fit the pandemic at all,” he recalls. He would like to make more music with him and asserts that a future collab between them is likely.
And as far as giving us more Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ tunes, there will be plenty more, and who knows what that will sound like in 10 years. “I’d love to release lots and lots and lots of music, and not operate on the terms of immediacy that our culture operates on, which is: ‘Is everybody looking at this today? Is it a huge success?’ We’ve all gone sick from that…I’d rather leave some beautiful music and some ideas behind and as much of that as possible, rather than have the sort of monetary [success or] popularity or anything like that.”
Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs’ sophomore album, When The Lights Go, drops September 9th via Nice Age. Buy it on Beatport.
Ana Monroy Yglesias is a freelance music journalist based out of Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter.