Dreaming spires and banging dance music aren’t an obvious combination. But then Oxford’s Orlando Higginbottom, who performs under the moniker Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs (Teed), isn’t an obvious dance musician. His father, Edward, is a professor of choral music, and the director of music at New College in Oxford. Higginbottom, the sixth of seven children, sang in the New College choir as a boy. Now 26 and operating in a sometimes po-faced corner of pop, he goes on stage dressed as a “dinosaur”. Essentially, that’s any form of ornate headgear he chooses, and “scales”. Unusual isn’t the word; refreshing doesn’t begin to do him justice.
We meet in Oxfork, a neighbourhood café on Magdalen Road. Higginbottom, slight and wearing a baseball jacket, orders Earl Grey tea and takes an interest in the chintzy teapot that soon arrives. Along with the requisite shades of ambient and dubstep, it’s the sonic detailing on his debut album, Trouble, that shows a properly musical mind at work: a ripple of steel pans here, an unexpected counter-melody there, in what can be a frustratingly formulaic genre. He has never seen any conflict between his classical upbringing and the “loud bassy noises” that are now making his name.
“I can’t stress enough how lucky I was to experience music from the last 600 years on a daily basis without giving it a second thought,” he says of his choral days. As for his earliest musical memories, he recalls having three CDs on rotation: Rossini overtures, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Holst’s The Planets. “That’s what I put on when playing Lego.” The famously soft-then-loud Rossini crescendos, he suggests, build in much the same way as techno anthems do. As an 11-year-old, however, and thanks to his older siblings, he got into jungle, 1990s UK breakbeat music in the raw. “I was, like, ‘Wow, drums with intelligence and expression!’” The tweenager was hooked.
Teed would later begin as a “desperate joke”: “dinosaur music” was how he disparaged his early efforts. Higginbottom had dropped out of both a music degree at Bristol and a production course at Leeds College of Music. He discovered he had learnt so much as a chorister that Bristol wasn’t stretching him; at Leeds, music seemed too much like a business. “I was kind of lost,” he reflects, “but I thought I’d like to make music I knew nothing about and eventually I started singing over these house records. I still feel I don’t know anything about house.”
With their lovelorn, Hot Chip-like vocals, Higginbottom’s songs are the antithesis of the brash, David Guetta-inspired pap that has industry accountants excited about EDM (electronic dance music), especially in America. He was in New York recently and believes the US mainstream is very confused. “A lot of them think [EDM] is something new,” he says. “A journalist from MTV said to me, ‘Dance is this commercial music: how is it that it’s suddenly got an underground?’ She had it completely the wrong way round.”
Observing how so much of “weekend culture” is about the comedown and the instant nostalgia of remembering what a time you did – or didn’t – have, Higginbottom says: “I’ve always felt that dance music should have a sadness to it ... As soon as I started writing melodies it was, like, ‘This is a bit tragic’, but I didn’t want to do anything about that.”
The dinosaur costumes came about because he was bored with the uniform of trainers, cap and T-shirt favoured by most DJs. “I thought ‘This is all too serious, too threatening, too blokey: I’m going to dress up – it’ll be fun.’” And it certainly is, giving fans something else to film on their phones at the very least. Trouble has enough going on, though, to reward listening at home as well as on the dancefloor.
Does his classical background help him as Teed? Higginbottom isn’t sure. His dad, however, still offers illumination – even if Higginbottom père’s only brush with pop was liking The Beatles. “It’s a fogey thing to say but he’ll ask ‘Why does it need to repeat all the time?’ That’s a good question. Does it really need the same two bars to loop for six minutes? You can still dance if it changes a bit.”
Higginbottom is part of a generation that is doing things differently – his girlfriend co-runs the Move Your Money campaign, which encourages customers to leave regular banks for mutuals and ethical finance providers. He notes that “the production kids”, not the guys with guitars, are now the musical tastemakers. “The only people who really know this are those selling them software and keyboards – they’re making a killing.”
Never having to “worry about the bassist not turning up” has suited Higginbottom. Yet he looks forward to moving into a studio complex with another Oxford act, the Mercury-nominated Foals, and having others nearby on a similar wavelength “after 10 years in a windowless garage”. His best friend in music and erstwhile Teed collaborator, Edmund Finnis, is already establishing himself as a composer. “Secretly,” Higginbottom adds, “I really hope to find my way back to contemporary classical – because there’s a challenge.”
With a second album planned, Teed will occupy Higginbottom for the foreseeable future, but he’s “not afraid to say, ‘Right, that’s it’. ” He wants to write and produce for others, and make his own dance music “with no drums”. What, no beats? “Why not? Maybe you don’t dance but it still sounds great.” Then there’s that challenge of contemporary composition. If and when the dinosaur conceit dies out, its creator will have plenty of scope to evolve.
‘Trouble’ (Polydor) is out on June 11