By Loren DiBlasi
Two decades have passed, and Life Without Buildings still sound like freedom. Hear the bandâ€™s sole full-length record, Any Other City, once and itâ€™ll never leave you â€” its lush, syrupy warmth oozes from your ears to your insides and stays there, like a glowing flame that never goes out. What keeps it crackling? Soft, sustained rhythms that toss and turn with gentle fervor, snaps of sharp, sparkling guitar, and a voice â€” a bizarre, beautiful cadence unmatched then and now â€” thatâ€™s strikingly naive yet bursting with profound wisdom. â€œNo details! But Iâ€™m gonna persuade you!â€ singer Sue Tompkins swears in a clear, confident shout at the recordâ€™s outset, and yeah, youâ€™re immediately convinced. Itâ€™s not what she says, exactly, but the heartfelt abandon with which she says it.
Released February 26, 2001, Any Other City is pure youth. Itâ€™s the sonic equivalent of driving at night in your very first car, windows down, cool air rushing at your face with nothing but vague possibility ahead. When youâ€™re young, emotions are high, and everything feels like so much â€” almost too much. Tompkinsâ€™s raw, tender voice, unhinged in all the right ways, brilliantly captures that wild spirit. Itâ€™s impossible to replicate; yet so many TikTokers are now trying, thanks to Gen Zâ€™s unexpected discovery of the euphoric LWB classic â€œThe Leanoverâ€ (almost 5 million Spotify streams and counting). Itâ€™s a sudden surge in popularity that the band, broken up since 2002, never saw coming.
â€œItâ€™s hard to say why [TikTok has popularized] that particular song, but it is quite a particular one amongst our songs,â€ Tompkins writes from Glasgow, Scotland, where Life Without Buildings started in 1999 and where she now lives and works as a visual artist. â€œIt had this trajectory which, I think, once you get into it, is quite acute and particularisedâ€¦ if thatâ€™s even a word.â€
Life Without Buildings have remained crucial in cult circles, but their newfound viral fame â€” no doubt part of a larger trend that extends to older bands like Fleetwood Mac and even Hoobastank â€” is something else entirely. First, there was one video, from 20-year-old singer Beabadoobee, whose 10-second clip has racked up almost half a million views â€” then hundreds more, then quickly, thousands. To date, â€œThe Leanoverâ€ has soundtracked over 117,000 TikToks, most of them created by young women unabashedly expressing themselves: dancing, lip-synching, doing makeup, dyeing their hair. The clips range in style, length, and content, but share the same fierce, reckless joy that only appears as a new generation steps into the spotlight.
â€œI was just trying to put my writing into music and even then, not analyzing it too much,â€ Tompkins admits.
Even the band itself started somewhat by accident â€” first as the trio of Robert Johnston (guitar), Chris Evans (bass), and Will Bradley (drums). â€œInitially, we were doing this sort of instrumental krautrock-y thing, with the idea that there would be some electronics involved,â€ Johnston recalls. â€œBut it never really clicked. We all knew Sue and had seen her perform, but there was one night at Transmission Gallery that we were all thereâ€¦ I think Will suggested we ask Sue if sheâ€™d do vocals for the band. We had no idea really what sheâ€™d do.â€
â€œI just said â€˜yesâ€™!â€ Tompkins remembers. â€œI respected and liked everyone, and I think just went with a feeling of, oh, that’s exciting! I had no expectations or thoughts about it at all.â€
Back at the turn of the millennium, before most of their TikTok admirers were even born, Life Without Buildings channeled a similar attitude while forging a new path amidst Glasgowâ€™s crowded art-rock scene. â€œI think we were a bit sensitive about being labeled an â€˜art bandâ€™ at the start so we tried to downplay that, but obviously what Sue was doing came directly from that background,â€ Johnston says.
â€œI loved going to art openings and just saw it all as one big â€˜mushâ€™ together,â€ Tompkins adds. â€œThere was nothing particular in my head at all. I just tried to connect personal references and hoped that they might connect with others.â€
In retrospect, Tompkins admits she was â€œvery naive,â€ but thatâ€™s what helped Life Without Buildings stand out within the hyper-masculine rock scene of the early aughts (when LWB supported The Strokes at their first-ever headlining London gig, drummer Will Bradley memorably called it â€œa booking accident.â€). No offense to that nostalgic era of vintage-inspired dude rock, but none of those bands were ever man enough to evoke the same effervescent energy of â€œLetâ€™s Get Out,â€ in which Tompkins cries â€œlook around!â€ with the delicate wonder of a newborn baby seeing the world for the first time. On the softer â€œEnvoys,â€ she repeats the word â€œsaltâ€ so many times that it actually transforms into â€œassault,â€ twisted syllables riding an ecstatic wave of poetic tradition that stretches from Jenny Holzer to Patti Smith. The track builds to a climax that never comes; a major part of the bandâ€™s effectiveness was knowing when not to do something.
how has @charlottelooks never done my makeup beforeðŸ˜³
â™¬ The Leanover by Life Without Buildings – andrew :â€¢)
This organic vibe is as fresh today as it was back then. But in 2001, Any Other City faced its share of unfair criticism â€” rooted as much in ignorance as it was in sexism. One infamous review from NME claimed that only â€œmad people and immediate familyâ€ could tolerate Tompkinsâ€™s singing.
â€œI was so disappointed by how lazy a lot of the reviews were,â€ Johnston remembers. â€œIt was like, â€˜bingo!â€™ Are they going to mention BjÃ¶rk or Clare Grogan? Because obviously, those are the only even slightly unusual female vocalists theyâ€™ve ever bothered to listen to.â€
As a generation well-practiced in shattering conventional norms, it makes sense that Gen Z would embrace Life Without Buildings wholeheartedly, even if some male critics never could. Any Other City will, most likely, remain the bandâ€™s one and only release â€” â€œWeâ€™re all in different places doing different things, some in art, some not,â€ Tompkins reveals â€” but that just makes it that more precious for those with whom it resonates so deeply. For young women, especially, thereâ€™s a lot to glean from Sue Tompkinsâ€™s words. â€œYouâ€™re so beautiful but youâ€™re going to slip away like thatâ€¦ feeling that way about difficult people,â€ she states in the albumâ€™s melancholy finale. Itâ€™s an essential reminder that someone elseâ€™s impression of you means so much less than the expression you create for yourself.