It has been a mad and full-on 12 months for Example, and the pressure shows no sign of letting up. Two sold-out British arena tours. A triumphant homecoming show at Earls Court stadium. A residency at Ibiza Rocks. A take-no-prisoners, competition-crushing set at Glastonbury (at the personal invitation of Michael Eavis, after he had witnessed Example's sell out arena show in Manchester). An acclaimed appearance on Thursday, one of the standout tracks on Pet Shop Boys' new album, "Electric." A song on the soundtrack to the new Alan Partridge film "Alpha Papa" (a bit of a dream come true for Example, who's a self-confessed Partridge fanatic). A new album in its finishing stages -- his first under a huge new deal with the newly launched Sony imprint, Epic UK -- and another tour just announced. A prolific Twitter feed to maintain, in which he engages with his fans, and dishes it out to his detractors -- so prolifically, he was recently invited on a tour of Twitter's London HQ. Oh, and the small matter of his wedding to the Australian actress, Erin McNaught. An email from Example is like a pin-in-a-map, name-the-country parlour game: a thread beginning with "Great gig in Switzerland last night" can, 48 hours later, read "Sorry mate, was only back in London for a few hours, just off to Ibiza now, will reply properly when arrived." Spotting...
Example in the area of southwest London where we both grew up and still live -- pounding the banks of the Thames in his running gear, or burning rubber in his high-performance car, sound system at max -- is as enjoyable a feature of knowing the man as his Tweets and those "guess where I am?" emails. His is a life spent almost constantly on the move -- but he wouldn't have it any other way. "Most of the songs on the new album were written on easyJet flights," he jokes. "I don't have any other time to write. I'm either performing or I'm asleep."
As his career has developed, Example's determination never to stand still, his refusal to be pigeonholed, has produced constant changes of gear. As has the fact that he has always approached music-making with an attitude of "this is who I am, no apologies, no air-brushing, no complaints." The demise of Mike Skinner's label, The Beats, which released Example's 2007 debut album, "What We Made," might well have deterred a less focused musician, but it only strengthened Example's resolve: he bounced back two years later with the prophetically titled "Won't Go Quietly," which spawned two huge singles in the shape of the title track and "Watch the Sun Come Up." He raised his game again in 2011 with the No 1 singles "Changed the Way You Kiss Me" and "Stay Awake," from his chart-topping album "Playing In the Shadows." "The Evolution of Man" followed last autumn, yielding yet another Top 5 hit in "Say Nothing."
All the while, Example's sound was evolving. He can't, he says, begin to imagine what it must be like to be an artist who simply churns out the same sounds, year after year. "The whole point of doing this is to push yourself, and come up with music that will take your fans with you on the journey." Example has certainly done that, and it has, as he acknowledges with his trademark sheepish grin, been an eventful ride. For him, the greatest achievement on that journey has been his success at building an audience outside the confines of rap or dance music. "When you rap, you get a British MC tag and straight away, America, even Europe these days, doesn't want to know. I started rapping when I was 11, just to fit in at school. My first album was just hip-hop because I only knew a hip-hop producer. As a teenager, I was a hip-hop head and I was into grunge, too, but I'd go and watch bands such as The Prodigy as well. Music isn't about limiting yourself, it's about challenging your assumptions. I remember playing V last year, supporting The Stones Roses and Noel Gallagher -- I was stood there thinking, 'Are all these people going to hate me because they're just into guitar music?' But then you look around, and you realise that everyone in the crowd knows at least five of the songs, and the way it's presented, it's rooted in grunge and metal; just four lads bouncing around on stage, playing tight. It's like a jamming session."
An artist who has always liked to shake things up, Example does just that on "Take Me As I Am," a highlight on his forthcoming album and already a live favourite. Even by his mischievous standards, its opening section is a bit of a curveball. The first time I heard it, I thought: "Hang on, he's written a piano ballad?" "It was the first track I made for this album," says Example, "and I knew that I wanted to do something I'd never done before. So I thought, let's start with the piano, so people think they're listening to a new Adele record. Then have a trance break in it, where people think it's a generic, played-back loop like Calvin Harris. And then it drops, and folk will be like 'What the fuck is that?' I've tailored that purely for the live show. It was the first new song we put in our set. Nobody knows a word of it, but they always go mental. We've done it in Serbia, Luxembourg, Ireland and Hungary this summer, and it's been the same everywhere. That's exactly what I wanted: to take the music anywhere and get the same reaction every time."
If, lyrically, "Playing In the Shadows" was an album that was set on having a good time, "The Evolution of Man" was a much darker, more introspective affair, full of self-doubt and remorse. Musically, as you would expect from Example, the two records were also poles apart, the having-it hedonism and banging beats of the former giving way to minor chord progressions and stark guitar riffs (courtesy, on some tracks, of a certain Mr Graham Coxon), with Example's vocals being brought gradually to the front. That process continues on the new album, which takes elements of Example previous two releases and forges something entirely new from them. Simplistically, you could label it electronic rock, but it's much more complex than that. Lyrically, Example looks in multiple directions, addressing the tragic death of a close friend on the heartbreaking "Longest Goodbye," marvelling at his new-found romantic happiness on "Live Life Living," nodding fondly at the follies of youth on recent single "All the Wrong Places," and issuing a rallying call to outsiders everywhere on "Take Me As I Am." Vocally, it's a revelation. Is that really Example crooning on "At Night?" How about that sandpapered, gravel-throated rasp on the propulsive, addictive "Til Next Year?" Yup, that's Example too. "My voice is a lot deeper and coarser now. I think it gives me more life and character. Now everything has a gothic tone to it. I think my voice suits minor keys more than major keys. My friends joke that I sound like an old blues singer. But that's where I'm comfortable now -- as a singer, with a brilliant live band, an aggressive light show. That's what we'll be taking to America, and that's what charges people up when we play across Europe. Even on stage, I sing my raps. We want to be taken seriously as a live dance act, that's the most important thing for me. There are currently so few good live dance acts, but in the 90s there were at least 10. Everyone is so caught up in the DJ thing. I just can't relate to a DJ standing there pushing a button."
Musically, immersion in old flames such as Faithless, the Prodigy, Black Box, Soul II Soul and Technotronic reconnected Example with the notion of dance music becoming, in a live setting, an experience that has more in common with a rock show than today's reductive and generic EDM offerings. Marrying brutally direct melodies and lyrics to textures of real subtlety (the chilling dissonance on the stunning new track "Full Eclipse" is just one instance among many of this duality) became the album's mission statement.
There's a bit more mixing and tweaking to be done, but the important work on the new album -- on which Example collaborated with producers such as Stuart Price and Critikal -- is complete. Trust me on this one, it's a stunner. Me, I'm looking forward to watching it storm the charts, and to hearing it being sung back at Example and his band by tens of thousands of fans. In the meantime, there are those emails to read.