By Loren DiBlasi
Two decades have passed, and Life Without Buildings still sound like freedom. Hear the band’s sole full-length record, Any Other City, once and it’ll never leave you — 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 — a bizarre, beautiful cadence unmatched then and now — that’s strikingly naive yet bursting with profound wisdom. “No details! But I’m gonna persuade you!” singer Sue Tompkins swears in a clear, confident shout at the record’s outset, and yeah, you’re immediately convinced. It’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. It’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 you’re young, emotions are high, and everything feels like so much — almost too much. Tompkins’s raw, tender voice, unhinged in all the right ways, brilliantly captures that wild spirit. It’s impossible to replicate; yet so many TikTokers are now trying, thanks to Gen Z’s unexpected discovery of the euphoric LWB classic “The Leanover” (almost 5 million Spotify streams and counting). It’s a sudden surge in popularity that the band, broken up since 2002, never saw coming.
“It’s hard to say why [TikTok has popularized] that particular song, but it is quite a particular one amongst our songs,” Tompkins writes from Glasgow, Scotland, where Life Without Buildings started in 1999 and where she now lives and works as a visual artist. “It had this trajectory which, I think, once you get into it, is quite acute and particularised… if that’s even a word.”
Life Without Buildings have remained crucial in cult circles, but their newfound viral fame — no doubt part of a larger trend that extends to older bands like Fleetwood Mac and even Hoobastank — 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 — then hundreds more, then quickly, thousands. To date, “The Leanover” 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.
“I was just trying to put my writing into music and even then, not analyzing it too much,” Tompkins admits.
Even the band itself started somewhat by accident — first as the trio of Robert Johnston (guitar), Chris Evans (bass), and Will Bradley (drums). “Initially, we were doing this sort of instrumental krautrock-y thing, with the idea that there would be some electronics involved,” Johnston recalls. “But 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 there… I think Will suggested we ask Sue if she’d do vocals for the band. We had no idea really what she’d do.”
“I just said ‘yes’!” Tompkins remembers. “I 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.”
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 Glasgow’s crowded art-rock scene. “I think we were a bit sensitive about being labeled an ‘art band’ at the start so we tried to downplay that, but obviously what Sue was doing came directly from that background,” Johnston says.
“I loved going to art openings and just saw it all as one big ‘mush’ together,” Tompkins adds. “There was nothing particular in my head at all. I just tried to connect personal references and hoped that they might connect with others.”
In retrospect, Tompkins admits she was “very naive,” but that’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 “a booking accident.”). 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 “Let’s Get Out,” in which Tompkins cries “look around!” with the delicate wonder of a newborn baby seeing the world for the first time. On the softer “Envoys,” she repeats the word “salt” so many times that it actually transforms into “assault,” 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 band’s effectiveness was knowing when not to do something.
how has @charlottelooks never done my makeup before😳
♬ The Leanover by Life Without Buildings – andrew :•)
This organic vibe is as fresh today as it was back then. But in 2001, Any Other City faced its share of unfair criticism — rooted as much in ignorance as it was in sexism. One infamous review from NME claimed that only “mad people and immediate family” could tolerate Tompkins’s singing.
“I was so disappointed by how lazy a lot of the reviews were,” Johnston remembers. “It was like, ‘bingo!’ Are they going to mention Björk or Clare Grogan? Because obviously, those are the only even slightly unusual female vocalists they’ve ever bothered to listen to.”
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 band’s one and only release — “We’re all in different places doing different things, some in art, some not,” Tompkins reveals — but that just makes it that more precious for those with whom it resonates so deeply. For young women, especially, there’s a lot to glean from Sue Tompkins’s words. “You’re so beautiful but you’re going to slip away like that… feeling that way about difficult people,” she states in the album’s melancholy finale. It’s an essential reminder that someone else’s impression of you means so much less than the expression you create for yourself.