Just Don't Ask About The Missing Disco Lights

Upbeat music in downbeat times: A pre-performance talk with Friendly Fires

Upbeat music in downbeat times: A pre-performance talk with Friendly Fires

Austin Photo Set: News_Tom Thornton_friendly fires_October 2011_promo
Austin Photo Set: News_Tom Thornton_friendly fires_October 2011_wall art
Courtesy of Friendly Fires
Austin Photo Set: News_Tom Thornton_friendly fires_October 2011_promo
Austin Photo Set: News_Tom Thornton_friendly fires_October 2011_wall art

St. Albans, England's Friendly Fires are a rock band who embrace pop, a dance group who are serious musicians and a trio of personalties on a mission to make positive music that embraces the present. The band's debut LP was nominated for the 2009 Mercury Music Prize and went gold in the UK. The group hit La Zona Rosa tonight as part of their fall North American tour. Fans of kindred spirits such as Cut Copy, LCD Soundsystem, and Hot Chip should find plenty to like here, with some flourishes of everything from Britpop to 

Last week, we caught up with Friendly Fires' drummer and keyboard player Jack Savidge to ask about the band's SXSW experiences, their thoughts on dance music's takeover of America, and the polished sounds of their latest record, 2011's Pala (XL).

CultureMap: You guys had a very extended touring schedule for the first record. Does playing your collection of songs two or three hundred times (as you do) over those couple of years, does it makes you want to change your sound or reveal things missing in your set that you want to create?
Jack Savidge: I think that even though you're doing the same set every night, you know, there are certain songs that we try and take a bit of time improvising. Maybe it's not pure improvisation, but I guess we give some leeway to kind of have some fun in playing it. I mean not that playing isn't fun, but you know what I mean. I think that though you may be playing the same thing, but something could be, good or really difficult that night or whatever. You know, there's always a kind of variety from place to place and people's reactions to different songs means that it never really gets boring. We have been talking about what we're going to do next and I think we're going to try and do something that's much kind of slower than the stuff I guess we're known for. Much more kind of sparse as well. I think we're kind of trying to do something that's almost a reaction to what we've done earlier. You know, you do want to branch out!
CM: Could you tell us a little bit about the influence of having Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence + The Machine) produce on the Pala record? There is definitely a different sound, and I didn't know if most of that came from you guys, or if that was the result of being pushed in a different direction in the studio. What do you think his influence might have been on the process?
JS: Well I think we always kind of work in a production sense with Paul - he's always collaborative. I think he's like, it's different from song to song. Like say "Hurting," we went to him and the song was basically top to tail done, and he did a good job of mixing it, you know, adding adding a kind of five percent with it. Whereas "Live Those Days Tonight" was basically written in a studio with him, so like, it basically didn't really exist until we went in there with Paul and started jamming it out, so I mean it's different for both. I'd guess you'll probably get a different answer from us than if you ask someone else, as you know he works with Adele and Florence and the Machine and people like that. You'd get a different answer from each one because I think he's very kind of versatile. I think what we, you know, what we agreed with him and what both our goals were with it were to make a record that is kind of instant and hot and bright and kind of colorful, but also rewards repeated listening and just is something you don't listen to once and throw away, you know, kind of a densely layered record.
CM: One of the first live gigs you did behind the new record was here—Friendly Fires were in town for a couple of shows at SXSW. We had fun watching you in the FADER tent testing out the songs, but what was that experience like for you? 
JS: It was really, really good fun. Honestly it was one of the highlights of the year for me. I don't think any of us initially felt like we'd enjoy it an awful lot. It was like we've done CMJ and stuff like that where you go around and play like sort of six shows or whatever in two days or something like that and, you know, it can be kind of hard, and you're dragging yourself from place to place and so on. But it was really good fun 'cause we'd done CMJ and that one was difficult which I guess is sort of modeled on SXSW—a big industry thing and a big launchpad for new bands and all that. I'm really glad we got out to do it, 'cause we didn't do it the first time around with that record—I think we were busy doing other things. But it became the launch point for the second album out there, which was really cool and i think every show was really packed and really well received. It's sort of got a little more going on! You kind of remember what is so vibrant about music, because there's such a lot going on and people exchanging gossip and stuff, and stories go around about which acts are good and stuff like that. And it is a bit like a scrum! And it is probably amazing for people who are up for it. I kind of feel for the people who work in the media if you are going to work there and do like hundreds of hours worth of content. But it is a unique event, and it rivals only Glastonbury in terms of huge musical events for me.
CM: Following on from that, and watching the reception you had, any thoughts on why America seems to be finally embracing rock bands with dance influences like you guys and Hot Chip and Cut Copy and the like? All of you are finding sizable audiences here over the past two or three years, and it certainly is not due to radio activity! What do you think?
JS: I don't know! This is going to be coming from an outsider's perspective, but it seems that in the last five years and certainly hugely in the two years that the American rave and dubstep scene has sort of crossed over hugely, hasn't it? It's become this really huge thing that has festivals and its own its own arena-selling acts and stuff like that. So to me that's Skrillex and Deadmau5 and the Swedish House Mafia guys. I'd really, really stress that I'd distance what we do from them—that's just different than us—I think there is just an appetite for dance music. I think its sort of become a phenomenon that sort of is a bit like how it was in the early to mid-90s in the UK where electronic music, you know, acid house kicked off such a total cultural event or total societal-like thing in the UK, and that kind of spilled over into rock music with Primal Scream and New Order and stuff like that! I don't know! I guess perhaps it is something to do with that. But it seems to be undeniable that America seems to want to rave right now. What do you think, actually?
CM: There definitely is that dance scene where it is more of a DJ-based thing, but I think watching bands like you guys and people that I would consider somewhat similar like LCD Soundsystem or Cut Copy, where you are coming from a place of starting as a band, but then using electronic equipment and machines to enhance what you do. I think that maybe we're so used to the rock band model that [American audiences] needed some live drums and we needed more of that setup or something, that having it presented it to us in that way allowed us maybe to embrace it more, but it's hard to say.
JS: Right! I mean, people always want to dance don't they? And to take it a bit broader, people tend to want to dance even more like when times economically are a bit shit, you know. Through the ages, it's always been like that. Acid House came through the Thatcher years in the UK, and Trad Jazz coming—well, I don't want to make a fool of myself and mix up timelines. It just seems to be a thing that people do, people want to listen to upbeat music in downbeat times.
CM: That's funny, you've actually just asked my next question because I was just gonna ask you about Pala's Aldous Huxley reference and song titles like "Live Those Days Tonight." It seems like a mission statement for you guys that you were bringing uplift and saying you don't need to wait around, and it's more about trying to embrace the present.
JS: Yeah, absolutely, it is. I think there is quite a lot of that. One of the most kind of prevalent things in music right now is nostalgia and bands reforming to do shows where they do something where they play their whole classic album in one go. And I think most of it is pretty lame to be honest, and I think we'd much rather people would sort of [stay] in the present. I think that kind of retro thing can be destructive almost to current culture and things progressing rather than looking backward.
CM: Fair enough. To wrap up, what can you tell us about the live show—anything we can look forward to next week (October 11th)?  What are you doing production-wise?
JS: I think actually it's just us on stage, which is a shame. I mean perhaps when we come back again, if it's a bigger venue then it will be a bigger show. What is the venue by the way in Austin?
CM: It's La Zona Rosa, which is an indoor 1,400-seat venue.
JS: Oh, right, that's good! I think we'd really like to bring our big production.  We're preparing something for our UK tour that involves a lot of kind of old - we're actually restoring a lot of old disco lights, you know, the big kind of mechanical lights that float around and stuff like that to take on our UK tour.  But flying with those would be...
CM: Yeah, more than a little expensive and challenging. 
JS: It would be, yeah, and that's a shame. I think that's kind of become something that really makes a neutral venue our own, but yeah, I think it's still gonna be a good show. Everyone is very excited to go back to Austin and you know, it's the first time we've been there so hopefully people will be ready and waiting for us. You know, I think we've really found our kind of groove with all the new songs and it should be super good.
CM: Well, we're excited to have you guys back, and thanks very much for talking with me this evening. 
Friendly Fires play La Zona Rosa tonight (October 11) with Theophilus London supporting. Tickets are available via Frontgate Tickets for $20 plus service changes here.