England's Friendly Fires are burning down the house
Friendly Fires mixes shoegazing alt-rock with synth pop and art-punk, but mostly it just wants to party
Having given every indication they don’t have a lot left to learn from the giants who invented shoegazing alt-rock, neon-soaked synth pop, and candy-smeared postpunk, the boys of England’s Friendly Fires are already thinking about where to go next. From the sound of things, the answer is someplace even more exotic than “Jump in the Pool”, a lighter-than-Air, world-beat-flavoured confection from the band’s eponymous debut.
“This new song that we’ve just written is really, really samba-inspired,” says singer-guitarist Ed Macfarlane, on the line from New York City. “I think we’re trying to push things. ”˜Jump in the Pool’ was our first sort of taster of trying that style. When we’ve played ”˜Jump in the Pool’ live in the U.K for bigger shows, we’ve had like six Brazilian carnival drummers and three samba dancers. It sounds amazing. This new song is a step forward even from that. I really like the idea of mixing this sort of lush, ethereal side with things that take it all to another level. It makes for this kind of party atmosphere that we’re trying to create.”
Friendly Fires does indeed sound like a party, but—aside from “Jump in the Pool” and as-yet-untitled samba jams—the kind of party where half the hipsters are wearing vintage My Bloody Valentine T-shirts, and the rest are arguing about whether The Head on the Door–era Cure has more pop-culture currency than classic Depeche Mode. Trainspotters will discover that the band’s inspirations don’t stop there. “In the Hospital” traffics heavily in old-school funk, “Lovesick” rides celestial keyboards into a universe where prog never died, and “Photobooth” serves up a slinky update of retro art-punk.
Because Friendly Fires sounds about as British as you can get without holding a U.K. passport and season’s tickets to Manchester United, Macfarlane admits he was initially terrified at the idea of touring North America.
“I always had this fear of American crowds,” he reveals. “I always thought that they might be a little pretentious and stand-offish. I don’t know. Maybe because we’re an English band, and English bands get talked about a lot in North America, I thought they’d be annoyed at all the press. I’ve been completely proven wrong. They’ve been completely receptive and they’ve completely enjoyed my music, which makes me very happy.”
The singer acknowledges that, in many ways, he and his bandmates—drummer Jack Savidge and synth-jockey Edd Gibson—have had an utterly charmed career to date. High-profile breaks have included being the first unsigned band invited to play on Britain’s highly respected TV program Transmission, as well as single-of-the-week nods in NME and the Guardian for “Paris”, a soaring, synth-driven slice of heaven that’s on Friendly Fires. Indeed, almost as soon as they’d written their first song together, the members of Friendly Fires began attracting the attention of record-company executives. Still, everything didn’t happen totally overnight for the three long-time friends, who first played together in their teens as an out-to-punish posthardcore unit called First Day Back.
“We had written ”˜Photobooth’, which was kind of like our attempt at trying to write a pop song,” Macfarlane says, flashing back to the beginning of Friendly Fires. “So we made a MySpace page, and then we suddenly had labels paying attention to us. I remember our first show. We had no fans—the audience was just A&R people. Half the PA wasn’t working. Although it was all right for our first show, we really needed to develop.
“It wasn’t until a year and a half later that we signed our deal,” he continues, “and I’m really glad we took that time. It gave us time to write the album we wanted to write, without feeling rushed. If we’d signed a deal after that first gig, we would have rushed into writing an album that wasn’t solid.”
Macfarlane also notes that Friendly Fires wouldn’t do nearly as much genre-dabbling as it does had the band been working on a compressed schedule. As he’s well aware, pop music is now at a point where it’s mutating at lightning speed, new genres splintering off into subgenres almost overnight. That reality coloured Friendly Fires, with all three band members not only discovering new cutting-edge acts while writing the record, but happily borrowing from them. And even though you can’t always tell, the pirating from other sources didn’t stop with whatever samba acts Friendly Fires was obsessed with during the writing of “Jump in the Pool”.
“It felt natural to take a guitar sound that we liked from, say, a Growing record or a Do Make Say Think record, and to try and imitate that sound,” Macfarlane says. “Except that you try to put it in a totally different context—maybe put it over a rolling synth arpeggio. I feel like our music is all about picking and choosing from all different styles of music, and then melding it all into a sound that’s all our own.”
If you’re looking for a catch-all description, try music for a party that just seems to be getting started.
Friendly Fires plays Richard’s on Richards on Wednesday (April 8).