Friendly Fires interview: “So kinetic.”

16.05.11 Words by: Ruth Saxelby

It’s early evening on a Wednesday in mid-April and spring is definitely in the air; the days are getting longer. It’s been a particularly long day for Friendly Fires but then promo days always are, especially ones for long-awaited second albums. Spirits are still high though and, this being the homerun before Ed, Jack and Edd head off to Paris to play a gig with SBTRKT, Red Stripes are cracked as we wander through to a backroom in their manager’s office a stone’s throw from Old Street. Standing out a mile against the whitewashed walls is a blown-up version of the cover art for ‘Pala’ (stream it below), the follow up to their 2008 debut album ‘Friendly Fires’. Emblazoned with a scarlet macaw in flight, it’s a none-too-subtle clue to its contents: picking up where interim single Kiss Of Life left off, ‘Pala’ is an album of the most sun-drenched, colour-saturated, serotonin-fuelled pop. Taking its name from the fictional island at the heart of Aldous Huxley’s utopia-exploring novel Island, it’s an album that both inspires and is inspired by unabashed, almost desperate joy. There’s not a whiff of naval-gazing on this anything-but-difficult second album. Instead, everything is even bigger than their colourful debut: choruses, hooks, emotions, intentions. Each song is spelled out in capitals, in bold, underlined and, yep, scattered with smiley faces. There’s not one that doesn’t get my pulse racing, that doesn’t make me want to throw my head back in the street to sing into the sky, that wouldn’t have me jumping out of my seat to dance years from now – recalling the feel-good of Madonna’s Holiday, Wham’s Club Tropicana or Duran Duran’s Rio. Even Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Friendly Fires’ fresh-faced pop songs put into words those feelings that flash through our minds at moments of heightened emotion, elevating the internal to the eternal. Blue Cassette, Chimes, True Love and Hawaiian Air in particular bottle that catch-your-breath joy of anticipating a first kiss, waking up on the first day of holiday, dancing all night long. On paper, they can sometimes sound a little cheesy – ‘when I hear your voice / it sets my heart on fire’ goes the chorus of Blue Cassette – but on record and live it feels nothing but right. And here’s the best bit: they couldn’t give a damn anyway. Because that’s people: we are cheesy sometimes. To paraphrase True Love, all we want is to feel true love – and show that. Friendly Fires know it, had the guts to call it and, quite simply, nail it on ‘Pala’.

Cans of lager replenished, we sit down a chat. As first single Live These Days Tonight (grab Lone’s remix MP3 here) was inspired by the duel pleasure/frustration of watching old rave videos, we also have our laptops for a spot of YouTube-ing.

Your gig last week was amazing.

Ed: Did you come to XOYO?

Yes. It was really, really good. I was on a complete high afterwards.

Ed: Oh nice!

It was nice that you did a new song, then an old song.

Ed: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jack: It’s kinda hard getting the balance right.

Ed: You don’t want to play four new ones because that’s just too…you won’t remember the new ones…

Jack: Four new ones in a row is definitely like…[deflated voice] ohhh shit.

I think you pitched it just right. I’ve been listening to the album a lot – Blue Cassette is the one that’s really got me. I like it that it comes after Live These Days Tonight – the new way we experience music via YouTube followed by the old way, through cassettes and mixtapes.

Jack: That’s exactly how we planned it [group laughter]. That’s true, that’s cool.

I was reading back the old interview we did at the end of 2009 and it seems I was convinced you were going to come back with a house album. But a big thing you were talking about wanting a song to be as instant as possible. It really feels like this album is more Friendly Fires than the last album.

Ed: Yeah.

There are lots of amazing songs on ‘Friendly Fires’ but ‘Pala’ feels like what you’re about. It’s so emotional, so intense, so instant, so in the moment.

Ed: I think it was only towards the end of that record – with Jump In The Pool and Kiss Of Life – that the Friendly Fires sound started to bubble up. And they were the last songs we wrote on that record. I mean, I like the first record but I feel there were definite DFA influences and stuff like that. But I feel that this one sounds a lot more like us, as a vibe.

Edd: I’m really glad you interviewed us at the start of the recording process because we’ve been asked what was going through our minds when we started working on this record and I can’t remember for the life of me but obviously we have a record.

Ham sandwiches came up quite a few times.

Ed: Really?

Edd: What on earth were we babbling on about? Had we lost it so early on?

“I think it was only towards the end of that record – with Jump In The Pool and Kiss Of Life – that the Friendly Fires sound started to bubble up.” Ed, Friendly Fires

No, I think you’d done four or five instrumentals – you were literally at the beginning of the recording. You’d just got off tour and were about to go on another one, so just getting into it.

Jack: Yeah. What were we saying that it was sounding like?

Because I was banging on about this house music thing, I was wondering if you were going to go closer to the dancefloor with the next album. Because you’d drawn on so many different forms of dance music from all around the globe on the first album, so I was asking if you were going to go full-on dance with the next album – and you were saying you weren’t about doing 8 or 9 minute lengthy get-into-a-groove type tracks, you were about concentrated, emotional, packed-in feeling. So it’s quite funny listening to the album to hear you’ve done that; you definitely had it in your head.

Edd: I remember us saying we wanted to do a piano house track early on but that slipped out.

Jack: There were a lot of things that started out quite piano-y but just didn’t work out. True Love and Running Away have a bit of piano in them,

Edd: Yeah.

Jack: But it’s not exactly piano house.

Ed: All the electronic piano parts were re-recorded on a real piano – actually, Phillip Glass’s piano.

Edd: Not just any piano.

If you’re going to use a piano…

Edd: Yeah, old PG’s piano.

I wondered why you’d called it ‘Pala’ because the album is so [intake of breath] on the edge and then that’s the one track that feels like it’s about leaning back and realising you’re in that moment.

Ed: I think…this is probably the most boring answer to the question…

Edd: Come up with a better one.

Ed: [laughs] I think it was just a good way of summing up what the record is about – and the record is: enjoy the moment and live for the here and now. And Pala is a doomed paradise, a doomed dsytopia and the people of the island have to make the most of it while they can. If you called the album ‘Live For The Here And Now’, it would be shit.

[Everyone laughs]

Jack: It does almost perfectly sum that up though, time standing still almost. The album is so kinetic apart from that one song, it just hangs.

Yes. That was something else we were talking about a lot – dancing. You were talking about going to clubs and getting frustrated with people not dancing.

Jack: Not doing this for instance?

Jack: Genuine white gloves, genuine Mario style. See that guy is fucking loving it.

Edd: Poor old Mario has had enough.

Ed: Oh a bit of massaging going on in the background.

Ed: See this dude – he’s fucking having it.

Jack: It’s good that the DJ is there but no one is facing him, no one’s ‘what you up to mate’…it’s a proper dancefloor.

Ed: That was one of the top comments on another video I saw – that in those days it was about the people being the focus of the attention, them creating the atmosphere and now it’s all about people facing the DJ.

Jack: There’s not much to see when you face the DJ.

Probably someone tweeting that they’re DJ-ing.

Ed: I like it when the room is so full of smoke that you can’t see the DJ then everyone just looks at the very immediate surroundings.

Jack: I think club lighting is a real art form that doesn’t get enough attention.

Ed: I think it’s died down a lot since the 70s and 80s. A lot of lights we used in our live shows are from the 70s but the ones we used at XOYO were modern remakes. There’s one like a Faberge egg that opens out and spins round. There’s one guy in Holland that we’ve been able to track down who has one but he’s being really protective over it. He just has it in his garage and doesn’t use it.

How did you find this man?

Ed: Our lighting guy managed to track him down.

I really like the lights because it’s another thing that keeps you in the moment – there’s a focus there. Sound is the most instant art form – and it’s the most instant sense, apart from touch. You are here; you’re in this moment. Lights do that too.

Jack: With music you can’t close your ears, you’re always immersed in it. And if you’re in a room pulsing with lights, it’s full immersion too.

“With music you can’t close your ears, you’re always immersed in it. And if you’re in a room pulsing with lights, it’s full immersion too.” Jack, Friendly Fires

Edd: Even with deaf raves, people go to experience a big sound system pummelling their internal organs.

To feel the bass.

Edd: Yeah, you can’t close off your sense.

Ed: I’ve found the lights.

Ed: Apparently other bands have starting hiring these so we’re having to find some new ones.

Jack: Name and shame these other bands who are ripping us off.

Edd: Mark [their lighting guy] wouldn’t, he’s too professional.

Ed: Made in Italy, Italo disco lights.

Jack: Michael Mayer designed a disco light apparently.

Edd: Any good?

Jack: He hasn’t made it but apparently he’ll happily demonstrate it by drawing it on a napkin. It’s quite simple but involves a lot of mirrors. I like it that he as a DJ has an interest in the whole holistic approach to clubbing.

Edd: When I was talking to Azari & III before our show, they were saying they love to get on the lights as well because that can affect people on the floor just as much.

Jack: Definitely, a well timed strobe blast…

Edd: One of our earliest shows at a pub in Manchester, we were given the option of having the lights on or flashing. So we had our own strobe light in the back of the room for the whole gig, which you probably couldn’t get away with in many venues apart from a tiny, grotty pub. That was a really fun show.

“One of our earliest shows at a pub in Manchester, we were given the option of having the lights on or flashing. So we had our own strobe light in the back of the room for the whole gig.” Edd, Friendly Fires

Jack: I was sick several times but it was a lot of fun.

It’s that thing where it’s kind of disorientating; it puts you outside your normal sensory experience. You can’t have a chat with your mate; you’re in it.

Edd: You can kick loose.

Ed: Here’s that Satel Oxis light [1min37 in]. This is the one we’re going to have one day. It’s coming up.

Everyone: OHHHHHHH

Ed: That’s pretty hardcore.

It’s so much more cosmic than what happened with the superclub thing, which is so sterile.

Jack: Lasers can be quite sterile too. They look trippy but they’re always green or blue, which is quite cold. And when it’s the tunnel kind of thing, something about that always says Sasha and Digweed to me.

Ed: Yeah, it doesn’t have much soul.

Did you get into watching lots of rave videos on tour or was it a sending round thing you were doing?

Edd: We first dipped into it when you [to Jack] found that footage of that first aid tent.

Jack: Oh yeah, that was awesome.

Ed: It was taken off the internet a while ago. Someone had filmed inside a first aid tent at Global Gathering. It’s pretty shocking to see what happens between the scenes; it was a mad house.

Jack: I’m sure they all got better.

Edd: They probably woke up in the morning feeling like a prize penis.

Jack: It’s just like a Victoria asylum. Actually, this is it.

So it started with that…

Ed: I carried on looking at videos after that. Those times just seemed so mystical in a way, and so separate from anything that I’ve ever experienced. Seeing a warehouse full of people absolutely going for it just seems like a time we’ll never experience. It’s like fantasy. I kind of want to relive that but at the same time, make your own fun – which is the general gist of Live These Days Tonight. It kind of frustrated me that all the comments on the videos were like, ‘kids these days don’t know how to party’. ‘Music’s just generally shit these days’. That’s just utter rubbish.

Jack: That continues now.

Ed: It happens in all walks of music.

Jack: But maybe house music has become just people over 35 or whatever.

Ed: Yeah, another one of the comments was someone saying they were going to start a new club night but only people over 35 were allowed in. It’s like, what?

Yeah. This new album – it’s so euphoric, it feels like you’ve got even further in being more forceful about wanting people to dance.

“I’m proud of how pop it sounds. I think that’s what makes it stands out and makes it original, the fact that we’ve had the guts to do that.” Ed, Friendly Fires

Ed: I kind of find it weird when people dance to our music sometimes. Maybe because we’ve written it and we know the grooves, so listening to the album and dancing to it feels weird. But live it’s a completely different feel.

Jack: But generally when we make a song we start with a groove and if we’re like, ‘yeah!’ then it’s something we’re continue with. But obviously by the end when we’re mixing it, we’re pretty danced out.

Ed: I’m proud of how pop it sounds. I think that’s what makes it stands out and makes it original, the fact that we’ve had the guts to do that. At some points it even sounds like a boy band to me, in a really good way. More mid-90s.

I can hear that. It is really gutsy – it’s so unashamedly joyous and it’s really hard to get joyful music right.

Ed: There’s almost that guilt factor if you write happy music; that it’s somehow lesser, which is just bollocks. I think it’s often harder to write joyous, uplifting music.

Definitely at the moment, there’s something very gloomy or grimy in underground pop music.

Edd: Creating an atmosphere.

An atmosphere that’s introspective. But this is – which is why we’re looking at rave videos – so in the moment, but in the moment together. It’s a reach out and grab your friend’s hand feeling – which is what my friend Alice and I were doing when we saw you at XOYO.

Ed: I think that’s totally what a lot of our music is about, about sharing those moments with someone. Realising that this is a moment and you have to make the most of it and store it in your brain for the rest of your life.

Yes, when you’re 90 and that song comes on and you’re back in that moment. That’s the power of music, that it can transport you. Was the XOYO gig the first time you’d played a lot of the new stuff out?

Jack: It was the first time we’d played Hawaiian Air in public.

That’s the one you wrote quite recently?

Jack: Yeah. We did around the world – we’d played New York and LA, Japan and Australia and then we had just under two weeks before mastering and decided to do something as quick as possible and it came out like that. I think it was because we had so little time and it was kind of implausible that it would work, that it did work. Without really thinking about it.

Ed: Here’s another video.

Jack: It’s so like anything goes with the music.

Ed: I suppose it was obviously ruled by technology – I like that naivety, [puts on voice] ‘oh yeah I’ve got this acoustic guitar sample on my keyboard and I’m gonna put it over this 808 and it sounds fucking amazing’. And you see people going crazy to it.

Jack: That doesn’t sound unlike Tensnake or something.

Ed: We ought to find some more recent videos.

Jack: Ones that support our argument that it’s not all shit these days?

Ed: [laughs] Yeah. There’s one of Michael Mayer that always makes me want to go out. We’re doing a track with him.

Oh really, how is that working? In the studio?

Ed: We’re emailing.

Ed: It is all about the DJ I suppose…

I wonder because we’re all into music and we go to nights where we’re excited about who is playing…

Ed: There is an element of spectacle, yeah. I went to see Pepe Braddock last weekend – I’m a massive Pepe Braddock fan so I was like, oh shit, he’s DJ-ing.

Yeah. There are a lot of people who go out clubbing that don’t have a clue who is playing.

Ed: And maybe because rave culture was such a big thing back then, maybe people didn’t really care about the music. It’s entirely possible.

Jack: But that’s almost better, isn’t it. People are swept along in the vibe without having to be really into it. I think that’s definitely a strong argument – it was populist. It would take anyone from any stride of life. It wouldn’t be just about people who were there just for the music.

Edd: That’s the good thing about the Eagle – people are there to dance or flirt, not because they want to see a name play. They’ve found a place to come together.

We’re coming out of the corporate curve of clubbing and hopefully moving towards something more intimate, where it’s just about having a good time.

Ed: That French electro sound was completely embraced by the Hollywood pop scene. It’s been pushed to a point where something has to change in the production style. I kind of think that’s the good thing about our record; it doesn’t have anything remotely French electro about it. Apart from the Swedish House Mafia middle eight of Live Those Days Tonight. [Laughs] When we were writing it, we were like [whispers] ‘does this sound a little bit like Swedish House Mafia?’

Jack: ‘Of course it does, carry on.’ [laughs] I think that’s better than any Swedish House Mafia track though.

Ed: I think the record has a really fresh sounding pop sound. One that isn’t stale and Hollywood electro-ish that you hear all the time.

It’s got a freeness and an unabashed-ness. I love it that there’s a big build and then a pause and then it comes back in. That’s what you want it to do – that little bit more.

Ed: I’ve got the Jamie Woon record and I really, really like it but there are certain song where he’ll end with a verse and it really frustrates me. I’ve just listened to the end of the verse and I want something to happen next. It’s those little things that – I guess we have a mainstream pop head way of thinking about it, that you have to end with a big grand finale.

“I guess we have a mainstream pop head way of thinking about it, that you have to end with a big grand finale.” Ed, Friendly Fires

People got a bit uppity about choruses for a while, making it all about details and journeys. Which is good but it is really bold just going for it.

Edd: It’s hard work building the tension and having a drop in a song when you’re trying not to overstay your welcome and remain around the 4 minutes mark. It takes a lot of shifting around and scratching your head.

Ed: [looking at YouTube] Oh look there’s quite an interesting comment here: “I can appreciate the old school being nostalgic and saying something like this will never be repeated. I can relate. I fondly look back on the punk scene of yesteryear because modern punk is quite rubbish but this all comes down to opinion. There are loads of people saying something the same thing about the techno sound that was prominent a few years back. To be honest, the tech minimal parties right now have been amazing vibe combined with modern sound which couldn’t have happened back then.”

This is it. I was thinking about something similar when listening to your album – there are 3 or 4 songs on there that I know when I listen to them in 10 years from now will get me back in that moment. But it’s that thing of…we don’t have perspective on now because we’re in now. People say ‘where’s the Prince, where’s the Madonna?’ We’re so nostalgic for that past because we have perspective on it. But I’m sure when they first came out, it wasn’t like ‘instant classic’.

Ed: The bass player from the Klaxons has written a book about that.

Edd: That’s Simon Reynolds, not Jamie Reynolds from the Klaxons.

[Collective laughter]

Ed: I was thinking it was funny. So anyway, Simon Reynolds has written a book called Retromania about music today being obsessed with the past.

Yes, we’re so in thrall to the 20th century because everyone was doing everything for the first time then.

Ed: I kind of feel that with the latter LCD Soundsystem the songwriting got really safe because he was just trying to emulate a sound. Whereas the early stuff had a bit more character to it. I think with a lot of bands the safe thing to do when they run out of ideas is to reference the past in a blatantly obvious way.

“You’re up against yourself; you’re battling your past.” Edd, Friendly Fires

Jack: With lots of bands too, their second album seems to lose what was good about them in the first place. And replace it with something quite safe, ‘we’ve matured as songwriters’, you know.

Yes, that’s what I was trying to get at earlier and put quite ineloquently. With this second album it feels you’re not trying to hint at what you want to do, you’re just doing it. It’s so big. There’s lots of attachment to the old songs because obviously they’re great and people are familiar with them but I think ‘Pala’ is going to be the one that, once they get to know the songs, will be the one they love more.

Jack: That’s obviously nice to hear in our situation because when you’ve done a first album that did okay there’s a lot of pressure.

Edd: You’re up against yourself; you’re battling your past.

Ed: I just feel that, even down to the artwork, it just feels like everything melds really well. It just feels like with this record everything gelled together in the right way.

Friendly Fires ‘Pala’ is released by XL Recordings on Monday 16th May 2011

Buy Friendly Fires ‘Pala’ on Juno

Ruth Saxelby interviewed Friendly Fires in London on Wednesday 13th April 2011