On their colourful, rich second album, Friendly Fires have gone all-out pop – it’s even been compared with The Bee Gees. That’s good enough for them, Ed Macfarlane tells JIM CARROLL
HERE THEY go again. A sunny backyard in Austin, Texas. A bunch of music fans wandering around breakfasting on cans of beer and greasy tacos. A handful of acts waiting for their turn on the Shangri-La bandstand. It’s a snapshot any band that has ever spent a couple of days binge-gigging at South By Southwest will remember with a wry smile.
Friendly Fires are among the next-big-things and wannabes at the side of the stage waiting their turn to play. The band from St Albans may well have sold hundreds of thousands of copies of their debut album and regularly feature high up the bill at European festivals, but they’re just another act on the make in Austin, albeit one with a fine new album, Pala, to show off.
It’s a couple of weeks after that Texan scene, and frontman Ed Macfarlane is doing promo in Germany. He views down-home gigs such as the one in Austin as a necessary step for a band returning to work.
“It’s good to get a slap in the face like that and play those lo-fi backyard shows,” he says. “If the new songs work in that sort of environment, they can work in any environment. I think it’s really beneficial for us to play gigs like that.” He pauses for a moment. “At the start, anyway,” he chuckles.
Macfarlane knows it will be a while before Friendly Fires return to anyone’s backyard to play a show. From here on in, it’s big rooms and festival stages – and probably bigger rooms and arenas by the end of the year.
The reaction to Palawill determine the trajectory of the year. Colourful and rich, it’s Friendly Fires with a pop thump, an album on which their songwriting and production edges have been sharpened, augmented and amplified. Songs are rounded, sounds are brighter but, yes, you will still be able to wave your hands in the air to a lot of these tunes.
Says Macfarlane, Palawas always going to be pop. “We’re not afraid or ashamed to try to write something which is overtly pop. The hard thing about writing good pop music is that there’s a fine line between a catchy pop hook and an annoying pop earworm.”
To begin with, they had to get back into the writing and recording groove. When they gathered in Macfarlane’s garage – the same one in which they had written and recorded their debut album – there was some head-scratching at first.
“Because we’d been away for so long touring the first record, we kind of forgot what to do. I remember going into the garage and wondering, ‘Where do I start?’, ‘What buttons do I press?’ It was quite a strange, daunting experience.
“It also really felt like this was our debut album. With the last album there was a great distance of time between writing the songs and recording them. I definitely feel we’ve improved as songwriters, and we know a lot more about producing and the sound we’re after as well.”
That sound began to materialise after a few weeks of graft. “Tracks like Show Me Lightsand Hurtingare very good representations of what the atmosphere of the record is about. It’s lost that DFA, punk-funk sound and gone down this bright, sheeny pop route. That’s what we’re about and that’s what makes us stand out from other bands.”
Lyrically, Macfarlane took some of his cues from Aldous Huxley’s novel Islandand from a writing sojourn in France.
“I went to this supposedly haunted cottage in the middle of nowhere in northern France. No central heating, no phone, no TV, no radio – just me and my thoughts to work out lyrically what the record was going to be about. I got full-on cabin fever three weeks in, which really helped me come up with some really honest, direct lyrics, because it exaggerated all my emotions and I was just running the same things through my head over and over again.”
When it came to defining where Pala was at sonically, The Bee Gees came to their aid. “I played the first three songs we’d written for the album to our label boss, Richard Russell at XL, and he was like, ‘These remind me of Spirits Having Flownby the Bee Gees.’
“I’d never heard that album, so I searched it out and I could see exactly what he was getting at. That record was written post- disco, and they had to come back with a record which had incredibly strong production and songs which were different than the typical dancey disco affair they were usually know for.
“I felt that was something we had to aim for as well. A lot of that dance-indie scene has died out, and it felt important to us to come back with a record which did something completely different. It was a test of our character.”
Friendly Fires have been lumped in with that dance-indie scene, but they never really had any truck with it. Their own electronic bona-fides had been proven long before indie rediscovered its dance side. As last year’s Bugged Out mix CD showed, the band know their underground house and techno onions, while Macfarlane’s back catalogue of glitchy sounds for Skam is another feather in their cap.
“If I’m perfectly honest, I’ve never been a fan of that new French electro scene which people got excited about. My French tastes ran to stuff like Pepe Braddock and Ark and early Daft Punk, and I kind of lost interest when a lot of that Ed Banger stuff came along. I was more into the German label Kompakt, which was a lot more melodic and emotional to me, and I felt we’ve pulled on that a lot more for this record.”
With the album ready for release, the next task is to turn those songs into live bangers. Friendly Fires toured their socks off with their debut album, and Macfarlane doesn’t expect things to be any different this time.
“The touring was great – exhausting, but great – but it didn’t influence the writing. We weren’t sitting there thinking, ‘Okay, this has to have a long, uplifting middle eighth which is really going to kick off live.’ That wasn’t in our thought process at all. When we’re writing in the studio, I don’t think we ever think about the live sound.
“But we have to think about that now. A lot of the guitar sounds on the record are going to be really, really difficult to recreate live, because they’ve been slowed down and reversed and put through all manner of pedals which do crazy stuff, which we can’t do live. Instead, we have to come up with other options and mess around with the songs in a way which will be more effective live.”
* Palais released next Friday (May 13). Friendly Fires play Oxegen in July