“Landfill indie” is a phrase that never fails to set Tom Smith’s teeth on edge. “I’ve always felt that term was awful,” says Smith, frontman of wintry indie shape-shifters Editors. “Really f***ing rude. Really dismissive.”
Editors broke through in 2005 with their stark, beautiful debut, The Back Room. Their rise coincided with the heyday of the aforementioned “l******l i***e”: an avalanche of swaggering new British guitar bands, led by pied piper Pete Doherty, in his porkpie hat, and mouthy Johnny Borrell of Razorlight.
Forged in the image of its biggest names, the scene was scrappy and self-aggrandising. Sometimes it was magnificent. Often, it fell on its face, a shabby, strutting parody of Britpop. Either way, the music press, about to enter its death throes, couldn’t resist putting the boot in. Thinking back makes Smith fume slightly.
“Some songs from that era mean lot to people,” says the singer, speaking ahead of a long-awaited return to Ireland by Editors on January 30th. “I feel like that age of snotty, self-important music journalism has gone now. It’s irrelevant. People don’t give a s**t about what people like that write or think any more. They make their own mind up. It feels like a big change in music journalism since then. They could be pretty harsh and rude.”
Smith is 41 now, with sons aged 14 and nine and a house in the countryside (his wife, Edith Bowman, is a well-known TV presenter and journalist in the UK). But there is still something of the ardent young man about him. That intensity crackles through Editors’ seventh album, EBM, a tectonic mash-up of indie, rave and Nine Inch Nails-style industrial rock. Forget the landfill – this is molten pop that burns everything in its path.
Extraordinarily, it is the second hard reset of Editors’ career. In 2012, they abandoned their minimalist new wave sound in favour of the more expansive and song-based approach that would define their next LP, The Weight Of Your Love. That shift wasn’t without costs. Chris Urbanowicz, their guitarist and Smith’s foil, had his own ideas about the direction Editors should take. Musical differences got out of hand, culminating in Urbanowicz’s departure – Editors recruited two new members to take his place.
“Maintaining collective creativity isn’t easy. Searching for stimulus – things to keep it fresh and feel vibrant – is important,” says Smith. “That might mean working in different places. Or working with different people, producer-wise. Or embracing the idea of somebody else coming into the band.”
Thinking about the things you’ve been through and the records you’ve made. It felt like the end of a chapter. It felt natural to want to push somewhere new
With EBM, that “somebody else” was producer and DJ Benjamin Power, of electro projects F*** Button and Blanck Mass. Power isn’t a household name. But nor is he entirely obscure. Before Editors, he was perhaps best known for going on opposite the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury in 2013 – and for the composition Sundowner, which featured prominently in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics.
Power first worked with Editors on their 2018 record Violence, his alternative mix of the album, dubbed “the Blanck Mass Sessions”, coming out a year later. Smith subsequently reached out to him again when Editors were invited to present a reimagining of their biggest hits at a festival in Belgium.
That project fell victim to the pandemic. Yet a spark had been lit and Power accepted an invitation to join Editors full time. They got straight into it. During lockdown, Smith and Power would exchange ideas remotely; after a quiet day walking the dog or hanging out with his kids, Smith stayed up all night pouring heart and soul into electro-juggernauts the band, now a six-piece, were assembling.
EBM is the LP they forged during those wee-hours flurries of virtual brainstorming (the title stands for “Editors Blanck Mass” – a nod towards its collaborative nature). It landed last year at a singular moment for their group, who had found themselves thinking about their past, present and future following the 2019 release of a “greatest hits”, Black Gold.
“Best Ofs are funny, man,” says Smith. “They force you to pause and evaluate your work to death. Thinking about the things you’ve been through and the records you’ve made. It felt like the end of a chapter. It felt natural to want to push somewhere new. And then lockdown hit. In a traumatic and uncertain time, this surprise inclusion of Ben, with these techno-industrial indie songs he’d started to write – it felt like, ‘Yeah, this is the path we need to go down.’”
Smith’s songwriting has always held a mirror up to whatever he has been going through in his personal life. Taut early hits such as Munich and Blood, written as Editors were cutting their teeth on the live circuit of their adopted home of Birmingham, processed the angst he had felt as an angry young man dreaming of a bigger tomorrow. With 2007′s An End Has A Start – partly recorded in Ireland with producer Jacknife Lee – Smith alluded to family tragedy (most movingly on top 10 single Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors).
As Covid took hold, a new set of challenges presented themselves.
“Before the pandemic, I moved basically back to where I grew up – a place called Stroud, which is green and in the countryside,” he says. “It was peaceful. I was glad to be here. Not that I fell out of love with London. It [Stroud] was a good place to be, during that madness. But despite being peaceful, and the fact it delivered more family time ... it’s the uncertainty. The not-knowing is incredibly anxiety-fuelling. Concerts were being booked in and then taken away. Summers were being scrapped.”
He looks back now and – like so many of us – speaks of the pandemic as if it were half a dream.
“You start to think: ‘How is this thing going to end?’ To be honest, the touring world isn’t back to where it was before the pandemic. Things are in a difficult place for a lot of people. But that period of – one day it’s idyllic: ‘This isn’t too bad, I like this pace of life.’ And the next, ‘Oh s***, is there ever going to be another concert again – what am I going to do?’ It was a strange time.”
This wasn’t the first challenge they’d had to overcome. Early in their career, they were compared unfavourably to gloomy bands that had come out of the north of England in the late 1970s and 1980s – the Guardian described them as the “ITV2 version of Joy Division”. They were also unfairly perceived as arriving on the coat-tails of Interpol, whose songs were likewise built on staccato guitars and monochrome angst
“For every good review there would be some that were quite ... people had a bit of a bee in their bonnet about certain things they thought we sounded too much like,” says Smith. “It was hard, to start with.”
One of the secrets to their longevity is that they’ve built a substantial fan base outside the UK. In parts of the Continent, Editors are a proper stadium act and festival headliners. In this, they are a part of a secret history of British bands who found success internationally while initially receiving disdain at home. It’s quite a club.
“Our audience in the UK is great. There are perhaps parts of Europe where we are legitimately a big band. Where we have more relevance in terms of the wider media. There is history of bands that didn’t break in the same way in the UK that they broke in Europe. Muse or Depeche Mode – quite often bands that come from a slightly darker palette. With a lot of the mainland European audience, there’s a loyalty. I don’t know why that is. I think the media and the radio in those countries work in a slightly different way. Are perhaps less fixated on what is new.”
He obviously doesn’t regard an interest in new music as, of itself, a negative. “It’s important: you can’t dismiss new bands. However, if a band come back with their third record there’s always a whiff of, ‘Oh we know what they are about now. We don’t have to write about them as we used to.’ Whereas in Europe perhaps they’ll listen to it and give it the same column inches as they would to the new things as well.”
You can have 20-year-olds put under enormous pressure...
EBM confirms, once more, that their detractors were entirely wrong about Editors. Yet despite emerging from lockdown with one of their strongest releases yet, the group continue to face challenges. Last May guitarist Justin Lockey announced he would be sitting out a summer run of gigs due to “struggles with anxiety”.
“My 14-year-old son is completely aware and understands the term ‘mental health’,” says Smith. “That’s something that makes sense to him. He has an awareness of it and understands it’s important: looking after that side of yourself and looking out for people. When I was that age, the idea of depression or people struggling with things affecting their health but which aren’t physical ... there was no understanding or appreciation.”
Musicians burning out due to excessive touring is becoming a talking point within the industry. In recent years, Fontaines D.C., Arlo Parks and others have postponed live dates citing their psychological wellbeing. The growing acceptance that musicians are human beings with the same mental frailties as everyone else is, agrees Smith, a change for the better.
“When people do hit that wall and get very poorly or even ... suicide ... you do have to be careful. In terms of the music industry – everyone’s lives are hard, everyone deals with ups and downs [even outside music]. But you can have 20-year-olds put under enormous pressure – fatigue, worked over and over again. We’re at a place now where if people need a break, it is accepted and understand. That’s important. That’s good.”
Editors play National Stadium Dublin on Monday, January 30th. EBM is released on Play It Again Sam