Tears For Fears
Tears for Fears
After spending four years recording The Seeds of Love, Tears for Fears are back and touring the world. Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal talk tears and technology with Dan Rue and Tim Goodyer.
Four years out of the public eye, Tears for Fears have rediscovered live music and re-evaluated technology - now they're back with a new album, new live line-up and a world tour.
"IF WE'D STAYED IN THE STUDIO - LIKE the Pet Shop Boys, say - we wouldn't have had to push ourselves. We wouldn't have had to rediscover ourselves or reinvent ourselves. It took a little time to break from being a synthesiser duo to being a good live act but we decided that it worked for us and it was important to prove that we could do it."
The speaker is Tears for Fears' Curt Smith, caught during the band's recent sell-out tour of the US. Gone are the days of Smith and partner Roland Orzabal helping pave the way for the mid-'80s boom of synth-pop duos. Instead they're now part of a ten-strong live outfit capable of staging the traditional rock 'n' roll spectacle. Well, almost; their current LP, The Seeds of Love, was four years in the making - hardly the usual album-a-year rock 'n' roll bandwagon.
But back to Tears for Fears' new-found fascination with "live" music. Was it a tough transition from the sequencer and the studio to the stage?
"Well, it was", begins Orzabal, "because there's a lot of safety involved in making new records. You can't do vocals in the studio, you don't really have to push yourself, whereas playing live is very very physical. It's a bit like being an athlete: you have to use your body, you have to perform."
"And you've got that one chance to do it", adds Smith. "Playing live is a lot different from recording in the studio. On records, you want to make things exact, even though you want them to feel loose. If it feels loose and wrong, then you're going to have to change it. I mean, there was a lot of work that went into doing what you would consider 'live' backing tracks on The Seeds of Love. We'd spend two weeks editing together the drum track, and it's all live drumming. We wanted all the best takes on one tape, and they're never on one take - they're on 15 takes - so you have to spend that time putting them all together. There's a lot of work involved."
On stage Smith and Orzabal have enlisted the help of keyboard player Andy Davis, guitarist Neil Taylor, drummer Jim Copley, saxophonist William Gregory, percussionist Carol Steele and backing vocalists Adele Bertei and Biti Strauchan. Additional keyboards and the stunning, soulful vocal that characterised the single 'Woman in Chains' are provided by Oleta Adams.
For the recording of Seeds of Love they called upon the talents of musicians ranging from Phil Collins (on drums for once), Pino Palladino (on bass) and Jon Hassell (on trumpet). Clearly they've come a long way since the days of 1982's hit 'Mad World' and the following year's 'Change' and 'Pale Shelter'. Then they met the world as part of the synth-pop boom complete with dubious haircuts and drum machines. Nobody really expected them to be able to reproduce their songs on stage - it would probably have detracted from the image if they could.
But times change, and - wisely - Tears for Fears have sought to change with them. The change, however, has been cautious and very slow, but has consistently produced music that has seemingly brought Tears for Fears back from the brink of obscurity. A few months ago they were all but forgotten by the fans that had put The Hurting and Songs from the Big Chair on the map, and completely unknown to a generation of single buyers that had appeared in their absence. Yet in the wake of The Seeds of Love they've toured Germany, Italy, France, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Australia and America. Right now they're lined up to play the annual Knebworth festival along with Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney. Hardly what you'd call a declining career.
Both Smith and Orzabal began their musical careers as guitarists - Smith on bass guitar, Orzabal on six string. But their success has been accompanied throughout by electronic instruments. Back in the early '80s that meant David Lord's Synclavier and Prophet 5 (Lord was Peter Gabriel's producer). There followed a procession of state-of-the-art technology - Roland Jupiter 4, Jupiter 8, E-mu Emulator, PPG Wave, Yamaha DX7, Prophet t8 - culminating in the purchase of a Fairlight CMI Series III. And it was on the Fairlight that much of the songwriting and arrangements were conducted.
Apart from taking an alarmingly long time, the recording of The Seeds of Love saw Smith fending off the record company and press while Orzabal did battle with the technology and the music. The process that had served them so well back in 1985 for the Songs From the Big Chair album appeared was failing them. Stories circulated about songs being written on the Fairlight, taken to the musicians and rewritten, returned to the Fairlight to be rewritten again.. .
"For ten months we were really directionless", reveals Smith. "We were trying to virtually recreate what we'd done last time around. Last time around the songs had worked, it worked planning it that way, sequencing and those things, they had all been very well thought out. And we knew exactly what we wanted the album to sound like, including what market we wanted to go for.
"This time it wasn't going to work because when we were touring last time we didn't feel very comfortable. We realised that it's all well and good on record, but try taking that kind of stuff out live, and you're very limited as to what you can do because you're tied down to sequences and drum machines. You can't change things, there's no freedom. So this time, after spending those ten months trying to do what we did last time, we knew that we just weren't happy with it anymore.
"We wanted to do something that was more live, and had a bit more soul to it, a bit more heart. So one of the first decisions was to produce ourselves - and we just experimented.
"Technology's a mixture. A lot of the time it makes things easier, the rest of the time it makes things more complicated - especially when you're working in the studio doing an album, because it takes time. And every month something better is coming out. You can fall into the trap where you keep redoing things, and redoing things. There are times when you should make a decision there and then. We were using 64 tracks and we just kept everything and thought we could leave the decision making until later. There are times when you can be too fussy." "In '85 we'd made quite a contemporary record in one sense", says Orzabal, "because we looked at the bands who were doing things which we were gawking at at the time and saying 'that's amazing!'. The technology was, or synthesised music was, still a new world. It was amazing, particularly what Trevor Horn and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Malcolm MacLaren, and the Art Of Noise were doing. And we were very much influenced by that sound at the time.
"We entered the scene when synthesisers were incredibly new and interesting, and really against the established sound of rock music. Now they're the statute and therefore we've gone back to the other areas which we have an interest in, to set ourselves against the norm once again.
"Having to do the The Seeds of Love, there was nothing, nothing at all that we heard that made us think 'fantastic!', so we went back to the 60s and 70s and that sort of thing. We let go, we opened up and made it a lot looser. All those things in our then distant adolescence surfaced again."
"I don't know if we're trying to focus on anything in particular", continues Smith. "The things we've used are all things we grew up with that happen to suit the songs. When you've got a song like 'Sowing the Seeds of Love' you get those kind of images."
Regardless of both imagery and the duo's musical youth, the process of songwriting continued to be a game of ping pong between the Fairlight and the live musicians.
"When I first came up with the songs for The Seeds of Love, the immediate thing I did was put them into the Fairlight to get a sense of how they would sound with the band playing", explains Orzabal. "The sequence for 'Sowing the Seeds of Love' was nowhere near what we ended up with - it was just like a demo. With 'Woman In Chains', however, the record sounds very much like the initial Fairlight sequence."
In spite of the difficulties in putting the album together, Orzabal is still enamoured of the Fairlight.
"The Fairlight is a wonderful machine" he agrees. "It is really pitted with faults, though, but those idiosyncrasies become quite attractive after a while. It doesn't like time. It's all over the shit - it really is nowhere near as good as most sequencers, in terms of timing. But it is quite simply a delight when you first sit through trying it. The further you go down, the further away from the truth it gets.
"I work with it, because we ended up cutting up songs. Like for instance, the bass drum in 'Woman In Chains' was Manu Katché going 'boom, b-boom-boom'. So, it's like boom, boom-boom - all cut up and then sequenced. See, you get real chopping and changing, some different tones, and that makes the Fairlight sound like a human."
"Technology is the absolute backbone of everything that's being created at the moment. We're kind of old-fashioned, you might say."
So does the sampled drummer get his credits - or does the sampler get the credit?
"Where he's credited, he actually played the drums", explains Orzabal. "We used what he played and cut it up."
And even alongside the ten-strong live line-up there's still room for the faithful old Fairlight.
"We used Fairlight sequencer on 'Woman' for the flutes and 'Shout' for flutes" he continues. On 'Mad World' we used some samples of the record, and we also use it on 'Working Hour' - but it's just used like a drum machine there."
WHATEVER IMAGES THEIR MUSIC MAY have thrown up, that of Smith and Orzabal sharing a stage with a truckload of technology was not one they wanted to push on their audience. In keeping with their return to past musical styles and the heavy turnout of musicians on stage, their current concerts have played down the role of technology in producing the music.
Smith and Orzabal front the band playing bass and six-string guitars respectively, and concentrating on delivering the songs to the audience. Behind them the drummer, percussionist, guitarist, saxophonist, and backing vocalists concede nothing to Tears for Fears' techno-pop past. Even the keyboards appear to play a modest part in the proceedings - Oleta Adams' grand piano and Andy Davis' Roland A80 MIDI controller aren't going to get the technophiles sweating.
Yet the technology is there: the innocent grand is, in fact, a Yamaha MIDI grand. Out of sight of the audience are racks of equipment that contain such impressive examples of high technology' as Akai S1000s and Yamaha TX816s. And then there's the Fairlight... But why try to hide the technology? After all, the preconceptions held by certain music purists that there are musical instruments and then there are synthesisers and samplers is sure to be reinforced by this act of concealment. Could it be that Smith and Orzabal believe people regard the electronics as being less than "human" elements in their music.
"No, not nowadays", protests Orzabal. "Technology is the absolute backbone of everything that's being created at the moment. We're kind of old-fashioned, you might say."
So why hide the electronics?
"Well, we don't hide the electronics. It's just that aesthetically it's more pleasing to have an A80 than banks of synthesisers. Oleta plays a MIDI grand and she's actually playing a lot of synthesised stuff out back, but it doesn't look like a synthesiser. There's this lever which she shuts off the piano keyboard, so she's just playing synthesiser, but it's an acoustic image."
"The grand piano is far more..." interrupts Smith. "Instead of having a grand piano and some synthesiser clump next to it - or something like that - we have a grand piano that appears to do it all.
"We've got so much damn stuff on stage, that's all we need. I mean, the thing about technology is that it's so far advanced you could do pretty much anything. You're not limited to one keyboard sound and a couple of guitars and a bass and a drummer any more. Even the saxophonist is playing an Akai wind synth, so he's playing sampled instruments."
One concession that has been made is to yesterday's technology - in the form of an old Hammond B3 tonewheel organ.
"We just bought that", says Smith proudly. "It's in immaculate condition, a beautiful instrument."
BACK IN THE STUDIO, THE RECORDING OF The Seeds of Love saw Smith and Orzabal using digital recording for the first time - not on the Fairlight, as you might have expected, but on two Mitsubishi 32-track digital tape machines slaved together. Although this gave them 64 tracks to play with, it was digital editing that made the arrangement particularly valuable to them.
"We'd have had to splice analogue tape about 50 times" comments Orzabal. "We wouldn't have been able to do it - the tape would have fallen apart."
The current explosion of digital recording is geared around tapeless direct-to-disk recording systems such as that pioneered bv New England Digital in their Synclavier, and more recently popularised by Digidesign with their Sound Tools system for the Apple Mac. The speed and accuracy of such systems is a pleasure which still awaits the Tears for Fears pair.
Other digital technology is much more familiar, however. Korg M1s, Yamaha DX1s and Roland D550s have all played their part in The Seeds of Love.
"The TX816 is wonderful behind another main sound with lots of reverb", enthuses Orzabal. "For instance, on 'Standing on the Corner of the Third World' its the 'behind' sound, it's the Rhodes and piano sound. It's also behind the keyboard sound in 'Year of the Knife'. We have a TX802, D550 and Korg M1 in the studio at home. The M1 is the main instrument. I spent a long time in rehearsals programming up all the old Jupiter 8 and Prophet sounds on the M1 because it's got, like, pulse waves and all this kind of stuff on it. You can program it like an old analogue synth. It's fantastic."
Both Smith and Orzabal are keen to make the instruments they use as individual to them as possible. To this end they devote a lot of energy to programming their own sounds. There's a succinct message here from Orzabal to other keyboard players: "Stop using the bloody DX7 presets and invent something new of your own."
"The most annoying thing you can get from using a lot of technology is where people listening to records can tell exactly where the song came from", asserts Smith. "It would be nice to think that people were being a touch more creative than just turning their gear on and making albums. They should actually play with it - the boundaries are so wide with these instruments, and people don't even play with them. They just turn on, choose the preset and go."
"The most annoying thing you can get from using a lot of technology is where people listening to records can tell exactly where the song came from."
"People should stop pissing around with synthesisers and make fucking good music", adds Orzabal, bluntly.
"To break the mould would be nice, wouldn't it?", suggests Smith.
Breaking the songwriting mould is something that Tears for Fears have consistently done with each new album. It's a process Orzabal refers to as "reinventing" himself.
If there's anything other than their synth duo image that Tears for Fears are recognised for, it's the depth and intensity of their lyrics - or, more specifically, Orzabal's lyrics. The band's name came from the process of resolving psychological problems by confrontation - an ideal background for an enigmatic lyricist, if ever I heard one. So: the oldest songwriting question in the interviewer's handbook must be "who do you write for, yourself or your audience?". Is it your audience, Roland?
"No, not at all, but I may well do it next time for the first time. I've got to the stage in my writing where I'm in danger of being too cryptic - I can see it going that way. Certain people like trying to get into it and unravel it, but I don't want to get that specialist. I think certain things on this album are intensely cryptic but I think they should be readily understandable to everybody.
"In Europe this album has been incredibly well-received. It's been better for us than the last album in certain territories. It seems to me that a lot of the stuff has coincided with quite a few things - like in 'Sowing the Seeds of Love' it says 'I love a sunflower'. The sunflower is the emblem of the Green party, and Green politics and all that kind of stuff is becoming incredibly popular. Things are really changing rapidly. And, believe it or not, although it mixes a lot of things from the '60s and 70s, this album is actually quite forward-looking and futuristic.
"I suppose Songs From the Big Chair is quite easy to understand on one level. Things like 'Shout' and 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' don't require a degree in philosophy to get it.
"Having said that, though, if what you do is really good, it should work on that level as well. I think I'm going to be bearing that in mind when I write again - that things can be simple and direct, and communicate to everybody."
Whether you understand - or believe you understand - the lyrical content of The Seeds of Love is something you'll have to decide for yourself. But it might help to have some sort of perspective of the album as a whole.
"I think it expresses a dissatisfaction with the general restriction of society in England. A lot of it's tongue-in-cheek, and a lot of it's aggressive. 'Year of the Knife' is like someone kicking back at the things that make them. And the whole album kicks against the structure of what we were previously - that's why it's so diverse."
The first album does have comments on society with songs like 'Mad World'", suggests Smith, "but the first two albums were a lot more inward-looking. I think this one is a lot more outward-looking, it's happening outside of us."
One obviously personal reference is contained in 'Badman's Song'.
"I wrote that in 1985", explains Orzabal. "We'd just played a gig in Denver and that night there was a party - and it just happened to be in the room next to mine. At about four o'clock in the morning I couldn't get to sleep because everyone was talking - crew members and management - and I put my ear to the wall and I could hear a lot of badmouthing going on. On the one hand I was flattered with the attention I was getting, but on the other hand I was sort of shocked that I wasn't aware of the bad vibes I was putting out.
"It was like a little reflection: what are you? How good are you? How bad are you?
"It's a song about guilt. If you're a self-analytical person, the type of person who checks your behaviour with a third eye or third ear, or whatever, then you're vulnerable to other people's criticism. People who don't regulate their behaviour aren't conscious of what they do and aren't vulnerable to criticism because they're not reflective. So that's what the song is about: guilt and how it's self-inflicted a lot of the time. 'Once in a while I want to feel no shame, and get down on my knees and pray for rain...'. It's like, when there's nothing to feel bad about, feel guilty about, feel ashamed of, then something must be wrong.
"It's guilt in the frame of the looking glass. I thought the lyrics were brilliant really."
Apart from the political messages that regularly surface in pop, Orzabal's self-analysis and philosophy make the hardest going lyrics currently in circulation. Is this what pop music is about? Rather than partying all the time, should modern lyricists be attempting to unravel peoples' psyches in a song?
"That's not the way it is", protests Orzabal. "It's not like 'woe is me' and let's write a song, it's more than that. It's to do with accessing a place which isn't readily understood by logical and rational means, and isn't what we call reality. There's so much going on in the heavens - heaven and hell, that kind of stuff... What I'm talking about is the unconscious."
Back in the conscious world it's time to draw a close to the interview. It's been a long wait since Songs from the Big Chair, are we going to see Tears for Fears taking a similar time to put together their next album?
"No, there's never a need to", replies Orzabal, confidently. "It was very necessary for us to do, believe it or not. It's hard to see from the outside because all you see are little clips where we poke our heads in and say 'hello, we still exist'. But we had lives going on in that period - and they were the best years of mine so far."