Tears for Souvenirs
Crying And Shouting With Bath's Finest | Tears for Fears
Messrs Smith and Orzabal explain how it can take a year to make two singles but only two months to make an album, among other things. Bits in between the chat by Dan Goldstein.
It's been a while coming, but Tears for Fears' second album - due for release early in '85 - should be well worth waiting for. How do the 'Mad World' duo go about writing and recording?
From the word go, Tears for Fears were more a duo that happened to use synthesisers than a synth duo in the accepted sense. They served their musical apprenticeship in several bands based around their native Bath among them Neon (the other half of which is now Naked Eyes) and Graduate, a five-piece mod revival combo.
For some while after Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal came to the conclusion they'd be better off working as a two-piece and formed TFF, their instruments were no more than bass and guitar respectively.
They started writing the odd song or two in Roland's bedroom, but seeing as both young men were victims of the social disease of unemployment, neither could afford the luxury of a tape recorder. Any musical ideas they might have had brewing stayed firmly in their heads.
Things began to take off when a friend by the name of Ian Stanley asked Smith and Orzabal to record a couple of tracks at an eight-track studio he happened to have built into one room of his house, overlooking the ancient West Country city. And as it happens, the band have spent the last few months in that same house, recording their second aibum at the studio (it's now a 24-track) and playing host to the odd music journalist that might happen to drop by.
'This is where it all started', Roland reflects, casting a familiar eye around the large sitting room at the top of Stanley's house, while simultaneously attempting to replace a string on his treasured Fender Strat. 'Ian's actually quite a character. He just approached us in a Bath disco one evening and asked us if we'd like to do some recording, and obviously that was a fantastic break for us because we'd never done anything like that before.'
Both musicians are still in their early twenties, but their music is a good deal more mature than their tender years would suggest. Roland is the more talkative of the two, but he's also nervy and a little uncertain: when Curt Smith does speak, it's with greater confidence and assurance.
'Before we came here, the limit of our experience was playing guitars in Roland's living room', he confirms. 'We didn't have the money to record.'
One of the band's demos got picked up by Phonogram subsidiary Mercury, and before Smith and Orzabal knew where they were, the company had released a couple of singles, 'Suffer the Children' and 'Pale Shelter', both classic examples of electronic pop livened further by the addition of guitar chords. It was David Lord - well-known for his production work with Bath's other famous musical export, Peter Gabriel - who had introduced the duo to synthesisers a little while earlier. From then on there was no turning back.
'David had a Synclavier and a Prophet when we did 'Suffer the Children" remembers Curt. 'Up until that time our knowledge of electronic keyboards stretched only to a string machine and an electric piano.
'We used a Jupiter 4 when we were doing the demos with Ian. We got involved with them simply because they were exciting. Suddenly, something new and potentially limitless had arrived: with a synthesiser and an eight-track, you can learn to lay down one instrument at a time and produce God knows how many different sounds. Before we'd just been used to taking one line each.
'Synths didn't present a problem in the early days because there was just the JP4 and that was all we had. Even when we went on to do the first album, we used only two synths - a Prophet 5 and a Jupiter 8.'
That album was The Hurting, TFF's first long-player for Mercury. Produced by Chris Hughes, it was a varied and competent album full of neat musical structures, well-considered lyrics and tasteful arrangements. There was an undeniable and inevitable discrepancy between the band's commercial tracks and their more involved compositions (a discrepancy that still exists today) but strangely, it was one of the latter - 'Mad World' - that brought Tears for Fears their first chart success. Did its achievements come as a surprise?
Roland: 'Yes. we were very surprised about 'Mad World' because it's nowhere near as commercial as the previous singles. All I can say is that there must have been something basic and simple about it that people liked - it's a lot darker than 'Pale Shelter'.
The thing is, once you've had a Top Five hit, once you've got your foot in the door, then more hits should follow, provided that your songs are good enough. So we haven't been surprised by anything since 'Mad World', though I must admit we fully expected that to reach about Number 50.'
Although The Hurting is technologically a very straightforward album, it's clear that Smith, Orzabal and Hughes spent a long while getting each layer of each piece absolutely right. And while that attitude undoubtedly worked while the hardware at the band's disposal was still quite limited, by the time they'd invested in the likes of Emulators, PPGs and DX7s, the technology was beginning to get the better of the music.
Writing, arranging, and recording all became more of a chore than they should have been, and the duo's output became rather less prolific: just two singles, 'The Way You Are' and 'Mothers' Talk', in a little over a year. Roland takes up the story.
'We became interested in new equipment as soon as it came out. When we did The Hurting we felt that the JP8 and the Prophet lacked hardness, and that's exactly the sort of thing a digital instrument like the PPG Wave can give you. So the next things we bought were an Emulator and a Wave. Even though they're digital, they seem to have a much earthier sound than analogue instruments. Obviously on the Emulator you can make a sound dirty just by putting it in there: it'll take on a whole new character because it isn't really all that accurate.
'All instruments can create problems, and what we found was that having too many synthesisers was making us jack of all trades and master of none, like the trumpeter who can play a bit of trombone or saxophone.'
'When you're looking for a new sound', Curt continues, 'it's all too easy to walk around the studio going from JP8 to DX7 to Emulator to Prophet and so forth, without actually sitting down and thinking of exactly the sound you're looking for, and which keyboard you're most likely to find it on.'
Roland again: 'It's fair to say that after The Hurting we didn't really know which way to go. We were very much concerned with layering and synthesisers - there were no guitars on anything we did at all. We did spend an awful long time sampling sounds and so on, and we learned - slowly - that a lot of it really is a waste of time. The amount of work you put into making things sound absolutely right doesn't really come across to anyone not familiar with what it all involves. Unless they've got a high quality hi-fi system, they're not going to appreciate any of it.'
So the band sold their PPG and their Emulator, and between themselves and producer Hughes made the collective decision to make recording a more immediate process. But that wasn't the end of the duo's worries. Actually writing commercial songs (or 'money tracks', as they call them) has been a problem for Curt and Roland since 'Mad World' hit the charts...
'The songs from The Hurting that we started working from were the less commercial tracks like 'Memories Fade' and 'Start of the Breakdown' - they're certainly more relevant to what we're doing now.' (Roland). 'We've reached the same conclusion as Chris at about the same time: we wanted to do something a bit more direct, something that relied more on impression than perfection. We wanted to lose all the preciousness of The Hurting, but the problem with 'money tracks' is that you've got to spend a lot of time over them. They've got to come across on the radio and compete with other people like Nik Kershaw and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, so you've got to be a perfectionist when it comes to writing and recording.
'At first we thought 'Mothers' Talk' was going to be a hangover from 'The Way You Are', which was all layers of synthesisers. It was all very nice to listen to but it didn't really translate, so we ripped the song apart and lost all that preciousness.
'That really is a very old song - the first time we did it was on tour last year, when it was all synths. Actually, live it sounded as though it was mainly guitars, but the guy who mixes our live sound always whacks the bass and guitars up anyway, so you can't really judge. 'Mothers' Talk' was one song that was written a while ago but just took a long time to record, but generally it's the writing that takes the most time. What we've found is that if you take a song that's not finished into the studio, it ends up being a complete waste of time. So we either complete a song before we go in, or write everything in the studio.'
So what's the Roland Orzabal Method of Songwriting?
'At the moment I've been putting a lot of ideas together with just a Prophet 5 and a LinnDrum. We're not happy with acoustic guitar nowadays. When you take a synthesiser home, there are two areas that you can experiment with - the musical side and the actual sounds themselves. You get a chance to really get to know a synthesiser, because as we've found, when you're surrounded by four or five in a studio, you tend to move from one to another just playing the preset sounds. When you're confronted with just the one, it becomes a lot easier to get to know.'
Do certain sounds affect the way things are written?
'Very much so. That's the strange thing about synthesis. Because there are so many different sounds available on a synthesiser, you tend to think each one is devalued by the sheer scope of the instrument - but take the song we're working on at the moment. We only decided to do it because Ian was just playing the melody with a specific sound: before he found that sound, the song sounded a bit old hat. Then we went on to record it, changed the sound again, got stuck, went back to the original one, and realised it was that particular sound that was really the essence of the track - or rather, it was the combination of the song and the sound.'
TFF's latest single - 'Shout' - continues where 'Mothers' Talk' left off. Strident and dramatic, it buries the ghost of earlier, wimpish Tears for Fears once and for all. Was the transition from the pleasant, melodic synth music of yesteryear to the aural apocalypse of '85 an easy one?
Curt: 'I still think The Hurting is a good first album. What probably changed our music more than anything else was playing live, because when we recorded that album we'd never really played at all. Obviously, the more you play, the better you play, and there's actually some very good playing on this new album. That's really what The Hurting lacked: all the parts were well worked out and layered, but it was all a bit sterile. And that's the last thing you could call this album - it's got a lot more feeling and roughness, a lot more honesty. Not that The Hurting wasn't honest, because that's what we were about at that time.'
Roland agrees with these sentiments precisely.
'Our music is definitely more mature now. We used to be known simply for things like 'Mad World', and people thought we were that kind of group, that we couldn't do anything else. It was only on stage that there was scope for doing other things, and it was always an eye-opener for people to come and see us live.
'We've suffered from the fact that we've only ever been put across in one specific way. That was our own choice, admittedly, but what we've tried to do with this album is open people's eyes in the same way we've done when we play live - I think we've achieved that.'
It transpires that 'Shout' and 'Mothers' Talk' have taken the same time to record between them as the rest of the new TFF album put together. It's clear that the duo are proud of their achievement (just two weeks' recording remained at the time of our interview), and a number of factors have determined the way in which they've gone about their work.
One of the most important has been yet another improvement in the quality of the band's available technology. Chris Hughes' Fairlight has been pressed into service at every available opportunity, the band have replaced their PPG with a Prophet T8 and a Yamaha DX7, and the last two are run from the Rock Shop's UMI MIDI software and an E&MM BeeBMIDI interface box.
'We've had the UMI system since it came out', affirms Roland, 'though that isn't very long ago. It's incredibly useful and not that hard to use. In fact, we've used it quite a lot on the album, with the DX7, the T8 and a MIDI PPG Wave we borrow from a friend of ours.
'But it's not all hi-tech stuff. There's a lot more guitar playing on this album - in fact there's even a most amazing guitar solo on a track called 'Broken', played by a guy called Neil Taylor. He's played with us live, and he's actually a brilliant guitarist. He can do a lot of things on guitar that I'll never be able to do, and he's fantastic to work with.
'We're getting very interested in using other people to work for us. There are two saxophonists on this album - Mel Collins, who's very professional and will do anything you want him to, and a local guy called William Gregory, who's an unbelievable soloist.'
Do those players write their own parts?
'It varies. Mel's parts were all written out on manuscript. You could do that for William, but it's better to let him get on with it. The same goes for the drummers. There are actually three drummers on the album - Chris, our live drummer Manny Elias, and Jerry Marotta. They all have their own individual styles and are interesting in their own way. A lot of the drum writing was done by Manny, but we used it in different ways by sampling bits here and there. There's a lot of counterpoint on the album between the different ways that various musicians play things.'
If post-preciousness technology and the addition of some more musicians have helped make the new TFF album (untitled as yet, incidentally) as good as the band claim it is, then the same could probably be said of the duo's new-found technical competence and expertise, things they possessed in rather smaller quantities at the time of The Hurting. Not for the first time, Roland considers it's time to illuminate.
'The more you work in a studio, the more you learn, and the more equipment you have, the easier it is to learn. Even just the guitar side has improved a great deal since The Hurting. I can set up a good guitar sound in about five minutes now, and it'll be a lot better than anything I used on The Hurting. It took me a whole day trying to get a good guitar sound for the title-track, and in the end I scrapped it anyway!
'Part of that was down to the equipment I was using - just a Telecaster and a dreadful Yamaha amp, always close-miked in a very dry room - but things are a lot better these days. I've got a Roland JC120 combo and a Gibson Firebird, plus my favourite guitar of all which is just called The Strat - it's got more bottom end than an ordinary Strat and a cleaner sound, too.'
Curt continues: 'As a band we've become a lot more professional since the first album, and we now know our own equipment much better. On this album we've spent so much time getting to know synthesisers, our old instruments - guitar and bass - have been neglected, but I think we're probably better at playing everything nowadays.'
So you believe that technical competence is the key to good music?
'Very much so. You can't beat a good player. You should be able to go into a studio and get a good sound if you're using your own equipment. You shouldn't have to rely on an engineer to do it all for you.
'We're all capable of working the tape recorders and the rest of the recording equipment by ourselves, and that's how it should be. If you know that your sound is going to come together in five minutes, then all you need to worry about is the playing.'
It should be quite a spectacle, watching and hearing Tears For Fears (suitably extended to a seven-piece) playing songs from their new album live. A UK tour is planned for early Spring, with probable support band The Blue Nile, a Glaswegian trio for whom Smith and Orzabal have much admiration.
'The first album is superb', Roland enthuses. 'Neither of us actually listen much to other people's music, because if you work with music all day long, the last thing you want to do is go home in the evening and listen to some more. But The Blue Nile are special. They remind me a bit of us when we first started - they ignore convention totally. I go through crushes on certain albums - like Peter Gabriel 3 and Tin Drum - and at the moment I'm going through a crush on theirs. Their music relies a lot on emotion, as opposed to something like Tin Drum which is actually very intellectual in the way it's put together.'
You still believe in the power of emotion, then?
'We've always had a lot of belief in it, though in the early days we explored those aspects most when we played live. Now I'm more interested in the power that music has to move you bodily. I don't just mean disco dancing, but material that is really strident.'
And there won't be any problems, translating the music that's been recorded for the new album into something that'll work in a concert format?
Curt: There shouldn't be, because we played most of it live before we recorded it. Even if there are differences, I think we'll just adapt things and improve them. We used to go out with a Revox tape machine just so that we could reproduce studio sounds live, but now I think playing live has to be treated differently from recording.'
'We'd also like to be in the position where we can ad lib and do things slightly differently as we go along', Roland continues. 'Next time we play live we should have a Linn 9000, which not only plays drum rhythms but records sequences as well - that should make things a lot easier.'
In addition to the Linn, TFF should also have an Emulator II (the waiting list is already a long one) to ease the playing of sampled sounds in concert. However, in an attempt to keep the band's keyboards down to a minimum, Curt Smith is convinced they're going to have to get rid of some more. Anybody wanna buy a Prophet 5?
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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