Friendly Fires Get Stoked
Published May 24, 2011
FRIENDLY FIRES. PHOTO COURTESY OF SATOSHI MINAKAWA
Growing up can often feel like growing old. But for the Friendly Fires, trying to take on some adult responsibility has proven beneficial for their second major-label album, Pala. The pop-indie-dance outfit from the London commuter-belt town St. Albans has been together since puberty; they’ve survived major milestones and stylistic shifts, and eventually come to be an evocative outfit with an explosive sound. After self-releasing a few EPs, the band was signed to XL Records and sent forth an ambitious and passionate exaltation of party music that garnered the band legions of fans and nods of approval from the critics.
But the party never stopped, so on Pala, Friendly Fires took a hermitic approach to put together the recording in a series of secluded locales, including a farm in the backwoods of Normandy. The distance from civilization prompted an outpouring of feeling and creativity for the front man, Ed MacFarlane, who penned the lonely lyrics in complete solitude. Reflecting the Aldous Huxley-inspired title (after the novel Island, the isolated utopia that serves as a metaphor for living in the present), Pala owns its paradoxical content: it’s sonically uplifting but emotively exploratory. Pala‘s journey reveals the band’s evolving maturity, one that never loses sight of its unabashed exuberance and spirit.
We got a chance to speak to the Friendly Fires frontman before MacFarlane famously gyrates his hips à la Mick Jagger for New York tomorrow at Webster Hall.
JULIE BAUMGARDNER: Hey! How’s the tour going?
ED MACFARLANE: Really, really great—the reaction to the new stuff has been better than the old stuff, so that’s good. Last night, I went to the port in Hamburg; it was very beautiful, just watching all the boats. It didn’t feel very rock-and-roll, more like the thing you would do when you’re an old middle-aged couple. It was quite a nice change from going out and getting pissed, which is what I do quite a lot of the time.BAUMGARDNER: Well, I guess that makes sense out of why you recorded the album in seclusion in Normandy?
MACFARLANE: Yes, some of the record was recorded in Normandy. Most of the record was made in my garage back in St. Albans. I think we tend to write more uplifting and vibrant music when we’re in bleak and lonely surroundings. I think it‘s because you’re channeling your loneliness in a way that you’re trying to escape to your situation.
BAUMGARDNER: You are secluded away from your friends and the clubs, and then you make this party music—is that an intentional juxtaposition, or almost a catharsis?
MACFARLANE: Definitely. I think if we recorded our album on a tropical island, it would be a really gloomy and depressing record. I think we work well when there are absolutely no distractions whatsoever, because we tend to come up with the best ideas around one or two in the morning, so you have to be plugging away. When we started recording in a basement space in Shoreditch, there were just too many distractions, too many things to do; it would become 8 or 9 in the evening, and your friends would call you up to say, “Oh there’s a really good night going somewhere,” and then you’d wake up with a really bad hangover and start writing music about four in the afternoon. I suppose if we work in our garage, we work really, really late there, wake up early and start recording again.
BAUMGARDNER: Is your parents’ garage?
MACFARLANE: It’s my parents’ house.
BAUMGARDNER: What do they think of what you’re doing?
MACFARLANE: I think now they kind of are into it. When we first started, I don’t think they saw much of a future.
BAUMGARDNER: Is that when you were teenagers and you were playing post-punk stuff?
MACFARLANE: Yes. But also when we properly undertook Friendly Fires. It took a while for it to take off—we self-released two EPs and we still didn’t have a record deal. We were a bit like, “Well, if we don’t get a deal soon, then we’ll probably have to think about getting a real job.” It was just sort of coincidence that everything started to fall into the right place at the right time.
BAUMGARDNER: Do you think you’ve changed your sound or tried to make your albums more accessible to try to get signed?
MACFARLANE: We definitely weren’t compromising what we were doing to get signed. We wanted to write dance-inspired music when we first started the band—we were influenced by DFA and other New York post-punk and disco stuff. We wanted to do something in that vein. We weren’t totally obsessed with writing pop music. It wasn’t until further down the line, after we released the On Board EP that we started to make our sound as pop-y as possible. It just felt like more of a challenge to write a catchy, great pop song than to do long 7-minute jams.
BAUMGARDNER: Do you think that by becoming a pop band that it gives you the opportunity to reach bigger audiences or more possibilities?
MACFARLANE: Possibly. But saying you’re a pop group isn’t saying very much. I can’t really think of a good way our music sounds in a couple words. Personally, when I think of pop, I think of instant, accessible, catchy songs—I definitely identify our music as that. I think that by writing pop, or instant, accessible or hopefully catchy music, it shoes you into bigger audiences because it seems that more people like that music. I think the possibilities are endless if you stick to a simplistic short song; the music can be as wild and bizarre as you want it to be, as long as at the core of it, there’s something really strong. Then you can take your music as far as possible.
BAUMGARDNER: Do you feel like in making your own record, you have total creative control?
MACFARLANE: Definitely. I don’t like describing our band as an indie band, but I think in respect to self-releasing our own records and producing and recording our own music, that is quite an indie aesthetic in many ways. By taking on all those elements, you are responsible for the results. You can’t blame anyone if it goes wrong, and if it goes right, you can pat yourself on the back.
BAUMGARDNER: So a lot of your music is remixed, and you’re particular about whom you want to remix your music. When you create, do you ever pay attention to which elements that could be picked up by a DJ?
MACFARLANE: No, we don’t ever think like that at all. It’s always a surprise when you write a song that you can’t imagine being remixed, and then you get something back, and it seems to work really well. I think that if you also think, “Oh, yeah, this vocal is gonna really work in a remix,” we never see any big remix of it—like “Kiss of Life,” I always thought would work perfectly, but, sigh, it never happened. You can’t predict that sort of thing.
BAUMGARDNER: Have you been in talks about remixes for this album?
MACFARLANE: Yes! We do. We have two remixes on the way. The first is a producer named Lone from Nottingham, who I’m a massive fan of and have been for years now. I went to University at Nottingham, but I never actually knew Lone when I was there. I knew his friends, but we never crossed paths. Then we have a Tim Green remix, one of my favorite IDM and house producers. His stuff is really percussive and it really works in the context of our band; he into getting big snare fills into our songs.
BAUMGARDNER: So you’re coming to play Webster Hall!
MACFARLANE: Yah, I’m hyped. It’s the start of a long tour—I’m just really excited to play Webster Hall on our own. Last time, we had The xx supporting us and they were blowing up, so I felt like the show wasn’t exclusively our own. I’m glad we’re back more on our own terms and get to do exactly what we want.