Far from an overnight success, Friendly Fires have been picked up and put down more times than your average newsagent’s copy of Playboy.
With their poppy take on the shoegazing soundthe trio broke through in 2008 with their self-titled debut album. Sounding equal parts Frankie Knuckles and My Bloody Valentine, the band took the euphoria of house music and ran with it. Making dancefloor-based music that left you scratching your head, Friendly Fires seemed content to confuse and amuse at every turn.
With new single ‘Skeleton Boy’ out this week, Clash sat down with drummer Jack Savidge to get the lowdown on the group’s slow march to the mainstream.
How did the band form?
We were at school, and we were about 13 or 14 or something and I guess me and Ed [Macfarlane] were into music and it made sense to start a band, a you do, because its kind of cool to be in a band when you’re that age – or when you’re any age really. So we started out, and then a little later Ed rejoined, and other people came and went along the way, but it was us three that were really the mainstays. We used to bunk off assembly, and spend time getting off games and stuff like that.
What did you sound like back then?
We did stuff like Green Day covers, and stuff like that. Because that’s the kind of music people are into when they’re 13 or 14. Its not as if we were listening to South or Can and noise or whatever, it was just your utterly typical baggy-trousered school band.
You’re often compared to the early ‘90s shoegazing scene. Is that something you would agree with?
Yeah, absolutely. I would say some songs such as ‘Jump In The Pool’ and ‘Paris’ and so on definitely show traces of that. We were always really into that. We spent ages trying to sound like Mogwai when we were 18 or 19, and I suppose that helps. The whole washy guitars, the dreamy landscapes of sound. Cathedrals of noise, or whatever they call it. That’s always been there, so it’s definitely a fair comment.
You had a lot of early success, appearing on television while unsigned – how did you cope with this?
I don’t know really. When we first came out with Friendly Fires we were probably a bit undercooked really, in terms of actual songs and our live show. I didn’t think we were a great band; we were just unready, I guess. There were three or four good songs lying around when we first started and it was a time when you felt that every week there was a new MySpace sensation. Maybe one week, or day, it was us, and we became bombarded with A&R guys who came down to the early shows and probably felt we were complete shit and decided they weren’t interested in us. Which is fair enough as had we been signed back then we would be completely up shit creek right now.
How you come to release ‘Paris’ through Moshi Moshi?
Well, we actually approached them. We had ‘Paris’ and everyone we played it to said: “Fucking hell that is a tune and a half mate!” So we just approached Stephen [at the label] to put it out; we didn’t have a manager at the time so we did everything ourselves, dealing with all the stuff that’s involved with being in a band. We were just desperate to get the song out, as it needed hearing really.
And it was just the one single on Moshi Moshi, wasn’t it?
Yeah it was. It works that way with lots of bands. I mean, Stephen has amazing taste and he also works with Virgin, or something, so that is his project on the side. He’s had a series of great singles, and the odd great album as well.
So how did you end up on XL for the album, then?
They came down to some of our early shows. The guy from XL was quite friendly, but it was a flirtation really, as it came to nothing. Then about the time when ‘Paris’ came out on Moshi Moshi people were getting back into Friendly Fires, and stopped mentioning nu-rave every five seconds. I think everyone was starting to realise that we weren’t ShitDisco. XL got back in contact, and we had a few larger offers but we went with XL as they have a tradition of supporting music made in people’s bedrooms. The whole rave era, supporting amazingly ambitious music made in someone’s bedroom with a minimal amount of gear. Plus they’re just on it, you know; they don’t sign bands and then shelve them. It’s much more streamlined than the majors.
Did the number of classic releases on XL lead to any pressure on the band when you recorded the album?
Well, by the time we were signed we actually had about 80 per cent of the album done. We had spent time plugging away in the studio, carrying on regardless of what was happening around us. We had a few odds and ends that really needed to be finished, and then we re-recorded ‘Jump In The Pool’. I think we feel more pressure now than we did back then, because we were just really pleased and excited to be finally releasing songs we had for ages on one thing. There was some pressure, and XL heard the album and said: “Well, you’ve definitely got one song to go.” And that was ‘Jump in The Pool’.
Will your working relationship with Paul Epworth continue in the future?
Well, the single version of ‘Skeleton Boy’ was actually recorded with him as well. You haven’t heard the last of Friendly Fires and Eppo working together!
Is it true that you’ve admitted to borrowing the chorus to Olive’s ‘You’re Not Alone’ for ‘Skeleton Boy’?
No not really, it kind of is what it is. I think it does in hindsight, but we weren’t attempting that at the time.
How much of a dance influence is there on your sound?
A lot, I’d say. We’re mucking around a lot at the moment with piano house sounds, and it sounds so euphoric. That whole thing of taking one chord shape then moving it up a tone; the classic sound of one chord moving round. There’s so many house records that do that well – ‘Good Life’ by Inner City, and something like ‘Happy House’ by Juan MacLean. The piano house thing is something that we’re determined to continue working on.
The ‘Your Love’ cover version – where did this come from?
We’ve kind of stopped playing that now as we’ve been doing it for ages, and there other songs we want to play. It’s nice to stay fresh. At the beginning we thought about the song as a template for what we want to do in the future, as it’s a kind of moving romantic song but it’s also really danceable. It’s the band setting out our stall for what we want to do.
Your lyrics are often escapist in nature, or seem an urge to get through things, like on ‘Skeleton Boy’. Where do these themes come from?
I can’t speak for Ed, as he writes most of the lyrics, but there’s a sense in the vocals that they have that vibe of being surrounded by people but being really lonely as well; that sort of paradox of being popular but being alienated at the same time. It’s got that, but it also says something about the dancefloor as well, as when you’re in the moment in the dancefloor you are pretty much alone, despite the fact you’re surrounded by people.
How does the group work on songwriting?
Sometimes Ed does things on his own, then he takes them in and we work on them as a group. Other times it will be a fully group-orientated effort – like ‘Jump in The Pool’, that we wrote together from the bottom up. It really depends. The vocals are always Ed’s domain, but the songs often start as instrumentals.
And is the band always writing?
Well no, not really. We’re on tour and we find it really hard. We’ve got some ideas that we worked on in January and they really need finishing, so we’re going back on it in between Europe and America. That should be enough time. Hopefully we can get something finished, but you can never really predict these things – especially with us!
Will there be a continued dance influence on the new material?
I would say so. The stuff we’ve done sounds typically kind of Friendly Fires. We would find it hard to make music you couldn’t dance to as it’s hardwired into us really.
Does the success of your debut album put you under pressure for the new sessions?
I think a lot of credit has to go to XL for this. The album was released in September, and since then has popped in and out of the charts. It is still doing stuff, which is great because it seems that a lot of albums go into the charts then drop out the next week. The album seems to have grown organically, rather than having some massive poster campaign or something.
Are you excited to get back in the studio?
Yeah definitely, it’s something we all really want to do. But the time thing is so difficult now, so we’re kind of looking forward to the time round the festivals when we’ve got more time. Sometimes we get time on the road, but often it’s just all work.
‘Skeleton Boy’ and the album ‘Friendly Fires’ are both out now on XL.
Friendly Fires tour the UK in April/May – click to MySpace for details and HERE for tickets.
Photo: Drew Reynolds