Burning Ambitions: Friendly Fires

“This record is celebrating what you have while you still can.”

Somehow it feels inconceivable that Friendly Fires are only just dropping their second record – they’ve been stalwarts of our dance floors and festival for what seems like years!

But it’s true. ‘Pala’ is their sophomore offering and is an incredibly eagerly awaited follow-up to their eponymous smash two-and-a-half years ago. On a tour of the world that started in New York and went via Australia and Asia culminating in a couple of small, stripped down shows at SXSW in March, they’ve been giving fans glimpses and tasters of what to expect from the album.

“It was quite good to take it down to kind of backyard style, lo-fi, raw performances,” says lead singer Ed Macfarlane on the Austin, Texas, performances, as Clash catches up with the trio at a kitchen table in Hackney, London. “It gave us a chance to see what they sounded like stripped right down in that kind of environment. It went really well. The first gig, in particular, I really, really enjoyed. It felt that if they could work in that environment, then they could work anywhere.”

“We were slightly more settled with all the songs by then,” continues guitarist Edd Gibson, mindlessly toying with his half-full cup of tea. “Compared to the first outing in New York, at the Bowery Ballroom, which was a bit dodgy. But by the end of that tour, we had a show in Tokyo that we were all really happy with. Everything went seamlessly and the crowd was fucking raging, with their hands in the air.” Agreeing with the other two, drummer Jack Savidge adds about their first record: “You’re not coasting through the show, but you know where the climaxes are and where to put the most effort in. We’re still trying to figure that out at the moment with ‘Pala’. It’s a weird feeling because we did basically play the same set of songs for over two years. Then in that New York show we had seven new tracks in our set. So the chance of a cock up is astronomical.”

The dapper trio – all shirts, slacks and polished shoes – are looking forward to getting back on the road with their new album for the festival circuit and another tour of the States. If you’re presuming it to be packed full of new ‘Paris’ or ‘Jump In The Pool’s you may be in for a disappointment. It’s a shinier, summery record that may not be quite what people were expecting from the disco-punks. “It wasn’t a specifically conscious thing,” Ed explains. “But as we were recording the album, this very sheeny, almost mainstream… I fucking hate that word! I want to find a credible word to describe pop that’s hyper-produced and sheeny. It kind of took on that sound, and there’s something like that.” If the first album was their sound’ developing, then ‘Pala’ is what the band has matured into. The first record found them on a steep learning curve of how they recorded and how they wrote, and it wasn’t until the latter songs that they found they were hitting their stride. With ‘Pala’, it was a case of picking that up again and running with it. “With the first record, we were still listening to lots of post-punk and funk-punk and I feel like we’ve broken free of that a bit and gone into something that’s a bit more our territory and our sound,” Macfarlane says.

It was Macfarlane who packed up his car and drove off to Northern France to hole himself up in a little cottage in the middle of nowhere and start penning ‘Pala’. The isolation worked and, by his own admission, amplified the lead singer’s emotions and sensations so he could pour them into the songs. “The heating in the house had broken so I had to make fires to keep warm. It felt really nice and organic being on my own and having my thoughts. It was a about three weeks in when I started to feel particularly lonely,” he laughs, looking out of the window at the overgrown gardens of East London. “With ‘Running Away’ I’d written most of it and wasn’t really sure if it was a good enough song. But then Jack was like, ‘Yeah this is great, we’ve hardly got to do anything with it at all. We just need a guitar line at the end and a vocal in the middle eight.’ So that was really nice.”

After arriving back in England to carry on work in his garage in the band’s native St. Albans, the band set about finishing off the album with Paul Epworth. The producer had worked with them on three of the Mercury-nominated debut album’s tracks and was an easy choice for the trio to get involved with for ‘Pala’. “It’s always good with Paul. I guess with three songs we built up with him from scratch,” says Savidge. “And with ‘Hurting’ and ‘Blue Cassette’ it was building on top of what we had. He has a good overview of how the whole song is going to be perceived. Whereas we can get bogged down in a lot of details, he’s got a good perspective.”

‘Pala’ (“I think it can be pronounced ‘pala’ or ‘parlour’. I’ve never actually heard the proper way,” says Jack) comes from the name of the island in Aldous Huxley’s infamous book Island. It’s a story of a doomed utopian paradise, which ultimately fails because of the nature of the people that live on it. “I felt it was a good symbol for what the record’s about, which is about living for the here and now and enjoying everything while it lasts,” states Macfarlane, looking Clash right in the eye. “I feel like it works on many ways in my life, and I’d like to think in other people’s lives too. Living in the 21st Century is very temporary, nothing seems to last for that long, whether you’re a musician or just having a job in general,” he continues. “This record is celebrating what you have while you still can.”

The album’s title track though is not as uplifting and joyous as the rest of the album. In fact, it’s quite melancholic. It’s a lot slower and sparse and is ballad-like, with percussive sounds recorded from wind-up toys and cameras. “When we were writing that track we were questioning whether or not it was a Friendly Fires sound. But with something like that you have to decide if it’s a good song,” Ed admits. “It takes a lot of confidence to stick with a song if you think it’s strong.”

Other tracks most certainly are though, not least ‘Hurting’, which sees them collaborating with the Harlem Gospel Choir, while they were in New York. It was an idea of XL boss Richard Russell, who’d recently been working with the choir with Gil Scott-Heron. It was he who thought that the addition would give the track an extra soulful feeling. “I think that’s one of the best things about being signed to XL,” Macfarlane beams. “The label actually care enough about the music and have a creative input and have suggestions of how things might sound better.”

Their trip to New York wasn’t initially to hook up with the choir though – they’d gone to re-record some drums using the late Jerry Fuchs’, of !!! and The Juan Maclean’s kit. “I think the spirit of him still lived on in that kit,” says Gibson – the quietest member of the band. It was good to somehow interact with him there.”

“A drum tech from beyond the grave,” Savidge adds with a glint in his eye.

“It kind of felt right that with the more disco-sounding tracks like ‘Running Away’ and ‘True Love’, that they were done on the kit that he played on,” the lead singer enthuses. “They sound really punchy and exactly as they should.”

Now the record is done and they’re back on the road they’ve looked to working on a 12” as an outlet for their boundless creativity. With one of the tracks to be produced by the legendary Andrew Weatherall, and another to be done with Michal Mayer from Kompakt Records, they’re enjoying working with people that they admire. And, according to singer Macfarlane, it’s not sounding very poppy at all. “It’s like our portrait of Dorian Gray in the attic,” he grins, “while we tour the album!”

Words by Josh Jones
Photo by Harley Weir

This article appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine. Find out more about the issue and subscribe HERE. Or if you prefer a more hands on approach, you can go see them live at The Great Escape.

Read Clash’s review of Friendly Fires’ new album, ‘Pala’, HERE.

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