Saturday 10 December 2016

Editors' Tom Smith and Jacko in Westmeath...

Ahead of their Irish gigs, Editors frontman Tom Smith tells Ed Power about crossing paths with Michael Jackson in Ireland, and why they changed their sound

Published 22/07/2011 | 05:00

Editors with Tom Smith third from left
Editors with Tom Smith third from left

Editors' Tom Smith has warm memories of the summer he almost met Michael Jackson. In 2006, the UK gloom-rock quartet arrived at the Grouse Lodge studio complex deep in rural Westmeath to finish their second album.

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Barely had the band unpacked their guitars than -- cue Twilight Zone jingle -- they had a sense they weren't entirely alone. "Michael would never come out during the day," Smith, the group's chief songwriter, recalls. "He'd be up there in his house, with his kids. We heard he'd pop down in the middle of the night and try vocal ideas. We never saw him."

Smith was coming to terms with the life-threatening illness of a close family member. Understandably, his muse wasn't exactly firing on all pistons. Consequently, Editors, who'd enjoyed huge success with their first record, were mired in an old-fashioned bout of follow-up blues.

And here they were, in a recording compound haunted by the living ghost of Michael Jackson (collaborating with Black Eyed Pea will.i.am on a never-completed comeback project). "Surreal," says Smith, "doesn't begin to describe it."

If the cynics who had initially dismissed the band as third-rate Joy Division copyists were correct, this should have been the end of them.

After a grab-bag of anthemic hits it was, went the logic, time for them to shuffle off stage. Rather than sputtering out, however, that strange summer in the midlands was, in some ways, the making of Editors: they returned from Westmeath stronger than ever.

Regardless of the difficult -- and bizarre -- circumstances of its making, their second album, An End Has A Start, was a massive smash, both artistically and commercially.

As was their third, In This Light And On This Evening, which abandoned guitars altogether in favour of vintage synths and a chilly Germanic ambience.

What makes their continued good health all the more remarkable is that they've stayed at or near the top even as their peers tumble by the wayside. As anyone who has been anywhere near a radio lately will attest, guitar rock has all but disappeared from the airwaves.

When Editors surfaced, daytime playlists, in Britain especially, were dominated by the likes of Kaiser Chiefs, The Killers and -- yes, we're still having terrifying flashbacks too -- Razorlight.

Nowadays it's wall-to-wall pop and sometimes Smith wonders where his band is meant to fit in. Then he reminds himself he's an artist first, entertainer second, and isn't meant to fret about anything as coarse as commercial appeal.

"The playing field has definitely changed since our first two records. Indie bands -- you don't hear too many of them on radio any more. If you look at the top 40, in terms of singles especially, there aren't many records I can listen past the first 20 seconds.

"At the same time, if I was a music-buying punter, I would still be listening to the kind of music I like. I'd still be excited by the new National record. Just 'cos it isn't in the top 10 doesn't mean it's not there. You can't let yourself be bothered by things like that. You have to keep making music that excites you."

The biggest risk to the band's future, he acknowledges, would have been to stick unwaveringly to a formula past its sell-by date. After all, it was exactly this approach that did for their main rivals Interpol, whose fourth album was a turgid flop, lacking in anything vaguely approaching a new idea.

While Editors' first two records were arguably refinements of the very same angst-pop blueprint Interpol had relied on, for In This Light they attempted something most bands would never countenance: overhauling a winning recipe.

Drafting in Nine Inch Nails/Depeche Mode producer Flood, Editors chucked the box of tricks which had made them so successful. Gone were the angsty guitars and reheated Joy Division-isms; in came a chilly 70s electro-pop template -- one part Tangerine Dream; two parts John Carpenter score.

Handing over the final LP, Smith admits to being nervous as to how it would be received -- by their label in their first instance, but also by their fans. When the first single Papillon went to number one, he heaved a sigh of relief that seemed to go on an eternity.

"That became the biggest single we ever put out," he says. "So yeah, that was nice. Before the album was released, you thought, 'Christ, I wonder are we stretching our fan base's taste?'

"Then another part of you thinks, 'Well, we formed this band in the first place to make music that excites us'. And we get a kick out of stretching ourselves. We like the idea of evolving."

With their next album tentatively pencilled in for early 2012, the group recently reconvened to hash out some ideas. Life has become more complicated, though, with guitarist Chris Urbanowicz and bassist Russell Leetch living in New York, while Smith and drummer Ed Lay remain in London. They wrote their first record sharing a messy student gaff near Birmingham.

Now, band rehearsal must be organised months in advance. It sounds like the sort of unsatisfactory compromises groups consent to shortly before 'creative differences' set in.

"Logistically it is tricky, of course it is," says Smith. "On the other hand, it means when we do get together that you have more focus and drive. So it balances out."

They'll be working with Flood again, feeling he has helped tap a creative seam they hadn't previously realised was there. "We're cut from the same cloth, us and Flood," says Smith. "We feel the last record was the start of something. It's a creative relationship we want to see continue. We are moving it further. It feels exciting for us."

Editors formed at Staffordshire University, where Smith and Urbanowicz were studying music technology. Under the name Pilot they became a moderately big deal in the English midlands, and were soon the subject of a label bidding war.

Rather than go with a major, they opted for Newcastle's Kitchenware (best known to Irish music fans as former home to Cathal Coughlan's Fatima Mansions). Having changed their name to Editors, in 2005 they released their intense moody debut, The Back Room. It duly crashed the UK top 10. The band have been soaring high more or less ever since.

Softly spoken and shy Smith doesn't, it must be said, look much like anyone's idea of an A-list celebrity. But that was the role thrust upon him when he started going out with the BBC DJ Edith Bowman.

In the UK, prime-time radio presenters are properly famous and when Smith, a chart-topping rock star, began seeing Bowman he was the one regarded as moving up the social ladder. Soon they found it difficult to step out in public -- let alone go for a meal in a swanky restaurant -- without paparazzi buzzing about.

"It can be annoying if you've got out of bed and don't want your photograph taken," he sighs. "I don't let myself get wound up by it. That's the secret -- to not let it annoy you. I don't think about it at all, really. I just enjoy life."

Editors headline Indiependence, Mitchelstown, Co Cork, Sunday, July 31, and play Marlay Park, Dublin, with Bell X1 on Saturday, August 6

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