Editors frontman Tom Smith tells John Meagher about his heartbreaking decision — replace their guitarist and founder member Chris Urbanowicz with a new man, or say goodbye to the band
It is, Tom Smith says, like looking back on an especially harrowing divorce. This time last year his band, Editors, were facing up to life without guitarist and founding member Chris Urbanowicz. Smith still seems to be coming to terms with his departure.
“We had different visions about how this record should sound,” he says, picking his words carefully. “I know the notion of ‘musical differences’ is the greatest cliché in the book when somebody leaves a band, but that’s exactly what happened with us.”
At the time of Urbanowicz’s exit, Editors issued a statement referring to an “amicable split”, but the reality does not appear to have been quite that rosy.
“It was an awful time,” Smith says, “really stressful. We were working with [sometime U2 producer] Flood and the songs just weren’t as good as they might be. We wondered ‘is Flood the problem?’ and then, ‘is it us?’
“We would leave the sessions feeling very
dejected. We had a lot of soul-searching to do and it became apparent that Chris wasn’t as keen on the direction that the three of us wanted to go as we were. Looking back, it was a year-and-a-half where the original four just weren’t gelling as a band.”
It was all so different in the middle years of the last decade, when the then Birmingham-based band were generating feverish critical reviews and being likened to a 21st-century Joy Division — thanks, mainly, to Smith’s distinctive, monotone vocals.
“Chris’s leaving made us wonder if we should continue on as a band,” Smith says. “He had a signature sound that people associated with Editors, especially on our first album, so we were in a position where we had to effectively start over again.
“We were booked to headline a show in Belgium and I had wanted to cancel it so we could work out where we were going to go. But the other two outvoted me and I’m glad we did because it focused all our minds and made us realise that we could keep going.”
I ask him if his friendship with Urbanowicz has survived and there’s a short silence. “It’s too early to say,” he says. “It still feels so raw. I haven’t spoken to him since it happened. I hope that one day we’ll . . .” His voice trails off. “It’s hard to talk about this.”
Rather than bring a new member into the band to fill his shoes, two new recruits, Justin Lockey and Elliott Williams, were enlisted. “We didn’t consider going on as a three-piece and we thought there would be huge pressure on any one person we brought in to replace Chris,
so two people coming in alleviates that pressure. It also gives us the opportunity to make music that sounds very different to anything we’ve done before.”
The sessions with Flood were scrapped entirely and the band set to work with the American producer Jacquire King, whose bulging CV includes several Tom Waits albums as well as the latest releases from Kings of Leon and Norah Jones.
“We were interested in exploring a more American sound,” he says.
“I’ve always had a fascination with REM — [their 1983 debut] Murmur is my all-time favourite album — and we spoke about that with Jacquire. Our last album [In this Light and On this Evening] was very synthetic and there were very few guitars on it at all, but with this one we wanted to pick up the guitars again and make more of a rock record, I guess.
“We sent Jacquire some demos and told him we were very interested in change. In early conversations with him, we talked about the albums Scott Litt had produced for REM [including Out of Time and Automatic for the People] and his ears pricked up at that.
“He got the idea that we wanted to make a big, sweeping rock record that would incorporate strings and brass while also capturing the essence of guitars and bass and drums.”
The result is an album full of epic choruses and intriguing flights of fancy. Lead single A Ton of Love is U2-huge and should help ensure that this album becomes their third consecutive long-player to top the UK chart. (The Back Room got to number 2.)
“We are very, very glad for this album to be finally coming out,” Smith says. “A four-year gap between albums can feel like an eternity, especially in a fast-moving, disposable musical landscape like the one we’re living in at present.”
Despite the absence of new Editors material in that period, Smith did get around to releasing a Christmas album with former Razorlight guitarist Andy Burrows in 2011 (it was re-released last December, too).
Funny Looking Angels is a superior Yuletide collection — featuring both originals and covers — although it didn’t reach as many people as its makers would have hoped.
“There’s a very short window to promote a festive album,” Smith says.
“No matter how good the songs are, nobody wants to hear them in January.”
He found working with Burrows to be a liberating experience. “It was such a refreshing change to the darkness in Editors at the time,” he says. “Me and Andy will definitely work on another album, although it probably won’t be a festive one.”
I speak to Smith the day after Editors had returned from a weekend-long trip to Tokyo, having played one concert there.
“It was the first show of the campaign, to use that very business-like word. It’s very difficult to gauge how the new songs went down, because the reaction was the same for each song — politeness while we’re playing, loud clapping straight after and then a disconcerting silence.
“It’s a really out-there place to play and the Japanese are such lovely people. If they like your band, they’re fanatical: they sought out the hotel we were staying in and turned up with gifts. You don’t really get that anywhere else.”
Despite the more American sound of the album, there will be no special emphasis on “breaking” the US.
Britain and Europe will remain the focus and there will be an Irish date later in the year, although it has yet to be confirmed.
Smith and his partner, the television presenter and BBC Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman, have two sons, aged four and one. He says he loves fatherhood, but shares the sentiments of U2 manager Paul McGuinness who once asserted that “domesticity is the enemy of rock ‘n’ roll”.
“Family comes first — at least most of the time,” he says.
“The days of being on the road for long stretches at a time are no longer appealing. We all have families now and we don’t want to be away from them so whenever the opportunity presents itself for our children and partners to come along with us presents itself, we grab it.”
While he says fatherhood has not directly informed his songwriting, he concedes that some of the anxieties of being a parent are likely to seep into his songs. “I’ve always been a bit of a worrier, which I’m sure is blindingly obvious to anyone who’s listened to the lyrics, so there probably are subliminal parental fears in there somewhere.”
He allows himself a chuckle. “Times are definitely happier now,” he says.
“I suppose that’s apparent in the fact that many of the songs on this record are about love. The days when we couldn’t find common ground and were stuck creatively feel like a long way away.”
The Weight of Your Love is released on June 28
Editors - The rough guide
The Back Room (2005)
A key album in the UK post-punk revival, the songs are sharp, short and direct. Munich, Blood and Bullets remain the high points and despite his protestations, Tom Smith sounds uncannily like Joy Division’s Ian Curtis while the now-departed Chris Urbanowicz (pictured below) delivers memorable guitar riffs.
An End Has A Start (2007)
Produced by Dubliner Garret “Jacknife” Lee, Editors’ follow-up offers a more expansive sound with their angular rock giving way to a more anthemic, stadium-filling sound. The emotive Smokers at the Hospital Doors remains a powerful statement of intent.
In this Light and On this Evening (2009)
The difficult third album. The band should be applauded for their willingness to take risks and their decision to eschew trademark guitars in favour of synths and effects was certainly brave. A dark album, but some nuggets of gold amid the tricky experimentalism.
The Weight of Your Love (2013)
About as different an album from its predecessor as you can get. Their fourth is their most accessible release by some distance and, thanks in part to Jacquire King’s lavish, epic production, Editors look like stepping up to the U2 plate. A Ton of Love is typical of its catch-all appeal.
Day & Night