Saturday 24 March 2018

Friendly Fires are doing things their own way

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Macfarlane is annoyed. A few days ago the Friendly Fires frontman told a journalist he'd much prefer to listen to Justin Timberlake than Morrissey. Seeking to underscore his band's pop credentials, it struck him as a perfectly reasonable statement. But the comments have, shock horror, been reported in a rather over-the-top fashion, the focus being the alleged Morrissey diss. Suddenly Macfarlane is copping lashings of internet hate. Were such a thing possible, you get the impression he would personally burn the entire Twittersphere to the ground.

"They are such sensationalist dicks," he says of the offending publication, a UK music comic with negligible circulation. "And besides, that's what I think. If you have a problem with it, fuck off. Everyone has an opinion nowadays, which they express from the anonymity of their bedroom. Do you know what? I do actually prefer listening to Justin Timberlake than Morrissey. Why is that considered a shock?"

Sitting back, he wipes his brow and tries to sound more conciliatory. "Sorry, I got riled there. It kind of irritates me. What I was trying to explain is that our music is straightforward pop with soulful elements. As opposed to guitar-based and lyrically complex. That was the gist of it."

Friendly Fires started out as sulky runts of the nu-rave litter. Where Klaxons were scoring fashion-mag spreads and blathering on about Thomas Pynchon and HP Lovecraft in interviews, this St Alban's trio were perceived as come-latelies clambering aboard a bandwagon that had already left the station.

In fact, that wasn't how they saw it at all. Far from actively associating with nu-rave and its glo-stick waving silliness, they were faintly appalled at being mentioned in the same breath. The sooner nu-rave died a death, they concluded, the better (as it turned out they didn't have too long to wait).

"At the time, we were a bit frustrated by all of that," says Macfarlane. "We always saw it as more of a fashion thing. It felt as if it was largely about the clothes, people dressing up with fluorescent accessories. There wasn't a proper cohesive sound or scene. There were plenty of bands who adopted the whole look. Their music was pretty poor, which is why they didn't last. Our music was strong. We didn't have to rely on a cliched TV image."

Signed to record label of the moment XL -- home to Adele and The xx -- Friendly Fires recently released their astonishing second record, Pala. Inspired by the writings of dystopian novelist Aldous Huxley, the album finds the group embracing an ever-shifting palette of African rhythms, 80s soft rock (they would appear to be still coming to grips with their Hall and Oates obsession) and Talking Heads. Sublimely intelligent and shot through with a melancholic sensibility that is a hallmark of the best pop, it has about as much in common with nu-rave as Take That have with Wu Tang Clan.

"We want to write bright, uplifting music," says Macfarlane. "Moreover, our tastes have changed. Towards the end of our first album we started moving away from the punk-funk sound. An almost tropical element emerged. We went further down that avenue on Pala."

Had they been signed to a major label, Macfarlane doubts Friendly Fires would even have a career today. When their self-titled debut was released in 2008, it at first had all the appearances of a flop. Reviews were kind, if a little too fixated on their supposed similarity to Klaxons. Sales, on the other hand, were initially negligible; the group seemed destined to be nothing more than a footnote in the nu-rave wikipedia entry.

But then something unexpected happened. With XL fully committed to the cause, they went on the road, bringing their music directly to the masses. Once people experienced their songs first hand, they realised that, actually, the nu-rave comparisons were utterly fatuous. Far from trying to stuff a load of recycled 80s rave beats down the audience's throat, Friendly Fires' ambition was to be nothing more or less than the word's greatest party band.

As perceptions shifted, so Friendly Fires saw their currency soar. From modest beginnings, their album began selling in serious quantities, eventually moving in excess of 100,000 units in the UK. Critics, too, had started taking a second look. Klaxons were trapped in post-Mercury winner hell, while second-rate groups such as Shitdisco sank ever deeper into irrelevance. Nu-rave was on its uppers and Friendly Fires were being appraised in a totally different context. Now, the chatter was that they were a sort of UK answer to LCD Soundsystem, with a pinch of Vampire Weekend Soweto-beat and tropocalia pop in the background.

The upshot was a nomination for the 2009 Mercury Music Prize, aka the one where the judges tried to divest the event of any shred of credibility by handing the gong to Marge Simpson-soundalike Speech Debelle (it was surely the first and last occasion in history where the winner of the Mercury went on to sell less records than the winner of the Choice).

Musicians are always claiming to be have been taken completely unaware by their Mercury shortlisting. In this case, Macfarlane sounds as if he actually means it.

"It was shock. Even having a gold record was a total surprise to us. We never went into it with these expectations. We were happy to be putting out our own music. The Mercury was the icing on the cake. Afterward, people asked us, did you feel under any pressure writing the new album -- what with the Mercurys and all?' Had we won it, maybe -- it would have been a very different situation. We're always the bridesmaids, of course. Never the brides."

Attending the Mercurys means walking down a red carpet in formal clobber, while Fleet Street snappers yell your name and blind you with flashbulbs. Publicity-adverse types who spend much of their working day hefting sequencers around in a beat-up van, the experience naturally struck Friendly Fires as highly bizarre. That said, they've attended a few red-carpet events, and the Mercury was far from the strangest.

"We did the European Music Awards in Spain. There we were, going down the carpet, none of the photographers having any idea who we were. "Friendly Fires -- who?" It's funny, I've always thought of us as a pop act. In Spain, we got to hang around with real pop stars. It was definitely a shock. We chatted to some of Ke$ha's dancers. They were pretty nice. Kanye West was sat in the corner looking miserable. Surreal is the word for it, I think."

In many ways, Friendly Fires are an indictment of the British music industry's obsession with fads and overnight sensation. Far from being cheered by the usual suspects -- NME, the BBC Sound-Of people -- the group have avoided the hype machine and gone about things in their own sweet time.

"As far as putting loads of posters all over the Underground, throwing loads of money at the whole thing, we've always pulled back on that stuff. If you are signed to a major there is a tendency to hose you down with cash. And if it doesn't succeed, then they drop you. XL, in contrast, know what they are doing. We're really lucky to be with them. We didn't shove our first record down people's throats. It bubbled to the surface. People discovered it for themselves. That has been key to our success as a band, I think."

Pala is out now. Friendly Fires play Oxegen on Sunday, July 10

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