From The Hunger Games to Animal Collective, The Hurting and Beyond: Conversations With Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal & Curt Smith
A Conversation with Roland Orzabal
Mike Ragogna: Hi Roland, how are you doing?
Roland Orzabal: I'm very well. How are you, Mike?
MR: Well, thanks, and I'm very happy to talk with you, thank you for this interview.
RO: Oh, you're welcome.
MR: First of all let's talk about your new project. You and Curt have been recording some fun covers, for example, Arcade Fire's "Ready To Start," Hot Chip's "Boy From School" and now you're releasing Animal Collective's "My Girls." What inspired you to do these covers lately?
RO: That's a good question. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
RO: We sort of wanted to take the pressure off the new record. We didn't want to go back in and do Everybody Loves A Happy Ending Part Two. We hooked up with new management and so there was a dialog that began, and that dialog was, "You guys have influenced a lot of young artists, now it's time to listen to what they've done within the sense of the music that inspired them." So that's how it started, really. I mean, I knew "Ready To Start" from my youngest son, him playing it on the computer.
MR: When you were hearing these songs, did you and Curt feel like, "Yeah, that's a perfect fit, let's go play with this?"
RO: It started with the Arcade Fire song "Ready To Start." I'd listened to it and listened to it and listened to it and it sort of stuck in my head and I discerned another way of doing it. I had done a solo album back in the early 2000s called Tomcats Screaming Outside, so I had done a lot of drum and bass and stuff at that speed. To me, that song just fit straight in there. It was extremely easy to do.
MR: Did you do anything differently in these recording sessions than you usually do? Were there any new technologies or different vocal approaches or...?
RO: When we did ...Happy Ending, I was living in Los Angeles, so we were sitting in the same room. Now I'm back in England, I've been back in England since 2005, so a lot of this was sort of international and done by email, sending files across and sharing them on Dropbox. There was a very different feeling, working in different rooms. Curt came across April of this year, then I went across to LA in July for a whole month, but it's been far more on and off. In fact, it's pretty much more like how we started with Happy Ending; we did a bunch of recording separately before ending up in the same room. It's very easy nowadays. It's so easy with super-fast, lighting-fast laptops. It's just so much easier to record.
MR: Gary Jules had a huge international hit with your "Mad World." It almost seems like it put a microscope on Tears For Fears and suddenly, you went through re-examination and another round of recognition. "Mad World" goes back to Tears For Fears' first album The Hurting, which is having a thirtieth anniversary. Thirty years later, what are your thoughts on the concepts discussed within The Hurting? Has much changed since then?
photo courtesy of UMe
RO: Well, obviously, I was very young when I wrote it. I think Curt and I formed Tears For Fears very much inspired by the psychology and books of Arthur Janov, the Californian psychologist who wrote the book The Primal Scream. Our whole direction was inspired by him.
MR: The album covered a lot of psychological and musical territory. Do you view it like that these days, too? Do you see the depth of what you guys created?
RO: I think a lot of people still identify with it because those emotions expressed so vehemently in The Hurting are kind of global emotions. I wasn't particularly going through a very good time, I was suffering a little bit from depression and general existential angst wondering what in the hell life was all about. I think that certain artists like Joy Division paved the way for allowing you to express the darker emotions even though we were young and even though we were at the slightly more glamorous end of that kind of music.
MR: Were you surprised by how big a record Gary's version of "Mad World" was?
RO: Yeah. Going back to the days of fax, I received a fax in the studio, which was a song request for the film Donnie Darko. I didn't pay much attention to it; they said it would be a re-record and one of the producers was Drew Barrymore, so I said "absolutely," and then I sort of put it to the back of my mind as you do with all these song requests. A friend of mine from LA who works in the music film industry brought the soundtrack over one Christmas and played it and I was absolutely shocked. Completely shocked. My younger son was in the kitchen there listening to it. He was only about eight or nine and he started singing along to it, you know those words, "Children waiting for the day they feel good, happy birthday, happy birthday" and I went, "Oh my God." The emotion of that song just hit me, especially with my son singing back to me the lyrics that I wrote so many years ago. In many ways, I never, ever imagined "Mad World" being done in that way. It's a gift, and it makes you feel incredible as a songwriter that someone else has come along and expanded on your thing. It's just amazing.
MR: With that particular read, in my opinion, you're able to really explore and enjoy all of the emotion and all of the context.
RO: I sort of buried the emotion of "Mad World" under a whole heap of percussive synth, if you see what I'm saying. For me, it always worked as an uptempo song. But the way that Michael Andrews and Gary Jules did that is just straight to the jugular, it's just amazing.
MR: Now you have Lorde covering "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" in the biggest movie of the year, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
RO: That's it again. Few people have had a go at "Everybody," but she killed it, it's amazing. Once again, I never imagined it could be done like that.
MR: There's also something to be said about these how lyrics and music is affecting young people, how they're recreating it as a sort of further commentary on the subject matter.
RO: We've been hoping that we've put as much into our covers as these people have done to our songs.
MR: Right, and you also have the Matthew Dear cover of "Pale Shelter" featuring Tegan and Sara.
RO: Yeah. It's very nice.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RO: The music business has changed beyond recognition. It was so much easier in those days, I think. It was still an expanding market. It was still growing like crazy and you could make money from selling hard copies. So what advice do I have? I don't have any advice! It's so social media oriented nowadays, and when it comes to that, I'm not the person to ask.
MR: What about from a creative perspective?
RO: Again, I listen to a lot of new bands and I'm amazed by what they do because some of it is so retro and yet it sounds so different, so fresh. They've absorbed everything we've done and really moved on.
MR: That's an interesting observation, because it seems like as we go through another dance/electronica era, I'm hearing aspects of everything I remembered and enjoyed in the eighties and it's back with new inflections.
RO: Exactly. It's fantastic. It doesn't sound tired or pastiche. There are some fantastic people out there.
MR: Hey, by the way, as you're getting ready for your new album in 2014 are you going to be exploring some other groups' material?
RO: No. [laughs] No more cover versions!
MR: [laughs] Animal collective is it, then?
RO: Yeah. I like that one.
MR: Since you and Curt have been recording off and on and doing solo projects, what is Tears For Fears' future?
RO: That's a difficult question. World domination.
MR: Of course, just as I suspected.
RO: World domination. Rejuvenation. I really haven't got a clue. It's Christmas.
MR: Right on, and I appreciate your time. Thank you for the interview, sir.
RO: You're welcome.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
photo courtesy of UMe
A Conversation with Tears For Fears' Curt Smith
Mike Ragogna: Curt, you've got so much to celebrate with Tears For Fears, I don't know how you can contain yourself!
Curt Smith: Oh I find it easy. That's what children are for; to keep your feet firmly on the ground.
MR: How has life changed with children rampant?
CS: I think for the better. It's a good thing to have something more important than work, so therefore work doesn't become quite a big deal anymore.
MR: Beautiful, and speaking of children, that's a nice place to jump into The Hurting. Both you and Roland Orzabal have children, so the issues and topics that you covered on the album seem to be a little more relevant--not that any of those issues are coming up in your families--but you have an awareness about the proper things to do when raising a child, and I think some of what was expressed in The Hurting now apply as warnings even to you guys, you know, in a general sense.
CS: Yeah, I think people in their mid-to-late teenage years or early twenties tend to relate to The Hurting the most, but I think that's because that's the age we were when we wrote it, so most of the people that are big fans of the record are college-age kids, and that goes through the generations, which is interesting. Now we still have eighteen to twenty-two year old kids coming to see us play and telling us they really love The Hurting and what an influential album it was for them. Countless numbers of online messages say, "The Hurting was the album that got me through college." It's all fascinating, and having children does change your perspective somewhat. Obviously, our kids are not growing up the same as we grew up; we grew up in households with absent fathers, not particularly loving households, we didn't have money, we were poor and the middle of three sons, both of us, so it was a very different childhood for us. Having said that, I think there is something to be said for the old adage, "If you want to bring up your children right, do everything your parents didn't."
MR: Although they might revert to what their grandparents did, et cetera.
CS: Probably, and it will all go horribly full circle again. That's the way it is. The Hurting was primarily influenced by Arthur Janov, the psychologist who wrote The Primal Scream, Prisoners Of Pain and other books. His premise was that children come in as a blank slate, and now, having two children, I know that is not true. So in that sense, my perspective changed somewhat.
MR: Right. What have you found with your own children that challenges that premise?
CS: Well, both of my children basically came in with very different traits and they were obvious to identify. One is far more like me and one is far more like my wife. That's not just in the way they look; it's in the way they react to things, the way they behave, so there are certain traits that you are born with without question. Obviously, as you develop, some of those things change, but it's interesting to me that I find it easier to deal with my eldest daughter because that's me and I know what she's thinking. It's fascinating to me.
MR: Speaking of generations, we have the thirtieth anniversary of The Hurting. You've got young people who are looking at Tears For Fears and have loved your material so much that they reinterpret it and re-record it somewhat frequently. For instance, it must have been very interesting to hear the way "Mad World" was covered by Gary Jules. Were you surprised about his interpretation? It almost seemed that the lyrical content came through in a much more assertive way than in your original performance.
CS: I think the version that we did, because of the rhythm and everything was more in-your-face. What Gary and Michael Andrews did was make it more poignant and sadder. I think probably if I listened to them side-by-side, it probably fits the lyric better than our version does, but we were nineteen or twenty and we were more in-your-face. I think Gary and Michael's version is more introspective, which is what I love about it.
MR: I think that's the secret to why people have kept discovering Tears For Fears over the years. You make great pop records but many relate to the deeper elements, for example, what can be found in "Sowing The Seeds Of Love," "Shout" and "Everybody Wants To Rule The World." I don't know if, at the time, you would've expected somebody to look at them later and reinterpret the songs using yet another perspective.
CS: No, I guess, because we only know our own perspective. That's what we know. Having said that, I've done it the way Gary did it on a few occasions and it's actually great to sing like that as well, but it's always fascinating to hear other people's interpretations of what they think it kind of means. "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" is a very up pop song even though lyrically, it's really not. Then I listened to Lorde's version for the new Hunger Games soundtrack and it's as dark as anything. It's completely different. Those are the versions we like. When people basically take what we did and do it note for note with a different voice, it's a little karaoke. It's not very interesting. But when people reinterpret it, it's interesting to us.
MR: And the same thing just happened with Matthew Dear and Tegan and Sara releasing their version of "Pale Shelter," another song from The Hurting.
CS: Yeah, I mean, we're big fans of people who treat the songs differently, and it's also fascinating for us because sometimes, we end up taking bits of what they did and incorporating them in what we do live, even going back to Kanye West, who used "Memories Fade" from The Hurting. I think the song was called "Coldest Winter" or something like that. But we basically steal his intro and use it live.
MR: Bringing us up to date, you guys have recorded Arcade Fire's "Ready To Start," Hot Chip's "Boy From School" and now Animal Collective's "My Girls." How are you coming up with these really cool covers?
CS: It's basically music that we're fans of. It's a collective thing--forgive the pun--between us and management and other people. "We should do this one, this one, this one." We basically got a list of ten to fifteen songs and then myself and Roland sat down and decided which ones we relate to the most, that we can hear ourselves doing, because there are certain songs that we love that I can't imagine us doing, or even attempting. In the case of "My Girls," I obviously one hundred percent related to that song because I'm the one with the two girls. Roland has two boys. Lyrically, it makes sense to me.
photo courtesy of UMe
MR: What do you think of the contribution Tears For Fears made to pop music?
CS: To be honest, we don't really spend that much time thinking about it. When you're involved in making music, if we get too self-involved or aim for something bigger or to make a bigger impact or try and pre-plan what we want the record to be, we always fail abysmally. All we can ever do is go into the studio and make the best work we're capable of at that time and as long as that is what you concentrate on, then the album normally turns out well. If you overthink it and try and plan too much, like "We should be going this way," or "We should be doing this," then I think it becomes disingenuous and not us. So we really don't think about it that much.
MR: Interesting. Are you celebrating that it's been thirty years since The Hurting?
CS: I'm celebrating that I'm still alive.
MR: [laughs] Well, congratulations, by the way. I think you guys came out as one of the strongest acts of the eighties. I found that I can mention a litany of groups and people respond, "Oh yeah, great groups," but when I get to Tears For Fears, they go, "Oh yeah, I LOVE Tears For Fears."
CS: It's definitely gratifying, the longevity. I think that what's most gratifying is the fact that different generations get into it. Just this week on Sunday, I performed with Portugal. The Man at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas; we did "Everybody Wants To Rule The World," they asked if I would do it with them and I did. It was shocking to me because obviously it's KROQ, it's a primarily young audience but the response was amazing.
MR: I think right now you're considered pioneers because of the electronic sounds you conjured. I believe Tears For Fears has even more cred than you're realizing at this moment.
CS: Yeah, who knows. Because we're both from this small English city, Bath, we've never been fashionable. When we were big I don't think we were fashionable. In England, certainly, you were part of the London scene or you were part of the Manchester scene or the London scene or the Birmingham scene and it was all very much fashion based. But we definitely were never particularly fashionable, which I think is why people were confused to start, because they couldn't pigeonhole us. And we talked about different subject matters than most pop bands talked about. I think when we were growing up, a lot of people didn't know where to put us.
MR: I think the pathos that was expressed by groups like New Order and the like, you guys were able to bring to the masses with a more accessible musical approach.
CS: Yeah, the bands we were into were definitely groups like New Order or Joy Division, the darker kind of things, but we did it in a pop format, so it was strange.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
CS: Oh, that's a hard one, now, because the industry's changing so much. Now the only advice I give to any artist is "Make the best record you can and be the best live band you can be," and that pretty much sums it up. The live band bit is important because that is becoming the primary source of income for musicians. But you have to make a great record for people to come see you live. Making great records is basically being creative and not copying anyone else, not trying to fit into any certain genre, just being creative, and if you end up making a good record and people get to hear you, then they will come see your live shows. Live music can't be replicated on the internet. You really have to be at a show to feel it. Even if I'm watching a webcast of something, it's not the same.
MR: I think you just put your finger on it. It went from a two dimensional medium to a three dimensional medium with social networking and having to play live and having to present music in another format other than the delivery system of a "record."
CS: Yeah. Nobody's really buying records anymore, it's harder to sell when people can just pirate it, but you can't do it with a live concert. The other side of that is it's much cheaper to make records now. You can do it on your laptop. It's much cheaper to make videos now, you just have to be creative and have a creative vision, so there are certain things that technology has helped with and certain ways in which it's hindered the business. But in the end, it's progress and you have to move with the times and live with it. I would say live music is becoming more and more important, which I don't think is a bad thing.
MR: You have a new album coming out in 2014, have you and Roland started creating music for that project yet?
CS: We have started creating music, yeah. We've spent altogether probably a month and a half going through songs and whittling down things and then Roland had to go back to England and we'll start back up next year. We still have more work to do, quite a bit more work to do, but hopefully, things will pick up pace in the new year, once the holiday period is over and Roland kids are happily in college. He's an empty-nester as of this year. I've got a ways to go, yet.
MR: How old are your girls?
CS: Fourteen and Twelve. Eighth grade and sixth grade.
MR: I wish you a lot of luck and a lot of fun, because you still have some fun left before the real drama starts, right?
CS: Oh yeah. Fourteen, some drama starts, but luckily, I have girls, so the drama's not between my girl and me, dad is always cool. With girls, it's with their mom.
MR: What does the future look like for Tears For Fears in general?
CS: Bright, right now. We'll get this record made, hopefully at some point next year, we'll start in January, and hopefully it won't be a long process. Our aim is to have it done by Summer and we'll start touring. That's our short-term plan.
MR: I have one guilty pleasure question to ask you. "Woman In Chains" is probably one of my favorite records ever. There's something that was captured in that recording, I haven't heard very many records with that kind of feel attached to that kind of message. Which songs of yours would you say affect you the most?
CS: I think I have the same answer as Roland, "Sowing The Seeds Of Love," purely because it's the most complete piece of work we've ever done in the sense of the recording, the arrangement. It's six minutes long, but the arrangement is very complex and every part of it works, all of it gels and it sounds great. I would say "Sowing The Seeds Of Love" is the closest we got--I was going to say "Closest Thing To Heaven" but that would be a bad pun, wouldn't it? It's the closest we got to near perfection in recording, I think, although "Woman In Chains" is up there as well, but it's a far simpler track. There's not as much on it. But "Woman In Chains" was a combination of the parts. The song is great, the recording is relatively sparse but joyous, with Oleta Adams, of course, Phil Collins playing drums, all these things that happened to come together. We recorded it just after Nelson Mandela's seventieth birthday, the big Wembley Stadium gig. That's when I met Phil Collins, I played in the band with him and then I asked him to play on "Woman In Chains." Then once we got into the studio, it just all came together.
MR: Another magic moment that stuck with me over the years was "Advice For The Young At Heart." I find myself humming that to this day.
CS: That song goes down really well live. I want to say at the time, it didn't go down as well as it does now, which is strange.
MR: One of the keys is within the lyrics.
CS: They're more poignant now.
MR: Beautiful. Curt, this has been wonderful, and I really appreciate the fact that I got to interview both you and Roland. You are one of my favorite bands and I really appreciate the time.
CS: Oh, thank you.
MR: All the best with the new project, thank you so much.
CS: Thanks a lot, pleasure talking to you.
Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne