Mike Ragogna: Songs From The Big Chair celebrated across six discs. How did all this material come together?
Roland Orzabal: Well, it came together right at the end. We had made the whole thing, we had a lot of those songs for many years and we also had a philosophy behind Tears For Fears that very much came out. Then we were very much stuck with this success in England and the record companies saying, “Okay, we now need to follow it up.” It just went into this frame of, “Write whatever songs you have and we’re going to record.” We had a false start with a track called “The Way You Are” which was way too clever. We spent a long time on it and didn’t do that well for us. We then went on to a song called “Mothers Talk” and tried to do it in a similar way. That’s the point at which the record company was going, “No, this is not going to work.” They pulled us back and I think there was a secret mandate to beef up our sound, to put guitars on it and make it a bit more global. That influence and that pressure came from outside, it wasn’t something that came from Curt and I. Big Chair was a relatively quick album to make, I had no idea what we were doing, it didn’t sound cohesive to me, hence the title Songs. It just seemed like a random number of songs that were thrown together because we had them available at the time. It was only when right at the end of the album and I was running off cassettes…do you remember what they are? That I was forced to listen to the whole thing right from beginning to end and I thought, “This isn’t bad! There’s something there!”
MR: What was your impression when you listened to the work from top to bottom?
RO: I was surprised, because the thing is some of those tracks are quite complicated and quite layered. Some of them aren’t. I just remember how long we spent on the whole mixing process, going across to Germany in the midst of winter, God knows why, I’ve never been so cold. You just never feel particularly wonderful about what you’ve done because it’s all been a debate and discussion long into the early hours of the morning. It’s only really when you’re relaxed and step back that you can see what you’ve done. It’s only really in hindsight. Everything was done quickly with no many decisions on a certain level. For instance, the album cover. We didn’t have an album cover. It was like, “Come on, let’s get an album cover,” so we had a photo shoot and we were looking at the proofs and I leaned over to Curt and said, “Right, that’s the album cover.” Likewise with the title of the album, there was a dispute over that. It was not as if it had always been the title and everyone was happy about it. It was decided very quickly.
MR: Do you think that it came together so well because the vision was hidden there all these years?
RO: I think that’s a good point. With that question, Curt and I combined and interfaced with something that was kind of necessary at the time. To use a strong word it was sort of destined. We got very lucky.
MR: How do you feel about how your first album resonated with the culture?
RO: As I keep saying, we got lucky. I think that there were two things, really. The team that came together, the politics of the team, myself and Curt probably being on the bottom of it in a hierarchy, Chris Hughes, Dave Bates from the record company, Ian Stanley, the relationships were all changing. What was great is that because we were slightly in a rush, when I wrote “Shout” the chorus, that all I thought it was going to be, a chorus like “Give Peace A Chance,” a song about protest. Then when I played it to Ian and Chris they said, “No, that’s a single.” I said, “What?!” “That’s a single that needs a verse.” Luckily, Curt and I had to do the video for “Mothers Talk,” so we walked away, left Ian and Chris to muck about for a day and when we came back the backing track for “Shout” was born and it was like, “Whoa, okay.” That really did change how things were stacking up. Then the other thing, the track “Listen” which was really Ian Stanley’s baby, he’d been mucking about with that when we were recording The Hurting and we’d come back from London and I’d pop up and see Ian and he’d play me this track and I’m thinking, “This is just beautiful.” So we had these pieces lying around but we didn’t realize it was going to work so well to put them all together.
MR: The temptation of many artists after doing a successful album is to recycle the formula, but you guys took a complete left turn.
RO: Big Chair was so successful that we ended up touring for eight months. We used to use a Revox tape machine beside the stage to play all the electronics and backing tracks. Because it was edited in that way we played the same set for eight months pretty much. It was in hindsight the worst thing we possibly could have done. We should have toured for a while and then started recording again while everyone was in love with each other. Those eight months of just two albums’ worth of material killed us. I’ve told this story many times, when we were playing in Kansas and the audience was going mad and we were playing the same songs that we’d been playing for God knows how long. We walked into a bar in the hotel in Kansas and there was a woman in a ball gown singing with two guys in dinner jackets. Her name was Oleta Adams and I just remember sitting at the bar with our album at number one and thinking, “There’s something wrong here.” That affected me in a big way. For me it wasn’t about the success anymore, it was about the music. So it was not a good career move but I went away and explored myself spiritually and never ever lost that memory of Oleta and her powerful soul. So yes, it did change and it changed radically.
MR: And what was released after that was a giant leap from the last project.
RO: It’s a difficult one because again it’s all down to hindsight, but yes, it’s one of the best periods of my life, Seeds Of Love. Living in London, I was finally doing primal therapy which was the thing we were banging on about. I was opening up. I don’t think I could’ve written something like “Woman In Chains” if I hadn’t gone through such therapy.
MR: My feeling is that in the States, The Hurting was digested once they understood your Songs From The Big Chair. I think America really needed to shout, and “Shout” was what was needed at the time.
RO: There’s no doubt about it. When I was younger and the muse was visiting me constantly as opposed to nowadays when it’s in the odd occasion, you sit down or stand up to write and once you get into that semi-hypnotic state ideas start pouting in. Then you look at the songs that were written at the time, there was a song not particularly well known in America, by Paul Weller called “Shout To The Top” and I’m thinking that must have been written pretty much at the same time. There was obviously something floating around in the ether waiting for an open mind as they say. That’s the role of the artist, isn’t it?
MR: Roland, this expanded version of Big Chair with all its bells and whistles…for you as the artist, how entrenched in the process did you get? Did you have any other revelations as you were re-examining the album?
RO: I had to help Steve Wilson who did the 5.1 not just find the tapes but recreate the original mixes. Some of these songs I haven’t listened to in twenty years. Steve was putting it all together and sending it to me and I listened to it on headphones and going, “Wow, that sounds pretty good,” but the one that shocked me was “The Working Hour.” It’s not something that I’d listened to. I just thought, “My God, that’s a really good song.” It’s not just the hits on Big Chair, it’s also the gems, like “Working Hour” and “Listen.” Just listening to the luxuriating in the sounds and the fact that in those days we used so much reverb, it was just great. Steve did an amazing job.
MR: Being the person who has to keep the machine going, so to speak, I don’t understand how any artist in the middle of creation can fully understand what they’re doing at the time. It seems you have to wait for years to pass to truly understand it.
RO: It’s true.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
RO: I think it’s the same advice that I get from people on social media, really big fans. Dig deep. That’s fundamentally the most important thing. If you don’t really, really search and explore you’re not going to come up with the best stuff.
MR: When you were digging deeply, were there any moments where it got scary, where you had to say, “I need to deal with this another day?”
RO: No. I love it.
MR: [laughs] Beautiful! Is this still your creative approach?
RO: When you’re younger, your brain is growing, and as you get older, your classical brain takes over because you’ve learned how to cope with virtually everything that life has thrown at you. Therefore, that sort of element of chaos is contained far more. I think it’s the element of chaos within your brain that allows great ideas to come in.
MR: And if you create something that resonates well enough with the culture, it keeps coming back. Tears For Fears keeps getting rediscovered in every generation.
RO: I’m happy about it.
MR: It must be very satisfying as an artist.
RO: It’s extremely flattering.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne