The UK’s latest rock‘n’roll stars were born and bred in the less-than-funky St. Albans, a wealthy commuter-belt suburb around 35kms north of central London. Historians will already know that the first draft of the Magna Carta was written up in this small cathedral city, while the local council’s website stated this week: “Hatfield Road Cemetery is the latest green space in St Albans district to be awarded a Green Flag, a national standard of excellence given to parks and open spaces.” Rock ‘n effing roll it ain’t.
Still, trio Friendly Fires, who chatted to the Herald in their only face-to-face interview in Buenos Aires before their sound check at La Trastienda last week, beg to differ about their heritage. It seems local rock royalty such as former S Club 7 singer Paul Cattermole (okay, bubblegum pop royalty), punksters Your Demise and Enter Shikari and pop band Saving Aimee were born there, while 80s crooner David Essex lives there. As did the revered comedian (in Argentina certainly) Benny Hill. But the Fires are very much the UK’s band of the moment, playing the main British music festivals including Glastonbury, touring the world and releasing their fifth single Kiss of Life two weeks ago — frankly they are the only Albanian musicians we should be caring about. And all that has been a mere year’s work since the release of their eponymous debut album.
Taken to task over their home town, bearded guitarist Edd Gibson is jokily defensive. “Actually The Zombies (a rock band formed in 1959) went to the same school as we did. I met the drummer’s daughter who told me that. That’s very rock ‘n roll!”
Despite their understandable fondness for their roots, drummer Jack Savidge lives just down the road in Hatfield, and Edd is now based in London, for the unrock ‘roll reason that “my parents moved to Devon which is pretty inaccessible.” However, vocalist Ed Mac has stayed close by. “I live just outside St. Albans and that’s where we have our studio and where we record. If I moved into London it would be hard to find a place where I could make a lot of noise and not get any complaints. And it wouldn’t be very cheap either, to rent somewhere then soundproof it.” How very practical of this electro-indie trio — it sounds like they had a university education.
Jack, who looks worn-out and originally wasn’t up for being interviewed but decides to get in on it anyway, adds: “Coming from St. Albans has actually helped us as we’ve been able to make as much noise as we like for 10 years. We’ve got a lot of respect for bands who come from inner cities and have to worry about paper-thin walls!”
“Can you imagine having to be creative in a space you’ve rented for two hours?” ponders Ed, the eccentric Englishman bedecked in calf-length trousers, lace-up brogues and striped green-and-black socks. (“These are my last few items of relatively clean clothes,” he admits later on, having just arrived from Brazil.) “It seems a really odd way to write music and be creative. The fact that we did have our own space to play until the early hours just let all that creativity run out,” he says.
STUFF OF DREAMS. The Fires’ story is verging on a classic musical fairytale: they met while at school and set up their first punk-focused band; vocalist Ed then released some of his own music on a label while in his late teens; once they graduated from university, the trio was signed up to XL Recordings. Now, thanks to their eponymous album, Friendly Fires have been nominated for the Mercury Prize, a coveted British award for the best breakthrough album of the year, alongside Kasabian, Bat for Lashes and Florence and the Machine. Although not touted as the favourites, the Fires certainly stand a solid chance among the aforementioned faves.
But has it been too much too soon? Twelve months can be a long time in the public eye. Edd disagrees. “It doesn’t seem like it’s happened quickly for us, to be honest. It took us quite a while to even get a record deal. I remember how lots of press were writing about how surprised they were that we didn’t have a deal, so for us it’s been more slow-burning. Our album came out last September and to be nominated for the Mercury this year when others have come out more recently…”
Jack chips in. “We definitely thought everyone would have long forgotten it by the time the nominations were announced. Florence and La Roux, for example, were released in the past two months so it’s good that we’ve kept there and gained some momentum.”
The band had dallied about with two smaller labels, releasing two EPs and a single, and the conversation turns to whether they need the support of a larger label to become successful. Anyone can upload music on to their MySpace website or make a podcast — just how necessary is XL for them?
“To really get anywhere and make headway in a mainstream music scene you definitely need the support of a label,” says Edd. “Unless of course you’re The Prodigy and have enough of a profile to do it yourself. It’s not just about some eccentric billionaire spending his money on you and hoping to get something back out of it.”
“Even with smaller labels, they are often funded in the beginning by bigger ones,” says Ed, “and you need money from somewhere. You’d have to borrow and need a lot of time to invest in everything to do with the label. If you’re a touring band you don’t have the time to do that.”
Obviously this is their first South American jaunt and they have taken in Rio, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, recounts Jack. A minor dispute leads to his being quickly corrected that Mexico City isn’t strictly “south.” Again, does touring this continent so soon seem a bit odd? “To play South America is very much a goal for us as a band, especially Brazil and Argentina, because our music is somewhat influenced by samba,” says Ed. “I really enjoyed Brazil but having seen the countryside in Argentina, I think I might like it more.”
Edd adds: “It’s surprising for us that many more bands don’t bother to come here. I don’t know if people miss it out or don’t lobby their management to come. It seems a real shame.”
They are also surprised at the high cost of gig tickets in Argentina. “I think they are charging more for our show than for last night’s dinner,” says Edd, and it is an issue that local fans in general pay more than their European counterparts to see a favourite band. For last Wednesday’s gig at La Trastienda, one had to fork out a minimum of 180 pesos to get in, some 30 pounds. When Friendly Fires play a homecoming show in St. Albans next week on September 3, some quick internet research reveals the cheapest ticket to be on sale for a mere… £12.
TOUR OF DUTY? Money matters aside, let’s get friendly. When the Fires play live they have a fourth man in tow, Rob Lee. But it’s as a trio that they can’t wait to start writing and recording again and the toll the past 12 months has taken on their music-making process is clear. Touring has naturally helped to raise the band’s profile and is vital. “It’s really important at this stage as we’ve just started out, but we’re now at the point where we’re selling out quite big venues in the UK,” says Edd. “But I don’t think that for the second and third albums touring will be quite extensive as it has been for just one record.”
Ed adds: “The record came out in September 2008 and we toured it while people were still discovering it. Now, more than ever, people are discovering it so we’re now on our second time round promoting it. It’s a good problem to have but it means we’ve toured twice as much.
“I’m surprised we’ve managed to write a song and release it (Kiss of Life came out on August 11, 2009) because of the touring schedule we’ve had. It’s hard to get yourself in the frame of mind for being creative when you’re travelling for a month on a bus, just waking up to set up your equipment — you get into this repetitive cycle and for us, to be able to write properly, we need to be back home in our little personal space. We need to labour it. We’re not the kind of band that can pick up an acoustic guitar and write a song at the back of the bus; it’s just not how we write music and a lot of our music isn’t even chord-based. They don’t start from a guitar but from a drum or synth line.”
But it’s not quite over yet. Over the coming weeks they will play electronic music festival Creamfields in Liverpool, Reading rock festival and Bestival, a fun three-dayer on the Isle of Wight. This gig will be a bit of a landmark as Ed explains. “We last played Bestival two years ago, the only time, we closed the festival in one of the tents, and everyone piled in to see what we were all about. We did a really good show and felt that from that moment that things were starting to take off, that labels were showing real interest and that the general public started to understand what we’re about and got into it. It will be good to go back and play main stage to see how the crowd react this time round.” They aren’t convinced by my attempt at getting them to play Creamfields Buenos Aires (the largest in the world) and Edd is adamant that they’re keeping November free for writing.
Three, of course, can be a crowd but having played together for so long, Ed, Edd and Jack seem to have it worked out, as Edd says. “We know when it’s time to let someone get on with their individual bit. It’s good to write together but sometimes it just needs one person to take it a bit. We’ve been writing together for so long that we know how it works and now it’s about finding the momentum, just keep going. If you hit a block, get out of it, and it’s best to move onto something new.”
Named after a track on the Section 25 album Always Now, Friendly Fires are riding on the crest of a wave and if they’re too polite and home counties to be rock ‘n roll, well it doesn’t matter too much as they’re electro-indie boys with a Mercury nomination under their belt anyway. And politeness and niceness can take you far — recognised by a fan and asked to sign a Union Jack flag on the street, Edd offered to put her on his guest list, quipping: “It’s not like we know anyone in Argentina anyway so we might as well ask randoms from the street to come along.” That said, spotted as soon as they stepped out of the hotel, the trio jointly agree that is was “scary to be recognised” so clearly the fame game hasn’t affected gone to these boys’ heads yet. It seems like a sensible St. Albans upbringing will stand them in good stead for dealing with a long career ahead of them.
First published in the Buenos Aires Herald in August 2009.