London inde-folksters Fanfarlo are back with an amazing second album, Rooms Filled with Light, which sees them edge away from the folk world and embrace synths and electric guitars. This musical shift, however, adds a new dynamic to their music, which sounds more accomplished and ambitious.
Whereas their debut, Reservoir, was self-released, this time they have the backing of a major label which perfectly suits their global appeal and allows their ideas to finally flourish. They headline North London’s Scala on Thursday 1 March for what will surely be the start of a rise into bigger venues.
On a cold day in a Soho tea room Londonist caught up with singer Simon Balthazar and multi-instrumentalist Cathy Lucas to chat about a love of analogue and international security forces.
You’ve just come from Korea. Did you go to see the North? Is it just a barren wasteland?
(Simon) It’s a bit like that, but the de-militarized zone is the only thing you can actually see, which is a wasteland.
(Cathy) No, that’s quite lush because no one can go there. But there are parts where you can see North Korea properly and they’ve just cut down all the trees because they haven’t got anything to build houses with.
Was there any temptation to do an impromptu set for the soldiers there?
(C) Big laughs Justin got some video of one of the soldiers going ‘Fanfarlo’ which we’ll probably put on line at some point. We’re now planning on getting different security services from all over the world to endorse us. Next time US border control, see if they’re up for it.
Was there any fear about releasing your second album?
(S) We recorded the first record at the end of 2008, so I think everyone was scared about recording the second, but I think the main thing was finally getting to record new songs, because we’d been just touring for ever.
(C) Also, it feels this album is just so much better than the first one, so I’m not really worried. I feel like it was easy to move forward, we didn’t have huge amounts of success on the first one so it didn’t create a huge amount of expectation.
Has it been any easier having the backing of major label Atlantic Records this time around?
(S) We’ve been doing a lot of touring, but, we couldn’t even contemplate doing it on our own without a label backing us. But in terms of making the record we’ve been left to our own devices really.
Does working with Atlantic mean you’re after more international success?
(C) I think from their point of view there is. There’s more pressure because a lot of money has been spent. Whereas if we were with an indie label and we sold 10,000 records then that’s OK. You just carry on and make another record quite cheaply. So there is a different push.
So do you feel more pressure?
(S) Not really, most of the pressure we feel is pressure we put on ourselves. The record itself was made last year so we’ve been for the past few months all we’ve been thinking of is the pressure of making it a really interesting performance.
You must go through a different song writing process for a second album?
(S) It was a little bit daunting because we had lots of time for the first record and I think most peoples first record tend to be all the songs you have lying around and you have to pick and choose out of 50 songs to record. So it was literally a matter of come off the road in September, sitting down to write songs for a few months and then got to the studio. But if anything it made the songs more cohesive.
What prompted the change in musical direction and use of electric guitars and synthesizers?
(S) We were out touring for three years and listening to different kinds of music. During that time we had been acquiring new instruments. As musicians we’re quite excited about instruments and what they are as tools of inspiration, and somehow we ended up with a bunch of 80s keyboards. We wanted to try new sounds and analogue synths were what we had around..
So it wasn’t a conscious case of seeing the musical landscape moving away from folk acts and towards a more synth sound?
(C) That’s a cynical take on it really; it’s not a case of ‘oh peoples tastes are changing we need to follow that’. It’s more of a case of finding that my taste is changing and what I want is different and that might be part of a wider thing.
(S) Of course you notice it, and if you take a step back we’re probably part of a Zeitgeist of shifting tastes.
Is it easy to learn these now instruments?
(C) To me all of these things, the synths and the electric guitar it’s all just a creeping out form what we were already doing. We all play the piano already so moving to synths isn’t a big step it’s a similar sort of technique.
Listening to the album I’ve picked up a big 80’s chorus effect to it, particularly the Cure OMD and bits of The The?
(S) I guess it kind of seeped into our consciousness, but I don’t really think of it as an 80s record, but I can see where you’re coming from. We all listen to very different music but there are certain things that kept coming up when we were in the studio like Scott Walker and Kate Bush. Steve Reich and Philip Glass came up too maybe Talking Heads to some extent.
How did the link up with producer Ben Allen come about given his work with Animal Collective is very different to your Reservoir sound?
(C) We were all fans of that album but I’d read about him in Tape Op and liked his philosophy. He’s very song oriented but still searches for an original sound. He’s got a real pop sensibility and said a lot of things in the interview that I liked.
(S) I think Animal Collective was probably a big leap for him because he used to be a hip hop producer and we quite liked the fast he mastered hip hop on one hand and, on the other, guitar music.
Has the recording process changed this time around?
(S) Not much, we make records in a very traditional way, an and like going to residential studios and completely shitting ourselves off from the rest of the world and just recording together for five or six weeks and it’s all very instrument based and analogue. There was no midi bull shit
(C) Well, Replicate features quite a bit, but I’m proud of that. I’m actually really getting into midi right now it’s because you can draw things out which you couldn’t otherwise. So the next album is going to use loads of midi.
Did the songs change much between writing and the studio?
(S) We’re quite big on demoing as part of the writing process, so when we’re writing the songs we have a few versions of each song so going into the studio we had a lot of decisions to make straight away. The first track on the record we had one version which was just strings and electronics and another version which was like the B52s.
So you’re very precise and controlled over how you want to your songs to wound rather than a DIY bang them out approach?
(S) We really like the process of writing, arranging and recording and we really like exploring that.
(C) But I do think that it’s a bit of a false dichotomy between those two things because even if you think you’ve got all your parts down and you really like a version, once you get into the studio it sounds completely different. It’s like you’re doing it for the first time.
(S) Part of what is interesting about the process is allowing for happy accidents to happen. You need to create room.
What are you most proud about on the album?
(S) That’s a good question. It’s extremely based on melodies and songs so it quite a traditional record which is what we aimed for. And hopefully that’s what people will hear cos’ that’s where we put all our effort. I just wanted to create beautiful songs, the rest is just us having fun with songs.
(C) I think Lens Life is a special moment for us, it was the first song we wrote for the album and it’s very different, because it’s not necessarily that immediate, but we managed get a lot of space in there and it sits very well with very little happening. It was very difficult for us because we’ve always been inclined to layer things and be rather lush and beautiful. So I’m proud that we managed to pull back and be very slim line.
Are you concerned with alienating some older fans with your newer sound?
(S) Not really. When I listen to music I expect my artists to keep moving on. If you make a record that’s just more of the same it’s boring as hell. You’ve got to reject what you’ve done previously.
(C) How can an album have an identity of its own if it just sounds like side b of the previous.