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Friendly Fires in Shanghai

 

Friendly Fires can put on a show. In their performance at Mao Livehouse last week, the music, the dancing, the audience and the lights all came together to form a danceable, modern-disco spectacular.

Friendly Fires consist of Edd Gibson, Jack Savidge and Ed Macfarlane, three guys from the suburbs of London who met and formed a band when they were just teenagers. Since then, they’ve had a slow-rising but successful climb in music, marking their brand of music with a disco influenced, dance-punk samba sound. Their first album, Friendly Fires (2008), debuted quietly on the UK charts but eventually—through a load of live performances but also a fair amount of word-of-mouth—found its top spot at #21. So it was no surprise that their follow-up, Pala (2011), made it up to #6. But Friendly Fires aren’t a band that relies on only their albums to sell music. These guys are just as much about the show.

They give the audience carefree and dance-heavy music bliss. When they start playing, it’s hard not to start moving, but not only because of their sound—it’s also because of their liveliness onstage. Ed, the lead singer, is already well-known for not only his exuberant vocals, but his enthusiastic (and occasionally frantic) dance moves. During their live show, Ed was all over the place, frequently crouching down as the song began, only to spring back up like a jack-in-the-box as the main melody started. He damn near danced his shirt off, which to me is really the only worthwhile sign of good dancing. He also didn’t limit himself to the stage either, at one point coming off into the very full audience and working his way through the crowd, never missing a note.

Edd, the lead guitarist, and Jack on drums were restricted to the stage by their instruments, but it didn’t stop their gusto. Mao was pretty hot that night, but I think that these guys would have been soaked in sweat no matter the temperature from the sheer force that they put into their live performance. Even the cow bell was played with a heavy dose of passion.

I feel like Friendly Fires is a band you hear on an album and think, “Yeah, they’re pretty good,” but you don’t fully appreciate them till you see them in a show. But in addition to their fantastic live show, off-stage as well the guys proved themselves to be completely affable, unpretentious, and show a sly sense of respect and humor with each other, as well as appearing to be completely baffled as to why they’re so popular.

I met with Edd and Jack pre-show to talk about music, live performances, China and meeting as kids, among other things.

On Western audiences vs. Eastern audiences

Jack: Beijing was pretty good. And Hong Kong too didn’t feel that different, though Japan’s a little bit different. Japan’s a little bit sort of static and appreciative. But very, very appreciative.

Edd: They know when it’s their time to clap. They don’t want to tread on any toes by dicking all over the chorus of your song.

On writing songs and their most recent album Pala:

Jack: We wanted it to be a bit bigger feeling with this record, more intricate and more colorful and exciting. We tend to sort of work up instrumentals first, and then Ed takes them away and sings on them. We just do as much as is humanly possible and then Ed stops procrastinating and gets on the vocals.

Edd: I think maybe we have quite a short attention span to music. When we’re writing we’re the first to say, “This thing’s gone on for too long; we need to move on to a different section or a different sound.” We had all the time in the world to make the first album because no one knew of us and there was no time limit, but you can hear a difference between earlier recorded songs and the latter tunes like “Jump in the Pool” and “Kiss of Life.” And we didn’t want to repeat ourselves by bringing out the samba record but I think we had definitely found our feet and more of a personal sound in those songs and so we kind of wanted to continue with it, making it just as vibrant and exciting to us as possible and just hope that other people would like it.

On pressure:

Edd: It comes around in the sort of dark times, when writing’s not going too well, and then suddenly the devil on your shoulder starts whispering, “You’d better get a move on. A lot of people are expecting a lot of stuff!” But you can’t write thinking like that. You just have to wait for it to come. You can’t force it.

On struggling with perfection:

Jack: There’s generally a lot of tinkering and fannying about before you finally get a final version of a song. It’s obviously possible to tinker forever. But I think some of the best things we’ve done have been the quickest things: “Hawaii” was really, really quick, and “Paris” was really quick. But that happens once in a blue moon, really. I think my favorite song of ours is “Hurting,” and that was a very slow process—piecing it together—and it’s quite intricate.

Edd: I think we know when it’s finished. You can, you know, keep on changing the mix levels till the cows come home and we did do that with a lot of things and you can just get lost in this world of perfection and hearing things that no one else does, things that not even bats would give two shits about. You just need to realize: right, this is done; the core is there. Whatever you add on top of it isn’t going to make it a better song; it’s just going to make it a different song.

On their disco influences:

Jack: I think there’s just a long continuum of music that disco is a part of that—soul disco, house, techno—and then whatever’s going on now, that’s our meat and drink really, as a band. It’s what we listen to so it seems kind of natural that we sound like that.

Edd: Disco had a massive revival at the start of about 2005/06 that sort of grabbed my ears, anyway. That was the first time I really started listening and getting into it. I guess there’s an element of our first record where we’re trying to emulate that sound. It was properly inspirational.

On finding cool sounds for their records:

Jack: On “Jump in the Pool,” there was actually a YouTube video that we took a sample of it and put it on the end on the end of the song. It’s like a…some kind of a…

Edd: Like a Peruvian rave.

Jack: Yeah, a drum rave.

Edd: Just people going absolutely mad in the streets—amazing sort of rollicking percussion going on. You think, “I want to do that! I want that in what we do.” So, you just sort of steal the most fun elements from around the world. I guess the Internet lets you do that; lets you have a glimpse wherever you are. You don’t have to go down to your local record store and hope that there’s a massive “World” section there.

On what to expect from a live performance of Friendly Fires:

Jack: Nothing awful like a puppet show or anything. It’s definitely a performance.

Edd: I think from experience, from going to a show of a band that you love and either being let down because they don’t seem to be enjoying what they do or just being totally convinced or turned around because they throw themselves into it has affected me personally on so many shows. It clearly means something to me. It’s what you want to put forward in your own music.

Jack: I think we definitely approach live shows with a sort of different head on than recording. We sort of write as we record, and then you sort of have to learn the songs again and change them for a live performance. So it tends to be a proper rock band reading of the actual songs.

On their first gig as teenagers:

Jack: It was at school, wasn’t it? And it was at lunch time. Our school had this thing called “Rock Week” which I imagine probably doesn’t go on now…

Edd: It’ll be “Dubstep Week” now.

Jack: All the rock bands of the school play a sort of depressing half an hour gig at lunch time, which we did. And it was alright.

On their 13-year-old selves versus their 27/28-year-old selves as musicians:

Edd: It’s all relative. I think for 13-year-olds we were very good. (laughs) But for 27-year-olds it would have been appalling.

On being recognized:

Jack: Doesn’t happen. Well, I don’t know…

Edd: Just about only at our own gigs, that’s all. We can normally walk through the front door fairly easily.

On what they do to stay sane while touring and traveling:

Edd: Nothing. Just accept it. Just relinquish yourself to the fact that it’s going to destroy you and you’ll be shaving months off your lifespan.

On social networking:

Edd: It’s all about Bebo now.

 

It really was a spectacular show—a full performance that the audience happily danced and sang along to at every possible moment. And it left me eager for the next time I get to see these guys live.

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