Having survived comparisons to the Arcade Fire and Beirut, Fanfarlo prove that they are an energetic, witty, and ever-evolving band.
In 2009, London's Fanfarlo made their mark in the US upon the release of their full length, Reservoir. The album arrived to mixed reviews (7/10 from PopMatters and a cumulative 71/100 on Metacritic), though this writer would have rated it higher as I had the album on regular rotation. Tracks like "Fire Escape" and "Harold T Wilkins" had been around in earlier incarnations, and the band had caught the ear of David Bowie, but Fanfarlo were not pulling in as big of a draw as bands like Arcade Fire, or even Beirut, which they had been compared to by some critics.
However, those who may have caught them because of those comparisons would be surprised to find that Fanfarlo have changed up their sound on their 2012 follow-up, Rooms Filled with Light. The music has become darker, more electronic and tinged with new wave. But it has still kept me interested. From what I've read, I had originally believed that the prominent face of the band was lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Simon Balthazar. But the direction of this album made it seem more like a collaborative effort. The other four members, Cathy Lucas, Amos Memon, Justin Finch and Leon Beckenham, offer their extensive talents to the band's music. Before the band's performance at Webster Hall in New York City, PopMatters had a chance to sit down with Memon and Beckenham to discuss the new album and touring life.
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Your new album Rooms Filled with Light is a bit darker in sound. Was that a direction you knew you were going to take following your previous album Reservoir?
Amos Memon: Naturally the second album is a reaction to the first album. We already had decided that our sonic palette was going to change. We listened to different stuff as well as -- different influence. There was a period of about three and a half years between recording Reservoirand recording the next album. That’s a large amount of time for everything to change, for us to grow as musicians.
Leon Beckenham: Also bearing in mind that some of the songs that were on Reservoir had been written a couple years prior. Some of those songs now are very old. There's been like an evolution in the sound as Amos said. There was a bit of a reaction to the first album, wanting to move on in another direction. It was mostly informed by the natural evolution of what music we listen to.
What music were you listening to in between?
AM: We listened to a lot of minimalist composers. Lots of experimental music as well. We've all got our favorite bands that we always follow and go and see and still be inspired by. Maybe I think creatively, the main thing was a bunch of minimalist composers.
LB: A bunch of '70s pop as well. A lot more of the sort of electronic music. We wanted to move away from the grand orchestral sound. We wanted to keep using the orchestral instruments, the trumpet and the violin, but then use them in a different way. A sort of more interesting and less naturalistic way.
Was that why you reached out to [producer] Ben Allen?
AM: Like choosing the producer for Reservoir, we had a short list of people and we just narrowed it down. Ben Allen was the perfect fit.
LB: He seemed to really get what we were talking about. He really seemed to understand what we were saying. He seemed to have ideas straight from the get-go as well that we really digged. We just seemed to connect from the start on a creative level.
AM: He had produced bands such as Deerhunter and Animal Collective, who I think also have that mix. Maybe they listen to a lot of experimental music as well. I know certainly on their label they release a lot of interesting music yet have a pop sensibility to them. Very melodic. Certain songs are just out and out pop, to my ears anyways.
Is he Welsh? Did you have to bring him over to record the album?
AM: No, he's American. Where is he from originally?
LB: I dunno, he lives in London now but originally I'm not sure.
AM: He's based in Atlanta. So we brought him over to the UK and we recording in Wales, four hours away from London. Far enough away from home so there were no distractions. But the record was mixed in Atlanta so Simon [Balthazar] and Cathy [Lucas] went back to mix with him in his studio.
How long did the recording process take for the new album?
AM: The recording process was six weeks and the mixing process was under two weeks or so. If you add it up, it's two months to go and get it finished.
Did you end up with a lot of leftover material? Like b-sides or anything?
LB: Not a whole lot. We did end up with different versions of the songs. Or like half-finished versions of a song before we went in a different direction. Maybe there were like a couple songs.
AM: Yeah, something like "Vostok" which you can get. It is an outtake from the album sessions but we've included it on a special edition of the album as a bonus track. There might be like two other tracks we've written that we have parts for.
You spoke of different versions of your tracks. I know when I saw you guys at the Mercury Lounge, you revisited some of your Reservoir songs with the newer sound. Do you believe your songs are living and breathing and you can change them?
AM: I'm of the opinion that we shouldn't stray too far away from the original template. But as we've discarded a couple of instruments, the songs have to change anyway. They're going to sound different. I think it happens to a lot of bands as well. Everyone plays their songs live for years and years and then it gets to a point where you rearrange them.
LB: Well firstly, you want to play them differently because you've played them a thousand times in the original format. But also, if we played them exactly the same, they would jar with the new sound. We wanted to create the bridge between the old album and the new using reformatted or reimagined older songs. We've got a great reaction so far because people do recognize them.
Did you guys learn any new instruments for the new album? What new instruments are included?
AM: Well, Simon used to play the clarinet and from the clarinet he went back to the saxophone, which he used to play when he was twelve and then left it on the shelf.
LB: It's mostly the saxophone, which does feature on the album itself.
AM: For you, you've actually started using a lot of electronics with your trumpet.
LB: I've basically started using a looping pedal. You've probably heard on the album it has got a lot of layers of brass. So I try to recreate that using a looping pedal, which can be quite tricky [Amos chuckles] to replicate three or four horn parts at once especially getting the loop in sync.
AM: It's fun every day. Every day it could be different.
LB: Yeah that’s been the biggest the change for me. Just harmonizing to myself, like three, four or five layers, to create this big almost brass band sound.
AM: A one-man brass section.
LB: A one-man brass section. Yeah.
As you used the word replicate, I'll ask you about "Replicate," the song. Is it about a virus or a parasite?
AM: Both those are correct. I listen when Simon says what the song is about then I just delete it and forget it immediately. I just like having the song and I interpret it differently as well even though I'm in the band. Bu it does touch upon viruses and replication.
LB: Viruses are a sort of metaphor for ideas, be them good or bad ideas. Like the idea of memes for example. The idea that certain behaviors and certain ideas get passed on through populations and through generations and how that is not necessarily a good thing.
Is there a lot of fear of technology then? Or fear of modernizing perhaps?
LB: I wouldn't say so much fear as a weary concern of the direction it is taking us.
AM: A bit of everything on this album. We've got consumerism. There's a song about a lake, "Tunguska"
LB: "Tunguska" is…
That’s about the meteorite I remember reading, right?
A and LB: [Agreeing]
AM: Yeah, sorry, that’s the meteorite, right.
LB: There's lots of commentary about contemporary life.
AM: Geography, science fiction. I'm trying to think of what else is there.
LB: Almost a sort of sci-fi influence. Sort of pop from a sci-fi angle. Exploring ideas rooted in reality and then taking them to an extreme.
People have reviewed your new album saying it’s a bit noir, a bit dark. Some '70s and '80s influences.
LB: The other thing is there is dark humor in it. Some of the songs do point to the ridiculousness of the human condition. That’s always funny and dark and slightly tragic.
AM: I think the light and dark thing in pop music or just music has been done for a long time. You've got blues singers moaning about how bad their lives are but the songs are hummable but you can get down and stomp to them. Then you've got bands like The Smiths who do the same thing. You listen to the music and it's so upbeat, but check out the lyrics and something else is going on there.
I'm curious to know about "Lenslife" which is focused on chronicling your life to excess.
LB: I think that’s possibly one of the most easily interpreted songs. How we don’t really stop to experience reality but we are always capturing it through technology without actually experiencing it firsthand. The idea of living through a lens, or a camera, or through a computer, or through a piece of technology that filters out reality. Or filters reality through and how that is going to inevitably affect how we are going to see things.
AM: A modern observation.
What is one of your favorite tracks?
AM: This has been my favorite since the album was recorded; it's "A Flood". That just hits the spot for me.
LB: You're a romantic you. [Both laugh]. It’s the closest we've ever come to a love song. It's not a love song but it’s the closest we've ever come to one especially in so far as the melodies and harmonies. But I'm always a big fan of "Tightrope." I love the energy.
AM: "Feathers" is good as well. I really enjoy playing it live.
LB: "Tunguska" is actually a stand out. They are all great.
Yeah, I think "Feathers" leapt out to me at first. But other tracks stand out as I keep playing it.
AM: It's definitely a grower.
So the album ends with "Everything Resolves". It’s a very short track. What's your opinion, is everything resolving in a positive way or in a negative way?
AM: Well it’s a companion piece to "Everything Turns," which is a few tracks earlier on the album.
The other instrumental?
AM: Yeah, the other instrumental.
LB: I think it points more to a sort of resignation. Everything turns, everything resolves. Bringing resignation that the universe acts in a certain way. On some of the songs you can point to this as well. Kurt Vonnegut-esque. "So it goes."
So you mean there is no real direction to it. It's not positive or negative. It's just "so it goes."
LB: Exactly. That’s my interpretation.
AM: It’s a understanding that you kind of know what the conclusion will be. You'll fade away from this planet at some point but there will be other people behind you.
Well, hopefully your music will last and keep your memory going, right?
AM: [Laughs] We'll see. On a format we have yet to discover.
Ok so tell me about this tour. You started in Europe?
LB: It was a really a short or small run of shows just honing the stage craft for this big tour. We played a big London show just before we came out. It went really well.
And you played in Boston last night?
LB: Boston was great. It was the best show, personally that I've done in a while.
AM: Oh okay.
LB: The audience though were a big part of that I think.
AM: I would disagree with Leon but I'm speaking from a technical perspective.
LB: I hadn't noticed; I was in the moment.
Is there anything you are looking forward to on the North American tour? I know you are going to Coachella at the very end.
AM: Coachella? Yeah that would be sort of a new experience for us. Crazy Californians.
LB: Yeah definitely looking forward to Coachella; that should be a highlight.
AM: I'm picking out, as far as club shows go, Nashville, because I've never been to Nashville. And the show we're going to play with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Girls. I'm just going to be a fan for that show. And Columbus, Ohio since I've got so many friends there. So I'm looking forward to that.
I saw on the band's Twitter that you guys have a new tour bus? Is that a good experience? How is that going?
LB: I'm exhausted.
AM: We're kind of suffering from that. We're just getting used to the roads. It's an east coast situation where all the roads have deteriorated over the years so it's been really bumpy.
LB: It's not easy to get a decent night's sleep.
AM: We're both top bunks as well so I think we jump around a bit more.
LB: The grass is greener on the other side. We're used to touring a van doing like 40 or 50 sometimes 20-hour van journeys. This is definitely superior to that. But at the same time we've only just started and it already feels a little bit claustrophobic in there. So we'll see. We'll probably get used to it.
AM: Yeah. I was just thinking of inventions that I could put into my bunk. Whether I could encase myself in some kind of jelly so all the shocks would be absorbed. Get some springs [laughs] like a flotation tank.
I can easily see making a mess out of that though.
AM: Well it would be spilling over on Cathy. She's got the lower bunk.
Do you guys have any other comments you'd like to share with PopMatters readers?
AM: To people who are curious about the album, just listen to it twice. Don't dismiss it on the first run through. Listen to it on some headphones as well. I think there is a lot more going on. It’s a headphones album to an extent. Just embrace it.
LB: The live experience is always going to be head and shoulders even better than the album, so come see us live and experience it.