Friendly Fires interview: ‘I know I sound more and more like George Michael, but I’m not trying to!’
The trio are back with a new album, ‘Inflorescent’, after eight years. It’s not for nostalgia’s sake, they tell Roisin O’Connor, and they still have no interest in shooting their mouths off
I’m not into band feuds,” Friendly Fires frontman Ed Mcfarlane begins. “There’s so much f**king negativity out there, I’d rather come out with something positive.” The three-piece rose to fame amid the hordes of indie bands in the mid-Noughties, but were nothing like the guitar-toting, pork pie hat-wearing loudmouths such as Razorlight and The Libertines, who appeared on the cover of NME every week. They shirked controversy as much as they could – and apparently still do. But this quietly stoic and intelligent approach to music earnt them their fair share of fans, along with a Mercury Prize nod for their self-titled debut in 2009 (they lost to Speech Debelle).
Freshly jet-lagged after a string of shows in Australia, the group – whose members met at the £6,500-a-term independent St Albans School in Hertfordshire, aged 13, before forming Friendly Fires at university – are sat outside a bar in London’s King’s Cross, on the hottest day in Britain since records began. They look tanned, dressed almost uniformly in plain T-shirts and shorts. Everyone is sipping Negronis. We’re here to discuss Inflorescent, their third album and first in eight years. Thanks to a vibrant, almost tropical dance-pop sound, it’s also arguably their best. Following a triumphant show at this year’s Glastonbury Festival and five years since a somewhat infamous disappearing act where they went on hiatus with little to no warning, it feels as though fans are more than ready to welcome them back. Or, something like that.
“The loudest ones were basically like… ‘You f***ing bastards,’” frontman Ed Mcfarlane laughs. “‘Why did you go away for so long?’”
They’d split off to do their own thing – drummer Jack Savidge DJ-ing and running a club night, and Mcfarlane and guitarist Edd Gibson collaborating with Jon Brooks (who performs as electronic music act The Advisory Circle) under the name Pattern Forms in 2016. It seemed like they were trying to extract themselves completely from the death throws of landfill indie, having become tired of being lumped in with The Kooks, Kaiser Chiefs and Razorlight despite their completely different sound.
“The typically UK sounds have never really applied to us,” Mcfarlane says. “Meat and potatoes rock’n’roll… it feels like every generation has to have one of those bands (he cites Kasabian and Catfish and the Bottlemen as examples) that are supposed to fill a void.”
There’s perhaps a lingering resentment that those other bands, who mouthed off knowing it would make headlines in the British music press, were favoured in coverage at the time. By comparison, Friendly Fires are almost annoyingly careful, to the point where Savidge is so concerned I might perceive a comment about Feeder doing an anniversary tour as an insult that he clarifies his appreciation for them before we part ways. But that doesn’t mean they don’t offer some opinion.
“There’d be a band with one or two singles out, but they’d get an NME cover because they were controversial – they said stuff about wanting to be the biggest band ‘not only in the world, but the universe!’… and with us it was like…” Mcfarlane trails off with a shrug.
Inflorescent is a melange of bright, cheerfully cheesy synth-pop that nods to the rave music of the late Eighties and early Nineties… with plenty of Brazilian funk, samba and funk influences. “That music is so infectious, and I feel like that’s at the core of what we do,” Mcfarlane says. “There’s a sample by [Seventies Brazilian greats] Banda Black Rio on the record, in some parts the melodies are quite crass… and it’s all incredibly happy.”
That said, there are lyrics on several tracks that suggest he was writing in the aftermath of a difficult breakup. “Can’t you let me be?” he sings on “Cry Wolf”, “You know that you’re the cause of my anxiety/ It’s like I always have to be within your reach/ You’ll never let me go.” Is he addressing the end of a toxic relationship?
“I think there’s a general theme that runs through it… for me it’s about the realisation of being comfortable in the wrong skin, and continuing despite the consequences,” he answers, somewhat vaguely. He’s more direct about the sense of escapism the overall sound offers: “One thing Noel Gallagher talks about that I agree with, which is I don’t need someone to tell me how s**t the world is,” he says. “I feel more of an affinity with that kind of songwriting.”
“Some people can deliver that message with authenticity, but I don’t know if people necessarily need to hear it from us,” Savidge agrees. “All the songs on Inflorescent have this very now or never, seize the moment kind of vibe.”
One of the most noticeable things about the record is how Mcfarlane’s singing voice has changed. Where their self-titled debut was delivered in a manner that recalled Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke – a kind of piercing shout – on Inflorescent, Mcfarlane sounds remarkably like George Michael.
“It’s weird, I’ve noticed that more and more,” he says, laughing. “I love George Michael but I’m not trying to sound like him at all. I guess I’ve only recently started to view myself as a singer, where before I wasn’t that comfortable with it.”
It’s interesting that their return coincides with new music from their old peers, including Razorlight and The Kaiser Chiefs. But Friendly Fires are certain that their motivations for reforming have nothing to do with nostalgia.
“We could have done an anniversary tour but it’s a bit like saying, ‘Do you wanna come and see us perform these songs a bit older and rustier?’” Savidge says.
“I don’t feel like the motivation was like ‘I need that admiration again’,” Gibson agrees. “It’s more likely that you’re going be met with cynicism.”
Inflorescent is out on Friday