Friendly Fires to indulge pop pleasures on tour

by Shaun Curran

Special To The Japan Times

Friendly Fires are happy to finally be back on home turf. It’s no wonder, the year has been predominantly spent living out the tale of their song “Hawaiian Air,” the highlight of second album “Pala” that typifies the trio’s dance-pop vision while bemoaning the monotony of tour travel. Consequently, drummer Jack Savidge is content to be sat backstage at a Bristol Academy concert in Western England “with someone else other than the band to talk to.”

A flippant remark it may have been, but excitable and distracted — more than once our conversation is interrupted — Savidge is in a skittish mood. Nevertheless, there are matters on his mind: first, how tour-weariness won’t be countenanced during the “not long enough” trip to Japan next week.

“It really is one of the best places to play,” he says with obvious candor. “We wish we could do it more often. It’s a real thing to look forward to. The fans are very knowledgeable, very perceptive and responsive. Everything you’d want from an audience, really.”

Yet if Japan is the (not-too-distant) future, then Savidge is equally happy to animatedly talk about the flourishing recent past.

“Well, put it this way,” he announces with sprightly enthusiasm, “it certainly hasn’t been the dreaded second-album syndrome where everything goes down the pan.”

Savidge is right, of course: 2011 has been huge in many respects for Friendly Fires, but then that was always the intention. Dominating the summer festival season with reliably thrilling live performances, including a dynamic appearance at Japan’s Summer Sonic, the band scored their first U.K. Top 10 album with “Pala.” A record that picked up the baton from the slow-burning success of 2008′s self-titled debut and set the controls to pop, it abandons the postpunk-leaning indie-dance of “Friendly Fires” (“we were a bit too much like DFA”) in favor of an unashamedly brash and accessible mainstream sound. “Pala” resonated well in Japan, too, cracking the Top 10 of Oricon’s international chart.

“It still sticks out as doing what we intended to do — make a bright and colorful pop record,” Savidge says with no lack of pride. “That was always the aim. We wanted to make a really triumphant record and lift people up. That’s what we do best. We make music that makes people happy.”

Such unrelenting ambition has always been apparent. After meeting at school in the small city of St. Albans, north of London, Savidge formed Friendly Fires with singer Ed Macfarlane and guitarist Edd Gibson in 2006. They then immediately attempted to detach themselves from the U.K. indie scene by proclaiming to “have more in common with Madonna.” If it was an honest admission, it risked alienating the more snobbish elements of their potential fan base.

“We don’t worry about that too much,” Savidge asserts. “But I don’t think that uplifting, happy music has any less intrinsic value than something serious. I don’t know why that idea exists. It’s perhaps because lots of happy music is made really badly, but there is dour and depressing music that is made with similar cynicism in mind. It’s what works for us.”

The decision to indulge their pop fantasies was a calculated risk, as “Friendly Fires” had found an audience among those fond of hedonistic stories based everywhere from Paris to the pool side, as well as with the fashionistas whose parties the band members often frequented. However, with the exception of a writing trip Macfarlane made to northern France, “Pala” was conceived and executed in their hometown, allowing three school friends to reconnect with their pop influences and “feel comfortable to experiment in an environment that wouldn’t judge us.”

“But our version of pop is different to what people think and say,” Savidge claims. “When we first came out and said we were making a pop record, people were like, ‘What the hell have you done?!’ It was like we were going to become Steps (recently reformed mid-1990s U.K. boy/girl group). But that’s not what it means to us. To us, pop is just good songwriting, a tune that can sound good on the radio. It is something that sounds fun.”

That ethos runs through “Pala” from the very outset, from its call-to-arms opening track “Live Those Days Tonight” (“It’s a reaction to the idea that everything was better years ago. We’re like, ‘We’ll have our fun now, thanks’ “) to its title, inspired by Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel, “Island.”

“In the book, the island Pala is an experimental society based on people living for the moment without a thought for what the consequences are or planning for the future. The record is about that. We wanted it to be enjoyable, something to get lost in for 45 minutes: Catch a moment and forget the rest of the world.”

It’s a stance, Savidge affirms, that differentiates Friendly Fires from most of their peers.

“There’s not much music like that about at the minute. There are lots of backward-looking sounds about, people looking to the ’70s or whatever too much. You barely hear a record in the charts that makes you think it’s the sound of ‘now’, whatever the sound of ‘now’ is.”

For Friendly Fires, the sound of “now” is, Savidge happily states, precisely the one that the trio envisaged when starting the band. But does that mean we should expect Friendly Fires to extend their stay on Pala?

“We’ve found our sound, but we’re not just going to do the same thing over and over. You don’t want to become too predictable. You don’t need people to be too familiar with your sound. Churning out the same old stuff just makes you like AC/DC.”

Friendly Fires play Akaso in Umeda, Osaka, on Dec. 1; and Studio Coast in Shin Kiba, Tokyo, on Dec. 2. Both shows start at 7 p.m. and tickets cost ¥6,000. For more information, visit www.creativeman.co.jp or www.wearefriendlyfires.com.