On Wednesday, March 26, London's Fanfarlo will come across the pond, and the country, to take the stage at Great American Music Hall. Fanfarlo's music features a multi-faceted lushness -- a complex array of textures produced from a combination of classical and cutting edge instruments. The band's lush musical landscapes provide the foundation for catchy pop songs that take on much more meaningful subject matter than most American music fans are accustomed to.
It's not often that Fanfarlo makes its way to the U.S. to tour, much less to the West Coast, so Bay Area fans should definitely take advantage. The band will surely be focusing on cuts from its latest effort, Let's Go Extinct. The new album is a sweeping set of songs, centering on the heavy idea of life's purpose.
Frontman Simon Balthazar and his bandmates don't take this study too seriously, though. The record maintains a lighthearted attitude, asking heavy questions without presuming to have a definitive answer to any of them. Catchy hooks and hip-moving rhythms shine through arrangements that become clearer and more interesting with each subsequent listen. I expect a captivating and multi-layered performance from these Brits.
I spoke to Simon about the process of creating the new record, what we can expect from Fanfarlo live, and a recent tour crisis that ended with a silver lining.
Can you tell me a little about the studio in Wales where you guys recorded Let's Go Extinct?
Basically, the recording of this record was split up over two locations. We spent some time with David Wrench, who's been co-producing the record with us, in a really fantastic studio in Wales. It's a bit of a dying breed. It's one of these old-school studios where you live there, and you record and you come back with your album. You know, it's a residential studio.
There aren't many of them around anymore, but this is one of them. It's old, it's falling apart a little bit, but it's an amazing spot to record in. It's on the outskirts of this little Welsh village. There are old lake quarries around, so there's this strange, black Martian landscape, and a big green-blue crater lake, and all these windy wooden passes. So it's a very strange environment, and the whole studio is painted in these kind of paschal colors. It's very dark and full of stuffed animals and old gear.
That was where we made the skeleton for the record. David [Wrench] has amazing ears and really, really good taste in music. So we had him around to help us. Our usual problem is that we have too many ideas. So he helped us commit and just get some good sounds.
So once we had the ball rolling that way, and had some drums and that sort of thing, we went to another spot -- also in Wales -- which is this house that a friend had gotten a hold of recently and was doing up. It had been empty for 20 years. The place was a bit of a construction site, really. It was very dusty, and it was in the winter, and it didn't really have any proper heating. It had a fireplace and a couple of old radiators.
So you guys were really roughing it, huh?
(laughs) Sort of... you know, we still had electricity and a fully equipped kitchen. So that was all right. But it was winter outside, and it was pretty miserable and raining. I literally didn't leave that house for 10 days. We built a temporary studio. The control room was the living room with a fireplace where we'd all just sit around and drink wine. Then we had a separate room, which was the "live" room. I guess all this went into creating a little bubble for us. We were in our own little world, so we could just form a hive mind and not really think about the rest of the world for a little while.
Living together in this way, and having big family meals together, and listening to music and making music -- that's kind of how we did it.
So would you say that these two locations have an imprint on the record?
They do in the sense that, like I said, it was our way of creating an environment where we could just let it happen. That's the hard thing when you work as a group. You have to stop worrying about what other people think and become a unit.
I guess it was quite a meditative environment, as well. This is a record full of thoughts about what is it to be human. Where did we come from? What really is a mind and a consciousness in ourselves? These are quite fundamental questions, really. So we were playing with these ideas. Obviously, a lot of the songs were already written, but being in this environment helped us to conclude them and let the album be a fully formed, cohesive thing.
I wanted to ask you about the subject matter of the record. Obviously these are very deep, existential questions for us all. What specifically inspired you guys to take that idea and run with it?
I guess this is the thing -- at least speaking for myself, and probably for the others as well. To me, these are not academic questions. These are everyday questions that should be really fundamental to how you live your life and how you relate. If you think of a person as this spirit that lives inside a brain, and the rest of the world is just matter, and humans and animals are completely different -- versus thinking of the world as really being quite interconnected and thinking of the mind as being a product of cells working together, the difference between human and animals really not being that great -- just seeing some of the similarities between things and connections between things, these are various ways that you can look at the world. And there are many other ways of looking at the world. There are so many different ways that you can choose to organize the universe in your head, and these are fundamental questions.
There probably aren't any answers, but asking the questions is very important. To me, it makes a lot of sense to use pop music -- there's no reason that pop music can't be part of the discussion, if that makes sense. I'd hate for anyone to think that this is any sort of hyperbolic attempt at being "deep." This is playful. This is "serious play."
At the end of the day this is what philosophy is. It's just a great way to think about everything you do. I want everything to be "serious play."
Do you think listeners have focused too specifically on the subject matter and the deep questions that are being asked, as opposed to just letting the music play, and listening, and enjoying it?
It's hard for me to say, isn't it? I'd like to think that people get that, on one level, it's nice music. It's melodies, and it can just be a soundtrack to going about your life, if you want. Or you can think about some of the questions that hopefully we manage to ask, but I'm happy for people to take away whatever they want from this record. It's fun music, and it should be beautiful and sad and uplifting and emotional -- just like a soundtrack of your life.
You guys have mentioned that this record feels free of expectation. What sort of expectations have you had to deal with?
Our own ones, mainly. It was quite stressful making the second record, I guess just because a second record is stressful to make. We made the first record, and it did quite well, and we toured for two or three years really. Then, we got to a point where we were just dying to get off the road and make a record. We all had ideas -- we should be doing something different on this record, we should be doing something new, but what should that be? We had a producer, and he had some ideas, and we had some ideas. So there was a lot of tension. Nothing that was threatening to ruin everything, but it was tough -- it is tough to make a second record.
I love a lot of the stuff on that second record, and I think some of those songs came out really well. But for me, it was a bit of a stressful time. And now, when we're making a third record, the main thing is that wow, we're actually making a third record! We're having a proper lifespan of a band. This is great; this is really growing into something. We just felt free to let whatever happened happen.
We just got to the point where we felt that we'd been through a lot together, and we'd had so many good and bad things happen, and such a life together as a band. Anything that happens now is just an extra. Hopefully we get to keep making records, but we're just so proud of everything that we've done that we didn't feel like anything was on the line. In that sense, we could just do what we felt like.
Also, the first and second records were released on a major label, and this one we're self-releasing. So go-figure.
You guys tend to use a lot of classical instruments -- you've got a lot of strings and you've got a lot of brass, and then you have these electronic textures and synthesizers going on. From the beginning, did you guys say, "We're Fanfarlo and this is what we're going to do?" Or did it organically grow into what it is now?
It definitely wasn't very conscious. It wasn't strategically thought out. I think when we make records we have a kid-in-a-candy store approach. We really love the process of recording and seeing it come together, and we love drawing on influences from the music we love and the instruments we know how to play ourselves, and maybe some of those that we've just learned to play. It ends up that way because we're just so excited to get all these elements into the mix of things.
I guess that's why our records have always been -- there's a lot going on. I think that may be our biggest problem. We have too many ideas and we want to try too many things. Everything becomes quite layered and eclectic. The hardest thing would be for us to do a really straight-up record with very minimal instrumentation.
Well there's your idea for the fourth record.
Maybe! You have to challenge yourself. So maybe that's the next thing we'll do.
For this tour, are you planning anything different from what you've done in the past? Any new production aspects, cool new technologies, anything like that?
We're talking about keeping it simple. I think, in a way, we feel really excited about what's going on musically on stage at the moment. We got a new a drummer [Valentina Magaletti], and she's really on it -- she's super dynamic. We all feel similarly to when we were making the record. We just feel so good about what we're playing and so excited to be up there and playing new songs. I think for us, this time, it's really all about how we play the music.
We have some simple lighting stuff that we're doing, but we're not really bothering with projections or anything like that. It's all about a really dynamic show. We have three albums to pull from now, which for us is really exciting. We can craft a show out of all this music that we've done over the years. It's all about that.
We've just gone a month around Europe, and it's been amazing. The shows are going so well, and people know all the new songs. I'm feeling super positive about what we're playing. Maybe that's a bad look, though. People like miserable musicians, right?
It sounds like everybody is comfortable with their place in the dynamic of the band.
Yeah, and I'll tell you something else that helped us out as well. We actually had a really stressful incident in Spain. Our bassist, Justin, had been having some issues for a little while with a sort of infection in a muscle. But it got really bad, and he was really in pain, so he had to go to the hospital. We thought they'd sort him out, he'd get some antibiotics, and he'd come back and do the show.
We found out one hour before we were to play in Valencia that, no, he's going to have an emergency operation and be out for at least 3 days. So we're just like, okay, we're doing a big sold out theatre show that's being filmed. Either we have to cancel it, which is not really an option, or we just have to do something without bass. Without bass, it's really hard to have any drums. So we're looking at having to play something off the cuff and doing an acoustic set, which we'd really never done.
So we just thought, it's a challenge and we're going to have to do it. We did a half-hour emergency rehearsal backstage, and pulled out whatever songs we thought would work acoustically. Some of them didn't work so well, but most of them worked really well, and we got a really good response. I guess people felt that they were part of this thing, and we needed everybody together to make it happen.
It was a really rewarding experience, even though it was really stressful. We ended up doing three shows pretty much all-acoustic. It was cool, you know? I think that has added to what we're doing live now. Some of the things we've added to the regular show. I think we all came out of it more confident.
Bands tend to play with the arrangements for a live show, and do various things to add a different direction than the record. What can we expect to be different from Fanfarlo's albums in your live show?
We always play around with our arrangements. We'll see what you get, especially with some of the stuff off the first record. Those songs have been through maybe four or five different live versions over the years. Right now we're going for quite a theatrical, dynamic performance. We have some really quiet, orchestral acoustic moments. Then, we have loads of disco going on at times, as well. It goes to a lot of different places.
Fanfarlo performs on Wednesday, March 26, at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit slimspresents.com.