By Daniel Kohn
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Friendly Fires spark new life into a dead genre
Friendly Fires are sure off to a strong start. Their self-recorded, self-titled debut got them signed to their dream label, XL, and soon, the dance-y English trio were supporting Lykke Li on her breakout U.S. tour—they even chimed in with a slinky cover of her song “I’m Good, I’m Gone.”
In that short time, they’ve done for disco what Vampire Weekend did for Afrobeat: graft it to appealing guitar pop and inspire suburban youths around the world to flail their limbs in clean-cut rapture. This isn’t dance punk or some other hipster permutation, though. It’s pure and reverent, more Bee Gees than DFA.
“It’s just music we like,” offers singer/guitarist Ed Macfarlane, who dips into buttery falsetto from time to time. “We drag all these influences [into] a concise pop song. We’re a pop band first and foremost. That’s the kind of music we’re interested in writing. But I love disco and house, rock, shoegaze, electronica . . . I feel like we’re taking things from different genres and putting them in a different context.”
Macfarlane is no stranger to jumping genres, nor is keyboardist/guitarist Edd Gibson or drummer Jack Savidge. The three have been close friends and kindred spirits since meeting in their dull hometown of St. Albans, where they formed the Fugazi-inspired First Day Back at the tender age of 14. Meanwhile, Macfarlane was tinkering with electronic music. Neither mode seems like an obvious precursor to Friendly Fire’s nimble ditties, but Mcfarlane says there are remnants of both in the band’s sound.
“I don’t think we completely left those styles of music,” he explains. “Live, we still have that quite raw, trashy, aggressive element that all good post-hardcore bands have.” And as far as electronic stuff, fellow St. Albans native Chris Clark’s work for noted label Warp has been a big inspiration from the start. Beyond that, says Macfarlane, the three devoured everything they could track down during college.
“We were getting into really simplistic, minimal house and techno,” he recalls. “I think pop music and house have a lot in common, in the sense that a good house song is getting one idea and looping it. But the idea’s got to be strong enough that you can listen to it for eight minutes or however long. . . . I’m not really sure what kind of music we write. To me, it’s dance-influenced, cinematic, romantic pop.”
The trio’s debut arms lean tunes with flickering synths, bungee-like bass lines, rat-a-tat drumming and funky hooks. There’s some Prince and B-52s there, but Friendly Fires feel more fresh than derivative, and they’re always shifting gears. “White Diamonds” works best as a stripped-down dance-floor beacon, whereas “Paris” summons dreamy pop worthy of Phoenix, and “Photobooth” obeys the tense, angular edges of classic post-punk. “Jump In the Pool,” the album’s one song produced with outside help, even takes a stab at shoegazer denseness.
Credit for that goes to famed British producer Paul Epworth, who has helmed albums by Bloc Party, the Futureheads, Maximo Park and many others. He proved such a good fit for Friendly Fires that he has already signed on for their second album. Macfarlane says Epworth seems more like a fourth member of the band than a hired producer, and the recording process is quite democratic under his guidance. “We all sit around and [contribute],” he says. “That, to me, is what a good producer should be like.”
It’s a far cry from the producer the band enlisted for a demo when they were just 16. “The guy used to be in a band called Hello, who I think were massive in Japan and Germany,” Mcfarlane recounts with mock horror. “He had a picture of himself back in the ’80s with these massive, high-heel, silver boots on, playing in dry ice. Every record he records at his studio ends up sounding like Hello. [The demo] was possibly the worst-produced piece of music I’ve ever heard in my life.”
No wonder Friendly Fires recorded their first album themselves. But now that they’ve hooked up with Epworth, Macfarlane says they’re excited to step back from their songs a bit. “You definitely lose perspective,” he admits. “That’s the plus side to working with a producer. They keep you in check and tell you what’s good and what’s bad.”
Ideally, they also resist bringing out the silver boots and dry ice.
Friendly Fires at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Tues., 9 p.m. $12. 21+. Also at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Empire Polo Field, 81-800 Ave. 51, Indio; www.coachella.com. April 19. Check website for set time and ticket pricing.