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PLAYED ON: Friday 12 December 2008

Friendly Fires

Gig info

Some facts about St Albans: the Campaign For Real Ale started there in 1972; it’s home to the Royal National Rose Society; and a number of episodes of Inspector Morse were filmed there. In other words, it’s suburbia writ large. Ed Macfarlane, Edd Gibson and Jack Savidge didn’t really have much choice but to form a band.

Say hello to Friendly Fires, born of commuter belt boredom, now one of the most exciting new bands in the country. Last year, a super limited seven-inch, Paris, was judged to be the single of the week in both the NME and The Guardian. They were the first unsigned band to appear on Channel 4’s Transmission show. Radio 1 DJs Zane Lowe, Colin Murray and Rob Da Bank are fans. Now signed to XL, they count Radiohead, The White Stripes and Adele as their labelmates.

It’s not hard to see what all the fuss is about. The aforementioned Paris is a deft combination of clattering percussion and a blissed out, hum-along hook, In The Hospital combines a driving punk funk groove with an unstoppable pop melody and MacFarlane’s joyous vocals in the chorus of Skeleton Boy give the song such a lift you could dust under the band’s amps. Then there’s the brilliantly wonky waltz-like rhythms on White Diamonds, which point to their love of German techno label Kompakt, while the Paul Epworth-produced first single Jump In The Pool is an inspired collision of loose Liquid Liquid drums and My Bloody Valentine atmospherics. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that they recorded it entirely themselves on a laptop, laying down one instrument at a time and using a “crappy microphone gaffer taped to a mic stand”.

Macfarlane (vocals, synths, bass), Gibson (guitar) and Savidge (drums) met at school. They formed their first band, called First Day Back - “I know,” says Savidge with a wry smile - when they were 14. They played a hybrid of Fugazi-inspired post-hardcore with lots of math rock guitars and no vocals. “I think we took everything a little too seriously back then,” says Macfarlane. “Obviously, it’s changed a lot since then. Writing a pop song wasn’t very high on our agenda, but now we definitely want to write songs with a pop edge.”

There’s also a dance influence clearly audible in Friendly Fires. They’ve covered house tracks such as Good Life by Inner City and, most successfully, the Chicago house classic Your Love by Jamie Principle. They trace it all back to local St Albans hero Chris Clark, signed to Warp records, who inspired them to explore abstract Aphex Twin-style electronica. In turn, that led to “four-four dancefloor stuff”.

Photobooth, written in 2006, was the first song that combined the dance and rock sides of their character. According to MacFarlane it was also the moment they realised they had a knack for “catchy tunes”. He remembers an evening in “St Albans most depressing pub”, otherwise known as The Beehive. Prompted by Photobooth, they decided it was time to get serious about the band. The fact that they were all three months away from finishing university and having to get proper jobs may have had something to do with, too. “I did not want to work in St Albans HMV,” laughs Macfarlane.  They chose the name Friendly Fires from a song by Factory Records band Section 25. “We liked it because it didn’t sound either indie or electro,” says Gibson. “We didn’t want to a ‘The’ band. And it just looked good. But there is no meaning behind it.” Photobooth was released as a ten-inch. The first run of a thousand sold out. However, it was pressed on clear vinyl and, together with the full-colour packaging, they actually lost money, perhaps appropriate given the Factory Records-inspired name.

A lot of gigging followed, during which time the band honed their energetic live show, featuring Savidge’s propulsive drumming and Macfarlane’s marionette-with-tangled strings mode of dancing. When they toured with Crystal Castles and White Lies in May, they stole the show, something they put down to “all those Tuesday nights playing in East London dives”. And when they supported Interpol in Dublin, an impressed Bono came over to introduce himself. “He asked us where we were from,” remembers Savidge. “When we said St Albans he said, I played The Horn Reborn, which is a local venue, back in the day. Who’d have thought it?”

A second ten-inch EP, Cross The Line, saw them gather more momentum thanks to the video for lead track, On Board. Directed by two mutual friends known as OWLS, it was picked up by MTV 2. “They came to us with an idea about people in fancy dress costumes running around a race track,” says Savidge. “Someone was dressed as a prawn, someone else as a horse. The costumes were made out of cardboard, which we thought was good because it was clearly within our budget.”
 
When it came to recording the album, the band tried working with various producers, but in the end opted for the same lo-fi, DIY aesthetic as the On Board video. The recording sessions took place in the studio they’d always used: the garage of Macfarlane’s parent’s house. It means they can work whenever they want and to their own time scale, something Savidge describes as “a blessing and curse”. “We’re constantly writing music,” adds Macfarlane. ”This album only represents about five percent of what we’ve written. But it’s through doing that that you get good songs. It’s like sperms competing for an egg. And whatever happens with the album, good or bad, we will know it was us, because we’ve done it all ourselves. If we’d worked with someone we weren’t happy with, we’d always be thinking, maybe it was them.”
 
Looking to the future, the band have a busy year ahead of them. As well as the album, they have a string of high-profile appearances at Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds in the UK, Summersonic in Japan, Melt in Germany and Plage De Rock in France.
 
The last word goes to Macfarlane. “It’s not long ago that I thought things might not happen for us.” Now they are, he puts it down to “songs that are catchy and don’t mess about.” Simple really.

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