Ed MacFarlane isn’t going to lie. For a minute there, Friendly Fires’ frontman was lost, adrift in the wilderness, unsure of where to go, or what to do, next. How else to explain the eight years since the trio of schoolfriends’ last album, Pala?
“Around 2012, we’d sold out three nights at Brixton Academy,” he remembers. “Which now seems amazing, but at the time, I remember getting into a cab straight after the first show, going home, getting into bed and panicking about the next gig.”
He frowns. “I don’t know where it came from. The classic mid-twenties crisis of identity? Does my life have any purpose or merit? But around that time, every morning I’d call our manager and say: I don’t know if I can do the show.”
Therehad been panic attacks on tour in the US previously, but now the sense of agitation and burn-out was growing. “I was so self-absorbed and worried about my role in the band, rather than concentrating on the collective whole, our gigs, creating this moment we share with our fans. It was all about me! Could I sing well enough, could I do my job? Which is really not what our band is about. The best shows have been ramshackle, a lot of mistakes, and the fans have been 100 per cent part of the show. A bit more like a punk or hardcore show, where technicality matters far less than the atmosphere in the room.
“But around 2012, I’d lost all of that. And it took me a long time to get it back.”
Bandmate Jack Savidge admits to worries for his friend of 20 years. He recalls a panic attack in Austin, Texas, and the sense that MacFarlane was withdrawing. Then again: “Ed’s always been a bit reclusive!” he laughs. “He’s never been someone who needs a lot of people around.”
For Friendly Fires, then, everything slowed. Reflecting now, however, guitaristEdd Gibson doesn’t see that as necessarily a bad thing. As he puts it: “If we had ploughed straight through with making a third record, we wouldn’t have been here today. Eeking out a third album would have destroyed the band,and our relationships.”Indeed, both Savidge and Gibson acknowledge that they feared for the band’s future.
“I probably thought the band was done,” admits Savidge. “But it was interesting –we’d been in this band ‘professionally’ since we were at university, so this was like being in the real world for once. Which actually was probably a bit necessary.”
“I was a bit more optimistic,” counters Gibson. “Whenever we had band meetings, I thought there was still an ember of hope. But I agree with Jack: we’d been doing this for ten years, so it was important to go out and gain some sense of who we were as individuals. And hope that when we did come back together as Friendly Fires, we would do so with more confidence and self-belief.”
It was, then, a crisis of confidence, of faith, of purpose. Macfarlane, Savidge and Gibson had been friends in St. Albans from the age of 11, and had been together as a band since university. As Friendly Fires, they’ve had a decade of whooshing uplift, their self-titled debut earning Brit and Mercury Music Prize nominations –as well as a reputation as a legendary live experience. The trio’s keen grasp of indie-rock energy, clubfloor dynamics and house music escapism took them and their songs around the world and back again.
But itwas also a period of back-to-back work. Propelled by the success of cornerstone classics Jump In The Pool and Paris, Friendly Fires slid straight from touring their 2008 debut into writing, recording and touring 2011’s Pala. For the singer, self-medication was both an obvious crutch and no surprise.
“But that continued way after we finished touring Pala. It got to the point where, when were in the studio, there was no way I could do a vocal take without drinking first!” Macfarlane can laugh about it now, just. “It was just an absolute fear of failure, and I don’t know where it came from.”
The fears were irrational, and unfounded. He knew he had to sober up and wise up, in every sense. And it took a while. Between 2012 and 2017, “there was a lot of struggling to write –should we admit that?” he wonders, laughing again. But he admits he had to work hard to find the purpose to his writing. He didn’t want to sing, frankly, any old guff. He wanted to rediscover the things that made he and his pals’ bandso special, so important.
Did Macfarlane consider ending the band? He squirms.
“Yeah. After the three Brixtons, we did Bestival, and then, in my head, I was like: this is over. The sense of relief... But I knew we still had something left, even as I was relieved to know we weren’t playing live any more, or that I was going into a studio any time soon to write something our fanbase might like. David Lynch said, if you’re writing for someone else, you’ve failed twice –because if they don’t like it, you’ve let yourself down, and you’ve let them down.”
He and Gibson undertook a side project, under the name The Pattern Forms, writing an album, Peel Away The Ivy, about “returning to nature”, for underground label Ghost Box. “It was good to do that, to make music with zero expectations. But I had this niggling thing in the back of my head: I was missing the connection and positivity and euphoria in a live setting that Friendly Fire has.”
Gradually, Macfarlane reconnected with, well, himself. He also reconnected with his old pals. He, Gibson and Savidge started hanging out again, clubbing together, dancing together, listening to records again. It’s what they used to do. It’s what they needed to do again now.
By autumn 2017, Friendly Fires’ embers were glowing again. They had a starting point for a third album. Well, they had three words: “love like waves”.
“It’s actually a lyric from a song we never finished in the Pala era,” the singer notes, but it was enough. Those three words became Love Like Waves, a perfectdistillation of modern club-filled euphoria and sleek-and-chic Eighties pop-soul.
“That kickstarted everything,” notes Gibson. Emboldened, Friendly Fires booked some comeback shows for spring 2018, including a return to Brixton Academy. The thinking being: if we these shows to play, we have to have a new record to perform.
The trio returned to the source. That is, they regrouped in Macfarlane’s parents’ garage in St. Albans, where they’d written the first two albums. “There’s something about that space that allows us to be ourselves,” says Savidge. “Whereas when you’re in posh studios, it can get too comfortable. In the garage, we work till it’s done. It’s not fancy. It’s not about comfort; it’s just about ideas.”
Another early new track was Heaven Let Me In. It had started as an idea inspired bychopping up old disco records. This demanded a proper ravey production. This demanded, in short, Disclosure. Macfarlane had sung on the Lawrence brothers’ first album and became friends.
“The lyrical concept hadbeen floating about on five other tracks,” says Macfarlane, “but then it found a home here. Us three jammed the rough idea the night before, then we went in with Disclosure the next evening, finished the instrumental, did a load of mushrooms, then we did the vocal the next morning!”
“Disclosure were a lesson to us about economy of arrangement –not trying to throw too many things at an idea,” observes Savidge. “They just have a really good dancefloor instinct.”
Indeed, Friendly Fires new album would retain that sense of sparseness and space to this record after the denser Pala, a “strictness” on which Savidge in particular was keen from the start. This third album would be lean, punchy and –let’s not be coy –proudly pop in places. It would also hit the dancefloor with a spring in its step, as exemplified by the inspired cover of Charles B and Adonis’s acid house classic Lack Of Love.
Macfarlane: “That track has always been a firm favourite of the band. We love Charles’ direct lyrics, which is what worksbest for us. And that track, like a lot of ours, are about yearning. After our second record I ended a really long-term relationship, so I was on my own for the first time in a long time... I needed to step back and say: what do I really want? Is it drinking loads and sleeping with lots of people? I had to release what was important.”
That new directness is out and proud on Silhouettes, the new single. “It’s just full of hooks,” says Gibson, telling it like it is. It was written with producer James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco, Arctic Monkeys), and recorded in his attic studio at the top of his house in Hackney. “One of the great things about James is he can turn his hand to any instrument,” continues Gibson. “And he has a momentum in the studio that really works for us.”
Then there’s Offline which, like Silhouettes, was influenced by the Brazilian disco the band have long loved. Lyrically, “it’s about not being too distracted by everything that’s going on in the world,” says Macfarlane. “And just being productive. And going out and dancing with friends, having a connection with people, face to face. You’ll learn a lot more doing that than spending all night on the internet.”
Savidge: “It’s based round a really big sample from Banda Black Rio, a Brazilian disco group from the Seventies. We’ve always written music with a celebratory feel, and Brazilian bands from that time do that better than most.”
Last but first: opening the album isthe Mark Ralph-producedCan’t Wait Forever, an instant classic when Friendly Fires unveiled it at Brixton last April.
Gibson: “It just blasts in, this great hook that just catches people. Even at that Brixton show, it immediately caught people’s attention. And the message is important for us returning:it’s now or never. What areyou waiting for? It’s a statement of intent, which is key.”
All this, then, is Inflorescent. It’s the third album that, for a minute there, Friendly Fires might not have made. But here they are and here it is, an album bursting with life, colour and the vivid, bold ideas that occur when three old friends come together to create a greater, brighter whole. Hence the title.
“It’s the individual heads or blooms that make up a flower,” explains Gibson. “We found an image of it for the artwork, which prompted various ideas and themes.”
“We like the idea that it’s a collection of individual flowers that creates something bigger than the sum of its parts,” adds Macfarlance. “That’s our band: a trio of equals –with the crowd being part of that experience too.”
“It’s right and bright and summer,” concludes Savidge, “and full of life.”