London-based band Fanfarlo have just released their third album, “Let’s Go Extinct” – an intellectual exploration of space and the beginnings of the Universe set to song with stand-outs such as “Cell Song”, “We’re the Future” and the title track itself, “Let’s Go Extinct”.
The quintet led by Swede singer and musician, Simon Balthazar are currently on tour till April 26 to promote the LP and will perform in San Francisco at 8pm tonight, in the Great American Music Hall. They then move on to Portland, with more dates in Detroit, New York and Washington.
This new concept album has received warm reviews with names such as Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, Bryan Ferry, Talking Heads, the Blow Monkeys, the Flaming Lips and even Fleetwood Mac being thrown up in the dust of comparisons.
With a band name like Fanfarlo, after French “Les Fleurs du Mal” poet, Charles Baudelaire’s novella, you would not be remiss to expect the band to be slightly lofty in their chosen thematic subject matter, time and again. But when set to fine melodies, augmented by soaring wind/brass sections and the fine vocals of Balthazar, the music with all its Baroque-pop peaks is palatable and utterly pleasing.
The complex orchestral arrangements, which include the glockenspiel, clarinet, violins and trumpet when paired with pitched falsettos, are never overwhelming. However, the male/female backing vocals don’t always pan out. On a tune like “Landlocked”, multi-instrumentalist, Cathy Lucas’ vocals come across as strong, almost overpowering and … naff. “So we listen to the echo” he sings, and she echoes, “the echo”.
But on “We’re The Future”, Balthazar’s croon has the quality of a young Cliff Richard singing on “Summer Holiday”. Lyrically it evokes the plea of an affair falling apart. And is in perfect synch with Lucas’ ethereal and light harmonies. Perhaps it is better when she stays in the higher registers? Or a button could have been tweaked in the mixing of the track?
Yet, it is but a small misgiving in the notable career of a still under-rated indie pop band that has now given us three-albums worth of sumptuous listening. With any luck the gang will continue to give us more instead of going extinct, even if ‘all the dust will rearrange itself’ beyond them.
Balthazar who once said “I write music compulsively and we play music compulsively like it’s a mental disorder,” steps off their tour bus and takes some time to chat with Examiner.com about locking themselves away in the remote Welsh countryside to make this latest album.
If “Reservoir” marked the arrival of your band, and “Rooms Filled with Light” was a reaction to the first album, going a bit darker and moving away from some of that grand orchestral sound, what would you say “Let’s Go Extinct” is about?
From our perspective it’s the same evolution of what we’ve been doing. Musically we’ve always had the orchestral sound because those are the instruments we play not that we want to sound a certain way. We are all also interested in electronic music, acoustic stuff and we can all play classical instruments but we all love that magic that happens in the studio when we double up and make complex arrangements. It’s part of a continual dialogue between all the different voices that we have as musicians. But “Let’s Go Extinct” is also very much an idea-based record with a strong conceptual side.
You all locked yourselves away in a remote part of Wales to work on the album - what was the motivation there?
Isolating ourselves is a way of creating a unity. It becomes more than just individuals working together. We were creating a bubble around ourselves. We didn’t really grow up together. And didn’t really spend a lot of time together until we decided to make music together. So this is a way to incite artistic unity around what we do. I think a good album needs to be like stepping into a different world for 45mins so we needed to step away from the world too in order to get there. And living far away from everything is super useful. The classic songwriting model is quite a solitary process and some of that happens before we get together. As a songwriter it’s easy to be cohesive about an album when it’s just you.
So it was not always easy to be cohesive in a band of five, especially when you are all multi-instrumentalist with that many instruments between you all – did you have any major disagreements about what direction each track was taking?
We always have heaps of debate like a real family. Or we are like bickering siblings. There was something we learnt when we made our second record – it was ‘letting go’. As musicians and artists it was a fantastic lesson, and it can be incredibly liberating. Working on the second record we were fraught with questions about what the record should be? Should it be more fun, upbeat? Should we do something different or similar? And everyone is keen to try new things but how much do you want to challenge people who already like your music? By creating this bubble, it also felt a bit like a life lesson where you must just do what you have to do and ignore the rest.
The press and even fans are constantly making comparisons to Fanfarlo and bands like Beirut and Arcade Fire – now on your third album, do you feel like people should be familiar with that Fanfarlo sound?
I feel like with the first record we were being compared with our contemporaries. But with our second we were being compared to classic more seminal artist, that’s kind of better. So be it a New Wave band or a pop band, if you’re being compared to more classic bands you are at least finding your own sound. The more you are compared to the masters, the more you are attempting something that’s adding to the bigger picture rather than just hanging out in the sidelines.
Mark Pilkington, the writer of Science articles and fringe cultures is a good friend of yours. He has a new film "Mirage Men" coming out and he's sort of an encyclopedia of esoteric subjects and the inexplicable - how did he feed the ideas thematically pursued in “Let’s Go Extinct”?
One great thing about living in a place like London is you can surround yourself with vibrant, interesting people such as Mark. We don’t hang out with people who play in indie bands but Mark he is a really interesting friend to have. I haven’t really thought of him specifically as an influence on making this record. As a band, we have always liked to put ideas into our music. A pretty melody is great. Melody is essential as a songwriter. But ideas that veer into philosophy and science fiction, all this stuff is really a part of our lives, our every day. We tried to ask some of these questions on this record, not to give answers but to try out various proposals, suggestions, meditations where life might go next. Some of it is completely absurd. These aren’t academic questions they are meant to be playful, everyday questions though most people don’t think about it every day. They should though.
You sound like you’re walking by the side of a cliff? (Muffled wind sounds over the phone)
Well, I am actually. We got into LA Last night and we got on this big bus but not like a luxury bus, it’s just so big we can’t park anywhere so here we are on the beach.
Ah the life of a rock star.
Well that’s right (laughs).
You sound very English, why do you feel the need to say Fanfarlo is an English/Swedish band? How long have you lived in London?
Well, I am Swedish. I moved to London in 2005. I guess that's quite some years now.
Okay right, that’s still pretty recent. Well, what aspect of your Swedish-ness do you think you bring to Fanfarlo? That Scandinavian theme of isolation?
Well maybe. I grew up in a very isolated place. I think there was more of my Swedish-ness on the first record. I would say in Sweden, melody is always kind of central to a song (think Abba, the Cardigans and songwriters Jorgen Elofsson and Max Martin writing billboard no 1 hits for the likes of Katy Perry and Britney Spears). Whereas for the British - style, innovation and concept is key. Maybe the two can somehow meet in Fanfarlo.
Where: Great American Music Hall
When: Wed, March 26. Doors at 7.30pm and show at 8pm
Tickets at $15 to $17
North American Tour Dates
3/26/14 San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
3/28/14 Portland, OR @ Dante’s
3/29/14 Vancouver, B.C. @ Venue
3/30/14 Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
4/1/14 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
4/2/14 Denver, CO @ Larimer Lounge
4/4/14 Kansas City, MO @ Middle of the Map Fest
4/5/14 St. Louis, MO @ Duck Room at Blueberry Hill
4/7/14 Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock Social Club
4/8/14 Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon
4/10/14 Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
4/11/14 Columbus, OH @ Skully’s Music Diner
4/12/14 Millvale, PA @ Mr. Smalls Theater
4/14/14 Detroit, MI @ Shelter
4/16/14 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
4/19/14 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
4/22/14 New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
4/23/14 Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade
4/25/14 Philadelphia, PA @ Underground Arts
4/26/14 Washington D.C. @ U Street Music Hall