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Brooklyn's Friends started 2012 on a wave of expectation. Hotly tipped by most including a nomination as part of the BBC's "Sound Of..." list. However, their ascent to rock and roll's Premier League hasn't quite materialised, despite glowing reviews for debut long player Manifest, including a respectable 8/10 from Marie Wood on these very pages.
Initially conceived in latter half of 2010, it was the release of debut single 'I'm His Girl' at the back end of last year that set pulses racing and tongues wagging. Comparisons with The Rapture, Tom Tom Club and Le Tigre soon followed, as did two more 45s in the shape of 'Friend Crush' and 'Mind Control' as a taster for the album.
It hasn't all been plain sailing though, having parted company with their manager and a couple of band members recently - indeed, it transpires the following weekend's Bestival show will be bass player Lesley Hann's last with the band.
DiS caught up with charismatic vocalist and all round spokesperson Samantha Urbani prior to the first of their two sets at September's Jersey Live festival and found a kindred spirit in a shared love of late seventies anarcho punks Crass among other things.
DiS: You seem to have spent the entire summer on the road and a large part of it playing UK festivals. Does it ever become stressful or tiring?
Samantha: In a way I suppose... I mean, I hadn't played a lot of festivals at all before this tour, and this tour's been nearly all festivals, so it has been fun. I guess if we just continued to play festivals forever I'd get sick of them pretty quickly, because at times it can be difficult to interact or connect with the crowd compared to when we play in a small venue. One of the main thrills has been meeting so many different bands as we go around, and then bumping into them again at another festival a few weeks later or whatever. It's like summer camp vibes, whereas if you go and see us play in a city you'd walk out into the street afterwards.
DiS: Are there any festivals where you've looked at the bill and wondered what on earth Friends are doing there? This one today for example where you've been placed alongside artists like Rizzle Kicks, Professor Green and Devlin.
Samantha: It's funny you should say that because I've not heard of any of the other artists on the bill apart from Noel Gallagher and Last Dinosaurs!
DiS: Rizzle Kicks and Professor Green are actually quite big pop acts in the UK.
Samantha: Really? I've never heard of either, I have no idea who they are. I like to hear new music, but I guess with everyone that's gone on with Friends this year I've lost touch with a lot of what's going on in the world.
DiS: Your debut album Manifest recently received 8/10 on Drowned In Sound...
DiS: ...and seems to combine several different genres and styles, which I guess is what it makes it so appealing. Was it always a conscious decision for the record to transgress so many musical boundaries or did it just happen organically?
Samantha: No, it wasn't meant to sound like that. When we first started making the record we wanted it to sound like a cross between The Jets, Prince, Adam & The Ants and Crass. We all have very vast tastes in the music that we like and so thought, fuck it, if one song sounds like eighties disco pop and another sounds like seventies art rock then let's do both. I sometimes wish we'd have concentrated more on one sound, but then again I don't. Maybe next time we'll intentionally stick to one course of vibes, who knows?
DiS: You mentioned Crass, who are also one of my favourite bands. Which is your favourite song or record of theirs?
Samantha: That's a difficult one because I love pretty much all of their music. Just the way they combine politics and art, you know. Penis Envy would have to be my favourite record of theirs but songwise, I don't know... Do I really have to choose one?
DiS: You mention Adam & The Ants too, which I can hear referenced in the song 'Ruins' from Manifest.
Samantha: Totally! I am a huge fan of Adam Ant's music, particularly 'Human Beings' off Kings Of The Wild Frontier. It's in my top five favourite songs of all time. I know every single word to that song. He was playing the same stage as us at Summer Sundae a few weeks ago and I was in the front row freaking out while he was playing. I really wanted to meet him. I had this stupid fantasy that he'd be hanging around after and we really hit it off! I know we'd be really good friends if we met but it was just awesome watching him perform. All that energy, and his band are cool too. They have this girl drummer with amazing hair; she's fucking awesome! I had a dream about her after where she was this futuristic 1960s space age Bond girl wearing a kimono with perfect hair and make-up. She looked beautiful, so hot.
DiS: You worked with Paul Epworth on your most recent single 'Mind Control'. How did that come about and is he someone you'd consider working with again?
Samantha: Yeah, I'd love to. He's a really sweet guy. He heard our first single and wanted to get involved with us so he got in touch through our record label asking if he could work on one of our records. At first we weren't sure. We had these preconceptions of him being a really snotty dude who was just trying to make some money, but then we met him and hit it off straight away. He has really cool tastes in music and listens to a lot of new artists and obscure stuff.
DiS: Obviously Manifest only came out in April but there's already at least one new song in the set. Have you started planning to release the follow-up yet and if so, when are you aiming to have it ready for?
Samantha: As soon as possible. The new song you refer to is probably 'Movement', which we've been opening our set a lot with recently. It's difficult finding the time to write an album's worth of songs at the minute. We've spent the whole summer playing festivals, and then we're touring again throughout October before playing Iceland Airwaves in November. I think we're going to use the rest of the year after that for chilling out and then possibly write some new stuff.
DiS: The band's line-up has changed a couple of times this year. Would you say Friends is a collaboration or do you view it as predominantly a vehicle for your songs?
Samantha: In a way. I guess it could be if I wanted it to be or really demanded, but I've always wanted this band to be a democratic collective of individuals. Everybody in the band has a strong, total respect for each other. They're all really creative, intelligent people, and I don't think they'd tolerate being told what to do if they didn't have a say in it. We've actually replaced one band member pretty recently...
DiS: Really? Why?
Samantha: When I first started Friends he was in the band and he'd always be saying stuff like "You have to think about image!" and I'd be like, "Fuck you!" I mean, that sounds so shallow. Image is not the be all and end all of being in a band. Sure, it is important to an extent but you have to project yourself how you are as a person in a way that's true rather than how you think someone else would perceive you as being cool. We've always held back from having a strong image in any way because we didn't think it necessary. It's probably the oldest cliche in the book when someone says let the music speak for itself but that's behind the concept of why we started this band, not the medium itself i.e. image.
DiS: I think that's a good point because with all the praise that was heaped on the band around the turn of the year when most people had probably only heard one song, there was always that danger you'd be dismissed as little more than a hyped buzz band.
Samantha: I wasn't really worried about it because everything just happened so quickly. The situation developed out of our control, sort of, and I always thought that if people were fickle enough to criticise us and say the hype wasn't justified then that's their prerogative. I didn't create the hype. In fact, there's no one more critical of our live shows than me, especially some of the earlier ones. They just felt like practices to me, and some of the songs we played back then were basically the first pop songs I ever wrote. It would be like putting a gallery show over a bunch of sketches. That's not to say I wasn't proud of those sketches. They were meant to be part of an intricate theatre production but I always believe I can do better. I never get down about it but I'm always challenging myself. I just feel that anybody who is fully satisfied with what they are doing is never going to make any progress, and sometimes feeling bad about feeling bad can act as a motivational tool. It does for me.
DiS: So, despite releasing a critically acclaimed debut and getting to tour the world, this year's had its fair share of lowpoints too?
Samantha: We had another situation where our manager wasn't good for us, wasn't right for us, and he quit a week after the album came out. It was really unprofessional the way he went about it. Basically, he was only in it for the money, and when people are only interested in steering their own career path it becomes an ordeal for everyone else that happens to be caught up in it. It ended being better for us that he quit, but when you've had someone leave the band then another person's about to leave and then this... It got tense for a while. It's better now but for a time I thought things couldn't get any worse. There's a lot of times where I just miss having options like what to do with my day. I'm a multimedia artist and I care about using my human energy to do positive things.
DiS: Do you have any advice for new bands or artists that are just starting out?
Samantha: Manage yourself to start with until you find the right person. If someone comes along and they're not enthusiastic and it doesn't feel good then you're better off on your own. Also, play a lot of shows, and don't be afraid of making mistakes. If you want to be a professional singer or songwriter the first bunch of stuff you put out there should be representative of who you are. And if you live in a small town, you should maybe move to a city. Network and get to know the right people, people you can trust. That's basically it.
DiS: It's interesting you say move to a bigger city as with the advent of the internet more and more artists seem to be gaining recognition without having to relocate.
Samantha: It's alright dreaming about getting recognised and making it in your hometown but as far as achieving real international success goes, whether it be in art or music or television or anything, you have to become established in a major city. I grew up in a really cool smalltown called New London where there were a lot of bands and we had a really great music festival every year. But, a lot of those people I grew up with that stayed there have been playing in the same bands for ten years and never moved on, and when I go back they'll ask me how we got to where we are in the space of two years. And I always tell them that I moved to Brooklyn, was sociable and met a bunch of people and played dozens of shows as soon as I started my band. I wasn't pushy, but also wasn't passive, and I had this vision of where I wanted it to go and made it happen.
DiS: Finally, are there any other new bands back home you think we should be listening to at the minute?
Samantha: Yeah, there's this band from Brooklyn called Splash. My boyfriend Etienne is in the band. They're spelt with one "h" because there's another band from London with two. There's a single online called 'Ever Before'. You should check it out.
The album Manifest is out now on Fat Possum Records.
For more information on Friends visit their official website.
- "I always believe I can do better" - DiS meets Samantha Urbani of Friends
- In Photos: Jersey Live Festival 2012 @ Royal Jersey Showground, Trinity
- Jersey Live 2012: The DiS Review
- In Photos: Leeds Festival 2012 - Day 2 @ Bramham Park, Leeds
- In Photos: Reading Festival 2012 - Day 1 @ Richfield Avenue
- In Photos: Summer Sundae 2012 @ De Montfort Hall, Leicester
- Friends - Manifest!
- Friends - Manifest!