Editors release their sixth album Violence a week on Friday (9 March). Recorded over the course of a year and produced by Leo Abrahams in collaboration with Blanck Mass, it represents one of their finest collections to date.
DiS caught up with the band's singer and songwriter-in-chief Tom Smith during rehearsals in Birmingham.
DiS: When did you start working on Violence?
Tom Smith: We were touring In Dream but that got cut short in 2016. We were planning to tour for longer but I got sick and needed some time out to recover. While I was laid up at home I started to write. That process probably lasted about a month. Once I'd got about 15 songs together I said to the rest of the band let's get in a room together and see where they go. That's what I tend to do whenever I have time off; write songs. I don't really have a lot else to do other than take my kids to school and make sure they're happy. It's my life, so as long as the inspiration is still coming, I'll try and chase it.
Of those 15 songs 9 made it onto the album. Was it a difficult process deciding which ones to include and will the other 6 be revisited in the future?
It becomes apparent as you're working through them which songs are gonna make the grade. Sometimes you can find a song's personality and you all arrive at the same point at the same time. There's a song called 'The Pulse' which we've been playing live for some time. We ended up recording two versions of it in the studio and both are good albeit very different. But the fact we couldn't really nail down one meant it probably wasn't right for this album. By the end of the process, we all knew which songs sounded right. There was a bit of a healthy debate about going from 10 songs to 9. There's another song called 'Barricades' which is really good but didn't quite have the magic of the demo. That will definitely see the light of day at some point. We'll certainly go back and redo that. We've always gone back to songs later if we didn't quite get the recordings right the first time. Both 'Magazine' and 'No Sound But The Wind' date back several years and they got put away for a while. They came out of the shadows for this recording process and sound great on this album. There's a time and a place for certain songs. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't.
When were those songs first written?
'No Sound But The Wind' was first recorded when we were making In This Light And On This Evening with Flood. It was initially written as a demo on the piano. It has quite a confused history that song. The makers of the 'Twilight' films heard the original demo and came to me asking if they could put it in their film about vampires! Those kind of films really aren't on my horizon, then people told me Arcade Fire and Thom Yorke were on the soundtrack so it felt like a good place to be with the song. Then it turned out they just wanted the demo I'd recorded which was this really lo-fi recording so that turned out to be quite a strange experience, that this film with such a big budget wanted the cheapest recording of all time. In doing that it didn't feel as if the song had found its proper home. We tried to record it as a band back then but didn't feel as if we'd gotten anywhere we were happy with so it was put to one side. Then over the following couple of years, I played it on the piano at festivals and the song became a bit of a hit in Belgium. But still, it was a song we'd never recorded so it's quite nice to have a band version now even though it's very minimal and quite reflective. I think the album needed that moment of calm.
'Magazine' is a song that was written just after In This Light.... It's another song we were trying to record with Flood but when things were going wrong with Chris (Urbanowicz, former guitarist). It was a song that soundtracked our split I guess. We tried to record it a few times when things were getting bad and creatively getting worse. The song didn't work out then and we put it to one side because there was a lot of baggage attached to that time and just ill feeling in general. When I was writing this record and couldn't find anything else to say I revisited 'Magazine' and it just sprung into life again. It's funny how some songs end up coming back to you for reasons you're not quite sure of. All songs have different stories and different histories. I've got files on my hard drive at home of songs that were half written I couldn't finish. Little bits and pieces that maybe one day will grow into something significant. 'Magazine' is a funny one because lyrically it feels quite relevant now, the tone of the lyric. It's strange because that was written 10 years ago.
You worked with Leo Abrahams and Blanck Mass on this album. How much of an input did they have on Violence? Did any of the songs change significantly as a result?
Totally. For the first stages of recording we were in Oxford similar to how we recorded In Dream. Pottering away albeit closer to civilisation. We weren't as removed or secluded as we had been making that record; we had our own lives at the weekend. It was a bit more Monday to Friday 9-5. I think it was good to have those moments to reflect on what we were doing, and also to be nearer the people. So we started like that and we carried on for a few months. But I think early on there was an acceptance and an eagerness on our behalf for people to come along and collaborate in a producer role. We talked about a few people as we went along and then we heard the record World Eater by Blanck Mass which is an amazing album but also sonically really surprised me. I thought it was brutal, melodic, kind of glorious but also ugly at the same time. So we thought he'd be a good choice even though we were a bit unsure whether he'd be into what we were doing at first. Justin (Lockey) has everybody's phone number from the Glaswegian underground indie scene so he called him up. If you need to track someone down Justin's your man! Amazingly he said yes, so we started to send him the songs we'd already been working on, then he would send back his versions. His versions weren't remixes. He stayed very true to the song as a song structurally, but everything was redone through his warped mind and imagination. Sonically it sounded like Blanck Mass. It came from his world. At that point we had two records. The record we'd done on our own and then the other with nearly every song reimagined by Blanck Mass. We had to find a way then to unite these things and work together.
It was at that point Leo Abrahams came on board. He'd done some great production before but he's not like a Flood or anyone like that. He doesn't have as much history behind him as he's a similar age to us, but he's also an incredible musician. There's a slightly different energy about him compared to your usual producer that walks into a room who's very obviously the boss. Leo being our age was quite a strange experience for us, but as soon as he started talking about the band and what he thought the record should be, and how he was going to choose which elements and also add to them by doing some recording with him, we thought OK, this guy knows what he wants to do. As soon as we heard 'Darkness At The Door' and the track 'Violence' we thought this guy's a bit of a genius. His opinion that it was important an Editors record didn't lose the emotional resonance he felt our records needed to have - although we were all very excited by the Blanck Mass recordings - meant it couldn't be all robotic. It needed to have a human side to it. Leo's influence was to help us manage to tame that by blending the things in the right way so when it needs to pack an emotional punch hopefully it will do. But also when it needs to punch you in the guts physically it does that too.
Did the album's title Violence come from the idea of your record also being brutal, melodic, glorious yet ugly in a similar way to how the Blanck Mass album sounded?
Some bands make records and they know what they want to say very early on. They might have a concept or a story to tell; this is who I am and what I want to say. That's one way of doing it. Personally as a lyricist, its never come like that for me. Whenever I've sat down to write I always put together words and songs that resonate on an emotional level and have weight to them. I appreciate many people might think they're shit but I think it's special to the people that like them because of that. So when we go on this journey of making a record, the thing that makes it a record and unites whatever elements that album has, its personality for example, is something that creeps up on me. Sometimes I don't realise it until the end and I'm listening back to the songs. So I have to prepare myself to talk to people like yourself. I have to decide what's going on here. What unites these songs? What is it? What is this thing? 'Violence' is obviously a very evocative, striking word that fires a whole range of narrative images but there were a few things that influenced the title.
Lyrically the songs feel like they are set in the world we live today. They seem to go back to this idea of human connection and people coming together as an escape. An escape from the world we live in right now. I felt that was a theme and the violence we live in there. What's on the news. Even the way we are bombarded with the news is violent in itself. This theme was repeating. Also like you say it alludes to the record sonically. The way we've tried to make both the electronic elements and the guitar elements work together at times. For an Editors record, this is as brutal as we've ever been. It's a gimmick too but I like the way Violence starts with a V and its second letter's an I which is also Roman for the number 6. It's our sixth album so that kind of thing is important. It's significant for us to get to this point and important to acknowledge that. So there a few things that feel appropriate with this word.
It's interesting you mention Violence being your sixth album as I was about to touch on the band's longevity. You've been together as a band for nearly 20 years now. What has been the key to your continued existence and popularity when so many of your contemporaries have disappeared along the way? Do you think having five songwriters in the band plays a part?
Thinking back to when we started there was always someone getting better reviews and more press than we were. Don't get me wrong - The Back Room was brilliant, but it kind of bubbled away within the course of a year or two. It crept up on people a little that. With some bands that first album is very obviously their defining record whereas I don't think Editors have ever made theirs. Maybe we never will but I think that search, that journey we are on when you think about how stylistically we've flipflopped and gone backwards and forwards over ourselves, is why we're still making great records. I guess there are two ways of looking at it. You can say the band has a personality crisis and doesn't know what they want to be. But then people in general don't know who they are when they're on a journey let alone where you're going to be in 10 years time.
Obviously the journey is shaped massively now by the breakdown creatively between the band and Chris after the third album. The three albums since then have been more of a collective approach, all five of us inputting towards the music we make, and we got very lucky in a way. Those that came in, you can't plan that shit! Sitting here now it's a surprise everything worked out so well. It's very very different to how it was before. It just feels fresher. We can do anything we want now. It's almost as if we're only just starting out again. I think because there's that lack of a defining moment where you explode for everybody to see... sometimes that can be a curse as well as a blessing so I'm glad that's never happened to us.
I'd agree with that, which I guess is why you never commemorated the tenth anniversaries of either The Back Room or An End Has A Start. I did enjoy seeing your headline set at Beyond The Tracks in Birmingham last September, particularly during the encore when you dedicated a number of songs from that first album to The Three Tuns across the road where you played some of your earliest shows. Was it quite a special show for you in that respect?
I'm stood here now in our rehearsal space in Birmingham talking to you. It is the band's home. I'm not a Brummie; most of us aren't. Only Russell (Leetch) is actually from here but we spent so much time in this city and continue to do that so to be asked to headline Beyond The Tracks was a real honour. I thought the bill was amazing. We had such a great day so I guess there's two things. First of all, it was nice to acknowledge that time when we were writing those songs and to play them for people because stylistically the band has shifted. To play the likes of 'Bullets' and 'Open Your Arms' amongst some of these newer songs can sometimes be an odd fit but then they're also a big part of our history. So I don't think it's a bad thing having that nostalgia corner then being able to come out of it play something entirely different. We've talked about doing those kind of anniversary shows and tours but it's never really interested us. I think it's great for some bands to do and people like to go to those gigs but we're always looking forwards. When we talked about doing it we were also making this album so it wasn't for us. That kind of nostalgia isn't something we want to do.
There's a suggestion that guitar music is having a bit of a lull at the moment, and last night's BRIT award nominations kind of highlighted that in some ways. Do you think there is a marginalisation of guitar bands within certain parts of the industry at the moment and if so, why do you think that is?
I think people's tastes change, so I guess it's quite hard to decide what's what in many ways. In some ways I'm glad we came out when we did. That stage of being a small band doing small shows and getting a tiny bit of money from the label to go out and tour. Getting out there and being able to play to people. It's a really important stage of a band's career. There are less and less bands doing that now, mainly because they can't afford to do it so they end up going from A to Z very quickly. There isn't enough money for them to go out in a splitter van doing those really small tours. It's a shame but then at the same time, people's tastes change and evolve. When I think back to that time we were touring small venues there were a lot of shit bands being played on daytime Radio One, but I don't want to be that old fart moaning about there being less bands on Radio One because I honestly prefer it now to how it was back then.
Editors have focused more on the European market than the UK in recent years which has proved successful in many ways. Do you see that as being a way forward for many bands in the future, obviously depending upon if and how Brexit happens?
We've always felt our audiences in and around mainland Europe have been more loyal to us. We didn't really see a change in relevance as our records progressed. Some records did better than others in certain territories, which is to be expected, whereas in the UK we felt there was a point where most radio stations felt they didn't need to hear another Editors record so we became hidden in the shadows. We're still popular here and we've actually been on the radio with the singles off this record which was weird because we hadn't managed to do that with the previous three. I think 'Papillon' was the last time we got significant radio airplay then that was it. That song pretty much marked the end of our airtime on UK daytime radio yet ironically it went on to be a hit everywhere else. So it was an easy decision for us to concentrate more on playing to crowds in places where our popularity keeps on growing and growing. It's not the same everywhere but in certain countries, Belgium and the Netherlands for example, we exist on these pretty big foundations so I guess that still makes us relevant. I remember the first shows we played outside of the UK early on in our career. Even though there were language barriers people really got into it on an emotional level straight away. So it's a pleasure to keep going back and we'll continue to do so.
You're already confirmed to play a number of shows this summer including The Cure's 40th-anniversary event at Hyde Park in July, which is a fantastic lineup. How did that come about?
We were asked by The Cure. I don't know if it was just Robert (Smith) or the whole band who came up with this bill to celebrate their 40th birthday, but we're honoured to be a part of it. The Cure are a band that have a world which is very similar to the one we inhabit. There's a darkness there but also a pop sensibility. They're one of the bands we really admired when we first started; The Cure, Echo And The Bunnymen, REM. Bands we wanted our career path to follow even though you can't necessarily plan that, bands we've always talked about and wanted to share bills with, so as you can imagine everyone is so excited about that show. The amount of people who've stopped me and said, oh, you're playing that Cure show! Everywhere in the world as well. They've been touring pretty regularly over the last 5-10 years but this show feels like it will be something exceptional. It's in Hyde Park. It's in July. There's gonna be a lot of black t-shirts and a lot of sunburned goths that day!
Are there any new bands out there you're particularly excited about at the moment?
We have a band playing with us on our three album launch shows in March called October Drift. There's something about the delivery and the passion in their songs that grabs me. I'm yet to see them live but everyone I know that has tells me they're stunning so I'm looking forward to seeing them in the flesh next month. They're not so new as a band but their new songs are incredible and that's Chvrches. The new Nils Frahm record is another I'm listening to a lot.
What advice would you give to new bands who are just starting out?
You do have to write songs and you do have to play them as many times as you can. Even that sometimes means playing to not many people. I know it's much harder these days to be able to go out and do those shows as we talked about before, but it's so important for bands to play as often as they possibly can. If I had a winning formula or a golden ticket or some kind of secret advice I could suggest I really would but the bottom line is you really have to work at it.
Violence is out on 9 March via PIAS. For more information on Editors, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.