Tears For Fears talks ahead of their gig at Arena Birmingham
He’s raw. And we both know that. Throughout our interview, emotions are just below the surface, waiting to bubble up. We skirt around the obvious – that Roland Orzabal’s wife, Caroline, died earlier this year. The singer and songwriter is a single man for the first time in 35 years. He wishes he were anything but. But tact and diplomacy are uppermost in our thoughts. And so, instead, we talk in some sort of code, moderating our language out of respect, being sensitive and empathetic by turn.
Besides, showing respect and due deference is the least we should do. Roland and his wife had been inseparable throughout the former’s many years in Tears For Fears. Caroline sketched the cover artwork for the band’s 1983 re-release of Pale Shelter. And her death in July from natural causes caused tumult. TFF cancelled North American dates with Hall & Oates as Roland came to terms with a devastating set of circumstances.
Roland’s work and creative spirit have been pulling him through. A few days ago, he, Curt Smith and the rest of their band played a live set for BBC Radio 2. And then there was a sell-out gig at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The band who has sold more than 30 million albums around the world remain a going concern: much-loved, widely-regarded, dutifully-respected. Remarkably, 36 years into their career, they are again in the ascent. And while they might never again enjoy the sort of phenomenal success – or the sharp, upward curve – that occurred with opening albums The Hurting and Songs From The Big Chart, their time is now.
TFF may have been off the radar in the UK for some time. Their sixth and most recent album, Everybody Loves A Happy Ending, was released 13 years ago and they’ve barely played since. But that’s all about to change. They’re back in a big way with a new album, an arena tour and the promise of much more.
Roland is finding his way into the day. He’s tired. Yesterday was a big day, a tough day. Though he’s still grieving Caroline – and how could he not, they were happily entwined for all of their adult lives, she was his rock – he’s trying to stay in the moment, rather than slip into the past.
“It’s been a tough few days,” he says. “We did the Albert Hall yesterday and before that we were live at 11am on BBC Radio Two. That (BBC R2) was probably the thing I was most nervous about because you don’t know where your voice is going to be.
“I was pretty relaxed about the Albert Hall. It’s not an easy place to play because of the shape of the venue. You are a bit of a caged animal with all the tiers above you. But there was a simple walkway in the centre. The room kind of bears down on you.”
It’s emotional, of course, to be playing the UK again. And even more so given the trauma he’s experienced.
“It’s emotional coming back and seeing everyone.”
The last time he saw them was earlier this year, before he lost Caroline. “It was the worst day of my life, without question. The last time I saw everyone was when I had really bad news.” Everyone was understand, everyone was supportive. His phone was full of sms messages and emails. “Even the Hall & Oates people were fantastic.”
Work is catharsis. It takes his mind of things. It gives him the chance to focus. “There’s no question about it. I don’t know what I would be doing if not this. What else would I be doing? It’s good to be forced to stay in the present time.”
Like most big bands, TFF have had their ups and downs. The Hurting gave them their first international successes while Songs From the Big Chair brought worldwide fame. The Seeds of Love followed by Roland and Curt had an acrimonious split in 1991. Curt blamed Roland’s control-freakery, saying he’d been frustrated by the songwriter’s working methods. Roland, meanwhile, wasn’t happy that Curt wanted to slow the pace of their work – while the demise of Curt’s marriage didn’t help matters.
Things got messy, there were court cases involving TFF associates . . . usual story.
Roland kept the flame alive, releasing a hit single and greatest hits collection. A new line-up was formed for Elemental and Raoul and the Kings of Spain before the duo caught up again in 2000. It had been almost ten years since their split. Roland invited Curt to dinner and during a pleasant evening in Bath, they decided to work together again.
Everybody Loves a Happy Ending emerged and the band hit the road. That record was their first in 15 years and rekindled the creative fire between the duo. Breaking another quiet spell, the boys engaged in a three-year touring whirlwind across North America, Japan, South Korea, Manila, and South America beginning in 2010. The year 2013 saw them return with their first recorded music in a decade: a cover of Arcade Fire’s Ready to Start.
Most of their work has been in the USA. Roland takes up the story: “The thing is, most of the band is based in Los Angeles. We’ve been touring pretty consistently since 2004.
“But to drag everyone over here from LA and put them up in hotels for the odd show was astronomically expensive, so it never emerged. Now we’re back with Universal Records and everyone is making a concerted effort to get us back over here. All the little forays we’ve done have been successful, like the show at Hyde Park this summer. The response to that was incredible. Then there was the Albert Hall, which sold out in under an hour.
“Our agent realised we needed to play bigger venues.”
And so they are.
In May, TFF will play eight arena shows, including a headline at Birmingham Arena on May 5. The tour includes a huge gig at London’s O2. It’ll be the spring board for a new record.
“We’ve been working for the last four years, collaborating with some artists and producers. We had thought we finished an album back in April. It was mixed, there were 12 tracks ready to go. Then our manager looked at the climate and decided we’d be moving back to our old company and reminding the UK and Europe who we are not.”
The May dates were booked as part of that work.
“This is really a marketing campaign to get us back in the public thinking. The show will be a Best Of, a Greatest Hits, with a few new sons. Hopefully, the new album will springboard off that.”
Roland is no slouch. Though the band’s recorded output has been relatively small, he’s busied himself in other projects. In 2014, he published a novel, a romcom called Sex, Drugs & Opera. It told the story of Solomon Capri, a middle-aged pop star, who wanted to find his way back by appearing on a reality show. The show was inspired by Roland’s own experiences, having been asked to appear on Popstar to Operastar.
“Writing’s something I enjoy. This might sound ridiculous, but I spent seven years on a previous book that didn’t surface. It was heavy, historic, multi-character work . . . Sex, Drugs & Opera was a bit of fun for myself. It was easy to write and came a lot from personal experience.”
When he’s not touring, he’s happily ensconced in the West Country. “Curt lives in LA. We lived there from 2003-5 as a family but since then we’ve been back in England. Since the summer, I’ve moved to spend more time with my sons. We’d been constantly touring since the beginning of May, then I broke off to deal with personal things. That was tough. Then we went back to finish off what we’d started.”
He’s flattered that people have an abiding affection for his band. The ongoing support of fans is succour. It provides some sort of artistic validation.
“We’ve never taken for granted the support that people have for us. We are always surprised. But we’ve done a lot of work over the past decade. We don’t come back to the UK green, we’re not practicing when we do shows over here. We’re match fit because of our work elsewhere.
“But we’ve been really shocked by the response. It’s very touching and very uplifting and we feel very, very lucky. I think that we made certain records that probably touched people. I think there’s a lot of emotion in what we’ve done. Certainly the comments I get suggest that’s the case.”
He remains proud of the two records that catapulted them to international stardom. And, like fans, he loves the album track The Working Hour, which remains a firm favourite in the live arena. “I never tire of The Working Hour. Every time we do play that it’s special. I absolutely love that song. It’s one of the favourites of our entire catalogue.”
The band’s slow output has at times been problematic. One or two records per decade is far fewer than many bands might expect. But that’s down to the way they work. While some rock bands might smash out records every year or two, TFF are perfectionists who insist on taking their time.
“It’s never been easy for us. We didn’t go in and record The Hurting in two weeks, like The Beatles did with their first album. We took 10 months to a year. It’s always been our fate almost to have to work really hard, with nose to the grindstone, to get anything out. That’s partly our own fussiness. It’s also that we attract fussy people. Then it’s a democracy of fussiness and that makes it hard work. Our output hasn’t been phenomenal. But that’s no bad thing because we haven’t bashed people over the head with our presence. That’s why a lot of people are very glad when we do surface.”
The experiences at the early part of their career taught them to grow up quickly. Success happened fast. One minute they were wannabes, the next they were among the biggest stars on the planet.
“I think we were probably too young to truly appreciate it. We were still growing up. And now that we’re older, we appreciate everything way more. There seems to be more time nowadays. I think we are better musicians and better singers too. I kind of thank the 18 and 19-year-old Roland for being so devoted. I didn’t really know what legacy our music would create.”
He’s glad to take some time out. And he’s also glad that the music industry has changed so that there are more opportunities to play live. “We used to tour to support a record. Now touring is an industry in itself. I don’t know why or when it changed. But touring is quite easy to do now.
“I used to be absolutely tied to the studio. I used to be a bit of a control freak. Now, you work with guys who are half your age and better than you at programming, so you take your hands off and stand back and watch them do it.”
Tough times call for loving hearts and Orzabal has found happiness in the warmth of the crowd. Watching from the Albert Hall stage as people sang back the words he wrote many years ago was joyous. “It’s just incredible when people sing back at me, you get this feeling like ‘OK, if my life stopped now, it would all have been worth it’.”
For all the highs and lows, he wouldn’t change much. “The only thing I would have changed is that after Big Chair, we toured the world for so long that it broke us. So I think if I had been the manager, I would have cut the tour in half and got us back into the studio while we were really, really relevant. Maybe, an album between Big Chair and Seeds of Love would have been good.”
Maybe it would. But for the many, many TFF fans looking forward to next spring’s shows – the news that there’s a new one on the way will be music to their ears.