Editors - Tom Smith on “Violence”

Remain In Flight

Aug 21, 2018 Web Exclusive
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I have a vivid recollection of when Editors swept into the frame of my life. I was quite literally engulfed in a dissertation at The University of Edinburgh, barely completing my master's program and frankly, in over my head. An ocean away from home, I could be found most evenings slumped in a library chair with a mixed look of concern and fatigue on my face. Coffee was doing nothing and a beer or few at the pub was a moderate panacea. In such a state, the human being needs a boost and a release wherever one can be found. Enter Tom Smith and his brooding band from Birmingham, England. Their debut album The Backroom was the slap in my face that quickened the blood flow. Amidst shimmering sheets of guitar, whiplash drums, and brick-heavy bass, Smith's baritone bark filled my ears, pulling me to my feet.

Any Editors fan will relate a similar sort of feel. Here is where music takes the form of an injection of fuel. You bolt out the door and into the night, suddenly ready to take on anything that crosses your path. What a profound attribute for anyone sinking in the morass. Audio courage, I will call it. Within frontman Tom Smith's opening phrase on "Lights," the first song on The Backroom, he captures this essence-"If fortune favors the brave/I am as purple as they come/I got a million things to say/I got a million things to..."

Nearly 14 years later, Smith is still speaking in song. With a voice that seems to emanate out of his lithe frame from some supernatural source, he is not done with those million things. That courage Editors' music instills mirrors an artistic bravery that has sustained them through the rough spots. There have been fits and starts and interference, self-imposed and otherwise, to the message that he and his band have wished to deliver, periodically clouded by internal strife and creative ambivalence. All of this is bound to happen. No band is immune, but the ones that pull through the gloom have the ability to gather themselves and refocus when perilously close to the brink. Editors have persevered when the message has gotten lost, particularly to its U.S. fan base, which prior to their current world tour, hadn't seen them perform on home soil for eight years–kind of crazy when you think about it.

They've taken risks, more than most bands that had built up a reliable fan base during the era of post-punk revival in which they emerged. Keenly aware that with those daring leaps many fans would be left behind on the ledge, they were also mindful that the firm safety of the ground they had sown was no longer beneath them. In that departure, unless you sprout new wings, you'll plummet.

Not only have Editors managed to stay aloft, the altered lineup has built themselves a sleek and supercharged new vessel which has broken the barriers of their branded sound. After lead guitarist Chris Urbanowicz was shown the door following a plagued attempt at forming a fourth album, Editors had seriously entertained the notion of disbanding, but after hiring guitarist Justin Lockey and versatile instrumentalist Elliott Williams for what might have been their last couple of shows as a group, Smith, drummer Ed Lay, and bassist Russell Leetch realized they had something, a spark worth pursuing. The new blood refreshed the ambition.

On three subsequent records, the band has widened its sonic range to include the symphonic, operatic and electronic. They have embraced the spirit of adventure and experimentalism, doubling down on drama to unveil unexpected substance behind the shadowy cool surface layer. On Editors sixth full-length, Violence, this spirit took shape in an attitude of openness toward outside input from unlikely entities. Feeling the need to augment their initial material, they outsourced to producers Benjamin John Power (Blanck Mass, Fuck Buttons) and Leo Abrahams (Brian Eno, Paul Simon, Jon Hopkins) and the amalgam gave rise to a sound that will surprise anyone who thought they had Editors figured out. Violence is a triumphant record presented by a group that has settled into a place of confidence of vision after transformation.

For me, there always seemed to be a lot more than met the eye with Tom Smith, so when the opportunity came along to have a sit down with him before an Editors show at Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia, on the tour that stood as their reintroduction the U.S., I pounced. As a fan who had gone along for the ride from the start, I was keen to discover some of what resided behind the mask of this modern day Phantom of the Opera. For a music writer, this is the kind of thing that keeps you excitedtaking a day trip to a nearby city that gets cooler by the day to chat with a musical hero before seeing him live for the first time in over eight years. Editors are a massive draw in other countries but because of their prolonged hiatus in the States, you can catch them in a small and intimate room like Theatre of Living Arts without much fuss, where their brand of dark power expands the atmosphere well beyond its ceiling. 

And so I found myself one afternoon, in the backroom, waiting nervously. Tom Smith's public image carries a kind of mysterious bravado to which you are defenseless. His striking good looks and well-spoken British charm are disarming, adding to the sense of awe with which I was already buzzing. I had been informed that Tom doesn't like too much press, so I was a bit uptight, to begin with, having spotted him walking into the venue just beforehand with a coffee or perhaps a tea, looking none too pleased. It was the kind of setting you would conjure for an ideal interview, quiet and undisturbed and by a window out to the street. If I had remembered to take a portrait, it would have been the perfect side lighting. Then suddenly, we were sat down, alone in a room and yes, I was feeling intimidated. But what unfolded was unexpectedly pleasant.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): So, you just played in New York-Irving Plaza where I saw you many years ago on what must have been your first U.S. tour. Is that your spot when you play in NY?

Tom Smith: I'm not sure we have a spot, to be honest. I don't think we've been there enough to warrant having a spot. We've played Webster Hall two or three times over the years.... This show was good actually, better than the last time we played.... We might get into it, but this tour has been understandably kind of weird, ya know?

How do you mean?

We've not been [to the States] for eight years. So, we have three albums worth of material that our audience hasn't seen us play live before...so that's awkward. We essentially kind of went through a break up [with the States], not on purpose, that's just the way it happened. And when you see someone you've not seen for ages it's kind of weird. There's a period of adjustment.

You don't know where to start...

Yeah, it's like do we skip straight to the makeup sex? Sometimes it takes a good hour of the show before everyone feels comfortable, d'you know what I mean? But that's understandable.... You blink and then the best part of a decade goes. There have been different reasons why we haven't been here for the best part of the last eight years.

Can you share that? I remember being rather disappointed that you didn't make it over the last couple albums.

So I mean, there were a few different things really that happened. The last time we came here it was on our third record In This Light and on This Evening. And after that record, the band had a hard time making the fourth, which culminated in Chris being fired essentially. We tried to make that record for a long time and it didn't happen, none of us were happy with what was going on. So that period was a dark time for the band. After making that separation, the two new guys came in [Justin Lockey and Elliott Williams]. We made that [fourth] record in America. That was the last time we were here actually was to make The Weight of Your Love in Nashville. That was all just an emotional journey...and we quickly knuckled down after that to make In Dream, to try to solidify the new line-up of the band and we were supposed to come with that record but I got sick. I needed to take some time off to get over that, which was a shame. So now another record down the line we've managed to come back here. So yeah, it's a bit weird for us. We tour in Europe a lot which is one thing and here is a very different thing. There are people at the show having a great time, so that's cool.

Now there are people who you are brand new to you and people who haven't heard you for eight years so I understand what you're saying about having to get to know the audience again.

And them getting to know us. There are people that want to hear those early songs and maybe don't even realize that the band has changed. We're not as relevant in America, we don't get radio play really so our newer songs don't get that much light shed on them. So the show might not be what people want it to be but we always try to look forward and try not to be too nostalgic and recreate new moments for our audience with new material. Through all the awkwardness and awkward silence [laughs], there have been positive moments.

Well, I hope tonight is positive. I've never been to this venue but it seems like a good room.

We've been here a few times actually. It's cool. This neighborhood has cleaned up a bit since we were last here.

Philly has gotten cooler.

I just walked here from the hotel and yeah, it's vibey. I like it.

So I was realizing through this that it's been nearly 15 years as a band.

Let's see, The Back Room was 2005, so yeah not far off.

The arc of bands that have kept it going for that amount of timemaking a big immediate mark where a large devoted fanbase forms and then contending with those expectations in subsequent records, followed by a distinct departure that comes from wanting to break out of that mold. In This Light was that and even after, your music became more operatic and complex. Have you now found release from that internal and external pressure and saying we're making music that we love to play and whoever follows, fantastic? Like you're not really worried about what fans want anymore and it's more about keeping yourself excited?

I think so. We were very aware of the reaction to the decisions we've made over the years. Especially with that third record. It didn't inform our decision making but you are aware that your audience has been stretched and some of them don't like it anymore. You have to think about what you're doing and why. There's the realization that we are doing it for ourselves. It's quite selfish with very little thought for our audience. It's about those moments in the studio or rehearsal space where you feel a collective connection between the five of us. When you feel like these seeds of ideas grow into something surprising that you didn't [expect]. That feeling of accomplishing something together is addictive. That's the thing that fuels the engine really. Without that, it all stops. I don't think we're a band that's going to do The Backroom tour. We still feel like we have things to say and ways of saying things that some people want to hear. It's important what us five think and if you lose some people that's fine. If you gain some others, that's cool too. If literally no one turned up anymore, you might have to rethink things. [Mutual laughter.] But we're lucky enough that the people who've stayed with us I think have enjoyed the journey.

I'm one of them. It's fun to track a band for that long and to see that they made it through when you weren't sure that they would.

Pull it back from the brink! Yeah, we certainly got near the brink. I like those bands that take their audience on a journey with risks and surprise and disappointment as well along the way.

I imagine that when you do anything for that long you have to keep yourself motivated. It's internal.

When you're doing something creative, if you feel like you're repeating yourself, that's the enemy, ya know what I mean? That's the opposite of what you're trying to do. And I'm not saying we're sitting around saying, "God, no one has ever made a song like this before." That's not the feeling at all but if you feel like you're just rehashing old ideas, it gets stale. It's the complete opposite of what being creative should besurprising and spontaneous. Equally, you have to take a step back and not just think that you're the only people that know the right way to go. With every record we try to do things slightly differently, whether it's the people we work with, the way we work with them or like In Dream where we didn't work with anybody. But with this record we were like, "We've done that. Let's get some people in to help us." You do need other people.

Yeah, you outsourced in some senses here. You had some raw recordings which you then handed over to two different producers.

Essentially. It was quite a fractured process. We did a lot of work on our own like we did on In Dream, this time in a place in Oxford [In Dream was recorded in Nashville, TN with producer Jacquire King]. We heard the new record by an electronic artist called Blanck Mass [Benjamin Power, one half of Fuck Buttons]. Sonically it just took us by surprise. We liked it a lot. It was brutal and melodic and felt fresh.

Those two things go well together, don't they? Brutal and melodic.

I think so, but it's not like we wanted our record to sound like a Blanck Mass record. We just wondered if he'd be interested in kind of throwing around what we'd worked on. So he worked on eight or nine songs. It wasn't remixing but more like taking them apart and putting them back together through his imagination and that's what we wanted. So we had two records. One was very different and one was perhaps too much like us in some ways. At that point, we got in a room with another producer Leo Abrahams and he really helped mastermind fusing the two together and also adding some new things to the table. He saw what the album should be. After a while, once we trusted each other, we did it. Also, when we make things that sound electronic, like In This Light and some parts of In Dream, they come from a more nostalgic place, less modern synthesis and plug-ins and software and more analog old school gear. We love that kind of feel, like Vangelis. But Ben comes from a more modern place and it was nice to have his take. Essentially it's all synthesizers but there are so many different ways you can take that and having his influence has given this album a freshness.

At the very end of "Hallelujah (So Low)" is a snippet that reminded me of Oneohtrix Point Never, was that Ben? It's nice to hear those patches that are out with the song but they come in to add a touch.

Yes. It's all trying to be sensitive to the song, to have moments that are surprising but not random.

A couple of other songs really stood out to me, like "Cold." Did you ever hear "Nightshift" by The Commodores?

By The Commodores...I don't think so. Is that a famous song?

It is. It came later in their career when they were doing more synthesized R&B.

I'm absolutely going to check that out.

"Cold" really reminds me of it. [I try singing some of the part that's similar...and not very well.]

Someone made reference to Belinda Carlisle with one of the tunes. Previously when writing a song, if I felt like something was too simple or accessible I would shy away from it and the band would too. I think over the yearsI'm not saying we're writing Ed Sheeran-esque pop songsbut when things feel more immediate and poppy and melodic we're less inclined to smother it in darkness or hide it away. I think to embrace that more and not be scared of it is something we've come to realize over the last couple of records and certainly with this one. To hear you talk about The Commodores and then [someone else mentioning] Belinda Carlisle, if you had told me that when I was writing The Backroom, I might have been like, "It's time to quit, this isn't going to work out. I just want to be cool man." [Mutual laughter.]

"Cold" is certainly a nice way of welcoming people into the album. There's an inviting feel to that song.

It's a very melodic song. It doesn't waste any time. There's two ways of starting a record: You start with something moody, something that grows out of the gloom, operatic like you mentioned before, something cinematic. Or you go [claps hands] "Right, this is how we start." Like "Lights" on The Backroom and on this one, "Cold." It's like, "Bang, there's no intro here, here we go. If you like it, great, you're in. If you don't, turn this record off because it's not for you."

And then it goes in so many different directions...

Over the course of an album, you want to show the different sides of what you're about. This album finishes on two songs which kind of throw away the pop writing sensibility. They go off on tangents with long outros and they don't really make conventional sense and we like that kind of side of the band too. Yeah, there's different [sides].

Another one is "Violence" and the way that it drops into this trance-dance tunnel at the end. When you're recording songs, do you do it with a mind to a point in the live show where you break into an expanse where people lose themselves and we can gather ourselves as this happens? Do you think of shows in that way of coming in stanzas, peaks and valleys, drifts and climaxes?

Absolutely. There's that idea when you're in the studio and the music is growing and goes off in a certain direction. With "Violence," it goes into club territory and then you think about the show and how that would feel. Like "Can we hypnotize people?" You think about the setlist and how it ebbs and flows. Some of the songs on the first couple of records, like "Blood" or "Munich," if you play them next to "Ocean of Night" it's just weird, ya know? You have to go on a journey and try to show all the facets of what you do and what you've done in the past. In the show at the moment, the outro of "Violence" kind of morphs into "No Harm" and that's by far and away my favorite parts of the set. I think some people are getting hypnotized, which is great.

"No Harm"...remind me...

"No Harm" is the opening song on In Dream. You know how I talked about two different ways of starting an album. "Cold" is one and "No Harm" is the other way. The slow descending synth kind of thing, really "broody" and moody and probably my favorite Editors song ever.

Do you feel like you've reached a sweet spot now with this record, where you can more easily curate the set list and throw in things that are unexpected?

We tend to spend weeks honing a set to this thing where we feel flows and it's not easy, to string these songs together in a coherent hour and a half or forty-five. We don't tend to be that flexible in terms of throwing things in. Sometimes at shows, I might do an acoustic version, "Smokers..." is one of them. It's funny, we toured with R.E.M. and they have a larger back catalog admittedly and seeing them, the way they would throw things in. I don't understand how they can have that many songs on tap to pull from! For us, it's a painstaking process of getting this set to where we're all happy. To change it even slightly, you're like, "Oh this isn't as good as the night before." It's complex. 

In listening to a lot of your music recently and re-familiarizing myself, it feels like you imbue ordinary urban survival with a kind of drama that transcends the ordinariness of everyday life. That has always come across to me.

You mean me as a singer or the whole package?

Your singing tone for sure but everything really. The recorded music, the performance of it.

I suppose they go hand in hand. Over the years we've embraced what we've become. We like drama. We like things that are over the top and take you on a journey and we also like melody. It all suits us. It's also the thing that probably pisses people off about the band as well but the people that like it, they're in it for the ride. My voice started out down here and as I've sung more I've learned to use my voice differently and embracing different facets, different tones, be it falsetto or whatever. It enables you to make these gestures and when you're trying to paint these vivid kinds of brooding pictures and also not be afraid to go over the top, be it a guitar or a vocal line. When artists come out and know exactly what they want to be, nine times out of ten people don't trust it. It doesn't last long enough. You have to grow and learn and go on a journey with your audience together. Finding the thing that you're good at and refining it as much as possible is quite a good plan for life. I think if we made a country record, people would spit it out.

Maybe that's down the line.

Yeah, maybe that can reconnect us with the American market!

But something that conveyed what I'm talking about was even the album cover itself. These people in close quarters trying to make their way around each other with the suit of everyday life on them.

It's a theme that's never too far away from my full process of writing. I guess the modern world we live in today, how overcrowded and fast moving and overstimulated it all is. It's scary. In so many ways it's getting further and further away from being human. On a more basic level, not wanting to lose those human connections along the way is a theme I've gone back to and I think this record perhaps pulls that into focus. Violence is [all around] our world. The cover image comes from an artist friend that has worked with us for a while and that's his provocative representation of that idea really. Human connection that's brutal at the same time.

What I like about your music in the face of what we're talking about is that it's triumphant in overcoming of all that. Like in "Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors" you get the image of people dealing with the hardships of a situation, smoking outside of hospital doors trying to deal with it. Or "Darkness at the Door" on this album felt that way too, kind of standing up to face all the things that you're afraid of or that might be wearing you down.

People often comment on the darkness or bleakness of our band. But for the people that like the band, there are chinks of light and hope in these songs. The fans that show me their tattoos of the lyrics, they're not showing me the miserable ones. It's always the lyrics that have the hope. Maybe our shows are group therapy sessions but people aren't crying, there's a lot of smiles. I admit that our band lives in a world that's maybe darker than most indie bands, but the thing that resonates with our audience is the optimism and the light at the end of the tunnel. When the shows go well and you feel like the room is in tune with what you're doing, you feel like you've achieved something that unites the collection of people in front of you. It elevates and is euphoric.

It seems like we're in an age of more collaboration amongst musicians. Maybe there used to be a romanticism to a band that you're insulated and self-contained and doing what you're doing.

Like, it's our gang and you're not coming in.

Yeah, but now, and it seems like this with your band particularly with this album, that the attitude is there's a lot to be gained from collaboration and hearing what other musicians do and inviting it in. Like with Justin's other projects [Minor Victories, Mastersystem] does his side stuff ever influence you and inspire you.

Justin is a unique case. I've never met anyone as creative and prolific. He's always working on something. It's not just music. He writes things and films things. In many ways, he's like no one I've ever met. When Justin came into the band, to have somebody with the attitude that we can do anything was the most inspiring thing. Having somebody come in with that way of thinking and that energy saved the band. I wouldn't be sat here with you now if he hadn't come in. Long may it continue. Sometimes I worry that he can't turn it off. I worry about his sanity...but he's a huge part of what we are. Elliott does things on the side too with electronic music. Russell, Ed and I, the original members, needed that energy, that kick in the ass.

So it was instant when they came in?

When they came in, it wasn't really to make an album. We had a couple of shows booked, one of them was the biggest we'd ever done, headlining a festival in Belgium, so it wasn't really with a mind to making a record with them. We'd had some songs that we'd tried to make into album four with Chris, so Justin as the guitarist had the biggest shoes to fill.... For all intents and purposes, we could have done that gig and said "Alright cheers, thanks, guys. We're probably going to split up" or me Ed and Russell will try to make a record on our own...and probably split up after doing that [laughs] but we started throwing the song "Sugar" around and knew straight away. There's this huge guitar that happens halfway through and just the way that Justin plays guitar, that comes from a more muscular place and we fed off it.

Just to finish things off, I listen to this film podcast The Big Picture where the host [Sean Fennessey of The Ringer] asks each director what is the favorite thing that he's seen recently. So I'd like to pose that to you and ask you what's your favorite record of the moment? I'm always curious about what my favorite musicians like to listen to.

I'm not surprised because I loved his last record, but it's Jon Hopkins' Singularity. When his last record came out, I loved it. Melodically and in its atmosphere it felt like post-rock and the rhythms and the way they were presented from the electronic dance world, I dunno it just felt like a marriage made in heaven and it blew me away. Singularity is another stunning piece of work. It really is. It takes you to another place. It's transportative and beautiful.

I'm actually meant to be talking to him soon as well.

Oh great. I don't know him. We have shared friends but yeah tell him to keep doing what he's doing. He actually went to school with Leo Abrahams, the producer of our record. They've made records together. They're chums.

Do you ever see Jon coming into work with you in some capacity?

That's a very busy boy. I'd love to work with him but who knows.

Well, you have so many open avenues now. It's like anything goes.

I'm always scared that someone will say no. That was the thing with Blanck Mass. Justin has this little black book. He's not Scottish but he's part of the Glasgow underground scene and somehow Justin, probably through Frightened Rabbit, has pretty much everybody's details. He was like, "I'm going to contact Blanck Mass" and I was like, 'Dude, there's no way in a million years that he's going to work with Editors." But he did! He was like "Send me the tunes, I'd love to" and I was like "What the fuck are you serious, Justin?!" Sometimes you just have to ask.

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