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It's About the Pursuit of Happiness: How Fickle Friends Made a Glowing Return

Tuesday, 25 January 2022 Written by Simon Ramsay

Back in the 1980s a movie called Weird Science took cinemas by storm. Its ridiculous plot revolved around two high school geeks who used a computer program to create their ideal woman. But what if a similar, albeit less creepy, algorithm had been designed to produce the perfect pop band instead? In that instance, Brighton’s Fickle Friends might magically appear from the digital ether.

Offering a grin-inducing avalanche of hooks and enough grooves and stinging beats to ignite any dancefloor, not to mention gorgeous interplay between sweeping synth bursts and nimble guitar lines, Fickle Friends’ accessible, era-spanning, genre-hopping dynamic is the complete package.

Such an accomplished sound was evident on their debut album, 2018’s ‘You Are Someone Else.’ Swooping between influences, with everyone from Madonna and Tears For Fears to Two Door Cinema Club and Taylor Swift in their crosshairs, crowd pleasing bangers in the vein of Swim, Glue and Say No More not only sent that album top ten in the UK but also helped the band forge a reputation as a must see live act.

That said, vocalist Natassja Shiner, Harry Herrington (bass), Jack Wilson (keys and production) and Sam Morris (drums) haven’t had it easy since then. They split from Polydor, parted ways with guitarist Chris Hall and then had to negotiate a pandemic while striving to craft their long-awaited second album, the tellingly titled ‘Are We Gonna Be Alright?’

But, worry not. LP two is an exercise in pure alt-pop magnificence, with a swaggeringly cool indie-rock attitude, and new found depth of introspective storytelling. We caught up with Shiner for a delightful, no holds barred chat about their glorious new record, the group’s songwriting process and their commitment to being a touring band.

Can we begin by unravelling how things have played out for you over the last couple of years?

It’s been a wave to ride. Really mental. We were building up to album two, got to the point of releasing Pretty Great and it started to fly. I was worried because second albums are difficult to come back with. It felt right at the time and then the pandemic happened. It just turned everything upside down. We thought a lot about what we wanted to do and could have put the album out September 2020, but it’s not in our nature to do that without being able to go and play it live. We’re a live band, that’s our identity and we didn’t want to do that. So we came up with this new plan that we’d break the record into two parts and do [EPs] ‘Weird Years Season 1’ and ‘Weird Years Season 2.’ I was like ‘no matter what happens, that will buy us, probably, a year. Covid will be gone. We can do the second album and write a whole new one…’

Three weeks to flatten the curve, so no problem…

‘A year will be fine, we’ll get it out by then...’ So we dove head first into the ‘Weird Years’ era of music, wrote new songs for that and broke up the album we were originally gonna run with. It did give some meaning to this weird, dark, vacuous amount of time that was on our hands, but as time went on and on and on I was like ‘Oh my God, it’s almost four years since we put out our first record, this is insane.’  Then things got a little better and brighter. We wrote the bulk of the second album during the beginning of last year in this weird house in Shoreham, for the most part during the summer. It’s finally out and I’m really proud.

What was your writing process like?

With this record it’s just been Jack and I. Jack’s the music man, the producer. I do all the lyrics and most melodies. We collaborate on both, but those are the main roles we take. Jack normally has a folder of little ideas and, in-between sessions, he’ll sit down at the laptop, keyboard or whatever, think of short snippet ideas and put them in a folder. So when we come to write we’re like ‘What vibe are we feeling today?’  I also keep a list of song titles and sentences and things I think up, either in the middle of my sleep or commuting in London. Either one of us will pick one of those out and that will spark a song.  

Can you explain how you feel you’ve progressed as a storyteller?

It’s funny, listening back to the first album, often someone will be like ‘What’s this song about?’ and I’m like, ‘I could not tell you. I just do not know.’ It’s weird now because I’m in such a different place as a writer. I can’t even begin a song without knowing what I’m gonna say, what it’s gonna be about. I very much look at lyrics and melody from the point of view of the listener and think, ‘Am I following this right now?’ Whereas before I don’t think I gave a crap and it was way more metaphorical. I just wanted it to be arty, and now it’s the opposite.  

You’ve talked about the Prince-esque side you’ve explored on this record. Which particular songs has he informed?

Definitely Love You To Death and Glow. We spent a whole day listening to the album ‘Around The World In A Day.’ If you listen to that Prince album, it is mental.  They’re kind of not songs, they’re weird crazy soundscapes and if you really go into them there’s some sublime moments. I was like ‘Can we rip some of this off and turn it into a Fickle Friends song?’ Which is what we did with those two. We just wanted something reminiscent of that time, that had loads of energy and sounded hopeful and vibey.

Although you include some troubled themes on the record, the overall listening experience is still an uplifting one.

It’s about striking a balance. I love a good whine in a song. I love being like ‘My life’s so terrible. I’m so heartbroken and let the fucking ground swallow me up.’ That’s the thing I find easiest to write about, but with this album I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that constantly’. I was having to pull myself out of that way of thinking. I was like ‘What are the positive things that are coming from this year of craziness? What are the things I can say with a smile on my face?’ 

For example, I did go through a pretty brutal break up. I had to move out of our house. I had to start a new life in a different place and it took everything I had to try and pull myself out of that feeling. I went to therapy, but what really pieced me back together were three specific friends. They are the reason I’m like a normal person again. I’d written loads of little sentences about that on a note and that’s when Glow came around. It’s one of my favourite songs, just because it was honest and I’d never written a song dedicated to my friends before. It was kind of a love letter to what they did for me and it brought me back to life.  

Alone has a fantastical concept about you and your friends being back together after lockdown had separated everyone. How much of the record was based on experience?

Pretty Great came before pandemic times, but this album is all experience. All of it.  I can pick out any song. Not Okay, that was when I was still living at my old place and was like ‘Fuck, I’m not alright.  I’m really unhappy. I’m not OK and need to do something about it.’ And writing a song is always part of the mental process of ‘What am I going to do next?’ So it’s interesting to look down the track list and know exactly where I was in my head at that time.       

If it’s mainly written from experience, that makes Love You To Death full on in an early Alanis Morissette type of way.

I know. That was funny because it’s a weird timeline. I’d moved away and you know when, after a break up, you think you’ve done the best thing? Then two months go by and you’re like ‘What the fuck have I done? I miss them so much. I’m a complete idiot. They are the love of my life.’ You get this rose-tinted glasses moment. That’s what I was doing. I wrote Love You To Death because it was the most intense feeling ever. I was like ‘Oh my God, I literally love this person so much I want to crawl inside their body and live in their skin.’ It was bleak. I wrote down a few sentences that were really gross and worked through this weird horror theme. It’s dark, but you know when you hug someone you don’t want to let them go but end up suffocating them? It’s when you love too much, too hard and too intensely. It’s not good. It’s unhealthy.

Yeah Yeah Yeah recalls ‘90s Garbage and epitomises the record’s indie-rock side. What fuelled moments like that, which feel like a real release? 

We’ve always wanted to live out the rock band life. It’s never been us because we’ve been pigeonholed as this pop band. This time around we were like ‘Well, we’re making it all ourselves, there’s no one there telling us what we can and can’t do, so let’s just do it.’ We’d already flirted with the rock thing with Write My A Song and just went whole hog with Yeah Yeah Yeah.   

We kind of wrote it as a joke, like we weren’t going to use it because it was too far from what we were. But I had a dodgeball team in London and put it on in the car with a few of my teammates and they were like ‘WOAH!’  I was like ‘It’s cool, right?’  And they were like ‘Yeah, it’s sick.’ I went ‘Fuck it, let’s just fucking it do it.’ Then we played it live at the album teaser show. It’s so satisfying to play a rock song. I’m not saying all rock songs are simple or easy to play, they’re absolutely not and some are very complex, but in this case it’s the most straightforward song. You don’t even have to think about it. You just play it, enjoy it and it’s great.        

You mentioned Write Me A Song, which also has a Garbage feel. Might that refer to your previous label and the demands placed on artists?

I cannot confirm whether it is or it isn’t, but maybe it is, yes.

How hard is it, when you possess a vision, but have to concede to people who don’t  understand what you’re trying to achieve?

It’s weird because I thought that whatever anyone from there said was gospel.  ‘They make loads of money and have loads of successful artists. Of course they know what’s best.’ And the reality is that labels, and these people working at labels, are successful for a reason. But it’s like ‘How much shit do you have to throw at the wall for it to stick?’ They don’t always know. Only you know your music and your voice inside out, so we learnt the hard way to have the final say on things.  

I normally make mountains out of mole hills with situations and with Write Me A Song, it wasn’t that it was happening all the time, but there was one song in particular we’d finished. It was mastered, came back, I listened to it and the whole middle eight had been cut out and put in a different place. I’m like ‘What’s happened with this?’ It turned out the guy at the label made this decision, called the producer and made the change without consulting anybody. I was like ‘This is insane. It’s my art.’ It felt weird and sneaky. I was like ‘I don’t like the way this works.’              

You draw from numerous genres but have still managed to develop your own distinct identity. What’s your secret?

We don’t constantly follow a certain sound. We did Swim and Say No More and were like ‘Cool, we’re doing the indie-pop, post-1975 thing.’ And it quickly got boring and we moved on. It’s always been more alt-pop than indie-pop, but this record is a lot of indie-rock. Then you have a song like Not Okay and I don’t know what that falls into. It sounds like Kanye.

We have such a love of different songs and artists and want to make music where each song satisfies a new taste bud. The final song on this record is basically a piano ballad. Love You To Death is completely the opposite. Honestly, at the end of the day, if I’m singing on it and it’s produced by Jack, it’s gonna sound like Fickle Friends every time. A lot of people worry about things being really coherent. It’s nice to listen to a record where all the songs sound similar but that’s why I love The 1975, who can literally do whatever the fuck they want and it always sounds like them. You never know the twists and turns of their records. The journey it takes you on is so unpredictable and I love that.                      

Finally, are we gonna be alright?

It’s the question I’ve been asking myself for the last two years. I think we will be alright, but we’re always on the edge and I’m never entirely sure. The good thing to come from all this craziness is just giving less of a fuck. We cared so much about what people thought, how things were gonna go, whether stuff would be well received and what was gonna happen. If we’re gonna get dropped or do another second album. Just fucking noise. As long as you’re doing something that is meaningful, makes you happy, and makes the people around you smile then you can live with little worries and you’ve nailed life. That’s what we’re trying to do at the moment. It’s just about the pursuit of happiness, that’s what this whole record is.

Fickle Friends Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue January 25 2022 - BRISTOL Thekla
Thu January 27 2022 - LONDON Scala

Compare & Buy Fickle Friends Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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