Indeed, eight years can feel like a lifetime. What were you doing back in 2011 and in-between? When I think back about my life back then it was very different to the one I’m living right now. Different city, different chapter in my life, different partner, different music, different perspectives, more hair – the release of Friendly Fires‘ second album Pala fell into line with the end of my academic studies and a summer full of opportunities and it’s life-embracing euphoria felt like the perfect soundtrack for that moment in my life where everything felt possible. Well, shortly after plenty of things fell apart but that’s not the story I’d like to tell right now and definitely not the story the British trio would like to tell with their music. I already enjoyed the band’s rawer self-titled 2008 debut which happened in the aftermath of the big indie pop/rock wave of the Mid-00s and delivered electrifying hits like Jump In The Pool and Paris but it was probably the stand-alone single Kiss Of Life where everything clicked and the following Pala LP delivered even more of that. More tropical vibes, more Balearic bliss, more house, more euphoria and escapism – with playful colours Friendly Fires painted a hopelessly romanticized picture of a better place, far away from the world’s despair and filled with love and ecstasy (not the drug, although well… it’s not specifically excluded). Pala was an over-the-top pop extravaganza that didn’t succeed as fundamentally as some people might have hoped for but for me it remains one of this decade’s most essential pop albums. And now, after eight years, it finally got a successor in the form of Inflorescent.
“Eight years is a considerable fraction of a life,” confirms Edd Gibson to me when we exchange words via mail. Like all of us the Friendly Fires guitarist has been through a lot in the those years as he sums it up: “Both my parents have passed away. I have written and played with a number of other artists and acts that I feel very proud of. Time has forced a number of responsibilities onto me, some of which I’ve risen to, others I am happy to keep running from in the hope they never catch up!” Facing and avoiding responsibilities are key elements of growing up but let’s face it – they suck quite often. I learned that the hard way, you probably also did and so did the band and at the end of the over twelve-month long touring cycle behind Pala they were pretty much burned out although they enjoyed playing the live shows right till the end as Gibson says. “I think the problem was that we had been out together for so long, that you don’t see the strain and toll that long term touring can do to those closest to you.” In the years following 2012 I changed cities, partners and career paths while Friendly Fires were trying their best to keep the band alive in the background but it was harder than all members expected as Edd explains:
“We would meet up in a studio in North West London and try and hammer out something new, but it wasn’t coming easily and rather than remember that it rarely does, we just let it defeat us. I think we came up with some cool stuff and some less interesting stuff too. There was a degree of being paralysed by over analysing, but also I think there wasn’t the fighting spirit and energy needed for us to push our song writing over the finish line.”
Learning to become friends again
The only thing they came up with besides a really good LateNightTales sampler in 2012 was a split EP with acclaimed producers Andrew Weatherall and Tim Fairplay aka Asphodells which was a bit more psychedelic and saw the band free themselves from familiar pop and dance music structures. However, it remained a short interlude and they stopped doing actual music for a bit. Edd still meet up with fellow bandmembers Jack Savidge and Ed Macfarlane occasionally but making music only played a small part here. “We all needed some decompression away from work to be able to come friends again,” explains Edd. “It took a while to restart the whole thing as friends, before being able to return to a working relationship.”
The path towards Infloresecent was a slow and rocky one and everyone who’s been struggling to keep friendships alive over changing circumstances knows what Edd’s been talking about here. When they were finally willing to restart the group, Friendly Fires were in an actual identity crisis as the musician tells me: “The band is an outlet for part of our tastes, but can’t possibly fit them all. I think there were other strains of our personalities we wanted to explore, that wouldn’t have suited what our band is ‘about’. So, what is Friendly Fires about? Love, dance, euphoria and a feeling of groovy escapism? Heavily influenced by late 80s and early 90s house music culture the band continues to be inspired by this era, it’s positivity and openness. “House and dance music has always been in our DNA,” he explains, “and I think we just allowed ourselves to lean into it a little more this time.” However when they returned to making music in 2017 the idea of a full album was still a blurry goal in the distant future, one that was also a bit scary for a long time.
“Perhaps there was a fear that whatever we released, we would be locked into touring for another two years, so it had better be easy on the sanity and high on the enjoyment levels, and at that time it didn’t tick either of those boxes.”
In the search for something to be great and perfect, the band let some good music go to waste as he tells me. Their was pressure, there was a bit fear but their was also determination to overcome that. When Love Like Waves arrived just in time for the summer of 2018 it continued where Friendly Fires left a few years earlier – with confidence and groove but a different mindset. “I think when we returned we wanted it to be forward looking, not a nostalgia trip.” They immediately started playing smaller shows and festivals, soaking up that energy and take it to the studio. “We had never toured and written at the same time before,” says Gibson. “This time around was an interesting shake up of the process. We could get ideas together in the studio and then play them out the following night, and get an idea for what was working, what needed tweaking or binning altogether.”
Over the past twelve months they carefully teased their return with new singles following Love Like Waves. First we got the pumping Heaven Let Me In which they produced together with longtime friends Disclosure, then a cover of the 1988 house classic Lack Of Love by Adonis and Charles B before the percussive Silhouettes finally announced the release of Inflorescent which is just the colourful continuation of the Pala beach party. It’s a funky selection of house pop anthems, designed to make the listener dance, forget about reality and simply have a good time. That’s easier said then done but listening to the third Friendly Fires album you sense how much love for detail is in it and how they continue to thrive for perfection although they are getting better at letting go, something that has often been an obstacle in the past. “The song has priority over production, and momentum is the most important part of writing,” explains Gibson. “If you stop to get caught up in the detail, you can end up losing your way far too early.” This time around the band got in a habit of taking things back to Mark Ralph who helped co-produce a lot of Inflorescent. “In his studio Club Ralph, the refining and perfecting could be focused on, knowing the songwriting had already been done.” The result is another life-embracing piece of slick sunshine pop that shows the group’s love for classic house music even more. I think in retrospect Friendly Fires also played a crucial part in introducing me to this music and invited me to dive deeper into the history of euphoric house territory. And the fascination for this golden era continues. “I guess the sheer spectrum afforded by synthesis is an amazing playground for the brain,” Gibson says. “There’s something undeniably propulsive about a 909. Stick the two together and you’re powerless to resist.”
Appreciating the escapism
And well, resistance is not an option here, at least not for an unsubtle partly record like Inflorescent that celebrates euphoria, that wants real and authentic one. “It’s only complete if I feel it in real life,” Ed Macfarlane sings in the funky Friends Within collaboration Offline. Escapism is a necessary and thriving force within the music of Friendly Fires, especially since the world has gotten a lot bleaker and more chaotic within those past eight years. However, it can be a dead end if you take too much as Gibson says: “The problem with escapism is that eventually there will be nowhere left to run to.” And in many ways despite it’s themes about love and sunshine there is a serious and reflective notion that shines through Infloresecent which is also the story of a band regaining its friendship and strength.
“As we looked back over this album, it became clear that inward betterment and overcoming your own negative habits and fears was a pervasive theme. You can travel halfway around the world to find the clearest azure waters and the whitest sand, but you will still be stuck there with yourself.”
The closing track Run The Wild Flowers is a slightly melancholic way to end this trip but over the past weeks it really grew on me. “The song reflects on taking stock of your situation, and if you don’t like it, stop complaining about it and create something better.” And maybe that sums up those past eight years pretty well. Infloresecent is the story of a band growing up while rediscovering their focus and the bound that once got them together back in 2006. They worship the escapism and the love, maybe even more than in the past. And they dance with determination against this ongoing notion of dystopian despair because in the end we need music like this and the parties that go along with it to know what we are fighting for (and against). From that perspective Friendly Fires are probably even more important these days than before. And they are hungry for more as Gibson outmaps the future of their group: “More music, more positivity, more creativity, more dancing.” Those past eight years have been a turbulent ride for many of us, I’m pretty sure about that. Ironically it partly feels like I’m in a similar situation like eight years ago, but with slightly different circumstances and it feels as if it’s the same for these three gentlemen. The future’s what we make of it and I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t mind if this future would be more about sparkling Hawaiian shirts, good house parties and an overall feeling of love.
Inflorescent is out now via Polydor. Go check them out live soon, you won’t regret it.