"It's about compassion and trying to find empathy in a world that is becoming increasingly less tolerant...” - hmv.com talks to Faithless
It could be said that the 1990s was the decade in which dance music really began to emerge from the clubs and the underground scene and start to make the crossover into mainstream consciousness, with a wave of artists that included the likes of Leftfield, The Prodigy, Daft Punk and Underworld taking the dance genre to new heights and extremes and enjoying commercial success in a way that had previously been very rare indeed.
To aficionados of the scene, dance music had always been a broad church, but few dance music acts managed to capture the breadth of audience as British trio Faithless, whose trademark, anthemic sound saw them become a regular fixture on club dancefloors and festival stages alike, where their music united people from all backgrounds and delivered a message of unity and togetherness that feels as vital today as it ever did.
After six studio albums released between 1996 and 2010, Faithless trio Rollo, Maxi Jazz and Sister Bliss called time on their work together and began to pursue other musical directions, but a 2015 remix album which saw their biggest anthems remixed by some of the most well-known DJs on the planet proved to be the catalyst for a worldwide tour that saw them reach new audiences and prompt a rethink about their decision to call it a day.
Five years on, Faithless return this week with All Blessed, their first album of new material in a decade, and ahead of its release we caught up with Sister Bliss for a chat about why they decided that Faithless wasn't quite done yet...
So, 10 years is quite a long time – you did a kind of farewell tour after the last studio album in 2010, and that seemed to be it for Faithless. At that time, did you all think that was it forever in terms of making records?
“Well, we did release an album in 2015, so I guess there's been a divide in the 10 years. We released the Faithless 2.0 album which did really well, it went to No. 1 here [in the UK], but that was essentially a remix album. We did a tour and a load of festivals off the back of that and it was just really moving to see how loving the audiences were, how passionate and excited they were, as if it was 20 years ago. There were a lot of people there that weren't even born when we released our first music, so it felt like the younger generation were really experiencing our music for the first time.
“With the remix album that was partly the point, working with some of the biggest artists in dance music globally from Avicii to Tiesto, Armin Van Buuren, Claptone, right across the board. People who'd been our colleagues on the stages at festivals all around the world and who had been instrumental in playing our records, so it was amazing to have them remix the 'greatest hits', if you like, and celebrate our 20 years. It felt like a reboot, which is why we called the album 2.0, and we didn't really expect the reception that we got.”
Is that what prompted you to return to the studio to make a new album?
“It was inspiring, and it felt like there was still a place for us, that there was still a place where you can have music that's emotional, dance-y, sometimes more chilled, but music with a message, essentially. That seems to be our space in this kind of musical environment. And it felt like people still drink it up, people still need that message. For me, it was sort of re-engaging with our fanbase and not just living inside my own head in the studio. It's incredibly moving when people say 'we listened to your song when we buried my son' or 'we walked down the aisle to this because the lyrics mean so much to us'.
“Right from the first album, we were putting the lyrical agenda right out in front of the music, with the beats and the grooves and the riffs we surrounded those lyrics with, whether they were song lyrics or the written lyrics, Maxi's poetic lyrics, which set the bar really high for whatever is to come. And it felt like there was still a massive appetite for that. People need nourishment. I want to listen to music that is sometimes funky, sometimes mindless, sometimes angry, it runs all over the place, but what Faithless stands for is that sense that there are lyrics with meaning, a lyrical agenda. Sometimes personal, quite political at times, we've never shied away from that. And it's about compassion and trying to find empathy in a world that is becoming increasingly less tolerant.”
It seems like that's what has always given you a very broad appeal in terms of an audience, it was never just dance music fans that liked Faithless...
“We've experienced the best part of that, where people of all shapes, sizes, colours, creeds, religions and genders come together as one. We've had that experience and even within the band we're all from very different parts of town musically, different genders, races and backgrounds, coming together to make something that's greater than the sum of its parts, and I kind of like to view the world through that prism of possibility and hopefulness. I guess this album is also trying to say that even though we live in this very polarised world, full of unbelievable horror at times, there is that which doesn't divide us, which brings us together. And empathy is the first place that you find it, it's the first step towards creating a better world.
“I think we all have to take stock, really. The world we're living in is intolerant, angry, aggressive, divisive, and it's not good for us, you know? Sorry to get lofty, but I mean if I'm going to have such a short time on this planet I might as well use it as a vessel to say something interesting and thought-provoking, and ultimately nourishing. That's what came back to me again and again, and I don't really like to get on Facebook and read threads, but I guess if we can't engage with our audiences in real life then that's the next best thing, and it really struck me how many people said that Faithless had nourished them in some way. That's a very humbling thing to hear as an artist and it's a privilege.”
So have you been working on it all this time?
“Yeah, and why it took a long time was because it was collaborative, it was like putting together a giant jigsaw, and we thought very carefully about how it would all fit together as one piece of music. We were so excited by the response to 2.0, we were like: 'Oh, maybe we are still a little bit relevant, people seem to give a sh*t.' People don't really listen to albums any more, we were just feeling that the whole landscape had changed. We started making lots of pieces of music and I was road testing them in my DJ sets and getting really fired up about it, but we were eventually convinced that we were a band that had an album platform, which is quite rare in electronic music, let alone at large, and that the album sort of stands for something. So we were gently persuaded not to just bung a load of tracks out and actually make an album.”
Where did the title come from?
“The title All Blessed is kind of ambivalent, and sometimes we were thinking: 'Are we all cursed? There are so many mad things happening in the world!' But within our own lives, certain life events kind of force you to look for the hope and that which carries us forward. And I love that about the album, I think it's quite intimate actually. And I talk about these grand sweeping principles, but actually, it starts with our personal lives. Right from the first track, it's not a big anthem that bashes you over the head. It gently entices you in and invites you to look at the beauty within the mundane, the poetry in everyday life.”
Was it a conscious thing, like 'right, we're making a record', or did the music just build up over time?
“It was a combination of both, really. Music building up over time, working on different projects, but still feeling like Faithless has a sort of unique position, which as I say was kind of confirmed by that tour, groovy, uplifting and euphoric, but also conscious at the same time. You just don't find that in many other genres. I mean, I love Sleaford Mods, they're one of my favourite bands, but you're not going to find many DJs across the board putting a Sleaford Mods record in their DJ set at a dance music event. Dance music is a global business now, and for better or for worse Faithless did come from the clubs, and I think something special happens to us in a nightclub or festival scenario. Dance music does something transformative and it moves you to another space entirely. So while there are bands out there that absolutely are political and raw and full-blooded, which I love, there's not so much in what you would call the dance music or electronica genres.
“So yeah, it was a bit of both, and that tour sort of crystalised it. If we were vacillating before, after that we were pretty sure, like: 'F***ing hell, people are excited, let's not drop the ball on this', you know? We're not in our twenties any more, so if we want to say something to the world then let's make that journey together.”
It's not all that surprising that people responded well, there is a kind of timeless quality to what you do...
“Well, thank you! I guess it's being a bit outside of anything that's in any way trendy or fashionable, we've sort of got our own little corner. But the other clue to that is that it's about the drums as well. Drum sounds are the things that can sometimes really date a record. But also it's because I'm always listening to new music and I want to push forward. My love affair with dance music began because it sounded like it was from another planet way off in the future. For me, that future funk aspect is really important, and that it sounds somehow otherwordly, and I hope that on this album we do take you into the world of Faithless. I hope that we've created a kind of sonic world that you can step into, an emotional world. And you know it does change gear, on the record and in the live set it's not all pummelling back-to-back anthems, there are more chilled moments, more funky moments, there's space for ambience and stillness.
“It's sort of taking all of the love affairs that we have with music and putting them together, and we've done that right from the first record. Whether it's Brian Eno or Kate Bush or Jean Michel Jarre or Kraftwerk, there's a sort of mish-mash of those things subconsciously, of what a record can do. And very importantly, I've got to namecheck Leftfield and Underworld showing that dance music can exist on an album and go to those quieter places as well. What genius artists they are.”
Was there any particular track that set the direction for the rest of the record as a whole?
“Well yeah, 'Synthesizer' was, really. That's the one I was road testing out the most, and it felt like it had the makings of that kind of Faithless anthem vibe, but again with a different flavour because we've got an amazing singer on it in Nathan Ball. So it's not necessarily immediately identifiable as Faithless, but in terms of it's got that euphoric feeling, it's still really funky and futuristic, but it was also a nod to everything we love in music, like a love letter. But that was the real moment of excitement because I was playing it out and I could see people's faces. And then I could see messages popping up on forums and things going 'what was that track that Blissy was playing at Creamfields?', or whatever. And in a sea of other music, for that to stick in people's minds gave us the feeling that we were on the right path.”
You've got a few collaborators and guests on this one – the most prominent being Suli Breaks, who features on several tracks – how did he get involved?
“I watched him doing Poetry Slam. I mean, because Maxi is such a one-off artist, lyricist and poet, and he's got such a very unique style, the tone of his voice is unique as an instrument, this beautiful, mellifluous tone. So to sort of shift away mentally because Maxi didn't want to be on the record, he's pursuing his own musical path, but he sort of lives inside my head, so I had to sort of shift my brain and think musically about working with people who have a different flow and a different tone in their voice.
“Suli's voice is very youthful, he's got this spirit. He's a man of faith and I love that, he brings that faith to Faithless, much like Maxi does. He's not a Buddhist, he's Muslim, but he's thinking about how it is to be in the world, about our humanity and how we live. There's that consciousness in his lyrics and a thoughtfulness, and just this real freshness in his flow. So we just got in touch and he was really excited, and off we went. But then as the album came together with different artists we invited Suli back.”
Nice to Jazzie B on a track too...
“Absolute legend, an elder statesman of the scene. And when we got Jazzie's vocal down we thought: 'What would it be like if Suli was kind of the answer to this?' In the beginning, we did quite a lot of collaborations, but as the themes of the album revealed themselves, it felt too disparate and we kind of needed to rein it in. Suli and Nathan's voices are the threads that make it feel coherent as an album, looking at it as a kind of giant musical jigsaw in my mind. And then LSK collaborates on the album, Leigh Kenny, who is an amazing solo artist in his own right, he came on board and collaborated with us on the No Roots album, and he's been with us ever since, so I love that there's that flavour of the Faithless of old, if you like.
"I've always loved Leigh's voice, I think he's a real unsung talent, and I love the song he's written on this album called 'Remember'. In fact, Rollo and I had quite a few fights about that, I was like: 'It's too long! It's too long!' but he was like 'let's let the music expand and get lost in it'. I was getting very anxious about this generation that listens to music for under two minutes and then they click off, you know? These kinds of ADD listening patterns that then determine algorithms and determine whether you're on a playlist or not. So we tried to leave that outside world of playlists and algorithms behind and try to make the album we want to make. Some of our best moments take nine minutes to get there!”
There's a kind of a thread of that type of spoken word artist on the album, isn't there?
“We worked with Caleb Femi as well, who also comes from that poetry / spoken word scene. He's the Young Children's Poet Laureate and he's got the most incredible voice. And again, it comes from Poetry Slam, the Roundhouse is one of my local venues and they have Poetry Slam there every year, and you just come across some amazing talent. What can I say? I think that scene is really thriving in the UK. And you know, Maxi is a real hip-hop head, but his flow is not like the average hip-hop artist, if you see what I mean. So again, that felt like the right world to be looking for collaborators in, and so it proved. So I feel like we've got these modern-day poets, these kinds of prophets, if you like, and Faithless is a great place to give them a wider audience and a platform.”
All Blessed is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.