"Maybe we’re back where we started, back in the dark and gloomy times of the 80s..." - hmv.com talks to Tears for Fears
First emerging in the 1980s and creating some of the decade's most enduring hits in songs such as 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' and 'Sowing the Seeds of Love', Tears for Fears have enjoyed a long - if sometimes disjointed - career as a fearsome live act and their music has proved hugely influential on the generations that followed.
After Curt Smith's departure in the early 1990s, Roland Orzabal continued to record and release albums under the Tears for Fears name, but in 2004 the pair finally reunited for the sixth Tears for Fears LP Everybody Loves a Happy Ending - a album that looked for a long time as though it may be their last.
By the early 2010s though, the band were beginning to intimate that new music might be on the way, and by 2014 Curt Smith revealed that they had recorded several songs for a new album.
But then thngs went quiet. Behind the scenes, issues with their record company and their management had contributed to delaying the release of an album, while in the meantime Roland Orzabal suffered tragedy in his personal life when his wife of nearly 40 years, Caroline, passed away after a long period of illness.
Eventually, Orzabal rebuiilt his life (he remarried in 2022), but the path to a new Tears for Fears album still wasn't a clear one. Smith almost walked away from the project, having severe doubts about its direction, but in the end a rethink between the pair resulted in a change of approach - one that has finally produced their first new album in nearly two decades: The Tipping Point.
With their brand new album in stores this Friday (February 25), we spoke to Roland and Curt about the long and often difficult journey that brought them here...
18 years is quite a long gap between records, by anyone’s standards - how are you feeling now it’s almost here?
Roland: “It’s a bit overwhelming, to be honest with you. I keep saying, as a gag, that the longer we go away the more popular we become. It’s strange, the music sort of filters through different channels, of people covering our songs, or popping up in some TV show that you don’t expect. I’m guessing it’s a lot to do with age, and maybe because we recently did the Classic Albums programme about Songs From the Big Chair as well, but it starts to push you towards the idea that you’re a ‘classic’ artist, and for me that’s like: ‘Whoah, hold on!’ I mean, I’ll take the compliment, but of course you never see yourself as that. Because everything is struggle, the music industry is a struggle.
“But it’s amazing, the reviews have been good so far and there’s a weird kind of respect now, and I don’t know why, which he certainly didn’t have when we were kids just starting out. We didn’t even have that when we did Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.”
You didn’t feel like you were respected when your last album came out?
Roland: “Certainly not with Happy Ending, no. I remember doing an interview with Q magazine at the time and when the article came out it was ‘Who the hell do Tears for Fears think they are?’ That was the level at which it was pitched. And we were accused of of making a new album just because Gary Jules had gotten to Number One with ‘Mad World’. All kinds of dumb things. But now it’s a different world, a different response. God knows why. Maybe things have changed so much culturally, or maybe we’re back where we started, back in the dark and gloomy times of the 80s, dragged back there by the pandemic.”
Curt: “I think there’s a certain respect you get from longevity, for just still doing this and still being vaild. But we’ve definitely noticed that when we’re talking to people now that there’s a more respectful stance that they come from.”
When your last album came out and was titled ‘Everybody Loves a Happy Ending’, people might have taken that title with an air of finality – did you go into that record thinking it might be your last?
Roland: “Yeah, we did. Because we were asked at the time- and we get asked now – is this gonna be the last record? And I thought it was a good way to go out, calling it Everybody Lobes a Happy Ending. We had some spare tracks and we thought we might do a ‘Everybody Loves a Happy Adendum’ or something, but that was about it. That album was a journey, it was exciting. I took my family across to L.A., relocated them, bought a house. It was a total change of lifestyle, which was needed, and my kids were still young enough that we could take them out of school and put them in L.A. It was doing the school run under blue skies, then straight onto the tennis court and into the recording studio. It was divine. But that album kind of reflects how easy it was, because it’s generally a pretty happy album, I would say.”
Curt: “We thought it was a good way to end, I think. It was more a celebration than anything, I mean there are some songs with depth on the album, but it’s certainly not as deep as this one."
What was it that started to rekindle things this time around? We know you did some live shows with Spandau Ballet and also with Hall & Oates, was that a kind of starting point to wanting to record again?
Curt: “Well, we’ve been doing live dates every year since then, pretty much, and the initial idea really was that the only way to improve the live set was by adding new material. So that was the idea, but then we went on a very circuitous route to making the record, partly because of business and other people involved.”
You started making the album with various producers, by around 2014 you’d gotten a few songs recorded - at what point did you make the decision that it wasn’t working?
Roland: “It’s kind of strange, we were originally recording on Warner Bros., but then our management decided that they weren’t really the right label for us, they’re in L.A., so they suggested going back to Universal, they’ve got the back catalogue and they can cross-categorise, it made more business sense. So there were negotiations, and we bought the record back off Warner Bros. This was in 2015 or 2016. And that’s not the album you’ve heard, but some of those songs have ended up on it. Universal heard it, they liked it and they said: ‘’We’ve got a plan, we’ll put two singles out and then release a Greatest Hits record, that’ll get you back in the public eye, and then we’ll release the album.' So they did the first bit, and then, through some legal loophole, didn’t bother to release the album. If that had been released, it would have come out in 2017 or 2018, but I don’t think it would have been received very well and I don’t think we would have had the kind of response that we have had with this, from the public and from the radio."
“But at that point the wheels came off in my life, I wasn’t even worth talking to at that point in time. Meanwhile, having lived with it for a bit I remember listening to what we had for the first time and I realised that I didn’t ever really want to listen to that album. And that’s a dumb thing to do, it was almost like “Yeah that’s good enough, whatever.’ It didn’t sound balanced, there were huge amounts of attempts at being quirky and poppy, there certainly wasn’t enough of Curt singing on it. Meanwhile, Curt felt the same thing. There’s a song on Songs From the Big Chair called ‘Mother’s Talk’ and Curt said that we’d basically recorded eight ‘Mother Talk’s without anything to break it all up. So that was that.”
But you continued touring still?
Roland: “We toured twice in 2019 and the second tour was particularly difficult, for various reasons, from the heatwaves, to the travel, to the amount of time were spending in a sea container that was supposed to be a dressing room but it was 90-100 degrees. And, as a lot of people do, you blame your partner. If it’s tough, it’s his fault. So we had a sort of falling apart then, and it was a real struggle. Our manager didn’t really care if we didn’t put out the record: ‘Don’t worry about it, you can just tour for the rest of your life’. And I’m scratching my head because we had some great songs, why can’t we manage to make a great album?
"So we went back to the drawing board, we lost our manager, we had no record company, it was just Curt and me again, just like the old days, back when we started. I knew could go and write with Charlton Pettus, who did Happy Ending with us and has co-written a lot of the songs on this album, but I thought: ‘No, I’m gonna get together just with Curt and we’ll do the thinking, we’re not going to use any intermediaries or a team. So we got together in early 2020, pre-pandemic, just with two acoustic guitars and an iPhone voice memo, and we came up with ‘No Small Thing’ And we thought: ‘How come we’ve managed to get something that means much more form the two of us than all the work we’d done with previous teams?’ And that was really when we got our confidence back.”
Was there anything form those initial sessions that survived, or was it a complete do-over?
Curt: “There were five songs that we kept from the previous sessions, but then we had to work out a way to tie them all together, because it wasn’t a story. I’ve said this so many times, but when you make an album – and we are an album band, not a single band, which was the first mistake we made – but it’s about telling a story throughout the album, and those five songs didn’t do that yet, so it was really about filling in the gaps after that. And ‘No Small Thing’ was definitely a key track. We started it on just acoustic guitars and then it became this bigger and bigger thing that told a story in and of itself. And we realised then that this is what the album should be doing, it should ebb and flow, it should tell a story, and up until that point it really wasn’t.”
Roland: “We realised that we weren’t writing an album until a single came along, instead we we writing singles and hoping that an album would come along. But it was a great position to be in, in the end, because what we needed now was depth and meaning, we’ve got the uptempo, catchy tracks. Every other track apart from ‘Demons’, and perhaps the embryonic ‘Please Be Happy’ was done in-house, with myself. Curt and Charlton."
Did your approach change after that first new song was written? Was it a back-to-basics type of thing?
Roland: “We were quite lucky, I think, because when ‘No Small Thing’ turned up we had a few songs on the back-burner, the demo ‘Break the Man’ was around, ‘Please Be Happy’ had been a demo that we hadn’t bothered to do yet, and there was a backing track that emerged which became ‘Rivers of Mercy’ So there was all this stuff turning up at around the same time."
What’s the oldest song that’s made it onto the tracklist of this new record? Did you re-record those songs from the original sessions that you kept?
Curt: "‘End of Night’ is the oldest, I think. There were a lot of remixes.”
Roland: “I re-recorded the vocal on that and we got rid of a lot of the clattering, top end stuff that it had been dogged with."
Curt: "It’s funny, this is what happens when you make an album and it does become a story, but ‘End of Night’ wasn’t one of my favourite tracks to begin with, yet where it sits on the album it works perfectly. So it’s part of the journey.”
You’ve mentioned that working loads of different producers didn’t suit you as a band, did you feel like you were chasing the dragon a bit by trying to do something that sounded more ‘contemporary’?
Roland: “Yeah, exactly that.”
Once you’d come to that conclusion, were there any particular musical reference points for what you did wanted to do instead?
Curt: “We reference ourselves all the time, really, but yeah it was that journey of trying to be something that you’re not, and it takes you a little while to realise it. We were working with all these different people, and then when ‘No Small Thing’ came along it was just more interesting, it had a story and it was fascinating. That enjoyment that you get from making music can’t just be created from nothing, so there was something about it that definitely spoke to me.”
You must have wondered at various points whether you’d ever finish the album - At what point does the album start to become a completed thing, when you could start to see the finish line?
Roland: "Probably when we did 'Rivers of Mercy’."
Curt: “That and ‘Please Be Happy’.”
Roland: “And I think the contrast between ‘My Demons’ and ‘Rivers of Mercy’ is a fascinating one. But you’ve got to remember that at that point we’d recorded about 30 tracks, so we were spoilt for choice, we could literally go and cherry-pick what was going to go on the album, but it just seemed to be that we settled on the five new tracks as the heart and soul of the record. The meat and potatoes, if you like.”
Obviously in the middle of all that Roland’s wife passed away, and that feeds into some of the lyrics on the album – are there are any lyrical themes that have emerged on this album as a whole?
Roland: “Caroline passed five years ago, and some of the songs like ‘Please Be Happy’ and ‘The Tipping Point’ were more to do with how it felt when she was alive when she was suffering so much with mental illness, as well as just general dysfunction and general ill health, which was off the scale. But I think if that was the only thing we were saying it would be a pretty dark album. There was a journey for me through that and into a couple of rehabs as well, struggles with addiction. I had a sort of karmic need to experience some of what Caroline had experienced. And though that that certain shifts occurred. I got remarried in September 2020, while we were doing this album, so there was a whole period where I was doing what I call reconnecting with my heart.
“It was a long haul with Caroline, and the whole time that’s going on your heart is sort of building a wall around itself and fearing the worst. So I let go of a lot of things, and I think out of that we have some sense of hope and redemption. And the hope and redemption springs from the fact that you can finally express your feelings, if you see what I’m saying. You can express what you couldn’t before, or if you could it was cagey, it was all masked by something. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to use the song ‘Stay’ on the new album, even though it featured on the Greatest Hits, because it’s clearly someone expressing their emotions and it ends up as a beautiful thing and a huge relief.”
When did you actually finish this record? What was the feeling like at that time?
Roland: “It was November or December 2020. It was bizarre, because I think by then we’d had so many knockbacks and so many things that had undermined our confidence that you almost don’t dare to say that something is great. I made comments to Curt like ‘I think this could be a really good album’ or ‘I think we’re going to get good reviews’, and he’d just laugh. You would have thought someone like us would have all the confidence in the world, but no.”
Curt: “We’re not the most self-confident people.”
What touring plans do you have for the new album? Are things looking less shaky on the live front now?
Roland: “We should be OK. We’re starting in the US in May, the we’re coming across to Great Britain, and a lot of the shows we’re playing are at outdoor venues, so it shouldn’t be a problem. I see that Boris Johnson has managed to drop all restrictions in time for the release of our album so he can have a party in Downing Street. Not that the restrictions ever stopped him before. He’s clearly a huge Tears for Fears fan.
"But after that we’ll see how the land lies. For a band like us, opportunities to tour are there all the time We can go and do a headline tour in the summer and do festivals, we get those offers because one thing we have built up over the years is a reputation for putting on great live shows.”
What kind of live show are we in for? Can we expect a career-spanning set, new and old stuff?
Roland: “I’d be surprised if we played less than five of the new songs.”
Curt: “I mean, that was the premise for making the album in the first pace, was to add new material. We did some TV shows in America and we played three of the new songs live with the band, and they fit in fantastically. So in that sense we’re looking forward to it because it’s something new and different for us.”
Any shows you’re particularly looking forward to?
Roland: “Longleat, surely?”
Curt: “I was going to say Longleat.”
Roland: “When we were kids we’d always go there, take a car through Longleat Safari Park and have the monkeys jump on your car and pull the wipers off…
Curt: “…and stick their arses on your windscreen.”
Roland: “Also if we don’t like the crowd they’ve agreed they’ll let the lions out.”
The Tipping Point is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.