Daniel Powell interviews Fightstar, one of those bands that manage to inspire fiercely contested opinion.
Fightstar are just one of those bands, love them or hate them they usually manage to inspire fiercely contested opinion. The much maligned labour of love that began back in 2003 (while their frontman and obvious focus was still in one of the country's biggest pop acts) has grown into an altogether different beast. With a new album, a new record label, and a drastically altered sound, the band have hit the road once more to prove the nay-sayers wrong and pick up where they left off with everyone else.
Much like any other interview I've conducted, I'm led into the backstage area where I run the gauntlet of tour managers (in this case a charming and helpful foreign bloke named Emre), guitar techs, and other press loitering around the band. I'm shown into a room where I meet guitarist/vocalist Al Westaway, and frontman Charlie Simpson. It's worth noting that, upon meeting the pair, Al is obviously the quieter half, and, quite bizarrely, Charlie introduces himself as if I shouldn't know who he is.
Now being a fan of this band since their inception, I had planned to ask a series of questions that were hopefully a little different to the usual rubbish they have been asked a million times over. As I told them when I met them, I wasn't interested in girlfriends, scandals, or million selling pop groups. I simply wanted a bit of an insight into the music itself, the writing process, the recording, typical things that fan-boys like myself who aren't ashamed to admit it, might find interesting. So as time wore on, after slight greetings and introductions (and having woken up bassist Dan Haigh to take part in the interview), I sat down with the band for a chat about the new album.
Firstly, talk us through the recording process of the new album.
Charlie: Well we recorded the album on a Pro-Tools rig, but it was slightly different to our last album because what Matt [Wallace, producer] did was, he split the rig in two, so when we'd done the drums, we had two rooms to do guitars in, and me and Al were constantly playing. We had two engineers, so we had a room that was just for all the clean stuff, using all these amazing old school amps, and the other room we'd have amp heads piled high and loads of gear for doing all the heavy tones.
Dan: We did all the guitars before the bass, the bass went on last.
So did that mean a lot of sitting around for you initially?
Dan: I did a reasonable amount of sitting around [laughs]
Al: Well Dan usually contributes guitar parts and things anyway, he chips in with riffs and things here an there.
And how does Omar [Abidi, Drums] fit into the process?
Charlie: With Omar it's good, because he does have a unique style of drumming, in that he can take something that would appear to be simple on paper, and add something that makes it interesting.
Al: He has a unique kind of groove.
Charlie: The whole process was cool though, because Matt was up for trying anything, like he would often just pick a guitar up and plug it in, and we bought these custom made pedals, making these crazy sounds. But he just wanted to try anything and everything, even if it didn't work. And some things could sound ridiculous coming out of the speakers, but once he blended them into the tracks they really sounded cool. Like we played around with a lot of synth stuff and electronic backing too, and it just felt like a really experimental period where we would just try anything.
Al: We were quite pushed for time, it was pretty hard work the whole time.
Didn't you begin writing the album on a farm, while you were still with Universal?
Al: My parents live on a farm in Northampton, and since I was young I've always had a room in the barn, where we've always rehearsed and done writing and stuff. Actually most of the Fightstar stuff has come together in that room. We usually write stuff, and then all bring it to that room and write more.
Charlie: A lot of work for the album came together a week before we started recording. We did a week of pre-production with Matt, where we stripped all of the songs down to acoustic. We all pretty much sat around in a circle with acoustic guitars, and literally analysed each part, seeing what we could change structurally or melodically. The songs actually really started to come to life in that week. We'd never really had that before, because when we did the first album with Colin Richardson, we didn't do pre-productions, we basically wrote the songs, went in and recorded, and I think having that time to reflect on what you've written makes for a better record.
Al: That was also where Matt came into his own really, and where he was most useful. A big part of his input on this record was his writing ability, and we learned a lot about song writing from him.
Did you ever take a moment to think that you were making an album with the man who produced Angel Dust [Faith No More], or even prior to that when you worked with Colin Richardson, who himself is responsible for some of the best metal records of all time?
Al: Well before meeting either of them we were really nervous, because these guys are a big deal. We were worried that they were gonna think we're shit, but they're both really down to earth dudes, and they became really good friends of ours.
Dan: They're both polar opposites as well, a lot like the two records really.
Al: And with Matt, or Waldo as we called him, he was a really spur of the moment guy, to the point where we really didn't know what kind of record we had until the mixing stage where it came together.
Dan: The mixing phase was a huge undertaking, after doing this kind of record. Basically because we had to fashion the whole thing back together in the mixing stage, where as before, with the first album, we just recorded and mixed as we went along, it was a different process.
Al: Yeah, with Colin, we spent two days trying to find a distortion tone, and then that was it for the whole record, whereas with Matt it was different for each song, even parts within each song.
Dan: It was crazy to put together but it was ultimately a liberating experience.
Onto the themes of the album, it's been reported that the song 'Deathcar' was written after a news story about prison inmates being killed in the back of vans to be used as organ donors. Talk us through some of the other themes, the title track for example.
Charlie: There's references in there to Romero films, like "When there's no room in hell the dead walk the earth", but the concept of that song is based around us as humans fucking up the planet and handing it on to the next generation. The Romero thing kind of tied into that because we're basically saying that in the end it's just going to be a load of zombies walking around. That's also what the artwork for the album depicts, what that might be like.
Dan: We're really saying that it's bad but also good, because out of that post apocalyptic scenario comes this ultimate freedom, where there's no more wars or anything and all you have to do is focus on survival. It's quite an attractive thing in some ways but it's also a fucking disaster.
It's an interesting concept, since you adopted the end of the world scenario with your first album [2005's Grand Unification], has that continued with this?
Charlie: The first album was written in a way that it was kind of disconnected from reality. The general theme and what we were talking about was huge and quite unrealistic. The morals and things within that were connected to us but the way in which we portrayed it, with angels coming down and destroying the earth probably isn't going to happen.
Al: But then again, whatever our lyrics are, there's this inherent feeling in everything we do, like a feeling of hope, however far fetched the concepts are.
Charlie: This time round though it's a much more real situation, much more personal to us. Its also more about what's happening in our society today, whereas the last one was a third person story.
This time around, I've noticed you have taken certain themes, stories and subjects and applied them to something personal, would you say that's accurate for the album as a whole?
Charlie: Yeah, we see shit all the time that amazes us. We were actually just watching TV in Idaho when we saw the news story that inspired "Deathcar", and anything like that, that inspires us to write, we'll always try and connect it to something that's going on in our lives. The more personal things are to us, chances are someone else might connect to it on a human level.
I've always found that it's more the melodies of a record that I can connect to.
Charlie: I'm the same, but it depends what mood I'm in. Like if I'm in a certain situation and I hear a lyric that I can apply to that, then it will really mean something, but when I listen to albums the first thing I'm into is the melodies of the songs.
Al: That's pretty much the forefront of what we do, the melodies are the most important thing and are usually the first things to get written.
Charlie: It's weird though, because if there's a really great line in a song, It can become as much of a hook as the music. Like I'll be listening to a song and suddenly a lyric will stick out and I'll just think that its fucking genius, and when it does hit me, it hits me in the same way that great music does. But like Al said the melody is the most important thing to us, bar none.
Is that what Universal were looking for from you, a more melodic, catchy record?
Charlie: Not so much catchy, but far more commercially viable, like songs from this album like "Tanhauser Gate" and "Deathcar" aren't the kind of songs they had in mind, they wanted us to make commercially viable, radio friendly music, and we were like "Fuck that shit!". Especially after all the shit we've been through we were just going to go "Actually, brilliant, lets just chuck all that away!". So now our new label, Gut, they're on our wavelength. They give us the freedom we want to make the record we want. And any time any questions were raised, we were always given the final say.
Would you say the heavier moments on the album were a reaction to the major label pressures?
Al: Well I kind of remember us saying that we should just do a song and see how heavy we can go with this band.
Charlie: We didn't force it though really. I mean heavy music is a massive part of this band anyway, we're all into bands like Machine Head and Meshuggah, and we'd done a few heavier bits, particularly riffs before in songs like "Build an Army", and I'd just done a song for the new This Is Menace album, so I was into doing more screaming vocals. But my favourite bands always pull out a chorus. They can be like [screams brutally] for half a song but then the chorus comes and it's brilliant. Our main aim is to write a good variation of music and big choruses, because as music lovers that's what we love. You can't beat a fucking scorching chorus.
By this point we're informed that we've been gassing for the best part of an hour, and that it's time to wrap up. And instead of me shuffling awkwardly out of the door and them watching me leave, Charlie continues talking, asking me if I'm in a band, what I've got going on, generally taking an interest, which is good of him since he's pushed for time and could rightly just tell me to fuck off.
The most interesting thing about talking to Fightstar is that there are no airs and graces with the band. You could freely offer up a differing opinion and they'll still talk to you like a human being, whereas some musicians might throw a strop and cancel an entire tour on the back of an insult, Fightstar are just four lads playing music, and the fact that they get to do this as a job seems like a bit of a result, as far as they're concerned.