From day one, Fanfarlo had a touch of brilliance about them. Emerging into the noisy, scuzzy, London indie scene of White Heat and Fortuna Pop in 2006, Fanfarlo wore the twee-indie-pop tag in the same way that Kate Moss wears H&M: sure, she makes the clothes look good, but that’s kind of beside the point. Just as Kate could rock a pair of fishing waders and make them look like lingerie, so Fanfarlo could have come to life as a klezmer band and still oozed nothing but pure indie-pop delight. Fanfarlo’s early singles, and their self-released 2009 debut album Reservoir, presented a clarity of thought and composition – not to mention prodigious talent – that few bands muster so early into their existence.
Self-released six months before Mumford & Sons ruthlessly hammered the last nail into the coffin of the early-noughties freak-folk movement, Reservoir did well enough to attract the attention of Atlantic Records, who re-released the album later that year. A cynical mind might have expected newly major-label Fanfarlo to try and ride on folk music’s new-found marketability, but a sympathetic listening to Reservoir reveals a band far too grounded to indulge in the hollow bombast of the Mumford bandwagon.
Any expectations that Atlantic might have had that Fanfarlo could be the next radio-friendly hit-making parent-friendly stocking-fillers must have been thoroughly popped by their second album. Released three years after Reservoir, Rooms Filled with Light has an adventurous, insistent, challenging first half, before settling down album into a slightly off-kilter pop groove in its second half. As a whole the album owes far more to David Bowie than to Nick Drake (and possibly more to Arcade Fire than either of them). It was a noticeable departure in sound that firmly jettisoned any residual twee elements, though the desire create pop music clearly remained undiminished.
Cut loose from Atlantic’s roster, the band have returned to the joys of the self-release. They’ve rustled together both a new EP and an album, and are ready prove themselves all over again. None of which means that Fanfarlo have returned to the simplicity of their roots. Indeed the first single from the upcoming EP, “A Distance”, is a thumping, funky, jam with flurries of brass and spacey synths and a bass line that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a DFA release, and. It is by far the most danceable song the band have ever produced. Where tracks like “Feathers” on Rooms Filled With Light teased us with sultry vocals and a subtle swing, “A Distance” stops kidding around and just hits the floor. We asked band founder, lead-singer, and songwriter Simon Balthazar about the band’s early days in London, their restless musical experimentation, and finding just the right place to record their new album.
You emerged onto the White Heat scene back in 2006 as an almost perfectly formed article. What influence did that scene (White Heat, Fortuna Pop, etc.) have on the band?
The band coming together started in White Heat, that was the beginning of this band, me coming to London and landing in a crowd where everyone I knew was running a club or a 7” label or played in a band. It was a cornucopia of people doing shows, White Heat was one of the few ones that survived, in amongst all the nights at Madam Jojos, Nambucca on Holloway, et cetera. There was an amazing flourish of DIY 7” labels back then, it was lots of fun. Back then we were really figuring out what we wanted to do. I used to listen to a lot of British twee stuff in Sweden, but it lost its allure a bit when I moved to London. For me it’s something that maybe lost its poetry – the stuff that’s really British became less exotic. And when you start playing shows there’s an aesthetic that goes with that which we became less invested in.
What do you think has changed most for you since then?
You grow up. Of course, for me personally, coming from a small town and moving to a music hub like London, I feel that I’ve shot off in a lot of crazy different direction. My whole understanding of music has become much more interesting.
I’ve learned to appreciate extremes, learned to appreciate interesting well-crafted pop with some substance. It’s interesting for Fanfarlo coming from indie-pop with pop sensibilities… we’ve become more interesting in making good interesting pop music with panache and depth to it. I’ve really come to appreciate really fucked up noisy shit, I’ve gone to a lot of noise gigs and ambient drone gigs. We all in the band have a common thing that we love to do – crafting pop songs, crafting timeless quality pop music. We spend endless amount of time exploring and playing new music that we found.
How would you characterise your relationship with your band members?
I made a conscious effort from day one that I wasn’t interested in a singer song-writing vessel, even though I had recorded a few songs as a bedroom recording in Sweden. For me music is a very visceral social act. Bedroom recording is great too – but the whole point of having a band is that it’s a sort of communion that you bring on the road and record together. The other collective experience is being colonised by the same bacteria!
How does the recording process work for you?
It’s a mix of exploratory and planned. We always try new ways of working. we went four or five different times to Wales. It was very Wales-centric. We recorded the EP and album at same time. We went out with David Wrench to do basic tracking and drums. After that we went away to a friend’s house that had just had electricity installed and spent ten days living and cooking together with a fire. We would just make music from when we woke up in the morning until we passed out at night. There were lots of hilarious situations – in the middle of the night, in the Welsh countryside, we’d have a brilliant idea like singing a backing vocal while the other hit us on the back, and mic-ing things from the next room. The irony of it was that it was a terrible place to sing, it was covered in dust, and we ended up coughing our lungs out.