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Tears for Fears’ Curt Smith: Back in the Big Chair

on November 06, 2014, 12:00am

Photo by Autumn Andel

Founded in 1981 by schoolmates Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, Tears for Fears began as a project centered around Orzabal and Smith with the idea of sidemen being brought in on a rotating basis. Initially releasing a few singles, it was with the group’s third single, “Mad World”, in November 1982 that they first tasted success. Within a few months of that single, Tears for Fears crashed onto the UK album charts with their platinum selling debut, The Hurting.

While the group found success at home in the UK as well as on the continent, success in the States didn’t happen until the duo’s second release, Songs from the Big Chair. With this album, Tears for Fears topped the charts in both the UK and the US. Elevated by the success of two tracks in particular, “Shout”, now recognized as the group’s signature song, and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, which would go on to win the 1986 Brit Award for Best Song, Songs from the Big Chair propelled Orzabal and Smith onto the international stage, dripping in worldwide fame.

The duo’s partnership would last only one more album, Seeds of Love, before Smith would depart. While Orzabal continued to make music under the Tears for Fears moniker, Smith left his Bath home for New York City, eventually getting married and forming other musical partnerships. Throughout the ’90s, the two founding members kept busy on their own projects until Smith was approached by Orzabal’s then manager in 2000 about working together again. That led to their reunion album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, released in the spring of 2005. Since that time, Smith has released other solo endeavors while maintaining his role in the group Mayfield alongside songwriting partner Charlton Pettus.

tearsforfears Tears for Fears Curt Smith: Back in the Big Chair

Now, nearly 30 years and a few far-from-ideal reissues later, Songs from the Big Chair receives the full-on anniversary treatment. For the first time, the founding members have a say as to what is presented with this release. Expanding the music to four discs, including outtakes, remixes, alternate versions as well as two video discs, this new presentation of the album is a much more fully realized treatment and one that is well worth exploring.

This album has seen a few reissues since the first in 1999, with each subsequent release offering more outtakes, B-sides, and remixes. But this was originally an eight-song album, and now you’ve managed to expand it to four discs, not counting the video discs. What was behind making such an in-depth release?

Well, the new [reissue] we actually have some control over. The previous reissues and different versions we didn’t have any control over because the masters were owned by Universal, the record company, who we’re not with anymore. But when it came to an anniversary version, we were actually involved with this one, so it’s basically the way we would like to do it.

So you and Roland were both pretty hands on with this release? 

Yeah, from packaging through to the 5.1 mixes, all that kind of stuff. Previous versions we had no involvement with.

Are you happy with the product, or do you think that there’s more you could have done?

Yeah. I think it’s more the way we would like to see it. Unfortunately, when your masters are owned by another company, you don’t get to choose what’s re-released or what versions are coming out. We had three albums on Universal. Well, I guess four eventually. But I think there were more greatest hits than albums. I mean “greatest hits” releases versus albums we recorded.

So if you have control of this one, are you telling me that you now have the rights to the music again?

No, we don’t have the rights; we agreed to work with them on this one … because it was a big anniversary.

If there was so much material coming out of this album’s sessions, why was the original album restricted to only eight songs?

To be honest, that’s pretty much all we had. [Laughs.] I’m being a little bit facetious, of course, but by the time we finished the final track we did on the album, which was “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, by the time we had done that, we had felt like it was a complete project. We’re talking back in the days when you made albums and not singles and pillow tracks. So it became, not necessarily a concept project, but you would have looked for something that was a complete body of work that works well together, and we felt that’s what it was by the time we had done “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.

And also you’re limited, I think, what was it, 22 ½ minutes per side if you’re looking at vinyl. And we were still in the vinyl headset back then. When The Hurting came out, there were no CDs. When Songs from the Big Chair came out, CDs had just come out, so you weren’t in the mindset that you had a limitless amount of space. You literally had 22 ½ minutes a side on vinyl, so I think that’s where we were coming from at the time. And in that sense, because some of the tracks are pretty long, we couldn’t fit any more music on.

Hearing some of these versions, not so much the remixes, but like the instrumental version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is kind of hauntingly charming, though I do miss your vocals.

Well, sing along. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s interesting to hear. When you mention instrumentals and things like that, I think that when you strip a vocal off a track, you get to then appreciate how that track was built because you’re just listening to the elements of the music behind it. I think that people, certainly some people, like to hear that.

Certainly. I was about 13 when the album came out, and I can remember “Shout” being described as somewhat of a “sleeper” hit, indicating that the song was never really expected to be as big a single as it was. Were you surprised by the song’s success?

Was I surprised by the success of “Shout”? No. It was a weird time, but you’re looking at it from the viewpoint of an American, because “Shout” everywhere else in the world was actually the first single, and to everyone in Europe and to us at the time, we thought that was the obvious single. We actually disagreed with the American company who made “Everybody…” the first single. Which is interesting in retrospect, because it was one of those times when the record company was right and we were wrong, because for America, yes, it was a better first single. Everywhere else “Shout” was actually the first single, so it actually achieved success in other places before it was released in America.

You said in the past that the name of the band comes out of Primal Scream therapy; the name of the album came from you referencing Sybil, a film about a woman with multiple personalities. Where did the interest in psychotherapy come from?

I guess it started with Arthur Janov, with Primal Scream. I think we were at that point in our lives … I want to say we were playing together since we were 14; I think we were 15 or 16 when we first read it. And at that age, it had a profound influence on us. Obviously, at that age, you’re kind of getting ready to leave the family nest and everything, and whether it’s subliminal psychology or whatever it may be, what makes you want to leave home, in the end, normally … it’s because you hate your parents. And, of course, primal theory blames everything on your parents. So that teenage angst we were going through at the time. Since then, I think I’ve moved on to various different psychologies, but it’s something we’re both interested in. Since then, certainly, I’m not a huge believer in primal theory anymore, but I think that comes from having children.

In a good way or a bad way? 

In a good way, in the sense that one of Arthur Janov’s primary ideas is that children come in as a blank slate, and now having had children, I know that’s absolutely not the case. Your DNA is running through them whether you like it or not, and they can turn out differently. I have two kids. One is exactly like me, and one’s exactly like my wife, and we deal with that in two different ways. These are traits they have that I knew I had when I was a kid, so they wouldn’t know about it.

I’m discovering that with my one-year-old now.

Yeah, you just know that wasn’t a blank slate. There’s no way.

You said at one point you actually had the opportunity to meet Arthur Janov but were disillusioned by him having “become Hollywood.” What did you mean by that?

He came to one of our shows. I’m guessing it was Songs from the Big Chair, so it would have been ’85, and invited us out to lunch. For us, it was sort of like meeting your hero at that point of time. So we went out to lunch with him, and the entire lunch revolved around the fact that he would like us to write a musical about primal therapy. And that’s why it was too Hollywood for us. Which, by the way, he has now done. We just saw posters. I was cracking up; Roland called me and said, “Do you realize there is a primal therapy musical now?” And David Foster has done it with him.

That’s crazy. It took him so long, but I guess he got it done.

Yeah, but we just felt like, “No.” Basically he was more interested in … you know when we said he was very Hollywood, obviously we had no experience with Hollywood back then, actually none; purely because it was for self-promotion and for us that wasn’t the point of primal theory. It’s not about self-promotion; it’s more about helping people.

That sucks when you get to meet your hero and it’s anticlimactic or not what you were hoping it to be.

Yeah, but isn’t that the case a lot of the time? You could meet your musical heroes, and they could be assholes.

True. Putting them on a pedestal is part of the problem. When they come down to earth, it can come crashing.

Yeah.

Prior to Songs from the Big Chair, towards the end of 1983, you released a slightly more experimental single, “The Way You Are”. It was described as a departure from the group’s previous musical approach. In the liner notes to the B-sides compilation album Saturnine Martial & Lunatic, it was written that “this was the point we realised we had to change direction.” What had changed or happened at that point in time that brought you to that conclusion?

Let me start by saying this, that “The Way You Are” was the least favorite song of either of ours. Probably one of the worst recordings I think we’ve done. And this is personal opinion. I know that some people have other opinions. We were basically coerced by the record company to go in and do something to release quickly after The Hurting was successful. That’s what we came up with. Our A&R guy, the A&R guy behind us at the time, thought it was the best thing we’d ever done. It was just so fragmented to me, and if I listen to it now, which I try not to, it’s so fragmented and so not a song; it’s just something created in the studio. We realized for us it’s the song first and then you produce it. With that we definitely produced it, made it different, made it clever, and I think it was a failure. For us personally, I don’t think it was anything we enjoyed. And I think it was listening to other people, and what we tend to do and what we prefer to do is just go away and make our own records.

Now you’ve said that you and Roland have been recording music since you were fourteen. After you left the band in 1993, you moved to New York City and released your first solo album, Soul on Board. You’ve gone on record saying you that you don’t like this album that much, but I am more interested to know what it was like for you working on your own, no longer with a partner.

That was just a horrible experience, the whole thing, for me. And a hangover from leaving a band. Basically, I was still signed to a record deal, even on my own. When you sign, you sign jointly and separately. I was still under contract, so I had to do an album. I wasn’t ready to do one. I wanted to not do anything. That was the whole point of me leaving the band. Albums after that, like the Mayfield record I did and Halfway, pleased, and Deceptively Heavy, which I did last year, have been an enjoyable experience. It’s been a different experience. I do enjoy it purely because there is no compromise involved, and you can get to make your own statements and make your own recordings, and it’s not part of a band. I mean, I thoroughly enjoy that aspect of it, but Tears for Fears is certainly a bigger entity. When people ask me to describe how does it become a Tears for Fears record, to be honest, in the end, it’s compromise. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s basically what Roland and I agree on, and that’s where you get the Tears for Fears sound, which is something I highly appreciate, obviously, but sometimes it’s nice to go away and be self-indulgent.

In a 2008 interview surrounding the release of your solo effort, Halfway, pleased, you said “The nature of Tears for Fears was there was always two of us.” Was it difficult for you to see Roland carry on the band without you?

I didn’t really pay that much attention; I was so desperate to get out of it. I think it was messing me up in all the wrong ways, and I needed to get out of England and to get out of Bath. Bath specifically because it’s very insular. I met my now wife – we’ve been together 27 years now – in New York, and I moved to New York. For me, New York was a saving grace, purely because I could be anonymous. I met my closest, still my closest, friends, all in New York. So, no, I didn’t. I was busy enjoying my new life and the newfound freedom, so no it didn’t really bother me that much. That’s what it took for me to get away from it.

And you formed a partnership with Charlton Pettus in 1995. You once described that partnership as “organic.” What was the difference working with Charlton versus working with Roland?

Umm, egos. [Laughs.] In a simple term. Me and Roland both have very big egos, and that’s where the battles come in, but that’s where the sound comes from. We’re both, effectively, front men. There are not that many bands that have two singers – two lead singers. And a lead singer, in the essence of lead singers, means you’ve got to have a bit of an ego. And Charlton is not a singer, but he’s a great musician, so basically, he is there to facilitate something that I want to do, which is a very different relationship. Even though he’s opinionated as fuck. But I don’t mind that. I still get the final say.

You live in LA now, right? In addition to writing pop music, you’ve also written for film. Did that happen after you moved to LA?

Yeah. I did a couple of independent movies, both with Charlton. Charlton and I are the best of friends, and we work together. Charlton now lives in LA as well. It was kind of weird. I had the band Mayfield; Charlton was the guitar player. We wrote together. Doug Pettie was the keyboard player. I moved to LA. I was the first one to move here, and then Doug and Charlton have since moved to LA, and Doug and Charlton still play with Tears for Fears now. It’s sort of carrying on with the people I worked with in New York through to LA and into the Tears for Fears band.

What prompted the move from New York to LA?

My wife’s work, weirdly enough. She got a job with Dreamworks Records or wanted to take a job with Dreamworks Records, which was based in LA, and I can work wherever I want to work. I’m not tied to one place. I’m not going into an office. So I said, “Let’s go and see how it is. If we hate it, we can always move back.” When we got here, we ended up hating it for like six months, and then Frances got pregnant, and we went, “Ahh, that’s why we’re here.” It’s a better environment to bring up kids than in the middle of Manhattan.

So you like Southern California? You’re not going back to England anytime soon?

I’m not moving back to England, no. At some point, I’d like to go back to New York, but I don’t see me living in England again.

tears for fears Tears for Fears Curt Smith: Back in the Big Chair

In May 2013, you confirmed that you were writing and recording new Tears for Fears material with Roland and Charlton, with work beginning in the UK a month earlier and continuing in LA in July 2013. But the only stuff that’s come out of it have been a few cover songs. Is there a holdup on this new album?

Not necessarily a holdup. What basically happened, which I’ll happily explain to you, was that we did lock ourselves in a studio in Bath for a bit and a whole bunch of time in LA, and neither of us were 100% convinced it was great. Sometimes it’s hard to get inspired. Sometimes if you’re kind of stuck in a rut and doing the same thing again, and basically, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending … we were going through the same motions again. We were doing it bits in Bath, bits in Charlton’s studio here, and it wasn’t feeling new and fresh. We then signed on with a management company, and it’s run by, for us, a couple of guys that are old record industry veterans, plus a whole bunch of other great people. We felt we needed some A&R input and maybe a little kick up the ass a bit.

So we played the stuff to Gary and Bill [management company heads]. They liked it, but they said that we probably need something else. At that point, they felt, as did we, that having a record company might be a good idea for us this time around to give us that input and to be on a deadline and have some other A&R input, which at times we’re happy to have and at times we’re not. So we took a bit of time away while they negotiated all that, and now we are signed to Warner Brothers Records, who we like a lot, and we’re moving forward. That was the holdup, basically – trying to find a partner that we would do this record with.

Are you not happy with Everybody Loves a Happy Ending?

Oh no, I love the album; I think it’s great. I think it’s highly under-appreciated, but it is what it is. All you can do when you make a record is go in and make the best record you can, which I believe we did with Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. Going back to the sort of difference between that and now, as we have done throughout our careers, we did not want to do the same thing twice. The Hurting is very different than Songs from the Big Chair, which is very different than Seeds of Love, and we felt that we were doing Everybody Loves a Happy Ending part two, which we weren’t particularly inspired by.

You did that album in less than six months, but you also just said that you found yourself repeating the same motions over and over again. Do you think that’s because it was the first time you’ve gotten together in so long that it was just easier to do things the way it used to be?

I think the recording of Everybody Loves a Happy Ending was some of the most fun we’ve had recording in the sense of us getting back together and being older and having more important things in our lives. That means children and families, which when we worked together prior to that, the last album we did was Seeds of Love, neither of us had kids. It was the least pressure on us. We signed to Arista Records; it didn’t end up being on Arista. We had LA Reid as an A&R guy who loved what we did and let us get on with it, so it was an enjoyable experience. But again, for this record, we were doing the same thing again, and, I don’t know … we just didn’t feel comfortable with it. We wanted something else.

Do you think there’s a release date in the future, or do you have any idea when you’ll be finished with it?

I could hazard a guess, but that is all it will be. It’s done when it’s done, but next summer or fall I would think. I would lean towards fall of next year. But that’s if it gets done in time. Until it’s done, it’s not done, so we carry on. We’re in the middle of recording now. Hopefully we meet that deadline, but if we don’t, it’ll be a bit later.

I read how Roland has described what you are producing as “more dark, dramatic pieces of music,” going so far as describing one song as “a combination of Portishead and Queen.” I definitely want to hear what you have been working on. What was behind the decision to release covers rather than … did you not have any new material finished to release, even a teaser single?

We didn’t want to release anything that was a one-off. For us still, it’s about albums. So doing this record, and again, I’m calling it a record, which people rarely do nowadays, we want it to be a complete body of work, so the idea of releasing the odd track when we don’t know when we’re finishing the rest seemed alien to us. Plus we were kind of looking for some momentum into the way we felt we would record the new album. The idea of just doing a few cover things basically sent us in a certain direction. They were completed songs, by other people obviously, and that’s what came out of those recordings. It was fun to do, but it definitely gave us an idea of which way we were going.

Why do you think the music is being described as darker and more dramatic? Is there any outside influence?

No. We’re influenced by stuff we listen to, but it’s just normally we follow where our noses take us, and if we both feel that something is good, we’ll go in that direction. I don’t think it’s ever a conscious thought beforehand. When you hear it called something like that, that’s normally us in retrospect looking back and going, “I guess it’s becoming like this.”

What brought you two back together? And what brought you to the conclusion to reunite?

I don’t know. It felt right when I was approached by Roland’s then-manager before Everybody Loves a Happy Ending to work with him again. It’s basically baby steps. I said, “Well, if it’s the way it was back then, then no I don’t want to do it.” I go back to Bath because my family still lives there. I said, the next time I’m back, which I think was Christmastime, why don’t we just go out to dinner. It seemed absolutely fine, again because we’re both calmer, older individuals now. The next step was let’s do a couple of songs together and see how that works. That was fine, in fact, I think it was great. So we carried on. But it was a series of baby steps just to make sure it wasn’t going to screw up either of our lives.

I want to ask you about Donnie Darko. I know you probably didn’t have any involvement with the actual film, but your song “Head Over Heels” is in the film, but perhaps more famously, the cover of “Mad World”. Did you see or feel a boost in popularity or anything of that nature from the film or the music’s presence in the film? 

I think that Michael Andrews and Gary [Jules] did a great job on that track. I actually first heard it on NPR here, and I actually thought it was Michael Stipe. That movie has an appeal to a younger viewer. When I say younger, I’m saying younger than me. Maybe late teens, twenties. It’s very dark. It’s very much like The Hurting in sort of content. I would say that’s one of the big reasons why people have rediscovered The Hurting. Obviously, “Head Over Heels” is on Songs from the Big Chair. But our audience is now comprised of people our age and people half our age, and that’s very gratifying.

You’ve covered songs. What is it like for someone to cover one of your songs?

One, it’s obviously complimentary that someone would want to do it, and there’s so many different versions of it. I think it’s great. What’s interesting to me, you mentioned Gary Jules, but then Kanye West covered “Memories Fade”, Nas has used “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, so the fact that there’s such a mixture of people using our songs is certainly highly complimentary. And if they’re really great versions, we’ll like them.

Since you’re out in LA, you should try and pull a bunch of these people onstage and do alternate versions of your songs with them.

Well, if you notice, the beginning of “Memories Fade” … we’ve actually sampled Kanye’s version.

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