Q&A: Tears for Fears' Curt Smith on Ditching Primal Scream Philosophy, Keeping Peace With Roland Orzabal, and Domestic Life
Who said you can't go home again? Certainly not Tears for Fears. The band's trajectory has technically been intact for the past 28 years -- although its two principals, Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith, parted after peaking in the early '90s. While Orzabel carried on with the band's branding, Smith took a hiatus for about a dozen years. When they reconvened for 2004's Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, the band began a second chapter in its career, one that's yet to yield further studio offerings but still finds it continuing to tour.
The duo's hits, fashioned from a stylish sound, imaginative arrangements, and hook-heavy, synthesized melodies -- "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Shout," "Head Over Heels," "Sowing the Seeds of Love," chief among them -- still sound as engaging now as they did when they found regular rotation on radio and MTV. "It's much better now," Smith insists. "We play and perform together much better than we ever have. We're much better at what we do."
New Times spoke to Smith from his home in Los Angeles a week before their impending tour.
New Times: It's been awhile since you've toured in these parts.
Curt Smith: Well, it's been awhile since we toured East coast. We probably do two four-to-six week tours a year and that's the limit of our capabilities.
You've been carrying on in this new incarnation since the middle of the last decade, right?
To a certain degree. I mean, obviously we're sort of carrying on from where we left off and still trying to improve. I don't think we'd be touring if we didn't think there was still room for improvement. We feel we're getting better, and we look back to the way the band used to be 15 or 20 years ago, and the improvement that's happened in that amount of time is very gratifying. So now we really enjoy playing live. We're very confident in ourselves now. We never used to be.
It's been six years since your last studio album. Why the long hiatus?
There are many reasons for that. I think the prime reason is because geographically we're so far apart. The band lives in L.A. and Roland still lives in England. And then too, the music industry has changed. For us to record a new album now would involve some financial investment by someone and that doesn't happen in the music industry anymore. So we're playing live. We're still doing dribs and drabs of writing while we're on the road, and maybe at some point we'll record and release that. But it won't be for awhile. Playing live still gives us a great income. There is no record industry anymore, and so there's no real need or reason to make any records. I don't know who would market it or how they would market it and until the record industry sort of works its way out, it's just sort of a loss-making venture and there's no point in doing it.
With all the imagination and creativity that went into early albums like The Hurting and Songs From the Big Chair, it's almost surprising that the byproduct of all that effort actually spawned commercial success.
It is possible, strangely enough.
Did you have any idea that you would reap so many big hits?
I don't know. I think that was the record company people saying, "Yeah this is going to be a single. This is going to be a hit." We probably disagreed with them. I don't think you can have that mentality or, I should say, we can't have that mentality. That's just not the way we can work. The only way we can work is to go into a studio and record the best music we can. So in that sense there's no point to worry whether its going to be a hit or not. We just make the music we love making and do it to the best of our abilities. We're lucky enough that that ended up creating some hit records. It's sort of more by chance than anything else.
It's obvious that those earlier albums were guided more by your creative instincts as opposed to your quest for commercial acceptance.
Oh yeah, without a doubt. I wasn't necessarily aware of that at the time. As most people know from the amount of time it takes us to make records, we do spend a lengthy amount of time to make a record the best that we can make it, and in the end it's really for our own satisfaction. We want to feel that we've done the best we can do in songwriting, craft, production and in performance, There's always room for improvement unless we reach that point in time where we feel that's the best we can do for now. If we're left with that feeling, then we're done. If you think you can still improve, then you're not done yet.
Nevertheless, were you surprised that you became so successful so soon?
I don't think it was allowed at the time to be surprised (chuckles). It was like, "This is nice -- now work." We were up at 6 a.m. to do the drive time radio show, so you're at the radio station all morning, then you have interviews all afternoon, then you have the sound check. Then you've got to go play, followed by a meet and greet afterwards, and then find time for sleep somewhere in there. And that was basically our schedule.
So what drove the wedge between you and Roland for that 12 years or so?
I left the band in 1990 because I just sort of had enough. We weren't agreeing on much and if we're not agreeing on things, and there are only two of us, it seems pointless to carry on. I never really understood these bands where everyone knows they hate each other, and yet they stay together. It really makes no sense to me because life's too short for that. I'd rather spend my time with people I do get on with and like. Also, for me, becoming famous (pauses) - the whole... Ooops, there's my kids coming up. Hold on a second. I have to get the dog. Got to make sure the dog doesn't run out into the driveway... (Smith returns to the phone.)
That's my life, My children just returned from a trip to Chinatown and my dog was going to run into the road.... So where was I? Oh yes. So for me, I didn't really like the invasion of privacy, the fact that you didn't have a private life anymore. I never really understood the cult of being famous, people sort of screaming at you, wanting to really know you even though they never met you before. So it never really made any sense to me. So I decided it was time for me to disappear, so I moved to New York, which is sort of a great place to disappear, and got myself a life.
And what brought you back to the band?
I started playing again after a bunch of years. I met Charlton Pettus who later played on Everybody Loves a Happy Ending and still plays with us on tour. And then he convinced me to write with him, which I did. And then he asked me to play live with him, and so we played a bunch of clubs. And then I realized that music is my passion. It's what I do. I felt complete again by playing. After I moved to L.A., I got a phone call from Roland's manager asking me if at that point in time I'd be interested in doing another album with Roland. I didn't want to sort of flippantly go, "Well, no!" Obviously we have a history so it's something you have to think about seriously. So he was living in Bath, where my family still lives and I said, "Well, look, next time I'm back there visiting my family, we'll go out and have dinner and see if it's weird or not." So we did and it wasn't weird, it was fine. So the next step was that we agreed to go into the studio and record one or two songs and see if there was anything creative there that we both thought was good. And we did. We did a track called "Ladybird" and a track called "Closest Thing To Heaven" and we both felt it was worth pursuing, so we agreed to do an album together. We signed to Arista Records and the rest is kind of history. We've been playing together ever since and enjoying it again.
It always seems to be more difficult with duos, rather than full bands. It seems like it's more of a challenge to hold two people together rather than an entire band.
Because if there's an entire band, there's probably a peacemaker and everyone has different roles, so there's always someone you can bounce ideas off of. There's other people you can bitch to and complain to, but when there's only two of you, that's it. If you're not getting on, there's nothing you can do about it and there's nowhere else for you to go and blow off steam. You're in each other's pockets pretty much while you're recording and the whole time you're on tour. This is another reason why our recordings are few and far between and our touring is four to six weeks twice a year. The rest of the time we spend apart and it works very well for us.
So you can focus?
Well, yeah we want to concentrate on playing live. That's what we're there to do. To be honest, you end up loving the hour and a half - two hours you play every night. The other 22 hours you can do without.
That's a big chunk of the day though...
So you try to make those other 22 hours as bearable as you can. It normally involves relaxing a bit, sightseeing if you can. Back in the day when I was working all day, I didn't get to see any city I stayed in. Now I get to go out and have a look around so it's sort of a process of making it as enjoyable as you can instead of thinking of it as work.
It's widely known of course that the name Tears For Fears was inspired by Arthur Janov and his primal scream philosophy. Do you still follow that philosophy?
Not really, no. It was interesting and I still think a lot of it is very relevant because your parents do mess you up. In retrospect I didn't need anyone to tell me that. I guess in the end, what lost me was that it was based on the premise that children come in as a blank slate and they're only affected by their influences after they're born. I'm the father of two children... I know that's not true. My children both came in with different personalities. I know my eldest is exactly like me and I know my youngest is exactly like my wife. My eldest has some traits of personality she doesn't see in me because I grew out of them when I was nine, but I remember them. It's not something she's learned from me. It's something in my DNA that's been passed down to her. That piece of evidence indicates it's nonsense and every bit of evidence would prove it's nonsense. Apart from that, it's very smart. He helped me through some quite difficult times of adolescence. My adolescence - I'm not going to complain about it -- but it's not as cut and dry as he thinks it is.
Did you actually meet Dr. Janov?
Yeah, but I guess he kind of lost me when he came to our show in London and it was kind of like God paying us a visit. He invited us out to lunch and me and Roland were kind of nervous. But when we went out to lunch, all he wanted was for us to write a musical about primal therapy. So at that point, we felt it was a little Hollywood.
Would you give us a quick summation of the influences that were inscribed in your music early on?
We were like rock kids, like anyone who's thirteen. I listened to Black Sabbath and Rush and especially Blue Oyster Cult in the sense that it was sort of left of field. Kind of a quirkier rock band, the stuff way before "Don't Fear the Reaper," the weirder stuff they did. We were into that kind of music then and then we became sort of more serious musicians. When we were sort of getting into the beginning of recording, we had a band called Graduate. We played live and we went into the studio and recorded live and it was kind of crap. We wanted to learn the craft of making records, and the biggest influences were of that era. There was one year where David Bowie's Scary Monsters came out and Talking Heads' Remain In Light and Peter Gabriel's third album with "Biko," "Games Without Frontiers," and all that stuff was on it. I think David Byrne and Brian Eno's Life in the Bush was the same year, or maybe the year after. It was really like the era of modern production, and you could really learn the craft of recording when you had multi-track recording. There were sort of endless possibilities. So there were our earliest influences really.
We're really looking forward to seeing you down here.
Hopefully we won't disappoint.
It's doubtful you will.
We'll try not to.
Tears for Fears, 8 p.m. Tuesday, August 31, at Au-Rene Theater, Broward
Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
Tickets cost $35 to $75. Call 954-462-0222, or click here.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.