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Tears for Fears: Longevity, Tragedy and the Natural Evolution of New LP ‘The Tipping Point’ (The Interview)
During the mid-1980s, Tears For Fears were ubiquitous on MTV and American radio with “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Shout.” The synth-pop duo from Bath, England dominated the music charts with platinum-plus albums Songs from the Big Chair (1985) and The Seeds of Love (1989). Stateside, Tears For Fears scored four Top 5 pop singles and a few other minor hits.
The mammoth Songs from the Big Chair world tour (where singer/guitarist Roland Orzabal and singer/bassist Curt Smith couldn’t change set lists due to limited technology of the era) and the laborious Seeds of Love recording process (reportedly costing 1 million pounds; the most expensive album made at the time) eventually took its toll on Smith.
He left Orzabal to soldier on with Tears For Fears for two more albums before rejoining in 2000 and releasing the exquisite Everybody Loves a Happy Ending four years later. Now the Brits are back with The Tipping Point, a truly captivating and highly personal studio effort partially inspired by the 2017 death of Orzabal’s wife Caroline.
The new album is out on Feb. 25.
Rock Cellar checked in with the musicians while in Los Angeles to rehearse for an upcoming tour with Garbage.
Rock Cellar: Roland, you’ve said that for a long time, you were resigned to the fact that Everybody Loves a Happy Ending would probably be the final Tears for Fears album. What changed? Did you get to a point while touring in recent years where you thought, ‘We really need to write some new material?’
Roland Orzabal: That was an important part of it, definitely. We developed into this very good live band. Our set had a fantastic running order and a good blend of hits and non-hits. We wanted to find some new tracks, but it’s not just that.
Because we’ve had so much success, it’s very hard to say, ‘Well, we’re never going to do it again.’ If you don’t try, then that’s going to be your self-fulfilling prophesy. But part of us thinks, ‘We can write catchy songs — of course we can. It’s not rocket science!’ That was why we quite easily were convinced that we needed to work with modern songwriters, hit writers and stuff like that. That sent us off on a path.
Rock Cellar: But you weren’t satisfied with the results.
Roland Orzabal: Only “My Demons” is actually from all the writing with other people. The other nine are actually done in-house. That gives you a clue as to where and when we do our best work.
Rock Cellar: I always admire veteran artists who still put out new music. To me, it proves their artistic hunger remains intact. Was it a similar situation for both of you?
Curt Smith: I think it’s still having something to say. That was the biggest struggle about doing sessions with other people. One, they didn’t know us and two, we were struggling to find out what it was we were trying to say. Until we discovered that, it was one of those endless hamster wheels that you were going in and it was really for the sake of doing it.
We felt at that point in time we were making an album because we should. Eventually we made an album because we wanted to.
The legends that are @tearsforfears joined us in the Piano Room this morning, bringing us three epic arrangements and revealing the song they wish they had written! 🎹👀🎈
— BBC Radio 2 (@BBCRadio2) February 21, 2022
Rock Cellar: Curt, recently you said making The Tipping Point album was the closest you and Roland have come to Tears for Fears being a true partnership since your 1983 debut album The Hurting. Did the process give you a renewed sense of accomplishment?
Curt Smith: Without question, yeah. There’s certainly a gratification or an appreciation when you finish an album. Normally when we finish records, a lot of times I don’t listen to them that much afterwards. They’re done. Albums can sometimes not be a pleasurable experience because of the battles you go through to get the album the way you want it. That’s down to internal and external battles.
But in the end, when we did this album, it was very much the two of us who sat down and decided what we wanted to do in 2020 after we’d done all these writing sessions. It was the two of us, without any management or record company. We made this album and we delivered it to a management company and the record company. We went to find a partner to release it with after that. In that sense, it’s the most ‘us’ album ever because there was no outside influence. Basically none.
Rock Cellar: Did you find it difficult to maintain a balance between what some people would consider a “classic” Tears for Fears sound and one that was modern and fresh?
Roland Orzabal: No. I mean it all seemed to evolve quite naturally. I’m not sure how or why. Once Curt and I reconnected and we were in the same headspace, those things naturally emerged. So, you can see these little [things], the tracks that do really rely on songs we’ve done in the past. They hint at them. Not entirely, but a little bit. “Break the Man” has shades of “Pale Shelter” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Different beats of course.
Rock Cellar: Your fans will hear those few notes and go, “ahhh.”
Roland Orzabal: Yes: ‘Is this old or new? I don’t know.’ “Rivers of Mercy,” at one point, just swirls around and then it reminds you of “Woman in Chains.” So, it’s like, ‘Wow!’ That stuff all came quite naturally to actually rip ourselves off.
Curt Smith: Being self-referential is not a bad thing.
Rock Cellar: “Break the Man” is a real earworm that I could listen to on endless repeat.
Roland Orzabal: Oh, good.
Rock Cellar: Curt, wasn’t that song inspired by the patriarchy in America and abroad?
Curt Smith: It’s primarily twofold. I’ve lived in America for 30 years and saw the rising to power of Donald Trump and a kind of toxic masculinity being in favor — ‘men should be real men’ — and that kind of abuse you certainly see online more than anywhere else.
Being someone from a family of three strong women, my wife and two daughters, those were the inspirations. I do not want to dominate my wife and two daughters. I want them to have an equal voice. That’s really where the premise of the song came from.
Rock Cellar: Elegant album closer “Stay” originally appeared on your 2017 hits compilation Rule the World, in a slightly different form. What made you decide to revisit the tune?
Curt Smith: It fit in with the narrative and ebb and flow of the new record … my favorite last track on an album we’ve done prior to this one was “Listen” [off Songs from the Big Chair]. It’s one where you get to take a breath and float off with it. I find those tracks just incredibly warming. “Stay” had one meaning for me and another for Roland.
Rock Cellar: Carina Round has toured with you over the last several years. Her singing on The Tipping Point tracks is sublime. Did her familiarity with your live performance vocals make for a more seamless recording process together?
Curt Smith: Yeah, without question. When you go in a studio with people you know and know you and your tastes and have worked with you closely for a long period of time, those things do become easier. Carina could do 20 voices. That’s the joy of Carina. She has everything in her toolbox.
Rock Cellar: Another musician who has worked regularly with you guys is co-producer and co-writer Charlton Pettus. What is the key to your ongoing collaborations?
Roland Orzabal: He’s an excellent musician and songwriter. He owns the studio, so we like working with him. It’s uncanny, he was Curt’s go-to guy when Curt was doing solo stuff. But for some magical reason, the three of us get on like a house on fire. He becomes the modulator and the interpreter. There’s never a dull moment whatsoever, because if there’s any impasse between Curt and I — which on finishing this album, there wasn’t really — he can sew a thread between the two of us.
He’s also very intelligent, although I wouldn’t say that to his face. He’s a smart cookie, so a lot of the conversations that we have is just wonderful socio-political commentary when running around the studio. While we were in the studio at the end of 2020, the election was going on. We were finishing up, so we’d have all the TVs on and be chatting away. It was great fun.
Rock Cellar: How did you find the experience of working with German production/songwriting team Florian Reutter and Sacha Skarbek? Did they inject a new vitality into the Tears for Fears sound?
Roland Orzabal: It was refreshing going to London and dragging Curt away from LA. Sasha is an incredible piano player. You don’t really realize it until you’re in a room with him. He starts mucking about and it’s just glorious. Flo is a remarkable programmer. Even though we had a lot of stuff already prepared, he would add all kinds of crazy stuff on top, like electronic percussion. Flo came up with the synth info riff to “My Demons.”
Rock Cellar: At one point on the mesmerizing “Rivers of Mercy,” you sing “to hell with my immunity/I’m gonna hold you close.” Was it written after the COVID-19 pandemic started?
Roland Orzabal: That was written after the beginning of the pandemic. We had this beautiful backing track, which Charlton had prepared with our keyboard player Doug Petty. It was absolutely gorgeous. So evocative, so calm and so peaceful and loving. It was one of those pieces of music that was almost like falling backwards into a swimming pool or the warm Mediterranean Sea. It wasn’t very difficult to come up with the idea of a river of mercy or some kind of river like you were being baptized. You know: “Take me to the river/Drop me in the water.’
It [became] “drop me in the rivers of mercy.” Talking about the pandemic, at the same time, we had the Black Lives Matter protests. There was a rage running around the world that ran contrary to the feeling of that song, which is very much about forgiveness and redemption. I put that [line] in because the whole thing worried and disturbed me.
Rock Cellar: Two standouts on the new album – “End of Night” and “My Demons” – are upbeat midtempo rockers. Were you going after an “in-your-face”-type vibe as on “Shout” for those songs?
Roland Orzabal: No. We were looking for tracks that would translate live. We have a history. One of our biggest songs obviously is “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” — what you’d call a shuffle [demonstrates the sound]. We’d find a lot of songwriters who had previously prepared a backing track for us to listen to had gone straight to the shuffle. And there’s a lot of them on this album. They work and they’ll be good fun to do live.
Rock Cellar: With many of The Tipping Point lyrics being very personal and emotional, would you agree that it harks back to the tone of The Hurting?
Curt Smith: Yeah. I definitely think that we had something to say on this record. More so than Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. Without question, there was more going on.
Rock Cellar: Happy Ending is an underrated album.
Curt Smith: Very underrated. You are correct. There are a bunch of great songs on that record. It didn’t have the depth of this record. But that was the time. It was more of a celebration of us working together again than anything else. And an ending that was more palatable than Seeds of Love was for us. It was a continuation of Seeds of Love to some degree. But with a better finish, where we didn’t end up breaking up at the end of it.
This one, definitely with everything that’s gone on since we’ve been making this album, Roland has already referenced the Black Lives Matter movement. But the #MeToo movement, Trump or even Boris Johnson in England, the rise of the right wing worldwide. The pandemic. You’ve got to have some songs of depth in there, or you shouldn’t be a songwriter really.
Rock Cellar: The video for the folk-inspired Tipping Point opener “No Small Thing” is riveting. Whose idea was it to give a tip of the hat to the 1982 experimental non-narrative film Koyaanisqatsi?
Roland Orzabal: I think Curt used the word “Koyaanisqatsi” because he could say it. He could get his tongue around that word. We have this fantastic independent video producer … and it was a cheap video. It was all stock footage, but we went away, went online, and picked our own stock footage as well. We blasted him with our other ideas. It took a while to shape the narrative and to get the pictures in line with the beginning. But it’s one of my favorite videos we’ve ever done.
Rock Cellar: Every time I watch it, I see an image that I missed before.
Curt Smith: To me, I think it’s the best video we’ve done because we’re not in it. That whole thing with what you just mentioned — the fact that you can watch it a bunch of times and see new things — it’s like the best music. You can notice bits of production or keyboard parts or guitar parts that kind of went over your head to start with that you start to pick through. In that sense, it’s a joy.
Rock Cellar: What can you tell me about the origin of the brilliant The Tipping Point album cover art?
Curt Smith: The record company sent us ideas for people to do the album sleeve. I want to say 10 pages of different graphic artists, painters and different people to go through. Myself and Roland both independently picked that one painting. It’s by [Barcelona painter/muralist] Cinta Vidal [Agulló]. The initial idea was to go back and get her to do an original piece of art for the album, but she was in the middle of putting on a show here in Lancaster that I went to. She didn’t have time to do an original piece of art, but we loved that one piece anyway. We ended up asking if we could use it for the album cover.
Rock Cellar: Switching gears, when the two of you first got back together in 2000, how was that reacquaintance period for you?
Roland Orzabal: In some ways, Happy Ending is the real follow up to Seeds of Love because it was very Beatle-y. “Closest Thing to Heaven” could’ve almost been on Seeds of Love. We fell into something. What happens when Curt and I get together is quite different to what we would choose to do naturally on our own.
It was a time when I was looking for a change of lifestyle. I was getting a bit sick and tired of living in the countryside in England and [jumped at] the chance to come to LA. My sons were young enough that it wouldn’t disturb their schooling. We moved the entire family across [to California] and all the sudden you’re doing the school run under a blue sky, playing tennis three times a week. Happy Ending very much reflects that. The typical LA/Californian laid-back lifestyle.
Rock Cellar: Thinking back to when you started the band in the 1980s, how important was U.S. radio support?
Curt Smith: It certainly had an effect. What was interesting when we first came to America to tour on Songs from the Big Chair, when we played in New York and LA — in LA it was KROQ and New York was WLIR — everyone in those markets knew the band.
Yet when we toured everything in between and we’d play songs from The Hurting, people didn’t know what they were at all. It was fascinating. Certainly, getting your foot in the door helped. And it wasn’t just KROQ and WLIR. The Hurting was very big on college radio stations. That was really our big entry into America. Those radio stations were huge supporters of us.
Rock Cellar: After you’d finished recording Songs from the Big Chair, could you sense it was a sonic step forward from The Hurting? Did you have any notion that it would connect with a lot more people?
Roland Orzabal: None whatsoever. I remember being in a recording studio, the Wool Hall in the West Country. I was printing off cassettes, probably for my friends, or maybe I was just selling them as bootlegs.
Curt Smith: I wondered who was selling those.
Roland Orzabal: I had to listen to the album for the first time since we finished it and I thought, ‘This is pretty good.’ That was all.
There’s always a dichotomy between what’s going on in your career, what’s going on in your heart and what’s going on in your head. If you’re feeling great — if you’re all open and feeling wonderful, and you have an incredible time in your career, it’s got to be an incredible thing.
But that’s never been the case with me. I would say the most successful we’ve been has coincided with the most stressful time [of my life]. You get a lot of stress from being successful anyway, and it’s quite a really mature thing to say, “Actually, we’re doing really well. Let’s go away. Let’s stop. Let it carry on a bit in its own volition.”
Rock Cellar: In addition to Tears For Fears’ music being available on streaming services, artists like Weezer, Lorde and Adam Lambert have memorably covered your songs, countless rappers and hip-hop acts routinely sample your tunes and others often cite the band as an influence. Do you think all of that has helped widen your audience over the past decade?
Curt Smith: Yeah. Without question. When we play festival venues, and even in our own shows, we notice our audience is made up of people of our generation, but also there are a lot of younger people.
When we played Bonnaroo in 2015, it was [basically] 18–25-year-olds. They were all singing every lyric to songs from The Hurting. It was mind-blowing to me watching that. But it makes sense because The Hurting was written and released at the age they are now at.
Also, as you mentioned, the cover versions people have done brought us into the light as well for a younger audience, and also younger bands nowadays who become big and cite us as an influence. In that sense, because of streaming and because of the ability of a younger audience to find our music at a click, we have managed to gain a younger audience that probably wasn’t there 15 years ago.
Rock Cellar: What can fans expect from the tour with Garbage starting in May? Do you plan to include many of the new songs in the set?
Roland Orzabal: I think we’re going to try and put in about five songs. We’ve got three songs at the moment which we’ll definitely be playing. Other songs require a bit more backing vocals like “Rivers of Mercy,” which I’d love to do live, but we don’t have a big enough band.
Unless we can convince some members of Garbage to come and sing. That’s a thought! OK, we’re on!
A limited number of VIP ticket packages remain for the US leg of The Tipping Point Tour 2022.
— Tears for Fears (@tearsforfears) February 15, 2022
Tears for Fears’ tour dates with special guests Garbage:
March 8, 2022
February 25, 2022