A Practical Conversation With Curt Smith of Tears for Fears About the Band's Latest Greatest Hits Album

Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Curt Smith of Tears for Fears performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 24, 2016 in Las Vegas.

You could forgive Curt Smith of '80s hitmakers Tears for Fears for not being overly celebratory about the band's recently released (Nov. 9) greatest hits compilation, entitled Rule the World: The Greatest Hits.

Since releasing their first best-of, Tears Roll Down, in 1992, the cerebral pop duo have had their name attached to hits comps named after seemingly every one of their signature hits, including Shout: The Very Best of Tears for Fears (2001), Sowing the Seeds of Love: The Best of Tears for Fears (2006) and even the not dissimilarly titled Everybody Wants to Rule the World: The Collection (2013). "I think we have more of those than we do actual albums," quips the singer/bassist over the phone to Billboard, not inaccurately.

So what makes the new one different? Well, the pacing is a little more creative -- rather than flow chronologically, the set jumps around the band's discography like a really good set list, making for a more coherent listen than most rote compilations. And perhaps more pressingly, the set includes two brand new songs: the deliciously dramatic synth-pop jam "I Love You But I'm Lost," and the more brooding, poignant "Stay," both originally intended to be on the duo's upcoming upcoming seventh studio album, but tabbed as worthy Greatest Hits inclusions instead. "We actually have far more music than we normally have for this record," Smith explains.

But did the fun structuring and impressive new songs mean Tears for Fears enjoyed the process of putting together their who-knows-what-number assemblage of fan and chart favorites? "I wouldn’t use the word 'enjoy,'" Smith comments matter-of-factly, "as we’ve heard these songs a couple of times."

What about the timing now made sense for another greatest hits album for Tears for Fears?

I think it was really generated from the record company. This time, we saw the logic behind it. I mean, when greatest hits normally come out, you don’t really have much say in that, because the masters are owned by the record company. So they could release it if they wanted to anyway, as long as they don’t put anything on it that we haven’t approved. So if it’s masters they already own, and no remixes, they can release it anyway.

But we are just finalizing the new album, so what they came to us with was, “We would like to put a greatest hits out with two new tracks on that you’ve done, and just remind people, basically, who you are” -- not that America needs reminding as much as some of the rest of the world -- “before you release a new album next year.” That was the logic behind it.

You kind of went with an unconventional methodology for the structuring. It’s not really chronological; it doesn’t frontload as much as some greatest hits sets do. What kind of strategy did you use?

We tried to approach it like we would one of our normal albums that we would do, which would be, “How does it flow?” I find that albums generally tell a story. Because it’s music, it doesn’t have to be in chronological order. It’s really how things flow from one track to the next track. That can be something as simple as, “That track sounds too slow after the one before,” to “That is in a minor key and that one’s in a major key and now it makes it sound too sad.” So you really have to spend some time listening to them running into each other to get the whole feel of it right.

Do you think there’s still a place for greatest hits albums in the Spotify era where everybody can be a greatest hits curator?

I don’t know. I guess to a certain extent. I think when you have them all lined up, and there are choices of what we consider the best, I think, then in that sense we get to curate it. But I think one of the joys of Spotify and Apple Music and the like -- well, again, they don’t pay us enough -- but the upside is the fact that people do discover your music more. We are finding, specifically with Spotify, that we are garnering a younger audience of people that are actually discovering [1983 debut album] The Hurting and [1985 sophomore blockbuster] Songs from The Big Chair -- [the latter] weirdly to a lesser degree.

Really?

Yeah, most of the younger audience, even in America -- which is surprising because The Hurting wasn’t a big hit, except for in Los Angeles and New York -- [but] The Hurting is the one they gravitate toward.

Do you think that’s because that seems to be the album that more frequently gets sampled by pop and hip-hop artists?

That could be true to a certain extent. I think it’s more to do with -- as far as the younger audience goes -- that that’s the age we were at when we wrote it. I think it’s a younger audience that relates to the lyrical content more than anything else.

You mentioned you don’t need reintroducing in the States. That’s probably because of these artists who have kept your music alive through interpolation and samples and such. Do you have a favorite of the more recent artists who have re-contextualized your music?

I think our favorite -- and a lot of people who have seen us live know this because we play it as our intro -- is Lorde’s version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” which was on the Hunger Games soundtrack, just because it’s incredibly dark. I think what we find fascinating and interesting is when people take our music and turn it into emotionally something else. And weirdly, Lorde’s version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” the production really goes with the lyric more than our version does, because our version, albeit the lyric is dark, the music is quite uplifting.

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And I think I could say the same for Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ “Mad World.” Where “Mad World,” when we did it, was kind of up-tempo-ish, theirs is more true to the lyric.

If there’s one song you could’ve included that you left off the Hits , what would it be?

I tend to gravitate towards stuff -- because we’ve been playing live a lot -- that sounds great live. And one track that’s always been one of my favorites, it was never released as a single, which was off the last album we did together, was called “Secret World,” and actually, strangely, more poignant today because Paul Buckmaster, who did all the string arrangements on it, just passed away. And his string arrangements on it were just gorgeous. But yes, “Secret World” has always been one.

What can you tell me about the making of the two new songs?

Well, both new songs are actually part of an album, but they’ve taken them off the new album. They actually won’t be on the new album, because obviously we don’t want to put them on both. So we’ve taken two tracks to put on this album, and we’re gonna go and replace those. Which is fine. We actually have far more music than we normally have for this record.

“I Love You But I’m Lost” was done in England, a year and a half ago now, with the singer and writer and producer of Bastille, Dan Smith. And we were working in this strange, dark studio in London, which was a bit depressing. And I hate studios that have no natural light. But weirdly enough it led to something good for the time we were there. So that was “I Love You But I’m Lost.”

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And then “Stay,” which is the other track, was sort of done primarily in L.A., and added recording done in England. And “Stay” is sort of about… having to give up something that you are loath to give up, but only because of the history. Say if there’s a marriage that was going horribly wrong but you invested 20 years in them, it’s hard to give up. And so the chorus is “Stay, don’t stay, don’t go.” So it’s sort of more of a… I don’t know, I guess a song about grief to some degree.

I got a Pet Shop Boys vibe from “I Love You But I’m Lost.” Is that something you were conscious of while making it?

No, not really, but I can understand [why you’d think that]. It’s very electronic in that sense.

It’s a very Pet Shop Boys vocal and title.

Yeah, something Neil [Tennant, Pet Shop Boys frontman] would write. I I don’t think we ever really think about it when we’re doing it, because if you sort of go in with a plan of attack, it tends to take away the natural rhythm of songwriting. So basically we were kind of just sitting around and then the title—we started with the backing track and then came up with the title, and things sort of snowballed from the title.

Are those two songs indicative of where you’re going with the new album?

Yeah. We did the whole album with [pop singer-songwriter] Sacha Skarbek, so in that sense, yes, it is indicative because the whole thing does sound like an album. They all fit in together. But it’s definitely more electronic and a little darker at times than the last record we did, I think, which tended to be a little more uplifting in the majority.

I think we were aware of trying to get back to the simplicity of The Hurting. Again, not that I think you really consciously go in with a plan, but I felt that as we were doing it, that kind of came up where we were trying to shy away from the overly complex music, the overly complex stuff to try and get back to something that was not basic, but certainly more traditional in structure.

Are 16 tracks enough to tell the story of Tears for Fears, or were there songs you had to leave on the table that you wish you could’ve included?

There are songs that could’ve been included, and I think that it’s really hard when you do one of these compilation things. They tend to be, obviously, the songs that are sort of better known. Well, it’s twofold. I think when you finish an album, you tend to have your favorites, where a lot of the time are not the singles. And they become even more so because the singles are what you hear all the time so you get tired of those quicker.

I think it might be interesting to have an album that’s just album tracks that actually were a bit deeper than some of the songs. But we do appreciate that these are the songs we are known for.