Editors' Tom Smith Outlines New Album, Collaborating With Blanck Mass & New Single 'Hallelujah (So Low)': Exclusive
English rock group Editors have always given a sharp edge to their brand of dense rock, but on their latest album Violence, due March 9 via Play It Again Sam, the Birmingham band goes primal on a staggering set of songs based on the power of human connection in these turbulent modern times.
Below (Feb. 21), the band debuts a new video for “Hallelujah (So Low),” a deeply personal track for lead singer-songwriter Tom Smith, who also shares insight into the band’s mind-set making the new album, approaching their latest tour, and the “brutal” sound born from their collaboration with British electronic drone musician Benjamin John Powers, otherwise known as Blanck Mass.
Check out the interview and video, exclusively on Billboard, below.
It’s been three years since In Dream came out. Just catch us up on what’s been going on in the band’s world a little bit.
Tom Smith: The In Dream tour ended a bit prematurely. Life kind of got in the way, I got a bit sick, so we had to cancel some shows including an American tour and that signaled the end of that, really. We stopped doing any more shows and we just focused on me recovering and getting over what I had. Yeah, so what’s been going on in the band world from then? We started writing, writing and tinkering away on the songs that became this record.
What was the motivating factor when you started writing for this upcoming album?
It’s all I know how to do. The f--- else am I gonna do? Like, when I have down time or when I’m not touring, I take the kids to school, I come home and I try to write songs. It’s all I know how to do really. [Laughs] So, you know, we wanted to make another record because that’s -- I don’t know, man… we felt good about In Dream, but we wanted to keep moving forward and we felt like we had things to say and the songs were coming. Then eventually, once I started to write and got enough songs, 10-15 songs, we then got into a room together to try and decide on how this album was going sound. We found a place in Oxford, kind of a rehearsal room in some farmland. We put all our ideas in there and we spent months together just tinkering away with the songs.
Then after a few months we started to realize that this time around we’d like to get some help, some outside influence to help develop it because on our last record we did everything ourselves. We called up a guy called Blanck Mass, who is one-half of Fuck Buttons. We liked his last record World Eater, specifically how brutal sonically it is. It's quite a hard listen at times and it’s also sort of melodic. I don’t know, I haven’t heard a record like that in a long time. We thought well, if he could have some kind of influence on what we were doing, it might put this record into a place that would surprise us and give it a freshness. So yeah, he got on board. He started working on nearly every song we’d worked on. We got to the point then where we had two albums; we had this album we had done in Oxford and you have like the alternative kind of "Blanck Mass" version of the record. Then we needed some more help, and we got a guy called Leo Abrahams, a producer to come in and help fuse these things together and find the right balance.
I wanted to talk about that term "balance," because you’ve used it before in describing this set of songs, saying you found a balance that you don’t think you managed before. So what do you attribute that balance to? Is it band dynamics or people that you brought in? Is it just in terms of sound?
I think it’s a combination of all those things. As a band we've flip-flopped over the years between making more guitar-oriented records and then doing things with more electronics. We've flip flopped and gone backwards and forwards a little bit. This record we have now, it seems to be the first time we’ve managed to fuse the two elements together in a way that felt fresh, in a way that we haven’t done before, and that is down to Blanck Mass and the way that he uses electronic-influenced sounds. The way he uses keyboards and computers is very different to how we do it, like with In Dream and to a lesser extent, In This Light and on This Evening which we made with [English producer] Flood. The electronics on that record were nostalgic, the [Roland synthesizer] Juno-106, the [Yamaha] DX7’s, they sound like records from the 80’s or sounds from the 80’s. Where on this one, because of Blanck Mass’s influence, those kind of textures come from a different place. It feels a bit fresher.
So I think that was a big part of it, and I think when Leo became involved...he’d heard both of these records and it was his opinion that we had to maintain, obviously not lose what the band is because if you go too far down the Blanck Mass road it could be too neurotic, but it was important to him that the band always comes from an emotional place and to use the elements of Blanck Mass’s stuff in a way that gives it a freshness and makes it exciting. It had that brutality at times, but then also, other times the band and the words and the band's melodies speak for themselves. I think it was outside influence that helped us find the balance that we haven’t found before.
So you bring up something that helps this stand out from just being sort of a collaborative album with Blank Mass, which is the emotional part of it. Where were you deriving most of your emotions? What were you focusing on?
When we started out, ‘early doors’ with The Back Room stuff, we got a lot of comparisons to the band Interpol. And Interpol are an amazing band but I feel like they come from an intellectual place. I mean, our interests have always come more from an emotional place. I felt like the negativity that we got always missed that for me. I felt like that’s what separated us from them. I think that kind of focus for me as a lyricist over these six records that we’ve made is to try to write lyrics that will resonate with people on an emotional level. I kind of dig a little bit deeper, you know what I mean? Not to say that everybody likes what we do and the words I sing, but the people that like our band, the people that are with us, I think get that connection and that’s why we mean something to them.
With this set of songs, I felt like they all existed in this world, in the world that we are living in now. I felt there was this presence, a kind of wild and terrifying modern world in these songs. It is a present that forces the people in these songs and the characters that I’m singing about to kind of focus on each other, on a human connection and kind of like be that in a relationship between a couple, or a father and his son, or a friendship. I feel like these songs all...there’s an acceptance or a realization that sometimes you have to focus on fellow humans that maybe hide or ignore the outside world a little bit.
It’s interesting that you bring up that these are songs made for these times because when the first single “Magazine” debuted, it was revealed that the song has been around since 2011, and there’s another song [“No Sound But The Wind”] that's been around for quite a few years. So are there any other songs from the album that have been gestating for some time, and why did now seem the time to release them?
No, those are the only two that come from “the vault” as it were. Why did it feel like the right time? Well, “Magazine” is a song that we were trying to make on record 4 when everything went wrong and eventually Chris [Urbanowicz, former guitarist] left the band and we were at the point where we nearly broke up. We tried to make that record for a year or so and it didn't work out in that line-up. So when we got through that and made the decision to carry on without Chris and the new guys came in, that song we kind of took away and no one wanted to spend any time on it to be honest. But every now and again, when I’m in my initial stages of songwriting, I’ll go through periods where things will just come and two or three songs might get written in a week or two, and then I could sit here for like a month and nothing will happen, and it’s in those moments where I might look back at what I have and what I’ve not used yet. “Magazine” came out of the shadows, and I had a little bit of a “Eureka!” moment with the chorus and changed it slightly but not lyrically… It’s funny how songs jump out of the past and survive sometimes, and it did feel kind of relevant.
With “No Sound But The Wind,” that was a song that we’d never recorded as a band or put on an album properly. A demo of it was put on a film soundtrack and a live version of it in Belgium of all places. The song was never actually put down as a band, so we felt that the record needed a moment of calm, should we say? A moment of reflection. And “No Sound But The Wind,” it’s this kind of like father singing to his son about that kind of protection of innocence. In the book The Road, it’s obviously a post apocalyptic kind of land but in my song it’s more of just, you know, protection of innocence of like “Why the world...?” It felt like a relevant connection with the rest of these songs I had written. It was another one that came out of the shadows. We went backwards and forwards a couple times and wrestled with the decision slightly, but as soon as we did it in the studio everyone was into it so it’s nice to draw a line underneath that song, a full-stop to put it to bed.
And it seems like it serves a pretty important function in terms of the sequencing of the album as well.
Yeah, I think you're right. The first six songs, I was kind of doing pop songs really. They’re all very melodic, and I do think you need time to breathe. So it’s important to have a moment like that where it gives the listener a bit of a rest before the last two songs, which are a slightly different side of the band; they are not your stereotypical pop songs or an Editors’ version of pop songs, they kind of take their time and are a little more dramatic and drawn out. It’s important over the course of a record to show the different sides of what you're about, of course.
Well it seems on this album that you're showing quite a few new angles, so was there an intentional push to expand your sound? Where was your inspiration coming from and what was your intentional goal?
First and foremost, our inspiration is ourselves. When we’re sitting around with these ideas for songs and we are working away in our individual corners of a room and we have our individual stations and someone will do something and we will go [abrupt pause] You know, when I write the songs I write them on an acoustic guitar or a piano and they’re very basic and i have a slight thing in my mind of how I think the song might go but 99 times out of 100, when we get together and work on it as a band they go to places that I would never expect. I am always surprised by where the guys take my ideas and there will be a moment in the song where someone will do something and we collectively go “oh shit, that’s fucking amazing!” and we all kind of jump on that idea. And that’s very powerful, that feeling that collectively you came up with something that individually you couldn’t. That’s the definition of being in a band. So that feeling is inspiring. so yeah, Elliot [Williams, keyboardist] is coming up with some kind of unexpected synthetic textural part or Ed [Lay, drummer] is on the drum machines. Any kind of different vibe can come from all five of us. We naturally get twitchy if we feel like we've done something before. I feel like every record is a reaction to the record we've made previously. We never want to feel like we are repeating ourselves, and I’m not trying to say that what we are doing is over the original or anything like that, you know? We do what we do, but as a band, I feel like we do things differently every record. It’s quite natural to not want to do the same thing over and over again.
Sure, and it feels like building rather than re-creating or reinventing.
I think when we first started out we were a traditional band. we were four guys in a room with our guitars and our youthful enthusiasm or lack of intensity. It was just a band playing in a room. Now when we make music, I feel like we are so different. We are a studio band. It is like building the songs up in a different way. so you have time to contemplate and mold the album sonically and stylistically. It’s less impulsive and more considered. I feel like we have more in common with a band like Massive Attack than the Arctic Monkeys with just the way we work. We are very happy in the studio. We’d still be there right now if it weren’t for Blanck Mass. [Laughs]
Speaking about the band playing together, you have three shows coming up in March around the Violence release date. What kind of experience are you looking to give the audience? What kind of message do you want them to leave the show with?
We will be playing quite a lot of the new record and that for us is very exciting. Playing live over the years, our relationship with it has changed for a number of reasons. To start with, playing live and suddenly having an audience there and having that responsibility was personally a source of great anxiety and I didn’t find the whole thing enjoyable. It took me a long time to relax and start to realize that you're there to entertain people and be a performer. It’s not about re-creating these songs perfectly or making sure the performance is perfect, it’s about that connection with the audience in the room. and what we do and the music we make comes from an intense and emotional place, you know what i mean? It's not like the whole audience is dancing particularly. [Laughs] It’s like they’re there absorbing what we’re doing and it can be quite an intense experience.
People go on about how dark we are and the darkness that’s in our band and I admit that our music is more serious than other indie bands or whatever you want to call them, but I still think that the people who come to our shows and like our band...they don’t come because it makes them miserable, they come because it makes them happy. So I hope they leave the concert hall with a smile on their face and exhilarated because the music that we make, we try to make it vital, dramatic, passionate, explosive...and so I hope the people who come to our shows kind of pick up on that and come along for the ride.
That’s a great way to put it. So, I'd like to just switch gears a little bit and talk about "Hallelujah." Where did the inspiration come from and how did that inform the video?
I wrote the words to “Hallelujah (So Low)” when I got back from a trip with Oxfam, visiting refugee camps in Northern Greece. It was obviously an incredibly moving trip, seeing people living in dust, surviving only on the help of others was very moving.
Musically the track hung on the relationship between the acoustic guitar and the drum machine that was part of the track from my demo. It had something special very early on. Then when Justin [Lockey] came up with his outrageous guitar riff we knew we had a winner. It’s the most “rock” we’ve ever been and it’s exhilarating. I think the video attempts to capture this intensity, both in the track and in us as a live band.
What was director Rahi Rezvani's vision for the video, and how did this video separate itself from your previous collaborations with him?
I think this video is pretty straightforward for Rahi. There’s no narrative or concept other than capturing the intensity of the track and the excitement of us as a live band. Rahi has been on stage with us whilst we perform, literally in front of my face, in between us and the audience. He knows about the energy and I think he was trying to convey this. Oh, and us looking sultry under a rain machine obviously!
Editors Tour Dates
May 8 -- Seattle, WA @ Neumos
May 9 -- Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
May 11 -- San Francisco, CA @ The Regency Ballroom
May 12 -- Pomona, CA @ The Glass House
May 13 -- Los Angeles, CA @ Belasco Ballroom
May 15 -- New York, NY @ Irving Plaza
May 16 -- Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club
May 17 -- Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of Living Arts