Celebrating the release of the first Tears For Fears album since 2004, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith reflect on a five-decade career and talk about loss, working under duress, musique concrète and Gothic architecture 

When Tears For Fears released ‘Everybody Loves A Happy Ending’ in 2004, Tony Blair was serving his second term as Prime Minister, the economy was booming and the threat of global nuclear annihilation seemed to have been consigned to the history books. 

Eighteen years later and the band’s new album, ‘The Tipping Point’, is finally upon us. So why has it taken so long? And is every Tears For Fears album destined to be perceived as a comeback, given their propensity to dither?

“Not really,” says Roland Orzabal philosophically. He considers the question with customary parenthesis, his long, Gandalf-like argent hair and beard adding to his air of wisdom and solemnity. 

He and Curt Smith are speaking to me via Zoom, with Roland calling in the early evening from his home in Bath and Curt just starting his day in Los Angeles. It took some time to coordinate this meeting as the duo now insist on doing interviews together, a show of unity and a sign that their relationship is back on track.

“It’s not always about putting out a record,” continues Roland. “We’ve been a very successful live act for quite a while. That, in itself, is extremely satisfying. We have a back catalogue. We have all these artists who have sampled us, interpolated us, covered us… so the world of Tears For Fears has expanded, regardless of us making an album. We’re both quite fussy and we have what I’d call the hermit instinct, where we stay inside the cave until the weather’s really good.”

My next question is somewhat more long-winded and pretentious than I’d intended, but thankfully Roland laps it up. I wonder if developing a record over such a long period is like the construction of a Gothic cathedral, incorporating many different architectural trends as its shape emerges over the centuries.

“I do like the Gothic edifice analogy because I love Gothic architecture,” enthuses Roland. “It’s taken more than 300 years of human experience to make this record. It’s crazy because we didn’t start off trying to make an edifice of any grand design. We actually started off building small cottages and that’s really not our style.”

He extends the metaphor to reflect the recent trouble Tears For Fears had with their former management, who advised them to write with a crack songwriting team, making hits by committee. Moreover, they’d been told that releasing an album in the age of streaming would be futile. The heritage-act gravy train had no official destination.

“If you go back to the building analogy, it wasn’t cottages that we were making,” interjects Curt. “It was more prefab housing.”

Both men are now 60 and growing older with grace – Roland has never fitted his eccentricities better, while Curt, the less talkative of the two, has the air of an aristocratic actor, poised on the live link from his Hollywood home with fabulous posture.

“The weird thing is, I’m not convinced we’re insecure about what we do,” reflects Curt. “I think it’s really that other people make you feel insecure. When we were initially encouraged to go and write with modern writers and producers, we were like, ‘OK, let’s give it a try. Why not? We may learn something’. So, in that sense, we went along with it willingly, but then we discovered it really wasn’t for us.”

The experience gave rise to the new album’s ‘Master Plan’ track, which takes a sarcastic swipe at the music industry à la Queen’s ‘Death On Two Legs’. The idea for it came to Roland as he ruminated bitterly while wandering around a Bath farmers’ market.

“I did feel pissed off with our manager, because apart from trying to dissuade us from actually making a record, we weren’t even able to put one song out on the internet. Just one song, that’s all we asked for.”

Another great track is ‘My Demons’, a collaboration with the Kraftwerkian-sounding producer Florian Reutter.

“He’s an amazing programmer,” says Curt of the German musician they met through Sacha Skarbek, the only appointed “hit-maker” to survive the songwriter-committee cull. “He was definitely fun to work with, although there’s so much going on in his head. And most of the time, the trick with Florian was trying to get him to do less.”

‘The Tipping Point’ is diverse and difficult to pigeonhole, as is much of their back catalogue, with the artistic impetus coming from adversity. The duo shook themselves free of their management contract not long before the death of Roland’s first wife, Caroline, in 2017. Tears For Fears, it seems, work best creatively when under duress.

“Caroline’s death was obviously a huge factor,” explains Curt. “And worldwide, there was the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, the horrendous politics in America… and then there’s climate change, and the pandemic had just started, so there was certainly enough material to mine to make something that had meaning. I just think it took us a while to realise that, lyrically, it had to have some meaning to us.”

So the pair sat down in LA armed with a couple of guitars, Curt started strumming what would become album opener ‘No Small Thing’, and the creative floodgates opened. This was also how it had begun in 1980, when they left their mod-revival band Graduate and formed a duo called History Of Headaches. The name didn’t last long and neither did the acoustic guitars.

The moment that changed everything for Curt and Roland was way back in 1979, hearing ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ on Radio 1. They were at Curt’s parents’ flat in their home town of Bath when the sound of Tubeway Army incited what Roland describes as a “Copernican revolution”.

“It was the bolt from the blue, a huge shake-up,” he says. “We looked at each other and we realised that things were changing. I mean, it was bloody obvious.”

HyperFocal: 0

Before that, Roland had been in a Simon & Garfunkel-style folk duo, playing for pocket money at a hairdresser’s every Saturday morning. The mod band was a step up and they had a big hit in Spain, though Roland is dismissive of his former group. Curt, who Roland describes as a “groovy-looking guy”, joined on bass, and the pair soon realised their aspirations were more serious and profound than those of their bandmates.

“They just wanted to go and record, ‘There’s your record, let’s go play live again and pick up girls’,” says Curt.

“Curt and I had a different take on things in general,” adds Roland. “Partly because we’re both from similar backgrounds, both council-house kids with difficult childhoods.” 

They were becoming audiophiles, according to Curt, who started getting Roland into David Bowie’s ‘Scary Monsters’, King Crimson’s ‘Discipline’ and Peter Gabriel’s eponymous third album (often referred to as ‘Melt’). And then along came a major stroke of luck at the local “vegetarian disco” in Bath.

“When we formed the duo, we met Ian Stanley down in Moles disco, and he was the guy with the means,” says Roland. “He was the guy with the big house, with the Roland Jupiter-4 synthesiser and the CR-78 drum machine. I don’t know what we would have done without him, but he gave us access to these synthesisers, so although the songs were written on guitar, it was really the arrangements of those songs that separated us from the pack.”

In the early days, Tears For Fears were championed by John Peel and compared by NME to Joy Division. Then came a string of hits – ‘Mad World’, ‘Change’ and ‘Pale Shelter’, and a Number One album with ‘The Hurting’. 

Perhaps even more improbably, they were smuggling primal therapy into kids’ magazine Look-in and teenage music mag Smash Hits, as well as up the charts. They became advocates of the modish psychotherapy of Arthur Janov, who had been observing their career with interest. Janov even hooked up with them for dinner the night they played the Hammersmith Odeon in 1983 and asked them to write a musical about primal therapy.

“How would that have worked?” reflects Curt. “The meeting we had with him was highly disappointing. He was a Californian man who had all the trappings of Hollywood.”

“It was a bit narcissistic, which is kind of understandable,” adds Roland. “I did primal therapy myself for five years – it’s a great theory, but there was a cult aspect to it, and that’s kind of where they make their money.” 

Undeterred by this episode, Tears For Fears continued to dabble in psychology in their music. The B-side to another big hit, ‘Shout’ (about protest rather than primal therapy), is called ‘The Big Chair’, a little-known track that would ultimately inspire the title of their classic second album, ‘Songs From The Big Chair’. 

An extraordinary piece of musique concrète, ‘The Big Chair’ features cut-up dialogue, courtesy of an E-MU Emulator, taken from the harrowing 1976 television film ‘Sybil’, about a young woman with dissociative identity (aka multiple personality) disorder. 

It’s typical of the experimentation that pervades their B-sides and rarities album, ‘Saturnine Martial & Lunatic’, on which it appears alongside a slew of tracks that are well worth checking out, most notably ‘The Body Wah’. And it’s all a far cry from the 1980s teen pin-ups who fathered the still ubiquitous ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’.

“We were obviously aware of the commercial side,” says Curt. “And certainly by this point we were made aware of the sales by our record company, but those B-sides were our chance to enjoy a sense of release doing something abstract. If it was a B-side, then the label didn’t care, so it gave us a certain freedom to go and create something interesting for us. I think we had the best times making B-sides.”

“Also, we loved David Byrne and Brian Eno,” adds Roland. “They were heroes we could never get anywhere near in terms of quality, but we tried our best. On ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’, there’s ‘The Jezebel Spirit’ – an Afro jungle disco track with the sound of an exorcism. We were big into that, but also we were coming at it again from the psychological angle, with the sample ‘And she wants to sit beside you in your big chair’ from one of Sybil’s personalities. So that all resonated with us big time.”

Their next long-player, ‘The Seeds Of Love’ in 1989, expanded the Tears For Fears sound, taking in elements of soul and psychedelia. It reportedly cost a cool one million pounds to make.

“The growth of Tears For Fears has been very much the growth of us, the formation of the ego, which culminated in ‘The Seeds Of Love’,” says Curt. 

By the early 1990s the band had grown up and grown apart. Curt left in 1991 to make sporadic albums, start a family with his second wife and focus on presenting MTV and radio, while Roland continued to plough his own furrow, first under the Tears For Fears moniker and then in his own name.

“Originally, Curt probably experienced what it was like to be a pop star more than I did because he was fronting a lot of the singles,” says Roland of their first incarnation. “We called him Boy Curt and stuff like that as a joke. But I sort of managed to bypass that, and then in the 1990s I went out and saw things. I grew my hair, put on leather trousers and was seen singing and dancing my way through Brazil. And other places.”

He laughs.

“I was experiencing the excesses of the ego. I did two albums. I did two world tours. And I was sick of myself.”

“I spent the 1990s coming down,” confirms Curt. “I never felt all that comfortable with the fame aspect of being in the industry. But during that period, one of the things I did discover was that my love of music hadn’t gone away.”

“Curt made the extremely wise decision to say, ‘OK, fuck the music industry, I’m going to find out who I am’,” adds Roland. “And he went on that journey and it changed him. It changed us. So when we got back together, we weren’t the same people.”

When they were recording their sixth studio album in 2003, they also had another stroke of luck. A plaintive cover of ‘Mad World’ by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules scored an unlikely Christmas Number One, some 21 years after its original release as Tears For Fears’ third single. 

Its chart-topping success was due to it being the lead song from the soundtrack of ‘Donnie Darko’, the cult US movie which tapped into the band’s often-explored themes of teenage alienation and mental trauma. Times had changed, but Tears For Fears had never seemed more relevant.

“There’s an element of destiny involved in all of this,” maintains Roland. “Does anyone do anything? What are the motivations? Do we have any free will? Or are we just puppets of God?” 

Roland went through another dramatic transformation when Caroline died.

“The ego was absolutely smashed, absolutely fractured,” he admits. 

He had no answers, but his relationship with his bandmate “improved vastly, because he didn’t have to deal with the fucking nightmare”. As a result, ‘The Tipping Point’ is their most collaborative album since ‘The Hurting’, with Curt Smith singing on more songs than he has since their feted debut. Finally, Tears For Fears have come full circle.

“So we’ve got the restoration of some kind of balance,” says Roland Orzabal. “And the rediscovery of the magic that made us a little bit special in the beginning.”

‘The Tipping Point’ is out on Concord

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