Fanfarlo's Simon Balthazar on isolation and imagination
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Sounding like an unplugged version of The Arcade Fire fronted by a less-manic David Byrne, London orchestral-pop group Fanfarlo appear destined for the sort of mega-indie stardom that makes the “indie” part of the tag feel superfluous. Fanfarlo’s dynamic arrangements and sweeping melodies have been increasingly buzzed about through much of 2009, even though it wasn't until September that the band released debut album Reservoir, recorded with producer Peter Katis, who's also worked with Interpol and The National. In advance of Fanfarlo’s show on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at the Triple Rock Social Club, bandleader Simon Balthazar talked with The A.V. Club about the upside of isolation and why he prefers to think big.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said numerous songs on the album were inspired by real-life historical figures like Howard Hughes and Harold T. Wilkins, and written from their perspectives. What appeals to you about this unconventional approach to narrative?
Simon Balthazar: It’s something that works for me. I was talking to a film director the other day about storytelling and he was explaining that he tries to tell small stories, and I realized I’m actually more interested in telling big stories. I’m just not that into confessional songwriting, even though some people can do it incredibly well. I’m more interested in that blurry line between fact and fiction and the ways in which music can serve as a connecting force to big ideas and emotions. Most of my songs take tiny elements of my own experience or emotional components of myself mixed up with stories I’ve heard or historical characters I’ve read about. It’s not that I’m ever writing some straight historic document. I like to write fantasy informed by history. “The Walls Are Coming Down” was inspired by time-travel theory I was reading on the Internet.
AVC: Growing up in rural Sweden, did you feel like moving to London was something you had to do in order to pursue music?
SB: It wasn’t anything that calculated. I did literally grow up in the forest in Sweden. My parents moved out to the countryside in the ’70s and I had a bit of a hippie upbringing until I was 16, when I moved to Gothenburg. Then after living there a few years, I moved to London, where I’ve been living now for a few years, sort of little upgrades in size along the way. I didn’t feel like I had to leave Sweden to pursue music, as Sweden does have a really cool scene. It’s an interesting kind of fusion going on between London and Gothenburg particularly. There are lots of DJs and musicians flying back and forth, bands swapping members.
AVC: Was it always your intention to form such a large band?
SB: Even before I had any bandmates, I knew I wanted my songs to have a big orchestral sound. I probably should have put a band together right away but instead I made things quite hard on myself by making these elaborate home demos and trying to play out live using them as pre-recorded backing tracks. It was real handful trying to make it work, and for the most part it didn’t. [Laughs.] I get itchy feet and like to keep things moving. Gradually real people replaced the recorded parts, and we became a six-piece.
AVC: Peter Katis’ Connecticut studio, where you recorded Reservoir, is in a notoriously sleepy area. How did relocating to those foreign surroundings affect the record-making process?
SB: Isolation has played a big part in my life. Where I grew up was incredibly isolated, and that greatly shaped me. I think you can hear that sense of isolation in a lot of Swedish music. Seeking out that isolation was part of why it made sense to come over to the States and record. Peter Katis’ studio isn’t even in a small town. It’s sort of between two small towns, both of which are pretty rough and dull to begin with. [Laughs.] There was literally nothing to do there, which was great because it meant we worked 12 hours a day solidly while making the record. If we had recorded in London the whole experience would have been more scattered and there’s no way we could have gotten that focused.
AVC: At this fall’s CMJ festival in New York City, Fanfarlo seemed to be one of the “it” bands of the fest, selling out multiple gigs. You’ve mentioned in the past your wariness of the “hype machine” aspect to today’s indie-music world. Does it feel like you’re experiencing some of that firsthand now?
SB: I find it really hard to think of us as a hype band because we really have already been a band for a few years. If people are excited about what we do that’s great, but fan reactions don’t really come into the equation for us. At the end of the day we’d be doing the same thing even if no one were listening. We’ve been having a great time and things seem to be going well, particularly in America. The most exciting part for us right now is just figuring out our identities as performers. Learning what putting on a great show really means and how that works. It’s never felt like a big whirlwind or an out of control kind of thing in terms of attention. If things are picking up now that’s great. It means we can keep doing what we love and maybe even make a few dollars eventually. [Laughs.]