For a duo that that only released three albums within a decade and then split up, the Tears For Fears partnership of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith has left a long-lasting cultural impact: from Gary Jules’ haunting Donnie Darko cover of “Mad World” (which became a Christmas No. 1 in the U.K. in 2003) to the recent sample of “Head Over Heels” in Mary J. Blige’s Super Bowl halftime set, decades after those songs first appeared.
Orzabal and Smith met while growing up in Bath, England, and subsequently released The Hurting in 1983, which became an audio bible for emo teens everywhere. Their 1985 followup effort, Songs From The Big Chair, was even more successful, reaching the No. 1 spot on the U.S. Billboard 200, aided by popular MTV videos for hits like “Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ and “Shout.” The hits continued with third album Seeds Of Love in 1989, but tensions related to the band’s quick ascent to stardom caused the vital partnership between Orzabal and Smith to fray. Smith left the band in 1991, while Orzabal went on to release two more albums under the TFF moniker.
Fortunately, in 2000, the pair reunited, and now, nearly 40 years after their first release, they’ve released their seventh album. The Tipping Point is an impressive collection that should easily win over bonafide Tears For Fears fans, kicking off with the surprisingly bare acoustic strum of “No Small Thing,” which highlights the vocals and melodies that have always been the pair’s strong suit. The haunting title track is a ghostly love story worthy of Wuthering Heights, while the welcome and catchy electronic musings of “Master Plan” (“Believe me when I tell you there’s another way / The sun will rise tomorrow on your world of pain”) and “Break The Man” (No more tearing the bandages off / No more living a lie / No more chewing the scenery / No more rain no more rain”) offer a more optimistic view of the world than TFF fans may be used to.
But as Orzabal and Smith themselves explain, after all these years, that’s not too surprising. On the eve of the album’s release, the pair spoke with with The A.V. Club over Zoom to discuss the band’s many transformations, their upcoming tour, and the creative alchemy and twists of fate that keep Tears For Fears together.
The A.V. Club: You both grew up in Bath, did you guys meet in school?
Roland Orzabal: No, we we met through a mutual friend, I was at school with a friend. He’d been at junior school or infant school with Curt, and I’m not quite sure why he wanted us to meet, but he did. Maybe he was an agent of God. I dunno.
Curt Smith: He was a bass player, wasn’t he?
RO: I taught him to play bass. He wasn’t a guitar player when I met him, but he was big into music. And he learned the bass, which, as you know, is not very difficult.
CS (a bassist): [Laughs.]
RO: You’re welcome. And he went on to be an extremely successful session guitarist in London. I mean, he’s way better than I am. Crazy. There you go.
AVC: What do you think you recognized in each other to form such a successful collaboration?
RO: I think it was opposites. You know, that opposites attract. We have been joking a lot lately that I was a straight-A student and Curt was a petty criminal. So there was that and that kind of antagonism, which is not necessarily a negative word; antagonism that exists between the two is a good thing. And we say conflict is the grit in the oyster around which the pearl is formed, and what we’re very good at with each other is providing checks and balances. So that’s a bit like a successful marriage, I suppose. It doesn’t always work, but certainly the older we get, the more accepting we are of each other and each other’s needs, each other’s quirks. And long may it continue.
CS: I think the word Roland and I use as the most poignant is balance. I mean, we could both either go one way or another. We tend to get the best out of each other—most of the time, when it’s working.
AVC: You guys were getting popular around the same time as bands like Duran Duran. But where Duran Duran was writing about “Girls On Film,” The Hurting had these really emotional songs with a lot of depth. As a troubled teen myself at the time, I listened to that record nonstop; it helped me a ton, just to know that there was music out there that perfectly exemplified what I was feeling. Was that your intention, like you were working out emotional issues for yourselves through the music?
CS: That’s fantastic. I mean, I don’t think it was an intention to help other people. I think we were helping ourselves at the time.
RO: It just turned out that we were good at it. I agree, there were a lot of our peers, I struggled to really know what they’re talking about. And there were some bands around which were extremely passionate, bands from Joy Division to U2 as well. I think that it just so happens that being in a duo with Curt meant that it seems right, absolutely essential that we sort of look at what’s going on inside us. And I don’t quite know how the psychology works. Right at the beginning, we were united around a thing called primal theory after Arthur Jonov, who wrote Primal Scream. We both felt a little bit like victims of our childhoods, victims of our parents. The wonderful thing about primal theory is it says in a sense, the child is born a blank slate. The child is innocent. And therefore, for us, it was perfect because we could just blame our parents for everything.
AVC: Well, that explains that “Mothers Talk” video.
RO: Yeah. And I don’t know, maybe it was that zeitgeist at the time, the atmosphere of the early ’80s, doom and gloom and there was a kind of oppressive depressive atmosphere. But yeah, we’d been making pop music and been in bands since we were 14 years old, but all of a sudden the songs started taking on new meaning. They were on a completely different level and the blending of that, the feeling and the emotional honesty with the very clever and contemporary electronic arrangements made it very powerful. Although, some people were still sort of uneasy with us going there. But it made for a powerful and rather and durable form of music.
AVC: Moving then to Songs From The Big Chair seems like a poppier transformation, and an extremely successful one for you guys.
RO: What you’re seeing through our work is the development of the ego. Because say, for instance, you look at The Hurting and see this insecurity of adolescence where you’re leaving your childhood behind and you’re struggling to become an independent individual and an adult. You can see the progress of the ego as Songs From The Big Chair starts to be a little more outward-looking. We still have similar themes to that, I think, but they can be taken in more of the political social context. And then that journey from through the ego and the growth of the ego can be seen summed up perfectly on the cover of Seeds Of Love, with the huge sun there representing the spiritual ego.
AVC: And then you became super-popular through the advent of MTV and the music video world. What was that like for you?
CS: Once we became very popular, I don’t think it was the most enjoyable time of our careers, to be honest. I think we get a bigger pleasure out of making things that are more meaningful and when it speaks to us. When you suddenly become this big pop star, it doesn’t speak to you as an individual and you become this kind of icon…
CS: …and product. And I don’t think I was ever comfortable with that particularly.
AVC: So touring and stuff, was that difficult for you then?
CS: The touring was okay. I mean, we’ve gotten much better at it now; we’re much better by now than we were back then. I mean, in a weird way, we’re both kind of homebodies, so we’re most comfortable at home and not being recognized and not being idealized. So in that sense, I find it quite uncomfortable, I think.
AVC: It’s exciting how this latter part of your career has really taken off. You guys had a falling out in the early ’90s, so how did you get back together and what was that like?
RO: Well, there are lots of things. Obviously, a lot of this is kind of fate and destiny, and we don’t really know sometimes what’s driving us. We get these senses and imaginings from the back of our brain. We realize that the change is needed. We realize that a new adventure is waiting for us. So for me personally, I made three albums and produced an album, so I did the [Tears For Fears albums] Elemental and Raoul And the Kings of Spain, [solo album] Tomcats Screaming Outside and produced the Emiliana Torrini album Love In The Time of Science, which I love the album. These things naturally happen.
Then I was managerless again, went into freefall, and started to get a bit tired of my own voice, my own shtick, my own approach. And I went into experimental stuff with trip-hop and drum and bass, and that sort of Bristol sound. But I think I’ve done it to death. I spent sort of nine years on this, and then it was suggested literally when my manager at the time was trying to sell Tomcats Screaming Outside, they were saying, “Oh, this is great, it’s really great. Can we get Curt singing on it?” I was like, “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
RO: So there was that as well. And you know, Curt and I still owned things together, which we bought in the ’80s and we can’t really get out of it. Well, we probably could, but we don’t. So we’ve always had to sign off on stuff. And one day, he just sent me a fax, saying “Here’s my number. Give me a call.” It’s like, should I, should I not, but I did. And we soon discovered that there was no ill feeling anymore. We soon discovered that we’d had very, very different experiences over those nine years and it was very refreshing and we were both a lot more adult as well.
CS: Initially, it was kind of tentative, because I think you’re wary about those things and things that you weren’t comfortable with previously. But we just went out to dinner. Then we decided after having dinner, we’ll go in and try a song. And we’ll go and try two songs. And then it just worked. Then you realize, okay, there’s something here and there’s something that happens when we play and make music together that’s bigger than both of us. Which is amazing. But at that point in time, I had to take it slowly.
AVC: The title track is like a love ghost story, very haunting when you’re listening to it. Roland, you’ve talked about this track being related to the passing of your wife, correct?
RO: Yeah. There are two songs on the album which were actually referencing Caroline, but they were written before she passed. She passed five years ago, but the 10 years leading up to that just got more and more difficult. And we didn’t really know what was going on, because if someone’s struggling mentally, you don’t really know what it is. You try all kinds of things, whether it’s therapy or pills, you don’t know whether it’s a phase, whether it’s going to get better and suddenly go away. But unfortunately, with Caroline, it didn’t go away. The end result was alcoholism and liver disease and all the stuff she was suffering from was literally because of the breakdown of the liver. And you don’t really know those things and if you don’t get a liver biopsy you never will. So they’re heartbreaking songs, written while while she was struggling.
AVC: The leadoff track on the new record, “No Small Thing,” is such an interesting departure for you guys because it’s so spare and it’s so different from your usual sound. It’s like an immediate indicator on this new release that you’re unafraid to try different sides and explore different options.
CS: I think our comfort zone is being experimental. I think that’s the one thing we discovered when we were kind of pushed to be more in the box or more commercial and modern. We didn’t feel very comfortable. Then when the [new record] came along, we’re like, “Okay, this is why we do this. We like to enjoy it.” I mean, there’s an enjoyment you can get from music that is second to none, basically. And once you get there, that’s your kind of sweet spot. I think that track, yeah, basically sums up the album.
AVC: Overall this album seems more hopeful than previous releases Whereas before, in The Hurting especially, the message was kind of like “this is terrible, but we’ve been through it, too,” whereas now there’s a lot of optimism on a lot of these tracks, like “this is hard, but things are going to get better.” You have this wisdom to draw on, that we all do as we get older.
CS: I definitely think that there is an overarching sense of optimism about the album. Without question. I think when you’re younger, you’re trying to work out things, so some of The Hurting we were kind of trying to work through childhood trauma. But now we’re older, wiser parents who know that, well, you know what? You’ll survive. And I don’t think the intentional thing was to make this album optimistic. I just think it feels that way.
RO: There has been a shift. I mean, as I said, I lost Caroline five years ago and have since remarried and am back in an amazing relationship, back in love. If you are struggling with your mental health, love is definitely the answer.
AVC: So good to hear. What’s also interesting about you guys is that you didn’t have a ton of albums in the first go-round, but your hit songs have really lasted. You still hear them all the time today. And then there are the things that pop up like the Donnie Darko “Mad World” cover. Dennis Miller using “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” for his show’s theme song. And you just showed up in the Super Bowl! You’ve really had a substantial cultural impact.
RO: It’s nice what you’re saying. It’s a big compliment. And you know, there’s a good side in the bad side to this. The good side is you have the cultural impact. The downside is that you’re almost a pawn of the gods, if that makes sense. I kind of feel sometimes that someone’s pulling our strings. And when a certain thing happens in the world or the timing is right? It’s like, “Here you go, guys, get back on stage,” you know?
This is one of the reasons why we’ve had to spend such a long time away from from the spotlight. It’s expressing the gods, popping up in culture and seeming suddenly relevant again. It’s quite strange, and I feel that that’s what happened with this album very much. The messages I was getting, subconscious messages that “You must do this album, it’s really important.” And when we decided to get back on the horse a month later, the pandemic started. So it was kind of like, “Okay, that’s what we’re here for.”
AVC: And your songwriting process together: How has that changed since the technology is totally different now?
RO: No, it’s changed a lot. I would say back in the day I was writing a lot of the stuff. Nowadays, it’s more shared. Curt has come into his own, I think, later in life as a late bloomer.
CS: A late developer.
RO: A late developer. He’s almost as tall as me now.
AVC: So Curt, you’re writing more?
CS: Yeah, you get more comfortable. I started writing more when I moved to New York, to be honest, and find my own voice. So when you try to find your own voice, the only difficult thing from then on, as far as me and Roland working together is, is where do those voices meet? So there are some things that I would do that Roland wouldn’t like. Some things Roland does that I wouldn’t like. But when they meet, there’s something special that happens.
AVC: And do you feel like this is probably just the beginning, so hopefully more records in the future?
RO: Well, it depends on the gods, doesn’t it? The puppet masters, if they want us to start dancing to their tune again. You know, we are merely servants.
CS: We’re certainly old enough to know that making plans is kind of pointless. You can make plans in the months ahead, but after that, who knows what’s going to happen. The pandemic may happen, something may happen, you know, so we have the U.K. dates and the U.S. dates and then after that, we’ll see.
AVC: But after all these years, doesn’t that kind of make this all mean so much more?
RO: It’s totally what it feels like right now. Absolutely vital. It feels like life and death. And that’s what’s great about it.