Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal in the Big Chair: The SDE interview
Tears For Fears‘ classic 1985 album Songs From The Big Chair is 35 years old. To celebrate, the band filmed a ‘Classic Albums’ documentary (recently broadcast on BBC Four in the UK) and Universal Music are making available again the 30th anniversary box set that was issued back in 2014 (now already sold out on pre-order!).
SDE recently caught up with the band’s primary songwriter and vocalist Roland Orzabal to discuss the album that changed everything for him and Curt Smith…
SDE: Let’s talk about Songs from the Big Chair.
Roland Orzabal: Ah, that old chestnut.
SDE: Exactly. It’s 35 years old, can you believe that?
RO: Well, it seems like yesterday.
SDE: Does it?
RO: No, not really, no, 35 years… it could be worse, it could be 40 I suppose. I don’t know, it’s not really a massive anniversary, is it? I guess it’s the BBC special that has kind of putting in the spotlight again.
SDE: How did that ‘Classic Albums’ documentary come about then?
RO: I’ve no idea, they’ve been trying to do it for many years actually, you know, quite a few years. And I’ve kind of avoided it, I don’t know why… I think after the shows in England we did last year, especially the arena tour, I think it made it probably more significant, visibility wise. You know, the Radio 2 [In Concert] special put us back into people’s homes and so, it’s probably more of a talking point now than it was.
SDE: Did you enjoy the process of doing that; you know, being on camera, getting it together with some of the guys again.
RO: Well, obviously we were doing it in separate rooms and separate countries, so…
SDE: But you and Curt were there together, weren’t you?
RO: Ah yes, we were together, yes [laughs]. Yeah, it was a practice… what’s the word… it was test of diplomacy, I think.
SDE: What is it, do you think, about the album, that resonates so much with people? Is it just the fact that it’s got massive hit singles on it, or is it something more than that?
RO: I think… I mean, at the time it felt completely disjointed, that we were clutching at straws regarding available songs. We started off with two or three songs and bits of b-sides and within one month I came up with ‘Shout’, ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, and ‘I Believe’. And I think it was when we did ‘Shout’ that we really moved to a completely different gear.
One of the reasons it was called ‘Songs from the Big Chair’, I probably told you this a million times, is that it felt disparate; it wasn’t like The Hurting which was almost like a life work for us. Albeit we were teenagers. Hence the title ‘Songs’ because it just seemed to me like eight separate songs, and even the track ‘Listen’ was an Ian Stanley [keyboard player] demo and made while we were recording The Hurting. But I don’t know why… I think it was possibly the fact that we’d done our initial first demo’s in Ian’s house in Bath. And then he won a little bit of money from the publishing, we built the studio there in a bigger room, in his house. And I think it was almost like coming back to the West Country and even [producer] Chris Hughes had links to Bath, because his mum lived there. So, I think getting out of the huge studios and into this real intimate [setting], the birthplace of Tears for Fears almost, which was Ian Stanley’s house. I think that created this, you know, more of a calm but hot-housed environment. Plus, this massive input of new technology, like the Fairlight, the Synclavier and the Drumulator. We had all these cutting-edge sounds to play with and I think that the secrets are in the arrangement and production, because it really is superb.
SDE: It’s interesting that it was recorded in effectively a home studio, albeit you would’ve had great kit in there, because there is so much technology in the album and you wouldn’t think it was recorded in that kind of setting, necessarily, would you?
RO: No, there is a sense of economy in the record, which turned out to be quite rare for us, because you’ve got no sense of the opulence that was to come with The Seeds of Love, which was made in [commercial] recording studios.
SDE: Another thing that people will learn from the documentary, which isn’t necessarily apparent to the average person, is this relationship, between you, Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes. I mean, is it fair to say that the three of you were the creative engine behind the album?
RO: Definitely. Without wishing to put anyone’s nose out of joint…that’s definitely true. And it was a bit strange because Ian was really there from the beginning, he was the guy who offered us the time and the place to record. And then he was squeezed out of The Hurting, not for any particular reason and certainly [there was] no malice. But, yeah, I think Ian provided this huge bridge between the artist – which was Curt and I – and Chris Hughes. So, we had a very, very strong chain of command, right from the lowly artist up to the record company. So, we had us, then Ian, and then Chris – and their relationship was amazing at the time – and then Chris was a good friend of Dave Bates, the A&R man for Polygram. So, that’s, you know, the communication within that chain of command was excellent.
SDE: I think you and Curt have always been very open in terms of how significant Ian’s contribution was to the Songs from the Big Chair album. He’s obviously been well rewarded, because he’s got loads of song writing credits on it. But he was important, wasn’t he?
RO: Very, very important, yeah.
SDE: The professional relationship finished during the early parts of the Seeds of Love album, didn’t it? But have you stayed in touch over the years or is that relationship now in the past?
RO: No, he came to Dublin last year, he came to that show. I mean, he’s lived in Ireland, so we don’t see a lot of him. He made the move back in the 80s, the late 80s. So, he came to the show in Dublin and he came back to the hotel afterwards and we hung out and talked about the old times [Roland laughs mischievously here, a suggestion perhaps that this didn’t actually happen].
SDE: Chris Hughes, was fired early on, but then came back. It seems to be tradition to fire Chris Hughes once or twice for each album…
RO: Yeah, fire Chris Hughes as many times as possible. I don’t know why [we did that]… We were definitely keen not to repeat the experience of The Hurting; that was a painful record to make. There was so much attention to detail and deliberating over hi-hat velocity [laughs]. We wanted to move away from that, we tried a guy called Jeremy Green, that didn’t work out, then Chris came back in. He once again tore up the rule book, it was very painful, but again, if it wasn’t for Chris, I don’t think ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ would even be a song. He pushed that, 100 percent – I didn’t like it, even though I came up with the main body of the song.
SDE: In terms of personnel, the other person to mention is Dave Bascombe, who was new – he wasn’t there for the first album. [Hurting co-producer] Ross Cullum went off to do something else; what did Dave bring to the table then?
RO: First of all, Dave didn’t interfere and he wasn’t hugely opinionated, like Ross. So, it was a four-way… not a battle, but a four-way discussion over every element in The Hurting, whereas the balance completely shifted and to have someone like Dave, who is a superb engineer, getting on with his business very quietly – again, he has a very calm demeanour – and that, I think, calmed everyone down, especially Chris, who can be… what’s the word? [Let’s just say] once there’s an intellectual battle in the room, over music, there’s only going to be one winner, and that’s Chris! [laughs]. So, the best thing to do is not even go there. And the good thing about Dave is he is extremely practical and down to earth, and he would bring the debate down to a kind of ‘ground zero.’
SDE: One thing that always interests me is that you go on about The Hurting being this year long struggle in the studio, and then famously The Seeds of Love took an age, but the one in the middle of the original trio of albums in the 1980s, the biggest seller, was the easiest one. That struck me when we spoke back in 2014; you saying that it wasn’t ‘the difficult second album’ it was an easy second album, it was almost effortless.
RO: Yeah, it was, and I think again, that’s to do with pressure from Dave Bates, as we’d already scored with some hits from The Hurting. And he was – and this is probably an example to us nowadays, where we’d been sitting on an album for five years – his attitude was, “you’ve got a song, we’re putting it out as a single. It sounds like a single, we’re putting it out.” He was constantly keeping us in the market, and it was through that [first] single [‘Mothers Talk’] that we got to ‘Shout’. And then we go to ‘Everybody wants to Rule the World’.
So it was Dave Bates’ time pressure, flooding into Chris Hughes’s creativity and production pressure. I think there was so much frustration around recording ‘Mothers Talk’ as well, because we did Jeremy Green and we got back with Chris, and I didn’t like any of that, and then all of a sudden I was given this month off to write, once more in my own home, with a Prophet synthesiser and a LinnDrum [machine], and it was just a phenomenal release, at a good time of the year; spring or spring into summer. To [then] have all these songs suddenly at our disposal, worked out really well.
SDE: The weird thing is, you had all those big hits off The Hurting – three top five hits, or whatever it was – so you should’ve been coming into the second album buoyant with lots of confidence. But you had the bump in the road that was ‘The Way You Are’ single and then the early version of ‘Mothers Talk’ with Jeremy Green, so that must have put a slight dent in that confidence.
RO: Yeah, but we were transitioning and transitions are notoriously difficult because you don’t know where you are in that process. We knew we were getting somewhere else, going somewhere else, but we didn’t quite know where. It was daunting, but we were constantly working and there was never a sense that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
SDE: You mentioned ‘Mother’s Talk’. You ended up taking a year to, ‘get that right’ because I remember you saying, you really liked the US version of it that came out, much later. Have you made your peace with that track or do you still not like it?
RO: No, not really. No, I don’t like it.
SDE: What don’t you like about it?
RO: I know what I was trying to do at the time; I was always slightly obsessed with Talking Heads and David Byrne, the melodies, or lack of melodies that he used to come up with. And I think that’s what I was trying to do, I just couldn’t do it.
SDE: Apart from the first album, you’ve largely thrived as a collaborator, whether that’s working with Curt directly or Ian Stanley, Nicky Holland and then later, Alan Griffiths. Why do you think that is?
RO: I think that it’s partly economics… when I wrote The Hurting it was largely in flat in Bath above a pizza place, with an acoustic guitar; I was the bedroom guitarist, the bedroom strummer. I think Caroline at the time was working two or three jobs, so I was on my own for large portions of time, or even Curt would come around and we’d have a cup of tea and we’d talk about music, and I’d be actually writing, as he reminded me the other day, with him in the room, almost sonically picking his brain. I remember when he went to see [Bristol band] Electric Guitars support the Thompson Twins, when they were a seven piece, before they became a trio. And it was all this highly percussive, Talking Heads-inspired music and he described to me what it was, and I came up with a song that was in that mould, that’s called The Hurting. That’s the way our relationship was then, and I think as a young man I was a sponge for everything. My antenna was incredibly powerful. And I was, you know, depressed, without a doubt. And I had all these things going on; moving away from home and into a relationship, being faced with the threat of adulthood.
I continued to write on my own and the collaborations with Big Chair happened after my writing sessions. So, I would have songs without a middle eight, or songs without a verse. And that’s when Ian and Chris forced the issue, with pure creativity and it was blatantly obvious that their arrangements, productions and finishings of the song were superb. Likewise, throughout the years, if I’m working with someone and they play something, like Nicky used to do on tour, I would grab it. And Al [Alan Griffiths] was just a genius. He would just do these sketches, five a day. It was like he’d give me eight bars and I would go off on one. It was incredible.
SDE: And I noticed on the ‘The Working Hour’, Manny [Elias, the drummer] gets a songwriting credit. Is that because you felt like he was a fundamental part of the creation of that track?
RO: With ‘The Working Hour’ I used to go in to Ian’s place – he was splitting with his then wife – and he had this incredibly doleful piano piece, which became the B-side When in Love with a Blind Man. And at the same time, I was working on the verse; they were separate songs. So, it was difficult to convince Ian that it should be one thing, and we were doing the rehearsals for ‘The Way You Are’ tour, and I was mucking about with the guitar riff and going into Ian’s piano motif. , and we had a Linn [drum machine] programmed but it was Manny’s drumbeat as well, which kept it all together, so, that’s why he got a credit.
SDE: And with ‘Everyone Wants to Rule the World’, I mean there’s probably not too much to say about that record because we’ve talked about it a lot. Dave Bates got his ‘drive-time’ hit and it’s by far the most popular Tears for Fears song. But it’s also the least typical Tears for Fears single you ever recorded. What are your thoughts on that duality, that conflict? You had massive success, but it’s not necessarily what Tears for Fears was supposed to be about?
RO: Well, there’s the rub. I mean that track has just got a life of its own. It’s crazy, I mean, it was always popular, but then… I did an interview with Reuters or something like that, a while back, with this lady who went on Spotify and worked out that there are about 140 cover versions of that song; I mean, from Don Henley to Patti Smith, to Weezer, to Lorde, obviously. It’s crazy, it’s one of those songs, isn’t it? I remember from my childhood, there’d be songs like ‘Lola’ by The Kinks, it just, you know, it’s always going to be around; it’s a classic. I don’t get it and I didn’t get it at the time, I mean, I think it was the way that Chris made us improvise it every day, after our recording session, I would get on the guitar and Ian would get on the keyboards, Chris would be on the Fairlight and it soon became effortless. Every time we’d push up the faders, even if they were out of balance – because you didn’t have total recall back then, and nothing like we have nowadays with computers, Pro Tools and Logic – every time we pushed them up it was just, “wow”. There’s something intrinsic to it, you know, it’s just, it’s got a magic quality and so damn bloody simple. But yeah, in some ways there’s only one real Tears for Fears album and that was The Hurting. Because we went off script pretty much straight away, the moment we moved out of making personal statements to almost semi-political statements and then with Seeds of Love, very political statements… But yeah, I’ll take it, though. I’m happy.
SDE: Dave Bates did this canny thing in America, where he got the order of the release of ‘Shout’ and ‘Everybody Wants to Rule The World’ swapped around. I get the feeling with ‘Shout’, you perhaps get a bit more satisfaction from that being a massive hit, because it’s a lot more ‘Tears for Fears’.
RO: Yeah, it was very much in the Tears for Fears theme, based on The Hurting. Not a lot of people know this, obviously it was a big hit at Christmas, but behind the scenes there a bit of struggle to get that traction on the radio, probably because of ‘The Way You Are’ and ‘Mother’s Talk’. Dave had to do his very best bullying, I think, to make sure that it took off. Once we had it on MTV and once we did Top of The Pops, it started to fly. But it could’ve been a completely different story if Dave hadn’t been so stubborn.
SDE: ‘Shout’ was in the UK top 10 for a very long time..
RO: Well, it was a chock-a-block chart. I mean, you had Band Aid and Paul McCartney’s Frog Chorus [‘We All Stand Together’], ‘Last Christmas’ from Wham!, you know, those were the songs keeping us off the top spot. All excellent works, in and of themselves [laughs].
SDE: The Songs From The Big Chair tour was a bit of a gruelling exercise, wasn’t it? What was it about that tour that got to you? Was it the playing along with a Revox tape machine, or was it just the sheer length of being on the road?
RO: Yeah, I mean, you know, again still very much a home buddy. I found the travel quite difficult. The playing every night to the Revox, and I think there were a few drugs floating around as well, behind my back. Yeah, there was a bit of… everyone was dealing with the tour in their own different way, relationships in the band, between Ian Stanley and Nicky Holland were strained. Our first guitarist, Andy, fell out with the management and was changed half way through to Alan [Griffiths], which I think balanced the tour much better. There was, behind the scenes, a lot of bad things happening, and a lot of drugs. Typical ’80s drugs, typical ’80s excess.
SDE: When you tour now, is it different because the tours are shorter, or because everyone is more grown up – what’s different?
RO: What’s different is we have an increasing number of sober people in the band [laughs]. You know, the rider is shrinking… Nowadays we are doing it in luxury; even then we were one of the biggest bands in the world, but we were still taking a bus overnight to Biloxi, Mississippi, heading into a motel to try and get some sleep, and a cheap motel! Now we’re in the best hotels in the world, you know, there’s no comparison – even the odd private jet every now and again!
SDE: When those hits happened, when you were massive and you had ‘Shout’ and ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ topping the charts, did you at any point consider your future and just think “that’s it, I’m financially secure forever – I never have to do anything again if I don’t want to…”
RO: No, I didn’t. Because I was very much into the Arthur Janov and Primal Scream, and that for me was… I remember going out for a meal with Ian Stanley and his girlfriend and my wife at the time. And he said to me, “do you know how much money you’ve made?” And I didn’t really care because I wanted to do Primal Therapy, because that’s the kind of guy I was. And that’s what I did, and clearly it was the most important thing to me at that time.
SDE: Getting back to the here and now, we’ve had 15 years since the last Tears for Fears studio album. You did refer to it a bit earlier, that the new album that hasn’t come out yet. What’s the situation with that? Has it been scrapped or is it still going to happen?
RO: Going back to Dave Bates putting songs out as singles, a lot of people seem to be doing that nowadays because you can. So, we have finally decided to start releasing them track-by-track and it’s probably going to come out, I believe in April. We are going to release ‘The Tipping Point’ as a standalone track, and then take it from there, really.
SDE: What about The Seeds of Love box set?
RO: Yeah, that’s coming, that’s coming this year.
SDE: And anymore plans for doing some touring? Dates later this year, perhaps?
RO: We did two big tours last year and I think we are more keen to work on new material now, and then we’ll no doubt be going out next year.
SDE: So you’re working on new material? You’re not packing it all in, you and Curt?
RO: No, no, no, I’m too young.[laughs]
Thanks to Roland Orzabal who was talking to Paul Sinclair for SDE.
This interview will form part of the content of the SDE keepsake A4 booklet ‘How Songs From The Big Chair Ruled The World’ which you can order exclusively via this link or using the button below (these will ship next week).
Songs From The Big Chair and The Hurting box sets are also reissued next week, along with a Big Chair vinyl picture disc. Amazon in the UK now has some availability of both Songs From The Big Chair and The Hurting box sets, although we don’t know for how long!
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Tears for Fears
Songs From The Big Chair - vinyl picture disc
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Tears For Fears
Songs From The Big Chair - super deluxe box set
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Tears For Fears
The Hurting - super deluxe edition box set
CD 1 – The Hurting
- The Hurting
- Mad World
- Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love)
- Ideas As Opiates
- Memories Fade
- Suffer The Children
- Watch Me Bleed
- The Prisoner
- Start Of The Breakdown
CD 2 – B-sides and Remixes
- Suffer The Children (7″ Version)
- Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love)
- The Prisoner (B-side)
- Ideas As Opiates (B-side)
- Change (New Version)
- Suffer The Children (Remix)
- Pale Shelter (You Don’t Give Me Love) (Extended Version)
- Mad World (World Remix)
- Change (Extended Version)
- Pale Shelter (Extended Version)
- Suffer The Children (Instrumental)
- Change (7″ Edit)
- Wino (B-Side)
- The Conflict (B-Side)
- We Are Broken (B-Side)
- Suffer The Children (Promo CD Version)
CD 3 – Live Sessions
Peel Session 01.09.1982
- 1. Ideas As Opiates
- 2. Suffer The Children
- 3. The Prisoner
- 4. The Hurting
Jensen Session 20.10.1982
- 5. Memories Fade
- 6. The Prisoner
- 7. The Start Of The Breakdown
- 8. The Hurting
From ‘The Way You Are’ single
- 9. Start Of The Breakdown (Live)
- 10. Change (Live)
CD 4 – DVD – In My Mind’s Eye – Live At Hammersmith Odeon
- Start Of The Breakdown
- Mothers Talk
- Pale Shelter
- The Working Hour
- The Prisoner
- Ideas As Opiates
- Mad World
- We Are Broken
- Head Over Heels
- Suffer The Children
- The Hurting
- Memories Fade
Songs From The Big Chair – 4CD+DVD super deluxe edition
DISC ONE – Album with special cassette-only bonus tracks recreated
01. SHOUT : 6:31
02. THE WORKING HOUR : 6:29
03. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD : 4:09
04. MOTHERS TALK : 5:04
05. I BELIEVE : 4:54
06. BROKEN : 2:38
07. HEAD OVER HEELS : 5:02
08. LISTEN : 6:54
09. THE BIG CHAIR : 3:20
10. EMPIRE BUILDING : 2:41
11. THE MARAUDERS : 4:13
12. BROKEN REVISITED : 5:15
13. THE CONFLICT : 4:02
14. THE WORKING HOUR – Piano Version : 2:08
15. PHARAOHS : 03:42
16. WHEN IN LOVE WITH A BLIND MAN : 2:22
17. SEA SONG : 3:51
DISC TWO – Edited Songs From The Big Chair
01. THE WAY YOU ARE : 4:49
02. MOTHERS TALK – Single Version : 3:53
03. SHOUT – Single Version : 5:58
04. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD – Single Version : 4:14
05. HEAD OVER HEELS – Remix : 4:15
06. I BELIEVE (A Soulful Re-Recording) : 4:39
07. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RUN THE WORLD : 4:30
08. THE WAY YOU ARE – Short Version : 4:21
09. MOTHERS TALK – U.S. Remix : 4:14
10. SHOUT – U.S. Single Version : 4:51
11. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RUN THE WORLD – Running Version : 4:30
12. HEAD OVER HEELS – Radio Version : 4.20
13. MOTHERS TALK – Video Version : 4:14
14. SHOUT – Short Version : 4:03
15. LISTEN – Clean Intro : 6:52
15. INTERVIEW WITH CURT & ROLAND : 7:35
DISC THREE – Remixed Songs From The Big Chair (exclusive to box)
01. THE WAY YOU ARE – Extended Version : 7:37
02. MOTHERS TALK – Extended Version : 6:18
03. SHOUT – Extended Remix Version : 7:40
04. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD – Extended Version : 5:40
05. BROKEN / HEAD OVER HEELS / BROKEN – Preacher Mix : 8:00
06. MOTHERS TALK – Beat Of The Drum Mix : 8:54
07. SHOUT – U.S. Remix : 8:02
08. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD – Urban Mix : 6:06
09. MOTHERS TALK – U.S. Remix alternate : 4:12
10. SHOUT – Dub : 6:49
11. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD – Instrumental : 4:21
12. SHOUT – Acappella : 5:02
DISC FOUR – Unreleased Songs From The Big Chair (exclusive to box)
01. HEAD OVER HEELS : 4:14 Richard Skinner Session
02. THE WORKING HOUR : 6:06 Richard Skinner Session
03. BROKEN : 3:19 Richard Skinner Session
04. MOTHERS TALK : 4:05 Live At Massey Hall
05. BROKEN / HEAD OVER HEELS : 5:01 Live At Massey Hall
06. MEMORIES FADE : 6:50 Live At Massey Hall
07. THE WORKING HOUR : 7:31 Live At Massey Hall
08. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD : 4:19 Live At Massey Hall
09. SHOUT : 7:50 Live At Massey Hall
10. MOTHERS TALK – Early Mix / Instrumental : 4:39
11. THE WAY YOU ARE – Early Mix : 4:25
12. BROKEN – Early Mix : 5:38
13. SHOUT – Early Mix : 5:08
14. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD – Alternate Single Version: 4.20
DISC FIVE (DVD)
5.1 and Stereo mix
SHOUT : 6:32
THE WORKING HOUR : 6:31
EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD : 4:11
MOTHERS TALK : 5:10
I BELIEVE : 4:54
BROKEN : 2:38
HEAD OVER HEELS : 5:20
LISTEN : 6:49
DISC SIX (DVD)
01. SCENES FROM THE BIG CHAIR – Documentary : 1:14:43
02. INTERVIEW WITH PRODUCER CHRIS HUGHES : 35:00
03. THE WAY YOU ARE – Music Video : 3:57
04. MOTHERS TALK – Alternative UK Video : 4:00
05..MOTHERS TALK – Music Video : 4.49
06. SHOUT – Music Video : 6:31
07. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD – Music Video : 4:52
08. HEAD OVER HEELS – Music Video : 4:26
09. I BELIEVE – Music Video : 4:45
10. MOTHERS TALK – US Mix – Music Video : 4:52
11. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RUN THE WORLD – Music Video : 4:52
BBC TV Appearances
03. THE WAY YOU ARE : 4:11 Top Of The Pops
04. MOTHERS TALK : 3:48 Top Of The Pops
05. MOTHERS TALK : 3:51 Top Of The Pops
06. SHOUT : 4:20 Top Of The Pops
07. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD : 4:08 Wogan
08. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD : 3.35 Top Of The Pops
09. EVERYBODY WANTS TO RULE THE WORLD : 3.45 Top Of The Pops
10. THE WORKING HOUR : 4:28 Wogan