We talk to the Editors about their new musical direction, Cormac McCarthy and the Bladerunner effect.
It should be said that the Editors are not a cowardly band. It should be said also that when they came to a crossroads before recording their third album, the critically acclaimed In This Light And On This Evening they chose to make a 90-degree turn; they picked the road that led off into the left field of popular music.
They could have carried on being Britain's premier overcoat rock revivalists, but have chosen to abandon all that for a new, austere, synth-heavy sound. When they first appeared five years ago with cult singles such as Blood and Munich, they sounded not exactly like Joy Division but very much like groups who wanted to be like Manchester's most gloomy sons; early U2, the Chameleons and the initial line up of Echo and the Bunnymen.
Despite grumblings from some quarters that they perhaps represented an ersatz, substance-free take on the post-punk sound, they proved a huge hit for a band with such a dour sound and scored two hit albums with The Back Room and An End Has a Start. So their new album, with its booming Moog synthesisers, Gary Numan alienation and early Simple Minds disco austerity is a brave move that could lose them some fans. It is however, in purely artistic terms, a left-hand turn that has partly worked.
The title track has comfortably transferred their lush, moody sound on to electronics with little friction. The lead single Papillon has already been clutched to the collective bosom of their followers and the album has at least two other potential singles: Bricks and Mortar and the Radiohead-influenced Eat Raw Meat = Blood Drool. The metaphor of travelling a road is quite an important one both for the band and for this album, however. Tom Smith, the band's nervy and simmering front man, was deeply engrossed in Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel The Road when he discovered he was going to be a father for the first time. The book (which is about to be released as a film starring Viggo Mortensen) concerns a father and his son walking the length of an American highway in a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic wilderness populated by cannibals.
Smith says: "It had a massive impact on me when I read it about two years ago. It did kind of cast a shadow over the writing while we were doing it. And a lot of the songs have that end-of-the-world feeling to them, I think. I read that book when I had things going on in my head. It's amazing-" When pressed on whether the book struck a chord with him - whether he worries about the future of the human race - he replies: "I think so. A little bit. You read books like that, you see films like Bladerunner and you see the city in that film and you see a very modern city on the edge, and there are definitely comparisons to be drawn with what things are like now."
But it is not just the dystopian vision of such films as Bladerunner and Terminator that have influenced the album, but literally how they sound as well. Smith adds: "We have talked a lot about the Terminator theme music since we started writing on synthesisers. It's very industrial and bleak and we kind of enjoyed the aesthetic of it. On this new record our songs seemed to be taking on something that we could connect between the two things."
The group's bassist, Russ Leetch, chips in: "We were using the Juno synth to write as well, which was an instrument that came out in the year that the film came out in . Those synths had those kind of tones that you might not get in more modern types of music." Smith says: "As soon as we started writing songs that had these sounds, we seemed to have this link to this bleakness and barrenness that was amplified because we weren't playing guitars any more."
The atmosphere in the room becomes as frosty as one of their gothic synth lines, however, when the subject turns to Smith's notoriously opaque lyrics. In fact, at separate points in the interview he gets annoyed when it is suggested that his lyrics are dark, and then again later on when it is suggested that they are light. He tries to clarify: "I don't really think of the lyrics in terms of light and dark; I would say that there is a confused, damaged love song and there's some beauty in the opening song as well as undercurrents of violence across the record as well. But is it lighter or darker as a whole? Well, that's up to whoever listens to the record."
When asked if his lyrical vagueness isn't a massive cop-out; a way of avoiding actually having to have a concrete message, narrative drive he replies: "Well, it's just the idea that the songs are based on a specific story or something to tell about each song. "There are songs that are inspired by specific moments or films or books but to me it's just kind of about using lyrics to paint pictures. Sounds really pretentious, but the things that people hear spark things off in people's heads. The idea of detailing everything that was going on in my head when those songs were being written bores me. Do I want to know what Radiohead songs are about from Thom's lips? No, not really. I want to listen to them and think for myself. Not in any great detail anyway, maybe a sentence here or there."
The Editors should be praised for choosing the difficult path on their new album, but it is a gamble that has only partly paid off. The album is weighed down by bombastic filler. It is hard not to wonder if this new direction will prove to be a much lonelier road for them to travel.