Interview by Thomas Mangano
For over 3 decades, Roland Orzabal has been a central driving figure in popular music. With versatile talents such as composer, producer, performer and even author, this artist’s unique inovations can be found in virtually every aspect of pop music today. As a co-founder of the 80′s “synth” sensation Tears For Fears, Roland created some of the most memorable hits of the decade which remain as popular today as they were then. We are very pleased to present his profile and interview here and to count him as a friend of the site. His career is varied and intensely unique and will serve as an inspiration for ages of artists to come.
LBFH: As a wise old artist looking back over the past couple of decades, what are your thoughts on the success of Tears For Fears? Did you ever think it would become as big as it did?
RO: No, not at all. It’s not something you can ever predict and I was very young when it all kicked off. Curt and I had been in bands together since the age of 14, but as 18 year-olds, we became highly attuned to the new wave of British electronic music. Duos seemed to be popping up everywhere. With the invention of the drum machine, it was suddenly possible to not be in a band, and that suited us down to the ground. But also that era coincided with the two of us embracing the writings of a Californian psychologist called Arthur Janov, the book, Primal Scream, being his best known. His theory that we are born a blank slate and that the traumatic events of one’s childhood shape who we become, very much resonated with Curt and me at the time. His belief that it was possible to purge all the negativity in later life led to our name, Tears For Fears. Hence, we had a few things driving us, and we would always joke that we wanted to get rich, get famous and get Primal therapy.
Our first album, The Hurting, reflected the sense that the child is a victim, the cover art being a toddler curled up in a ball, the songs being about isolation and loss, and feeling cut off from the world. But there was a dichotomy between the music, which was incredibly personal, and our pop image, which was perfect fodder for teen magazines like Smash Hits.
Of course, the next album, Songs From The Big Chair, was less introspective. The songs were loud and proud, shamelessly commercial, and we were very lucky to be in the right place with the right tunes. We became a global success, keeping Michael Jackson and Sting off the number one album spot in the US. We toured the world for around eight months, our management was keen to strike while the iron was hot, but that tour was really the beginning of the end. We didn’t release another album for four years, a period where I moved to London and, finally, underwent Primal Therapy.
LBFH: What did the eighties look like from the other side of the stage? Especially the way we used to dance, its OK, you can tell us now.
RO: Well, I kinda made a rod for my own back when I danced in a rather odd way on the end of a pier in the Mad World video, so from then on I had no right to criticize. I was a big fan of the asymmetric hairstyle (on women especially) and I still am. But the 80’s was a very varied decade and people tend to forget that it included Bruce Springsteen, Prince, The Smiths, and not just New Romantic bands with funny haircuts or androgynous duos.
LBFH: Some of the other music of the day explored spiritual, social & personal growth, but TFF catapulted that message to unprecedented popular heights. Were you surprised that so many fans resonated with your messages?
RO: Well, it was what drove the songwriting, it’s what gave me something to write about, and I was pretty evangelical about my beliefs. But, with songs like Shout, it could be taken a couple of ways, more about protest than anything to do with Primal Theory, which maybe inspired the song in the first place. Also, I think the lyrics did not get in the way of the melody; the message was subliminal and not necessarily key to the song’s success. People could like Tears For Fears without knowing what we were singing about, in the same way that people could like U2 without necessarily being a devout Christian.
LBFH: Can you talk a little about your creative process? From where inside does the music come from?
RO: They call it the muse, don’t they. I remember being given a month off to finish writing Songs From The Big Chair. Until that point we had only a few tunes, and we’d had a rather tricky period trying to hammer Mothers Talk into shape. But suddenly, there I was alone at home with only a Linndrum and a Prophet 5. It was bliss. I used to program up rhythms (mostly stolen) and allow myself to enter a kind of trance-like state. I believe there are a million ideas floating around somewhere in the ether, and those who are receptive to them, who maybe need them the most, channel them. Along with that, I used to really beat myself up if I didn’t feel inspired; I would worry, lose sleep, but eventually something would come. You really do, sometimes, have to instruct your brain or else it will just do the minimum.
LBFH: How has your use of keyboards evolved over the years?
RO: Yes, at one point I looked around the walls of my studio and could pretty much see the history of the synthesizer and sampling instrument. I believe we’ve used virtually everything from the very naive Wasp to the Roland 100M system. Then came the samplers in the early eighties: The Emu with its 8-bit 2 second sample time, and then, around 1986, the Fairlight 3 with its 16 track sequencer (63,000 pounds at the time!); that really set me free and gave birth to Woman In Chains so has paid me back ten-fold. But we were lucky because of the electronic explosion that was happening in the 80’s, every time a new keyboard came out (DX7, Korg Polysix) we’d jump all over it, as would a lot of other artists, and the pop charts for a few months would be full of the same presets. Very rarely you’d hear a band like Japan really manipulate the sounds and turn them into something magical and unique. Having said that we were doing quite a bit of manipulation ourselves when synthesizers were easier to program – hated FM synthesis. Nowadays, I have one keyboard, a midi-controller. Everything is done within the computer and almost all the old classic synths have been recreated in some way.
LBFH: As a producer, are you generally sought out, or do you like to hand pick what artists you will get involved with?
RO:I’ve never chased projects, or particularly wanted to produce, it’s just that some things slot in nicely with what you’re doing at the time. With Oleta Adams, (Circle Of One) we held, along with the record company, quite a few meetings with some very established producers, but time was of the essence and in the end it made more sense for me to do it. We had six weeks, we set up a live situation and I just sat back and listened. Get Here was Oleta and the band’s third take, with just one word that needed fixing. Easiest job in the world, with great players, a genius vocalist and an excellent engineer. With Emiliana Torrini, (Love In The Time Of Science) I was approached by her label, One Little Indian, probably more to give momentum and focus and to rationalize what she had. Again, it was perfect timing – I had been recording a solo album (Tomcats Screaming Outside), I had been influenced by the Bristol sounds of Trip-hop and Drum ‘n’ Bass; so my songwriting partner and co-producer Alan Griffiths and I were completely primed for what Emiliana was trying to do. Of course, once we started, the amazing songs Emiliana wrote with Eg White started to pour forth and it really was just a process of bringing it all together.
LBFH: Your interests have been cited as: psychology, sociology, astrology, writing & music these interests center on the mind and beliefs. Why do you think you are drawn to those areas?
RO:Mercury conjunct Pluto in Virgo! But seriously, as a young child I was very sensitive to the atmosphere in our house, especially my father’s mood swings. We would barely see him but we certainly could hear him abusing my mother while myself and my two brothers were supposed to be asleep. I think that made me aware of the darker side of life. At school, when I was 16 or 17, I was very lucky to find myself studying existentialism: Sartres, Camus, Becket, and I found it opened up my mind and allowed a flood of doubts to come crashing in; I began to ask questions about life, destiny, faith etc. And then I was introduced (by a guitar teacher) to the book Primal Scream. I devoured it and became quite evangelical about its theories of why we are like we are, why the world is as it is. When I was having therapy (Seeds Of Love period) I was introduced to astrology. Again, I devoured the subject, buying book after book, attending lectures at Regents Park College. I bought a program for my computer and for a while it became my party piece to tell people things about themselves, about their parents, about their relationships, just from a bunch of squiggles on the screen. But through astrology, I began reading Carl Jung, and he, for me, seems to have the most complete map of the soul.
LBFH: How did it feel to win the prestigious ivor novello award?
RO:I was surprised back in 1985 to win my first Ivor (for songwriter of the year). The management and band knew about it but didn’t tell me. So when it was announced, I really didn’t know what to say when I went up on stage. I just remember my wife heading off to the loo shortly before the announcement, she missed the whole thing. The second one was less of a surprise as I was living in LA at the time and was asked to fly in for the ceremony. It was many years later and I won it for Mad World, Michael Andrews and Gary Jules version, which had been the biggest selling single in the UK that year (2003).
LBFH: Did this in some way pave the way for writing a novel?
RO: No, it was social media that started me writing, a website where someone would start off a story and other people would add to it until it inevitably petered out. But then I thought, why not try and write a book. I then spent six years learning about narrative structure, working with freelance editors etc, learning the hard way. So when I started Sex, Drugs & Opera, I wasn’t really a novice, I’d been at it for a while.
LBFH: The title of your new book, Sex, Drugs & Opera, there’s life after rock and roll –is intriguing. One can’t help but immediately draw a parallel between the author and the title. How much of the author is in the books character and how much of the author is in the book?
RO: Well, the first book I worked on was a multi-character, gothic, country house mystery, and I kinda tied myself in knots with it. So, I was looking to write something which was a lot simpler and closer to home. When I was invited to audition for the ITV show Popstar To Operastar,it set off this scenario in my head, where instead of me doing the show, I could invent a character with a slightly different life, and fictionalize the whole thing. It made the prospect a lot more digestible than potentially embarrassing myself on TV. But, yes, the lead character in S,D & O is a semi-retired pop star who lives in the west country of England, looks a little like me, had opera lessons in his youth like I did; the first few chapters were pretty much as it happened – when I went for the audition – but the rest is entirely fiction.
LBFH: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of the story, without giving away the end?
RO: Solomon Capri is a semi-retired pop star who lives a life of luxury due to his wife’s windfall of a business. But now that the kids have flown the nest, cracks are starting to appear in his marriage to, former-fan, Jenny. When Solomon gets invited to audition for the ITV show Popstar To Operastar he sees a great opportunity to not only get back in the limelight but to maybe regain some of the swagger that attracted Jenny to him in the first place. In fact, so keen is he to win the show, he secretly employs an 83 year old opera coach who lives on a freezing Dutch barge on the Kennet and Avon Canal with his wheelchair-bound wife Tilda. But through his relationship with the wily old man and a set of misadventures involving women, drugs, the ghost of his former guitarist, and an operatic busker, Solomon’s life is changed forever.
LBFH: Like music that goes in unplanned directions, did the destiny of Solomon take unexpected twists and turns as you wrote him?
RO: As Solomon is the lead character in a romantic comedy, he had to be slightly hapless but kind and generous, so that the reader would feel for him. Once all the characters were in place, I pretty much knew where to go with it. I quickly (for me anyway) wrote a short first draft and sent it to a guy called Tom Bromley, who I’d worked with before. I needed to know if I was wasting my time or not. Anyway, he really loved the idea but told me to change the ending, so the only unexpected twist came to me as a piece of advice and that’s all I can tell you.
LBFH: Do the characters you create teach you something about yourself?
RO: I’m not sure if they teach you anything about yourself, they’re more like exaggerated representations of who you are, or elements within your personality. For instance, Dr Eugene Sparks, the stern opera coach, is a kind of Saturnian figure, someone who takes control and does not suffer fools gladly; you’d have to ask the members of the bands I’ve MD’ed if there’s any similarity there.
LBFH: Where do you hope the story will take the reader?
RO: Hopefully, it will make people laugh and gain some insight into the life of a, um, wizened pop star.
LBFH: What has been the general reaction to this project is the world ready to know you as a writer?
RO: The reviews have been pretty good, but as it’s exclusive to Amazon at the moment, that’s the only thing I can go by. A lot of fans have reached out to me and expressed their enthusiasm via social media sites and I’ve enjoyed the interaction greatly. Someone even put together a Spotify playlist which contains all the music mentioned in the book.
LBFH: What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome while writing this book?
RO: To start with, you cannot submit a manuscript to a publisher unless you have a literary agent, and finding a literary agent who likes your book is a task in itself. Some ask to be sent three pages (!?), some ask for the first three chapters, some are happy to accept by email, others insist it has to be a hard copy. Then there’s the response time; the record response time from one agent was 8 months! There I was on the loo in Lombok, Indonesia, when my phone beeped and it was an agent in London finally saying no. Luckily, one agent did like it, so the next hurdle is submitting to publishers. Now this takes an age. In the end, because the book was reliant on certain events being close enough to the year in which the book is set, I decided to e-publish it instead, just get it out there before it becomes less relevant.
LBFH: Are the disciplines of a musician in line with the disciplines of a writer?
RO: I think if you have the capacity to spend hours at a time moving notes incrementally while programming drums, then the discipline of writing should come naturally. Ultimately, it’s about imagination; you imagine tunes, you imagine scenes in a book, but the structure of a novel is much harder to learn than the structure of a three and a half minute pop song.
LBFH: How did you move past the dry periods?
RO: Took a shower? No, seriously, there weren’t any with this book.
LBFH: How can readers find your book?
Link Provided Here: Amazon
LBFH: What’s next for you?
RO: A new Tears For Fears album. We’ve been working on it in dribs and drabs but now we’ve signed with a major record company, the focus is there, and I’m really looking forward to finishing it.
LBFH: We like to pass on the experience of our guests to the readers for inspiration. What would you say to artists who are looking to make a career in music and the arts?
RO: As Joseph Campbell once said, always follow your bliss. I think it’s really important nowadays because the music industry is harder to penetrate than it once was. We got signed to a major label back in 1981 from two songs on a cassette, I’m not sure it’s as easy as that anymore. Social media seems to be key these days to getting your message out there.
LBFH: From your perspective, what did it take for you to be successful?
RO: Firstly, luck, then a lot of hard work, not looking back but focusing on the next project.
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com