If you were asked to name a handful of artists from the 1980s that not only created great, catchy pop music but stood out as credible acts in their own right, Tears For Fears would undoubtedly be one of them.
Together, Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal have sold over 30 million albums worldwide, won awards in various categories, and performed to sold-out audiences across the globe, quietly casting a shadow over the genres of pop, rock, hip-hop and even electronica.
Tears For Fears songs have been covered and sampled by the likes of Kanye West, The Weeknd, David Guetta, Drake, Lorde, Adam Lambert and Gary Jules, to name a few, seeing their music appeal to several generations.
Recently, the duo released their first proper greatest hits LP Rule The World which features such classics as Everybody Wants To Rule The World, Shout, Head Over Heels, Mad World, Woman In Chains, and this writer’s favourite: Sowing The Seeds Of Love.
Here, Curt Smith chats with Cream about the current state of world politics, being in touch with his feminine side, the joy in performing live, and the flattery of being recognised and admired some 30 years since his band’s inception.
Interview by Antonino Tati.
Transcription by Chris Prindiville.
Having spent three decades in the music industry, are you surprised you’re still out there making music?
Surprised to a certain degree. I don’t spend too many hours thinking about it, to be honest. I guess if you were to get introspective, then yes, we are really lucky to be making music after all this time. We’re certainly very lucky to be making a living out of music after all this time!
You had a break away from the band and went out on your own for a while there…
For me, it seemed necessary at the time. It was more of an emotional thing. We had soared to the heights of fame at quite a young age. We’d signed to a record label when were 18 years old. Then songs from the album The Hurting became big, and it just got bigger and bigger. By that point, we’d been living in each other’s pockets for a long time, and fame had got to a level where it was intruding on my personal life. It was very hard to have a private life, certainly in England and in Bath, which is my hometown. I felt disconnected, and didn’t feel like this famous person at all. I seemed like a public persona as I didn’t feel confident in and of myself. At that point in time, I went through a divorce and ended up meeting my [current] wife Frances. We’ve now been together for 30 years and live in New York.
Back in the band’s heyday, there must have been perks that came with playing in Tears For Fears? What were some of the most joyous moments for you?
The biggest joys you get are from playing live in front of audiences, no question about it. At its most basic level, being a musician is about performing live in front of people and getting lost in the music; knowing that it lasts for that one evening and that if anything goes wrong, we can correct it tomorrow night. There’s a certain joy in that. Obviously, earning income comes in very useful, but it doesn’t really make you happy. I think playing live does.
So, it’s not necessarily the limelight you crave?
I’m not particularly comfortable in the limelight. I think I have a far too healthy dose of self-loathing to enjoy the limelight.
Regularly sharing vocals and instruments with Roland, did you two ever fight over who should be playing what or singing which part of which song?
No, it was normally quite obvious with how the songs were written. We both have very different voices. Most of the time we had both of us singing on the choruses. But the norm would be that if the song required a belting or loud voice, it would normally be Roland; if it required something softer, that would normally be me. We have very different vocal ranges and vocal styles. [For the record, Curt sings lead on Everybody Wants To Rule The World and Mad World, just to name a couple].
Your vocals and lyrics have been sampled by the likes of Kanye West, David Guetta and Drake. Then you’ve had songs covered by artists like Lorde, Gary Jules, Adam Lambert, and Disturbed. Does it flatter you to have songs sampled and covered?
Yeah, it’s flattering. Sometimes it’s more flattering than other times. The same with any sort of music: some you are going to like, others you’re not going to like. I think the ones I gravitate towards are the ones done very differently to the way we did them. You mentioned Lorde and Gary Jules; those are two examples of covers that sound even closer to the lyrical content than the originals we did.
Interesting. I was once chatting with Patti Smith and had mentioned how much I enjoyed her version of ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’. She said there was a ‘girlish’ quality to that song. Do you agree there is an inherent femininity to the lyrics and to the song itself?
Are you calling me a girl? [Laughs]. We definitely were more in touch with our feminine sides. We are not ‘men’s men’, per se. We talk about emotions, we talk about feelings, we talk about a lot of things that men of our generation didn’t really talk about much. In England, it was more about having a stiff upper lip, being a strong man, the head of the household kind of thing, which is so not who we are. So, in that sense, I can see where Patti is coming from.
You wrote a song called ‘Woman In Chains’, which talked about the subjugation of women. We’ve come so far with the women’s movement, and yet we have some people currently in power who are so backward in their views. What do you think about the current state of politics and the world at large?
The people in power now, who are backward in their thinking, tend to be older. I can see this in the US and how distressed I was when Donald Trump won the election. I’ve lived in the US for 30 years. And the voice of reason the next morning [after the election] was my 14-year-old daughter. I asked her if she was troubled by having a president who didn’t share her values. She said, ‘Not really’. I asked why. Her reply was, ‘Because we are the future. That’s just an old person’s view of things, but we are the future’. I knew what she meant. It’s the old-school trying to hold on to the last vestiges of power. I think that will change. I think this will be the last generation that thinks that way.
What about all the damage that can be done before the new generation takes over?
That’s for all of us to try and mitigate and to constantly protest and complain. And that’s what we’ve been doing. I mean, in America, how much has Donald Trump been able to achieve in his first year in power? I can answer the question myself: nothing so far. All we can do is stand up and make our voices heard. The more we do it, the more people will listen. The concern I have is that apathy will set in. That would be my concern more than anything else: people just accepting the current situation. I hope that doesn’t happen. And from what I see in America and in England, that’s not happening.
And with the contemporary democratic medium of the internet, there is no excuse for apathy, is there?
None at all. In that sense, I’m still optimistic about the future. I think we have to deal with this now. I’m not going to let my optimism get in the way of what I need to do now, which is to have a voice and make sure that voice is heard. But I’m still optimistic about the future.
There was a certain kind of poetry evident in pop music of the 1980s. Nowadays, you tend to get songs written by seven people that have nothing much to say. What do you think has changed?
That’s an interesting thing. I’m not convinced we’ve changed that much. There have been so many occasions where people have come up to me and said, ‘I love the music of the 1980s and ’90s; people don’t make music like that anymore’. But I think they’re forgetting that most of the music we were listening to back then was not that great either. I think what happens is that the songs that last make you nostalgic for that era. Despite all the cookie-cutter music – which, by the way, has always existed – I think there is still good music out there. I listen to lots every day. I could cite Twenty One Pilots; I could cite Cage The Elephant; or more abstract stuff like Rex Orange County. There are a ton of great artists out there; you’ve just got to find them.
Are there any bands from your own era that you still listen to?
There are tons. I still listen to Paul Simon, like I always did. I still listen to Bowie, like I always did. Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, The Blue Nile: all the good stuff from that time.
How about from the mid-1980s?
I can’t really think of many, to be honest. So much of that era was like a blur because we were working and on tour all the time. I liked Howard Jones a lot. His song-writing was great. And he was one of the nicest guys.
You’ve recently released a greatest hits collection. What are two or three of your favourite Tears For Fears songs?
That changes, depending on the day. I would say the best song, from start to finish lyrically, production-wise, and singing-wise, is Sowing The Seeds Of Love. I still obviously have a big soft spot for Mad World as it was our first big hit. And there’s a track called Secret World from our album Everybody Loves A Happy Ending, that I love.
Well, thanks Curt for taking the time to talk to Cream. We look forward to hearing new stuff from Tears For Fears soon.
And we look forward to making it!
Tears For Fears’ first career-spanning greatest hits album ‘Rule The World’ is out now through EMI Music Australia.