Stories from a Pro: Ed Macfarlane of Friendly Fires

Torch Songs of the Tech-Pop Nation

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Brit dance-rock trio Friendly Fires has been burning up the festival circuit since 2009, when the band capped its first American tour with a much-touted Coachella debut. Now deep into recording sessions for the Fires' third album, frontman Ed Macfarlane opens up about playing live, the joy of sampling, and getting down and dirty with iZotope’s Stutter Edit and Vinyl plug-ins.

If you thought stage dives were the exclusive province of punk rock, then you need to see Friendly Fires play live. When we caught their high-energy set at Lollapalooza last summer, lead singer and synth/bass shaman Ed Macfarlane showed no fear, launching himself into an adoring throng of gyrating fans as the Fires' signature electro grooves (laid down by guitarist Edd Gibson and drummer Jack Savidge) coursed through the massive sound system.

"I think it drives our front-of-house engineer a little crazy," Macfarlane jokes, "because he has to ride the fader when I jump off stage. But it's important that I do it, because I think people tend to lose their inhibitions a bit more if I'm in the crowd. They're probably a bit more willing to dance if I'm actually there next to them doing it. And I'm quite proud of our fans. They're very polite and they look out for each other."

Big-sounding, beat-crazy and bombastic, Friendly Fires' music is anything but polite. Their self-titled debut yielded the hit single "Jump in the Pool"—a synth-washed throwback to '80s new wave dance-pop that surged with fist-pumping attitude, flaunting tastes of The Cure, The Human League and The Clash all at once. The song was co-produced with Paul Epworth (known for his work with Primal Scream, The Rapture and Bloc Party, as well as his recent GRAMMY sweep for Adele's 21), and cleared a path for the album's inclusion on the short list for the UK's coveted Mercury Prize.

For an encore, the band recruited Epworth and New York-based producer Chris Zane (Asobi Seksu, The Walkmen) to lend their atmospheric touches to Pala, released in May 2011. Both producers make their presences felt—Epworth in the bright, punchy mix of "Live Those Days Tonight" (the album's first single), and Zane in the icy, psychedelic dub textures that undulate through the hyped-up disco-dance cut "True Love"—but the real secret weapon behind the overall sound of Pala is Macfarlane himself, who worked closely with Epworth and Zane and did months of pre-production before recording began in earnest.

Most of that work took place with the band in Macfarlane's home studio. "It's actually a lot better than it used to be, even though it's in my garage," he quips. "We've definitely been building up equipment over the years, but I try not to buy too much. Sometimes it can be used as a crutch, as if you're feeling insecure about your music. I like to think that the naïve approach, of not knowing how things work and messing around with stuff randomly, is how you end up with some interesting results."

"I've always used Vinyl, even on our first record. I don't use it to make something sound like vinyl at all."

Macfarlane refers to a couple of iZotope's plug-ins to accentuate his point. He'd rather push a plug-in or a piece of gear to its limits, asking it to do something it wasn't necessarily meant to do, rather than hold to any semblance of a rulebook. "If I want to dirty up my soft synths or give them a bit of an edge," he explains, "then I run them through various plug-ins that degrade the quality or warp things to a certain extent. That's why I've always used [iZotope's] Vinyl, even on our first record. I don't use it to make something sound like vinyl at all. I use it to degrade the quality and make it sound a bit crunchier and less clean. I mean, I like the Universal Audio Studer plug-in, but if it's not quite as mangled as I want it to sound, then Vinyl will always turn it into something absolutely crunched-up." As an example, he cites the grainy, overdriven synths that open "Show Me Lights"—a thick slab of banging drums, intricately meshed arpeggios and Macfarlane's own skyscraping lead vocals.

Stutter Edit also figured prominently in the making of the sounds on Pala, but again, for reasons that might defy intuition. For Macfarlane, the plug-in is much more valuable to his songwriting process than it is as just an effect.

"Stutter Edit is part of our creative process."

"Stutter Edit is part of our creative process," he says. "I'm not one of these dubsteppy, electronica dudes who wants to do stuff live on the fly. I'd rather use Stutter Edit much more as a tool for putting in lush, weird ambient drones and then shifting them around and seeing what it does, and what order it puts notes in. That to me is like the joy of sampling—randomly mixing something with something else, and just seeing what happens. You can't plan it out. Maybe I'll do loads of vocal pads and then put a weird twinkly reverse guitar sample in, and then put it into Stutter Edit and just see what order it puts the notes in. A hook might come out of that, you never know. The preset patches are pretty solid, but I'll usually take that and work from there."

Probably most important to Macfarlane is some degree of user-friendliness with any gear he uses, whether it's state-of-the-art software or a vintage effects pedal. It's a philosophy that has its practical implications; Friendly Fires never want to be totally reliant on an outside producer to get their sound, nor do they want to have to sacrifice being able to work quickly just to try out a new piece of technology.

"If your life is made easy in the studio, that's rubbish," he insists. "The atmosphere that we work in is quite intimate. We all have our equipment set up, we're all crowded in this close unit and we don't like to be messing too much with the computer while we're working. We like things to be as smooth and fast-running as possible. To me, that's the joy of working in the studio. We're not one of those bands that worries about whether we can play something live. We really just go to town instead. It's like painting a picture. You slowly and gradually build up to a point where you say, 'Alright, this is finished.'"

—Bill Murphy is a freelance writer based in New York City, and has contributed to Time Out New York, Guitar World, Bass Player, The Wire, Remix and Electronic Musician. From 1996 to 2003, he ran producer Bill Laswell's Axiom label, distributed through Island Def Jam and Chris Blackwell's Palm Pictures.

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