MORE THAN A FEELING "The fact that it's electronic isn't the key thing," says Ed MacFarlane (center). "It creates something in me that playing four simple chords doesn't."
Their homonymous debut album in tow, Friendly Fires made news last July when they were shortlisted for the 2009 Mercury Prize, the English-music-industry accolade that brings with it £20,000 to one native artist or group. Although the Fires and their glistening dance rhythms were not victorious (they lost to rising rapstress Speech Debelle), it wasn't a bad year when you consider that 10 years ago these guys were covering Green Day.
"I'm not going to say that we were doing Talking Heads covers," says singer/synth player Ed MacFarlane. "We got into that stuff as we grew older." Once they grew out of playing pop punk at house parties, the trio — MacFarlane, guitarist Edd Gibson, and drummer Jack Savidge — adopted the mantle of First Day Back, delving into speculative Fugazi-esque hardcore (characterized by MacFarlane as "the artier end of punk"). "After that," he says, "we started listening to a bit more-interesting music."
At 17, he stumbled across the work of Chris Clark, an electronic musician from St. Albans, the same Hertfordshire town the band call home. When he shared this revelation with the ranks, they all agreed on a new direction. MacFarlane started using his computer to compose music, Savidge's tastes began to incorporate house and techno, and Friendly Fires emerged. And though the leap from frills-free hardcore to flashy dance-floor soundtracks might seem unusual, MacFarlane considers the transition perfectly natural. "It doesn't feel strange to me. I'm interested in electronic music, but the fact that it's electronic isn't the key thing. I find that a lot of the music is incredibly emotional. It creates something in me that playing four simple chords doesn't."
Despite the temptations of glossier production, the band went the homespun route in recording Friendly Fires (Beggars). Setting up in a garage, with minimal means, they produced an exuberant, gleaming stream of stargazing, indie-inflected dance pop. And the pop just barely outweighs the dance— the longest track is four minutes and change.
Also a far cry from their formative hardcore tropes are their songs' tales of being lost in a world of romance, clubbing, and drugs. "It's all about escapism," MacFarlane explains. "I like disco singers, and to me, disco has always been about not reminding you of the world you live in. It's taking you somewhere else." Considering First Day Back in the light of Friendly Fires, he observes, "If we were playing hardcore, I wouldn't be singing about going to Paris, that's for sure. Maybe that's why we never pursued that style. We had nothing to scream about. We were all middle-class kids."
Devoted to the dance floor as they are, Friendly Fires don't intend to turn esoteric. MacFarlane compares their latest material to Dangerous-era Michael Jackson: "That whole groove is incredibly funky." And what would their punk-past selves have to say about this? "They'd probably say, 'It should be more aggressive. Start screaming! You need to have a breakdown in this part. Stop writing pop music!' But now, pop is what I love."
FRIENDLY FIRES + THE XX | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | December 4 at 8 pm | 18+ | $15 | 617.562.8800 or www.thedise.com