Interview with Friends
New kids on the block Friends have been making waves with their eclectic brand of good-time party music.
Hotly-tipped as one of the bands to watch this year, their breakthrough single I'm His Girl was named in Getintothis' top three singles of 2011.
The Brooklyn outfit take elements of funk, dance, pop and soul to produce a sound that radiates all the glitter and party atmosphere of a 1970s dancefloor - with none of the bad perms or chest hair.
Getintothis wanted to find out a little more about the band ahead of their Kazimier show, so we caught up with keyboardist Matthew Molnar to talk about starting out, pop music, and er, leather panthers.
You're at Field Day this afternoon, how's it all going?
It's going really well, we just got back from watching Savages, which was really great.
So how did you guys get together? I've read a few things about vegan restaurants and bedbug infestations.
Yeah, kind of! Basically, I was working at a vegan restaurant with some of my friends, including Nikki (Shapiro) who is also in the band, and also some guys who are in Darwin Deez. After I met Samantha (Urbani) I got her a job at the restaurant as well, so we started hanging out. We got to know Lesley (Hann) because Samantha grew up with her in Connecticut, they met when they were around eight years old. Lesley had always been in bands and stuff so we saw her a lot. Last summer though, Lesley and her roommate, Oliver (Duncan), got bedbugs. They really needed some place to stay, and the only person who would take them in at the time was Samantha, so they moved into her flat in Bushwick. Meanwhile me and Samantha were trying to form a band, and we'd already booked some shows without actually having practised. Samantha had been working on a bunch of demos which we all really liked so we played around with them for a while. We just rehearsed every night non-stop. Then after a few days, we threw this big party in her back yard and decided to play. That was our first ever show, which we played literally six days after our first band practice.
So the band started almost by accident?
Yeah, that show was literally at the back yard of her apartment. We had to bring our own PA, you know, and I had to run to the store at the last minute and buy an extra microphone. It was fun, it was really cool. We played at around 11, which is pretty late to play in someone's back yard in Brooklyn. But it was a nice group of people, lots of friends and whoever else had come to the party. Then at like one thirty, two in the morning, a whole other group of our friends showed up that hadn't seen us play earlier in the night. So they were like 'Why don't you guys play again?' And you know, the party was still going on, the equipment was all set up outside, so we were like, screw it, let's go back out and play the whole show again. It was awesome. We played a couple more shows that week which were cool as well. Right from the beginning we got a really good reception, people would keep coming back to see us again and bring more friends who hadn't heard us yet. It was really fun, and I can honestly say I've never experienced anything like it with any other bands I've been in. And I've been in bands since I was like ten years old! It's been unique, the way people seem to have taken to this band.
At what point did just hanging out turn into being in a band full-time?
Jeez, it all happened fast, I'd say since the end of last summer. I was the last person in the band still hanging onto my two days a week day job because I still had an apartment that needed paying for. Everyone else had already quit their jobs right away, months before. They were just staying on friends' couches, just bouncing around from place to place, living with whoever would take them. By the end of last summer none of us had places to live. We were all too busy with the band to work, we just wanted to record our songs and play shows.
Did things fall into place quite organically?
Yeah, they did. Samantha had been recording her songs for a while beforehand, which was sort of the genesis of the band. She had so many ideas and sketches for songs we could work on. I knew I wanted to be involved right away. But Samantha had never been in any bands before and she hadn't played live, ever.
Was it difficult for her to adjust to being at the forefront of the band?
Well, one of the reasons we played a lot in the beginning was to grow together as musicians and figure out what we were doing. I think that helped Samantha a lot. I mean, the first couple of shows she was so shy, she didn't really look at the crowd, it was all so new. But right around that time, I went to a garage sale with her on our street and we picked up this leather panther that was really old. It was sort of a stuffed animal, it was made out of wood or something and all covered in leather. We named him Darby, after Darby from the Germs - he was our public panther. That's a Germs reference, by the way. So the first couple of shows we brought him with us. It meant that Samantha was right there on stage, cradling this panther under her arm because she was real shy, it was almost like she was singing to the panther and didn't have to look up at the crowd. It would give her a few minutes to work up confidence and let loose, to become the Samantha you would see at a party or just hang out with. It took a while for her to be able to just do that in front of a room full of strangers.
So where has Darby's career taken him now?
He's still around somewhere, yeah. He's missing at least one leg. He came with us to a lot of shows. I mean, in the space of a month this thing went from looking old but in pretty good condition to having all this stuff falling out of it. He's definitely got fewer limbs now. Darby is a little worse for wear.
Do you miss playing the DIY shows now that you're booked for so many festivals?
Well, we play a lot, and we have basically been on tour non-stop for six months. We've had the odd week off here or there to record our album, but it all adds up to a huge variety of shows. Sometimes we still get to play shows that are pretty similar to the ones we were playing back in the old skool days of one year and a half ago. So it's still really cool when we get to play those low-key shows, it's just that they're not the only type of shows. I like playing a lot of different places, it keeps you on your toes. Like today, at Field Day, we basically just plugged in and got going right away. I had just tuned the last string on my guitar and we were straight in there, it was kind of nuts. Playing at festivals can be hectic, weird, and exciting in a way that's different from smaller shows.
Samantha also helped direct your first two videos. How important is it for Friends to have their own artistic input with the band?
That's right, Samantha helped edit our first video and co-directed the second one. Before she started in the band, she was a visual artist, so she was always working on art installations, sculpture, video editing, working on documentaries. I think in general visual mediums are really important for bands. It's important for us because Samantha already has the aesthetic completely figured out and it helps us to reflect who we are. We didn't want to work with a producer on the album or any of the artwork associated with it, because there's a lot of creativity within the band and we feel like nobody knows us better than us. We don't want to compromise that.
So how would you describe your aesthetic?
You know, I have no idea! We're a mish-mash, very much a hodge-podge, patchwork of influences. There's a lot of genres we like, but I'd say that dancey, funky, upbeat music is definitely a big thing for all of us. You know, R&B, disco, funk - that's a big part of our sound. But at the same time we're really influenced by punk music and more underground artists. We have plenty of songs that have R&B vocal melodies, but we're loose with them, flying by the seat of our pants. It's not the way Mary J Blige or D'Angelo would arrange those melodies! There are some great musicians in the band but we're not perfectionists about the way we hammer out the notes, we're more perfectionists in how we create the songs in a broader sense. It's funky, dancey music, catchy pop songs but with elements we've taken from a lot of places. We're a band a little more left of the mainstream, to say the least.
How would you describe the new album?
Our album Manifest has been in the works for a long time. We started the sessions one month to the day of our first practice, which means that we have songs on the record that have survived intact from how we first played them at the beginning, and other songs we wrote and finished in the studio right at the end of the process. We probably had about two albums' worth of material, but we had to keep reworking it until we had the finished record.
Are you looking forward to the Liverpool show, have you been over before?
No, I've never been to Liverpool so I'm really excited to come over. There are some great bands from Liverpool. I'm really a huge fan of the La's, so it will be cool to see where Lee Mavers is from.
Yeah, they cancelled their New York show, they're pretty elusive.
I know! One of my closest friends was due to open that gig with his band. I was really happy for him. I couldn't make it because I was on tour but I was like crap, man! I wanna see the La's so bad! Have they even played America before? I know they were broken up for a million years. Anyhow, I'm a big fan of the north of England, musically. The Teardrop Explodes, right? Echo and the Bunnymen? I'm really into that scene. Liverpool seems to have a pretty rich heritage all the way down from Gerry and the Pacemakers. I'm looking forward to the show.
So are we. We're almost out of time, but could you squeeze in your top 5 favourite pop songs?
Me personally? Or do I have to choose on behalf of the band. No, I'll just pick mine, screw everyone else, right? Wow, this is hard, I think it changes all the time. Get Into The Groove by Madonna, that's pretty classic.
Then maybe, Ace Of Base, I Saw The Sign. God, there's so many. I really love Jumpin Jumpin by Destiny's Child.
Then Abba. It's hard that I can only choose one Abba song, but I pick Take A Chance On Me.
And lastly, probably it would be Michael Jackson with Billie Jean. There's others way up there too but that would be the one I'm still listening to over and over and over and over again.
2012. First appeared on Getintothis.