Tears for Fears' chart-topping, career-defining "Songs From the Big Chair" turns 30 this year. To mark the pearl anniversary of the album that spawned "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Shout," and "Head Over Heels " the band is releasing a rebooted super deluxe version, as well as a six-disc box set featuring remixes, B-sides, and nine previously unreleased tracks. Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, who are currently working on a new album due later this year, talked to me about "Songs From the Big Chair," their breakup and makeup, the importance of social media, and their favorite apps.
What are your thoughts on "Songs From the Big Chair" today?
Curt Smith: I guess the first thing I'm thankful for is that it still holds up. If "Songs From the Big Chair" was recorded now, it would sound much the same. The production stands up in a big way that's gratifying all these years later. I don't think there's anything I would change about it.
What's the story behind "Shout"?
Roland Orzabal: The record company saw the potential there. I was just trying to write songs. "Shout" was just a chorus when I wrote it. Only when I sang it they thought it was a hit. They made it sound so big. It just went on like that.
Psychology was always a part of your work.
Orzabal: We had recorded "The Hurting," which was inspired by Arthur Janov, so there was all this therapy there in our earlier work. When we saw "Sybil," we were taken on a personal level, because she was in therapy and asked to sit in her analyst's big chair.
Smith: It's what brought us close together. It's why the band is called Tears for Fears, why "The Hurting" is called "The Hurting," and why "Songs From the Big Chair" is called "Songs From the Big Chair." Ultimately, it's why we stayed as a duo, because we were the only ones who agreed with each other on this. We had a band beforehand, but they all thought we were crazy to bring psychology into music when music should just be about having a good time. But that's not the way that either of us has approached music. So I think it's been the driving force behind everything we've done.
Tears for Fears is one of the few '80s bands that transcended the new wave era. Was that a conscious decision?
Smith: We knew that we weren't comfortable doing the same thing twice. Whether that's a question of pigeonholing yourself or just the sheer mental boredom of doing the same thing twice, I don't know. But our albums don't sound similar at all. Each time we're striving to do something different. We're always looking for new influences and new ways of doing things. That's just in our nature.
Orzabal: There was a change in the zeitgeist in England in '86 and '87. You could feel it. Raves popped up and the use of Ecstasy. There was a slight return to a hippie sensibility.
You two dissolved your partnership in 1991 for almost a decade. You reconnected over a routine paperwork obligation, according to Wikipedia. What brought you two back together?
Smith: After that, Roland's manager had breakfast with me and asked, "How would you feel about working with Roland again?" I said, "I don't know." My gut instinct was to say no. But I didn't want to say it immediately. I thought that if it's back the way it used to be, then I couldn't do it. My next suggestion was that we'd go out to dinner. We went out to dinner, and it was fine. There was no weirdness, particularly. We seemed to get on, and I suggested that the next step is to do a couple of songs together, and we'll see how that goes. It went well, so we carried on. It was a process of baby steps to make sure that both of us were invested, as opposed to doing it for the sake of doing it.
Orzabal: For many years I saw Curt as an open enemy. Curt and I finally talked, and I realized that he wasn't the person I had built up in my mind.
How would you define each of your roles in the band?
Smith: Roland is the main songwriter. But everything we record is based on a compromise between the two of us. The sound of Tears for Fears is a compromise of two solo artists working together. We're both lead singers, so in that sense you'll have two relatively big egos working together. That tends to be the battle, but far less so nowadays, because we have children and more important things that we have to look after than our own fragile egos. I think it works better now. Now, as we're older, we appreciate each other's roles far more than we used to when we were recording initially. It was more of a pissing match involved, and I don't think that exists anymore. Hopefully that's a good thing.
Who is Charlton Pettus, and what is his role in the band?
Smith: We've worked together for 20 years now. I had a band in New York after Tears for Fears. Charlton was the guitar player and wrote the songs with me. We've worked together since. We've scored a couple movies together. Going back to the fragile egos quote, Roland and I need someone in the studio with us. It's good to have someone who can give a casting vote. We need a coproducer, cowriter, and coworker. He's that person. He's in our live band, and he works with us in the studio. It's just having that voice of reason.
But based on your extensive history, is he biased in your favor?
Smith: No, he can't be. He's too smart and full of himself for that.
I know that a new Tears for Fears album is expected for 2015. When you record today, is it together or online?
Smith: Most of the time we actually are together. If we're apart and someone needs to listen to something, or we're sending files to add to something that's been done elsewhere, we have Dropbox.
What did the inclusion of "Mad World" in the 2001 movie "Donnie Darko" do for Tears for Fears?
Smith: It is one of the big reasons that we have a multigenerational audience. "Donnie Darko" was a big reason for getting us a younger audience, because it was skewed to a younger audience with the darkness and the angst. Because of "Mad World," a lot of people were introduced to "The Hurting." "The Hurting," to this day, appeals to that late-teen, early 20s, trying-to-find-yourself, teenage-angst kind of audience.
Orzabal: I had working-class roots and was reading a lot of books on socialism and Marxism and was angry at the government when I wrote the songs. I think the feelings in "The Hurting" are global and relevant to people going through adolescence. It was that brutal, emotional honesty that appealed to me. My son goes through the same thing, even though he's had a good life.
How about a song like "Shout"?
Orzabal: I think songs like "Shout" are as relevant as ever. Things haven't changed that much in terms of things going wrong and tragedies around the world.
Curt, you love social media so much that you've given a TEDx talk on it. Why are you such a fan?
Smith: One, it benefits me personally and musically. It's the new way of communication for me, and I look at it in two different ways. It allows a direct interaction with a fan base, which means the passing of information is so much quicker than having to go through a publicist. The other thing I like about it is it normalizes me in their eyes. I have never felt like a rock star. I always found it highly uncomfortable when girls would scream at you when they never met you. Through social media, they get to know me, and I'm not on a pedestal anymore.
Curt Smith talks social media:
Of the various social media platforms, which is your favorite?
Smith: I'm the most active on Twitter, though I make sure I'm also active on Facebook. You find most quickly that our active followers are on Facebook, because we have an older audience. When you do shows, you find out that most people were from your Facebook posting. People follow too many people on Twitter.
What are your top five apps?