Deathwish that brings out the best of Friends
Near the top of the bill at Field Day and one of the BBC's Sounds of 2012, the group should be in raptures – but, they tell Gillian Orr, they have a morbid streak, too
Friends are finding themselves amused as they order lunch at a posh members' club in London; crab ravioli, swordfish, and scallop tartare are all requested before the New Yorkers collapse in giggles. "Sorry, every once in a while, there are these little moments that I have to laugh at the absurdity of what's going on," says their lead singer, Samantha Urbani. "I'm really getting a kick out of it."
"We're all broke," chimes in multi-instrumentalist Matthew Molnar. "I can barely take the subway out of my neighbourhood when I'm home, I'm that broke. It is weird to have that dichotomy. You're home and you're broke and then you come somewhere like this."
Today you'll find them in their more natural habitat, far away from over-priced seafood and plush interiors, onstage at Field Day in Victoria Park, east London. Then, on Monday, the band release their much anticipated debut album, Manifest! It's been a busy few months for them. Since breaking out last autumn with the sassy track "I'm His Girl", the quintet, all in their twenties, went on to be the only act on an independent label to be included in the BBC Sound of 2012.
"It didn't mean anything to us at the time," notes Urbani. "But it was a validating thing that people were actually noticing what we were doing and putting it on a level with more mainstream or conventional stuff."
Conventional they are not. This is a band who tattoo their fans, say that playing a show sponsored by a popular shoe company brought about an "existential ethical crisis", and would change the world by banning alcohol and encouraging the use of hallucinogenics instead.
Formed in 2010 after a case of bed bugs forced bassist Lesley Hann and drummer Oliver Duncan to move in with Urbani, they went on to invite their friends Molnar and guitarist Nikki Shapiro to join the band. "I asked if they wanted to hear the demos I'd been working on because I knew they were amazing musicians," explains Urbani. "Everyone was like, 'yeah these are pretty cool, let's see what we can do", so we practised the next day and we got four songs down in a few hours and everyone just had a really good feeling about it; that it was something very special. We practised every day after that for five days straight and we had a show on the sixth day."
Their percussion-heavy music flits between genres, covering indie-pop, funk and disco. At times they sound like they're from the Eighties, at others completely modern. There's no doubt that Urbani is the secret weapon, bringing an alluring stage presence to the band, and oozing charisma. There's a strength to her too; "I'm His Girl" is about having independence and confidence in relationships.
"It's a love song that is empowering rather than needy or self deprecating or angry," she says. "I think a lot of people are really appreciating that and I'm glad because I think there needs to be more of that."
Making a statement is important to the band; they would hate to be dismissed as hollow or accused of being style over substance. "One thing that I think is really cool is to create a sense of joy and empowerment," enthuses Urbani. "But not just with a message of jubilant positivity – we have a song about death and anticipating it called "Ideas on Ghosts", but it's a dance song so you reach this level of cathartic movement and energised dancing, but with a sense of awareness of all the negativity and all of the sadness and all of the spectrum of human feelings. I think it's really cool because a lot of dance songs are just sexy come-ons. This is thinking persons' pop music, I hope." There's even a rowdy anthem about getting sleazed on by men in the street, "Va Fan Gor Du", that they usually close their live sets with.
For a band with such an eclectic sound, their influences and heroes are similarly wide-ranging. The Jackson 5, Germs, Adam and the Ants, Pixies and Curtis Mayfield are all brought up enthusiastically. Contrary to reports, they are not named after the Beach Boys album of the same name, although they say they like the band. "Yeah that's not true. Which one of you said that?" laughs Urbani. "That's been taken as fact now, just like me describing our music as 'Tropicool' which is like...", she pauses to do an exaggerated eye roll.
"It could be worse, people could think we were named after the TV show," pipes up Hann. Actually they called themselves Friends because that's exactly what they are, and "there's something really cool about being literal". But it also refers to their relationship with their fans. "Our whole vibe that we bring to live performances and the way that we started is very communal and cooperative and classless," says Urbani. "I don't want it to feel like there's some hierarchy between the band and the audience at shows. I like to go into the crowd and bring people onstage and I like to trade things, like if someone wants to give me something for a T-shirt rather than spend money."
Urbani is clearly a bit of a hippy at heart. She even insists that if she ever makes any serious cash that she will give most of it away. "I don't ever want this to be my 24-hour life," she says, gesturing at the ritzy surroundings. "There's so much money that people are just kind of hoarding in the world. I have a fear of getting involved with any corporate businesses and our songs being in commercials and stuff but I want to figure out a way to make as much money as possible in order to place it back into the world, to people who need it."
Friend's debut album, 'Manifest!', is out on Monday on Lucky Number. They play Field Day in Victoria Park, London, today
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