[live review + q&a] Fanfarlo at Brighton Music Hall

From left: Amos Memon, Leon Beckenham, Simon Balthazar, Cathy Lucas, and Justin Finch.

By the time I arrive at Brighton Music Hall in Allston yesterday for a pre-show chat, London-based indie-pop-punk outfit FANFARLO are running a little late. The musicians are onstage, bundled in thick knit scarves and jackets, politely addressing the sound tech in quiet English accents. They're surrounded by a mess of instruments, and switch between them effortlessly as they power through a few songs for soundcheck.

A few hours later, in a considerably less empty room, those same accents are making every man, woman, and child in the vicinity swoon violently. Front-man and founder Simon Balthazar -- a Londoner by way of Sweden, and a vague Benedict Cumberbatch look-a-like -- shades his eyes from the stage lights, looks into the crowd, and says, "Wow. Thank you so much." Screaming ensues.

After a trippy, finger-picking-and-synth-filled opening by Chicago band Young Man, Fanfarlo took to the stage and threw out a staggeringly confident and comfortable hour-long set. The mix of debut and sophomore album selections (their latest record, Rooms Filled With Light, was released February 28), was an intelligent blend of their best songs, and an unabashed introduction to their new ones. The music is earnest and effortless, with just a tinge of Bloc Party-esque edge and experimental melodies. Cathy Lucas' violin slams right into your chest with a direct and shocking sweetness, and Leon Beckenham's brassy and reliable trumpet was a crowd favorite all evening.

Balthazar and I perched on a pool table before the crowd arrived and talked inspiration, science fiction, and 19th century Parisian hipsters.

[He gestures to the Big Buck Hunter console in the corner, as it flashes images of terrified gazelle and safari animals sprinting through tall grass]
That is just so, so strange. You really only see that in America.

You know, I broke up with my first boyfriend because he loved that game.
[laughs] We definitely don't have anything like that in U.K. bars. Such a weird thing!

Agreed. So, how have things evolved since the first album?
The main difference for us, is that the first record, like a lot of people's first records, the process was very delayed in an unfocused kind of way. We'd been trying to get an album together for a long time and hoping a label would pick us up and playing tiny shows and releasing limited singles, and then we eventually did it, but by that time, the songs were already kind of old to us. This record, it was very much a matter of, we stopped touring, we sat down, wrote a record, and recorded it six months later. It was very much a structured process. That's definitely a much better way to do it... [laughs] It means it's still reasonably fresh to us, even though as soon as you go out on the road, it's all about perfecting it. You find little ways of doing it differently each night.

Is there a general theme or idea behind Rooms Filled With Light?
In the sense that there is a sort of conceptual theme behind all the songs, I guess they all sort of deal with how people try to find meaning in life, and how they try to build some sort of structure. Musically, I think it's a lot more about structure and cyclical things and space and geometry. I think the first record came from a folklore ghost story kind of place. Almost a magical realism type of place. In one sense, it's a continuation of the same theme. I just feel that I'm not very interested in writing about the small things.

The big questions?
Well, maybe not the big questions, because I suppose that sounds a bit pretentious. I don't think we'll ever write a gushy break-up song, you know? I like music being a bit like science fiction.  That is to say, interesting on two levels. Interesting on a literal level, and also on a poetic and metaphorical level as well.

The whole diversity of instrument selection is kind of a thing now for indie rock bands, isn't it? Glockenspiels as far as the eye can see. How do you set yourself apart?
I actually got really annoyed when I realized that! We were never thinking of it as a gimmick. For me, writing and arranging really comes from what you have around you. I grew up in a house of exactly those instruments. Cathy and I both bonded over learning to play certain instruments; we both learned mandolin and she was learning to play the saw, and stuff like that before we were making the record. So we did that, and then I realized, "Oh man, now it looks like we're just trying to do what everybody else is doing." But I guess that's kind of how the zeitgeist works, people get interested in certain things. It's always an organic process, and it should be.

What bands to you get compared to?
To be honest, I don't read anything that gets written about us. I think it makes you fickle. Music really has to be an intuitive, gut-driven process, and music writing is often very fickle to me. Even if it isn't fickle, I think your reaction to it can be. So it's very tricky territory, and I think it's much better to stay out of it. Some of us read stuff, maybe they're just better at dealing with it. Even when they say good things, it's like, "Ooh, okay, I'll do a bit more of that!" I think it blocks the connection from your gut to your fingers.

What was the initial single-only process like for you?
I had just moved over to London from Sweden and I was just fucking around playing shows, and we pretty much played a show before we had songs. Before there was a band! London is good and bad like that, there's always a constant demand for new things. But also, if you just want to do something, there's always an outlet. There's always someone who wants to put out a 7-inch single or put on a gig.  People are always up for it. But  it also means that once you start playing things, people very soon feel that they've figured you out. It's very hard to sustain that. I find that bands in London are, right from the get-go, are almost too savvy, if that makes sense.

Is that something you want to avoid?
I don't really like playing "the game" anyway, but I guess we're just a lot more comfortable and experienced at this point. We're mature enough to know what we're doing and not care so much about what other people think.

How did you all come together?
I think it was really that whole London music scene. I moved to London being really starved for shows, since I lived in a small town in Sweden. I would go to three or four shows a week, and always be out meeting people while I was working a full-time job. I was just kind of binging on that whole culture. So I had a few songs that I recorded, and did a few gigs with just backing tracks until I realized I should probably replace the tracks with real people. It just kind of slowly came together. Funnily enough, all of the people who are in the band had seen the band play before they were in it. I quite like that.

What's your favorite country to tour in so far?
The two favorites are the U.S. and Spain, in very different ways. I think there is something very romantic about road trips in America. I think touring in America has sort of a roughness to it. There is a very cool road culture that I like. In Spain, they just treat you so incredibly well. Maybe it's just what we play, but they have a very different culture with regards to music. The U.K. and the U.S. are very similar in the fact that everything is a little more grotty. Crowds in Spain are just always incredibly up for it. People take it very seriously, like it's a concert, not just a gig. It's like punk never got to Spain.

And, of course, why Baudelaire's La Fanfarlo for a name?
To be honest, it was just a book I was reading at the time, and I really wanted a name that was completely anti-hipster. I just didn't want to call it like... Crystal Dogs, or something. [laughs] In a way though, I guess Baudelaire was the fucking hipster of his time, wasn't he?
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