Tears for Fears kicks off tour: Exclusive interview with founding member Roland Orzabal

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Editor’s Note: Transcription of the interview edited minimally for brevity and clarity.

For the first time since before the pandemic, Tears for Fears will embark on a 40-plus date tour across the United States and United Kingdom.  Starting with the release of their 1983 debut album, The Hurting, hitting number one on the UK Albums Chart, the British legends have enjoyed consistent critical acclaim and commercial success while evolving musically throughout their career.

Founding members Roland Orzabal (vocals, guitar, keyboard) and Curt Smith (vocals, bass, keyboard) have always been the heart and soul, not to mention primary songwriters, of Tears for Fears. Friends since their teenage years and notoriously prone to squabbling—Smith left the band between 1991 and 2009—their signature brand of synth-infused rock with pop sensibilities and memorable hooks rewards the listener who chooses to dig deeper. Tears for Fears lyrics touch on politics, heartbreak, domestic abuse, primal scream therapy, and everything in between, while their studio prowess nods to Beatle-esque, accessibly complex production.

Tears for Fears released The Tipping Point, their first album comprised of entirely new material since 2004, in February 2022. While it has not yet reached the platinum-selling commercial heights of 1985’s Songs from the Big Chair or 1989’s The Seeds of Love, The Tipping Point has earned Orzabal and Smith their highest chart peak in three decades, reached the Top 10 in several countries, and topped the charts in the United States and Scotland. We had a chance to speak with Orzabal the day before the first show of the tour in Cincinnati, Ohio. Tears for Fears will leave Marylanders “Head Over Heels” at Merriweather Post Pavilion on June 19th. Garbage will support all US dates, and Alison Moyet will support all UK dates.

Baltimore Post-Examiner (BPE) had an opportunity to go one-on-one with one of the founding members Roland Orzabal. Here is that interview.

BPE: I’d love to talk about The Tipping Point. It’s the first new Tears for Fears album in 18 years. Listening to it, it feels like you and Curt never really skipped a beat, and looking at chart performance, clearly it’s resonating with people. How did you know that it was time for a new album?

Roland Orzabal: I guess until end of 2019, it never felt like it was a matter of life and death. But, for some reason, maybe the planets were aligning…something which I follow, by the way, and I got this very, very strong sense that it was something we absolutely have to do. I kind of set up a target for myself, a date to finish it as well. I think that until 2019, we knew we had an album but we knew that we weren’t particularly, you know, overwhelmingly pleased with it. And I just think that there were so many things conspiring to make it happen. I think ultimately, early 2020 when Curt and I got together, just the two of us, in his house, it sort of rekindled our bond, so to speak.  That was when we knew it was the right thing to do.

BPE: Over what period of time were the songs written? I understand there was kind of a need to go back to the drawing board, and I think you’ve started to speak to that.

RO: We’d finished an album in 2016, okay…that’s a long time ago, man. The record label, Universal, sort of sold us this idea of taking two tracks on it, putting out a greatest hits record, which would put us back in the public eye, and then releasing an album. Such are the shenanigans of the music industry. They took two songs, they put out a greatest hits called Rule the World, which did very, very well, obviously, and then they declined to put out the album. There were a number of management and lawyer cock-ups, I think, so we were left with this thing which was slightly depleted without the two tracks.

And we just sat on it for a while.  Meanwhile, there were lots of things happening in my life that made it very difficult for me to actually focus on music. But when we finally got back together to finish the record, we agreed on 5 songs from the 10. And then we reworked those…changed some lyrics, remixed them. And so, Curt was more happy with that. But strangely enough, you know, you ask the universe to show you the way, and the new songs that emerged, “Rivers of Mercy”, “No Small Thing”, “Break the Man”, they were just huge add-ons, huge positives to what we had. In the end, we were spoiled for choice, really. When we put together 10 songs we had so many others on the back burner.

BPE: Were you writing with the end goal in your minds of building a particular album that became The Tipping Point? Or did it sort of start to take shape?

RO: The missing piece was the fact that we, through pressure of the record company and management, we started off just looking for hit singles, so we recorded a ridiculous amount of very up-tempo, catchy songs, which is fine. “Mothers Talk” from [the 1985 album] Songs from the Big Chair is kind of like that.

But really at the end we realized we weren’t doing what we do best, which is sort of screwing with the listener, and introducing all these sort different songs. You know, emotional songs, songs of great meaning, interwoven with classic pop music, so that’s kind of what we were missing. Normally when you make an album you make an album that you want, that is representative of your life at that point in time, and then you search for the hit single if you haven’t found one. Luckily, we always had one.

This time around, we had all these so-called potential hit singles, and then we decided to go for the album tracks. We needed, as we were saying, we just needed some soul and my God did we find it.

BPE: Tears for Fears songs have really always told a story. I think it’s fair to say, and maybe you’d agree, that the message behind the story has changed as you and Curt have grown as people and the relationship, maybe has evolved.

RO: Yep.

BPE: But there’s always been a story. You started to speak to this, but what were some of the driving forces behind the songs on this record? You mentioned some challenges in your personal life, can you speak to that in general?

RO: 2015, 2016, while were trying to make and searching for a contemporary hit record, my wife, my late wife now, Caroline, was becoming more and more ill and more and more dysfunctional. And there was a real contrast, I think, between the, shall we say, the superficial search for commercial success and the gut-wrenching reality of my home situation. I was privately writing these songs, like “Please Be Happy”, which were far more indicative of what was going on. Then, you know, I went through the wringer, really, after Caroline passed in 2017.

A lot of people do suffer from grief, and I think it’s rare in the Western world that people deal with it successfully and succinctly. There are so many examples of mental illness during grief, so many examples of physical illness during grief, and that’s kind of what happened to me. I did have a bit of a breakdown, to say the least, so 2018 was an absolute write-off.

But you know, I had met this new woman, Emily, who’s from Colorado, and through my relationship with her, through some therapy, some rehab, I found myself again. But it took a long time. It did take a long time. So when we came together, Curt and I, I was in a better place in terms of being able to relate to him. I’d been humbled by my experiences and I was a changed person, and a lot of the anger that I was feeling with Caroline because she was an alcoholic was very difficult to deal with. A lot of that anger had dissipated.

But we were left with this journey, the journey, the descent into hell and the ascent out of it. The whole point of this album is not to dwell in the negative, but to find redemption, and I think the key track in that regard, is the song “Rivers of Mercy”, which also kills me because it’s so healing, you know, and it’s so optimistic and positive. So I think that’s the journey of this album, really.

BPE: Wonderful, thank you for sharing that. You know, “Rivers of Mercy” is one of my favorite songs on the album, actually, and it’s interesting, it’s a very personal song. For me it even evokes a lot of the cultural and human conflicts that we’ve been seeing in the US over the last couple of years.

RO: Yeah, well, that’s right. It was written against the backdrop of a lot of rage and anger in the world, which was understandable. But then, you know, the contrast for me was that in my life, I was trying to move beyond that, and I think that’s realistically the only thing you can do. If you are constantly immersed in feelings of anger and rage you’re just going to create the same feelings in other people. It’s the hardest task in the world to actually let those feelings go and start to communicate, to identify with the group of people that you so vehemently hate. To create a dialogue with them is the toughest thing in the world, but that’s the only way, I think, we move forward.

BPE: Absolutely. Thank you for that. So let’s talk a little bit about the tour. I think tomorrow is the first day in Cincinnati?

RO: It is indeed, yeah.

BPE: Will it be the first full set since summer 2019?

RO: Well, since summer 2019 in Europe, but we haven’t played in the States since 2017.

BPE: How are you feeling?

RO: Well, until yesterday when we actually got on a plane to come to Cincinnati, I was extremely nervous. Now spending lots of, many [laughs] empty hours in a hotel room I’m starting to already get used to the tour vibe. You know, the great thing about getting really bored in a hotel room is that when you get out on stage it’s like going out into the playground. So now I’m actually really looking forward to it. I mean, there are some technical issues going on right now, this is the first time that the lighting people have set up the rig and are rehearsing with our music, so we get to run through that tonight with them and tomorrow we’ll soundcheck and also play the show. I think we’re ready, I mean, there’s certain things you can’t rehearse. We’ve got a running order which involves new and old songs. But until we actually perform it in front of an audience, we won’t see how the dynamics work. It may be too long, we may have to cut a song or two, but we’ll see.

BPE: Are you most excited to break in some of the new songs?

RO: Oh yeah, absolutely. We played three new songs in January, when we were rehearsing in LA for the TV shows, and they came together, really, really quickly. The other three are a little more tricky, like “Rivers of Mercy”, you know. It does sound beautiful but obviously you want to get it to, the pressure is always to convey the emotion, as much as you possibly can. That’s going to be the challenge.

BPE: If you will indulge me a selfish question, is there any chance of busting out “Year of the Knife” [from 1989 album The Seeds of Love] on this tour?

RO: Ah…too late now because we’ve built everything, but that is a good song, I do like that one, yeah.

BPE: Is there a particular venue you’re looking most forward to playing?

RO: Well, obviously the LA [Kia] Forum [in Inglewood, CA] is the home gig, yeah, so that’s going to be maximum pressure. I’m looking forward to playing Denver, because my wife’s from Denver, Emily, and so my mother in law, my sister in law, auntie in law, and all those people will be there. I’m also excited about playing Boston because that’s become another home gig as well.

BPE: Lots to look forward to. So my final question for you, and granted it’s been a few years, but how much time do you and Curt spend together on tour when you’re not on stage?

RO: Well, we do a lot of band meals. If there’s a day off, we’ll get together. We try and find a good restaurant and treat ourselves. Apart from that, obviously, in catering, so you know quite a bit. But we do tend to ourselves because my wife is with me, so that’s my touring buddy.

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