Brooklyn-based quintet Friends has been garnering their fair share of media buzz lately. They’ve been spotted rocking out at the world famous Reading and Leeds Festivals; their much-anticipated debut album, Manifest!, was just released last spring to solid critical reception; and their newest single, “Mind Control,” has been touted as “The Hottest Record in the World” by BBC.
Contributing to that buzz is the band’s striking frontwoman, Samantha Urbani, who chatted with me between Friends’ tour dates with Two Door Cinema Club. On the surface, Urbani is a pretty woman who exudes a relaxed, nonchalant charm. Dig a little deeper, you’ll find a spirited, creative maelstrom eager to redefine modern pop.
People categorize Friends as pop, a genre that has a manufactured connotation associated to it as opposed to an artistic one. Would you say that’s a miscategorization?
I definitely think we’re a pop band. The current, tragic state of pop music doesn’t mean that people should forget about great pop artists of the past or write off the genre’s future. Look at somebody like Prince, for example; he was such a genius who was in control of all aspects of his music, and he still made complex yet commercially palatable music with a statement behind it. The last thing in the world that I want people to call Friends is “indie” because it means nothing whatsoever. People really should be making up new genre names. There are so many new sub-genres in say rap or dance, but not in pop. I’ve been calling Friends exploration pop. Or ex pop.
Because when I think about pop music now, the perception is that it’s all based on a formula with the ultimate goal of being commercially successful. We’re making pop music that doesn’t have any particular boundaries in the style we’re playing, the instrumentation we’re using, or the lyrical themes.
You guys have had a pretty big year between sets at Reading and Leeds and touring with Two Door Cinema Club. How is all that sinking in?
It’s tough to have a perspective like that because it was all stuff we had never really heard of before. I had actually never heard of Two Door Cinema Club before we were asked to do this tour, but the venues we’ve been playing are huge and [Two Door Cinema Club] is great to play with. This year just happens to be one where I’m doing this particular thing, but I’ve had crazy, eventful years every year of my life. People don’t want to interview me about those other years.
Let’s talk about those other years. Describe your most exciting year not related to Friends.
I was 19. I wasn’t in school at the time – I was working full time in Connecticut – and I decided I just wanted to drive away by myself and be a nomadic adventurer. I saved some money and drove cross country by myself. I stopped at all these small towns that would be deemed culturally irrelevant for a “hip” teen. I wanted to meet weird people so I befriended random old people, homeless people, stuff like that. I did that for about 3 months in that year. I find great value and great education in every memorable experience that I’ve had. It’s a little overwhelming to think about it all, but I know it has an impact on what I’m doing now.
What’s the story behind the album title Manifest!?
The exclamation point is there because it’s a command. It’s telling people that everything they want already exists. It’s also refers to how the band came together so effortlessly at first. We were all together in the same apartment wanting to do the same thing at the same time, and it just felt like a manifestation of a desire rather than a planned out thing.
Almost like fate in a sense.
Totally. But knowing that you can control fate. If you set an intention for what you want to happen and if you line up your life in such a way, it will go where you want it to. People fool themselves into thinking they’re satisfied with things that aren’t actually fulfilling them.
As far as the album goes, you guys have an effortlessly cool sound — it’s very laid-back and the tracks don’t sound particularly overwrought. Is that indicative of the recording process?
Nope! [LAUGHS] The recording process was sometimes really fun, and we definitely had moments where we’d all be laughing and having a great time, but other times it was really insanely difficult, probably because of the interpersonal dynamic at the time and also as a result of feeling the stress of deadlines with label and management. It wasn’t the most effortless recording experience by any means. There was definitely a lot of trial and error.
Are there any songs on the album that are particularly meaningful for you?
Absolutely, yes. ”Ideas On Ghosts” is a song that I really like. It was the first song out of any of those songs on the album that I wrote, and I had no intention of turning it into song played by a band. The initial recording was half the length, very melancholy, and more “pretty” in sound. It was actually one of the most inspiring tracks, and it was a huge catalyst for me to start recording my songs. The lyrics are meaningful to me because they’re all about death, the acceptance of death, the disbelief in death, and thinking about myself dying. I think about that all the time.
Pretty heavy stuff for a pop band.
Totally, yeah. I also really like the lyrics of “A Thing Like This” and “Ruins.” Seeing people singing along to those songs and identifying with those lyrics, that, to me, is so much more meaningful than the fact that we played at any particular festival or toured with any particular band.
Does your background in visual art translate to your music and vice versa?
My art was very interactive. I liked mechanical installations that you could touch and move around, and I think that translates to our live shows. One of the main goals of art is to teach people, not just to create a spectacle of narcissism around yourself. For me to want be on stage means that I want people to engage with me, not just look at me, and it’s the same with my visual art — it was never just a masturbatory showing of how I had conceptualized something or how good I had gotten at drawing a particular thing. It was always about how I could get someone thinking and feeling inspired.
On a related note, I know you played a pretty big part in the direction of the music videos.
Totally. Particularly with “I’m His Girl.” ”Mind Control” was my concept, but the director kind of took it and watered it down and focused on it being really cinematic rather than conceptual. It came out fine, but at the time I was really pissed because I knew that my idea was actually better than the director’s idea. I had a really hard time compromising and letting him take over, but we were busy with a million other things at the time, so I couldn’t really take on that project. But “I’m His Girl” came out really nice; I’m really happy with that one.
Be sure to catch Friends tomorrow when they open for Two Door Cinema Club at The Hollywood Palladium! Tickets are still available.
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