Tackling The Sophomore Slump: A Conversation With Tom Smith Of Editors

When your debut album is as successful as Edtors' The Back Room, creating an equally powerful follow-up is no easy talk. When I received my copy of their sophomore effort, An End Has A Start, it was instantly obvious that Tom Smith and his fellow bandmates not only made a strong second album, they pushed their already powerful sound to a whole other level.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with the frontman of this Birmingham, England based group. Tom Smith, the voice behind Editors, answered questions about the sound of the new album, tackling the "sophomore slump," working with producer Garret "Jacknife" Lee and trying to rescue laptops from flooded tents at Glastonbury.


C: Good morning Tom. How are you?

T: Good. Good actually. Thank you.

C: OK, so before I really get started, I want to congratulate you along with your fellow bandmates on making a fantastic sophomore album.

T: Thank you very much. We're quite proud of it.

C: So lets just dive in to the sound of the album. An End Has A Start, to me, is sonically huge. Much more than The Back Room, your previous album. To me it sounds much more like Editors live. Was there a conscious decision to make the album sound like you guys do on stage?

T: I think maybe not consciously, ya know a lot of people on hearing The Back Room, well I wouldn't change a single note on The Back Room, but a lot of people hearing the first record and then seeing us live, the comment we kept getting was that the music seemed to make more sense on stage than it did in the CD player. It's because it is four people when we play and for whatever reason it does sound pretty big. Even the songs on The Back Room sound huge on stage. That is just natural, it is just the way they are.

C: They definitely do. The first album did sound great, but you guys were a whole different animal in a live setting.

T: On this one we tried to turn everything up to eleven on An End Has A Start.

C: [laughs] Nice!

T: We really wanted to make it jump out of the speakers. In ways we're trying to be an exciting rock & roll band in certain ways and that is one of them.

C: Speaking of the sound, some of the sounds of the new album had to be aided by your producer, Garret "Jacknife" Lee.

T: Oh yes.

C: How did you end up working with him on this record?

T: Well we did a little bit of work a couple of years ago with him when we re-recorded "Bullets." In fact, "Bullets" on the American version of the album is the one we did with Jacknife Lee. We only spent a day with him then, so we really didn't get to know him. When it came time to think about producers for this record, he was the one making the most noise in banging down our doors to do it. He firmly believed that we could be one of the great bands, ya know?

C: That is quite a compliment!

T: It was. He felt we could make a series of records and leave a mark I guess. When we finished touring The Back Room we had two songs for the new record ready to go. They were "The Weight Of The World" and "Bones," and we thought OK, we worked with Garret before and we don't really know him yet, so lets just see what happens with these two songs and then we'll decide after that. So we did those two songs. I think those two songs kind of polarize the record as well. You've got kind of like the immediate feeling of the record before on "Bones," and something a little more thought out with "The Weight Of The World." We were so happy with how they turned out sonically. I mean there is quite a lot going on in those songs. There is a lot of textures and layers. We wanted to make an interesting record in which you can discover things in it listen after listen after listen. As soon as he did those two songs we knew he was the right man for the job. He genius... he is mad! Well, mad in a good way.

C: Right right. Well you are totally right about the layers in each track. It is great being able to discover new sounds and different textures with each listen of the record.

T: I mean the first record is the band in the room playing their best eleven songs. But we're such massive fans of Elbow and Spiritualized. Those are bands who make records that are dense. Ya know like Radiohead records, and we want to try things. Yes we play guitars, but we wanted to try doing other things as well as that. I think it is kind of natural, especially with the confidence we had from doing The Back Room.

C: There was a reason to have some serious confidence after The Back Room. With that, did you feel any pressure or the dreaded clichéd "sophomore slump" when record or even beginning the writing process for An End Has A Start? So many idiots feel that when a band launches with a stellar debut album, following that up is a nearly impossible feat. Was this in the back of your mind at all?

T: [laughs] A little bit, but not for long. For a bit though, yeah. Once we recorded those two songs I mentioned, we didn't have any other songs for the album. We knew we were going to make it with Garret Lee, and we knew we would be in the studio towards Christmas, but it was September and we didn't have any other songs, so at that point, yeah I'd be lying if I said we weren't a little anxious.

C: So what helped push those feelings aside to get the songwriting started?

T: I just locked myself away. I just wrote and wrote and wrote, I wrote words and choruses, and melodies and little bits of songs and started showing them to the band and as soon as we started talking about the songs and realizing where they might go, Garret was involved at that point as well. Any kind of pressure that we put upon ourselves kind of went away to an extent. We knew it was going to be OK, and then as soon as we started recording again with Garret and realizing what we were going to do with him, we never felt too overwhelmed. With each song we felt like we were taking them to the next level, climbing the ladder so to speak.

C: Switching topics just a little bit, the artwork for both records, and even with the singles, really have a specific look that Editors consistently maintains. They all seem to have a feeling of isolation to them. I was curious how much involvement you have with the visual side of Editors.

T: Oh quite a bit. You know, the first singles we actually designed. Those pictures on the first two singles came out of a big box that was in Russell's attic. They were relatives and holiday pictures and stuff. We like interesting covers and even though sometimes we're not sure what is going on they're thought provoking. We're very conscious of what goes out, from our videos to the artwork as well. For the album, we wanted it to be different from the last record. We're fans of all the Factory Records and we wanted it to look good. We didn't want to look back at it in three years and go "What the fuck were we thinking?" Ya know?

C: I'm sure there are plenty of bands who look through their back catalogs and can't believe that they actually picked some of the covers that they did.

T: Exactly. They have to wonder what in the hell they were thinking when they selected that. We want people to be able to hang it on their wall and not bury it in their CD collection and never see it again. Ya know the last thing we want to see is our faces, we want it to be interesting, so when we found this young artist from Birmingham, he photographs in a strange way and we thought they were amazing, so we asked it we could adapt them for our cover. It is a constant battle to not have anything that looks like shit... [laughs] Ya know you want it to hang on your wall and enjoy it.

C: Totally. Now back to the new songs, I watched your performance of "Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors" and "The Racing Rats" online from Later With Jools Holland. With the layers and textures of your new material, are there any songs off An End Has A Start that you're particularly excited to perform on stage?

T: Already we've played a few shows and a couple of festivals, and already "Smokers" is the moment in the set where people go mad when the drumming and that wall of sound comes out. At the moment we're playing six songs from the new record, and they're going very well. We were initially kind of worried at the start when we wondered how in the hell we were going to do the choir or how are we going to make them sound as big as they do on the record. We realized that when we just play the bits that are important, they just work. I can't wait to come play for people after they've had the record for a little while, and maybe then we can tackle songs like "When Anger Shows" on stage.

C: Well hopefully when you come back to the States you won't have a similar situation like you did at that one performance in Germany that got cut a bit short by the fuzz.

T: [laughs] I sure hope.

C: So when you come back, this will be a true headlining tour of the States. You've been here for several runs of dates before, and you've shared the bill with stellastarr*, but this will be your own. Is that exciting for the band?

T: Oh yeah. We really can't wait. The bill is phenomenal. We've got Ra Ra Riot and Biffy Clyro, so this could be the best bill we've ever put together.

C: When dealing with American audiences, I know you're very aware that for some reason or another, the US is a bitch of a place for a band to break. We've had a few bands from the UK that have been percolating a bit, but they never seem to catch that one big break. Do you ever just sit back and wonder what in the hell is wrong with the US audience?

T: [laughs] Not at all. Uh [laughs again] No, we always feel good when we play the west coast, ya know Los Angles and San Fran, and the on the other in New York, and you gotta love having three thousand people coming out to see you play. I feel pretty good already. It is such a huge place, but we enjoy traveling across the middle. The last time when we came through we had such a great time, even if we were playing in front of like forty people a night in Norfolk or wherever that was. I dunno what it is about that place but we're always excited about it. We just have to keep coming back and keep playing and what will be will be. You just can't let yourself go mad over it. Any band that expects to be able to play Brixton Academy in London and then instantly be able to go to America and expect the same is going to be disappointed. You just have to be ready to work, and we may never achieve similar success in the States, or possibly on this record, or the next, but we just have to keep coming back and laying our foundation and maybe things will happen.

C: So now we are right in the middle of summer, so it is festival season. Have you ever had any interesting experiences while attending any of the massive US festivals, such as Glastonbury?

T: We've had issues with our gear, ya know guitars and such, when flying to festivals. It is always a hair-raising experience having to share gear. We've had one instance where we got back to the airport where we left from the following day and our gear was still there in the corner of the departure lounge, as somebody forgot to put it on the plane.

C: Unbelievable.

T: At Glastonbury last time there was an immense amount of rain, where there were literally rivers flowing through the tents and we woke up to see our management picking up our laptops out of the quagmire that was their tent. With the festivals there is always just something that pops up.

C: Hey, it keeps you on your toes. Well, I've kept you long enough. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. Congratulations again on An End Has A Start. I'm looking forward to hearing the new songs live and in person very soon.

T: Cheers. Thank you as well.


An End Has A Start is out today (July 17) via FADER Label/Epic.


Tackling The Sophomore Slump: A Conversation With Tom Smith Of Editors