True fact: Stephen Hawking, the world’s preeminent theoretical physicist, and the three members of English dance pop band Friendly Fires are all alumni of the same “quite posh” private school in St. Albans, Hertfordshire. “The school didn’t find [Hawking] very intelligent,” says singer/bassist Ed MacFarlane, who took inspiration from its most notable alumnus and kept writing songs after he received a “U”—“UNGRADEABLE”—in music class. At age fourteen, MacFarlane, guitarist Edd Gibson and drummer Jack Savidge played hardcore (who didn’t?), but one decade, one house music obsession and three university degrees later (in photography, English lit and anthropology, respectively), the trio returned to St. Albans. There they regrouped and re-jiggered their adolescent punk riffs into jabby guitar phrases, edge-polishing synths, distorted woozefests and, of course, a smattering of cowbell. On their self-titled debut, MacFarlane’s sinewy-sweet voice belts out choruses that wisp as if they were pulled from a cotton candy machine, oozing total tongue-kissy telanovela fodder like After all this time/ Who’da thought I’d meet you here? and You’re aaaaalllllll I need! “When I try to write lyrics and when I’m hearing the song, I like the idea of cinematic scenes,” says MacFarlane. Oh romance, quelle swoon!
Friendly Fires compose and record in a converted studio in a woodland forest behind MacFarlane’s parents’ house—a convenient art-creating oasis in an already off-kilter city. “The tag line for St. Albans is ‘Where History Meets Today,’ so it’s really grabbing onto its past,” says Gibson. “You walk through the town’s central market and there are people dressed up as legionnaires.”
Without a nightlife like London’s, there’s plenty of leisure time in St. Alban’s, but there is a decided lack of Mexican restaurants. “Even Taco Bell doesn’t exist. They tried to have, like, a Chiquita’s or something near where I lived in this really rubbish mall,” says Gibson. So when Friendly Fires and I meet a few hours before their New York show at a bougie tacqueria in SoHo, I have to explain to MacFarlane what a quesadilla is and that Triple Sec is made from dried Curaçaoan orange peels. “It’s our first time in New York, our first margaritas, our first album,” says MacFarlane. “This is just like all those Sex and the City episodes I’ve watched.” In the spirit of Samantha, they order frozen margs in all variants of flavors—pomegranate blueberry, wildberry cactus, mangotinirita. They arrive in stacked highball glasses looking like ice cream parfaits. The rest of the afternoon is spent talking about Barry White.