The New Wave band The Fixx -- best known for its Top 20 singles "Saved By Zero," "One Thing Leads to Another," and "Are We Ourselves?" from the 1980s -- just released a new album, Beautiful Friction. It took three years to write, and the band found itself "coming back down to the [songs] that were simple to play live and connected with people in a way that didn't need explaining," said lead singer Cy Curnin. "And there was a fair amount of creative arguing about the record, and that's why we called it Beautiful Friction." Curnin spoke with me about the album, the band's longevity, and his views on the social significance of rock music.
Talk to me about the new record. What's the balance between maintaining consistency as a band and continually reinventing yourself? For example, on a song like "Take a Risk," the guitars are raw, garage, post-punk sounding, that's a slightly different sound for the band; and "Just Before Dawn" has this almost psychedelic vibe. So there are some new sounds you're throwing into the mix?
Absolutely, and that comes specifically from [guitarist] Jamie [West-Oram]. He had a certain mood going last summer, we were on a retreat . . . in Santa Cruz, in these little huts. We'd been on the road, quite a while, doing a few shows, and he just started jamming in his bedroom, and he was coming up with these riffs, and they just connected, over four or five days, that whole element came out. Jamie likes all that early Americana guitar, he's a guitar teacher, he's around young kids a lot who want to learn this, that, and the other. He said, 'well, these are great textures, why don't we use these as vehicles for songs we're doing now.' So it was still us, but it gave us a whole new flavor, which was great, it was like discovering cumin mixed with ginger, instead of just always garlic and oil, you know.
Your band started in 1979 as The Portraits, and by 1982, under the name The Fixx, on the MCA label, you had become one of the definitive New Wave bands. When people think of punk, they start with the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, and yet the Ramones fought the label of "punk" their entire career. Are you comfortable with fans and critics categorizing The Fixx as New Wave?
When you're actually in a band and you do what you do, you don't see yourself in any category. For me, it's more of a cathartic movement than anything else. You mentioned the punk movement, which was great, it was like a slash that got rid of all the excesses of the 70s. Music had kind of fallen asleep as an expression of emotion; and then after punk people were looking for a little more depth, the noise was good, but people wanted a different quality to the music. What it was about for me was the birth of synthesizers, which became much more prevalent. Music templates, and the entire soundscape, changed. So New Wave was born from that, at least in our band. It gave us different colors and moods that we could use, alongside a really great guitar sound too.
In The Fixx we're lucky enough to have two sorts of atypical players that are really talented in the way they approach their instruments, Jamie [West-Oram] with the guitar, and Rupert [Greenall], the keyboard player, but the two of those together, it gave us this huge sound, which isn't busy, but it sounds enormous, and as a singer it's almost like hunting under a night sky you can just shoot these big melodies up into.
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Is there a musical influence on The Fixx that people would be surprised to learn about?
Yes, Flamenco music for me, personally. I just love it, the rhythms, it was my mother's kind of music, I grew up listening to it all the time. It's like Aeolian music, it reminds me of the gypsy tradition of telling stories through music, campfires, and I always felt that that music had an inspiring element.
Are there any peers, bands that you came up with, that you continue to measure yourself against?
Well, I wouldn't say measure ourselves against, in terms of how we defined ourselves. I would say that there are bands like Duran Duran that are still around from that time, I never really got their music, in terms of it didn't feed my soul, but I had a respect for the way they carried their business out. They went for the Glam, they went for the Glam girls and the videos and all that stuff, they did it well, and they're still around today. I just think at some point they're going to have trouble aging gracefully. Being a 55-year old guy and still wearing mascara, unless you're Alice Cooper or Iggy Pop ... it just looks a bit weird. But I look at them and I see where they're going, and I do have respect for them. I just feel happier being in my skin because although we had an image, and people perceive an image of what we were from the videos back then ... we were able to outgrow them like a snake changes its skin and slither our way through our careers or our moods.
Looking back at that moment when you were starting out in London, where there was such a diversity of musical styles and movements, is there anything you can appreciate now in a way you couldn't before?
When we formed, we were a bunch of like-minded souls, we were all motivated by what was going on around us. Back then, at the time that The Fixx formed, Reagan's deregulation of finances and stock started, and Thatcher adopted [those policies], and then credit cards, easy money started to flow, and we all started to get credit cards. And here we are now putting our albums out when there's a credit crunch, and the banks are all falling down, and the whole deregulation is becoming a complete mess, and it kind of tracks with our career because that's what we were singing about, that's what inspired us to write songs. We're not a band that wrote love songs, we prefer to make love rather than sing love songs, so what we do is what we do. ... It wasn't as if we set off when we made [Beautiful Friction] to make it that closely aligned in subject matter, but it's worked out that way.
What causes are you most passionate about today, through the music?
What I didn't have back then that I have today are children ... and I've watched how we as a generation have been so spoiled, and now that things are going a little tough, you know, the rhetoric is, "It's over, it's terrible, things can never be as good as we had them." And that was part of making this record ... it was trying to have a better sense of hope -- you know, when it's all black, you try to look for the candle or the crack in the wall where the source of light is.
What's the relationship between rock and politics? What responsibility do musicians have to talk about the issues of the day? How have you negotiated that line over your career?
When you write a song in your bedroom, and then you've sung it and people have heard it, and then you meet somebody at the stage door and they tell you that that song really effected them, how it changed something for them ...-- then you realize that it goes out there and outside of you, like a ripple. If you want to call that responsibility, essential responsibility, you feel responsible for the fact that you don't disappoint people, so you keep trying to get better, so you get a whiff of the size of the audience that's out there, the size of the universe, and you know, you just want to add something to it, rather than take away. And rock 'n' roll, even though it's just three chords, and half the time it's just the disenfranchised making a lot of noise, about not being invited to the party of success, but they're out there banging the drums for the disenfranchised people.
How do you account for the longevity of the band?
Friendship, respect, and learning how to argue creatively. ... These are creative arguments, not destructive arguments. And we're looking to learn from each other, and we trust each other. So when someone's [making] a suggestion, it's not an insult, it's a compliment, if somebody takes the time to say, "Try this, try that." If you're good, they'll make you better.
Last question, what's the best advice another musician ever gave you?
Never underestimate the intelligence of the general public. You know how on Madison Avenue and in the ad world, the saying is, "Never overestimate the intelligence of the general public"; I never underestimate them.
R. Clifton Spargo is an award‐winning writer, author of the forthcoming novel "Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald," and Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. For more, visit his website.