The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Beyond The Buzz: An Interview with Friends
John Freeman , April 10th, 2012 08:31

John Freeman talks to Samantha Urbani about how everything from Adam Ant to Belize has inspired Friends' sonic brew

It is a freezing Monday night and strange things are afoot in Manchester's Deaf Institute. The band Friends, fronted by the talismanic Samantha Urbani, have successfully organised a small, but perfectly formed, stage invasion. Unfortunately, one teenage lad cannot keep his hands to himself and Urbani stops mid-song, identifies the by-now beetroot-red offender and dutifully orders him off stage. It is, it would seem, unwise to annoy Samantha Urbani.

An hour earlier, Samantha has been holding court in the backstage mini-apartment. While Friends are a five-piece, it is abundantly clear that Urbani is their leader. Over our 40 minute interview she swats away any notion that the Friends are merely a transient buzz-band, who were originally thrust together after a bed-bug infestation caused the five friends to temporarily cohabit.

In the flesh, Urbani is a complex and engaging character. Home-schooled by ultra-liberal parents from a young age, she spent time as a child in Belize before making a variety of art from her Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick. With no formal musical training, she began to write songs that pilfered from punk, funk, West African djembe beats and salsa. Last year's singles 'I'm His Girl' and 'Friend Crush' were ready-made pop classics and tonight's set is a speedball hotchpotch showcasing songs from their forthcoming debut album; 'Ruins' sounds like Adam Ant's ("He is a genius, I want to tour with him; get that on the record," Urbani tells me) 'Prince Charming' after an overdose of Sunny Delight, while the Swedish-titled 'Va Fan Gor Du' is a jagged slice of proto-funk. Both songs are typical of Friends' refreshingly varied creativity.

I'm assuming you are sick of the bed-bug story. Do you mind if we skip it?

Samantha Urbani: Thanks for not doing the bed-bug question, we had to answer it nine times in Paris yesterday.

Ouch. Did the bed-bugs get bigger each time you told the story?

SU: Yeah, by the end they were the size of rats and were eating [bassist] Lesley's [Hann] face.

What I did want to ask was about your thoughts of the notion of 'friends'. It would be appear that social networking, and especially Facebook, has changed the concept of a friend. When I was a teenager, I was more than happy with about 15 friends who I would see almost daily plus a couple of pen-pals. That was it.

SU: That is one thing we definitely discussed when we were deciding on a name: how social media has totally co-opted the word 'friend'. The meaning has changed and people have become really desensitized to that - not only the word but the concept. They take for granted that they have hundreds of people, at their fingertips, all of the time. They don't have to share things personally with one and another or make decisions on who they feel closest to.

It feels like there are now many more levels of friendship.

SU: Maybe now there needs to be the creation of a new word which means what 'friend' used to mean - to really identify who you feel attached to and connected with in your life rather than on a superficial communication level.

I believe your debut album is now complete. I read somewhere that you described it as "a collection of songs about boys". Is this really the case?

SU: Thank you for allowing me to amend that comment. There are love songs, definitely, but the songs aren't about guys, they are about the feelings that come up when you think you are in love with somebody, or about the tortuous tension when you feel things cannot come to fruition. But there are also songs about death and songs about existential musings. There is a song called 'A Thing Like This' which is a more introspective and philosophical song. For me having never had any affiliations with a religion, but feeling spiritual, it became a song where I sorted out some of those feelings in the lyrics.

Is that how you see your songwriting, as a cathartic process?

SU: Definitely. I grew up being a visual artist and felt like I was expressing things through painting or sculpture or multi-media design that I couldn't articulate or didn't know how to articulate. Going back to the concept of friends, you can use someone as a mirror and you can bounce ideas back and forth if you want somebody's help to have a dual perspective. However, there are times when if I have something to figure out the only way to do it is to create a piece of art that expresses those feelings. For me, writing lyrics is like having a conversation with a party that doesn't exist.

I'm intrigued as to how the musicality of Friends developed. I believe you spent some time in Belize as a child. How important was that experience?

SU: I was there for four months when I was ten years old. It didn't really blow my mind because I was raised in a family that exposed me to a lot of different cultures and a lot of different perspectives. I naturally felt very compassionate to people and to new ideas and I was bored of one, homogenized mainstream culture. I felt at home there we lived in a thatched-roof hut on stilts by a lagoon. I never wore shoes and I didn't brush my hair and got dreadlocks. So, it was amazing and beautiful and inspiring, but it wasn't shocking.

Why not?

SU: You might think that going to Belize would be a culture shock for me, but when I came back and went into public school for the first time in years, that was a culture shock. It made me feel really overwhelmingly sad, actually, relating to the girls my age and just seeing what they were prioritizing.

I can relate to that. I have a five-year-old daughter and I'm frightened by the imagery which is already thrust upon her.

SU: My advice would be to keep your kids open to tons of different cultures so that they don't think there is one beauty standard, or one path to achieve any career goal. It's about having the openness to really get to know yourself and not be judgmental towards other people.

So, if it is about knowing yourself, did you know what you wanted Friends to sound like when you formed the band? Or, is that a stupid question?

SU: It's not a stupid question; it's just a difficult question. We didn't have a pre-determined concept of how the band should sound. That's one of the reasons that we all like the way it sounds because it is really intuitive. The one thing that relates to everything we've just been talking about is to do with knowing yourself, trusting yourself and having a strong sense of intuition which everybody is gifted with.

That sounds like the Third Eye philosophy.

SU: The Third Eye, the pineal gland – I totally believe in that shit.

You do seem to be a person who can operate 'in the moment'.

SU: Unfortunately, no. I live in the past a lot and it is hard for me to keep balanced. I am a really sentimental, nostalgic person and that is a lot of where my inspiration comes from – past experiences that I want to keep alive and honour in some way. A lot of lyrics come from that.

If we talk about a song like 'I'm His Girl', it delivers a very powerful message about relationships but I'm assuming it is, in part, an autobiographical lyric. Was that a tricky song to write?

SU: Well, that felt good to release, because it was personal and I didn't feel it was a self-indulgent thing. I was aware that thousands of people may hear the song that I made from feelings I was able to turn into lyrics, but that would have more of a positive influence on people than the trite emotional things I had written before.

There is a tangible excitement surrounding Friends, but I've also seen you described as a buzz band. I always think that description as being derogatory, as there is a sense of a buzz band being superficial and transient. Are Friends here for the long-haul?

SU: We never had an ambition or a goal in mind when we started, it was all very organic and intuitive and I want it to continue that way. The way it is going now does feel like we will be able to continue and grow. Finishing the first album only made me want to begin recording the second album immediately, because I wasn't totally satisfied with it. I have tons of other songs I've started writing.

Finally, 2012 is going to be a wild adventure for Friends. You will release your debut album and tour the world. Is it as exciting as it sounds?

SU: For me, it is an amazing opportunity for life experiences that not a lot of people get. It was something I did always envision as a kid. I didn't know how it was going to happen and I certainly didn't plan for it, but it is happening and I am really honoured and excited. It is very stimulating, regardless of whether some of it really sucks. That's my goal in life – to be stimulated by positive feelings or negative feelings. I don't want to be bored.

Header photo by Duncan Elliott