"We’re not very good at the predictability that you need to have" Right Said Fred in conversation
If you’re looking for a real blast from the 90s then you can’t look much further than the biggest breakout stars of the early part of the decade, Right Said Fred. Brothers Richard and Fred - and Rob Manzoli back then - literally came from nowhere at a time where that was still possible. Their ‘I’m Too Sexy’ was a huge hit in 1991 and still gets mimicked today. We caught up with the band to talk about what they’ve been up to, and their brand new album Exactly.
Hi guys, let’s start with the new record. What can you tell us about it?
Fred: [laughs] The album’s called Exactly. I think it’s our ninth studio album, I can’t quite remember which. We’ve been writing and recording it over the last couple of sort of years. Sort of taken our time really, because we’re independent and self-funding, so we kind of do it at a pace that suits us. We started in about late 2015 I suppose or something like that. And we’ve been co-writing it and recording it with Paul Statham, who is probably best known for his stuff with Dido. And Gordon Davis and Jason Glover. Jason was in the James Taylor Quartet, and Gordon is a bass player who’s worked with Jimmy Page, Robbie Williams and Shane McGowan.
There are quite different songs, more serious-y songs, also some poppy lighter songs on there. And everything in between. Is that influenced by the sort of people that you worked with on Exactly, or is that just kind of who you guys are?
Richard: I think that’s it. It’s inevitably influenced by people we work with. And also I guess sometimes the mood that we’re in when we write a song. I think artists can be quite detached, there’s a thing out there that when you hear a song, you learn something about the artist. Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the artist is just playing a game. And just writing what the song wants them to write. You don’t always necessarily engage in feelings about it. You know what I mean? So sometimes it’s a bit of a con, in a way. I kind of think it’s inevitable that you will be affected by the people you work with. But there’s still a spine going through the whole album of who we are. Which is, in terms of songwriting it’s pretty unpredictable.
And we make up our own mind, because there’s no band in there. It’s not like we’ve got an electric guitarist sitting there who wants to plug in and mosh over everything. We make it up as we go along kind of thing. Sometimes we want electric guitars, sometimes we want acoustic. On one track there’s an accordion, just because we pressed a button and we’ve got all those sounds. So we used it, you know. It’s pretty…it’s more chaotic I think and more sort of subject to the moment than people imagine.
It’s really as fluid as that then. Do you go into the studio with stuff written and play about with it as you’re doing it, or did you write things when you’re in the studio, is it all part of the same bit of the process?
Fred: It’s both. We often write at home just with acoustic guitars. Nearly everything has started like that. Or if not, we started with one idea, that gets dumped, and then we tend to write to the backing track that that previous song’s created. So it is very fluid. We do write in the studio and write at home. So we do both, really.
Richard: Yeah. And what we’ve learned to do, which we didn’t do initially, was do roughs of everything. Bring it home and listen to it and live with it. And see…because in the past, when I listen to some old stuff, I know that if we’d taken those basic tracks back and just a week or two or even less, just overnight, just to think about them and absorb what we wanted to try and do, we would have probably stayed truer to our original thoughts.
So on this album we have taken everything back, pretty much, and lived with it and messed around with it. There’s one track, ‘I Don’t Want to Die Right Now’, and we had that verse ages ago, and the chorus just came to us while we were doing the album. So some things come quite quickly and some things don’t. It’s a bit of a mixed picture to be honest. But we are much more…we took more control on this album than we’ve ever done before. In the past we’ve kind of deferred to other people a little bit, particularly the producer. On this particular album we were much more involved at every stage.
It’s interesting, isn’t it. Like you say it’s quite a mix of different styles and but it’s still very much a Right Said Fred album.
Richard: Yeah. This idea that bands have to sort of be same the whole time, it’s quite a new thing. Because I grew up, I hate to say it, but I grew up with bands like The Beatles. On The White Album you’ve got ‘Revolution No. 9’ and ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.
For me, bands are a bit like people, they have good days, bad days, happy days, sad days. You know, it’s what bands are. And the artists that turn out the same kind of stuff the whole time bore me rigid. I just don’t listen, I never listen to them. I can’t stand it. So I like the fact that it’s a bit all over the place, but the problem is, it’s much more difficult to market. [laughs]
And so does that make it more difficult to pick a single, or something to lead with, or do you just pick the obvious one?
Richard: It’s difficult. When we first started, ‘Deeply Dippy’ was kind of knocked around as a first single. And as an indication of the way some people think, we were told “can you make that into a dance tune?” At 160 BPM or whatever it would be. [laughter]
I think this is a typical Right Said Fred album. But we’re just beginning to learn to be happy with that, I think. I think we spent a lot of time trying to be a bit like everybody else. Trying to be more consistent, trying to be more international, trying to be blah, blah, blah. And with this album I think we’ve pretty much pleased ourselves and done what we think we like.
Fred: We tend to let other people, not choose the singles, but if you decide to work with a plugger, or a management company, you can’t then spend your whole life disagreeing with them, because then you shouldn’t be working with them. So, we met some people that we like working with. And we take their advice on board quite a lot. And with regards to the singles, I wouldn’t say we think ‘Sweet Treats’ is the strongest single. But we do think it was a good first single to kind of get radio on board, we were very lucky, we got some good support.
I think songs like ‘Only When We La-La Love’ maybe and ‘Me and You’ are probably stronger single contenders. So we tend to get directed in that way, because when you’ve been living with the song for so long, you can imagine you can sit back and view it objectiveness a bit more evident.
One song I love is ‘Silicon Journey’. I love the lyric, the subject matter and it’s quintessentially Right Said Fred. It’s a breath of fresh air amongst the homogenisation of a lot of pop music.
It’s interesting, particularly with picking singles, Robbie Williams Candy for example isn’t necessarily representative of the rest of that album, but it was obviously a great first single because people loved it and it had something about it. It’s about what’s the best song. It’s how’s radio going to pick it up and that kind of thing.
Richard: Exactly, yes, it’s got nothing to do with it being the best song, absolutely. I think, for me it’s just a little bit depressing that the parameters are so narrow. Did you see the Grammys last night? If you want that sort of stuff, then go on a cruise. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t do anything for me. And if I’m going to watch an artist, I’d rather watch Captain Beefheart messing up all night. Really.
Fred: I think we’ve got to the point where we tend to think that being…the profession has now become slick. And don’t find slick particularly entertaining. I do admire it, I watched Lady Gaga at the Superbowl and I thought her professionalism was completely undeniable. It’s not something I would buy a ticket to go and see; but I do understand its worth.
If you go back to when you guys first came around in the early ‘90s, it felt much more interesting then, people were doing different stuff, it was slightly unpredictable. And you’re right, it’s much more professional now. Great for record labels and people who put on shows, but it is pretty boring for people who are watching it most of the time.
Richard: Yes. I’ve got an eighteen year old daughter. Almost nineteen. And I chat with her and I ask about her and her friends about how they access music. And the interesting thing is, none of them listen to radio anymore. They don’t, it’s not on their landscape. So they access music through Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook and what’s being played at university and who recommends what, and one act suggesting another act on YouTube. It’s quite, it’s quite anarchic in its own weird way. You can’t begin to second-guess that.
Fred: I think what you have to do as a band is just write some songs you like, stick them on an album, and keep your fingers crossed. [laughter] And you know, the idea for us with this album, we were under no illusions. We weren’t going to come out of the traps and hit great chart positions and get loads of support. That was never going to happen. And I have been surprised by the support, but this album for us is to put us back into festivals, back into shows. And it’s a calling card, really.
Richard: Yes, it’s a calling card, exactly.
Fred: That’s what it is nowadays. I don’t want to mention them, but there are lots of bands out there who you never really see on TV or in the charts, but they do very good business on the live circuit. And for us, that’s probably where we will end up sort of gathering dust.
Richard: “End up!” [laughs]
Fred: Not “end up”, I don’t mean “end up”, I mean…
Richard: I know what you mean. That’s the problem with music now. The unpredictability of some artists is not seen necessarily as a good thing. It’s seen as expensive, and difficult to market, and all those other things. But actually, pop music, without sounding too pompous, is art. It’s an art form. And it should be treated as such, not as some kind of cheese-packaging thing. It’s much more than that. And you only really get the great stuff and the surprising stuff when you take a bit of a chance.
Being independent then, that’s a good thing for you guys, right? You’re happy to have the freedom to write what you want, sing what you want, put it out when you want?
Richard: It’s a good thing in the long term if it works. It’s a bad thing in the short term because it costs a fortune.
Fred: Yes. [both laugh] It’s very expensive. And also sadly as we saw in the Brits recently, independent labels and artists are not represented. So that’s a huge problem, the way major record labels squeeze out independent record labels. I think that’s a great shame. We don’t really suit the corporate narrative, really. It just doesn’t really rest well with us. So we tend to look after ourselves, fund ourselves, and then we don’t get in anybody else’s way. [laughs]
Richard: We’re not very good at the predictability that you need to have. On a label, you’re kind of expected to be in the same thing all the time, and we find that difficult to do. I’m not criticising people who can, it’s probably a good thing if you can. But we just can’t. The new album sort of illustrates that really. It’s a bit like the first album, there’s a swing track, and a heavy track, a dance track. We move around quite a bit, and I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful when you’re trying to market an artist as one thing or another.
It’s interesting isn’t it, because you’d think these days with streaming, and so many new acts, you’d think actually for an independent artist or label it would be easier, but the big labels still get airplay and TV play. It’s tough, isn’t it?
Richard: Yes, yes, indeed. So imagine that money doesn’t shout, big money shouts the loudest. Always has, always will.
Fred: Yeah it does, yeah. Also the major labels can play a game that we can’t, which is, they say “if you play Artist A we can guarantee you Artist B”. An independent label rarely has that leverage. We have to work on a level that we can sustain, so we can’t pretend to play like the majors do. They’re head and shoulders above us in that respect.
And we’re not complaining, it’s just how it is. You just have to accept the sort of artists you are, how you work and be done with it. We have met with major labels, and we did on this album, but it’s just not a union that would be a particularly happy one.
Richard: No, just walking into the foyer, just doesn’t suit us.
Fred: Our hearts sink. [laughter]
Richard: Big leather sofas and comfy chairs and…I don’t know. There’s just something about it that just doesn’t…
Fred: Yeah. The idea that a lawyer can hear a hit record just makes me smile really.
So obviously you’ve had some really big hits; don’t you get really bored playing some of your hits over and over again, or is every night different when you’re in front of an audience?
Richard: I’ve never got bored. We get bored if we don’t like the song. If we don’t like the song we get bored. But ‘Sexy’ [Ed - the mega smash ‘I’m Too Sexy’] as an example, I can’t think of, I honestly can’t think of one occasion when we’ve got on stage and I’ve not wanted to do it. Never. That’s never happened to me, not once.
Fred: I do think, if you’re privileged enough to have had some hit records, and you’re on stage and you don’t want to play your hit records, I think you need to give yourself a talking to. Because if you’re in that privileged position of not only selling records, having sold records but having people come and see you play them, you owe it not just to them but to yourself to step up and do your job. That’s your job. And if you went to an Italian restaurant and on the night the guy decided he wanted to cook Lebanese, [laughter] that wouldn’t be very good. You have to accept, I think as an artist you have some responsibilities.
Richard: Also a song, somebody that we worked on a few years ago, he made the point that once a song is famous and successful, it doesn’t really just belong to you anymore. It belongs to everybody that bought it and liked it. So it’s not just…your proprietorial sense of it needs to change, because you share that song with everybody else. They bought it, they like it, why on earth wouldn’t you play it?
Yes. And I suppose everyone attaches their own experiences as well to the really big songs like I’m Too Sexy. It would probably be different for different people.
Richard: And never underestimate the power of what that is. Pop music is incredibly powerful in that way. It gives people great pleasure. And it’s sometimes connected with very key moments in their life, whether it’s divorce or marriage or death of a loved one or something. And it’s usually a pop tune that’s associated with that in one way or another. So it’s not something to be treated lightly, I don’t think. I think it’s quite a… I wouldn’t say it’s a serious occupation …but it’s an important occupation. And everybody involved in it, from record companies all the way down to artists, I think need to treat it with a little bit more respect than they do. It’s not just about money.
Fred: A friend of mine who’s a consultant in the record industry went to an A & R meeting and no-one played any music. All they did was check artists’ stats on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. There was no music played. And that’s kind of where you’re getting with these people, because they don’t really like music. They’re not in the music industry because they like music. They’re making music for other reasons. So I think as an artist the best thing to do it…
Richard: You’ve got to turn off.
Fred: Yeah, just get on, do what you do. We like what we do. If other people like it that’s great, if they don’t, that’s great as well.
You can buy or stream Exactly from anywhere you buy or listen to music now.