‘If there is a God, this is what he put us on Earth to do’: the unlikely return of Tears for Fears

When personal tragedy struck Roland Orzabal, he found solace returning to a band with its own fractious history. Now, with their first album in 17 years, he and Curt Smith say they’ve come full circle

Some years ago, Curt Smith, the singer and songwriter best known as one half of Tears for Fears, found himself in Vancouver. He was filming one of several guest spots he made on the US TV detective series Psych, and after work that day he joined the rest of the cast at a local karaoke bar.

There, before the stage, Smith was struck by the idea to get up and sing one of his band’s most famous hits, 1985’s UK platinum-selling Everybody Wants to Rule the World. How hilarious it would be, he thought, when people clocked that he was the actual singer of the song. “And no one paid a blind bit of attention,” he says now. “No one! They didn’t realise it was me.”

Meanwhile, back in England, Smith’s bandmate Roland Orzabal had received an invitation to audition for the reality TV show Popstar to Operastar. Orzabal, who had sung opera in the past, felt the stars were aligning. “I’m thinking: ‘This was meant for me.’” he says. He took the audition seriously, practised diligently, sought out an opera coach near his home in the West Country. “I went in there and I fucking nailed it,” he recalls of his performance of Giordani’s Caro Mio Ben in a suite at the Savoy hotel that winter. “And they didn’t ask me. Midge Ure got it.”

The life of the “semi-retired” musician is a strange one, Smith reflects. “You still write music, but you do other things. I was very much the stay-at-home dad, because my wife [the marketing executive Frances Pennington] has a career and is very busy.” With little in his Los Angeles home to suggest a successful career in music – no gold discs on the walls, or awards on the mantelpiece – Smith realised that, while he might not need such reminders to know who he was, his identity was mysterious to his children. One day at preschool, his eldest daughter was asked what her parents did. “Her answer was: ‘Mama goes to the office and Papa goes to the gym.’”

With the demands of family, acting, opera and gym workouts, not to mention management disputes and periods of acrimony between the pair, somehow 17 years have passed since Tears for Fears last recorded an album together. Today, though, they sit in the small, starkly lit boardroom of a Marylebone hotel, two radiant 60-year-olds eager to talk about their new material. The Tipping Point is a stunning record, taking in fine-fledged folk guitar and aggressive synthesisers, and encompassing loss, resentment, the Mistral wind of southern France, the healing that has taken place between them; plus the patriarchy, the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Orzabal Smith
Suffer the children … Orzabal and Smith being interviewed at MTV Studios, New York, in 1983. Photograph: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Tears for Fears were teenagers when they met in Bath, bonding over a love of Blue Öyster Cult, and recording as the mod-leaning Graduate before forming a synth-led band with a name inspired by the work of the primal therapist Arthur Janov. They released their first single, Suffer the Children, in 1981. Early on they were sometimes mocked for their willingness to speak about such wide-ranging subject matter as emotional issues, mental health and gender imbalance. “When we came out with Woman in Chains, I think a lot of our peers who were hanging out at the Groucho Club were like: ‘What the fuck?’” says Orzabal.

“We came from an era where young men should be seen and not heard,” Smith says. “It was a lot of: ‘Who are you to be talking about these subjects? You’re too young to understand these things!’ And in all honesty we didn’t know enough, but we weren’t shy to voice our opinions. That was the difference between us and a lot of people of that era.”

“I think when you’re making that transition from childhood into adulthood and you’re leaving a lot of things behind, the world is a scary place,” Orzabal continues. “We’d previously been in a very lightweight mod band together, and then both of us had embraced Janov’s primal theory, and we discovered what we do best: stick out some messages, hidden, cleverly, in a whole bunch of electronica. And then we were off, because we had something to say.”

Three albums – The Hurting, Songs from the Big Chair, and The Seeds of Love – sold a reported 30m copies. Then, in 1991, the pair fell out, breaking up the band to pursue solo careers. In 2004, a thaw led to a new album, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, but sales were not as hoped. “It went straight on the Radio 2 A list,” Orzabal remembers. “And we did American TV. But when we looked at the record sales, the record that was selling was the greatest hits.”

Still, the band toured widely, sidestepping 80s-revival shows (“We’ve turned it down every time,” says Smith, “because we don’t consider ourselves from a decade”), and releasing covers of contemporary songs by the likes of Hot Chip, Animal Collective and Arcade Fire, but there seemed little appetite for new material. Their then-manager encouraged the status quo, says Orzabal. “‘Do you really need to put out another record? You’re always going to be a heritage act, you’ve got these classic songs, don’t worry about it, let’s continue to tour.’”

“Night after night,” Smith continues. “After a bunch of years we’re like: ‘It’s getting a bit boring now.’ I can’t put my heart into it that much more unless we have something fresh to say, do or play.”

Meanwhile, something interesting was happening: Mad World had already been covered by Gary Jules and Michael Andrew on the cult 2001 film Donnie Darko, and now younger artists such as Lorde, the 1975, Kanye West and the Weeknd were citing Tears for Fears as an influence. The band’s live show shifted accordingly, ramping up the tempo and the contemporary covers. “Word spread among the promoters – ‘These guys are good, you want them on the show’ – so we got more and more invites,” says Orzabal.

There followed a co-headline tour with Hall and Oates, a Royal Albert Hall show and a Radio 2 special. “That was the tipping point, because [until then] people liked our music, but they didn’t know whether we could play, or whether we were just two guys and a synthesiser,” says Orzabal. When they sold out the O2, Smith recalls with a smile, “it was: ‘Hang on – what’s going on? We’re back in fashion!’”

But the upturn in the band’s career coincided with difficulties for Orzabal. In the summer of 2017, his wife Caroline – his partner since they were teenagers – died. He talks about her with a kind of tender openness that seems quite at odds with a newspaper interview. In 2007, he says, Caroline hit menopause. “And then the wheels came off, and she went from being extremely feisty and spirited and up, and so charismatic, to hitting depression. And menopause was probably a smokescreen.”

Caroline was prescribed medication, the kind you are not meant to drink while taking. She continued to do so anyway, entering a cycle of increased mental anguish and suicidal ideation. Orzabal laments the treatment of depression with pills. “There should be real strict controls on what people are dealing with.”

Plus, he says, his wife was adept at hiding the truth of her condition. “Caroline was a little bit lax and naughty when she would see doctors. She wouldn’t be 100% honest, she would talk about menopause: she would talk about empty nest syndrome – that became the next one, and it wasn’t that at all. It was a number of things. And it was her liver, cirrhosis, and that was a long time coming.”

Caroline never stopped drinking. “Which is partly my fault because I’m a drinker, too. If I’d known that was the reason …” He trails off. “But I didn’t. I don’t know how commonly known it is that alcohol is far more dangerous for a woman than it is for a man, and the problem was Caroline used to match me. But again, that’s my own ignorance and stupidity at what was going on, because at that point in time there should have been no alcohol anywhere, that’s a fact.”

She developed alcohol-related dementia. “So it was five years of hell where I became her carer,” says Orzabal. “I had a care company as well to take the weight off me, and there we were in our big country house in the West Country with an increasingly shrinking circle of friends and it was pretty harrowing.” He lets out a long breath, and the three of us sit, wet-eyed around the boardroom table.

It was while Caroline was ill that Orzabal began to write several of the songs that appear on The Tipping Point. “I needed some respite from the constant illness, the constant dysfunction, and as per usual, as I’ve always done all my life, they went into lyrics and songs,” he says.

Tears for Fears
Songs from the big chair … the reconvened Curt and Roland. Photograph: Frank W Ockenfels III

The song Please Be Happy was “inspired by watching someone you love sitting in a chair all day, not doing anything, not moving, and when she does, she goes up the stairs with a glass of wine, and [the glass] crashes on the stairs”. The title track recalls sitting in Caroline’s hospital room, “looking at someone and waiting for the point when they are more dead than alive”.

The year that followed Caroline’s death, Orzabal suffered his own health issues, spent time in rehab and postponed the band’s world tour. “I was going through hell,” he says. Smith, fearing he might exacerbate his bandmate’s problems, kept his distance.

“I knew Roland wasn’t in a healthy place, and I felt it was important that he got well more than anything else,” he says. Over the years, the pair had grown accustomed to periods of intense creative connection, followed by “butting heads”, and extended time apart. They describe the shape of their relationship as “this helix thing”.

But in the depths of it all, Orzabal had a revelation: “I thought that was it, because Caroline had gone, [longtime Tears for Fears collaborator] Alan Griffiths was gone, and immediately my mind went to Curt. That’s when I thought: ‘This guy’s really important.’ It was obvious – it’s really obvious to a lot of people – but then all of a sudden you think: ‘Oh no, this partnership is right, we’ve done great things.’ And the story’s not over – thank God!”

Orzabal’s new love, now wife, the writer and photographer Emily Rath, encouraged a reconciliation. “She is an amazing influence – teaching me how to be kind and polite, and not hostile all the time.” he says. In early 2020, he messaged Smith and the pair had lunch in Los Angeles. “It was like: what’s our problem? We don’t really have one. So I went round to Curt’s place with an acoustic guitar and we went straight back to being 18-year-old kids. Curt came up with this riff, No Small Thing, and we were off. So that was the key that unlocked the album.”

Seventeen years after their last record – an album primarily about their reunion – Orzabal feels The Tipping Point is a different beast, a coming home to the band’s true way of writing. “When you start doing that again the energies, the supportive waters, start carrying you, and it’s like: ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ But the songs we have now connect the personal and the political; songs which can be interpreted on an individual basis and interpreted on a collective basis. That’s what – if there is a God – that’s what God put us on the Earth to do.”

In late September, Smith and Orzabal walked on to the stage at the Ivor Novello awards in London to a standing ovation. There to receive the Outstanding Song Collection award, Smith hung back while Orzabal took the microphone, joked about Bath Spa Waitrose, thanked their wives, their new management and new label. “Lastly,” he said, looking out over the audience, “I’d like to thank two people without whom we just wouldn’t be here.” He paused, and glanced toward Smith: “Us.”

  • Tears for Fears’ single The Tipping Point is out now. The album follows in February 2022.

Contributor

Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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