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FFAF about Downunder

Funeral for a Friend

Kris Coombs-Roberts, guitarist and backing vocalist of Welsh band Funeral for a Friend, can’t quite understand why Live To Ride would want to talk to him. He doesn’t even have a driver’s license, let alone ride a bike. I’d love to put him at his ease: neither do I! Still, we can talk about the music – a logical place to start. Interesting, too, since traditionally, the Welsh are renowned for gorgeous singing voices and – given their coal-rich land – those big, brass, colliery bands. How does a post-hardcore/hardcore punk/experimental and – my favourite sub-genre within which Funeral For A Friend are often categorised – ‘screamo’ band come about in Wales?

“When you grow up in the Welsh Valleys, there’s not a lot to do,” Kris confesses. “It comes from a lot of frustration. All of my friends, we used to go out and try to find new music. We fell in love with bands like Metallica, Pantera, Guns N’ Roses and Machinehead – very heavy bands. Social groups and not having much to do led me to playing the music I do.”

In addition to these US bands, there were ‘local’ (that is, ‘UK’) musicians that inspired Kris. “I was listening to a lot of underground hardcore bands like Stomping Ground, earthtone9 – very ‘heavy’ bands, very different and very British.” This ‘local’ scene really took off in the UK – especially in Wales – only after the alternative/nu metal band Lostprophets struck fame. Hailing from the town of Pontypridd, just north of Cardiff and about 30km east of Funeral for a Friend’s home of Bridgend, Lostprophets “gave everybody a kick up the backside to go and try to be better!” There can be no more excuses, Kris insists, once someone “from around your corner” finally achieves success. “There’s no more, ‘being from Wales, oh, it’s impossible!’ Before, Welsh bands had to go to London to look for A&R people; now A&R people go to Wales, looking for bands. There are a lot of Welsh bands who are all very, very good.”

It’s hard to talk to anyone from a band called ‘Funeral for a Friend’ without asking the obvious question, and it’s a two-parter: a) were they named after the Elton John track that opens his 1973 masterpiece, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and b) is it because their musical position deems it necessary to put an end to such music, in much the same way that Johnny Rotten hoped the likes of his Sex Pistols would put an end to such dinosaurs as Pink Floyd? “I’d love to say that was the case, but it’s definitely not,” Kris replies. “But saying that, we’re all big fans of Elton John; we all love his music. How can you not?”

Turns out the band takes its name from a different song with the same title – a track from an album called F*ck With Fire by Illinois ‘post-hardcore’ band Planes Mistaken for Stars (also known as PMFS) – that lead vocalist Matthew Davies-Kreye “really loves”. Kris hadn’t even heard of PMFS until he found out the band was named after one of their songs. “They’re pretty cool. Very strange, but good. The Elton John thing is cooler, though, definitely.”

As for the sub-generic labels with which Funeral for a Friend is categorised – particularly ‘screamo’, which, as the name suggests, is a shouty form of emo that grew out of hardcore punk, Kris reckons they just make it easier for people to fit within a ‘scene’, particularly when fashion is involved. “It’s almost like the glam scene in the 80s – everybody dresses a certain way, everybody wears tight jeans, everybody has the sloping fringe and full sleeve tattoos… All of the little sub-genres people use, like ‘post-hardcore’, ‘emo’, ‘screamo’… it’s to make people feel more comfortable. But you should only ever judge music with your ears, because that’s the only sense that you experience it with. I’d prefer not to categorise music; I judge it by what I like and what I don’t like.” Funeral for a Friend fits into an even more basic category for Kris: “First and foremost, we’re two guitars, bass, drums and a vocalist. That’s a rock band.”

Whereas Funeral For A Friend had veered towards the art rock of the concept album – their third full-length release, Tales Don’t Tell Themselves, was a song cycle – “a bit of an experiment in writing dynamic music to a story” about a fisherman going out to sea and getting lost. Their most recent release, Memory and Humanity, returned to that ‘first and foremost a rock band’ ideal of two guitars, bass, drum and vocalist. It also coincided with a label change. They are now with Roadrunner Records. The concept album about going to sea was the band’s last release on – fittingly – the Atlantic label.

For the new album and label, the band were ready to get cracking on a new release and the new material came remarkably easy, according to Kris. Part of this was down to the band’s seven years experience. “You become better at doing things and you can say what you want in a more concise wa,” he says. “You don’t have to ‘go around the ’ouses’ about it.” Getting together to write an EP’s worth of songs, after three weeks they discovered they had eight contenders. It made sense to “push forward” to a complete album. “Our opinion has always been, ‘if it feels good, do it’. And everything did feel good while we were doing it.”

For the most part, the band were happy to be moving on to “pastures new” without really knowing where it would take them. “When we sat down to write, we wanted to get a lot of the energy that we had with the first two records,” says Kris.

Energy is present and accounted for on what has been described as the band’s ‘darkest and most poignant release yet’. According to Kris, Matt writes all the lyrics, so “the songs can be very personal to him, his views of how he sees certain things in the world”. Clearly, some of them appear to be how he sees certain films. Although, in more recent years, it has become a kind of tasteless slogan on t-shirts depicting Charles Manson, I suspect that the song ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’ is actually a reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s  Vietnam War masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall) bellows the line, his explanation of why there’s no issue with his soldiers surfing. (‘Charlie’, is short for ‘Victor Charlie’, which, like ‘VC’, is military jargon for the South Vietnamese Communist Party’s army, the Vietcong.)

Or perhaps it’s the band’s token surf song since, as Australia’s Radio Birdman proved, there is an easy correlation between punk and surf music! 

“It’s about Apocalypse Now,” Kris confirms. “Matt is massively, massively into movies. We’ve got a long-running history of songs tied in with movies.” Indeed they do: the band’s second album, Hours, features the song ‘Streetcar’. Named for A Streetcar Named Desire, an early vehicle for actor Marlon Brando, ‘Streetcar’ was written as a tribute the week Brando passed away.

‘To Live And Die Like Mouchette’ appears to reference the Robert Bresson coming-of-age film about a poor, bullied French peasant girl, Mouchette, who eventually takes her own life. Apparently, Matt saw the film while the band were working on the album and, touched by it, wrote a song about the central character. “We’ll probably get sued now and won’t be allowed to play it anymore,” Kris observes. And then adds that the song is actually written from the point of view of what people should have said to Mouchette, what they should have been like to her, “instead of being a direct reference to the script”. Just in case.

Memory and Humanity

I’m particularly taken by the cover of Memory and Humanity. It features a kid, his back to us, contemplating ‘ladders’ that lead all the way up into the clouds. The ‘ladders’ are in fact ‘double helixes’ of DNA, but they could just as easily constitute a kind of ‘stairway to heaven’. What with the departure from Atlantic Records – home to Led Zeppelin – there could be a wry comment in there.

“Not intentionally,” Kris says. The artwork is by New Zealander Barny Bewick, who is also responsible for the cover art of Casually Dressed and Deep in Conversation. “It’s strange, because we released this album five years to the day that we released our first album, so the little boy is a bit of a reference to the time between the first record and that record.” An interesting reference. The cover of Casually Dressed…, based on The Lovers by surrealist painter René Magritte, features a couple sitting back-to-back. Perhaps they manage to get on a little better subsequently, and the five-year-old on the cover of Memory and Humanity is theirs.

“It wasn’t intentional to make any record to be released on the same day, it just turned out that the date became possible to do,” Kris says. He reckons that leaving a label is like “starting again”, and it was meaningful to be able to release the album on a day that, for all intents and purposes, originally signified the commencement of their career. So many of the good things that came together for Memory and Humanity hark back to Casually Dressed and Deep in Conversation – even, says Kris, the way they wrote the songs. “We didn’t go into a plush rehearsal space and spend months – we got together in the front room of our drummer Ryan Richard’s house and basically clashed heads and argued until we came up with ideas for songs that we were all happy with. It was very similar to how we did Casually Dressed…; it definitely felt like ‘going back to our roots’.”

Since Kris is already reminiscing about those days, it’s worth asking after his brother, Kerry Roberts, who used to be the band’s other guitarist. Did Kris and Kerry have a tendency to ‘punch on’, like brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher have been wont to do in Oasis, or brothers Ray and Dave Davies in the Kinks?

“No, my brother’s my best friend!” Kris exclaims, explaining that Kerry, “a very, very intelligent boy”, always maintained a good job; since the band went through periods – often for as long as 18 months – where no money was made, Kerry had to find a better way to pay his mortgage and maintain his marriage. While his departure from Funeral for a Friend “was awkward for a period of time”, it’s worked out for the best. “My brother’s the biggest supporter of the band,” Kris reports.

“Are there any times that you’re enjoying the rock’n’roll high life on the other side of the world when you’re tempted to get on the phone and ring him at what would be 2am, and say, ‘you could be here right now, Kerry – but you’re not!’” I ask, cheekily. “No, definitely not,” Kris says. “But I do keep up with him. He’s got two boys now, so I’ve got two nephews. If anything, I think he has more to treasure than I have, really.”

This interview was originally conducted for
Live to Ride magazine but didn’t quite make it into an issue. Never mind – I’m more than happy to host it here on my blog!

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