Messed!Up

Straight from the underground into a perfect future: Ten Fé interviewed

Ralf Schluenzen June 30, 2019

Sometimes Spotify is great. It helps you discover music you otherwise wouldn’t run into, because of its auto-generated “personalized” playlists. That’s how Ten Fé’s track “Overflow” showed up in my weekly mix playlist one day. I liked the song (in spite of my currently more post punk and dark wave oriented diet), got curious, and started to listen to their debut album “Hit The Light”.

Before that day I had never heard of Ten Fé, and I was a bit surprised to find that their songs already had millions of streams. In fact, their debut from 2017 has over thirty million streams so far. Music-wise they’re probably best described as “updated and modern Americana”, a seventies acoustic vibe mixed with electronics; a bit like Kurt Vile meets Fleetwood Mac’s harmony vocals.

Just recently I found out that they had released a new album that took this vibe to a whole new level, extremely lush, organic and big-sounding, like the “Rumours” or the “Tusk” eras of Fleetwood Mac.

Ten Fé were founded in London by Ben Moorhouse and Leo Duncan, originally as a duo, after they already “cut their teeth” busking on the underground for several years and learned the craftsmanship. When they toured their debut album, they grew and became a five-piece band, which they enjoyed that much that they decided to also record their new album “Future Perfect, Present Tense” as a band. And not just that.

Although being a completely independent band with all the financial risks that come with it, they involved renowned producer Luke Smith [Foals, Everything Everything, Anna of the North, Depeche Mode etc.] and star audio engineer Craig Silvey [Arcade Fire, NIN, Editors, Arctic Monkeys, Noel Gallagher etc.]. And they created the album in their own unique way. These lush and “sunny” pop songs were recorded in the middle of the dark winter in Norway.

Of course we just had to take the chance and sit down for a chat with Leo and Ben when they came to Hamburg to play the Molotow on their tour across the world.

The Spinal Tap moment

Gig thirty-five out of forty in sixty days – copying or coasting?
Leo: (laughs) A bit of both! It’s been amazing, for me the touring itself is never tiring. When I was a kid and I was reading Jack Kerouac novels, and dreamt about being on the road and watching “Don’t Look Back” by Pennebaker, about Dylan; all I ever wanted to do was go to a different city every day and play music. That’s the whole point why you are a musician, you get so much energy from that. 

And we’ve had so much experience of touring and not playing to loads of people. Now we’re doing tours where we’re playing to people. People are coming every night, and we’re selling out shows.

Have you ever kept track on how many gigs you’ve played?
Leo: Nah!

Ben: Over all? No.

I mean, you started busking, right? If we count those as well, are we in the tens of thousands?
Ben: (laugh) You wouldn’t be able to count it!

Leo: No! It’s too many. We busked for three or four hours, three or four times a week, we were doing it a lot – loads! Different crowds every night. (laughs)

Any “Spinal Tap” moments yet? Did you always find the way to the stage and back?
Ben: On this tour, we’ve been all right. We haven’t got too lost, but it has happened before. Definitely played at a couple of big, sort of winding venues, where we’ve been trying to get to the stage. You can hear the music already, but try to find the stage door.

Leo: There’s definitely always “Spinal Tap” moments, wherever you are. It’s surreal, so much of touring.

So what was the most surreal moment of this tour so far, if any?
Leo: I mean, losing our drummer in New York was funny. We managed to lose him.

That is “Spinal Tap”. You didn’t blow him up though?
Leo: (laughs) No! We didn’t blow him up. We lost him for about eight hours with very little idea or help as to how to find him.

But playing the Troubadour was pretty surreal, I mean on a slightly more sincere level. Those are the things you dream of doing. That was very surreal. And also aided by reality; because there was a point in one of the songs where it’s a really big moment in the gig, and we have a really big sound coming out of the keyboard. We all got prepared for it – and nothing came out. And it’s the only time that ever happened, at any of the shows, at the biggest moment of the set.

Do you still get nervous when you get up on stage? I mean after having survived on the tube for many years nothing can probably shake you that much anymore, can it?
Ben: Yeah, we definitely do get nervous, from time to time. Especially a big gig, like one where we’re really looking forward to it and it’s kind of a big night. Like Berlin, we played yesterday, that has always been a big gig for us. You just want it to go really well, you want it to be a great feeling for everyone. But there’s the adrenaline that comes with that, which is also really good. I think the adrenaline really helps to bring something good to the table.

And you enjoyed touring as much as Leo did? You didn’t say anything
Ben (laughs): No, I didn’t say anything. Yeah, for sure. Happily carry on going, really. When we come to the end of it on Sunday, it’s going to be hard to finish touring.

What happens after this? Do you have a break?
Leo: We certainly don’t have a show for at least another couple of weeks. And then we got a little show in London, and then we don’t have a tour until the autumn.

Do you manage to live off this project, or do you also have jobs on the side?
Leo: That’s a good question (laughs). We’re never sure because all the money we ever make goes back into this band. We don’t have jobs, Ben and I. I work in a café once a week, but the other lads in the band do have other jobs.

Because London is quite expensive to live in, isn’t it?
Leo: It is! But like any expensive city, the longer you live there, the longer you are tackling this “beast”, and you get wiser and wiser as to how you live there successfully and do what you want to do, and spend less money and do what you want to do. For years and years in London I was just battling with “How do you do what you want to do and live in this city”.

The production of “Future Perfect, Present Tense”

Many things are striking about the production on the new album. First of all, when you read the credits you get the impression you’re looking at a seventies or eighties era big budget production, not an independent album from 2019, funded by the artists themselves, and recorded over several weeks in a studio abroad before finishing it all off in a second session with a big name producer and mixing engineer.

What’s more interesting, they seem to have found a unicorn; a manager that really seems to have their back and helps the band with self-pronounced production-detail-OCD to realize their vision. The question is, are they ready for a grand and perfect future?

You just released ‘Future Perfect, Present Tense’ in March this year. The production credits, to me, read like it was an album that was done “in the olden days”: Did you approach this album differently from your debut, because it was the first you did as a five-piece?
Leo: What always starts is the writing, we have to go into the studio with the songs already written. That’s our strength, that’s the thing we spend the most time on, the thing we are most proud of.

We spent like four or five months writing about thirty songs, after we finished the “Hit the Light” American tour. So that part was pretty much the same. We both write on our own and we get together every week, every two weeks, and then we play each other what we’ve written. That’s how our collaboration really works; we get together, we play what we’ve written and we improve it in those sessions together.

And what about A&R-ing? [the process of selecting the supposedly ‘right’ songs for an album, often done by the record company]
Ben: We run it through Russ, our manager Russ, who we’ve got a long relationship with. He’s been our manager since we first started releasing music, about six years ago. Since then we’ve had a really interactive relationship with him, and he has given a lot of his ideas on things when we show him new material.

He also, as well as sort of saying what he thought what could happen to the songs, kept pushing us for “more”, and kept saying, like: “I want more, I want them to be like, better-and-better, I want them to be hits. I want them to be the best things you’ve ever written”. So we just kept on writing, and eventually got to a space where, after kind of six months, we ended up with about ten songs that were written in a space of about four weeks. That ended up being the core of the new album.

And then, of all places, you went to Oslo, Norway in December.
Leo: (laughs) Yeah! Sounds great, doesn’t it? There was a similarity with the first album, the writing was the same, and then we thought of a number of producers in England and London. But we didn’t really like how we perceived London kind of sonically to “produce sound”, it seemed very shiny, and we really wanted to get away from that sonic.

Just like at the first album, where we got away from London and went to Berlin, we thought “Yeah, let’s go away and really get in the zone”. And we found this studio and this guy, engineer and producer Christian Engfelt and booked off two months before Christmas in December and then after Christmas in January.

I tried to find information about him and the studio, but I couldn’t find much.
Leo: I think he worked with Seasick Steve, but he’s the only person we heard of that he worked with. As far as we know, it’s not a particularly established studio.

Ben: Outside of Norway; Norwegian acts use it a lot.

Leo: So it was a new thing for him to work with a British band, and it was obviously new for us to work with a Norwegian.

How did you pick him? Was it important for you that he had a lot of analog gear?
Ben: Yeah, our manager found a playlist on Spotify that was of the stuff that he had done already. And more than knowing about that he used analog gear, we could just hear in it that there was a very warm, sort of, “woody” quality to it, which we were attracted to. When we arrived, we saw that that’s how he does it, he’s a real vintage analog head.

Did you have the whole band there or just the two of you?
Leo: The whole band! Now we are starting to get where it was different. And that was a conscious decision on our part; it was a conscious decision when we were writing not to make it too electronic, and because we wanted to replicate the excitement of this new band we formed in the last year touring “Hit the Light”.

It was a real feeling of brotherhood and also becoming a lot more tuned in to the bands that we’ve been listening to: Twin Peaks, Whitney, Kurt Vile, Mac Demarco and this kind of much more “rootsy” American bands. As well as of course the bands we fucking obsess about, like Fleetwood Mac or Creedence Clearwater Revival, bands we’ve loved for years and years and years. We’re like: “Ok, let’s not overthink it, let’s not go outside the comfort zone. This is how we want these songs to sound with these people, in this place”.

How many songs did you manage to track in Norway? All of them?
Leo: No, we went in with about fifteen or sixteen songs. We managed to track most of them, but quite a few of them didn’t make it on the album.

What was really interesting about Norway, and recording like that was that we found a number of our flaws were exposed in a way they never are when you are recording in your bedroom just the two of you. Or the way we’ve done the first album, where we would get really good session musicians to come in and play what we didn’t play. It was a really brutal session under the microscope, like “We are not as tight as we thought we were”. And we’ve got a lot of ideas in these demos but when you are in the “hothouse” of the studio and you are running out of time, you need to make quick decisions, and it became clear that the organic kind of chemistry, between us as a band, wasn’t as developed as we thought it was.

Essentially, when we left Norway, we didn’t have a finished album. That was a really kind of important process. Some songs worked really well, some songs didn’t. So we thought we were somewhere when we left for Norway, but when we got there we found we weren’t, and the completion of the album then, which basically took a good chunk of 2018, was about responding to that.

How did you get involved with Luke Smith? Why did you pick him? Was that something coming from the team around you?
Leo: Russ, our manager, manages him.

How convenient!
Leo: (laughs) Yeah! But that wasn’t the only reason, was it. [Looks at Ben]

Ben: No! We did our very first singles in the studio with Luke. That was when we were just a duo before the first album that we did those first singles; the first time we’ve been to a studio with anyone was with Luke Smith. But then we didn’t end up going with him for the first album.

We knew at that time what a great producer he was and we had a great working relationship with him. There’s a connection between us for sure. It just felt like he would be the perfect guy to work with for this album.

And mixing engineer Craig Silvey is your manager’s brother?
Leo: If only! That would make things a lot easier. No, we don’t have any favours we can call off him. To be honest, Craig Silvey was a bit of a dream. When he said he wanted to mix it, it was unbelievable.

Getting Craig in was a total dream. You know, you are always up against it financially. It’s just financial decisions.

Which is why I am so curious. When I checked the credits, I thought “Wow! That’s, like, a proper production in terms of all this effort you’ve put in”.
Leo: It is proper. The way this band works is that we have very good streaming figures; a lot of money from Spotify helps fund tours and albums being made. We have a lot of faith and we are uncomfortably perfectionist about the process of recording.

We’re happy spending money on that because that’s so important, and really invest in that. That’s also why Russ is amazing because he makes it happen. Like when we ran out of money half way through this album and he was able to find more.

And this is just a typical thing for a band; it is a huge production, it is like making a film or something. It is like any artistic endeavour, you are always up against the financial constraint. That forces decisions upon you that you have to react to. It was great when Craig Silvey said he could do it, and we found the money from somewhere. I don’t know how we found it but those are the things we would go busking again to get the money for, to have a good person mix the album.

You were just touching this “business sense” that probably is essential these days for a musician to survive, maybe even more so than in the past because you don’t even get the drugs for free any more.
Leo: (laugh) So few people do drugs now anyways. Certainly you don’t get drugs for free.

Yeah, the whole kind of question of money in the music industry now is very interesting. I think, the best thing about what we do, and what Russ does, is there is never any sadness or complaining [with mock disdain] “Ah, the music industry!”. If you think like that, you are fucked, and so many people do and they complain about it, and it’s like ‘What? There is money out there, you just need to find it!’

You for instance got the BPI export music grant to go to the US. Congrats!
Leo: Exactly! Thank you! Yeah we go that. I think it’s long term, that’s how we think about it. If we’re given money, we never go and blast it on clothes or a scooter, or whatever. We always put it back in the band. Ben and I hadn’t taken a holiday in three years until September last year, we don’t spend any money. And when we go on tour we sleep three men in a bed. It’s not glamorous, but what’s the point in living like that for six months and then [throws arms up in mock despair].

We need to go to America, and we need to tour there. And we need to come to Europe. The best thing about the band is that everyone understands that. It’s not like people are going “Ah, where’s my champagne?”.

About the label; is that your own? Is it a complete DIY thing?
Ben: It is, yeah! We put our albums out through PIAS. We use them for distribution; our manager actually works for them. He’s been working there for a number of years now and has that strong kind of place at the label. That’s worked out well for us. But in terms of the A&R-ing and the way that the campaign is run, that’s through our own label.

And how did you find your fabled manager?
Leo: We begged, stole and borrowed money to make our first demo with Luke Smith, because Ben had worked with him before, and said he’s really good. And we had tried a number of producers – this is when we were just in our bedrooms – like “We need a demo to send to people”.

We went in with Luke, we had a week with him and it went great. Luckily enough, the week after one of Russ’s artists, a guy called Petite Noir, was in recording some songs with Luke, and Russ said “I’m looking for a band to manage. Do you know anyone?”, and Luke said “Well, luckily enough…’ and he played what we had done the week before and Russ liked it and [snips his fingers] that was it. Six years ago pretty much now, spring 2013.

So sometimes, just briefly, stars do align and then it’s over.
Leo: Yeah, they did! They hadn’t aligned for a while (laughs).

But yeah, I like the stories because we sweated so hard to get the money to go with Luke. It wasn’t like “Oh, we were just at the right place at the right time”. We put all of our own money in, I think it was two thousand pounds.

Ben: We sort of put our eggs in that basket, and Russ was the great thing that came out of it, really.

Rock and roll: How to transport the big sound onto the stage

As Ten Fé is a five-piece band now they can perform their songs “traditionally” without needing modern technological wizardry, but of course this still requires the right instruments and equipment. Still, these music nerds aren’t gear-heads; their concept is that less is more!

How do you transport this “lush”, expensive sound onto the stage? Backing tracks?
Leo: Musicians! If you don’t have the right musicians, you’re fucked! We had to part with our drummer a month before this tour. It’s one the hardest thing we’ve had to do because we’ve built up this fellowship. We were best mates, he has toured across America with us. But it was clear that he was really good at playing that kind of electro stuff from the first album, but for this more subtle stuff, and the lushness and the feel, we had to get something different. I think without musicianship, what we are trying to do is really hard. We spend a lot of time on gear as well, certainly Ben knows more about it than I do.

Ben: We are definitely getting more into that now. We are not gearheads by any stretch of the imagination.

You have an Epiphone Casino guitar that I’ve seen pretty much everywhere. Is that your go-to guitar?
Ben: Yeah, I did always play that, but I recently started playing a Telecaster for live, which we borrowed from a good friend with a big guitar collection. That has been nice, playing a different guitar and getting more into guitar pedals, more into just the guitar sound itself.

Before I just had a setup that works with the amplifier and didn’t really think about it. But I think it is an important thing to get into. The more we get into playing as a band, the more we take it upon ourselves to make the sound. We realized we need to stretch out when it comes to what gear we have.

Leo, and your guitars? I only saw you playing, like, acoustic guitars for live so far?
Leo: Yeah, for this album what we’ve tried to do live is really concentrated on each member doing one thing and doing it well. I play a lot more rhythmical stuff on this album. So yeah, an acoustic guitar, high strung, Nashville tuning, an Eastman which is like a Chinese version of a Martin. It’s a nice guitar. It gives this kind of drone effect if it’s high strung; you are taking the top six strings of a twelve-string guitar. It sounds very jangly. And that’s a very conscious decision. When I play an electric, I play an Epiphone Sheraton.

But like Ben is saying, becoming a band, I am playing more “as a band”. You realize each person has to have responsibility for the sound. When we did the first album there was much electronic stuff on the track. I think that kind of let us be quite “lazy”. Maybe it’s the wrong word but there was a lot of electronic help going on and, again, the thing we got to finally find out was “Hang on (laughs) I should be doing that, with myself”. And then when you get on the road you are like “Alright, we need to make these sounds ourselves”.

Ben: We think about how to make a big sound just with a guitar and the amp. Or, how do you make a synth sound that really sits just right in the mix. It’s those things that you realize, when you get in the studio and it’s just the band playing – and you are trying to create the whole sound yourselves – that you have to make those things go a lot further.

So are there any “special things” for your live setup in terms of the gear? You mentioned pedals. Or just standard stuff and you don’t really worry about that?
Ben: (laughs) Got a few guitar pedals for the tour. I got a Green Muff, a gain pedal, and I have been going for a different amp. We bought a new keyboard, our keyboard player has been getting into that.

Leo: A Nord Electro. I mean, we are just constantly in transition, going from this place, where we were a duo and you didn’t have to think about the other instruments, to now – all of this stuff.

All this “baggage”.
Leo: Yeah! For me the fucking perfect thing is to have as minimal gear as possible – this is just for me personally – and just certain things that make a real impact. To me that’s what we are really concentrating on, when we play live. How do you make one thing really rude and there, and it’s hitting you. One thing in the sound, you know.

We talk about it like a relay race; it’s the vocal hitting you, and then it passes the baton to the lead guitar – boom! And you should be as excited to hear that lead guitar break as you are with the vocal, it’s got to have as much character as a voice, and then it’s the drum break. And then you are concentrating on the groove. And it’s like this baton is passed around and you shouldn’t overthink it because that’s what music is. It’s an energy that gets passed around if everyone is doing their job. But it’s something we want to get better at all the time, so that’s what we are concentrating on now.

It’s a far cry from “Electronic Beats”.
Leo: Yeah, did you come and see us then?

No, but I listened to the tracks and they certainly were a lot more, like you say, electronic. And now you sound pretty close to, I think, Fleetwood Mac.
Leo: (laughs) Yeah, we want to get the right balance, you know what I mean? We’re not gearheads, we’re not purists. We are not purists when it comes to analog gear, no way. We don’t think like that. We just want the song to sound as exciting as it can, and that’s another reason why you could say that we don’t really have a particular style as a band that is completely “one thing”. Having two different lead singers with two different song writing styles is always going to mean that.

So maybe as a closing question: I saw you saying somewhere else that you read a book about the fact that the “Age of the Rockstar” has passed?
Leo: That’s a good book! Really good book, that (laughs). Whether it’s true or not is interesting. I think it’s as much a sociological study of how culture has changed and how human relations are changed in the last fifty years.

Bob Dylan was sitting, freezing in his bed in Minnesota in the fifties, under his covers, listening to Little Richard on his transistor radio when he was twelve. And Little Richard must have sounded like he was from another fucking planet, and that’s all Bob would have thought about for like a month. Where does this come from? How could I get more? And I think the point is that an essential element of a “rock star” is mythology, and distance. Because it needs to grow in the imaginations of the people around you. And if you are given too much, then your imagination gets flat.

Like when people see what’s in your bedroom? [Ed: Ben and Leo once did an IV “what’s in your bedroom”]

Leo: (laughing) Exactly! You have to pick whose bedroom you are in! I think there is such a thirst for content whether you are a rockstar, Kanye West, or whether you are not, that’s what the book is saying. But I still think you can change people’s lives with music. And they can feel really close to you as a person and as an artist through what we are doing. And that’s the important thing!

 

Excellent closing words! Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us – and we’re looking forward to the show!

*****

And with this excellent closing statement our time is up and Ten Fé are getting ready for gig number thirty-five on this tour.

 


Photographer: ©Katrin Arfmann
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About The Author

Musician and music nerd (what else?), born like that. Picked up the guitar at 13, switched to synths and sequencers with the introduction of MIDI and never looked back. Loves all styles of music as long as there‘s a kind of urgency, ranging from post punk to electronic. Alarming attachment to vintage synthesizers and drum machines. Gear slut, totally.

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