When the coronavirus pandemic simultaneously shuttered the entire world back in March of 2020, many individuals—left alone with their thoughts—fell into some deep personal reflections. But Editors bandleader Tom Smith tumbled a little deeper into the abyss than most. And he arrived at some unexpected aesthetic conclusions.
Having just issued their Black Gold: Best of Editors anthology in 2019, the band’s timing dovetailed perfectly with the jittery new uncertainty of the Covid era. “So we asked ourselves pretty serious questions as a band,” Smith recalls. “Like, ‘What are we? Is there a place for us anymore? Have we done all we need to do? And is this a good time to just pack it all in?’ Everything was being taken away, we didn’t know if it would come back, so it was nice that this person arrived with these ideas, and we got to share the creative process with him. It was nice, it was new, and it totally took us by surprise.”
The musical mystery guest? One Benjamin John Power, the Ivor Novello Award-winning anchor of Blanck Mass and Fuck Buttons, whose fascination with the thumping grind of vintage EDM outfits like Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and DAF (Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft) gradually helped shape the sound of Smith and crew’s new seventh album, EBM. It was nothing either party had anticipated or plotted, Smith swears. The intensely grind-throbbing collaboration—from the opening military march “Heart Attack” through a club-ready synth-rocker called “Kiss,” the ominously rumbling “Strawberry Lemonade,” and the bright, frothy danceable closers, “Educate” and “Strange Intimacy”—has jerked the group’s reins in a dramatically different direction, yet one that still feels darkly comfortable, befitting Smith’s trademark spooky, sepulchral singing voice and shadowy, Baudelairean lyrical musings. The team-up worked so well, in fact, that Power has now joined Editors as a permanent member—the last transformation Smith ever imagined transpiring during lockdown, especially after seriously considering a band breakup.
“But to come through all that and to now be excited about the future?” Smith, 41, exclaims, still somewhat stunned over the renaissance. “This was just fucking great, of course!” He broke it all down for Paste in a recent call from his native Britain.
Paste: We always wind up talking about film, and how it influences your writing. So I’m thinking that with the pandemic, you had time to watch quite a few.
Tom Smith: I remember. But I don’t know man—I don’t think so. My involvement in this one is different. This is such a different record for us and for me, so the music side of things wasn’t my job this time. I mean, I think you can hear a lot of cinematic reference points and a lot of musicality to it, but me doing the lyrics and the singing? I can’t think of any that springs to mind. But this whole record, it’s because of the pandemic. It grew at a time when we couldn’t spend time with each other and we were kind of aiming to make music for a concert that never happened, and the day-to-day crazy life that everyone was going through, and the isolation and the time away from the band and friends and stuff? This kind of drip-feeding of working on these songs that Ben was sending me in the evening was like an escape from that bleakness, but there was also this imagining—hoping—that this music would be heard by, or is being made for, people in a communal sense, as a shared kind of communal experience. So I was dreaming of that, and not knowing at the time if that was ever going to come back.
Paste: What was the concert that never happened?
Smith: About three years ago, Editors were asked to do a concert in Europe, headlining at a festival tent. We were asked to do two sets—one set would be a traditional concert, but for the second set, they asked us to do something bespoke, a one-off. So we’d been working with Blanck Mass on additional production on Violence and we’d become quite close and we were friends, so we approached him with the idea to try and do an Editors concert, but we would reimagine the songs that people already knew, the old songs, in an industrial, kind of techno feel, using him and his expertise. And he was completely down with the idea, so we started the process of talking, and also sending ideas of how to reimagine the old songs—in our heads, it was going to be this kind of goth-y, sweaty nightclub-festival experience, you know? But as we started to work and talk about it, the pandemic hit. And in the early stages of that, we still worked—we didn’t know that that concert would never happen. But as lockdown dragged on, the realization slowly dawned, like, “I don’t think this thing is gonna happen. Maybe it’ll happen next summer.” But in the meantime, as well as working on “Papillon” and the other older songs, then we thought maybe we could play some new songs together for this. And initially, it’s not really a great idea to play new songs at a festival, but he sent over some new ideas, and one was “Karma Climb” and one was “Kiss,” and they just blew my mind. And just the idea of presenting a new song in that environment was so exciting, and so having these new songs to work on in that time of lockdown was life-giving—it was wonderful to have that kind of escape. So as time went on, the new songs started to snowball, but also at the same time, the concert went away, so we ended up with six, seven new songs. And at that moment in time, it wasn’t an Editors record, but we then talked about it becoming an Editors record and involving everybody. And then the following year, we got in the studio and finished it. So most of the songs were initially designed for a concert that never happened. But here we are.
Paste: So is Ben an official Editor now?
Smith: He is, yeah. So part of this conversation was asking him, “Well, how would you feel about joining the band?” And also me talking to the rest of the band, and how did they feel about the material and the idea of five people becoming six. Because those first three records we made with Chris [Urbanowicz], and then we made three records since then, with Justin [Lockey] and Elliott [Williams] as a five-piece? This [was] our seventh record, and it really felt like the right time for some kind of shift again—it felt like a very natural time to evolve. So yeah—there was a lot of talking, a bit of soul searching, but at the same time asking ourselves, “What do we want the band to be? Do we still want the band to exist? Do we want to try and push things or just stick to what we know?” But I think everyone was just excited about the material, and we’ve always gotten a bit of a kick out of pushing ourselves into new places, so it was like, “Yeah! Okay!” And as soon as Covid and the rules around Covid allowed us to physically be in the same room together—and this was a year and a half later—we got into the studio together to finish the songs and add a rhythm section and talk about it together and hang out, and that was also the first time I’d seen the rest of the band during that time, let alone this new formation, or incarnation of the band, and it was an emotional time. And it was beautiful. And it was so exciting to have this new life growing at the same time, that we were just buzzing to work on together. So yeah, it’s been a bit of a trip. And it wouldn’t have happened if Covid didn’t happen, I don’t think. As strange as that is.
Paste: Which is interesting, because on “Strange Intimacy,” the closing track, after a whole album of synthesized keyboards, it’s your simple, basic piano that takes over.
Smith: There’s a lot of piano in that one, yeah—it’s underpinned by this syncopated piano stuff. It’s a balance, though, isn’t it? It’s always about trying to find the right combination of electronic elements and natural elements, in conjunction with my voice in the song. But we’ve been writing that way for years, really. With every record that kind of happens between the rock side of things and the electronic, and it’s something that we’ve navigated differently with each record. But it’s always been there, perhaps with the exception of the fourth record. But with Ben’s influence, his musicality is so strong and so strident, the balance that we found on this record is particularly more vivid than before, I think, perhaps. And despite it being very electronic, I still think it’s a rock record at its heart—deep down, it’s got the devil horns or whatever that is. So yeah, it’s a rock record.
Paste: Looking back on two different versions, one of your best songs is the Cormac McCarthy-inspired “No Sound But the Wind,” and it’s just your somber voice and piano, bare bones. Why didn’t you go in that more gothic direction instead?
Smith: I know. And then Ben came along with these techno-infused bangers, and it went off in a completely different place. There’s a track on the record called “Silence,” which is the most introspective, and also me tackling isolation, and missing other people and contact—lockdown sadness, shall we say. That song “Silence” is perhaps the closest to that kind of feeling, musically and lyrically, and it kind of splits the record in two, because it’s quite overwhelming and full on, the album, musically. So for me, as a songwriter, when I sit down to write, I naturally go to that place. But the majority of these songs, apart from that one, don’t start that way. So this is a very different record, in a songwriting sense from any other Editors record.
Paste: And silence itself, at the beginning of the pandemic, was terrifying, with no jets in the sky. Then it was kind of comforting with no jets in the sky.
Smith: Yeah. I mean, there was something beautiful about the whole thing anyway, spending lots of time with family. And like you say, the lack of aircraft passing through the skies was kind of scary, but then it was kind of wonderful and awe-inspiring as you got used to it. And some days you’d wake up and go, “Hey—this is wonderful! I’m enjoying the time with my very close family!” But then the next day, you might wake up and go, “I haven’t seen, or given Russell a hug for half a year. Is life ever gonna be the same again?” Or, selfishly, “Will there ever be a concert again?” So every day, I was absolutely caught between the two, because it definitely was a funny old time. And me and my family moved out of London, coincidentally, just before the pandemic, just after we’d done our Best Of. So we’re out near where I grew up—I grew up in Gloucestershire, in the southwest of England. So yeah, it’s green, it’s not London life. And I miss London life, don’t get me wrong, I definitely didn’t fall out of love with the place. But it worked out that we were somewhere green and rural for what was a very strange couple of years. And we get quite a lot of foxes, badgers, as well. But do you know what we get a lot of around here? We get a lot of cows. Where I live, strangely, they just let the cows run wild, like it’s India or something. So there’s a lot of bovine moments in my life. And we also got a dog, as well, so there were a lot of canine walks going on. He’s a Portuguese water dog, and he’s awesome—I can’t imagine life without him now. So one hand, there was something beautiful about being forced to stop the routine, and the world kind of stopping and breathing. And then, like I say, there were all those anxieties, as well. So “Silence” was me kind of dealing with that. And I had someone close who lost someone during the pandemic—not due to Covid, but regardless, they couldn’t say goodbye properly. That was taken away, and it was such an awful, awful thing, and missing the chance to do that was what fueled that song. Not on my behalf, but me being close to somebody who went through that.
Paste: But you and Andy Burrows actually squeezed in a second collaborative album last year, too? And his band Razorlight is back together, as well?
Smith: Yeah. They’re doing stuff. And Andy and I made that record the summer before Covid, so Covid really fucked that release up. I mean, it was nice to have some music to put out during that time, and to talk to people like this. But ultimately, it was regrettable not to be able to get out and play our funny little pop songs for people, because I’m very proud of that record. And since then, Andy and Johnny [Borrell, mercurial band frontman] have been working together and playing music together, so Andy’s in a great place. I haven’t seen him for a few weeks at the moment. But yeah, the ship of Razorlight is steadily sailing at the moment.
Paste: And you turned 40 during the pandemic. That must have been an interesting birthday.
Smith: Yeah. It was another one of those Zoom birthdays, my 40th. And I mean, it was what it was—I had some beautiful messages from people. But the whole thing just reminded you of how much you missed everybody. And 40 is a bit of a head-spin. I’m 41 now, so it feels like quite a long time ago.
Paste: I can’t believe you never took Editors even further back in time, to Sisters of Mercy sinister.
Smith: You know, I did have a little Sisters of Mercy moment during the pandemic! We started working on a couple of songs, and our management said I should listen to Sisters of Mercy. And there were a couple of songs that I got hooked on, like “This Corrosion.” I was spinning that a lot, but I haven’t listened to any albums properly. I was really into it, so I need to spend more time in that world. It’s the drama of it—it’s so theatrical, in many ways, and I was really into it.
Paste: Any new hobbies you picked up during lockdown?
Smith: No. For me, obviously, the day was broken up into pieces—we had schooling with our two boys, which wasn’t that much work, but you just always had to be there to steer. A lot of their classes were done online, but you had to be around just to make sure it was all okay. And in the evenings, I was working on these songs. So I did bake some bread, banana loaf and some other types of baking. But you know what I did get into which I hadn’t before? We got a coffee machine, so my wife and I would texture the milk and make a nice coffee, because you couldn’t go out and get one from your local cafe. So I guess that is a hobby of sorts.
Paste: It sounds like delivery of Ben’s files every night became almost Pavlovian for you, the part of the day you looked forward to the most.
Smith: Yeah! It was homework! Just like this drip-feeding of an avenue of being creative, and—like I said—just being surprised and going somewhere that was the complete opposite of this day-to-day lockdown life, which was so repetitive. And I guess that’s why some people baked bread. But I had something else to make instead!
is out now on [PIAS].