If [being in a band and wanting to tour] wasn’t your passion since you were a child, I don’t think you can really withstand for too long what it throws at you.
Following up on the success of their 2009 debut album A Brief History of Love and 2012’s Future This—and going off-the-grid for nearly four years thereafter—The Big Pink returns with four new tracks, including lead-off single “Hightimes,” lifted from the London outfit’s forthcoming Empire Underground EP. Perhaps less of a comeback as other media outlets have jumped to purport, it’s certainly a return to form. In the tradition of the band’s most far-reaching tracks, notable among them “Velvet” and “Dominos” off that aforementioned debut LP, “Hightimes” is a haunting anthem that reaffirms The Big Pink’s affinity for cavernous beats and walls of fuzz. It’s a hallmark entry in the project’s familiar wheelhouse that should find similarly big commercial placements.
The Big Pink’s eagerly-anticipated return wouldn’t be complete without some retooling. Founding member Milo Cordell left the band in 2013 to focus on running his punk label, Merok Records. And although Robbie Furze had once expressed interest in moving forward as a solo act, “Hightimes” dropped with the announcement of a new four-piece lineup featuring the frontman (lead vocals/guitar), his wife Mary Charteris (vocals/keyboards), Free Hallas (drums), and Jesse Russell (bass). Currently on the road with their North American tour in support of Empire Underground—they also have a five-day pit stop at SXSW and dates opening for The Kills—The Big Pink is set to release a third full-length by the year’s end. It’s high time for that, too.
Empire Underground drops on March 4. You can pre-order now at B3SCI Records.
You guys officially kicked off the Empire Underground tour in North America in D.C. and played a show last night at Baby’s All Right in New York. How did that go over?
That was so fun, man. It was pretty crazy… We were back in London for our visas in January and it took a while for us to get that, so we had to plan the tour without any rehearsals. Last Monday, I flew out from London to pick up some gear from my house in L.A. and went straight to D.C. the next day. I met up with Mary and the band there and did the gig the following day. I mean, we did rehearse remotely: Mary and I rehearsed in London, and Jesse and Free rehearsed in Boston. But we sort of came together in the soundcheck. It was kind of wild. It was good to be back in D.C. and New York has been really nice. I actually haven’t been back here for a bit. The response was great. The new songs have been playing really good live. It’s a little scary when you get back to the stage after sitting in front of the computer screen and being in the studio for so long. You don’t know if it’s going to work, so when it does translate to the live stage, it’s a good feeling.
You have a grueling touring schedule ahead with back-to-back shows in different cities. From your experience, what’s the secret to having a successful tour, both on and off the stage?
I think being mentally prepared for the whole thing is very important and getting yourself into the right headspace for the performances. Something that I’ve learned over the years is that, before you go on stage, you really have to center yourself and understand what it is you’re about to do. I had this amazing moment once at The Casbah in San Diego: One of these guys came up to me—I think it was a roadie or the stage manager—and said, “Play every show like it’s your last show.” That has resonated with me for years, and it’s true. You have to give it this kind of weight every time. As for just existing on the road, you have to hold it down, you know? You keep the partying in check, especially if you’re the singer. It’s a nightmare trying to keep your throat in check. [Laughs] That can be a little bit tricky. You try not to drink too much and try to sleep every second you can.
A lot of critics have already called Empire Underground a comeback for The Big Pink. Is this an accurate depiction from your point of view? You posted a snippet of the “Decoy” demo in early 2014, so it doesn’t appear to me that you ever stopped making music altogether.
It’s a tricky one! I don’t know if the whole “comeback” thing is a negative or a positive thing. I guess it is a “comeback,” but maybe more in my head. I feel like I’ve been away for way too long, you know? On the other hand, it hasn’t been that long. It’s a difficult question. I guess it is a comeback, but I want it to feel like it’s a progression from where we left off. It was a difficult thing, really, to try and figure out what it was that worked. Was I even going to carry on with The Big Pink after Milo left? For about six months, I thought maybe I should go solo or do something totally different. When I started writing, it sounded like The Big Pink, so it made sense to keep it. Now I’m really happy. I would’ve been really upset had I let it die off after the second record.
I did want to ask you about Milo’s departure. Was it abrupt when that happened?
I think, unspokenly, it was a matter of when he was going to leave rather than if he was going to. Milo always said that he didn’t consider himself a musician. Although I was producing a lot of the music, he would work as my producer in the studio. I think you have to be a musician and really love touring and playing music live. Touring is so hard if you didn’t grow up from your earliest memories wanting to be in a band to play guitar, sing, or play whatever instrument on stage and tour the world. If that wasn’t your passion since you were a child, I don’t think you can really withstand for too long what it throws at you. I think Milo thought he’d done it all at that point, you know? We played Wembley Stadium and we toured the world a few times. But my response to that was, “We played Wembley Stadium, dude, but we were third on the bill.” [Laughs]
What was your concept behind this EP? “Hightimes” is a great single to lead everything off.
“Hightimes” is a good example and that’s why I wanted to release that as the first song. That song is about hope. It’s a retrospective of what we’ve been through and what I’ve been through in the last few years. The message is about the high times through the years and our careers, and what I am and what we are… That sentiment is kind of felt throughout the EP and probably embedded in the third record that’s coming out later this year. I definitely wanted to push the programming a lot. With the production, I wanted to clean up a lot. I wanted to take The Big Pink sound and fine-tune it again. I’m really proud of what we’ve done. I didn’t really let that many people tell me how it should sound. I wanted to stay true to my sound. I looked at what we’ve done before, especially with the first album and what made A Brief History of Love so special.
Obviously a lot has gone on in the four years leading up to this EP as a follow-up to Future This. A Brief History of Love debuted in 2009. Does that first album feel like a lifetime ago?
It does feel like a long time ago, but we still play a lot of those songs from the first album live. I’m personally not a big fan of my second album. It does feel like a long time ago being back in New York now because we recorded that at Electric Lady Studios. I guess it doesn’t seem as long as it’s actually been because the songs haven’t really dated, in my opinion. They still feel so relevant to our new material, you know? In that respect, it doesn’t feel that long ago at all.
So is Empire Underground a prelude to the third album or an entirely standalone project?
Well, we wrote an entire record with 11 tracks total and the idea of having an EP came about when we were in L.A. We decided that maybe we should just release an EP first and write more songs to fill the gap to do a full-length later. There’s definitely a good bulk of music sitting there waiting to be completed that will be coming out as an album, probably in October. The second I get off this tour and after SXSW, we have three weeks or so off before going on tour again with The Kills. So we’ll be heading back into the studio to put together some of the ideas we’ve got.
The Big Pink has always been big on the visuals. The first and last time I spoke with Milo, you guys were working heavily with Tim Saccenti. What’s happening on the EP cover art?
It’s definitely a different feel. I loved our visuals on the first album and all the stuff that went around that. There was definitely a kind of romantic quality and a sadness to it—a romantic, lost and sad feeling. For a second, I wanted to pull that aesthetic again, but I quite liked this idea of having a rebellious and post-apocalyptic, and celebratory imagery, I guess. That’s the theme I was going for and presented to the graphics guys. They came back with this idea of taking lots of iconic symbols and fucking with them to create new symbols. It has this gang takeover sort of feeling. I like it, it’s cool. I think the idea of being in a band is like being in a gang. I just always wanted to be in a gang, I guess, traveling around as a unit. [Laughs] I like the symbolic nature of it.
Your gang is quite large at the moment with The Heirs supporting you on tour. I hadn’t heard of them before, but I like that song “Alright Goodnight.” Did you all bond yet?
They’re really lovely and sweet. I hadn’t heard much of their stuff before, but I was told they would compliment our sound and they would be great to tour with. We’ve only done the two gigs so far, but I think it’s going to be a great tour. It’s hard sometimes with support bands because you don’t really hang out that much—weirdly—especially if you’re rising at different times at venues.
I saw that you guys put up several behind-the-scenes teaser clips from the “Beautiful Criminal” music video on Instagram. When is that due? It’s a little scary, frankly.
[Laughs] Well, Rob Hawkins, my really talented friend who also did our “Velvet” video, is a little eccentric in the way he works. That’s why we didn’t work with him again on “Dominos” and some other stuff, which I think was a mistake. I’m not saying I didn’t like the “Dominos” video. What I’m saying is that, when we decided “Beautiful Criminal” would need a video at some point, I told this to Rob back in Christmas. And knowing full well the delivery date wouldn’t be until the end of March—plenty of time—we ended up shooting it like two days before I left to go on this tour. It was so badly put together. I had to pick up the camera. I had go get the lights. In the end, he wanted me and Mary to be covered in paint, wrestling naked. [Laughs] “Sorry, dude. This is not happening.” We somehow convinced two friends of ours to cover themselves in paint and wrestle. I mean, it could be a disaster or it could be brilliant. He usually pulls it off, so whatever.
What is it high time for, Robbie?
It’s high time to deal with what needs to be done. That’s what I need to do with The Big Pink.