Tears For Fears Are Back, and Closer Than Ever
At their peak, Tears For Fears made some of the most iconic songs of the 1980s, including “Shout” and “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” Talking to the duo on Zoom, they look much as they did on MTV back then, just aged a few decades. Singer-bassist Curt Smith is loquacious yet soft-spoken, and wears his hair shorter; singer-guitarist Roland Orzabal, with his long flowing hair and white beard, tends to pause before answering questions with both thoughtful sincerity and dry wit. “I do get asked for my autograph a lot nowadays,” he volunteers at one point. “Because they all think I’m in Lord of the Rings. They’re so disappointed when I tell them I’m Edgar Winter.”
The band’s new album The Tipping Point, which is out on Concord Records on February 25th, has been in the works for about seven years. The British duo’s albums have almost always come out of such long, complicated gestation periods. “We seem to be haunted with painful processes, long winded recordings, politics of the record company,” Orzabal says with a slight grin. These pains date back to even the band’s underdog 1983 debut: “We spent 8 months on The Hurting, which was absolutely ridiculous when bands our age or even older were wrapping an album in a month. We seem to attract pedantic people. Pedantic people plus Tears For Fears equals pain.”
Early sessions for The Tipping Point were plagued by a quest for relevance. “It started off with an attempt by management to bring Tears For Fears kicking and screaming into the modern world. So we found ourselves, like a lot of bands, going into this ‘speed dating’ writing situation,” Orzabal says, recalling how the duo’s previous manager linked them up with a series of younger artists. “What they’re saying is ‘We don’t really trust you guys, you’ve made some good records, but c’mon, you’re not very contemporary. So we’re gonna put you with people who know how to make a modern hit.’ So we did that, and it was interesting, but it’s not how we work at our peak.”
One of the band’s “speed dating” collaborations, “I Love You but I’m Lost,” co-written with Dan Smith of Bastille, was released as the new single on the 2017 compilation Rule the World: The Greatest Hits. When initial plans to release the album they’d completed fell through, Tears For Fears took a step back and decided to start over. “Curt and I grew to not like it, or certainly felt it had a bad smell to it, all those attempts at hit singles,” Orzabal says. So they rebooted the process, changing labels and management. In 2020 they began writing new songs without the same commercial aspirations in mind, and reworking five songs they liked from the unreleased project.
The thunderous “My Demons,” which they made with veteran songwriters Sacha Skarbek (Miley Cyrus, Adele) and Florian Reutter (Christina Aguilera, Icona Pop), was the one collaboration that survived from the “speed dating” experiment. The bigger creative epiphany came when Orzabal and Smith sat down together with two acoustic guitars and came up with “No Small Thing,” which opens the album. “It was just me and Curt, just like the old days, when we were kids,” Orzabal says. The album version retains that acoustic sound, before building to some of the electronic bombast Tears For Fears made its name on. “We were missing the heart and soul of the album, and we needed to complete the narrative.”
The Tipping Point’s title track deals with the grief Orzabal experienced after his wife of 35 years, Caroline, died in 2017. “The trauma of losing your wife makes you raw. And in that rawness, I certainly started to get a sense of what was going on culturally,” Orzabal says, speaking slowly. “A little voice told me that what we were about to do was very important.” Smith nods in agreement, adding, “I think that once you manage to tap into those emotions and use them in music, you realize how powerful music can be.”
Other songs, like the bright, pulsing “Break the Man,” wrestle with the same injustice and inequality that inspired earlier classics like “Woman in Chains.” Smith, who wrote and sang “Break The Man,” sees it as a timely look at trying to end patriarchy. “‘Woman In Chains’ is definitely about female abuse more than anything else, and this is more about an attempt to give women more power, which is a different way of looking at it and a far more modern way of looking at it.”
Over the last four decades, Orzabal and Smith have changed directions and started over several times. They met as teenagers in Bath, England, where they started their first band of note, Graduate, a mod revival quintet. Graduate released one album in 1980, and kicked around the lower reaches of the UK pop charts with a silly little song called “Elvis Should Play Ska.” When I tell them I’d recently listened to Graduate’s album for the first time, Smith deadpans, “I’m sure it was fascinating.”
Spurred by the synth sounds they were hearing on albums by heroes like Peter Gabriel and David Bowie, Orzabal and Smith quit Graduate after an exhausting tour and started Tears For Fears. “When we were in Graduate, that clearly was not our strength. There were bands already out there who were way beyond us, anything from The Jam to The Specials to Madness,” Orzabal says. “But it just so happened that when we decided to leave Graduate and become a duo, we didn’t really need to look very far, Curt’s antennae’s always up for new forms of music. We were in his apartment when Gary Numan got to #1 with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and it was like a punch in the face.”
Orzabal wrote all of the songs on The Hurting, and sings many of their singles, with Smith gradually contributing more to the writing on subsequent albums. But on their first major UK hit “Mad World,” a dynamic emerged that would become key to the Tears For Fears sound: Smith singing Orzabal’s lyrics. “There was no life to the song when I sang it,” Orzabal says, contrasting his forceful vocal style with Smith’s softer, more sensitive delivery. “Curt went in and did the vocal, it’s like fuckin’ hell, night and day. I am under no illusions that the two biggest songs in our catalog, and the biggest earners for me, are ‘Mad World’ and ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World,’ and that’s Curt singing them. He does something to a song, and we are kind of spoiled for choice as to who sings what.”
1985’s Songs from the Big Chair was a worldwide blockbuster, selling 5 million copies in the U.S. alone. But after touring in support of 1989’s The Seeds of Love, Smith moved to New York and effectively left the band. “The pressure cooker of being in a band together for ten years, with all the huge success we had and all the touring we did, y’know, we both ended up with absolutely no personal space,” Orzabal remembers.
Orzabal continued leading Tears For Fears for two albums in the ‘90s, and the two didn’t speak for 9 years. After they resumed communication to settle some business affairs, they quickly found their old camaraderie. “Once we had a phone conversation we both realized that the animosity just wasn’t there. We’d had separate life experiences, and there’s nothing better than when you both have something different to talk about,” Orzabal says.
In 2004, Orzabal and Smith named their first post-reunion Tears For Fears album Everybody Loves A Happy Ending. And for a time, it seemed like they’d ridden off into the sunset, even as they continued to tour and play their old hits. But The Tipping Point started out as an itch to have something fresh in their setlists. “The process started because we felt like we wanted new material to be playing live,” Smith says.
Today, Orzabal and Smith may be closer than ever, both as people and geographically—they own homes about a mile apart from each other. “Quite often when I come back from tennis I see Curt’s little legs jogging down the street,” Orzabal says with a laugh. The ups and downs of making The Tipping Point, and sharing the difficult life experiences that inspired the album, have deepened their friendship in a new way. “I feel he is an important part of my entire life. It’s kind of like we have a blood bond.”