To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, pop (much like life) finds a way. And sometimes, it springs forth from a sleepy rural village in England. Brothers Ben and Ross Duffy, the duo best known as Fenech-Soler, are a prime example that you’re only really limited by what you can imagine – no matter where you’re from.
“We are quite happy where we sit on the spectrum, and we think pop is a marvel,” Duffy chirps enthusiastically over the phone. It’s close to midnight on a Thursday in early April, and the older sibling sounds unbothered by the late hour.
Ben Duffy is back to where it all started for him and his band – the town of Kings Cliffe, Northamptonshire; population: 1,200 – readying himself for their next North American tour, where they’ll play 14 cities in just under a month alongside fellow brother duo Knox Hamilton. And though much has changed for the band, with a couple of hit singles, albums, and a change in lineup earlier this year, Duffy’s North remains true.
“I think it’s incredible when we hear a really good pop song – it really does blow my mind; we’ve always been interested in exploring that.”
Fenech-Soler play Washington, D.C.’s U Street Music Hall on 4/26, and New York’s Bowery Ballroom on 4/28. All dates with Knox Hamilton. ZILLA is out now on So Recordings.
Brightest Young Things: How do a group of guys from Kingscliffe start making music with such a global appeal to it? I don’t want to say this is a product of the power of the Internet, but it sort of is.
Ben Duffy: Aw, thanks man. I guess myself and my brother Ross have always written music – we naturally were drawn to the same music, and grew up being inspired by the same music. I guess because we grew up in a place that’s pretty remote, even within our own country, we’ve always had a very outward, imaginative view on creation. We’ve only ever thought outward, and the band – even with a name like “Fenech-Soler” – has always felt very foreign to us. So yeah, it’s always been very different for us.
BYT: You’ve talked about making music with your brother for a long time. Have you two always made music together? What was the first project you collaborated on, and what was the style?
BD: I’m four years older than Ross, and he started getting into music kinda before I did. I was away at university, and I came back and saw that he had started a band in the school – he was maybe 15, 16? They were playing some pretty awful emo punk – English kids trying to be American, basically. [Laughs] Being teenagers, really; I thought that was hilarious, but I also respected what Ross was doing – he was writing some great songs, and I was quite inspired by that. So we just kind of messed around with instruments. I had learned to play the drums at school, and he’d play the guitar, so we’d sit around for hours just playing. That was our first experience of picking up instruments and feeding off each other, long before we bought a laptop and started making electronic productions.
BYT: What’s it like to work so closely with your brother?
BD: Umm… yeah, it’s good! [Laughs] I guess we haven’t really known anything else; we’ve always worked together, and we can’t make a decision on our own, especially with music. We find that unpacking the maze of writing a song can be incredibly confusing. Ultimately songwriting is just a succession of small decisions until you arrive at a point of writing a song – and each of those decisions can totally turn the piece of music off if you turn the wrong way. I know what he’s thinking, and he knows what I’m thinking, and it’s a special connection we really treasure. I think that’s why you find so many siblings in bands.
We get on, we’re good friends, but we’ll disagree – and when we do, it’s not good. Sometimes he’ll love a song and I’ll hate it, or vice versa, and it won’t make the record and we get really angry at each other. I mean, we argue probably once a day like brothers do, I imagine. [Laughs]
BYT: It’s good you guys can still make art together. A lot of great insights are borne out of understanding and anticipating what the other person is thinking about, and that is only really a product of intimacy. It’s a nice symbiosis.
BD: Totally. And we haven’t really known anything else. Our father was in a bluegrass duo with his brother, our uncle, and they toured the world in the late 70s and early 80s. They played with people like Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette, and all these incredible artists. We look up to our dad really, and we are inspired by what they did together – we are following in their footsteps, and it’s good fun.
BYT: My brother is only a year or so younger, and we started making music when we were 16 and 15, respectively. Unfortunately he’s completely tone deaf so I had to kick him out of the band. You’re lucky. I’m not saying I was any better – he was just terrible.
BD: [Laughs] We were awful for a long time! After we decided to continue being in a band, making music ourselves and producing songs ourselves, we were rubbish for a long time. But learning to write together was a necessary stage for us to get out and play shows, which is all we wanted to do, but nobody would book us unless we had a CD or some songs. No one was going to pay for us to buy a laptop and start writing – I guess what I’m saying is that everyone has to start somewhere. [Laughs]
BYT: I think about this often, and I’m curious – can you talk a bit more about the process of learning how to write songs, and learning how to put music together? Some people are fortunate enough to be preternaturally talented, or have perfect pitch or synesthesia which makes things a little bit easier, but can you generally identify the turning point for you?
BD: That’s a really good question. Truthfully, I feel like the first album we made had some really great songs, but we haven’t listened to them for a long time but I don’t think we recognized we were writing great songs at that point. We were approaching it without much thought and followed our gut instincts and had a really good time. There’s something in those songs when I listen to them, our first attempt, and I admire them. But then we hit a patch of over-thinking and really trying to get professional with it and lost a bit of feeling with it, which I think we only fully recovered on this latest album. Not over complicating it, not overlaying it – something we’ve been searching for for a long time, and this new record encapsulates just being a bit more reserved and more simplistic. I’m very happy with it.
BYT: You performed at a medals ceremony during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. What was that experience like?
BD: [Laughs] I think when we landed, we probably thought “what the hell are we doing here?” It was completely out of the blue.
We got booked to play in Russia as a one-off show – at that point we had done some pretty good touring in Europe, but we hadn’t gone further East than maybe Poland or Latvia. But the show went well, so we were asked back three or four times, and the opportunity to go to new places and play our music, while doing it with our best friends — it’s really good fun, you know? And one day the Olympic Committee got in touch and asked if we’d come and perform during one of their medal ceremonies.
We actually took a bit of flak from our fan base, because of the anti-gay movement in Russia; some of our fan base wasn’t happy. But ultimately I think they understood that we were just musicians trying to make a living. It was probably the most people we’ve ever played for and it was totally bizarre. And the weirdest thing is that it wasn’t even cold! It was weird, but one of those experiences that stand out.
BYT: ZILLA is your first album as a duo. What has changed for you two since Daniel [Fenech-Soler] and Andrew [Lindsay] left?
BD: I think first and foremost the dynamics of being in a band when there’s four of you, as compared to a duo, are obviously going to change. With four of us it was different, but not in a negative way – we are all still really good friends and talk all the time. How the band exists now and what it was at the time was a natural transition and progression. The ideas have always stemmed from me and Ross – we’ve always written all of Fenech-Soler’s music, and we’d hand a pretty finished demo to Andy and Dan.
When we came to be getting close to recording ZILLA, we had all this music and we sat down as a band, and the record felt more like it was me and Ross. That’s what where we’d naturally come to. And it was a really amicable division, and it’s different now, but Ross and I are really enjoying it – we are really humbled and privileged to get to tour around and see lots of people connect with the music that we made in our bedroom. It’s a nice cathartic experience, and it’s really good fun. So yeah – we’re very happy.
BYT: This album is very much dance-pop oriented. What were the reference points or sources of inspiration when crafting these songs? Did you write with a theme in mind, or did it only emerge afterwards? And to clarify – I think calling something “pop” is a good thing, and has strongly positive connotations.
BD: Look, we’ve always been inspired by pop music. It’s never been a dirty word for us. And we’ve existed in the pop sphere as a band; we’re not a band that wrote a pop record by chance. It’s pretty much one of the hardest forms of music to write, and we’re fascinated by it – that simplicity.
Popular music is popular by definition, and that’s so challenging to do consistently. Of course there’s naturally good pop and bad pop and each genre has good music and bad music, and there’s a certain quality we strive for, but it’s certainly not at the forefront of why we write music. We just get turned on by choruses, and by songs that deliver. It’s not just a vibe or a feeling, but creating that structure in a song has been woven into Fenech-Soler’s music from the early days. But we never start a song with that in mind – we always try to push things creatively; it just happens to come out in that form.