This past spring, Editors found themselves in a “kids’ bedroom” of a recording studio in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles, doing what they’ve always done best: playing, in both senses of the term.
“I’ve never met a man with more hunger, capacity and appetite for music than Garrett Lee,” begins frontman and songwriter Tom Smith. “It’s so infectious, his passion. And he’s the same as he always was: constantly playing us new stuff, pulling out record after record – ‘listen to this, it’s the best thing you’ve ever heard… listen to this, it’s the best thing you’ve ever heard…’”
Smith is talking about Garrett “Jacknife” Lee, the Grammy-winning expat Irish producer (U2, Snow Patrol, REM, The Killers, The Cars) who worked with Editors to bring to life the songs on their second album. Released in 2007, An End Has a Start was a straight-in-at-Number-One triumph that featured the band’s first Top Ten single, Smokers Outside The Hospital Doors, and helped earned them a Brit Award nomination for Best British Group.
It seemed apt, then, that, 12 years later, the five-piece would return to Lee for help capping off a remarkable run of six albums. Yes, Editors were finally submitting to a Best Of…. But true to form, they’d do it their way, by including three new songs – and three new songs that were the sound of the band at their brilliant boldest.
Enter, through a door framed with fire, smoke and pounding Eighties synths, the first of those, Frankenstein. Released as a single this summer, it forcefully, joyfully demonstrated that Editors had lost none of their ambition.
“This track is quite ridiculous,” Smith cheerfully admits. “But we’ve spent so much time with every record thinking about legacy and what we’ve done before, we’ve gone past the point where we worry. Now, really, it’s about making sure we enjoy it.
“Garret helped us get that Frankie Goes To Hollywood kind of feel in the verses,” he continues of the Relax-channelling motif, “but the ridiculous chorus was always there. I like the melody, I like the shift in the chords, and I could feel that, when we played it in the festival environment, it would be a lot of fun. And even though the lyrics come from a dark place, they’re a bit more tongue-in-cheek than I normally do. It’s a song sung for outsiders, people who feel a bit different, in this weird, gothic, ridiculous pop song. And Garrett was attracted to all that. He said: ‘Be weird, be out there, this is what Editors are good at.’”
As much is obvious in Black Gold, a tight-but-expansive 16-track survey of Editors’ 15-year career. It includes the one-two opening punch of Bullets and Munich, the thrilling blasts of contrarily gothic-pop, voiced by a nape-tingling baritone, that shot Editors out of the gates. It’s rounded off with those three new tracks recorded with Lee this year: Frankenstein, the heavy funk throb of Upside Down and the nightmarish drama of the title track. And, in between, the sound of a band who’ve made a festival-headlining, chart-topping career from confounding themselves, and confounding expectations.
“Conversations about a Best Of… had been going on for the past three or four years, but it never felt like the right moment,” admits Smith. “We were always cracking on with a new album.” But singer/guitarist/pianist Smith, Russell Leetch (bass, synths) and Ed Lay (drums, percussion) had made three albums with original guitarist Chris Urbanowicz, and three with newer members Justin Lockey (guitar) and Elliott Williams (guitars, keyboards), “so it felt like a good time to do it.
“And suddenly we’re in LA with Garret, someone we had history with – he made those songs on the second record, which was a very significant album for us. And he was exactly as he was back then. And I think you can hear the playfulness and relaxed nature in the new tunes.” Let’s dig, then, through Black Gold.
BULLETS, 2005 “The demo version is the version that’s on the album – we couldn’t really improve on it,” acknowledges Smith of a debut song that was released on esteemed Newcastle indie Kitchenware. He wrote the song while still at university.
“That’s me sitting in my bedroom at Stafford, strumming through those chords. A lot of our music back then was slightly more glacial, inspired by bands like Elbow and The Blue Nile. Then Chris really upped his game and introduced this angular sound, and that came together magically on Bullets.
“We heard a whisper that Zane Lowe was going to play it on Radio 1," he continues of a tastemaker DJ who'd be a consistent cheerleader for Editors. "I remember huddling round the radio in our house in King’s Heath, waiting for it. That was a magical feeling, hearing your music on the radio for the first time, hearing Zane talk about this new band from Birmingham called Editors. And after that we just toured and toured.
“For a band making music from a dark place, with a baritone voice, serious, shy young men, it was… Well, it was fun!”
MUNICH, 2005 The second single, an adrenalised, shivery blast of melody, and a breakthrough already: Editors hit Top of the Pops. Or, Top of the Pops hits them.
“I’ve always thought we were an alternative band. So when you get nominated for the Brits, or do Top of the Pops, or do X Factor in Italy, which we did on our fourth album, I’ve never felt wholly comfortable with that,” admits Smith. “But of course for the most part, it’s nice. Bullets had got some radio play, but Munich was amazingly successful. When our first album, The Back Room, came out, there were a lot of bands getting more press than us – like Arctic Monkeys and Bloc Party – but that record eventually peaked at Number Two. And when we re-released Munich, suddenly we were a household name.”
The Back Room went to sell a million copies worldwide, earning the band a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Still, then, as now, Smith had firm ideas of what the band could and should be.
“We got compared to Coldplay a bit back then. But I always felt that they’re good at being a mainstream entity. That’s what Chris Martin wants to do, and he’s great at it. And although there are certain colours or textures we share, that’s not the band we are, or want to be. And if we do something more accessible and melodic, it’s going to be about freaks rather than dancefloors.”
AN END HAS A START, 2007 In classic tradition, the out-of-the-box success of The Back Room left the band with little time to consider making the follow-up album.
“We rushed into making An End Has A Start. We had a few half-formed ideas but that was it. But we went to Ireland to record the album with Jacknife, and he really dived in with two hands and helped us develop and bring those songs to life. “And it worked, and we had a huge Glastonbury in 2007. The slot just as the sun goes down. Perfect. It was a pinch-me moment. I grew up not far from Glastonbury and saw the Radiohead headline in ’97. It was that that made me want to do what I’m doing now. So to have a slightly comparable moment felt proper.”
SMOKERS OUTSIDE THE HOSPITAL DOORS, 2007 The only way was up with Editors’ highest-charting single (Number Seven) – if, for Smith, on the inside, the only way was down.
“I remember looking out the back of a van on tour somewhere in England, and saw a group of smokers outside a hospital. I wrote down the observation my notebook. Then later, coming to write songs, there were a few things going on in my life, people around me getting poorly – older people – for the first time. So a lot of the songs were fixated on mortality. And to have that title on this big, grand indie-rock song and have that land in the Top Ten, was interesting.
“I remember walking up the road in London and this guy shouting out of a van at me: ‘Alright, Tom?’ So, White Van Man knew who I was. That was different!”
THE RACING RATS, 2007 “Holland started going big for us then. We went to their big radio station and they’d built a 3D maze with actual live rats, so they could bet on which would get to the end first. That tells you it was going well there. And by that time at festivals, we were doing 6pm slots on main stages. And Chris’s guitar parts on this song were just absolutely phenomenal.”
PAPILLON, 2009 On their third album, In This Light and on this Evening, Editors ripped it up and started again, with the aid of storied producer Flood (Depeche Mode, U2, Killers). First single Papillon was a red-hot, pulsing synth anthem recalled New Order at their disco-monster best. It shot to Number One in Belgium. But in the UK, Smith remembers puzzlement at radio and at their record label.
“That just didn’t happen in Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany – they just kept building. By the end of that third album we were playing bigger shows in mainland Europe than we did at home.
“The gothic, dark nature in the band travelled well,” he expands. “Look at the likes of Depeche Mode, The Cure, Placebo – bands that have that slightly dark and romantic thing have historically done well in those countries. You have to be good live, though, otherwise they spit you out if you’re not believable.
“So it was a slightly confusing time. Papillon was the biggest song we’d had internationally but in the UK, people were like: ‘Um, it’s a bit weird and where’s the guitars?’ Yet over the years, every summer Papillon has grown and grown, to become our festival anthem. That and Munich are the defining songs from early in our career.”
NO SOUND BUT THE WIND, 2010 Closing Black Gold – “because it’s the only stripped-down, sad song there, it just felt right to end it that way” – this is a song with a history, and then some.
Inspired by reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and with his first child on the way (“so that book really resonated with me”), Smith wrote No Sound But The Wind in the sessions for In This Light… “but it didn’t end up on the record, because we couldn’t quite nail it with Flood. “But our publishers played the piano demo to the producers of the Twilight movie New Moon, and it appeared on the soundtrack. Then in the summer of 2010 I was playing it live on the piano. And at Werchter in Belgium, there was a kid down the front singing all the words, the camera picked up on him, the whole crowd got really into it. Then it was released as a live single and it topped the charts. And now in Belgium that’s a song people play at funerals. It became a real thing. And two years later Werchter booked us to headline – our first top-of-the-bill festival slot.”
Before that, however, there would be some difficulties to overcome.
A TON OF LOVE, 2013 After three albums and eight intense years of ever-growing, ever-expanding international success, Editors hit a crossroads that threatened to become a cul de sac.
“Going into making the fourth album, it reached a point with Chris where his frame of reference points didn’t tally with our desire to experiment. We had some new songs, and we did some studio sessions with Flood and with Chris, but after a year we were getting nowhere. It got so frustrating I think Flood actually gave up music for a while!" he laughs (guiltily).
“There were two options: ‘We’ve had a great run guys, but let’s knock it on the head.’ Or: Ed, Russ and I believed in the songs. And even though it was fucking grim, we had to ask Chris to leave so the band could move on. That was at the end of 2011.
“But in summer 2012 we had the Werchter headline slot. But Chris had left and there was only three of us, so that was a bit of a worry. So we decided to get in two new players, Elliott and Justin. Initially it was to rehearse the old songs, but we had all this material we’d been throwing around, trying to make them work, and something started to happen in the rehearsals.
“Anyway, the Wercher show went really well, so we decided: let’s be a band and let’s do a rock record. So the five of us hooked up with Jacquire King – we loved what he’d done with Kings of Leon, and I had in mind those mid-Eighties REM albums with Scott Litt. So we went to Nashville and ended up with The Weight of Your Love, which is a slightly confused record, but the high points are really high – like the first single, A Ton of Love, which is a balls-out, slightly old-fashioned song in its presentation. But I listen to it now and I do hear the sound of a band with an identity crisis.”
SUGAR, 2014 Having said all that, here’s the fourth single from The Weight of Your Love, a stadium-rock song with heft and gravitas.
“Sugar was a really important song. It ended up being the biggest song from that album. And Jacquire’s albums just sound phenomenal, and for all our confusion, ultimately it was fun making a proper band record in Nashville.”
OCEAN OF NIGHT and NO HARM, 2015 For In Dream, Editors decided to switch it up again. This time they would produce themselves, “partly a response to The Weight of Your Love and that confusion. So we hid ourselves away on the west coast of Scotland, tried to play with keyboards and electronics, and do things at a different kind of pace. And we managed to capture something, and something connected to the environment we were in, with huge windows looking out over the Isle of Jura.”
It was a purposeful isolation, a bedding-in of the new line-up, with subsequent mixing by Alan Moulder rounding off the recordings.
“Both these songs were the sound of us getting to know ourselves as musicians. And it marked the point where we became more of a studio band rather than band band.” And, on the non-chronological Black Gold, the two tracks from their fifth album sit together at the heart of the Best Of… They have to be together.
“In Dream felt like this blurry, moody record. Ocean of Night is quite slow-paced for a single, and No Harm needs to follow that on this tracklisting because it’s so different. It’s one of my three favourite Editor songs.”
MAGAZINE, 2018 Violence: an album created with two sonically diverse producers, but that’s easily more than the sum of its parts.
“Having enjoyed making In Dream, we decided to start on our own again, but not shut ourselves off. So if we feel like there’s someone we want to work with, let’s see what happens," recalls Smith of their thought process. "We thought we’d do six months in a studio in Oxford; do Monday to Friday. Then we decided to contact Blanck Mass from Fuck Buttons to add some additional production – we really liked his album World Eater. It was electronic music that we’d not heard before, in-your-face, brutal but also beautiful. We thought he’d never like us in a million years. But he did, so we sent him a bunch of songs and we worked with him remotely.
“Then we got in Leo Abrahams, who’d done our favourite Frightened Rabbit record, and the Ghostpoet record. He came in and helped us tie it all together. So it was a slightly fractured, fragmented process.”
Still, the first single, the thrilling, racing Magazine, became a pathfinder track for Editors’ next phase. “It tees up Frankenstein in a way, because it had this quite theatrical playfulness.”
HALLELUJAH (SO LOW), 2018 “Hallelujah is exciting. It’s a little bit more visceral, muscular. We like being a rock band and it felt like a great time to show that. And Leo really found a great balance between our electronic side and the rock/guitar side of things. Magazine and Hallelujah both got played on Radio 1, which hadn’t happened for a while, so that was cool.”
FRANKENSTEIN, UPSIDE DOWN and BLACK GOLD, 2018 After the monstrous fun of Frankenstein comes the bounce and groove of Upside Down and the “definite heaviness” of Black Gold.
“There’s a gothic-ness, a full-on feeling. We like that operatic, over-the-top-ness. You watch someone like Rammstein or Muse and, done right, that stuff’s fun,” Smith enthuses. “And certainly with the chorus of Black Gold, that’s the kind of thing we were aiming for.”
Fifteen years in, this is Editors: still an up-for-it band, still an ambitious band, still a here band. “To still be doing this is something I’m very proud of,” says Tom Smith – mindful, of course, of the moment, the split, that might have ended Editors. It says something of their dedication and commitment to their band and their fans that they pushed onwards and upwards. “These days longevity might not be seen as cool, but I think it is. We’ve solidified what this new version of the band is, and I think the new songs show that the band are hungry – and Frankenstein has been getting a brilliant response at festivals this summer.”
That connection, he adds, is meat and drink and lifeblood to Editors.
“We’ve always felt like outsiders, but wanted to write songs that connect with people emotionally, and resonate in a deeper way. That can sound pretentious and contrived, but there are people out there that our band mean a lot to. That’s what I always wanted. Meeting people who have our lyrics tattooed on their bodies, which I’ve seen hundreds of times at gigs, is an incredible experience,” he smiles.
This is Black Gold, then, the best of Editors: necessarily and obviously a look backwards. But also a springboard forwards. And for Editors, it means another adventure.
“Now we’re thinking of the next thing. Part of me wants to make a really moody record," muses Tom Smith. "Really, really moody. But we’ll see.”