EDITORS’ Tom Smith was part of a generation of nerdy, anguished frontman seemingly poised to conquer rock music in the 2000s. Together with Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, he represented a break from the genre’s bad-boy tradition. All these singers shared a skittish, should–I-really-be-doing-this stage demeanour and a visible determination to reject rock’s hammier cliches (flailing around drunk, crowd surfing, etc). Forget boozy riders or backstage trysts — what Smith and chums needed, it appeared, was a hug and a cup of tea. “Nice” was the new rock’ n roll.
But while Martin and Lightbody would go on to become Glastonbury-gobbling mega-stars, Editors have stayed just below the radar — adored by fans, but never making that leap into proper, pursued-by-paparazzi fame.
The closest Smith came was mild tabloid interest over his marriage to British broadcaster Edith Bowman (they have two sons, aged 7 and 3).
A decade later, Editors remain wildly beloved by those in on the secret (anticipation is high ahead of their headline slot at Independence at the end of the month). And Smith is still a nice guy, winningly twitchy under the spotlight.
“We skipped festivals last year so we’re really, really looking forward to doing them in this summer,” says the softly spoken 35-year-old, who has warm memories of the previous occasion his band headlined Indiependence, taking place on the outskirts of Mitchelstown, Co Cork, and with a bill that includes Walking on Cars and Idlewild. “We’re not the biggest band in the world. But it’s all good. I feel we’re in a steady position.’
How to describe Editors to those who haven’t had the pleasure? Starting out, this would have been straightforward as they initially suggested a moody updating of early ’80s post-punk — their sound somewhere between pre-stadium U2 and Joy Division, the Manchester quartet best known for ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. If your favourite U2 song was ‘I Will Follow’, Editors were the new band for you.
That all changed in 2013 as the group, who came together in greater Birmingham, rebooted with the Coldplay-esque comeback LP, The Weight Of Your Love. The record was an extraordinary shifting through the soft-rock gears — one that risked alienating their hardcore following even as it won them a new audience. And they went one better with last year’s follow-up, In Dream, which again balanced the experimental and the anthemic.
But though things seemed to progress smoothly on the surface, this was, in fact, an exceedingly painful reinvention, culminating in the forced departure of founder member Chris Urbanowicz. The equivalent would be U2 hitting a creative dead-end after The Joshua Tree and The Edge exiting in an ensuing falling-out. The wounds, it is clear, have not yet healed. It is possible, Smith acknowledges, that they never will.
“Most of the bands that endure and have any kind of longevity are mates,” he says. “So when things broke down with Chris — when it wasn’t working any more — we were breaking up with our mate. Asking him to leave was fucking horrible. But it was that or just split up totally — we didn’t arrive at that decision particularly quickly and tried to make it work. The situation with Chris, even now, is still raw. People are still hurt. It’s not nice.”
Smith felt they had no choice: Either they change radically or Editors risked stuttering out, just another bunch of guitar slingers who ran out of things to say and drifted into irrelevance. They had, he believed, pushed their frantic, angular sound as far as they could. It was time to try something else. Urbanowicz didn’t see it quite the same. Something had to give.
“That’s the reason we are still here,” says Smith “If you really loved [2005 debut] Back Room, I can understand why you might hear later records and think, ‘well, that isn’t the band I fell in love with’. We were making a different statement. We couldn’t be that wiry guitar band forever. What we’ve done since is a million miles from ‘Bullets’ and ‘Munich’. It freed us up.”
Not that the group have rejected the past. With two new guitarists, they still perform the old hits. Moreover, Smith feels massively nostalgic for Editors’ early days. They were young and carefree, even if their music was wreathed in gloom. In the early 2000s it was still possible for a rock band to arrive from nowhere and win an ardent following. He is not sure if that is the case today.
“I hate being the guy in the band who moans about the way things used to be, he says.
“But I’m thankful we came out when we did. I look at the landscape now for new bands — the tastes of the mainstream change. We’re at a point now where we’re thinking towards our sixth record.
“It’s a lot harder to start out today — I’m grateful we’re not trying to make our first album.”
Initially, Smith was the archetypal tortured lead singer, crippled with shyness. He’s grown into the part of frontman — but it’s taken time.
“As the audiences started to get bigger, so did the anxiety,” he says. “I took the responsibility seriously. But I never wanted to be a frontman. I liked writing with my mates. The showmanship — I hated it. As it went on, I got more comfortable. It isn’t as if you are donning mascara and make-up.
“You understand you are there to entertain. Without knowing it, you become the thing you create — in some ways it’s me up there, in some ways, it is a puppet of myself.”
After the upheavals of the past several years, can he imagine the band stumbling into another creative crisis?
“Things feel pretty solid,” says Smith. “I know that isn’t a very exciting word. But we do what we please. After our third record and things broke down with Chris, we couldn’t see the answers ahead. We weren’t sure it was going to work out. Now it feel like the second phase is well and truly established and that we are in a good place. Things are healthy.”