Sometime in the morning, Saturday June 11th, 2005: Fightstar have just finished their CD:UK performance of new single 'Paint Your Target' - released June 13th - in front of a studio audience comprised largely of late-teen girls wondering where frontman Charlie Simpson's splendid line in facial hair has stemmed from so suddenly and over-enthusiastic old-enough-to-know-betters who appear happy just be on the telly for a few seconds, arms aloft, bingo wings flapping under what must be intolerably hot lights. The show's presenter mounts the stage seconds after the last echoes of Alex Westaway's guitar have faded.
"That was great lads, thanks," he says, face set firmly to smug. I paraphrase, obviously, but nevertheless he goes on: "And a great audience for you, eh?"
"Err, yeah..." replies Simpson, looking at his bandmates who have retreated back from the camera's sight.
Mr Smug continues his inane questioning for a few seconds more before passing the audience over to, I dunno, Rachel Steven or something. My girlfriend mumbles from the sofa behind me: "He looks like Robbie Williams, the presenter," she says. And she's right - he looks like a proper cunt.
Four days earlier, at the Electric Ballroom in the middle of Camden, the same quartet are playing their first 'single' ('single' as it was really just the lead track from their second EP, They Liked You Better When You Were Dead, released in early 2005) 'Palahnuik's Laughter' to a packed room, the composition of which is surprising. There are attendees here that you'd expect to see at any punk/post-hardcore show, mingling with the predictable gaggle of teenage girls keen to follow Simpson on all and any post-Busted ventures (sorry, but I had to mention the B-word at least once). The atmosphere is, all puns aside, electric, and in front of a fucking huge banner bearing their name, Fightstar look and sound like Proper Rock Stars. Like, really. Sure, it's the last date of a long tour that should have shaped them into something more than post-whatever nearlymen, but in all honesty they look as if they belong there, here, and like they've the potential to stick at it, too.
It's between the two events that DiS - well, me - meets the band at a popular Kensington pub. At the end of an afternoon of promotional work that's seen Top Of The Pops quiz them on how long they can hold their breath for underwater (damn, there goes one question...), they're understandably weary and keen to leave these sweltering surroundings. They've also got a slight guard up, perhaps wary of regular DiS readers' opinions on the band, or just worried that they might get asked questions about, y'know, the music and stuff. Bothered - with a drink in hand it's time to introduce the band that will continue to split reader opinion regardless of what follows below for some time to come...
On vocals and guitar we have, of course, Charlie Simpson; also on guitar and vocals we have Alex Westaway; on bass there's Dan Haigh; and, finally, on drums is the immensely likeable Omar Abidi, who is the first of the four to flash a beaming smile my way, and probably the one you'd pick to continue a pub conversation with once the cassette has clicked off.
How's this promotional work shaping up for you then? 'Paint Your Target' is, I suppose, the debut single proper. Have you much work yet to come for it?
CS: We kind of engineered all our promo around the tour. So, we've been doing a lot of interviews before the shows.
DH: We've done a lot of local radio on this tour. We'd, like, wake up, watch two movies and then go to the radio station.
So it has been quite relaxed, then?
DH: Pretty much, as much as touring can be. Touring is always a bitch, on a slice of rye bread.
AW: I thought it was a bit refreshing how we've been kept a bit busier during the daytime, 'cause otherwise there's nothing to do.
So what did you do with your time on the days off?
CS: On the one day we had off I went to see Sin City. Oh, it's fucking excellent. Have you not seen it yet?
OA: Oh, dude...
DH: It's definitely style over content, but y'know... If you know what you're in for, then you're going to love it. It's directed by Robert Rodriguez, who's a fucking favourite of mine.
CS: Isn't it also directed by Tarantino? He did a few scenes.
DH: He did the scene with the guy with gun in the head...
OA: You know what, I knew it was that bit, 'cause that is so him...
Okay... Is this going to be the sole single before the album, or are there more in the pipeline? Is the album anywhere near being finished?
CS: We start the album in two weeks. The writing's pretty much finished. There's going to be eleven or twelve tracks on the album, but we're going to carry on writing in the studio so we'll probably end up with more.
OA: The more the better, really.
CS: There's going to be two more singles before the album. The next one will hopefully be released on Reading weekend, and then another one in mid-October.
DH: We're going in with Colin Richardson, of Carcass fame, who is, quite frankly, a legend. It is beyond exciting. He gets the best guitar sound ever recorded. 'Buried Dreams' by Carcass is, I think, the biggest rock guitar band sound ever. It is just monumental.
And you worked with Chris Sheldon for the single... how was that?
CS: I love his work with Biffy Clyro, and I love his work with Oceansize. I definitely look at peoples' production rosters, and see what they're working with. I mean, you look at Deftones records, and there you go: Terry Date.
So have you heard the new A stuff? Sounds like a watered-down Deftones...
CS: He did the new Funeral [For A Friend] stuff, too.
DH: Did you think that the new Funeral stuff sounded quite Terry? I didn't think it did.
CS: The new A single does, but it still sounds amazing. But the Bullet For My Valentine stuff sounds amazing, too, and that's Colin Richardson.
I read a bit about the new single in rock sound, as you did a piece with Darren Sadler...
DH: Too many Darrens...
Yeah... and too many beards...
(All laugh) CS: They are the bearded duo... Umm, what were we talking about?
Well, what you said to Darren was that 'Paint Your Target' wasn't originally going to be the lead single, and that you had another song in mind.
CS: Well, 'Paint Your Target' was written, like, seven days before we went into the studio. It was a weird time, 'cause we were going to do a track called 'Call To Arms', and...
AW: Basically, Charlie freaked out and couldn't sleep.
CS: It wasn't the fact that I didn't like the song, it was just that there was something telling me that it shouldn't be the single. I don't know why.
DH: I was very much in the same mind.
CS: I set myself a mission: this ['Paint Your Target'] should be the single. We weren't sure, so we got management down and they said yeah straight away.
You say that the song came together quickly - is writing at the moment a joy?
CS: Literally, we went to Al's house, set up in his barn, and had weeks to write. It was brilliant - we could go in there at two in the morning and make us much noise as we liked. When you're in that situation, the, um, creative juices if you like, they just flow. It's such a great environment, and we just went bang bang bang, and we wrote four or five songs in two weeks.
Has the writing process been any different this time around, compared to the writing for the EP? I assume that some of those EP tracks were quite old to you...
CS: When we first got together two years ago we wrote a bunch of songs, and three of those made it onto the EP. The others - including 'Mono' - were written later.
AW: They were written, like, during the writing for the album, 'cause the EP took a long time to record.
CS: It took us about three weeks in total to record the EP, but spread over six months. So this is totally different. Back then we were working whenever we could, in our spare time, but now we've got people waiting for the songs. The way we write, though, hasn't changed at all.
So are you under additional pressure to deliver, now, as there's a lot of people waiting for, and relying on, the completion of the album?
CS: Definitely. In the past we were pushing for people to hear our music, and now people are waiting on us to deliver it. I used to go into the record label and go, "Oh man, listen to this", but now they're phoning me up and asking where the new tunes are. It's good though...
DH: I think the pressure can be healthy.
There's no writer's block, then?
OA: Well, we'd just finished the EP, and I was like, "Oh, I'm so pleased with it!" But then you realise you've got to write an album... aaaaaah! There was a week period, once the single was finished, when we thought to ourselves, "We've got how many tracks to write?" When you start sizing it up like that, I think there is a moment of...
(Abidi is drowned out by a rather nice belch from another bandmate, who shall remain anonymous... Okay, it was Haigh)
...A crossroads that you've got to get by.
CS: The pressure in this job is to be happy with what you've got - it's like, you can't just write something, you've got to write something that you fucking love. The first album is always, I think, the most important. A lot of first albums are my favourites, like the first [self-titled] Placebo album - I absolutely love it. I want to make sure that I like the songs on this album as much as the EP, and I do.
I suppose you've got to set your own targets, regardless of those set by the label. As long as you meet them, then you'll be happy enough with yourself to go on and do, well, who knows?
CS: I think if we hadn't got the album ready, then we wouldn't be going into the studio. We're not going into the studio because we're being made to; if the songs weren't ready I'd ring the label and tell them that they weren't.
The Electric Ballroom crowd was pretty mixed, with a massive cross-section of music fans. There were almost as many 'proper', if you like, gig-goers as there were screaming teenagers. How have your crowds changed over the last year or so?
DH: It's completely different.
CS: Over the course of this tour it's changed a lot, because people have actually been able to get hold of the music. At the start there was a massive curiosity factor, but now it's out people can judge for themselves. Now, when we look out, we see the type of crowd that you'd expect at a Funeral For A Friend gig.
And do you think that you need this album out to build upon that, to get more of these people in through a genuine interest?
CS: Definitely. I think, y'know, obviously the challenge is to overcome a lot of preconceptions. I was thinking, "Shit, we're doing quite a big tour," and it's hard to judge a band on two EPs. You need an album to really assess the music, and that's why we're not going to tour again now until the album is out. I was amazed, though, by how people responded to the EP [They Liked You Better...].
And has the tour been a success? Any poorly attended shows?
CS: There was one, in Liverpool, but that's renowned to not sell well. It was at The Academy, and the crowd that was there was amazing.
OA: Yeah, they were really up for it.
CS: Taking Back Sunday, when they last toured, they sold-out the other dates eight weeks before they sold-out Liverpool. I think it's a massive dance music capital, so rock music isn't that popular there.
I don't know if you know a band called Seafood, but I must have seen them play to all of twenty people in Liverpool once...
CS: Really? I saw them support Snow Patrol just before Final Straw. They're really good.
Funnily enough I saw their drummer, Caroline, at Finsbury Park station after These Arms Are Snakes the other night. (Not that I'm, like, stalking her...)
CS: Was that a good show, These Arms Are Snakes? My brother, Will, was there, and he said the stage performance was fucking blinding. I remember when I saw At The Drive-In for the first time, and I was just gobsmacked by these guys flying around. Same with Taking Back Sunday. I really like bands that put fucking shit loads of energy into a show, 'cause that's what it's about. We're restricted by instruments, but we can still go for it.
Speaking of which, do you still, or ever, get nervous before shows? The Electric Ballroom one was pretty big - you had your own banner and everything...
OA: Yeah, The Electric Ballroom was the most nervous I have ever been in my life. I think it was partly because it was at the end of the tour, and loads of friends and family were out there. You know what, I walked in there - that banner was only there for the Ballroom show - and I was like, "Oh, sorry, must be in the wrong room... Whaaaat? What the fuck is that? Where did that come from!?"
And are you happy to play in front of such a big banner? I mean, it's not like people don't know who you are...
OA: It's cool, man. It's like, whatever.
CS: At the end of the day, people pay money to see a show, so as much as I agree with, say, Pantera, who are just like, "We just wanna fucking play", we want to put on the best show that we can.
And are you getting offers of larger tours, even though you're yet to release an album?
CS: It's weird... I love playing with other bands, I'd almost rather do smaller tours with bands we love to get the satisfaction of playing to people that know your songs. I'd rather that than go on tour with a band that could sell-out Brixton.
You've played with a pretty diverse array of bands, including Youthmovie Soundtrack Strategies...
CS: They're great, man.
OA: They're wicked, I love them.
Do you think you appeal to a particular demographic? Would it be wrong to say that your music is attractive to impressionable teens, the kind of people who, ten years or so ago, would have found Radiohead or Nirvana the answer to their angst? Would you say you're looking to exploit that market, even if you've not got your eyes on a similar level of success at the moment?
AW: I don't think we ever look at it in those terms. We want to write a body of work that we're proud of.
DH: The real reason for me to be in a band is so that I can write my ideal music, the music that you maybe can't find in the shops, y'know? That's how it is for us.
CS: When you get the control to make an album that you'd want to listen to, you've got to draw on the bands you love and make the sound your own. We make music to please ourselves. We're so appreciative to be doing that, that I don't think we're thinking of other people when we're writing.
OA: It's really hard for us to judge whether or not that scenario's going to crop up, either with us or other bands.
AW: A lot of it is to do with self belief, and loving what you're doing. If you don't love what you're doing, then you're not going to convince other people to like it too.
Going back to touring then, and the diversity of band you've played with... is that something you're going to continue?CS: When you go and see a bill that's really similar, it can be boring. I don't know if you know a band called Last Days Of April (Yes, I do), but I'd love to go on tour with them, or with Mono. It's like when Aereogramme went on tour with Thursday - some people just didn't get it. But I don't understand that, because when you go to a show, chances are that the support band has been approved by the headliner, so why wouldn't you want to see them? I would give them a chance just because of that, even if they're really off the wall. It's almost like when you see a film, and they show trailers. I love the trailers. I mean, I cam across Muse when they were supporting Feeder, and I thought they were fucking amazing. So, y'know, a lot of the new bands around now will go on to be like that. I think support bands should definitely get a chance.
So if you could ask Mono to tour with you, would you?
AW: Well, apart from the fact that they don't speak English... CS: Seriously, I think that'd be awesome. It's cool to be playing with a band that you really want to watch, to have diversity like that.
DH: I think that's reflected on the record, to a certain extent. I mean, it's very diverse - the songs range from Mono-esque things right through to Pantera-esque moments.
So are you looking to surprise people with the debut? A lot of debuts are fairly straight-ahead and single-minded; do you think you'll put anyone off by dabbling in different styles?
AW: We've always said, from day one, that we want to try different things. If anything it's refreshing.
CS: The record is going to be: bang, acoustic track, bang, something else...
OA: I don't want to play back our album and get bored! I don't want to get bored by people playing us. I'm the one that's, like... If I hear a riff that's too similar to one of our other tunes, I'm like, "Oh we can't do this!" It's something I've always picked up on, and I think it's something that we're all on the same page about. Diversity is something that we want to hear on the album. It might throw some people. Obviously expectation is there.
CS: We worried about that with the EP. At one point we had a meeting about 'Mono', over whether we should include it. But then the reviewers really liked it. I like it when bands change their sound, like when Silverchair did Neon Ballroom. I was expecting this riff-tastic Freakshow-like album, and then there was this orchestra on it! But I listened to it again and again and realised it was fucking amazing. Bands have a license to do what they want to do, and I don't think fans hold it against them if they want to try different things.
OA: The thing is, if there's a couple of tracks on the album that people don't really like, then there will be others they do. It means that it won't just appeal to one type of fan.
CS: There is going to be a big post-hardcore element, 'cause that's what we do the most, but there are a couple of tracks that aren't in that vein at all, and I like that.
Okay, finally: festivals. You're playing Reading, and I'm sure you're aware of how certain acts go down there. Any fears?
OA: We are prepared.
CS: I think, when we said yes to the festival, we knew what we were getting into. I would put money on the fact that there will be a bunch of fucking idiots there, but at the end of the day, on the other hand, there'll be lots of people that have come to see us.
AW: We were more worried about Give It A Name than we are about Reading.
CS: Were you there? (Yep) I think, in general, when people give a band shit, I can't quite understand why. Why would you give a band shit when there are five stages [at Reading]? Personally, I have never, ever, given a band shit. Well... this one time I did, but it was Daphne and Celeste at Reading, but they were on the bill because of that, to get shit. In a situation like that, I don't think it's vicious, but when it's The Rasmus - and I don't like The Rasmus at all - I think it's really dumb. I'd never go see a band to tell them to fuck off; I've got better things to do with my day. So when we play I'm sure people will give us abuse, but there'll also be a lot of Fightstar fans.
OA: It's gonna take a lot more than a few bottles to get us off stage. And, at the end of the day, we're playing Reading!
Well, exactly: "I'm playing Reading, what the fuck are you doing with yourself other than tossing bottles?" Although I suppose you've got to hope that the guys on the gate do their job properly...
OA: Yeah, otherwise I'll be ducking knives...driiiiiiiiing!
DH: Everytime we've done an event like that, though, we've had people say to us that they enjoyed us, even though they'd come wanting to hate us. So it's people like that who matter to us.
AW: When we hear from someone who came expecting to hate us, but they leave wanting to buy all of our records...
OA: That's the best feeling.
CS: At the end of the day, if people come to our show and throw shit at us, they've still paid to get in!
Fast forward, again, to the aforementioned Saturday. It's now late afternoon, and I'm coming to the end of typing up almost 4,000 words about Fightstar. Suffice to say that's something I never thought I'd be doing; personally, I still prefer the work of Simpson's former band to that of his current troupe, to date at least. That's not meant as a slight on Fightstar's work to date, but serves as an indication of how little they've actually managed to produce yet - or rather, how little they've had the opportunity to release.
When you consider the stick they've received from both pop and rock circles, it makes you wonder where the immediate resentment has come from. Is it born from a frustration, even in the mainstream, with mediocre rock music - post-hardcore, especially - garnering critical acclaim for no apparent reason? Probably not - it's not like Fightstar have paid people off to write nice things about them, nor have reviewers universally attempted to climb inside the band's collective arse for any later-career favours. The critical reception has been warm and welcoming, but no red carpets have been rolled out for the arrival of that album, at least not just yet. With that the case, how about you at least give Fightstar the chance to prove themselves with their debut full-length? After all, you wouldn't pass judgment on an alleged criminal without sufficient evidence.
Just an idea.