COMING IN PEACE
Standing beneath a tree in the churchyard of St James’, Clerkenwell, currently having their pictures taken is Friends. Not our mates from way back when or, dare we even mention it, those shockingly wealthy actors from the TV series, but five hiply dishevelled Brooklyners who make fun, percussion-filled pop music. Suddenly Samantha Urbani, the frontwoman of the troupe, who has green eyelashes at the moment, paired with ripped fishnets and sequinned plimsolls, screams and rushes past our unwitting photographer to their manager Steve, who is holding a freshly pressed copy of the band’s new seven inch ‘I’m His Girl’. Grabbing it from him, she slowly slides out the record and waves it around audaciously, while pretending to lick it. This ought to give you a good idea of the sort of band Friends are.
Ranging from their mid-twenties to early thirties, this outfit of former squat-dwelling misfits are Matt Molnar on synths, percussion, bass and guitar; Nikki Shapiro behind the keys and guitar; drummer Oliver Duncan; Lesley Hann doing a bit of everything, but mostly bass and backing vocals; and the bubbly Urbani, who sings and “dances a few groovy moves”. “I play my body,” she drawls demurely, failing to keep a grin from bursting across her face. “Everybody plays everything except for me.” During the live show, they’re a sensual cacophony. While the rest of the band swap instruments – this happens so frequently that Duncan doesn’t even sit down – Urbani whips around the audience, grinding alongside both those willing and unwilling, the latter frozen to the spot and looking in any direction other than the skimpily clad nymph rubbing against their leg.
Friends are over here to play their debut UK shows, kicking off with two London dates with the similar sounding Caged Animals, who happen to be the band of Urbani’s ex-boyfriend, Vincent Cacchione, who played a small part in getting Friends together. “Matt was in a band with my ex-boyfriend three years ago.” Urbani reveals. “Me and Lesley grew up in south-eastern Connecticut and we went to elementary school together. Lesley and Oliver have been friends for a few years – they met through music in New York and played in a band together. Matt got me a job in a vegan restaurant called Angelica Kitchen two years ago that Nikki worked at and we became friends.”
It wasn’t until a few unfortunate incidents in the summer of 2010, however, that the five of them decided to form a band. “We all ended up at my apartment at a certain point,” starts Urbani, “because Lesley and Oliver had bedbugs in their apartment and my subletters – I’d been in Berlin all summer – had totally demolished my apartment. They threw away shit, stole a bunch of stuff and wrecked a bunch of stuff and changed my locks and I was miserable,” she huffs.
“We had nowhere to stay,” adds Hann. “We were all totally fucked and it was the end of the summer and I don’t know… It was a weird transitory kind of thing.”
Urbani already had a few songs to hand, which she brought to the table and this is how they’ve made music ever since. “I come up with as much of the songs as I can,” she explains. “Lyrics, melodies, vocal structure – then I’ll usually make a demo for the beat and instrumental licks. And I might have an idea for the vibe I want the song to be. Then I’ll bring it to everybody and we’ll work it out.” When she says “vibe” she means the mood it will put you in, but Hann enlightens us from behind her jet-black sunglasses that match her jet-black curls falling around her face by seriously stating, “It’s the attitude of the song, it’s abstract.”
Back then, they were still called Perpetual Crush, which changed after a serious brainstorming session at a band meeting one day, when they finally, and happily, settled on the most difficult name to Google. “Totally,” laughs Urbani.
“Yeah, that was definitely an interesting thing for us,” adds Molnar.
“I think it’s saying ‘Fuck you’ to the Internet generation a little bit,” Urbani continues. “But it’s cool because our…our…,” she looks around shiftily, then leans forward and whispers “legacy”, like it’s a dirty word, “had to spread word of mouth for the first few months before anybody knew what our songs were called. We just played tons of shows in Brooklyn and I handmade these little pins and gave them to people – tried to sell them – but mostly just gave them away and everyone was talking about us. So it was very grass-rootsy coming up, because you couldn’t just Google Friends. That wasn’t a particular intention from the beginning, but it worked out really well for us because that’s how we wanted our…legacy…to develop.”
At the moment they’ve got an album in the works, but nothing set in stone like a title or release date, other than “before SXSW” next year. To whet your whistles, though, they already have a seven inch, ‘Friend Crush’, available with a new single, the aforementioned ‘I’m His Girl’ that was being fondled by Urbani, coming out on October 31st. It’s an RnB-laced track with a marching beat and plenty of triangle that apes Little Dragon, even though none of the band have ever heard of the Gothenburg-based electro-pop quintet. “Are they terrible?” asks an incredibly mellowed Shapiro, who has an air of couldn’t-give-a-toss hanging about him. “No, they’re really good,” Urbani shoots back.
Musically, what does influence them is a love of Michael Jackson – “watch my dance moves; tell me they look like him when he was 12,” Urbani urges us – Krautrock, dub and RnB. In fact, the B-side to ‘I’m His Girl’ is ‘My Boo’, a cover of the ’90s hip-hop trio Ghost Town DJ’s track. “I feel like since I’ve been in this band I’ve started listening to a lot of ‘90s R&B,” says Duncan, “because everyone in the band listens to that a lot and I never did before, so I guess that’s been a big influence.”
Not all of Friends’ inspirations come from songs, though. Urbani tells us that, “personally, I don’t like to think about writing music as being influenced by other music. I used to do visual art and I specifically didn’t look at other art for a long time because I wanted to do my own thing, so at that time I feel like I was really influenced by music. But now I’m writing music, I feel like I’m more influenced by other sensory things and feelings and thoughts.”
And the practice space where all of this comes together? Molnar’s living room. “It’s tiny and it sometimes smells like things that don’t smell that good,” mutters Urbani, wrinkling her nose at the thought as Molnar blames his cat. “… and it’s really fucking hot in the summer because there’re no windows,” Urbani rants on. “Well, we also practiced a few times at Market Hotel,” she says. “It’s like a big, old ex-ex-venue and living place in Bushwick,” and also the squat that each member of the band has lived in at one point or another.
Now, having quit their day jobs, which between them varied from gas station attendant to flyering, waiting tables and working in a world instruments repair shop, with odd jobs taken up here and there – Urbani was a PA on a Beyonce music video last month – they’re focusing solely on the band and touring – something that isn’t always such an easy ride, especially when you forget vital components like Friends do. “Matt left a super important power adaptor in his house in Brooklyn, so we don’t know if we’re going to be able to play the right synth,” Urbani directs at Molnar. “So if it sounds weird, like medieval cheesey…”
“Medieval cheese?” butts in Hann.
“It’s a new thing,” retorts Urbani, with barely any hesitation. “It’s just special for you guys,” she smiles coyly.
Of course, your van going up in flames while you’re driving through Wyoming in the snow can also set you back. “That was really weird,” pronounces Urbani. “Matt lost a sentimental acoustic guitar. We lost a couple of sleeping bags and leather jackets. The left ass-cheek of my favourite shorts!” she exclaims, while sitting in said shorts (the hole has a grey piece of fabric stitched into it), “which is clearly not deterring me from continuing their… legacy.”
“My iPod got torched and melted but it still works,” adds Molnar.
Hann continues: “Some of the gear and a lot of our gear bags that we’re still using right now have burnt-up holes in them and melted plastic that have fused onto them and they smell really bad sometimes, but we didn’t lose anything that we need to technically play a show, which is totally unrealistic. I mean, the van was… Fucking. On. Fire! I thought we were done.”
“Weird things happen to us everyday,” justifies Urbani. “We got turned away from Canada because me and Oliver both have criminal records.” She’s referring to an incident that involved stealing icing for a friend’s birthday cake while she was on a solo road trip when she was 19, but Duncan doesn’t reveal his misdemeanors.
“You played with that kid whose mum was a cat,” Molnar offers up.
“Oh yeah!” remembers Urbani. “There was this little kid who was two or three years old and looked like a little punk. He had a ripped up denim vest on and no inhibitions about talking to everybody, but his mum was one of those people who you see on ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’. Super tattooed with metal, surgical whiskers.”
They may be magnets for the weird and wonderful, but it’s probably because they give weird and wonderful. There’s a reason that they’ve managed to build something based purely on their live show, because as well as funky tracks, their stage presence makes you feel like a voyeur, yet involved, excited and intrigued and a lot like you’re being let in on a secret that no one else knows about. Their growing legacy.
By DK Goldstein
Originally published in issue 32 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. October 2011.