SXSW Interview: Sam Fender (UK) on starting conversations with his music and Splendour in the Grass rumours

One of our favourite artists at the AU over the last year or so has been rising UK star Sam Fender (he even came in at number two on our best track of 2018 list). And though he has yet to come to Australia, earlier this month he made his debut at Australia House at SXSW, as part of the Secret Sounds showcase – which has since fueled rumours that the “Dead Boys” singer will be down under for Splendour in the Grass. And in our chat, he couldn’t say when he’d be down, but he did confirm he’d be making it to Australia sometime this year.

Just after he left the stage at Australia House, we caught up to talk about his run of shows at SXSW this year – for which that show was the last – and we learned more about his songwriting process, the conversations he’s started with his music, and what his plans are for the year ahead and his debut album.

Well, welcome back to South by Southwest. We’re just saying like, eight, nine shows or however many it’s been. You’ve survived, we’re at the Secret Sounds party. We’ve just seen you on stage. It sounded great, man.

Thanks, man.

Like, just does it feel good to be done?

Yeah. Well, I’m not done. We’re going off to finish off the tour in America now….

Done with SXSW at least!

It feels to good to know that I’ve got a day off to get my voice back and stuff, so that’ll be nice. But yeah. I’ve had a great time. It’s been stressful and wonderful and exciting and a nightmare and a dream. It’s been all of those things. It’s been polar opposites, it’s been a total roller coaster ride.

It’s been South by Southwest.

South by South Stressed.

I like that. You’ll have to drop the South by South Stressed EP one day. Well, I mean, you’ve been playing some new songs. You’ve got, obviously, a new album, your debut record coming out this summer, or winter for Australia. Tell me a little bit about how the writing for that has gone. You’ve dropped the latest single “Hypersonic Missles” just a couple of weeks ago, not even.

Yeah. The album, how it came about?

I guess just kind of when you started writing it, ’cause the sort of stuff you’re singing about… it’s shit that’s happening now.

Well, that’s the thing. Some of the songs on this album were wrote five years ago. And then one of them was wrote four weeks ago. So it’s like, I wrote one of the songs as I was recording the end of the album. And then I wrote another song, and I went right, let’s put that one on as well. And it was a battle of about 30, 40 songs which we whittled down to 14.

It’s a terrible job, isn’t it?

Yeah, and it’s mad because there’s good songs that I’m not gonna use that I’m a little bit worried about. There’s good songs on it that we’re gonna throw away completely, y’know? Which is fine, that’s the nature of the beast. But I’m happy with ’em. It’s a real mix of embryonic, early Sam and the Sam that I am now. So I feel like it’s a really good introduction. It’s an introduction for the people who’ve known us for a while. They get some of the songs that they’ve known since I was a kid, when nobody knew who I was. So for the diehard people that first found me.

They have that thing, it’s kind of that special connection. And then there’s other songs that all the people that have latched onto it now know. So there’s that mix within that 14 tracks. And I think it’s really, really diverse mix of sounds. It’s not one sort of thing. It’s a very classic debut album, in the sense that there isn’t one concept or one sound. It’s very much kind of like the dairy milk selection box of Sam Fender in music form.

Like, there’s all the different flavours, and I’m sure I’ll palm off on the second album and go with one thing, you know what I mean? But I’m really quite excited for it, y’know?

Well, it’s amazing that you have that opportunity to put out a record that does sum up the last five years of your career. And sort of the cream of the crop, so to speak, of that progression.

Totally. It’s mad. Some of them are like, really embryonic and you can tell, because lyrically, you can tell they were written by a 19-year-old. And then some of the songs, you can tell are written by me, who’s now 24. I’ve done a little bit of growing up since then. So you know, you can see the progression and the maturing through it, as well. Which I think’s exciting, you know what I mean? And I’m still an immature little dick, but yeah. It is what it is.

Well, I hope that never changes *laughs*. One thing I’ve loved about your music, and I think the reason what we’ve connected with it, is that you’re singing about shit that people want people to talk about. You actually have something to say, and there’s not many artists out there that do.

I’m not claiming to be an expert on anything, because I definitely am not an expert. I’m definitely not. I think this album is genuinely more of a self-confessed… it’s a 20-year-old going, “I have no fuckin’ clue how to deal with any of this or how to explain or answer any of this. Can somebody give us a hand?” Like I’m actually, genuinely, it’s coming from a naïve place mainly. It’s coming from a very sort of insecure, sensitive adolescent place where I’m kind of waking up to this world around us, as we all do.

I think you suddenly hit your early 20s, or earlier for the smart kids, I wasn’t one of them. And you go fuckin’ hell, this is smashed. And that’s all I’m doing. I’m just writing about what’s around me. I’m not kind of coming up with any answers or any sort of, I’m not like some sort of revolutionary that’s gonna change the world at all. I’m genuinely just a kid asking questions who happens to have a guitar and sings at the same time.

In the very classical storytelling sense, too. I know with “Hypersonic Missiles”, I understand that there are characters that you’ve created that are sort of tinfoil hat-wearing characters.

Yeah, yeah. The character in “Hypersonic Missiles” is admittedly loosely based on myself, ’cause he’s a total mentalist, conspiracy theorist, and he’s terrified of the world and its, in his head, inevitable end. But it’s also a love song. So it’s got this thread of hope. It’s got this thing about it, this invincibility of youth and it’s kind of got that invincibility of youth in it. He’s terrified, but he’s got that “no matter what, I am going to have a good time and I am gonna do everything I can for this person that he or she loves”, you know what I mean?

Kind of feels like the battle we all face, though, having to kind of like, push on for all the madness int he world and just deal with this shit without letting it ruin our lives.

I think it’s like most people feel fuckin’ helpless to it all. And I do. I feel helpless to what’s going on in the Middle East. I feel helpless to what’s goin’ on in my country with Brexit. I feel helpless to what’s goin’ on in America with all these fuckin’ crazy politicians everywhere doing mental shit all the time, and spending their lives on Twitter. It’s fuckin’ insane.

And I know that I’m not clever enough to fuckin’ get up and say something that’s got enough clout to change the world, ’cause if it was that easy, it would have been changed by now. It’s a big fuckin’ great question that we all can’t solve. So you might as well grab a fuckin’ beer and put some music on in the meantime. And I think that’s the thing, it’s all about just, it’s the communal thing that I live for, and that’s what I love about my city in Newcastle where I’m from, is that no matter how all my life and before my life, Newcastle has faced adversity as a city with the stuff that was going on with Thatcher closing down all the industry and things like that.

I grew up in a family where my Dad and our friends around us were directly affected by the lack of industry and the loss of jobs. But there was always that thing where people always fuckin’ pulled together and got each other through it. And there’s beauty in that. There’s a lot of beauty in that communal thing, and I think that’s what I try to convey with my tunes as well, is that I’ve got a bit of that fighting spirit that my dad gave us. So yeah.

And starting conversations as well.

Yeah, of course.

I know with some of your earlier releases, a lot of what you were saying was, it’s not about being an expert on it, it’s about starting that conversation.

Yeah, of course, especially with things like “Dead Boys”. That was genuinely just a reaction, but then it became a conversation. And it became this there where people actually fuckin’ talked about it. And that, to me, I never set out to do that. But it happened. And that was the most rewarding and most humbling experience I’ve ever had doing this as a job.

Oh, for sure. It must have been. And your inbox must have been filled with stories.

Wild. Like, absolutely wild. A guy was on his way to drive his car off the road and kill himself. And as he was driving, he’d planned it for months, and he was gonna drive off and make it look like a car crash, ’cause he didn’t want his kids to know that he’d killed himself. And on his way, he was listening to Five Live, and me and Nihal from Five Live were talking about Dead Boys. And I was playin’ the song, and then we had a chat about mental health, and I was talking about calm and things like that, and talkin’ about the stats. And this guy turned the car around and went and got help. And then he sent an email to Nihal, and Nihal passed it onto me.

And then this guy turned up to my gig not long ago, and it was the craziest experience. He said “I sat on the side of the road and cried for three hours, and I went back, told my wife what was going on.” And he’s like, “and then I went and got help”. And then four months later, he came and met us personally.

And that reinforces the song entirely, ’cause it’s like, it’s crazy that it took you being on the radio to get through to someone like that? 

Just coincidence. Pure coincidence. But that song came because I lost a friend to suicide, and it’s mad to think that if he had not done that, I would not have wrote that song. Then that guy wouldn’t have. It’s mental. Butterfly effect.

Yeah, seriously.

Weird world.

Every life effects another, and I think we forget that sometimes.

Wild. Well, I’ve done enough fuckin’ damage, so I might as well try and do some good stuff.

You and me both, mate. You’re here at the Secret Sound Showcase at Australia House, so hopefully this means we’re getting you down to Australia around the time of the album?

Yeah, I cannot wait to come to Australia! I’m so fuckin’ excited. My cousin lives out in Adelaide, and two of my best mates are from Melbourne, so I’m fuckin’ so excited.

Have you been down before?

Never. Never. I’m so excited. I’m so excited.

And you’ve got a great band with you. Can you tell me a little bit about kind of who you’re performing with and how they came together?

So the guitarist is my best friend. We’ve been best friends since we were 12. He’s called Dean. We’re just brothers. Joe Atkinson is on the other, additional guitars and keys and synths and fuckin’ pads.

He’s doing many things.

He does everything. He’s like a wizard. And he’s been like, I met him in college when I was like, 16, and we became really pally. We were in rival bands, and then eventually I nicked him and stole him.

What was his band called?

Lisbon. And then there was another, the other two I met purely because of this. I stole them from other bands who now hate me. But now we’re all like brothers. We’ve been in this band for like, a year and a half, two years now. But Drew, he’s from Blythe. He was in a grunge band which I stole him from Brighton. And the bass player’s from the south of France. So it’s four Geordies and a Frenchman. It’s like the shittest joke ever. Four Geordies and a Frenchman walk into a bar or something like that.

And they form a band.

Form a band.

And do they perform on your record as well?

Yeah, yeah, of course they do. They’re my boys. I’m pretty, pretty hardcore. I’ve redone quite a few of the parts, but that’s only because I’m a complete psychopath. But yes, but they have played on it. They’ve all played on it.

Everyone’s gotta have their Billy Corgan moment.

Oh, of course. Sometimes, they’ll do it and then they’ll leave, and then I’ll do it again. Oh, you’ve done it. Nah, I’m jokin’. They all play on the record, and they’re all fuckin’ incredible musicians.

Yeah. I mean, it sounded so great today, and of course when you do eight shows in a few days, it’s gonna get pretty tight, let alone all the other touring you’ve been doing.

Yeah, yeah, it’s psycho.

You got it down to a great half hour set, and I can’t wait to see a full set when you come to Australia, hopefully later this year. And I can’t wait to hear the record. It’s been great watching you grow for the last couple years.

Oh, thanks, mate. It’s time to go to Australia! See you soon, mate.


Sam Fender‘s Dead Boys EP is available now. For tour dates and his latest music, check out Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and his Website

Photo by Larry Heath.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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