Interview: Cathy Lucas and Amos Memon of Fanfarlo

By on Tuesday, 15th December 2009 at 2:00 pm

I had the privilege of chatting with Cathy Lucas (vocals / mandolin / violin / many other instruments) and Amos Memon (drums / percussion / vocals), two members of London-based folk pop band Fanfarlo shortly before they played a sold-out show at Arlington, Virginia’s Iota Club and Cafe on 11 December. They tell me about how the band got together, the recording of ‘Reservoir’, their surprising (to me) earlier love of metal music, and loads more.

Editor’s note: There was a loud ice machine in the background during the first quarter of the interview – Cathy even comments on the noise! – because we did the interview in the basement of Iota, which was essentially the storage area of the kitchen. It was a bit surreal to say the least doing an interview next to shelves of tinned tomatoes, massive bottles of mayonnaise, and large jars of olives.

Fanfarlo Amos Cathy 500x375

So thank you to Amos and Cathy of Fanfarlo for sitting down with me. We’re here in Arlington, Virginia, and you’re playing a sold-out show tonight.
Amos: It sold out?
Cathy: That’s good news!
Yeah, there’s actually a big crowd outside trying to get in, and they’re being refused entry because it’s sold out.
Amos: That’s ‘cos it’s a small venue.
Yeah, yeah, but it’s a nice venue to play in the D.C. area.

So tell me how you guys found each other and decided to start making music together.
Amos: It’s pretty much just playing shows in London or going to shows in London…I kept seeing Fanfarlo in a very early incarnation and it just got to the point where I liked the songs enough to ask if they needed a drummer.
Cathy: I think ‘cos it was just Simon and one other person or two other people initially, and everything else was on an iPod. And Amos has played in about 10 bands in London previously. I played in a couple as well.
Amos: A lot of those bands actually ended up playing with Fanfarlo, so I got to see Fanfarlo whilst I was playing in other bands.
Cathy: Yeah, you just get to know each other in London if you play music.

Now are you both originally from London, or…?
Amos: I am. I was born in London, but not necessarily raised in London but in the Middle East.
Cathy: I grew up in Belgium.
Oh wow.
Cathy: …and Simon, the singer, is from Sweden. Everyone else is British.

Before you became a part of Fanfarlo, did you have an idea of the kind of music you wanted to play? Who did you listen to when you were growing up? Did that have an effect on the kind of music you play now?
Amos: I think at the time…I mean, I went through years of wishing I had an instrument to play and not being allowed any instruments, and it took me a while for me to actually purchase a drum kit and hide it away from my parents.
Cathy: But then, Amos has, like, probably racks and racks and racks of John Peel tapes.
Oh yeah? Very good taste!
Cathy: Tell the story about calling up the radio in Abu Dhabi!

Amos: Well, it’s not really relevant, but, umm, I guess it shows…
Cathy: Amos is a big music collector…can you hear anything over this racket?
Mary and Cathy: It’s the ice machine! (both laugh)
Amos: Yeah, there’s a radio station in Abu Dhabi, where I used to live, and it just got to the point where I entered their competitions – the same competition, every week, on the same show. I’d just be the one person who ended up winning.
Cathy: He knew all the answers! He knew all the answers!
Amos: They eventually banned me, like, “No, Amos won last week.
But that just shows how good you are at music trivia, then, right?
Cathy: The prize was vouchers to the local music shop.
Amos: So I ended up getting a lot of music through winning all these competitions and going to the music store and just taking a chance on lots of music. So that’s how I ended up with tapes of ELO and Adam Ant. It’s all pop music. What I used to do as well, since I ended up winning so often, I allowed my sisters and my brother to choose tapes. So my brother would choose some metal, and my sisters would choose Madonna and things like that. I ended up still listening to all this stuff in the house, it was very, very pop. I guess it was enough to set me on a course of just wanting to find out more about music.
Amos: But to answer your question, the bands I liked at the time were, I dunno, Yo La Tengo and the Pixies. I liked what they stood for as well. They’re not just any old band who has to play every single gig in the world, they were very selective. They didn’t necessarily get on. With Yo La Tengo, I liked the girl playing the drums, and she had an great voice, and she played left-handed. So it was all, like, different things that interested me. And they cover lots of bands. They’re big Prince fans, and they’ve got a whole secret CD of…their bass player made a CD of Prince covers.
Cathy: It’s called ‘That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice’ – It’s really good! His other record isn’t as good, but that cover record is great.
Amos: ‘Raspberry Beret’ on that album…
Cathy: It’s amazing! ‘Pop Life’ is great and ‘1999’ is great – he picked good songs, as well. But I think what probably got me really into playing in bands is I listened to a lot of Dirty Three, where, obviously, Warren Ellis plays the violin, and it kind of made me realise that you don’t have to be in a string quartet to be part of pop music, as you would in ELO or one of those other ’60s pop bands.
Amos: I know I’ve mentioned two bands that are huge anyway, but at the time to me, being in school, it was just me who was into them, so I didn’t really have people to talk to about it. It was all my own work in finding out about them, and obviously, with Yo La Tengo and their taste in music, it just led everywhere.
Cathy: No internet, of course…
Amos: It was all snail mail. Big Star and [the] Flying Burrito Brothers and then I got into the Byrds, and I went through a huge country phase, and with my brother still listening to metal there was always some kind of metal that he was into. Justin in the band is really into that.
Cathy: My brother was into metal, as well, so I heard a lot of stuff. That’s how I know all those Metallica songs!
Amos: There must be a metal connection with older brothers and stuff.
My brother, too, so I can relate! (all laugh)
Amos: I was never a huge metal fan, but I can appreciate a lot of things about it.

Now, your band uses the mandolin, violin and other non-usual instruments that are in a rock band and some people have put you in the folk genre. Do you agree with that?
Cathy: Yeah, it probably straddles several genres. Yeah, it is folky in some ways. Especially as we kind of exist in different forms, so sometimes we play with two of us, three of us, four of us…we do quite a lot of radio sessions and often you have to be flexible with what you use. So, yeah, we do things that are sometimes very stripped down and sound very folky, but then we also have…I think a lot of songs are quite upbeat, and really it’s pop music at the end of the day.

Now you did mention that everyone knows each other in the London music scene. Are you friends with other people of the London folk scene, like Mumford and Sons, Noah and the Whale?
Cathy: It’s funny you should say that! We’re actually going on tour with Mumford and Sons next month! I only met them for the first time, though, at CMJ in New York.
So where are you going on tour with them, back in England?
Amos: The UK, Scotland and Ireland…well, UK, sorry.
Cathy: It’s not necessarily that the folk people know the other folk people. It tends to be just like you know other bands. We’re friends with people like Let’s Wrestle, who are a punk band. Male Bonding, who just signed to Sub Pop, are friends of ours as well – they’re also a punk band, I guess. Sleeping States is kinda electronic/indie.
Amos: Layered vocals and things…
Cathy: …just like lots of different styles of music.
Amos: My mindset is that I don’t think that we’re a part of the folk scene, but I appreciate that we use lots of traditional folk instruments. Then I think, well, I play the drums, but I don’t play folk drums, so it’s like a completely different thing. So it’s like Cathy mentioned spanning a couple genres, so it can be a tiny bit rock-y in some places, and then it’s kinda like disco beats and folky instruments. The worst genre I can probably say is “‘indie’, that’s where it just comes under…
The problem is everyone gets classed as ‘indie’ and it’s not very descriptive at all.
Amos: Yeah, exactly! It’s hard to say. I know what ‘indie’ means to me, but it might mean something else to you or someone else. We’re indie/pop/disco/folk.
Cathy: Sometimes ‘indie’ for me just means ‘has a short shelf life.’ It seems to acquire that sort of thing where it’s all about ‘the new sound,’ like in the Mighty Boosh, searching for the new sound.
Oh my god! She’s like obsessed with the Mighty Boosh. [indicates Mary Beth]
Amos: Are you really?
Mary Beth: I am obsessed.
Cathy: But not necessarily writing any good songs.
Amos: More like an indie scene: fashion-led, trendy sort of bands are very big for one album and then the next album is very poor because all the songs were in the first album.
Cathy: We’re very much into indie in the traditional sense of ‘independent.’ We’re very upset at having to buy our lunches in Subway and our coffees in Starbucks, which is an inevitability on tour.
Amos: If we did want to eat at independent diners and coffee shops, then it’d really take us out of our way to do it. It’s really difficult, you’ve got a straight line – you’ve gotta get from, I dunno, Arizona to Texas…
Cathy: …A to B, it’s 500 miles, you don’t have many choices.
Amos: You can’t detour. So you’ve have to stick with the Subways. In London, we just never eat Subways, but in the space of 5 weeks…
Cathy: I had about two Subways in my entire life, and now I’ve had about a dozen!
Amos: I used to live near one, in London, and I never went to it, ever! But within 5 weeks here, I’m nearly into double figures, I think.
I think in general, English people hate American food.
Cathy: No offense! I’m sure, I’ve had, actually, really great food. But in the kind of cheaper, fast food there’s this sugary, sickly, salty taste that takes over everything.
Amos: I’d like to find a hot chocolate that doesn’t make my teeth…
Cathy: …feel like they’re disintegrating.
Amos: …wish they’d jump out of my mouth! It’s sweet and salty, that’s what we found.

So your debut album, ‘Reservoir,’ that you released on your own – I heard that you recorded it in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with Peter Katis. What was it like working in New England in his studio? Did it take a lot to get used to?
Amos: The environment was perfect, I think, we just needed to find a place with as few distractions as possible. He had a lot of gear that we wanted to use, like lots of analog equipment.
Cathy: He is really into organic-sounding old gear that we felt like really suited what we we were trying to do, so it worked well.
Amos: It just felt right, as well. It was a no-brainer, almost: let’s get out of England, see what we can do.
Cathy: And go to New England.
Amos: Let’s leave Old England for New England. It was fun while we were there, very easy to work.
Cathy: It was different, though, from anything we’d ever done before.
Amos: It stepped up our studio experience.
Cathy: Working with a producer like that – having someone else’s input – was an interesting, interesting experience.

How did you guys find him as a producer?
Amos: We have a list. We made a wish list, and obviously it’s easy to cross off people on that wish list that weren’t…
Cathy: Yeah, we tried to speak to as many people as we could and get an idea of what they thought of our songs and how they saw the process. And often what was most indicative was just asking “Which 10 songs of these 20 demos would you put on the record?” and if they picked all the wrong ones – out!
Amos: Yeah, we spoke to a lot of people. It was a time-consuming process. Then it was just narrowing it down to 2 people, and they both happened to be in America, so we went with Peter Katis.
Cathy: We liked what he’d done before, as well. He’s a big Flaming Lips fan.
Amos: He’s friends with Dave Fridmann, he knows Jonathan Donahue and people like that…
I heard that he produced for the National and Interpol,?
Amos: The National are back in with him now.
Cathy: (to Amos) Oh really? Are they making a new record with him? Oh, awesome!

Speaking of writing, what is your writing process like? How is a Fanfarlo song conceived?
Amos: Initially, very early Fanfarlo was pretty much all Simon on his own, but he was gagging for outside input, you know, outside stimuli, I guess. Now it’s got to the point where he’ll just turn up to a studio, like our rehearsal room, with a bare-bones: a couple of chords, some lyrics, maybe a melody that he’s got, and it’s like, “ok cool, I’ve got some ideas.” The amount of instruments we play, also, means that one song might start out on one instrument and end up on something else. It might not have guitars on it and then end up with an electric guitar or vice versa. Or here’s something that would be good on trumpet and then it gets transposed to like violin, clarinet, whatever.
Cathy: Yeah, we tend to spend a lot of time playing around with the arrangements – working also on different arrangements of the songs, just to keep it interesting for ourselves, I guess, ‘cos we’ve been playing these records for a while now, I guess. We made the record a year ago.

We’re almost to the end of 2009. For each of you, what was your favorite moment of the year?
Cathy: Is it band related?
Whatever you like, it’s up to you!
Amos: Falling in love?
Cathy: (looks at Amos) I did fall in love this year! I went to Green Man Festival, though. I went to a couple of festivals, and I haven’t been to festivals outside of band work for about 3 or 4 years, so I just went as a punter and it was just great! It was so much fun! I saw a bunch of really good bands. I saw Explosions in the Sky, I saw Beach House. I saw…I don’t know, I can’t remember now…there were loads of bands we saw.
Amos: I remember what the low point of my year was: the day after Green Man, Cathy and I both met at an airport because we were flying on to Holland, and we managed to miss our plane because the gate was written wrong. We were lucky the rest of the band had travelled there the day before so they were there and they managed to play this gig as a 4-piece, but it really…
Cathy: …and a gig without drums, as well! Yeah, that was so awful! We basically drove all night to get back from this festival on Saturday night and go to the airport on Sunday morning. And we got back at like 5 AM because the car was playing up, slept for an hour and then went to the airport. And then to miss the plane was just the worst! We ran to the gate when we realized we got the wrong gate, and we could see it taxiing away, and it was just like “Oh god!
Amos: I did have a high point, just to end on a positive note. We played this show in San Diego – and I used to live in the Middle East – and this guy turned up and I hadn’t seen him for the best part of 20 years. I hadn’t seen him since I was so young. I don’t really know the full story, but just to see him there after…he’s like the one guy I know from my time spent in the Middle East, and he turned up at this gig. And I went back to his flat and met his wife, and the kids were asleep. It was really bizarre, but it was definitely the high point, it blew my mind.
Well sometimes fate works in mysterious ways!
Amos: This guy traveled all over and he’s got a wife that he met in Holland and he’s lived all over the States, and our paths had never, never crossed, it was just one of things…and finally we just ended up in San Diego at the same time, and there you go! He just happened to be there, and I was there, so…

All right, well, thank you so much for your time. I know you’re only here for a little while in Washington, but I hope you guys come back soon because with a show sold out I’m sure you guys can fill out our venues here and I hope you do come back soon.
Cathy: I’m sure we will. We’re coming back in February, but I don’t know where we’re going exactly.
Amos: We’ll be back in the States in February, but who knows where.
Mary: And then you guys will tour with Mumford when, in the UK?
Amos: That’s also February.
Cathy: No. That’s in March, isn’t it? Because we come here on the 18th of February, it’s after that.
Amos: Don’t worry – we’ll discuss this later!
All I can say is that’s a killer lineup, with you and Mumford!
Cathy: I’m not really sure what they sound like, I didn’t see their show…
Amos: I’ve been checking them out, so…
Maybe I’ll come over to the UK for that. Alright, well, thank you so much!
Amos:You’re welcome.
Cathy: That’s all right, you’re welcome!

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