Interview: Ben Duffy of Fenech-Soler

By on Tuesday, 27th September 2011 at 12:00 pm

Fenech-Soler have had quite a manic year, in part owing to lead singer Ben Duffy’s cancer diagnosis and the rerouting of some early 2011 dates to this month. But the band played 28 – 28?!? – festivals this summer and we’re very pleased that Ben was able to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some of our burning questions. I ask him about their synth gear, if there’s a Fenech-Soler clothing line up ahead and more. I was also extremely selfish and asked about a possible special dance under certain circumstances, circumstances I hope can be created at the Manchester Apollo on the 1st of December. Read on…

Hello Ben. Where have we found you today? What are you up to?
Hello! I’m currently with my brother Ross in our little studio in Kings Cliffe where we live. We’ve been writing a lot this week.

The first thing that struck me about your band Fenech-Soler was the name. It sounds so mysterious and unusual and really grabs your attention. So I understand that it’s the full surname of your bassist/keyboardist Daniel Soler, whose background is Maltese. How did you arrive at this name? Was it one of those instances where “we need a name, quick!” or did you consider lots of other potential names and landed on Fenech-Soler because you liked it best? (If the latter, it would be nice to know what you might have been called…)
Although I can’t think of any names we considered at the time, we did certainly go through that phase of trying to find a name and i think really it came down eo us wanting something completely original and something that reflected the music we were making. We bought a laptop and started making music, although very basic at the start, and really just had an outwards perspective with it all. Fenech-Soler gave us this foreign, almost Parisian feel and we enjoyed the mystery around it. As our first ever single a few years later came out on Alan Braxe’s French label Vultur’ we were introduced to the London music scene via Paris. Alan has always been an influence so we had to double-check it was him on Myspace asking us if he could release one of our demons on his labels/

What is it like to be in a band with your brother? I know I’d probably be getting into fights with my brother if we ever chose to start some musical venture together.

We do argue but it happens in such a short intense burst, it’s over before it starts. Not very often, mind you, and always about the band or music. We get on fine.

How did you decide that electronic was the way forward with your band? Were there certain bands / DJs that influenced you when you were younger? Are there certain bands/DJs that you have always aspired to be like?

Dance music can do that one thing that no other music can do. It can incite that one euphoric feeling that doesn’t have any emotion attached to it. I think we were intrigued about how we could make that kind of music and how we could mix that with actual songs. We wanted to write songs that would last and wouldn’t be just part of a scene or phase. (With) electronic music, especially in London, there is a real fluid movement of styles and sometime a band can get branded the next big thing before they’ve even done a show. We wanted to play lots of shows and learn our trade. Certainly big electronic acts like Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Soulwax influenced us but more recently bands and artists like Bombay Bicycle Club, Caribou and Miike Snow.

As a band you own a lot of synthesisers and take a lot of them out on the road. Do you like newer ones over older ones or vice versa? Do you have a particular favourite and if so, why?
Well, Andrew, our drummer is really the man to speak to as he owns most of our synthesizers. We keep a good selection in our studio like the Arp Oddessy, Moog Source, Yamaha CS80, MS-10, Roland JX3P so to be honest all old ones. We use a Moog Phatty, Korg MS-20 and a Korg R3 on stage so a couple of new ones in there. Being able to save settings is a must with live stuff!

Now I’d like to talk about your recent diagnosis and successful fight with testicular cancer. How did you find out? Were you feeling poorly and sent yourself to the doctor?

I wasn’t feeling too bad at all when I eventually got back from touring and got checked out. Obviously with things like this, the earlier you can get checked out the better. Unfortunately the cancer had spread to a few other sites so I had to undergo some chemo. It really is important to go and get checked out early on.

I am sure you are an inspiration to many other young people who have or have had cancer, in that you were able to beat it and only within a couple of months get back to Fenech-Soler (and going back to touring later this month). How did having this illness change you? Were you surprised by people’s reactions to the news?
The immediate frustration that myself and the other guys felt was quickly put into perspective and I suppose we put a plan together of how we could keep everything going. For me personally, like many other musicians I’m sure, music is always my priority, a total obsession, so when that becomes number two, it certainly is a strange feeling. All in all, we had amazing support from our fans, friends and other bands and we spent a lot of time working on our live show.

When you go from being “healthy” to “having to undergo chemotherapy”, there is usually a bit of a shock emotionally, you start thinking about things you didn’t think about before, you have different fears, your priorities change. How did you approach this new chapter of your life?

I think the only plan I had was to continue doing what I do everyday until I physically couldn’t get out of bed. I reacted really well to the anti-sickness medication I was on it really was only the last 4 weeks of my treatment that knocked me out. The rest of the time I was recording or playing with the guys. It was more a mental thing too. Keeping to a routine and not sitting around feeling down about it was really the plan. It wall went pretty quickly really. I owe a lot to the staff of Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.

I bet it will feel amazing when you finally step on that stage the first night of the UK tour at Peterborough Cresset on the 20th of September! What’s the best part of being “fighting fit”?

Certainly the shows. We’ve had the opportunity to play 28 festivals this summer and travel to far out places like the Kazantip Republic in the Ukraine for example. Glastonbury was a highlight too. Doing all these things has been pretty special after a turbulent few months. The UK tour which starts in our closet city to home, Peterborough, in a few days, is going to be great. It’s the tour that we had to move and reschedule so we have big plans. 7 of the 10 shows are already sold out so we’re extremely excited.

Whether it be your brooding, darkly attractive coat in ‘Stop and Stare’, the medieval chic outfit that is unfortunately punctured in ‘Lies’ or the gold-embellished t-shirt you have on in ‘Demons’, one thing that I have definitely noticed from the Fenech-Soler videos is that you have a great sense of style. Where did you get this brilliant sense of fashion? (Is there going to be a Fenech-Soler clothing line sometime down the road?)
Haa! Clothing line is a good idea. Maybe for when we’re a bigger band. I think we’ve always felt that if you’re going to be a band up on stage, then you have to make an effort. Also linking back to what I was saying earlier about open perspective and influences, Fenech-Soler has always been about imagery and escapism. We’ve picked up items as we’ve traveled along. It’s toned down quite a bit these days.

Also about the videos: all the promos you’ve released so far have been visually beautiful. Do you spend a lot of time yourself (or as a group) thinking about how you want to translate one of your songs into the visual medium?
It’s always nice to work with video directors and see how they visually interpret our music. It’s something you get right or you get wrong. Videos can be tricky. We have just done a video competition for one of our favorite tracks off our record ‘Golden Sun’. It been great having a choice of 35 videos and not being involved in the making of them.

Recently you posted some studio footage on your band’s Tumblr. Are new songs, a follow-up to your debut album already in the works?

Yes, definitely. We’ve been demoing new material and writing lots at home. Fingers crossed we are going to release a new song in the next month, so we’re just producing that at the moment. I think the important thing is to not set any limitations at this stage. Anything and everything is really coming out. When we stop touring in January we will finish building our new home studio and will start making the record.

What I particularly like about your band is your level of interaction with your fans – you have a Tumblr, active Twitter and Facebook accounts, your Web site is updated often. How important do you think this level of engagement has been to your success?
More importantly than anything else is a solid fan base that you can contact and keep in touch with. A band has power over the labels if they have a strong following that they can communicate with. We run all our sites and content as Fenech-Soler has always been about doing things in a DIY fashion and making sure we a very self-dependent. As things progress you have to have a presence on all online platforms.

Random question (and quite possibly might be moot because I have not seen you live yet): a long time ago I had a dream that you and I were wearing sparkly clothes and dancing under a huge mirrorball. (I can’t remember if you were holding a microphone and singing. Maybe you already do this on tour.) Can we make this happen in the future?
Errr, yes. I’m sure we can. Come to one of our shows and we’ll arrange it! [Editor’s note to Ben: I have my sparkly clothes. Let’s make this happen at Manchester Apollo on 1 December?]

Many thanks to Caroline for setting this up for us at TGTF.

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