You Get What You Give

17 July 2012 | 8:45 am | Benny Doyle

“Honestly, I’d rather have them [the crowd] heckling us than just weirdly observing us. I want people to react based on how they are feeling."

A warm voice is coming through the phone line. It has that comforting tone that you could pull up a couch beneath and unload all your problems to. The person delivering such affability is Samantha Urbani, frontwoman of Brooklyn quintet Friends. With refrained ease, the 23-year-old and her cohorts have captured the hearts and feet of many, their spacious and immediate debut album, Manifest!, establishing the group as one of the hottest indie-dance acts on the planet. It's music to make out to, a fact that pleases Urbani no end. “Oh really?” she says, pleasantly surprised. “That's good. I didn't really see anybody making out tonight, but there were a lot of people having fun which is rewarding.”

The singer admits that it was a boisterous show that saw a playful audience in conversation with the band throughout the set. But far from feeling like a jukebox, Urbani was exhilarated by the spontaneity. “Honestly, I'd rather have them [the crowd] heckling us than just weirdly observing us. I want people to react based on how they are feeling; if they don't like it I want them to honestly react, but if they do like it I want them to show those emotions too. I just don't want anyone to feel inhibited or scared to exert their feelings. I always go out and try and give it everything I can, but having a good audience definitely empowers me to perform in a more enthusiastic way. It's just the same as any kind of interpersonal dynamic where you give what you get and you get what you give – it's just a constant cycle.”

Urbani is on the tour bus somewhere between Bristol and Brussels and, in the background, it sounds like there is a full-scale party going on. The closest this comes to being proven is drummer Oliver Duncan interrupting the singer to provide a full-face sensual rub. Urbani lets out a screech of glee during this and you really get the sense that every member of the Friends experience is having a ball.

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The band formed under circumstances unlikely, but undeniably charming. It was the summer of love – well, at least the summer of '10 – and bedbugs forced Urbani and her posse Lesley Hann (bass), Nikki Shapiro (guitar), Matthew Molnar (keyboard) and skinsman Duncan into the same flat for a week. During this time the group were introduced to music that Urbani had been working on; they jammed, they planned and a week after the event they were debuting their fistful of vibrancy to a small collection of pals and acquaintances. “What we were doing from the beginning was just really listening to my demos and then I would say, 'Let's work it out,' and we'd take it from there,” she explains.

Natural and undiluted, this smooth nature is personified in the band's first release, Manifest! Listening to tracks such as breakthrough single, Friend Crush , or BBC Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens' Hottest Record In The World pick, Mind Control, you quickly find that although full of rhythms, layers and textures, there's a silkiness about it all and a great deal of room to move within the music. It sounds full of life, but without the chaotic nature that goes with living. “That was basically how the songs originally started and we really wanted to keep them that way, minimal, but not lacking in melody or driving rhythms but still leaving that space open. I love all kinds of music; I love the stuff that is super lush and epic, and is very full, but I feel like Friends really thrives on that openness in a sonic sense and in a philosophical sense; it's all about that vibe.”

What is also apparent is the strong focus on individual mood, the album working as a piece, but doing so in an unorthodox way. The birdcalls and Afro shakers on Sorry, the levelled synths on Ideas On Ghosts and rich rhythms on Proud/Ashamed. Manifest! houses these unique songs that are linked by the consistent quality of the players performing the tracks, as opposed to a linear sonic similarity. Each song is very much its own entity, which makes it exciting, yet it all still flows very smoothly, which should give it longevity.

“It's something that we kind of accepted and then wandered on with,” Urbani explains, agreeing with the observation. “As I was writing all these songs by myself and then bringing them to the band to write with me, there was always a thing where we didn't want to have any boundaries of what genre we are or what sound we are. We don't feel that we need a kind of formula or that we should have to stick to anything. So when we narrowed it down to which songs were going to fit onto the record, we got left with a little bit of everything, so we thought that we should produce each of them individually and not have to think, 'Oh shit, does this song match the rest of the songs?'”


Friends were quite prepared to apply the shine on the record themselves, for the sake of continuing to strive solely towards their personal vision. However, they instead opted to bunker down in Strange Weather studio and stay locally, calling on the help of someone rather close to Urbani.

“Daniel [Schlett] who engineered the record, he's actually my ex-boyfriend,” she confides. “We were together two years and it's funny because a few of the breakup songs like Home and A Light, those songs are about him, so it made the process interesting. But he was one of the reasons we got any recognition [in the beginning], because he's pretty renowned and he let us record in his studio for really cheap, which he never ever does, but because it was after we had broken up he felt that I was doing something that I was really excited about and he wanted to invest in it.

No matter where you stand on love, breakups and the etiquette following the event, you cannot deny the strange nature of the recording situation. However, it wasn't treated as a platform to air any dirty laundry – well, not that dirty.

“No,” she cackles at the suggestion, “because I am a super honest person and we talked through everything and we maintained a really close friendship, even when it was really hard, because that is important in the end; if you're extremely close with somebody you should honour that in whatever way you can in the future. I think people that break up should always be friends. But that song, Home, the whole end of it is, 'You don't deserve me now,' so I think he was in a crappy mood that day, he was a bit upset. Then a bunch of the other songs are about guys who I had crushes on or who I ended up hanging out with immediately after we broke up. So it was definitely an interesting dynamic but it was stimulating and that is just my goal in life, to seek stimulation of any kind.”

Ironically, although Manifest! was birthed in the middle of a fierce winter from the belly of one of the most formidable urban sprawls on the planet, the vibe you get from the record is one of tropical laze. It's music that is destined to soundtrack barbecues, days at the beach and balmy nights with friends and, given the depth in the music here, it should easily make it through our brief winter months to provide us just that. Urbani informs that this was unintentional, attributing such notions to the fun and versatile rhythms that pepper the record. “We didn't specifically attempt to make warm tunes. We didn't try and teleport ourselves to a beachy location at all. If it came out sounding that way it's because, sonically, we just really like that sort of instrumentation, like the tropical hand percussion and stuff. Plus we really like African drumming styles, things like that.”

For those looking to make new Friends at Splendour, think super high energy yacht rock and uber-sensual slow jams; expect jumping in the crowd, dancing and people up on shoulders. Urbani promises a performance as dynamic as the record and the tastes that have spawned it.

“Matt and I always really vibed on classic punk, like The Germs we're obsessed with, but also like TLC. To me, they're both similar styles of music though; it always feels connected because they're both rhythm based. But I dunno, my taste in music is funny. I can listen to Slayer's first record, then I can listen to forgotten Mariah Carey album tracks and get the same feeling from both – that sense of complete euphoria and that endorphin rush, crush feeling. But it's funny, at the beginning I was talking a lot about wanting to sound like super '80s pop; I wanted us to sound like The Jets or something that was extremely bubblegum, because as much as I think I've got a decent taste in cool, respectable music, I also really love that style of pop and I always have, so I wanted to combine all those things. Cool hey, that's us.”