On the release of ‘The Tipping Point,’ Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith tell Document about the importance of a narrative arc, the human desire to individuate, and raising kids of their own
One day before Tears for Fears released The Tipping Point, the UK new wave act’s first new album in 17 years, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched an all-out military invasion of Ukraine that had the unintended effect of launching Tears for Fears’s 1985 single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” back into the cultural consciousness. The song, recorded for Tears for Fears’s confrontational, somewhat precocious second studio album, Songs From the Big Chair, was co-written by Roland Orzabal and sung by a baby-faced Curt Smith during a phase of heightened tensions between the Soviet Union and the West. Detailing the human desire for power and corruption, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” became a Cold War anthem among youth growing up under Margaret Thatcher and Reagan-era austerity and hasn’t become less compelling in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. New Zealand singer Lorde, who wasn’t born until 1996, covered the song for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’s soundtrack in 2013. Kanye West, Drake, and The Weeknd have sampled tracks from Tears for Fears’s introspective debut album The Hurting.
Orzabal and Smith’s new single “The Tipping Point” uses the same rhythm and drum fill from “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” but, as Orzabal told Document during our Zoom interview last month, “The backing track and the subject matter could not have been written by kids who were 19 years old.” The Tipping Point is a journey through love and loss—an album-album, consisting of chapters of a story rather than a collection of singles—released by two 60-year-olds who have now raised kids of their own. “We’re not writing about the traumas associated with childhood,” Orzabal said, “we’re writing about the traumas associated with just being alive.” The first single off The Tipping Point, “No Small Thing,” is the perfectly somber entry point into the journey, reminiscent of an acoustic folk song and descending into a deeper, more expansive sound speaking to the spirit of freedom the band has embodied for the past two decades. “We have had to plumb the depths of our souls to come up with this new stuff. And, in many, many ways, it’s like our first album,” Orzabal continues. “There was such a huge gap before we actually released this—17 years. We are starting again.”
Orzabal and Smith have shared a longstanding interest in human psychology since their early years getting trashed and making music in Bath, Somerset’s Snow Hill flats—the band’s name is inspired by American psychologist Arthur Janov’s primal therapy technique, in which the repressed emotional distress of childhood trauma is brought back to conscious awareness. It was the passing of Orzabal’s wife in 2017, followed by his own series of health emergencies, then a global pandemic, that eventually brought him closer to Smith and resulted in a new beginning. “The thing is, when you’ve known each other as long as we have, and have worked together as long as we have, there’s a bond there that becomes familial… It’s literally like that’s your brother,” Smith says. “It’s the kind of bond that you can’t really break. It can fall apart at times. You separate for periods—which I also think is healthy, really. I’ve walked away. But in the end, we always seem to find each other again.”
“The reason why it was important to release The Tipping Point was because it has a story.”
Hannah Ongley: I read all the press releases for The Tipping Point and there was a lot of discussion about searching for ‘the elusive modern radio hit,’ but it sounds to me like you started from the completely opposite direction, one that’s more inward-looking.
Curt Smith: Initially we did all these writing sessions in search of the elusive modern hit single, some of which went okay. We did keep five of the songs from all those sessions. But in the end we decided to take the approach that we wanted to make an album—and an album that had a journey and told a story. The problem with just trying to search for the elusive hit single, as I said, was there was no story involved. It was just lots of attempts at songs that were vaguely commercial. There was no arc to the album, there was no story, there was no ebb and flow. So we decided to go the opposite route when we worked out that that really wasn’t working for us, and sat down with a couple of acoustic guitars and tried to start working out what the story was. Once we got to that point, things really didn’t take that long. The reason why it was important to release The Tipping Point was because it has a story.
Hannah: Let’s go back to ‘No Small Thing.’ Going back to your childhoods, since the album is partly reflecting on your growing up in Bath, what is it about the American folk and country tones in particular that you found a sense of freedom in?
Roland Orzabal: Well, when I was a kid, I was born in a place called Leigh Park, which was a huge council estate, state housing—the whole town was state housing, just outside Portsmouth, South of England. My parents ran an entertainment agency, basically small working men’s clubs. My mum was a stripper and she trained strippers, so the women that came round to the house were strippers, and the men that came round sang like Elvis or Johnny Cash.
Hannah: When was this, the ’60s?
Roland: Yeah it was, can you believe it? Christ, look at me! Yeah, so that was the first music I was exposed to, country music.
Hannah: I only know about Bath from literature. Was there much of a mod scene there?
Roland: Well, we were mods in Bath. I think we were the only mods. There were very few fashionable people there. It’s a touristy town, you know? It’s the most visited tourist location after Buckingham Palace.
Curt: There wasn’t much of a music scene. I think the music scene was primarily us, to start with. I think we were the one band that had come from Bath. We had people that moved there as we were kind of growing up, so when we were 18, 19 we had experiences with Peter Gabriel, who had moved down to Bath, Hugh Cornwell from the Stranglers had moved just outside of Bath, and there was another band called The Korgis who were kind of Bath.
Roland: Van Morrison?
Curt: Oh, Van Morrison came down eventually, yeah. That was later. So people sort of gravitated towards it eventually, but there was no real music scene. There was one club.
Roland: We had this sort of competition with Bristol: Which band is going to be the biggest from Bath or Bristol? So we broke—Tears for Fears broke big. But Bristol had all the hit bands, you see what I’m saying? They were all sort of post punk, several musicians from one band in Bristol joined The Clash, for instance, the second wave of The Clash. But then later, in the ’90s, you had Massive Attack, Portishead, the whole drum and bass thing with Roni Size. Then Bristol completely took over. It’s a much tougher city than Bath. Bath is a very vain place.
Hannah: You two have split, reconciled, and toured semi-regularly since you first started making music together. Do you feel that the time spent alone enriches the time that you spend together making music?
“Having been together under the spotlight, me and Curt, in a pressure cooker for 10 years—we got to a certain age where we definitely needed to explore other things.”
Curt: Alone [time] is incredibly important. I think the problem we had when I left the band in my mid-to-late 20s was that we spent all our time together—work and outside of work. We’d lived in Bath, although Roland by that point had moved to London, and I think that’s just not a healthy thing. I think you’ve got to have a separate life outside of work, I think that’s very important.
Roland: We were kids that grew up together. We were very young, age 14, drinking cider in Snow Hill flats in Bath, getting drunk—really drunk. So we were very much joined at the hip when we did The Hurting. But, you’ll see, there’s something that happens with people that grow up together. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Beatles documentary Get Back? Here are guys, again, sort of joined at the hip at a certain age, and when you head towards your late 20s, there is a deep, deep desire to individuate—to become more of who you are. That’s a time, around age 28, 29, when you’ll see people who are getting married, or you’ll see people who were married earlier getting divorced. People separating, or experiencing major changes in their life. That happens regularly for a lot of people, and I think that, having been together under the spotlight, me and Curt, in a pressure cooker for 10 years—we got to a certain age where we definitely needed to explore other things. It was a good thing to do, a really good thing to do. I don’t think Curt has any regrets and nor do I.
Curt: I think that’s an age where you end up finding yourself. Certainly, for me, it was. Also, it’s when you start establishing your friend group, as well. All my close friends are not close friends from when I was younger, they’re actually close friends from when I got a bit older. It was a bit different for me as well because, along with that, I moved to America. In 1988 I bought an apartment in New York and I’ve lived in America since the end of the last tour we did in 1990. So I’ve been here for 32 years now.
Hannah: Is there anything specific about—and especially since you are in America—the culture at large that finds its way into the album? The Tipping Point is such a personal record and I’m wondering if that’s something that ends up expanding outward?
Curt: I think anything finds its way into your music that you find important. You know, personal politics—I mean, on this album we touch on the #MeToo movement, or at least the patriarchy, we touch on climate change, we touch on many things. Obviously a lot of personal trauma went on during the making of this record. There are quite a few very personal songs on this record, but there are also some that are far more outward-looking and discuss the current state of affairs worldwide. The things that have gone on in the last five years, apart from the personal side, with Roland’s wife passing away, we’ve had climate change, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the pandemic, Trump, the rise of the right wing worldwide. There’s certainly a lot of subject matter.
Hannah: I was not actually aware of just how many films and younger artists have sampled and covered your music. Is there a cover that made you look at your music from a particularly interesting new perspective?
Roland: Absolutely. I mean, the first bombshell was Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’s version of ‘Mad World.’ We managed to wrap up a very fragile and emotional song in this wonderful, complex, contemporary electronic arrangement, and then they stripped that away. They stripped it back to the basics, and did it in a way which I’d never imagined, which exposed the lyrics. Then, all of a sudden, they hit you. You’re confronted by your younger self and all the fragility—the isolation—that your younger self was experiencing. Then you realize that it’s a classic song. It’s just a bloody classic. And then when Lorde did ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,’ again, I was like, ‘Who the hell thought of that?’ I mean, there were some songs… I can’t remember his name, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’—
Curt: Dave Stewart.
“You’re confronted by your younger self and all the fragility—the isolation—that your younger self was experiencing. Then you realize that it’s a classic song.”
Roland: No, no—the goth guy whose name we cannot mention. But, you know, there are some precursors to that style of doing ’80s songs. But yeah, that was a beautiful rendition. For the last God-knows-how-long of touring, we’ve actually used the Lorde version as an opening song, which we walk on to, then we go into our own version of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World.’ So that’s a lot of fun. There are other things as well, you get more of the obtuse things. Drake took the rhythm of ‘Ideas as Opiates’ and did something with that, Kanye West took ‘Memories Fade’ off The Hurting and turned that into ‘Coldest Winter.’ Yeah, it’s good fun. Some of these interpolations are great.
Curt: The interesting thing, going back to ‘Mad World’ and ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World,’ Gary Jules and Michael Andrews and Lorde, is that, in an interesting way, their production and their take on the song is more in line with the lyric, which makes it interesting. We realize that what we tend to do is have this juxtaposition between what’s a lot of the time a very dark lyric and an upbeat backing track. What I find interesting about the samples—Roland mentioned Drake and Kanye, but also The Weeknd used ‘Pale Shelter’—was that all these modern artists picked tracks from The Hurting, which, in America, was not a big album. It was hip, it was kind of underground, it was sort of big in New York and LA because of two big radio stations, but in Middle America they never heard The Hurting. Songs from The Big Chair was our big album here. So they went back that far and mined music from our first record.
Hannah: I think that would make me feel very vulnerable, to have the lyrics looked at from a microscopic perspective.
Roland: Through a microscope, yeah. The first time I heard ‘Mad World’ in that way, I’ve told this story a few times, it was in England and we got the CD. We put the CD on the ghetto blaster and my younger son, the one who’s in Auckland now, must have been about seven, maybe. He was always a great singer, and he started singing to the record, and he sang, to me, ‘Children waiting for the day they feel good / Happy birthday, happy birthday,’ and I was like [draws breath]. Arrow to the heart! When I wrote that I was an adolescent, and there’s my little kid singing it to me. At the time I thought, ‘Shit, I’m a parent! Fuck! The guilty bastards that we used to hate.’ So yeah, that was really bizarre.