Friends: TAS In Session (SXSW 2012)

Along with other generically-named bands like Real Estate and Girls, Brooklyn's Friends play hard-to-get when it comes to Google searches (you're far more likely to find Jennifer Aniston than frontwoman Samantha Urbani), but this quintet of longtime friends has generated a lot of interest despite their nascent, two-single career thus far, signing to UK label Lucky Number last year. 

Friends were picked for the BBC's Sound of 2012 longlist, the only indie band to nab that honor, and will be head out on tour with Metronomy this month, playing two dates at New York's Irving Plaza on March 29-30. The five bandmates — Urbani, bassist Lesley Hann, drummer Oliver Duncan, guitarist/keyboardist Nikki Shapiro and keyboardist/percussionist Matthew Molnar — are also excited about supporting Neon Indian's Alan Palomo on a leg of his spring tour, beginning April 3 in Philadelphia.

The Bushwick-based Friends' still-untitled debut album doesn't drop until May but they introduced many of those fresh tracks during their busy SXSW stint last week. Prior to heading to Austin, Friends visited The Alternate Side for a generous five-song set which included several songs from their upcoming release, like "Sorry," "Ruins," "Friend Crush" and one of the best singles from 2011, "I'm His Girl." Listen to the session this Friday, March 23, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m. ET and streaming on The Alternate Side. 

Kara Manning: At this point you only have two singles out, but an album is coming out in May. You only formed about a year and a half ago … and the story involves bedbegs?

Samantha Urbani: It was a bunch of unfortunate circumstances that made us shack up together for a couple of weeks. My apartment had been completely devastated by subletters while I was away for the summer and then robbed as soon as I came back. Lesley and Oliver’s apartment had a bedbeg infestation which is unfortunately a common occurance in our town of Bushwick. Nobody else they knew would let them come and live with them because they were afraid the bedbugs would follow. I invited them in because I love them and I’m not scared of bugs. And I showed them some demos I’d been working on and we decided to jam. Me and Matt had been talking about trying to do a show as fast as possible, just to see what that might be like. Not taking months to practice, but practicing for a few days and then playing a show.

Kara: And you did it in your backyard about a week after?

Samantha: Yes, six days. We practiced for five or six days and then did a show in my backyard. I invited all my friends so about 30 people showed up. A cool party. We put tons of reverb on everything. I made sure there weren’t a lot of lights so I didn’t feel scared to sing in front of everyone.

Kara: “Friend Crush,” your very first single, is something that you did at your very first rehearsal?

Samantha: Yes, it was the first thing we ever played because it was the [most simple] composition. I had it demoed exactly as I thought it should be. I showed it to these guys and they wrote stuff around what I’d come up with.

Kara: I’m assuming that “Friend Crush” will be on your debut album?

Samantha: It will definitely be on the debut record.

Kara: Right now you’re still batting around names for the record? Are there names that have been floating between all of you?  

Samantha: There’s no way we’re going to talk about that! (laughs). But they all have to do with word play, a certain concept or meaning. And we do everything spontaneously. We’ll know it when it’s there.

Kara: Samantha, you and Lesley have known each other since grade school?

Samantha: Yeah, second or third grade.

Kara: We talked earlier about how Lesley and Oliver got hooked into the band, but how did Matthew and Nikki get involved? Some of you worked at Angelika Kitchen?

Samantha: That’s true. Matt was friends with my ex-boyfriend, who we incidentally recorded all this music with, and I became friends with Matt through Daniel and Matt got me a job at Angelika Kitchen. Nikki was working there and we all became buddies and happened to share a taste in music, but different kinds of music.

Kara: The thing that excited me so much about this band is that first, I discovered “Friend Crush,” and then “I’m His Girl.” And you do a cover of Ghostown DJ’s “My Boo” which sent me down the rabbit hole of groups that I love, like TLC.

Samantha: Oh my God, yup! All of us like a huge variety of music and I think that’s one thing we all had in common. None of us feel that genre defines [our character]; we all shared a love of a lot of different kinds of music and an ability to find similarities between genres of music that aren’t necessarily seen as being similar. Like post-punk and that kind of Miami-based, mid-90s R&B. I see a total similarity in those things and we weren’t trying to go for one or the other, but that really did match the sound that we were naturally coming up with. And I love [“My Boo”]. It has a great melody and good feeling.

Kara: There are also bands like X-Ray Spex and The Slits that come through [your music].

Samantha: Totally.

Kara: How long were you recording at Strange Weather in Brooklyn?

Samantha: It wasn’t one linear path. We went in there for two days and recorded four songs literally a month to the day after our first practice. Six months later we went in for two days. Three months later we went in for five days. Four months after that, we went in for a few days. Whenever we felt like we needed to get back there, we’d schedule time and record some stuff which ended up making everything feel really disorganized in the end!

Kara: When I first heard this song I thought of Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, the whole Burundi beat thing.

Samantha: Yes! Thank you! I don’t know if any of these guys knew about Burundi Black, the record I really love.

Lesley Hann: I didn’t know about it until you showed me.

Samantha: I love that stuff. I love Adam Ant. One time, at a certain point in a practice, I was like, “Guys! We have to listen to this record and totally copy this drumbeat!” But we never did that! And I think that’s a really good thing. Everybody here, [despite] all our tastes, really appreciates percussion, rhythms and being playful and creative with percussion rather than relying on a bunch of rhythm guitars and things that just fill up space. We all appreciate minimalism.

Kara: Friends has a very different sound to me. You don’t sound like a lot of other Brooklyn bands.

Samantha: I don’t listen to any new music, really. I’m not trying to be elitist by saying that, but there’s so much old music that I love. I support other bands doing their thing, but there’s something about [new music] that doesn’t really move me right now. There’s some stuff out now that I really love, but not a lot. I really love Ariel Pink and DāM-FunK, stuff like that. Funky stuff.

Kara: You’ve broken through in a big way in the UK, you’re signed to a UK label, Lucky Number, and you made the BBC Sound of 2012 longlist which is a huge honor.

Lesley: Of anybody who was American on the list, we were the only band.

Samantha: I didn’t really know what that was before we got it. It’s a different country and marketing system, but once I found out what it was I thought that it was really cool and an honor, definitely.

Kara: The song “I’m His Girl” was notable there too because of the bassline that Lesley did in it?

Lesley: I play it, but Nikki actually wrote it.

Kara: So the two of you are responsible for the most orgasmic bassline of 2011? Was that a Bernard Edwards/Chic kind of thing?

Samantha: That was a Nikki Shapiro thing.

Nikki Shapiro: I played what seemed right for the song.

Samantha: I recorded a vocal and drum loop demo and I emailed it to Nikki and it was literally the first thing that he played [for it]. He emailed it back to me within an hour with the keyboard part, the bass part and some guitar on it. It was written in a morning. We wrote it last March.

Kara: You’ll be touring with Metronomy, one of my favorite bands, in March.

Samantha: And right after that, Neon Indian. Alan [Palomo} is a mutual friend of a lot of my friends and I’ve met him a lot of times.

Kara: What was the process of finding your live show and that comfort level.

Samantha: Well, we started playing shows six days after our first practice, so we basically are just a live band, you know? It was a little more uncomfortable to figure out how to record than how to play live, since we played live so much more. We got tons of shows and started playing two or three times a week and we felt differently about our comfort levels onstage.

Lesley: What we seem like on stage, on some level, is what we’re actually like, individually.

Samantha: None of us are, by trade, performers. We’re playing instruments, I”m singing songs and I really like trying to connect with people while I’m singing. I don’t like to feel as if there’s any barrier between me and the audience?

Kara: Were there any frontwomen you admired?

Samantha: There was nobody who I really looked to as an inspiration of how I should act onstage. That’s not the way I’ve ever learned or educated myself. It’s a personal learning process for me and I don’t think anyone else’s influences is going to give me what I need to grow. I need to find that in myself. I would literally start shaking and choking up when I tried to sing in front of people two years ago.

The first time Matt ever heard me sing, we were in his apartment and I’d kind of hinted that I write songs. I’ve written tons of songs since I was a kid, bu there was a fear of judgement or anxiety of performance that was holding me back. He made me do it. He turned his back and looked away from me while I played guitar and sang. That’s another reason why I feel Friends is an appropriate name for the band. The support of people who I care about, enjoying the things I was making, they were honestly supportive of the demos I made.

When we first started playing shows, I would literally clutch really weird objects in my hands, like a leather panther that I found at a church sale that I felt looked cool and had some energetic connection with. And a giant golden canteen that I’d found in Berlin. So I’d have my arms totally full and I was also holding the microphone so I didn’t have to feel self-conscious about was doing with my body and then I just looked down and sang. Now I use people, strangers in the audience. I like to clutch people.

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