By Peter Lindblad
At least partially responsible for such enveloping, ‘80s New Wave sonic architecture as “One Thing Leads To Another,” “Red Skies,” “Saved By Zero,” and “Stand Or Fall” — songs that acutely captured the paranoia of the Cold War in fearful lyrics — Curnin has a new album out called The Returning Sun on his own label, Squirrels Eat Nuts, Inc.
Deeply personal lyrically, The Returning Sun is a bright, colorful, melodic album that’s as hopeful and sunny as his outlook on life, while retaining the guitar flashes and wide-screen synthesizers that made The Fixx an AOR staple. Curnin talked recently about the inspiration for The Returning Sun, his work with The Fixx and his latest daring escapade.
Goldmine: You celebrated your 50th birthday by climbing Mt. Everest with a group of fellow musicians. What was that like?
Cy Curnin: Yes, well that was a life-transforming experience. Last summer, I was on the road with Psychedelic Furs and The Alarm, and the lead singer of The Alarm, Mike Peters, is a two-time Leukemia survivor. And I’ve worked with Mike over the years, and I’ve been aware of his fight, and seeing him onstage is a real inspiration. It makes you think twice about moaning about having a headache when you see this guy just giving it what for. He really knows what every day is worth to come back from something like that.
He organized this foundation called the Love, Hope, Strength Foundation, with another fellow leukemia survivor called James Chippendale (president of CSI Entertainment), and together, they just hatched this plan to shout the message that if early detection and early treatment were available, a lot more people could get into remission and get on with their lives. So, sing it from the highest points of the world [was what] they wanted to do. So, [first] it was the Empire State Building, and Mike is from Wales, and there’s a mountain there called Snowden, and then one of them came up with the idea, “Well, hey, how about Everest?” And so, a lot of trekkers signed up for that. They were leukemia survivors, there were six or seven musicians who were invited along (Peters, Squeeze’s Glenn Tillbrook, Stray Cats’ Slim Phantom, The Fixx’s Jamie West-Oram, Curnin and Nick Harper, the son of the enigmatic English musician Roy Harper), and then there were some just normal, healthy people who’d donated a lot of money to the foundation. We all set off and went to break the world record for the highest rock concert ever. On the 22 of October 2007, at 19,100 feet, I believe we broke that record.
GM: What were the logistics like?
CC: Well, it was pretty … obviously, the camera guys [were affected the most]. It was filmed by Alex Colletti, creator and producer of “MTV Unplugged.” He was filming it and documenting it with two cameramen.
Obviously, they didn’t want to carry lights, so we had to do everything in the day. We were using solar panels, rolled up solar panels, to charge the batteries and using a small P.A. system that was powered by battery. It was pretty damn cold up there for the guitarists, [and there was] not much air up there for the singers, but it all came off, and there were a few hundred people up there by the time we’d reached base camp, and right behind base camp is a little knoll … which is a little higher, another 1,200 feet. So, we went up there, and we picked up followers along the trek, along the trail — we were leaving notes that said, rock concert at the top of the mountain, blah, blah … and people were hearing about it, and making their way, and planning their trips around it. So, on the day, there was a wind blowing at 100 miles an hour. I’d say the audio recording wasn’t that incredible, due to the wind noise, but yes, it was all there, and the visuals were great.
GM: What were you going for on the new album?
CC: Well, I was just going for catharsis. I was just trying to get stuff out. I was going through a divorce, and the habits of one life were draining, and the realities of a new life were filling me at the same time as the old one was draining. So, there was a slight … I wouldn’t say schizophrenic or bipolar, but there was an eclectic nature to the making of this record.
Some days were darker than others. But, I think the overall vibe [had] a positive feel, just because I felt that I had to get on with my life, I had to celebrate what I had, and sometimes, when you go through heavy emotional periods, it’s great for creativity as a songwriter. I didn’t have to go far to find a line. It would flow out of my mouth as a stream-of-consciousness thought [and] just spit a song. It was trying for me because I was so all over the place in my thoughts, but finding Doug Beck (Pink, The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode), the guy who produced it — very together guy — he was really inspiring to be with, and he was, in turn, inspired by the beginnings of my songs.
He was the one who helped me focus it all and put it on a time frame. He had one studio, and I had built a studio in my apartment, and we’d just sort of take turns in deciding whose place to work at, and we just got a rhythm going, and we were quite lucky that the songs just came out one after another, feeling really right to be next to each other. They almost came out in the order you’re hearing them. And then, Jamie from The Fixx came to town, and once he put his guitar on tape, there was no point putting anybody else’s.
GM: Do you get the feeling he is underrated as a guitarist?
CC: Do I get the feeling? I’m absolutely sure of it. He’s the most underrated guitarist I know. Everyone I meet who knows anything about music, that’s the first thing they say to me … the most underrated guitar player out there. And when you know him as a person, you know kind of why. He’s not into selling himself. He’s ego-less, almost to the point of being a Buddhist monk, if you like.
GM: Why not choose to record the album as The Fixx?
CC: I just got the feeling that the subject matter was a little more personal. There were a couple of songs on there that I would have done with the Fixx had we been making a Fixx record. Fixx songs tend to be written when we’re all together. There’s sort of a gentleman’s club vibe. They start with jams, they start with tones and grooves, and I’ll have an idea that will set the mood and everybody will pitch in, and it’ll grow organically that way — the later Fixx stuff especially.
And at that point, I was going through these changes and the band … we’d just finished touring the Elemental thing, and we were getting ready to make a new record the next year. So, there was this period of down time, where I was moving my clothes out of one wardrobe and putting them in another — all my hang-ups, if you like.
GM: Are you afraid fans will miss the expansive, beautiful sonic caves The Fixx created?
CC: No, I’m not afraid at all, because we’re just getting ready to do another Fixx record … (in January), where all those Fixx sonic textures will be right there, so it’s just a different … it’s not a departure for me, it’s just a … you know these days with the Internet and the fact that there are not any record companies telling you what to do and what you can’t do, I was just curious to see if I could fire away, to just launch stuff myself and have more control over it and have more fun with it.
GM: When The Fixx first started, there were a lot of synth-oriented bands out there. What set The Fixx apart?
CC: [We were a] bunch of nutters. We were just lunatics running the asylum (laughs). No, no … I don’t know what set us apart.
I think when you get five guys that are very uniquely styled individually, when you put it together, we were able to have a unique sound and a very simple process. We don’t over-flavor the sound. But, we do love big soundscapes. So, we’re not very busy, but we are enigmatic.
What set us apart a little bit was, okay, we had our spell on MTV and we had girls throwing their underwear onstage, but it was a little strange singing “Red Skies At Night” and catching someone’s underwear at the same time. It was just like … time went on to tell us that those songs are still getting played a lot today on the radio and so we have stock as part of pop culture — or not so much pop culture as I’d say general culture — and a generation has grown up with our music, and some has fallen by the wayside.
The ‘80s were a great period for music, Unfortunately, what I don’t like about it is the title “‘80s music” — you know, blues music, or this music or that music, all of those had a decent title, but we got lumped with ‘80s music. And I find that a little constraining, ‘cause now its 2007, and people say, “And now, from the ‘80s … “ — I’m going to be in my 80s singing ‘80s music; it’s a nightmare (laughs).
GM: You guys seemed to have a more guitar-oriented sound than other synth-oriented bands?
CC: Yeah, yeah, definitely. When you’ve got a guitarist like Jamie, it’s hard to say that’s going to be in the background. And (keyboardist) Rupert (Greenall) is a natural complementer, just by the nature of what he likes to play. He’s aware of the chords of a song, but that’s not his first place of looking. He’ll go into punctuating and underpinning what Jamie’s doing, opening up Jamie’s tonics, the intonation of what he’s doing, and how he’s playing his guitar.
Rupert can get in there … it’s like one and one equals three. And there’s a sort of quantum sound that they get. It’s sort of a gestalt thing. For me, when they make these sounds, they’re very evocative, and you only need to have one or two phrases, and not jam it up with as many words as you can say in a minute on every song. I mean, on some songs I’m a bit wordy, but generally, I tend to just have a few little slogans that go by, and that’s the overall style of the band.
You can look up into the sky, and we want stars to be shining in the universe; I find some musicians tend to be a bit claustrophobic, where people don’t really want the headroom as big as we do. We want a big headroom, and Jamie’s guitar is so subtle. He does it all so well. He doesn’t overpower the power. He doesn’t have to be full on with a stack of Marshall amps cranking. But he’s loud enough as he needs to be.