Remember the 1980s synth pop trio When In Rome? No? Well surely you remember their massive hit single “The Promise?” Of course you do. That song remains a timeless hit some three decades later.
West Coast Bureau Chief Keith Valcourt sat down with the band’s founder Michael Floreale about that massive hit, the battle of the two versions of the band and what the future holds, backstage at a Los Angeles gig that saw When In Rome opening for Missing Persons and Information Society, It’s good. I promise you.
Rocker: How did the original When In Rome come together?
Michael: I formed the band with Clive Farrington, the ex-singer. That was back in 1985. At the time, we were just writing songs. We had done the local band scene together. We went through the usual four or five members, drummer and bass players and such, and then we decided we needed a frontman. We found Andrew Mann because he looked the part. It didn’t quite work out with him being the frontman, but he became the second vocalist in 1987. From there we started writing and writing. “The Promise” was one of the first songs we wrote together.
Rocker: What was the collaborative process like between you and Farrington and Mann?
Michael: The way it usually worked, because I’m the keyboard player, I wrote the music and then I presented it to Clive. The music would give him an idea and then we would finish the songs together. That’s the way all the songs came about on our first and only album together. Clive’s parents had this old coal shed that we converted to a studio with keyboards strapped to the walls and drum machines. I would go in there and mess around with chord progressions and melodies. We had a little 4 track recorder and would layer everything. I had the bass parts and drum pads going one night and Clive walked in and said, “Keep that. What is that?” Fifteen minutes later “The Promise” was written.
Rocker: When did you know “The Promise” was a hit?
Michael: I think when we wrote it, we knew it was good. But we never knew it would be one of the songs that you could still listen to on the radio decades later. Never knew it would go on to be so successful.
Rocker: Since “The Promise” was one of the first songs you wrote for the record, did that set the tone?
Michael: I don’t think we deliberately tried to write more “Promises.” We just wrote songs. I think we were an electronic band more than an organic band. Our demos were that. But when we got into the studio with Virgin, they were the label who signed us, we went into the studio with one of Sade’s producers. As you know he was very organic. There are no electronic elements in Sade’s music. We morphed into this semi-organic electronic band.
Rocker: Did you want to be an electronic group like OMD or Pet Shop Boys when you started?
Michael: The influences for me were Human League and ABC. That was where the focus was. But I liked all different kinds of music.
Rocker: Is it true that the version of “The Promise” that became a hit is actually the original demo?
Michael: Yes, in a way. When we went into the studio the producer said, “We should really bring live players in.” So we got a drummer, a bass player and an eighteen piece orchestra. Later that night we were back at the hotel listening to the tape, then we listened to the demo. And the demo was better. The next day we sat down with the producer in a room and in a very tactful way said, “Listen to this (the demo) we think it’s better,” because the fully orchestrated version kind of lost its focus. To his credit he said, “You’re right.” We went back in the studio, hired all the equipment we used to record the original demo, and re-recorded exactly the same way.
Rocker: Does it bother you that the song overshadowed everything else?
Michael: Yeah. We had such a short career initially. We did just the one album. “The Promise” was a big hit while we were touring. We did some track dates in America. The song kind of moved from one coast to another. It was weird. We would be in New York and it was a hit and then end up in California and it was just becoming a hit. It was a process that happened over three months. The record company started releasing follow up songs. They did a remix on “Heaven Knows” to try and make it sound like “The Promise.” That wasn’t the song I would have chosen. I would have gone for a song with more commercial appeal. I don’t feel like the record company handled the timing right. Then of course months later, frustration set in and that led to artistic differences.” We had been touring, “The Promise” was a big hit and none of the follow ups did so well. More frustration.
Rocker: Is that why there was only the one album?
Rocker: What were the “artistic differences” that led to the split with Farrington and Mann?
Michael: The thing is when you have a hit and the follow ups don’t do so well, you start to second guess yourself. I kept saying to them, “The songs are good.” After the tour we had a new album ready to go. I had written all the music, we had demos and there were some great songs there. But the whole music scene was changing. The eighties synth thing became a little passé in England. My argument was that the fan base for When In Rome wasn’t in England. It was in America and they wanted to hear more of the same. I kind of stuck my heels in and said, “Well, I write the songs.” They wanted to go more in the direction of Cameo and Soul 2 Soul. It didn’t work. The record company asked them to demo their ideas and Virgin didn’t like it. So we broke up and I moved over here.
Rocker: Why did you move to Texas?
Michael: To make a long story short it was a woman.
Rocker: What were you up to in the years the band was inactive?
Michael: I carried on doing music. I just moved into the commercial side of music, mainly TV.
Rocker: Any ads we would recognize?
Michael: Texas isn’t a national market. It’s more of a regional market. I did some stuff for T.G.I Fridays, Exxon,… The music supports products. It pays well but it’s not gratifying. When you write a song it lives forever. I gradually decided I needed to get back into writing songs again.
Rocker: That led to your return to When In Rome?
Michael: I started writing with a local singer in Texas just to get back into it. I wrote a complete album with him. But nothing happened with that. Then in 2006, a guy out here in California, Rob Juarez, who was an 80s agent and had Flock Of Seagulls and Devo at the time, found out I was living in Texas. He said, “If you want to reform the band I can get you some shows.” I told him, well the other two guys (Farrington and Mann) didn’t continue. They stopped being singers really. They went into different careers. They are in England and not singing. I’m over here in America. I told him if I’m going to do it I want to write new material and give it another go. He said, “Fine.” He ended up as our drummer as well.
Rocker: How did you find your new singer?
Michael: I used one singer on the first tour when we opened for Devo and Psychedelic Furs, he was okay. He was a singer but not a songwriter. I really needed a collaborator to write new songs with. Then in 2007, I found John Ceravolo, who is still with me today as the singer, and we started writing together. It took a while but we finally have the album finished. It would have been released a couple years ago if not for the legal battles with the two original singers.
Rocker: Does it bother you that after you brought When In Rome back, your old bandmates Farrington and Mann came out with their own version?
Michael: The frustration is that in 2006 I was helping Clive, because we have contractual relations together with the songs. And I let him know what I was doing. They weren’t singing or doing anything. He said, “Go ahead.” I said, “I will anyway but I wanted you to know from me, as a courtesy. Not the internet.” The benefit of When In Rome is that people remember the song but they don’t remember the singers. It worked for me because I could write new material, go out with a band, and use the fact that people know that song to help with the audience. They would come and see us play.
Then in 2011, we decided we wanted to get more organic and needed a new drummer. Bobby Juarez, the same eighties promoter who got in touch with me to start the band up again in 2006, who was drumming with us at the time, didn’t like that. He then approached Farrington and Mann back in England. And said, “By the way, Michael and I have split up, so if you guys want to come over and tour again I can set things up” twenty one years after they stopped doing it. By then I had finished the album. I had been touring for five years as When In Rome. Obviously it caused problems. Bobby Juarez is an agent. So he started booking the shows. The only thing that he didn’t acknowledge is that I trademarked the name. I legally own the name. So I had to enforce it through the courts. It took a couple years but I won.
Rocker: I know there is a lot of bad blood, and you have moved on, but ever see a day where you could reunite with Farrington and Mann?
Michael: When I got friendly with Clive again, maybe around 1999 or 2000 I gave him a bunch of ideas because that’s how we worked. But I never heard back from him. He went into this DJ career. Whenever I would talk to him he was being a DJ. His heart wasn’t into being a singer anymore. So, no. Why go back? We have a great new singer. Great new songs.
Rocker: Will there be a new When In Rome CD?
Michael: We’ve got a great new album. The working title is “It Is So Ordered” I’ll let you work out why it’s called that. (Laughs)
Rocker: When you play shows on shared bills with other 80’s artists is there a sense of competition?
Michael: No. Everybody gets on and we are all there for the greater good. It’s a package. Nobody comes to see just one band. We pay our respects because some of the bands have achieved more and have better careers than us. We are just happy to be part of it. It’s an honor to play with some of these bands. And they are all good people.
Rocker: Not all? There has to be one.
Michael: Well you know. To be honest I’ve never had a problem. You put your egos aside because we’ve all seen it all.
Rocker: What is the best part of being in When In Rome in 2014?
Michael: Just to be able to express yourself and play new music. We pay homage to the past. I know people want to come and hear “The Promise.” That’s why I’m here. I’m enjoying the opportunity to put new music out there and perform.