What do you get when you join the talents of one of the most influential hypno-delic guitarists of the 90’s, with the crushed-velvet vocals of one of the former Creation label’s finest?
What do you get when you join the talents of one of the most influential hypno-delic guitarists of the 90’s, with the crushed-velvet vocals of one of the former Creation label’s finest? If you’re Pete Fij and Terry Bickers, you get some of the most gorgeously depressing music of the year.
“Broken Heart Surgery” humbly came to life on the back of a Kickstarter campaign, where the former Adorable frontman (Fij) and House of Love / Levitation guitarist-frontman (Bickers) offered supporters unique hands-on premiums including “playing computer chess with Pete,” “a Birthday card from Fij and Bickers,” and “a guitar lesson from Terry” to lure in fans. But once launched, the album surrendered all its nascent modesty, earning the pair plays and praise from the BBC, 6Music and Radio 4 while topping more than a dozen blogs’ “Best Album of the Year” lists for 2014. Deserving of its praise, the album is as one might expect from its title, spartan soundscapes with moody guitar flourishes, infused with world weary vocals that signal less tears and more the dry heaves that accompany being cried out. When Fij dryly opines on Loved & Lost “It’s better to have loved / than lost / whoever said that / should be shot” he seals the deal. Being down has never sounded so good..
Turning up at the ridiculously cool Shiiine On Weekender, to play with tons of other Rocker favorites this weekend. We talked to Pete Fijalkowski all about the two-man gloom machine and the sad building on the horizon.
Rocker: Start us off at the beginning. How did you meet Terry and decide to begin playing together? Did you know him from your days as label-mates at Creation?
Pete: I was a massive fan of Terry’s work in The House of Love – and he was a big influence on me wanting to pick up a guitar and join a band, but I never knew him personally – by the time Adorable were signed to Creation, Terry had left the building. In 2002 I started recording a solo album which I finished in 2004 and then put in a drawer and didn’t do anything with, and I pretty much walked away from music for a while. Then in 2009 I was asked to play as part of a festival in Brighton in a beautiful church, and it felt like it was either now or never that I would resume making music – I had come across Terry through a mutual friend, and we had both sat on music panel once, so I knew him to say hello to. I rang him to ask if he’d like to play on a few of the songs, and then it all evolved from that.
Rocker: I followed the Kickstarter you had for “Broken Heart Surgery” and it was one of the most successful I’ve seen. Were you happy with the outcome? Why did you decide to Kickstart the record? What was your approach to doing it? Could you talk about some of the “unique” premiums you offered and how they went over and were carried out?
Pete: I was pretty reluctant to go down the Kickstarter route. As fashionable as it is to claim that you went down the Kickstarter route in order to regain control, and engage with your fans, for me it was pretty much a last-ditch effort after we had been turned down by every label we had gone to. To me Kickstarter felt like begging, loss of face, it was me saying “I can’t get my record out. Help”.
However, the whole experience has completely changed my attitude to the whole process, and really brought me closer to our fans. I feel ever so grateful to them, and genuinely moved by their generosity. Aside from the usual CD, Signed CD, names in the credits, we offered to send Christmas or Birthday cards to a nominated person, I hand-wrote lyrics of songs I had written, Terry gave someone a guitar lesson, lots of people went for his used plectrums (together with letter of authenticity), we did special photos in a Passport photo booth & 3 people pledged £300 to have a song written & recorded specially for them – about them or the person of their choice. It was fun coming up with the different ideas. I’m not sure how many times you can use Kickstarter – I’m not sure if me & Terry could go back and do it again, but it certainly made our project take off, and gave us the scope to release it properly
Rocker: Having been someone involved with releasing through labels previously, how well have you adapted to self-releasing? Were there unexpected pitfalls or bonuses to not working with a label this go round?
Pete: My natural default setting was to work with a label, as that is by and large what I’ve always done – we self-released some records when I was in Polak, but that was very much driven by Martine our manager, but this time round me and Terry didn’t have any back up of management or label. It’s fair to say Terry isn’t really that interested in the mechanics of releasing a record, so it’s largely fallen to me. It’s de-bunked a lot of the myths in my mind, and although it isn’t easy it isn’t rocket science either. It’s been good to choose your own team and work with them – we’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some really nice, enthusiastic people. I wouldn’t be worried about releasing a second record on our own label now if we can find the finances for it. The downside is the time that it sucks up – it is shocking the amount of hours that get eaten up. Today I have spent over 2 hours just sorting out paperwork and uploads for one of videos to be shown on TV. That’s fine and exciting, but we’ll see little direct money for this, and all this time takes away from my ability to work to earn money to put food on the family table.
Rocker: Many songs on Broken Heart Surgery seem to have been initially outlined by you on your previously unreleased solo album “Broken Heart Surgery Version One”. Since these recordings had languished for quite a while, what made you decide to finally release it?
Pete: I needed to get these songs out in order to move on. I always have several projects worked out in some detail in my mind (at the moment I have another 3 albums of ideas all with distinct sound and concept and with quite a few of the songs already written all swimming around my head), but I only like to work on one at a time. 7 of the 8 original songs from the first ‘pre-Terry’ version of Broken Heart Surgery ended up on the new album. I was proud of the songs and I wanted them to come out – and it seemed like a good idea to re-work them with Terry. To be honest I thought it was something that would take us 3-6 months to do and then we’d move on, but it came a bit of an obsession of detail for us – it was nearly 5 years from when we first hooked up to this release. Part of that was us stalling to find a label, but a lot was down to a lot of minute detailed worked on the recordings and arrangements.
Rocker: How did you approach working with Terry on some of these songs? Did you aim for the songs to change, or did you have an already set notion of how you wanted them to come out? What do you see as purely Terry’s contribution to how these older songs ended up on “Broken Heart Surgery”?
Pete: My original version of the songs were very stripped down and bare – deliberately stark. That meant it was more or less a blank canvas for Terry to come along and add what he wanted – which gave him the freedom to explore musically. The advantage was the basic songs were pretty much developed, and had proved they worked. Some songs hardly changed at all (“Loved and Lost” / “Queen Of Stuff”), whilst others had re-workings of the song structures (“Betty Ford”) or new parts added (“Parallel” had a new middle 8 written by Terry added to it to give it a more cinematic feel), whilst songs like “Downsizing” changed significantly (we decided to change the time signature). By and large the new songs were written in a similar way – so I would come to Terry with the chord structure outline of the songs with the lyrics sketched out , and we’d develop the songs from there. I see our roles as that of on a film set – I am the scriptwriter & Terry is the cinematographer – I write the story and he makes it look beautiful.
Rocker: You did a few videos for this album, one in which you and Terry appear to be unhappily attending an otherwise merry birthday party (“Out of Time”), and another of which appears to be a continuation of the story (“Betty Ford”) in which you and Terry walk into the ocean and drown yourselves. Can you talk more about the concepts behind these videos and the filming / process behind making them? I know you’d gone to school for film, had you made films before or are these your maiden venture?
Pete: I love film – it’s a passion that I hold as dear as music. I never made a film before and this gave me the opportunity to finally become more involved with the filmmaking process. I got to know a young and very talented cinematographer called Olly Newport and we worked together on “Out Of Time” which was actually my first video (although it came out as our 3rd release). I think a good video tells a story – either literally or visually – it has a linear narrative. Too many videos look great, but actually don’t say anything or ultimately change from beginning to end. The story doesn’t have to be complicated – a party – or someone walking into the sea, but you should try to hold the attention beyond just pretty pictures. For “Downsizing” I used dozens of images of closed shops, to mirror the lyrics about a decaying love affair. On the face of it they are all the same, but the way they are cut means there is a narrative to them as well – the first few shops are all quite simple and just blocks of colours, and as the song develops there is more detail and the last few images for all have names of women in the shop signs, or images of love. I wanted these inanimate objects to tell a story. It’s probably my favourite of the 3, though everyone remembers “Betty Ford” which was a scary experience.
For “Betty Ford” I wanted to do a single take shot – just us walking into the sea until we disappeared. Unfortunately for us we chose the single coldest day of the year – it started snowing about 5 minutes after we finished the take and I got into difficulties after filming this as the sea was just so cold – I hadn’t given it enough respect and I suffered really badly when I got out. We going to do another take, but luckily the playback packed up – I’m pretty sure I would have ended up in hospital if we’d gone for a second run.
I want to make a video which is a continuation of this – where one of us walks out the sea – a bit like the mysterious pianist who appeared out of no-where a few years back in England.
Rocker: I understand you have someone making a documentary about you and Terry playing together, how did that come about and how is that going?
Pete: We were approached by Peter Bromley who used to work at The Tate Modern in London making documentaries about the artists who were exhibiting there, and he wanted to make a film about some musicians, and for some reason, that is still beyond me, he chose us. It’s been a strange experience being filmed and having to talk about and analyse our own work in minute detail.
Rocker: It’s interesting both you and Terry have a band in your past that looms large over your present. Are there lessons that you learned in your past bands that you find yourself applying with your collaboration?
Pete: A lot of our experiences in the past were quite similar, and we’ve chatted a lot about these on our long foreign train trips abroad. Neither of us had a particularly great time back in the day, and both of us maybe had a reputation for not being easy to work with – some would see it as karma that we are now working toegther! However, I think it’s fair to say these experiences have shaped who we both now are, and we’re significantly different people to our younger selves. I think we’re both pretty comfortable with who we now are.
Rocker: Did 2013’s Adorable best of compilation make you revisit your own catalogue in any way?
Pete:The Adorable re-release didn’t make me revisit the catalogue per se – my feelings about our work have always remained the same (first album pretty good, second album pretty ho-hum) but it made me revisit how I felt about the whole process and experience (“they were the best of times, they were the worst of times”)
In 2013 all 4 members of Adorable met up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of “Against Perfection” which was the first time all of us were in the same room since Wil’s wedding in 1998. It was a really nice experience. We chatted openly about the pressures and tensions we had been under, and I think we all understood each other’s positions a bit better – especially me and Robert who had pretty much no relationship to speak of in the last 12 months of Adorable. It was very cathartic. It didn’t make me want to get back together again as a band– but it was important for me to be able to all be together and be comfortable in each other’s company. I wouldn’t want to jeopardise what took 20 years to happen – being able to sit together with no tensions, just for the sake of playing a gig somewhere and re-opening all those cracks. It’s like when you split up with a lover – a few years later after the rawness has passed you might meet them again and chat and laugh- but it doesn’t mean you want to go back to bed with them again.
Rocker: Broken Heart Surgery is an unabashedly melancholy work. And, when I think about your lyric writing during your career, you’ve often really nailed the sad hearted lyric. This might give listeners the image of you as basement dwelling romantic, pining for a lost love rather than a longtime family man. I’m wondering where this heartache is channeled from and why you’re drawn to romantic loss as this album’s theme?
Pete: I like sad stories – I love films with sad endings, the final shot of ‘The Third Man’ or James Bond crying as he holds his wife’s dead body in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. When I started writing songs for the album I noticed the first 2 or 3 were about loss- it wasn’t deliberate at that stage, but it felt like the songs were trying to take me somewhere, so I decided to make the whole album about it – to do a chanelled, single-minded concept album. It might have been because I was writing on my own with no other band members which made me subconsciously feel lonely.
Rocker: I once saw Penn of Penn and Teller talk about writing his book “Sock” and how he found it relieving to realize that not everything in the book had to be true. I will assume that, unlike some of your songs’ characters, in real life you have not had a court order taken out against you (“Breaking Up”). How do you split the difference between truth and honesty as a songwriter?
Pete: The voice in the album is not completely the real me, but neither is it not me.
I am increasingly interested in storytelling, whether it’s in spoken word (I used to run a night where people would come and tell true life stories, and used to love to hear the fascinating tales people had to tell), in film, or in song. This album is part of a story-telling tradition, exploring the various elements of a break up – from the mental aspects, to the more mundane physical realities. The aim was not to retread lyrically the exact same ground, but for each song to tell a slightly different aspect of it
Rocker: I know for the recent past you’ve also been a pop-quiz-master in the Brighton area so, in closing, years from now, how do you envision your name appearing in a pop quiz? What question is answered as “Pete Fij” or “Pete Fij/Terry Bickers”?
Pete: Who won the Eurovision Song contest in 2026?
Releases and More info about Pete Fij / Terry Bickers can be found at their Bandcamp site: petefijterrybickers.bandcamp.com