Tears for Fears Take a Seat in the High-Res Big Chair

“Once we had dipped our toe in the water, it set us on a course to have a much bigger, much more robust, and not-so-introspective sound.” Roland Orzabal is describing the veritable aural sea change he and his Tears for Fears creative partner and bandmate Curt Smith underwent while recording Songs From the Big Chair, the 1985 followup to 1982’s The Hurting, their highly influential minimalist electronic-music confessional debut platform. Indeed, Big Chair sported a much more massive sound field in comparison, propelling deeply layered and inherently catchy songs like “Shout,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Mothers Talk,” and “Head Over Heels” into international earwigs. No sophomore slumpers here, as Big Chair went on to sell over 5 million copies in the U.S. alone.

In celebration of the album’s 30th anniversary, Mercury/Universal has released a six-disc Big Chair box set that includes scores of demos, alternate takes, live sessions, and a documentary DVD, but the no-contest audiophile grail is Disc 5, a Blu-ray containing the 96-kHz/24-bit surround-sound mix of the original album done by none other than the super-guru of 5.1 himself, Steven Wilson. “I love this mix,” says Smith. “You get a far greater spectrum of sound, and the low end is definitely improved.”

I recently got on the horn across the Pond with Orzabal and Smith, both 53, to discuss the benefits of listening to Big Chair in high-res and what they’d like to do next in 96/24 and 5.1 (hint: the Seeds have been planted). Funny how time flies.

Mike Mettler: So I’ve been immersing myself in my Big Chair here for a while now, and —

Roland Orzabal: What, your literal big chair? You’re sitting in a big chair, or do you mean the album?

Mettler: (laughs) Well, actually it’s both, since I have a nice big leather chair here, and that’s the only way to do it. Besides, Sybil told us about her big chair on that one B-side of yours [“The Big Chair”], so I figured we gotta follow suit, right?

Orzabal: Yes, exactly right. (chuckles)

Mettler: Well, I’d say it’s pretty impressive to compile such a big box set for this album. Did you ever think 30-odd years ago that you’d have an album that has such reverence toward it?

Orzabal: Uh, no. Not really. It’s been one of those nice surprises. I didn’t realize at the time that it would become iconic. And I think we were very, very lucky with its commercial success. I also think the whole package worked really well. I mean, the cover — black and white, very simple, and the title, Songs From the Big Chair. What did it mean? Yeah, it’s been a pleasant surprise.

Curt Smith: It seems strange that it was that long ago, but then I don’t realize how old I am.

Mettler: To me, the best thing is being able to hear Big Chair in a high-res surround-sound mix by Steven Wilson, which just gives the original deeply layered mix an added dimension.

Orzabal: Yeah, he’s amazing. He had to create the new mixes before we put it into 5.1, and after he sent them to me, it was like, “Wow!”

Smith: Yeah, he did a fantastic job.

Mettler: How did Steven get involved in the process? Who approached who?

Orzabal: It was the record company. He’s done a few for them, and he’s quite well known as being one of the best. And he’s a Tears for Fears fan, so that all made sense.

Smith: We had heard of him, obviously. The record company had suggested some people, but he was at the top of the list. And listening to his work helped. We all basically chatted over the phone — Steven, Roland, and me — and everything he said pushed the right buttons.

Mettler: Big Chair is in 96/24, and in 2013, The Hurting was also released that way on Blu-ray in the High Fidelity Pure Audio format, though only as a stereo mix. Do you think high-res 5.1 is the best way to hear your work?

Orzabal: Yeah, I do. I do. I think it’s really good.

Smith: I love 5.1 mixes; I have for a long time. I don’t know how practical it is other than for audiophiles — although it could be done in the car, and you’d have to fiddle with balances and things like that. But yeah, I like it.

Mettler: Let’s get into the first track on Big Chair, “Shout.” There’s so much going on in it to begin with, especially in terms of those big drums. In high-res, you can also hear the nuances of details like the triangle you have running across the channels at the beginning and all of the other percussion, which sounds soooo good. The track just gets deeper when you listen to it that way.

Orzabal: I think it gives you a chance to see what we were doing sonically at the time. That sort of got lost in all the pomp and commercial success, the videos, and all that kind of stuff. But we were really concentrating on the sound quality. When we mixed “Shout,” we had five Lexicons digital reverbs on the desk, and it took a long, long time. (chuckles) And it was done by committee. People would argue about the smallest things, you know?

Mettler: Certainly, guitars entered this album much more than on The Hurting, which must have been a very conscious decision.

Orzabal: It’s the way the songs were turning out, especially with “Shout.” I mean, you have to put guitars on it (laughs), because the drums are so big. I remember playing around with the guitar solo. It was a little of, “You can’t be serious, Roland. You’re really going to play that?” And I said, “Yeah!” It’s not something that I would have done during The Hurting at all — it would have been against our religion!

And it just all took off from there, really. The “epic” side took over on things like “Listen,” where you’re really in Pink Floyd territory. I mean, how did we get from being a duo mucking around with synths to that kind of epic sound — all that sort of “dripping” Fairlight and the crazy vocals? It was strange, really strange! (laughs)

Smith: I think the best thing about “Shout” in 5.1 is the ability we had to separate things more. Given with the two speakers left and right, you could move things behind, and especially for things like you say, where percussion no longer gets lost in the track. With surround, you get a far greater spectrum of sound, and the low end is definitely improved.

Mettler: Some of the lyrics in “Shout” seem to be as relevant today as they were then. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Orzabal: Well, unfortunately, some things don’t change, do they? When I came up with the chorus, that’s all it was — a chorus. My idea was that it was very similar to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Give Peace a Chance.” I imagined a lot of people singing the chorus, and it going around and around and around, and it was only when I took it in to the studio and played it to [keyboardist] Ian Stanley and [producer] Chris Hughes that they said, “That’s absolutely commercial, but we need a verse.” And I said, “Really??” (chuckles)

Mettler: Well, it did seem to work out. Plus, you got a bit of a “Hey Jude” thing going there on the back half of it.

Orzabal: Yeah, and we had a bit of “Hey Jude” in the video at the end.

Mettler: Even a more basic track like “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” which has its own certain sonic character — it really comes across better in surround and in high-res, wouldn’t you agree?

Orzabal: I would! That was a gift of the track. It never appealed to me when it was just in song form. I sort of programmed up the rhythm as it is, and I was just playing it on acoustic guitar. It was really Chris who said, “We’ve got to do this song.” We were stuck on the lyrics, as it was originally called “Everybody Wants to Go to War,” which was good. But at the end of every session, Chris would get us to take about a half an hour to play the song to the rhythm, and we would jam. Once we got it down, once we put it onto tape, it was the easiest track to do — which was bizarre, because it had been constantly rejected. It was difficult to make, but every time we put the faders up, it sounded great, you know?

Mettler: As the lead vocalist on that one, Curt, you’re even a bit more “naked” than usual. Sometimes singers want a lot of things around them in certain mixes. But in this case, you didn’t mind, right?

Smith: No, not at all. It’s really one of the simplest recordings we’d made. It’s great to do tracks every now and then that don’t require that much. Obviously, we spend a lot of time on production and layering, so it’s fun to sometimes do tracks that are open like that one. Once you put a few things on it, you realize it doesn’t really need that much. It’s the song that stands out.

Mettler: Do you have a particular favorite track on Big Chair?

Smith: My favorite track, I think, has to be “The Working Hour.” It was a striking track in stereo, and in 5.1, even more so.

Mettler: Oh yes, especially with the full-channel treatment of that wonderful saxophone solo by Mel Collins.

Orzabal: “The Working Hour” is my favorite, yeah. We had used sax [also by Mel Collins] very briefly on The Hurting, on “Memories Fade,” so it wasn’t completely alien. Saxophone was always part of “The Working Hour,” because of the riff. The main saxophone riff is extremely important and powerful — it’s got that sort of “crying” quality to it.

Mettler: And then you guys became King Crimson and Roxy Music, without even realizing it.

Orzabal: Exactly. And then it got worse. Then we became The Beatles and Little Feat. (both laugh) Well, maybe not worse. Maybe better.

Mettler: I also love having all the demos and bonus material in this box set, which really shows us what I call the Big Chair sketchpad. Could we expect something similar for the next album in your catalog, which has such an incredible level of depth to it, The Seeds of Love (1989)? Are you thinking about that already?

Orzabal: I think we know where the tapes are, so that’s a start. (MM laughs) It was recorded on an early digital machine, a a 32-track Mitsubishi digital recorder. In fact, we had two of them at one point, when we were trying to bounce about the drums. We spent years on that and months mixing it, so good luck to anyone who has to recreate it. But what is on tape does sound great.

Mettler: Well, you’ve already got a built-in mixing man in Mr. Wilson, who probably would love to get his hands on that one. Would you vote for having Steven do it in high-res?

Orzabal: Absolutely. Yeah, definitely. I think it won’t be so difficult once he’s got all the parts.

Smith: Oh, yes, absolutely! Steven should do it.

Mettler: I’ll have to let him know! So if Steven does get to do Seeds in high-res, do you see listeners getting something even more out of an album people already feel is a sonic benchmark?

Orzabal: I think so. In the early days, we started mixing to DAT, and then things still had to be cut, and it still had to end up on CD. Hopefully, it should be better.

Smith: Oh, without question, yeah. To hear the depth in the production on “Sowing the Seeds of Love” — just that one song — would be great in surround, and so would “Woman in Chains.” Most records, to me, that are perfect for surround are ones that are that layered, the ones that have so much information on them that it’s sometimes hard to mix them, and sometimes hard to get the separation. And obviously, that’s easier with surround.

Having said that, “Woman in Chains” is a bit more similar to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” in the sense that there’s not a lot on that song, believe it or not, but I know that you would get a bunch more out of it — you’d hear more of the guitars and different things doubled and separated. It would be so great. Once you start separating them more, you get to play with them more.

Mettler: Curt, how about your historical assessment of Songs From the Big Chair — did you ever think, 3 decades on, that it would have an impact that just seems to be getting bigger?

Smith: You really don’t think of that when you’re making a record, to be honest. All you can do at any given time is make the best record you can at that moment in time. And we tend to get so wrapped up in what we’re doing that we don’t really think of how it will be perceived and whether it will have a long life or a short life. That’s not what we’re thinking about when our primary concern is whether we’re making a good-sounding record or not.

Mettler: When you originally got done recording Big Chair, did you feel it was up to the sonic standard you wanted?

Smith: Oh yeah, yeah. When we started getting feedback from people we respected, our peers, we knew. I remember meeting Elton John for the first time in Europe, and he came straight up to me and said, “The first time I heard ‘Shout,” I was blown away.” It’s those kind of things where the people you respect and admire appreciate what you do that let you know it’s good.

A longer version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.

sixofsvn's picture

Interesting, The Working Hour has been my favorite song from this album since the first time I heard it in 1985, probably on cassette. It's nice to know they agree!

Ovation123's picture

Got this a little while ago and looking forward to a thorough listen soon (went for the single BD release). Much as I like this album, Seeds in 5.1 would immediately land in my top five of my MCH hi-res collection (which numbers in the hundreds).

Philt56's picture

I only see the box set on Amazon containing disc 5 as a dvd; the blu Ray is sold separately.
Did a box with bluray really get released?

The sites show the box was released nov 2014.