Acoustic Alchemy

Fanfarlo's special blend leads to deeply textured and layered songs

Although British band Fanfarlo is named after an autobiographical novella by French writer Charles Baudelaire, all that Fanfarlo's music really has in common with the 19th-century French symbolist are a love of language and a heightened sense of form.

Fanfarlo's lyrics may be poetic, obtuse and fanciful, but the focus is less on thematic lyrical content than on a certain musical approach, explained lead singer Simon Balthazar.

"I definitely had a vision of what I wanted to do," explained Balthazar, who started the band in 2006 after he moved from Sweden to London. "It's just about an approach to how you put together your songs and how you perform them. It's hard to explain in words. We really like to arrange our songs in a particular way; it's quite orchestrated, and we like to play around a lot with instrumentation."

Fanfarlo's music is often described as being bookish and literary, but what's more interesting about Fanfarlo is their expert use of acoustic instruments to create deeply textured and layered songs. Take, for example, "I'm a Pilot," the first song on Fanfarlo's debut album, Reservoir: What sounds like a delicious combination of kick drum, tambourine, hand claps and foot stomps form the percussive backbone of the song. Piano and bass enter with Balthazar's voice, and the chorus builds with strings and glockenspiel. All the while, that blend of drums, tambourines, hands and feet rocks steady.

"We didn't want to be just a guitar band with a traditional lineup," said Balthazar. But, he added, "There are a lot of bands that use 'unconventional' instruments, and I think it's important for us that it's not, like, a gimmicky thing. We just love using acoustic instruments in a sort of way that makes sense, and we explore that a lot."

One of the best explorations of acoustic instruments is on "Luna," where at the end, the guitars, '80s-pop drums and strings give way to a melodica, which is joined by a saw, and then horns. Sure, the guitar and drums are still present in the background, but the instruments telling the most interesting story are front and center.

This happens continuously on Reservoir, a fact noted by New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica: The instrument with the most appropriate narrative voice tells the story through a melody that pops in and out of the song. On "These Walls Are Coming Down" (inspired by the story of a Benedictine monk, Pellegrino Maria Ernetti, who claimed to have invented a time machine), it's a trumpet; on "Harold T. Wilkins, Or How to Wait for a Very Long Time" (which pays homage to a British journalist who became obsessed with flying saucers in the 1950s), it's an acoustic guitar blended with a mandolin.

Understandably, the members of Fanfarlo are big fans of recording, where they can experiment with different combinations of sounds and different instruments. If they decide a certain instrument is needed, one or more of the band members will learn to play that instrument. This love of the recording process is evident on Reservoir, but, explained Balthazar, Fanfarlo also loves touring.

"We really love both recording and touring, but they're two very, very different things. It's almost like two different bands, in a way; I mean, not in terms of how we sound, but just in terms of what it is we're dealing with," he said. "When you record, it's that real enormous, introspective, abstract process, in a way. It's guided by music and emotion, but it's like a real kind of exploring thing, and that's where you start learning, playing your instruments, and you learn about different recording techniques or different vintage keyboards, different ways of making sounds ... whereas touring is so much more about meeting people and connecting with people. It's much more about adding a theatrical element to what we do."

On the Web, there are endless videos of Fanfarlo playing songs (including several covers) in outdoor gazebos, backyards, alleys and living room after living room. They arrange themselves around one microphone, which picks up each instrument and voice in a near-perfect mix.

"We get together in a living room a lot and just kind of set things up and play around and do different versions of songs—we'll just pick up an instrument that we found or borrowed or whatever," explained Balthazar. "We like that stuff, like setting up our stuff in different spaces and hanging out and playing music together—it's like a video diary."

Even at their most stripped-down, the songs are unmistakably Fanfarlo: Violinist Cathy Lucas sings backup and plays a variety of instruments, as do the other band members. Live, the songs are less orchestrated, but definitely multilayered and interesting.

"We don't try to replicate what we've done on the record, but we try to do an interesting version of that, and it does involve a lot of swapping instruments midsong, and we have a lot of pieces to our songs at any point," said Balthazar. "But it's fun; we like to challenge ourselves like that."

Balthazar admitted that with so many people and instruments, touring isn't exactly easy.

"With six people involved, it's not the biggest band ever, but it's definitely enough to make it a lot of people, and we have a lot of instruments as well to cart around," he said. "We have so many little bits and pieces that there's constantly something getting lost. Acoustic instruments are inherently just harder to work with."

But the alchemy of Fanfarlo lies in confronting these challenges, and finding beautiful solutions.

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