The Fixx’s Cy Curnin Talks Crazy Videos, Biting Dogs, Insane Ghosts, Tina Turner, and Rubbing Cocaine On Blistered Feet
In the 1980s, the Fixx led the charge of political funk pop. With a string of MTV-era hits including “One Thing Leads To Another”, “Saved By Zero” and “Are We Ourselves?”, the British new wavers kept feeding the public its infectiously groovy brand of techno-pop with an edge, courtesy of lead singer Cy Curnin’s thought-provoking lyrics, even if they weren’t always understood in lieu of the band’s hook-laden rock and strange videos. From his farm in France, lead singer/lyricist Cy Curnin talked with THE GOLDEN AGE OF MUSIC VIDEO about the Fixx’s new album Beautiful Friction, their signature videos, unexpected uses for cocaine, and their current tour, which stops at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on Sunday, June 10th.
What made it time for a new Fixx album?
It’s a natural labor of love. For the guys in the band, it’s been three or four years of writing. The longer careers are getting, the pickier we are getting with songs, so we would get together and write in spurts. Each time we would get together, one or two songs would survive. Those two would motivate us to get back together and work more, and soon a direction started to appear.
Has the process of writing songs with the band evolved or is it basically the same as it’s always been?
It’s pretty much the same thing. It’s just emotions. We’re very comfortable together. We experiment, we play, everyone does what they feel. Obviously, there’s a very basic idea of a song, and a Fixx song becomes a whole piece after everyone has had their input.
The Fixx is an interesting music entity in that your songs have sound that’s new wave and funky, yet the lyrics are political, and you’ve never been labeled a political band.
I call it “the spoonful of sugar”.
Have you always been a political person? Were you a political person when you were very young?
My parents were. At the dinner table it was pretty highflying conversations. My dad was a political scientist. My mother was into French literature and a teacher. I guess I got it all from there. And then, I’m in a band with a bunch of like-minded souls who came from similar backgrounds, and as the lyricist, I thought it a bit lame to present some muck about love. I prefer to make love rather than to sing about it, as a rule. (laugh) I felt that I was writing for a collective. In the discussions within the band, we would be talking about politics or current issues and I’d go home after those discussions and write. I guess I’m good at coming up with catchphrases that sum up the parts, and then the guys would know where we were starting from. It would act as a soundboard because I felt that it was important for the guys to know what the song was about early on. While they are jamming their riffs, I like to have some concepts. I give them a flag to fly or an idea, and we would run from there.
What are some of the themes you’re exploring in the new album Beautiful Friction?
One of the things that interests us as a group in the last few years has been the Occupy movement, and the financial crisis, and the end of an era. Finite growth in an infinite world or infinite growth in a finite world, that sort of thing. There are a lot of things that are falling apart, and the negative people think that it’s all over, but if you look at it in terms of the evolution of a butterfly, then the world seems to be going into its chrysalis state. At best, we walked around like maggots or caterpillars, and now we are stiffening and going into this cocoon period. Maybe one day we will break out as beautiful butterflies and fly around on higher ideals. As humans we tend to feel sad that our dreams don’t play out in the real world because the real world is controlled, and money is just a tool. It steals your time. The amount of time you have to give up to get it — to buy the stuff that’s compounded — you need to get back, so everything you buy has to make a profit for someone else. It’s basically bouncing off the last song we did, “How Much Is Enough?” The media seems to have caught onto phrases or sound bites to put things out there for people, but if you context it, it creates a fear. Since 2001, the Bush administration used fear as a tool to get everyone to go to war basically, and the armament industry just took off. I get the sense that those who are in the know have to make as much money as possible because that system is over. The more they make, the less value it has. They want to make more money on their investments while everything is becoming devalued.
Do you think that that’s true in the music industry as well?
Yes. Across the board. Art for its own sake is a trading post. Art reflects life. Me as a singer, or singers throughout the ages, wandering minstrels, would sing for the King or anyone who would listen, and they’d throw you a scrap or give you a barn to sleep in. After that, it seemed to go off on this highfalutin excess path. It did produce some great music, but also it created some great irony. No one really thought music should make tons of money, but it did. Now people are crying that it doesn’t.
How do you keep a positive and optimistic attitude when it’s much easier to be despondent about the world situation, to throw your hands up in the air and say, “oh well, that’s just the way the world is”?
In one word, love. Love for your children. Love for your parents, even though your parents seem to have been instrumental in the demise, they were just carried along in the wave. What keeps me optimistic is that I believe humans are a durable species. Right now, the drug is money and imperialism, but once that stuff’s worn out, will be on to something else. I’m not frightened. I think some people are frightened, they can’t imagine another future, but the future will be today.
Have your opinions about these things changed at all over the course of the 30 years in
this band? Or is it that with every new thing that happens in the world, it just reaffirms what you believe?
That’s a double-edged sword. In one way, my world has changed because I used to think we could change the world. Now I realize that you can only change your own world and live within it. My job is to make people aware of things, to sing songs that make people think about other ways or concepts. I think the world is a smaller place than we think, even though we talk about a global village. That’s a concept that even Shakespeare spoke of, to tend one’s garden first before you try to go off and change the world. That’s basic humanity wrapped up in a napkin. I think those things have stayed the same. I still feel motivated because feel like a messenger with a fair amount of automatic writing. I haven’t quite worked out where it comes from, maybe we absorb stuff, and it sits there mulling in your head, and then you vomit it. It’s a cathartic experience, you just throw it out. When I read it back, I think, wow, there’s no way that I actually thought these things in the way this is written. That’s always happened and that’s what’s going on now. That’s my job.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of your album Shuttered Room and next year will be the 30th anniversary of Reach the Beach. Any thoughts on reaching those milestones?
Yes, in one way, without being too nostalgic about it, we are proud to still be flying our flag. As a group, we’ve survived marriages, divorces, kids born, kids graduating – I mean, I look at us still as healthy thinkers. We still have a certain amount of respect, which I find to be an ever diminishing commodity in today’s world. For some, respect is entitlement and entitlement is not enlightenment, so within the group I think we’ve managed to keep each other in check. When one is starting to burst out of the seams, the others would come along and burst the bubble, that type of thing. And it’s great to be putting new albums out against the backdrop of Chapter 1 of our work. We’re on Chapter 10 now.
Looking back on your earliest music videos, such as “Some People” or “Stand or Fall” from Shuttered Room, do recall some of the challenges of shooting those? Because of its heavy rotation on MTV, many people can’t hear “Stand or Fall” without thinking of you standing on a beach with a horse.
You know, it was thanks to Jeannette [Obstoj, video director & Fixx collaborator] that we got signed. We had decided to just send our music out to different producers, and Jeanette was dating Rupert Hine at the time, and along came our cassette. She would collect those that came in and play them, and so she played ours. She would decide whether it was good and worth handing over to Rupert. She really got behind ours. Immediately, her imagination sort of kicked in, aligned with the lyrics, so she was writing storyboards even before we had a deal. The other challenge back then was we had started making Shuttered Room back before MTV was born, yet by the time the album was finished, and “Stand or Fall” came out, MTV was there. Nobody knew what that was going to mean, or the size or scope, of course the music companies being shortsighted as they were, it was just another annoying thing. Trying to get a $10,000 budget to shoot “Stand or Fall” was huge, but the record company went along with it, kept it in-house to keep the costs down.
The video for “Saved By Zero” is a real art-school piece and you get to do some real acting. Director Brian Grant spoke of that video and said you as the protagonist were supposed to be going through a transformation or something. What do you recall from that video shoot?
That was the first video we made outside of our little camp. Maybe I was being a little bit of an intellectual snob, and I didn’t quite know whether Brian Grant had really grasped my concept of the song, but then he put together the storyboard with the starving artist who is just trying to pay the rent, and you know, selling out. “Saved By Zero” is a strange song and one that has grown in meaning for me over the years, just after so many conversations with people about their interpretations, and how it has affected them, so much beyond what I was thinking when I wrote this up. The song came about after reading a book called The Experience of Nothingness, and how you can really become fulfilled once you’re empty, because if you’re already full, there’s no room to fulfill yourself, you just spend your whole life defending what you are already full of. It’s the actual experience of refilling, constantly refilling, like a Buddhist. I’ve watched that song mean so much to so many people at different times in their lives that it’s kept its meaning. That leaves seems to represent what young people wanted to see, young kids understanding that when you’re first starting out you have to pay the rent, struggling and selling out, and it was the early 80s when people were understanding just grabbing credit cards and getting debt, so you have more but actually you have less. By owing more, you have less, and this little tangent piece of property you have in the middle represents the folly that you’ve purchased. And that resonates today. How may times do you go to your drawer and see all the gadgets that you once thought were must-have pieces of technology, and now they just sit there and you think they are so antiquated, and some people are still paying monthly payments on it.
On the video for “One Thing Leads To Another”, Jeannette told me that in retrospect maybe having the dogs wasn’t such a great idea.
Jeannette was dog mad at the time, and we had discussions about reincarnation, and how dogs were higher species really, and how coming back as a dog is better than coming back as a human being really. If you come back as a dog, there are a fewer lessons for you to learn. You can just eat, sleep, and don’t bite. Of course, one of the dogs did bite me.
I think I’d pissed the dog trainer off, because I said, “Don’t you think these dogs are miserable sitting in these cages all day?” He didn’t take that so great, so the moment when he supposed to pull the German Shepherd back, that moment when I’m on the ladder, he gave the dog a little bit more rope, and the thing bit me. (laugh) I learned to keep my big mouth shut. You know, Jeannette’s concept on that video with the big tube was that it was a birthing canal, with that constant movement forward. My take on the song was more based on the political idea that you say anything you can say to be elected, and as soon as you’re elected you forget everything you said.
The songs from Reach the Beach really pushed you guys into the mainstream, so by the time you’re making the next album’s videos for “Are We Ourselves?” and “Sunshine in the Shade” and “Less Cities, More Moving People”, the scope of the videos is enormous. You’re in a giant field for “Our We Ourselves”, doing wide shots with helicopters. Were these videos faithful to what you wrote in the songs, as in, was the scope of the songs just as panoramic?
Yes I think so. Shuttered Room was a watershed record. We’d had all the time in the world to write that record and that was us trying to get a deal. Reach the Beach was about a year and a half of coming up with material. And because it was a such huge success, so much of our lives changed. Personal lives fell apart, we were on the road constantly, my world changed, and so the fuel for writing songs changed. Phantoms was basically that — who am I? Why is fame fucking with my head? Am I myself anymore? Who am I? Why did I get picked to be successful? What is my message and what is the responsibility? Is the message to just be partying and singing my ass off, just smiling and wiping my brow with bras? Or is there some unknown mystery? Am I here for a reason? There was a lot of that going on. It was a dark period of our lives. As much as we should have been celebrating our success, which we were, albeit too much, there was deep down guilt. Our childhood sweethearts got the sack. Our friends that we were comfortable with back in London we didn’t see for years at a time, so when we got back they presumed we didn’t want to know them anymore, which wasn’t the case. It was a questioning record. I’m not saying that we weren’t ecstatically happy to be successful, but it was a case of ““Be careful what you wish for.” Jeannette was instrumental in keeping us grounded in a big way. There was a moment when I was like, probably smoking too much weed, taking myself a bit too seriously, and asking myself what all of this was about. That’s what Phantoms really was. And then after that, Walkabout came along, which was back to ground, because by that point I had another relationship. My girlfriend was pregnant, so I had a child on the way, and spiritually I thought I was growing, wandering around the globe and experiencing things I had never known about.
What’s interesting about that is that you had a hit with “Secret Separation,” which is your only hit that’s an out-and-out love song.
Yes, exactly. Just a moment, one of my goats has his head stuck in the fence. Hold on a second.
Ah, the trials and tribulations of farm life.
Yes. (comes back) Ah, crisis averted. All is well.
On the video, “Secret Separation”, It had the look many music videos had at the time — a post-apocalyptic setting. Road Warrior type stuff.
Yes, the Mad Max period.
By the time you had gotten to this point, it must’ve been different to make music videos than before, because now it was an industry. How did it feel different for you?
I remember that there was a record executive who said to us, “Well, that looks like a hit,” We were talking about music you used to listen to, not watch, so to hear him say that it looks like a hit indicated that the visual look of the music was as important as the sound. Had I grasped that concept by then, maybe I wouldn’t have allowed the storyboards to be written in the same way. With Jeannette, she really knew my soul in terms of what I was trying to write about. Brian was knocking out to video after video, and mind you, he was very good at what he did, but I felt like we took our eye off the ball. The budgets were getting bigger and bigger. I think for what we spent on that video, the food bill was equal to what we spent on all of “Stand or Fall”.
For the video for “How Much Is Enough?” from the next album, Ink, there was no subtlety in the message. It was full out.
You have to remember that by this point, record companies had A&R people in terms of the music, and then they had visual people who work for the record company, and they were in charge of making sure the video was done, so not only were we dealing with one side of the coin, we had the other side of the coin flipping out as well. You are meeting these people that were already in the back pocket of the people at the record company because they had worked together before, and it had turned out good for them or whatever, and they spoke the same language, which is fine. You’re into making videos with people on the fly where they have the song a week before you shoot and you hadn’t really had a conversation with anyone until you were on the set. With “How Much Is Enough?”, at least the director had some fun concepts and he allowed me to do some things like the devil makeup. It had straightforward lyrics, nothing you could really hide behind.
Of all the videos that the Fixx has made, which would you say was your favorite to work on?
I think “Stand or Fall”. I remember because it was April 1, 1982, and there have been some guys saying it was going to be the end of the world that day — someone in one of those cults. I remember we were making this video, and saying, “It’s going to be the end of the world today, we better get it done.” I also remember the whole feeling, there we were, we’d made the record and we were making the first big video — we’d made a little video for “Some People” — but here we were with a full budget, the horse, and there were pictures of my parents in it, I had parents that actually met during the war, there was all of this going on, and we stayed intensely close to the storyboard.
It’s literally a war movie.
It was the story basically of my parents and how they met randomly because of the war, and then the backdrop of “Stand or Fall”, like that expression it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
When you guys do “Red Skies” in concert, you get a real call-and-response going. That song really resonates with people. It must be really fulfilling to hear them sing that back to you in concert.
Yes, those are our big guns. When we first came out, those were our icons to the trademark, and they’ve survived the test of time. Back then, radio wasn’t so formatted. You were across the board. You’d be on rock radio, you’d be on pop radio, you’d be on 16 different stations. With “One Thing Leads To Another”, the record company was definitely tried to steer us down the pop road. At that time, the part of the new wave thing was to sell music to girls through videos. You get the young teenagers partying their face off, and while Shuttered Room was a much more cerebral project, Reach the Beach wasn’t any less cerebral, but the way it was marketed was pop, and we just happen to have some slightly more upbeat songs and the production value was more updated, somewhat. As a group of guys, including Rupert Hine, we said “let’s make a record like this now,” with new toys coming out, drum machines, fantastic early samplers, things like that.
How do you explain the longevity of the Fixx’s songs as compared with many from that era that didn’t really stand the test of time?
It’s lyrics that fit the backdrop of whatever time you’re in. They fit situations, not periods. They are about situations that keep arising. Political swings left to right, good times and bad times, the songs are about that. If the lyrics are slightly more enigmatic than most, and say, a person is in their car thing about how much debt they are in, they might hear “How Much Is Enough” or “Stand or Fall” and possibly have these mini-epiphanies, not that I think I was doing that at the time. I was being true to what we did, and reflecting what we saw in the mirror back then. We are creatures of habit after all, so we keep making the same mistakes, and these songs resonate, they stir things in people’s minds. Maybe they think, “I used to hear this song when I was a kid and I never understood it, but now I do.” That’s what I hear a lot in talking to people out in the world. People will tell me that it means this or that, and I think, really? I suppose so! I’m learning as much from them as anyone else.
Can we speak about your appearance in Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good To Me”?
That was an opportunistic moment! We were in the process of doing Phantoms, and Roger Davies was managing Tina, and his big idea to bring her back was to take happening bands and happening producers and get them to do songs on her comeback album. Rupert Hine was asked to do two tracks, so two tracks were written, without me because I was too busy fornicating with my new wife. (laugh) I got there in time to do the backing vocals, so I enjoyed that in the studio. Tina was a lovely woman, very calm. Her career hadn’t fully exploded but it was on the way, and she’s a Buddhist, so we had that in common. I found her to be very centered, but not self-centered. Then, time came to do the video, so they said let’s have the guys performing in the video, so we were flown out to L.A., and again it was Brian Grant who directed that. Toni Basil was all lined up to do the choreography, and I said, “Listen, I danced my own drum, I don’t need anyone telling me how to do this.” My first wife was a dancer, so there was no way I was doing any one-step two-step. Fuck all that, I’m going to do what comes out of me. I took my shoes off, and just started playing the bad boy.
A lot of pelvic thrusting there, Cy.
Yes, exactly. I was just trying to do the cocky boyfriend thing. What I didn’t realize though, was that if you dance for 18 hours without your shoes on, unless you have well-trained feet, it causes blisters, so there I was, 18 hours into the shoot, begging the crew for cocaine. They thought, “Hey! True rock ‘n’ roller! He’s gonna sniff some coke,” but I took the cocaine and rubbed it on my feet! (laugh)
That’s amazing. You rubbed it on your feet?
Yes, to fight the pain of the blisters!
I know that’s a hard one to top, but are there any other music video moments that you’ll never forget?
We were shooting the video for “Driven Out” and they chose this old insane asylum as the location for the shoot. We spent most of the time in the basement, an old boiler room. There was one point where we were in an old ward where where some of the inmates had been locked up for years and years, and I was just standing looking out a window, and I was looking closer at the window, and there was a place where, over the years, someone had been scratching and scratching and scratching, and the whole window was like someone had done a carving with just a fingernail. I thought, whoa. It was a “Count of Monte Cristo” thing, trying to escape with a spoon or something. It was quite eerie, and then I actually turned around to this empty room, and for a minute, I saw the ghosts of the inmates. Gave me the chills for a minute.