words by Liz Watts | photo by Emma Watts
Ben + Ross Duffy | Dallas, TX | 5.10.2017
You know how you listen to music and you're like "Hmm, this is actually pretty darn cool" but then you hear it live and it changes everything? It's because you don't just hear it, folks! You see it and you feel it and that live experience is absolutely electrifying. That's the kind of show Fenech-Soler creates. Brothers Ben and Ross Duffy make up this English electro-pop duo, and we were so excited to see and meet the minds behind some of our favorite tunes!
The venue they played in Dallas was small and there were probably just a little over 100 people there, but it was so good. SO GOOD. I don't remember much about the first band that played, except an awkward giggle that floated around the room when they pulled a John Travolta and totally mispronounced Fenech-Soler's name. Imagine a Texan saying "fin-eek so-lay" and try to not think of some sort of french dessert. Luckily, Knox Hamilton were up next (shoutout to our OG homies!) and those guys got the crowd really going. That energy only intensified as the night went on.
When Fenech-Soler played their first song, my jaw literally dropped. With some artists you don't really know what to expect when seeing them live, but I was reminded of what Ben mentioned during our interview a few hours before. He said, "If you can perform a show and they really enjoy the experience, that will grab someone more than loving a record..." and gosh darn, was he right. I'm positive that everyone, fans of electro-pop or not, will leave a Fenech-Soler show absolutely loving them. At one point during the set, I looked around and tried finding one person that wasn't movin' or groovin' and I couldn't. Every single body in that 78 degree room (we checked the thermostat afterwards) was dancing. There's no doubt that Ben and Ross were born for this and we are so ready to support them for the rest of forever.
Go put on their track(s) "On Top" or "Night Time TV" or "Kaleidoscope" (and try to not dance) while you read through the interview below! In a British accent, of course.
We listened to the new Covers EP you released yesterday are absolutely lovin’ it! As opposed to releasing an EP of your original music- assuming you guys have some archive of unreleased music- how did you guys decided to put out an EP of all cover songs?
Ben: We released a record [ZILLA] in February and when we finished making that album (late last year) we decided that we would do a cover! We actually did a cover before, the Prince one on the EP, a couple years ago and it was like… well we were a bit concerned because it’s something you shouldn’t really do. Then we said “Well, what if we just spend like two weeks covering lots of other artists that you shouldn’t cover- the greats? And maybe we’ll use them, maybe we won’t, maybe they’ll just sit on our computer.” We kinda messed around with them for a while and then I’d been working on them on the road and we just had fun with it. We got stuck with releasing our own music but we had been playing the Janet Jackson cover in our set and it was a really fun part of the show so we just decided to get them out there and put them on Spotify!
Ross: I think it’s been a thing where we’ve just always put out our own music. We’d never even done cover until we did the Prince one, so it’s kinda like a good thing as song writers to take a song and make a different version of it. I think we learned stuff from doing that as well.
Did you guys self-produce this one too- like your most recent album?
Ben: Yeah, we’ve always tended to. Everything we make we do in our home studio, but we’re open to working with people and we value and understand the benefit of going and working with other producers and stuff. Like we were talking before we started [the interview], it’s a lot of traveling around and just meeting new people. Ultimately, we’ve always just done everything at home and that’s how it was with both the record and the covers.
Were the artists that you covered- Prince, Janet, Bowie- did you pick them because they’re artists “you shouldn’t cover” or did these artists play a role as inspirations and influences growing up?
Ross: Both- all the artists are ones we’ve listened to growing up and been massive influences on us. Especially Prince and Bowie. Those would be the two that are the most influential to us, but they’re really just songs that we loved.
Ben: The Janet Jackson one is not even a big one of hers. Actually, the Bowie one, funny enough, I think was co-written by someone else but on his record. He may not have even written that, but essentially, we really liked the melody and thought it would suit my vocal. So there was a bit of going through the catalogue and it was really good fun. It was and listening to tons of Janet tracks and Bowie racks and that one “Control,” the melody, we just loved the melody. I recorded the melody instantly and we built the tracks underneath it.
Ross: We’d done remixes in the past and we treated it kinda like a remix. Instead of having a vocal, Ben would sing the melody and we’d create our own thing out of it. So, I’d say a remix with none of their files. Not acoustic though, full band.
Would you guys ever branch out and not do electronic-pop? I was listening to a tune and thought to myself how cool it would be acoustic!
Ben: We have always been influenced by acoustic music –actually heavily. Blue grass and country band stuff. Weirdly, our father was in that world and toured lots with incredible people. So it’s weird being back in Dallas because I lived here when I was like under one- so I can’t remember anything about this- but me and mum (you, Ross, weren’t born yet) but he was touring with people like Dolly Parton.
Was he in his own band?
Ben: Yeah he and his brother, they were called the Duffy Brothers, and they were incredible players and had this unique show and there was quite a bit of comedy thrown in. They would come to places like this and people were like “What the hell is this?” so they did really well! So, we were brought up with acoustic instruments all around. It was actually our first introduction to music. We’ve done a thing on our first album called “The White Records” and it was more stripped back, but I don’t know if we’d do a full folk acoustic thing. We’d love to write that kinda music if it’s not Fenech. We always write and we’ve got these folk songs on our computer that literally sound like Mumford and Sons.
Since you grew up heavily influenced by music, did you guys really think twice about having this as a career?
Ben: I don’t think there was ever a conscious decision where I was like “That’s it! We’re doing music! Nothing else!” It just so happen to be that all of our family is kind of involved and without us probably wanting to, it’s just like that the path we fell into. And it’s weird because I don’t think we can see ourselves doing anything else.
Ross: We should probably have a fall back plan! But we don’t have one and it’s probably a good thing because it makes us stay on our heels and make sure it all works out.
Ben: Our cousin is our drummer now and his brother, our other cousin, plays in First Aid Kit- they’re from Sweden and doing really well. And our parents were musical. Our whole family basically, all play in some capacity. So it’s kinda like just always what we’ve known.
So cool! We always love talking to artists and musicians who are siblings (whoop whoop) and getting insight on how you interact and deal with creative differences and such- since that tends to happen quite a bit with us!
Ross: I think that’s an OK thing, I think you can be pretty honest with your siblings and work it out in a good way. But, we do have arguments and they’re pretty short lived. Its’ from a writing perspective and it like a “Cut the bull shit, I don’t like your vocal” thing and you can just be pretty frank with each other and it speeds up the process. So it’s a good thing.
Ben: Yeah, definitely!
Ross: Now he’s gonna say the opposite.
Ben: I agree- Just like Knox Hamilton, we didn’t know until we turned up that Cobo and Boots are brothers and we’ve been chattin’ it up and they’ve been in a band for a while and we’ve been in a band for a while and we’re from two different parts of the world- and they’re wicked, such lovely guys. But, we were saying between the four of us that’s there’s sort of a subconscious understanding. Like I will know when Ross is thinking about something creative, and I could tell if he did or didn’t like something and that works the other way. Music is subjective and it’s a complete mind fill so there’s not a right or wrong route from A to B. You’ve got to pick your way through the maze, and certainly, I think our combined headspace means we can kind of find our way through that. And like he said, we’re honest and we can say “I don’t like that” and he’ll be super pissed but he’ll get me back and be like “You look a bit shit in that photo.”
Ross: It comes down to not even music! But I find it crazy that artists who do everything themselves- write and produce- because I find it easier to have someone you write with and it’s easier to bounce off each other’s ideas.
Over the years, the band’s dynamics have changed and simplified down to just the two of you. Would you say that your music evolves alongside whatever creative mindset your life sort of happens to be in at the moment?
Ben: I would say yeah. Ross and I have always written the music, even when there for four of us, we kind of conceptualized. Basically, where you are at- like being in a band- is all engulfing and music making becomes your life. But, there’s a healthy other side to your life and if you don’t have that it can become quite unhealthy and I think the way we have written, it has been linked to kind of where our headspace is at. Certainly, I think with ZILLA we fell into a really good groove and we found this much easier to write and think of the visual and conceptualize and come up with a title. The process, between the records, fans said “You guys disappeared for so long!” and we did, but weirdly, the actual making of ZILLA was at the end of that process and there was a lot of us not knowing really what we wanted to do. Rituals was a bit like that.
Ross: We basically wrote a whole album then scrapped it.
Ben: We track listed it on a flight and then we both knew, didn’t we?
Ross: Yeah, it was just very different than what ZILLA sounds like and it wasn’t really how we’re feeling now.
Ben: There is one song called “Cold Light” on our record that was from the first record attempt and that’s kind of an indication of what that first record was that we were making. A lot of people have kind of said “Shit, that’s the best track on the record, if they’ve done an album of that it’d be better.” But we knew deep down that we didn’t want that.
Well, that’s actually one of my favorite songs from the album!
Ben: So did we go the wrong way?! That song, I’ve kind of said it before, it’s the only one that like if we could go back and change it we wouldn’t. With a lot of our songs, there’s always something I’d go and edit or change like we didn’t quite get it. But not with that one, that’s why we put it on the record. Compared to like “Kaleidoscope” and “On Top” and “Nighttime TV” and these quite electronic tracks, we were quite nervous to put that one on the album because it feels different. But we fell in love with it so much that we felt like we achieved something sonically that we were trying to achieve and for us we just had to put it on. It’s funny because what you’re experiencing in life definitely impacts how you’re writing.
To change the subject a bit, a few dates ago you played your biggest US show so far! How did that feel? What do you notice most about the difference between US and UK shows?
Ross: There’s definitely a difference in attendance numbers- we’ve played in NY and LA a couple of times and we’ve built a bit of a fan base there, but on this tour it’s been varied each night. One night there will be a lot of people there, last night it was a bit quiet.
Ben: It’s kind of archetypal of what we’ve done career wise as a band. Like our show in NY which was our biggest show and incredible, but size wise not as big as our London show or our UK shows which our home crowds are. It’s funny because I felt like our NY show felt very similar to London and also Chicago, which was more people than we thought we’d ever play to,
Ross: We are kinda learning as we go on because it’s our first tour here and unexpected for us every night.
Ben: We did Little Rock in Arkansas yesterday and it was awesome!
Was it a good turn out?
Ben: Ehhhh, well it wasn’t an amazing turn out but it was one of the most fun shows! And some people had driven really far to the show.
Ross: It’s not always down to the numbers for it to be a great show. It can be a really good show with ten people. And it’s so much fun going to places you’ve never been to.
Ben: You’ve just gotta get out and go play and come back. Just experiencing live music, that’s the way to really be able to get someone. If you can perform a show and they really enjoy the experience, that will grab someone more than loving a record.
For sure, I think live music is really driving the industry at this point- although you may not be making money by selling physical records, because of streaming and such, discovering new music is really pushing people to go see those artists live.
Ross: Exactly! I think that’s the thing that’s made this US tour kind of happen for us. Spotify and things like that. It really branched us out into the US.
Do you think that the horrible streaming royalties make up for the exposure you gain?
Ross: Ultimately, there’s not much money in it. Before Spotify, it was just stealing, so at least it’s a little controlled. But definitely. The promo side they can give you, like putting you on playlists and mixes, makes it where all the sudden your song is on one and a half million people’s phones. That kind of promo, no radio station can give you that.
Ben: Yeah I agree. I think it’s something that just has to be embraced and if someone hears it and comes to a show and buys merch, you get the benefits in a different form. The music industry is not exempt from progression. It’s not just music, but the iPhone and how much we use that and how much we consume music, the industry has got to adapt. It’s an inevitable change and music is now a free commodity and it’s up to the band and artists to understand and make that work. How much Spotify pays their artist, of course, is like insane and they pay labels well but it doesn’t come back to the artists in the percentages it should. But like Ross says, the analytics you can pull from it is great. It also levels the plain. If you write a great song and it should, if it given enough of promotion, the plays will reflect. If people like it, they’ll press the plus symbol and add it to their playlist. If it’s not, they won’t. In that very basic system, it’s down to “Is it a good song?” and I like that because radio ruled a lot of like whether bands got played and sometimes it wasn’t a good song. But, they were signed to a label that the head of radio knew and it got added. It wasn’t down to the public making the decision. Spotify, who runs them, is a whole other thing. Even Spotify vs Apple music is a sort of trenched in war and it’s insane!
Ross: We got offered to do like a promo with Zane Lowe but we couldn’t because it would annoy Spotify!
Do you think that having to work with a label (and make certain people happy) hinders your creative control at all?
Ross: It depends. If you go in with the mindset like you’re with an indie and don’t get swayed to do anything really commercial- which you do try and get swayed by A+R- and if you stick to your guns and use the money they offer you, then that’s a winning situation.
Ben: I think ultimately the creative decision and artistic vision has to come from the artist. If a manager is working that, they’ve got to nurture that. In the music industry there’s a lot of chefs in the kitchen and a label pulling you one way or another. It starts to become diluted and the reason a band is a band is because there the band! A good A+R guy can take people who don’t have any songs and give them a producer and the right record at the right time and make millions- and that’s a major label to a T. Left of that, I think it’s making sure the creativity stays with the band.