Interview: Richard Archer, Hard-Fi

British rock band Hard-Fi Lives Up to the Hype

Obsessed with the need for short-term profits rather than long-term gains, the British music industry has started to acquire an unenviable reputation for over-hyping its products. Usually this process starts when an independent band, like the Libertines or the Arctic Monkeys, starts to create a buzz. Regardless of the quality of the music – shambolic in the case of the Libertines, mildly interesting in the case of the Monkeys – a deal is done with a major record company and, in the media blitz that inevitably follows, the World is assured that this band is the next big thing.

HARD-Fi is yet another band going down this route, having first gained attention with a demo-CD recorded in a disused mini-cab office and a self-made promo video that ended up on MTV. This time, however, the hype is justified, as Stars of CCTV – released in the UK in 2005 and this year in America and Japan – is a musical tour de force, with its deft blending of ska and dub with rock.

On the telephone from Heathrow airport, where the band is jetting off to the World Cup followed by some dates in Belgium, the band's singer and songwriter Richard Archer is sleepy but talkative as he helps himself to a traditional British breakfast. So, why does their music stand out?
"There are some great British bands out at the moment but there isn't much of a sound," Archer comments. "If it's a guitar band, sometimes you can hear a real comparison to the Libertines or Arctic Monkeys. Whereas we were always more dance music and reggae. We never tried to be part of a scene or anything like that."
One of the differences between HARD-Fi and the other bands Archer mentions is age. While both the Libertines and the Monkeys were plucked from obscurity in their early 20s, Archer is now 29 and has seen all sides of the music industry. His former band Contempo was produced by former Clash legend Mick Jones, but failed to break through. Such early failure in the UK music scene can make it hard to get a second chance.

This has helped Archer develop a mature attitude, which also shows through in the quality of his songwriting. For example, in the album’s title song, the ironically plaintive Stars of CCTV, he brilliantly uses the security cameras that dot the UK urban landscape to suggest that we are all living in a world of reality TV, with the worst offenders being the biggest stars.

Despite the quality of songs like this, HARD-Fi had trouble getting noticed by record companies until DJs and VJs started playing their promos. Because of this the band has developed a 'music business outsider' mentality that they still retain despite being licensed to Atlantic Records. This is expressed in the rumbling beats and lyrics of first single Cash Machine and the defiant tone of Tied Up Too Tight.

Instead of trying to be trendy and cool, they seek to appeal to that large segment of the population regarded as unfashionably normal.
"We were trying to take it from thinking about people just like us," Archer explains his approach. "In the music industry, you get certain people thinking they're superior, where they say 'You don't read the right books, you don't wear the right clothes, you don't hang out at the right places, you don't know the right people, you ain't got the right haircut.' My thing is you're cool because you follow your own path and you do what you want to do. We've always tried to reach out for the ordinary people, the people who are just like us."
This attitude has also strengthened the band's identification with their native Staines, an unglamorous slab of suburban sprawl in the flight path of London's Heathrow airport, that is sometimes described as a cultural wasteland. But Staines also has its good points – near enough to pick up musical influences from London's music scene, but far enough away to be independent of its trends and fashions, it has allowed the band to forge a sound that is both rich and original.

By skillfully using elements of Jamaican dub, in particular echo and very low bass, the band is able to create a large aural footprint without resorting to sheer volume, while the use of reggae and ska allows them to have strong, sinuous rhythms in their rock that never feel repetitive.
"We didn't sort of sit there and say, 'Let's do a ska number," Archer explains how they assimilated influences ranging from the Clash and the Specials to original reggae and dub. "It was more like the spirit that influenced it. Why try to recreate something like that because you’re never going to be able to better it. It's kind of like a moment in time. So, we kind of listened to a track and said 'That'll work.' But just because we might use a reggae-type bass line, it doesn't mean that we have to have a reggae drumbeat. Why can't we play it over a drum and bass feel?"
While the upbeat, anthemic Hard to Beat, with its evocation of an adrenaline-fueled night on the town, is the band's best known song, reaching number nine in the UK singles chart, the latest single Better do Better does a better job of revealing HARD-Fi’s musical alchemy and showing its potential.

So, now that they've broken into the mainstream with tours of America and Japan, does Archer have any plans to desert the 'cultural wasteland' of Staines.
"No, not right now," he quips. "It's handy for the airport."

Colin Liddell
International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
4th August, 2006
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