Fryars (aka Ben Garret) is a London artist with some big ideas. He’s written for Lily Allen, Mika and Marina And The Diamonds. I interviewed him before he supported Lily Allen on her Sheezus Tour at the Manchester Apollo.
First things first; Fryars, your stage name, is terribly enigmatic. What does it mean and where did it come from?
It’s not really very interesting; the whole thing is my name by design. I had three factors that I wanted to incorporate when I was 15 or 16 on my MySpace page at about 1 in the morning and I needed a name for the page. I wanted a big ‘Y,’ because Kanye had a big ‘Y.’ An ‘s’ to make sure that it was ambiguous as to whether it was many people or one, and it had to be a word that wasn’t really a word so that it came top on Google, and for those reasons, it was like hangman. I filled in the gaps, and I think that it rolls off the tongue.
Your musical genre is quite difficult to pin down; some people online have called it ‘sci-fi concept, EDM-infused 80s pop psychadelia.’ What do you say you are, or are you uncatergoriseable?
I would say that it’s essentially Art-Pop. That suits the music most. Based on my records, I don’t really get the ‘synth-pop’ thing; there’s maybe only one track which could come close to that. Essentially, the only synth coming on is this modular whirring, and the rest is all live instruments or programming. I did the arrangements for these ten tracks in one day when I was in Sweden, and they’re pretty good. It’s all real, it’s a really live record.
As a Londoner, has London life had an impact on your work?
I guess only in the sense that if I’d come from somewhere else that would have had a different effect. London facilitates a lot in terms of maybe being able to network around what you’re doing. You can just ‘do ‘stuff’ faster through being in London. As a place though, it’s a melting pot, so it probably give you less place as a creator than if you were from Sheffield. For example, I can’t think of many things that have come out of London which have the identity of Arctic Monkeys or someone like that, so strongly linked to being from that place.
Your second album, Power, came out last Monday, five years after your debut album. Can you give a whistle-stop tour of what happened in the intermediary?
I guess after that first one, I did a tiny bit of touring stuff until maybe early 2010, then started writing for six or seven months. I called my friend Luke, and said ‘do you want to make this?’ ‘do you want to help me?’ and then kind of spent my entire publishing deal on it. From September 2010 we went to Sweden, got into 2011, in between I did some work on a Mika record, which was weird, and then came back. I did some more of my album, then a bit of Miami to do some more Mika stuff, then half way through 2011 I signed for 679… or maybe it was the year after I can’t remember. I put out some little singles, and then at some point I also wrote and produced EPs for Rae Morris. I skipped a year, and then in 2014 I’ve been doing stuff with Lily [Allen] and gradually tweaking the record, putting a few more singles out, toured it, signed for Warner, then for Fiction and then here we are.
Was it a difficult five years then?
Kind of. I’m quite relaxed. The idea was never that the album went big on week one. When I moved to Fiction I was just like ‘let’s set this up, get it out and then build from there.’ I needed people to be able to hear it, to listen through it from start to finish. I know that that’s asking a bit much from people. I was busy during those five years, but what I ultimately care about now is that people get to hear it and so that remains to be seen to an extent. Maybe that won’t even happen until I do another record that does go big in week one, that makes people go back and listen to this one. I hope they do though, because I feel like consuming music is so much to do with everything around it that in a way it doesn’t matter entirely what it sounds like. Unless there is that excitement around the release, there just won’t be that excitement for a listener when they turn it on and listen to it. There are very few listeners that have that mindset – where they can listen to something that they think is maybe not supposed to be that cool, where there’s no colouring of their thought. Like if I played you something that’s not ‘supposed’ to be that cool, like Scouting For Girls’ album, which is basically the pop sound, you would be like ‘this is disgusting,’ because they know that they’re not supposed to like Scouting for Girls, because there hadn’t been that hype around it. It’s not like that with my things, but unless you’re riding that wave, you need an immediate impact. The whole idea with recording it in one go was essentially that it would carry that impact. There’d be no break in momentum. Everything surrounding it would lead to the listener having a sense of excitement when they switched on the record.
So you like Kanye West, and you like Lily Allen. What do you think the dynamic is between Yeezus and Sheezus?
Well I’d say that they’re both very strong minded people who very much think that they know what’s best for them. Obviously they’re very different in terms of their output.
When you first put your music out, it was through MySpace, but now it’s very much through YouTube that young musicians do the same thing. Is it a good thing that the music industry is now accessible to anyone with a webcam and a dial-up internet connection?
It should be. I think that maybe people’s tastes are a little bit beyond rescue, so what the hell. The old fashioned label system, while sometimes it did exclude some things, the idea of the system is that you have the people in institutions who are kind of like the gatekeepers, who would make a certain amount of things work each year. They’d give them the money and the backing and that was how it worked. The whole idea was that they made good decisions. Looking back over the 50s through to the late 70s that was a time when they did do their job, so the argument existed then. Now though, someone can be really good and they might not have the chance otherwise; say they live in the middle of nowhere and all you’ve got is broadband – then great! There’s also this idea that a lot of very pretty boys or girls will just go and do something completely shit, and the weird fan mentality will huddle round them and they’ll have millions of fans, and it will go fucking nuts, all for something that’s essentially completely vacuous. There’s nothing that can stop that – it’s completely organic. It’s in the same way that we have governments who stop people doing certain things, who have protect the minorities when there’s a sense that the majority will tyrannise the minority, like this YouTube led exposure.
In one of your interviews, you said that Beyonce was ‘a singer and a dancer, not an artist.’ What did you mean by that?
First of all, I said before that that ‘I love Beyonce,’ but I did notice a reaction after that interview. Thankfully it was quite small, but I do stand by the sentiment, which is that there is not a great deal of artfulness behind it, and behind her songs. But let’s leave that. I’m slagging off Beyonce accidentally again. I think that Kanye is an artist. He’s an example of really strong artistry in pop music, whereas the Beyonce stuff purports to have a vision by throwing in art looking things, but it’s actually completely gutless. She’s really good at singing though. And dancing.
How does writing for different pop singers compare to writing for yourself?
My main thing is understanding who they are – where they’re going and what they should be doing. Then I make that happen. I could have done all manner of things this year which would have gone to number one, I have been asked to do it, but I won’t. For me a lot of music that’s charting at the moment has nothing behind it, no character. Unless there’s something to latch on to, I don’t want to give anything to that project. With someone like Lily or Mika or whatever, they actually have tangibly strong characters. I either prefer working with them, or with out and out pop singers, because that can be fun as well. People who are halfway – a little bit arty – actually I find dire. I find the people who know who they are much more impressive – if they have a strong sense of brand.
For Power, you want people to sit down and go through the journey of the album from start to finish. Is that your intention when you write for other people, or does it not apply?
Well as yet, I haven’t had the chance to do anyone’s album from start to finish, but I still try to find an overall direction in a project. It doesn’t mean that all the stuff needs to sound the same, but just what you’re trying to say or put across. I care deeply once I’m involved in something that I’m not part of a frivolous or directionless thing. Sometimes though you’re just completely powerless.
What do you think about the artists who come out of TV talent shows who don’t write their own music?
I don’t mind that people don’t write their own music. That would be hypocritical, even a little bit aggressive given that I write for other people. One of the only good things to come out of a TV talent show was Will Young. I’m not kidding when I say that I think that he has a really distinctive voice. I don’t think though that he went on to make any particularly good records, but you could recognise his voice immediately. There have obviously been some other really big things, like when Gareth Gates came second in the same year as Will Young. What’s interesting is that post-internet, TV has become more powerful because there’s less of it, so in those fewer opportunities where you get everyone together to watch the same thing, you can basically make or break an artist. That hammering home of seeing the same people every single week – seeing them growing up… it makes people more obsessed with the artist than it does about the output. I’m not blanketly against them, they are pretty entertaining, but it has run its course.
Do you have to work really hard now not to have the same output as everyone else?
There is so much stuff now that you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s very difficult to do something with its own voice. But actually, I think that it’s probably not that difficult. It is hard to get heard if you do something that isn’t on trend, so you’re always going to be fighting a bigger battle if you are doing something that’s very different at a particular moment. Even something that’s in line with lots of other trends might just look better and sound better all those kind of things, pulling it into the light. The band These New Puritans are really good in that way, but even though they’ve done a couple of really strong records, their following is nowhere near as big as it might be or it should be because it’s not something that’s gone in line with the trend. The hope is that if you keep doing that, then you will kind of get there, but then it is harder. I believe that there is a real lack of character in modern pop music, and in blog world music. There are a lot of really nice sounding things, but just no real voice for ideas or sense of the artist in their music. The easiest way to break free of that is just to be yourself.
What’s next for Fryars?
Have a Christmas break, finish the tour, and then next year just write some hits. I’m going to very slowly get this album to number one. Long term, it’s just not going bankrupt and developing a massive gambling addiction and end up in a gutter.