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Hiding and Seeking, But Ready to Sing

Editors [1] Illness, death, depression, death, broken bones, more death: on their second album, An End Has a Start, Editors pull no lyrical punches. If the band members were as gloomy as their subject matter, there would be a dark cloud following them around, wreaking havoc on weather systems wherever they toured.

Thankfully, such isn’t the case. As drummer Ed Lay recalls, the band took regular breaks from recording their new album to play games in the studio. Listen carefully to the song “Spiders,” and you can even hear the clatter of the musicians and their friends playing hide-and-seek.

Lay himself ended up in a guitar amplifier’s flight case. “It took a little bit of help getting in there,” he says. “Once I was locked in, I started to realize the joke was probably more on me.” On second thought, this does sound a bit gloomy …

“I’m pretty small,” he hastens to add, “so I fit in quite comfortably. I had plenty of air. It would have been a couple of days before I would have perished, so that wasn’t so bad.”

Lay now has an insight into how it feels to be part of Editors’ road gear, which has been hauled around Europe, Japan, Australia, and now North America since An End Has a Start was released in June. The album topped the UK charts – an outcome which, according to Lay, engendered relief rather than jubilation: “If it didn’t go to number 1, it would have been a horrible experience.”

Not that Lay feels a sense of entitlement – just that everyone working with the band had been counting on it, and Editors didn’t want to let them down. The band’s origins were inauspicious: in 2003, when Lay stepped in to replace a drummer who felt he’d be better off with another band, they were called “Snowfield.”– “it was a nothing name,” he says, “a bit soppy.” Lay, singer/guitarist Tom Smith, lead guitarist Chris Urbanowicz, and bassist Russell Leetch were Music Technology students who’d met at Staffordshire University in the West Midlands and quickly became bored by the “Mickey Mouse course.”

Upon graduation, Lay and Urbanowicz worked at a shoe store while their bandmates toiled away at a bank’s call centre; together, they’d gig at night in Birmingham and play showcases in London on weekends. Eventually, they adopted the moniker “Editors” (which, Lay asserts, has the “weight of authority”) and signed a deal with the well-respected indie label Kitchenware, who were wowed by their stage presence. On their first full-fledged tour supporting their debut album, The Back Room, they found themselves opening for Franz Ferdinand in arenas.

“From a very early point in our career,” says Lay, “we were used to those massive stages and big open spaces.” An End Has a Start, with its anthemic songs bolstered by Lay’s thunderous drums, sounds big enough to fill stadia, although apparently it was written not to inspire mass sing-alongs, but to satisfy the former music techies’ desire for “more textures … We wanted to use more instruments, to have a little bit more freedom when it comes to actually putting the tracks on the record.”

To accomplish this, they hopped across to rural Ireland to work with Garret “Jacknife” Lee (U2, Bloc Party), who ensured the band wouldn’t dwell too much on morbid themes.

“Certainly the lyrical content is at times about the taboo of death and illness,” admits Lay. “It’s not particularly easy to listen to in those terms.” In the studio, they were “talking more about uplifting sounds, and Garret was telling us to imagine exciting things like whales jumping up from the water. … The music is certainly joyful.”

Herein lies the key to Editors’ appeal: they play songs about death and devastation in order to wring as much as possible out of life. Lay describes the album’s leadoff track and standout single, “Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors,” as “a call to arms” with “a rousing sound.” The “broken hearts smashed on the floor” in Smith’s lyrics are defibrillated by a relentlessly thumping bass drum and lightning-bolt guitars. At concerts, says Lay, “everybody knows as soon as that backbeat starts what song it is, and there’s an energy that really rushes through the crowd. It’s awesome.”

Many of Editors’ songs are propelled by Lay and Leetch’s take on rhythms of house, disco, and techno – at heart, they’re not so much a straight-ahead post-punk act (like Interpol, to whom they’re constantly compared) as a pop band wearing black clothes. “Our sensibility is [about] coming up with a gripping chorus,” says Lay, “something to make people move and dance.”

On the video for the new album’s title track, a chorus line of models in leotards who look like extras from a zombie remake of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” move about jerkily in formation.

“We wanted them to look uncomfortable,” chuckles Lay. “They couldn’t dance particularly well. Nothing about them was polished. It was a bit of fun.”

And if you can’t have fun while contemplating mortality, why bother? “We’ve always wanted to write exciting, popular rock music,” says Lay. “I think it’s a bit of a shock to some people.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Jan. 21, 2008