As the summer turns and the shadows begin to lengthen, the soundtrack to the approaching autumn has already arrived. We Are Millionaires is the second offering from former Adorable mainman Pete Fij and Terry Bickers, the highly-rated guitarist of The House Of Love. The sleeve of the record says everything, a trail of rusting cars abandoned in a forest: a symbol of decay amid a backdrop of beauty. For this represents life for the duo, who once were on the brink of stardom before they crashed under the intensity of its particularly unsettling light. Nothing is without blemish, nothing endures. Their experiences of the music business have left Pete and Terry harbouring an obsession with failure, with might-have-beens, where melancholia is a constant companion, almost comforting in its intimacy. What soundtrack, then, could be better to lead you into the season of decay and the failing of the light? Of course there is re-birth and new life in the spring, but autumn always follows, and all things fade away. This is how it sounds.
The album follows on from 2014’s Broken Heart Surgery, a gloriously maudlin collection of downbeat ballads that marked Pete’s return to the music scene for the first time since Polak split in 2002. A move to the Sussex coast had seen the singer-guitarist record a solo album in 2004, but the tapes of this were buried in a kitchen drawer for many years until the recruitment of Terry, who was residing in Brighton, gave him the enthusiasm to resurrect the songs, record them as a duo, and finally release them into the community.
“I was in Adorable then Polak and when I’d finished with Polak I decided that I wanted to do something different. I got fed up. Polak was very labour-intensive in the studio. We used to go to the studio and spend days and days there, I mean weeks. Rather than getting things done in the rehearsal room, lots of the songs were written in the recording studio. But then I wanted to have a release from that. I just wanted to do something that was straight, free and easy and recorded really simply with all the flaws still in it, not over-polished with a gazillion overdubs. So I recorded this acoustic album. Then I finished it, really liked it, but just didn’t play it to anyone. I didn’t send it out, I just didn’t do anything and every New Year I kind of went, “Right, this year I’m going to send it out or I’m going to release it.” And I never got around to it. I just sat on it for years. I mean ‘Betty Ford’, when it was originally written, was called ‘Rehab’ and when Amy Winehouse brought out her single I changed it, that’s how old that track is. It’s pre-Amy Winehouse. About seven of the songs from the solo album are on Broken Heart Surgery in some shape or form. ‘Betty Ford’, was barely changed, but others were reworked and reshaped. ‘Downsizing’ was originally in a different form and that has been changed quite a bit.”
A Pledge campaign, the success of which surprised the duo who barely register on the optimism scale, saw Broken Heart Surgery released to extremely positive reviews. Delightfully dark, its misery tempered by irresistible wit, overflowing talent and some sublime guitar playing, it was always going to be a hard act to follow, but We Are Millionaires succeeds on every level. There’s more meat on the bones of the nine tracks, both musicians adding some welcome bass lines, while the songs flow into
more divergent channels with plenty of melodic twists and a greater depth of vocal harmony. It’s an exceptionally smooth-sounding record, almost refined, with Pete singing beautifully and Terry adding some astonishing guitar parts, all the more telling for their general brevity. And though most of the songs for the first album were already there to be adapted, Pete had no problem in coming up with new numbers for the follow-up, with the bonus being that Terry was on hand to help mould the songs
from the onset.
“The songs came pretty easily. My head is like a giant notebook with lots of notes and scribblings in it, and I had quite a few songs logged up there written without having to pick up a guitar. It’s the way I seem to work these days, often writing without an instrument. There’s only space for a limited number of songs up there, though, so when it reaches about five or six I seem to stop writing until I have recorded one of them thus freeing up precious memory space. The songs were still written in much the same way. The chord structures and backbone of the song is written by me, pretty much complete, and I then present the songs to Terry who adds his parts, and also makes arrangement suggestions. I suppose the difference this time is that he was on board a lot earlier in the songwriting process – these songs hadn’t been demoed as such – whilst the previous album had been recorded once which meant the structures ended up a little more cemented in place. This album is more expansive and definitely Terry’s input is a large part of that. I think he has more scope and freedom on this album, and maybe subconsciously when I was writing the songs I was thinking of leaving space for Terry, whereas the previous album was largely written prior to Terry being on board. Seeing someone else’s perspective on a track is really interesting.”
The new album opens with ‘Let’s Get Lost Together’, a song that dwells on the relationship between the two musicians. It’s affectionate and witty, and in scope mirrors closely the sound of Broken Heart Surgery thus making it an excellent bridge between the two records.
“There’s a genuine friendship between us which is very rewarding. I love Terry, and find him exasperating and exhilarating in equal measure, and I sense the feeling is mutual. I wanted ‘Lets Get Lost’ to be a bit like ‘Jackson’ by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra – where they diss each other but underneath the squabbling you realise there’s a love between them, and to me it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of our relationship. It was written because there was a documentary being made about us (Various Songs, 2014) that as it was being filmed we sensed was missing a rather crucial point about us. So I wrote the song to explain our relationship and offered it to the director for what I thought would be an interesting angle – a song explaining the relationship between the two people in the film. Tellingly he just ignored it and made a film that was so dull, unfocused and missing the point of what we were about that we disowned it. I was interested in having a song that had two males having a ‘bromantic’ moment. I couldn’t really think of anyone else who had done that. We are very different people, and work in different ways, but we’ve learned to deal with each other’s quirks. I quite enjoy the singularity and purity of a duo: there is only us two to hone and discuss the music, and there’s no band politics to work through.”
The whole tone of the album then expands with ‘If The World Is All We Have’, which explores new depths, emerging rather like a downbeat Bond theme from the Connery era. But the track has more sinister roots.
“This was written as an out-and-out pop song, not for Bickers & Fij, but originally with the idea of entering it into Eurovision with a female vocal and a far more uptempo electronic backing. It was maybe Depeche Mode meets Madonna, with a nod to John Barry. I revisited it with Terry and we changed a few elements, slowed it down, emptied it out and did a little re-write on the vocals and it took a character and life of its own. I see a lot of our songs as pop songs hiding under a veneer of melancholy. I have a love of Eurovision. I know lots of people are snidey about it, but it’s fascinating to see how each country approaches it every year. Yes it’s kitsch, and yes there can be a lot of power ballads, but there’s a real art to getting a song that sounds interesting, catchy but not too throwaway all within a three-minute framework. Belgium’s entry this year wouldn’t be out of place on 6 Music’s playlist. Radiohead, Morrissey and New Order have all sounded off in the past how they are going to enter, but they are all mouth and no Eurovision trousers which kind of pisses me off. Actually I don’t think Radiohead or New Order are right for it, but Mozza could pull it off – as could Jarvis. I’m not the right kind of artist either but I’d love to write an entry. I’ll keep plugging away, but you have to find an artist to front your song and it’s not easy.”
As the mind boggles, ‘Love’s Going To Get You’ shows Pete’s voice dominate; surely this is one of his best ever vocals? There’s a real retro pop sound to this, with its resonating keyboard sound and one of his most obviously tongue-in-cheek lyrics including a surprise “OMG” from the literary sophisticate.
“We originally recorded a couple of songs with a full band sound and this was one of them (along with ‘Let’s Get Lost’). It sounded very polished and professional, a bit Elbowish maybe, but wasn’t floating our boat, so we went back to a more stripped down sound with little or no percussion and only some bass here and there. This track has a kind of ‘dream pop’ vibe to it – Melody’s Echo Chamber ‘I Follow You’ was a reference point. I like to think my songs have a sense of humour. Without it the downbeat elements would be relentless. Actually a lot of what people think are keyboards on the album are either Terry’s guitars or our backing vocals put through various effects. I want to form an OMD tribute
band called OMG!”
‘We Are Millionaires’ takes a wry look at the duo’s career, gently feedbacking for half a minute before the song is finally shaken awake, though it seldom breaks out of its resigned torpor, the sound of a life support machine working at reduced power. Terry’s guitars are gloriously anaesthetised, his vocal harmonies barely conscious. As he narrates, Pete wonders whether even success would break the grip of melancholy that holds the duo firmly in its grasp.
“Success is relative – my ultimate aim would be to make my living out of making music, which sadly I currently don’t. My driver is that making music is my creative outlet, and to a certain extent it’s what I feel I have to do. I wish I could just sit on the sofa and watch all these box set TV programmes on Amazon Prime that everyone raves on about, but I just don’t have time. Music is a blessing and a curse.”
‘Waking Up’ then bursts into life with poppy enthusiasm before settling down with slight
embarrassment. The lyrics stand out for their positivity, a rarity in the duo’s music, though the song concludes with Pete singing, “It’s been a long, long winter” for nearly a minute. It’s a hint at emerging into the light, but it’s more of a dream than a statement of fact.
“I’m not sure I have emerged from a long, long winter but it doesn’t mean I can’t write about that idea. We all need some hope to cling to! I made a decision to try to write some more positive songs after Broken Heart Surgery. It isn’t my default setting, and inevitably the idea kind of went off course, so even in a song which has a bright positivity about what lies ahead, it ends up with repeated coda talking about the dark past that is behind.”
‘Marie Celeste’ again clings to the idea of positivity, the song lapping at the shore like a summer sea. It’s a pure love song, but again it is the thought that attracts the singer more than a real situation.
“ ‘Mary Celeste’ is more of an ideal I think than a real person. In some ways this is one of the most ‘pop’ lyrics I have written in the last ten years. It’s a rare thing in my writing of late – a love song, without a twist.”
But as soon as the light has appeared, the duo snuff it out with the forlorn ‘Over You’, where love is once again a purely damaging concept. “I know I have to face the facts that you are never coming back, and it’s over…” Eight and a half minutes of happiness is your lot with Fij and Bickers, though the smiles return on the brilliantly mournful ‘I Love You’ which opens, “I’ve been waiting for a train that will never come…”
“This was an attempt to be positive. I started off with a positive title, and had pretty much failed by the end of the first line…”
Perhaps this is the crux of the matter, Pete and Terry have an inability to escape the darkness that constantly threatens to overwhelm them. Album closer ‘Sometime Soon’ is almost a plea for redemption, casting a longing look at a future where genuine happiness dwells. You cannot escape the feeling that this is what Pete is really searching for.
“Yes, it is. I had a particularly bad year in 2015 when we started writing and recording this album. I had to quit my beloved second hand bookstall after twenty years of a lovely work life, and ended up in a nightmare job. My dad was bed-ridden, dying slowly of cancer. I met a friend who was going through a similar bad time and they said something that echoed my feelings – there was that hope and belief that sometime soon things were going to change. We need to cling to this hope even when it seems forlorn, and it feels like you’re in a very, very dark tunnel. I came out the other side, as did my friend. There are more tunnels, but hopefully not as dark as that one in 2015.”
It’s a sombre conclusion to a record that can tug at your emotions whilst still making you smile through its nicely balanced wit and helpless charm. There are flickers of light here, but you have to wonder whether they are the first glimpses of the dawn or sparks from the accelerant that will burn your house to ashes. There’s no doubt that Pete was looking for more positivity in this album, but only he can make positivity sound like regret, and only Terry can frame his words with the saddest guitars you have ever heard. Don’t come here for salvation, it doesn’t live here, but if you like your music to be intelligent and beautifully dressed Fij & Bickers always deliver.
We Are Millionaires can be purchased from www.petefijterrybickers.com