Tears for Fears' Curt Smith on Finding Creative Balance

Zoran Gold
Tears for Fears play Glendale this week.
As a punk rocker back in the late 1970s and early '80s, I had an initial disdain for the brooding goth-like angst brought forth by the second wave of the British Invasion. Upon a closer listening to bands like The Cure, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and OMD, I realized they were sharing an interpretation of alienation, depression, and recession. But they were doing it with a more reflective, self-soothing approach.

One of the bands of that era that created its name, music, and attitude out of a therapy that dealt with these feelings was Tears for Fears, known for anthemic '80s hit songs “Everybody Wants to Rule the World, “Shout,” and “Head Over Heels."

The band comprises Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, who both grew up in 1960s Bath, Somerset, England, and met as teenagers. They bonded over similarly dysfunctional families and turned to music as a way out.

“We had very sort of similar backgrounds, so I think initially that was the bond we had,” recalls Smith, 56, who now lives in Los Angeles. “We were both in the middle of three sons brought up by our mothers, and absent fathers. [We] had the same kind of feelings about school, delving into psychology.”

The two were influenced by the likes of Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, but even more so by the noted Primal Therapy theory developed by American psychologist Arthur Janov.

Janov's idea of revisiting repressed painful childhood memories and finding resolution through shouting resonated with Smith and Orzabal. In fact, the name of one of the chapters’ in his book Prisoners of Pain became the band’s name, Tears for Fears.

Their debut album, 1981's The Hurting, was an instant success with songs like “Suffer the Children,” “Mad World,” and “Pale Shelter.” It garnered them a No. 1 U.K. album and reached 73 in the U.S. The duo worked with keyboardist Ian Stanley and drummer Manny Elias to flesh out the band’s overall sound.

However, it was their sophomore release, Songs from the Big Chair, in 1985 that would skyrocket their careers with more layered, richer studio effects. “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” each hit No.1 on the Billboard charts and “Head Over Heels” hit No. 3. The album went multiplatinum.

Despite the success of the duo’s third album, The Seeds of Love in 1989, the pressures of remaining on top, touring, trying to top its first two successes, studio budget overruns, mounting debts, and the end of Smith’s first marriage, something had to give.

Orzabal had become a perfectionist by all accounts, while Smith had wanted to take a step back from the pace and the limelight. The culmination of all this led to the band’s breakup in 1991. For Smith, a much-needed scenery change led him to New York, where he began his solo career, recording three solo efforts, none of which succeeded well. Orzabal’s post-Smith Tears for Fears efforts fared about the same.

“The difference spending 10 years apart was an incredibly healthy thing,” Smith says. He met his wife, Frances Pennington, a former publicist at EMI Records, around then. “At that point in time, the reason I left was it was kind of controlling my life. I didn’t find the whole stardom thing healthy. It’s a weird life, and I really needed to get away from England, and New York was the perfect place.”

Orzabal would go on to record the next two Tears albums, which became more solo albums in 1993’s Elements and the more semi-autobiographical Raoul and the Kings of Spain, which paid homage to his Spanish heritage. Smith began solo work and collaborations with friend keyboardist-producer Charlton Pettus in the band Mayfield.

By the beginning of the new century, legal paperwork dealing with Tears for Fears led to Smith and Orzabal talking again, and eventually working musically together, now as more mature and worldly adults.

The other variable which helped foster this newly sustained reunion was the successful and remake of Tears' “Mad World” by American singer Gary Jules, which was used for the 2001 Donnie Darko movie soundtrack and became the Christmas No. 1 single in the U.K. in 2003. Tears' original version had reached No. 3 in 1982 as their first chartable hit.

The first reunited joint Tears for Fears effort of Smith and Orzabal would come out in 2004 with Everybody Likes a Happy Ending, and its first Top 40 U.K. hit, “Closest Thing to Heaven.” As a departure from the skeletal crew on its early records, the duo recruited some four dozen recording mates, mostly violin, cello and viola, and Pettus on keys.

The other thing the two have in common is spending more time with their families to balance the ongoing musical touring and the band's recordings.

“I guess what happens is, you become less precious about music, it’s not the be-all and end-all because you have something more important which is your family, and more specifically, your children who demand your attention.”

And as for the working relationship of Smith and Orzabal and how their relationship has maintained a healthier equilibrium, living on separate continents helps, and balancing family and music is key.

“So, nowadays, rather than spend time and working until 3 a.m., 4 a.m., or argue with each other or trying to stake our ground, which happens when there are two people, we kind of walk away and go home and do something that’s more important."

Smith has been remarried for 20-plus years and has two daughters, and Orzabal has been married for 35-plus years and has two adult sons. Being parents and growing up since those early precocious days has made all the difference for Smith’s outlook on priorities.

“To a certain degree [it becomes more like a job]. It’s something you're still incredibly passionate about. The analogy becomes, it’s a day job you actually love going to, so, we still have that. But, it is something that now is work, but there is something more important, which is home life.”

Ironically, while Smith still holds Janov in some reverent place, he no longer subscribes to the idea of children coming into the world as blank slates.

“I am still a fan of a lot of what he writes about; I think it’s a little naïve at times,” Smith says. “We are certainly not blank slates. I mean, I can just look at my children. There are a lot of things that have been discovered with DNA since Janov wrote the Primal Scream. So, we know that’s not the case.”

To keep his other musical creativity fresh, Smith has also collaborated much with the likes of French singer Sophie Saillet, avant-garde cellist Zoe Keating, the Shadow Bureau, Linda Sullivan, and many others. His latest solo album, Deceptively Heavy, came out in 2013 marking his fourth such solo effort, anchored by the vulnerable, yet seductive “Seven of Sundays” sung with Saillet.

With 13 years passed since the first Tears for Fears reunion album of 2004, many fans are more than eagerly awaiting a follow-up, and they may be rewarded.

“We have a rough timeframe," Smith says. "We’re hopefully releasing in the fall. We’re in the final stages now. If the album does come out at the end of the year, we will be touring into the next year. My oldest graduated from school next June, so I have college things I need to work out.”

Tears for Fears co-headline with Daryl Hall and John Oates at Glendale's Gila River Arena on Monday, July 17. Tickets are $30 and up through Ticketmaster.