Don't mention the B word!
HE'S swapped playing stadiums for student unions and indie clubs, and chart-topping pop anthems for uncompromising rock, but Charlie Simpson insists he's happier than ever.
By Jonathan Barnes
HE'S swapped playing stadiums for student unions and indie clubs, and chart-topping pop anthems for uncompromising rock, but Charlie Simpson insists he's happier than ever. JONATHAN BARNES reports on the Suffolk star who won't mention the 'B' word.
THERE is a theme running through Fightstar's debut album, says Charlie Simpson.
It's that: “everything bad has been taken away” and “the world has started again with a new set of morals”.
It's something that Charlie accepts is only a far-flung fantasy, especially as vandals recently took to his Ferrari with crowbars as it was parked in the street.
“It's so frustrating - why do people do that?” he raged. “When things like that happen it seems like such a sick and pathetic world. There are so many bad things going on in life that it's nice to have a fantasy that things could be different.”
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Other than vehicle crime (and censorship, more of which later), Charlie is pretty happy with his lot. It's been just over a year since he took the bold decision to quit mega-selling pop sensations Busted to go full-time with rock innovators Fightstar, the band he formed while growing bored of singing about teenage crushes and school discos.
While it seemed like career suicide to some, especially as Busted had made just two albums and still had the world at their feet, Charlie says the past year has been the best of his life.
He might have been the pop pin-up boy looking to impress notoriously hard-to-please and unforgiving rock fans, but Fightstar have emerged as a major force in rock circles and no-one can doubt the 20-year-old's persistence or passion for the music.
“It's definitely been a struggle and we've had to work hard, slogging away playing small venues - it has been back to the grass roots,” he says.
“We had to start from nothing, like any other band, to be taken seriously, and I didn't want any reference from my past. I wanted to distance myself from that and start again - building it up on our own merit - and it's been great to see people getting behind us. The fans have been great and the press have been good too.”
During the course of the interview, Charlie studiously avoids the B-word. There are references to “my past band” or even “my past life”, but never once does he mention Busted by name. It's something he's clearly hoping to put behind him - indeed the record company warned before this interview that questions about Busted would not be welcome.
“I've got no regrets at all,” he said, when asked about what must have been the most daunting decision of his life. “Was it a good decision to quit? Absolutely. Do I miss anything about my past band? No.”
Fightstar has been Charlie's favourite subject for the past two years, and giving the band his full attention has been a breath of fresh air to the Woodbridge-raised singer and guitarist. He insists it's the first time he's played music he's liked since he was 15 - which says everything about his true feelings for the string of hits that made Busted famous.
The album Grand Unification, is out onon March 13. It was recorded with revered producer Colin Richardson, known for his work with Fightstar favourites Funeral for a Friend.
“Making the album has definitely been the highlight of the year,” said Charlie. “It's worked out exactly as we wanted it. Colin is a hero of ours and we had dreamed of working with him. He has done a great job on it.”
The release and reaction to the 13-track CD will be the first major test of Fightstar's battle to prove they are “for real”. The band were buoyed by the critical acclaim given to their debut EP They Liked You Better When You Were Dead, and heartened by the sales of singles Paint Your Target and Grand Unification (Part 1), which both made the top 20. Third single Waste a Moment hits the shelves a week before the album, but Charlie insists he no longer holds any interest in the singles charts.
“People have asked me if I was worried that our singles haven't gone top ten, but that's so irrelevant to us,” he said. “It's a very pop mentality to focus on singles and because of my past band that's what people look at. But the bands I've always loved have rarely been in the top 40, some never. It's not about the top 40 at all for us, what's important to us is album sales and touring. I don't even look to see where the singles go in. I honestly don't care.”
What is bothering Charlie, however, is the censorship issues his band comes up against. The four, who claim much of their inspiration from Manga cartoons and horror flicks, were forced to re-shoot their video for Paint Your Target, which featured children's hands becoming guns and missiles blowing up schools, because TV stations deemed it too offensive. Fightstar argued it was “social commentary” and representative of violent society, but their protests fell on deaf ears. The video was re-made with standard studio footage.
Now they are heading for conflict again with the backdrop to Waste a Moment, which Charlie says is based on 1973 psychological thriller Don't Look Now, depicting a demonic child venturing on to a railway line and being followed by a well-meaning stranger as a Tube train approaches. “Everything is seen as so controversial, it's so frustrating,” said Charlie.
“We're given artistic creativity and we are trying to do something innovative with visuals, but we can't because there are so many laws. We're really into cinema and we want to portray that in our music, but people just look to make problems. I don't understand the mentality of people who don't want to play the video - there's much worse in the papers and on TV. It's based on Don't Look Now, which is a favourite film of ours, and it's all just a complete fantasy. It's nothing to do with real life and it's hard to believe there's such hardcore censorship.”
Fightstar is not for the faint-hearted, the band insist. Their songs have become darker, they say. Guitarist Alex Westaway describes their music making as “shaping shadows”. It's not easy listening, that's for sure.
But the frontman knows he can count on an army of fans for support, illustrated by the 15,000 names signed up as users of the band's website. Charlie has become a more regular contributor in recent months, keeping fans informed of band developments or even just thanking them for turning up to gigs.
“I go on to the site every couple of weeks and post. It's an easy way of saying what we're up to. You wouldn't get that otherwise and it's a cool way of speaking to them. We have a lot of hardcore fans who go on the site every day - it's incredible,” he said.
Plenty of those fans have seen Fightstar live. Charlie said: “I think we've definitely become tighter as a band, playing together every night, and our live shows are really important to us. I'm of the firm belief that live shows should be as good - if not better - than the record. Live shows are the one time that people can see it and feel it more than ever before, so touring is the biggest thing for us. I like being able to play live and see people's faces.”
Charlie can hardly wait to head out on tour once Grand Unification has hit the shops, although he's disappointed there's no suitable venue in Suffolk for a homecoming gig.
His eldest brother Will's band Brigade will be a regular support act which has its debut album Lights, out in April.
Charlie remains fiercely proud of his roots, which he celebrated with the release of compilation album The Suffolk Explosion on his own Sandwich Leg label last year (Fightstar's records are put out on Sandwich Leg through Island). The album features a selection of bands with links to Suffolk (although a couple sneaked in just by being friends and favourites of Charlie's). It was a raw but hugely impressive collection, featuring an unreleased Fightstar track, Charlie's first solo effort and two songs each from Brigade and Prego, the band fronted by the middle Simpson brother, Edd.
Charlie says he is planning a Suffolk Explosion 2 for later this year, which you sense excites him almost as much as Grand Unification's forthcoming launch. But as much as he talks of his passion for Fightstar, he insists there's no masterplan to take on the world, no target for record sales and certainly no success or failure riding on chart position. It seems he's soon about to achieve his primary goal.
“For me, playing the Astoria has always been a benchmark of success. I grew up watching bands there and that's all I wanted to do. We're playing there in March and that's good enough for me. The fact is I'm making music I want to make, and I love every second of it. Anything else above that is a bonus.”
Fightstar play the University of East Anglia in Norwich on March 13.