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Interview: Fun Lovin' Criminals

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Some works of art are effortlessly cool. Whether reality or myth they evoke a particular image of a time and place.

Fun Lovin' Criminals

The 1996 debut album from New York trio Fun Lovin’ Criminals encapsulated the swagger of the Big Apple with ease, at least encapsulated what this Midlands-based teenager's vision of it was.

This was an American image of sharp-suited gangsters and cool clubs, a US mythology fuelled by Tarantino movies and the genre-defying sounds of the mid-nineties. Of this vision FLC seemed like the coolest of the cool.

Huey Morgan, Brian Leiser (FAST) and Steve Borgovin dropped a fresh, sample-laden debut that effortlessly spanned an array of sounds from hip hop and jazz, to blues and hard rock.

FLC took the rule book and used the pages as rolling papers, burning it up in a stoned-out haze.

That was 20 years ago, and the band (now without Borgovin, currently playing with Frank Benbini) are preparing for an expanded reissue of Come Find Yourself and a tour playing the album in its entirety for the first time.

Chilling at home FAST connects with me on the phone with his New York drawl, only slightly affected by his now residence in London. He is a whirlwind of ideas, thoughts and anecdotes that belies the frame of mind that lead to their stunning debut.

“You know with many bands that first album is the most beloved. With us, no matter when it is, whenever we do interviews questions always relate to the beginnings of the band and that album anyway, so, nothing really changes. But obviously what with it being 20 years with the tour and the re-release, obviously, everyone is concentrating on that,” he explains.

Landing slap bang in the middle of Britpop, Come Find Yourself stood out as an album of US rather than Camden cool but one that still felt very my part of the surging optimism of the time.

A slow-burner it eventually peaked at No. 7 in the UK Album Charts, and spawned three Top 40 Hit singles (‘Scooby Snacks’, ‘The Fun Lovin’ Criminal’ ‘The King of New York’) – it was popular but still underground enough to feel like a cool secret of those in the know.

You can hear the bands origins all over the tunes. Origins from nightshifts in sweaty, New York clubs and of constant party-vibes, as Fast reminisces.

“We weren’t thinking about it. If anything we were just thinking ‘oh shit, when do we have to get back to work’. It’s 10am in the morning and we just started at 4am and we have to go back to work at 6pm. But going back to work for us at that time was amazing, we worked in a nightclub, we were in our early twenties and every room you went into had a different type of music. Those DJs did the work for us because we didn’t have to search for music, we’d just walk into a room and hear new songs. ”

This club culture combined with a freedom in sampling and created the “lucky” situation that allowed FLC’s creativity to thrive. It was a case of right place, right time. But it can't all just have been luck, some thought must have gone into the genre mash-up?

“It was just an unintentional blessing of samplers. I know very few producers from that day who used samples and stuff that would only sample rock stuff, you know? It was using whatever sounded cool. If the bassline they were ripping off sounded cool, or that drum loop was cool, there were no rules.

It’s important to do your own thing. For us we never really thought about it, we just had a sampler and a stack of Huey’s CDs, we had his guitar and we had a Funkmaster Flex mixtape where a lot of the drum loops were exposed. That’s what provided the hip hop foundation in terms of the beats, Huey’s CDs was where we got inspiration for sampling soul music and rock music and mixing it all together.”

The stars aligned for FLC, in the last throes of sampling freedom they were still able to raid music history to bring together their concoction of sound.

But the real breakthrough came from vocal samples from the movies of the quintessential 90s film auteur Quentin Tarrantino on ‘Scooby Snacks’.

The blend of spoken-word from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and an ultra-cool guitar riff made it an instant classic.

“It was an easy connection for people and it was because, when I was writing music, after we got our deal, in my apartment I’d always have movies on. So I Reservoir Dogs on the TV, so I had the audio playing over the instrumental, because they movie doesn’t really have lots of music, well it does have lots of music, but not on a lot of the talking scenes. So I would just turn the volume up and have one of the samples playing over one of the break downs and I thought ‘why not?”

We were lucky because Tarantino was just getting his foot through the door, so he was still really cool. When set him the track and he was totally cool with it. The label asked him if he wanted to direct a music video and he said, ‘well no I am only into doing movies but my friend Robert Rodriguez’. He wanted to do but he had just started a movie, but yeah we were just really lucky."

We got clearance on everything. I mean, our demos were all samples. When the label signed us they had a whole heap of artists who were releasing their debut albums like us and D’Angelo. They were all about letting the artist do their thing, they were in to the whole sampling thing, sampling was still a new thing legally, so they had a company that cleared it all. We got rejections from a ton of artists and publishers, which we knew we would, but we always said when we get in the studio we would recreate that stuff with live instruments.”

And it is this ability with live musicianship that has contributed to FLC’s longevity, as the golden age of sampling died (from when Sting demanded ‘100% of the song’ from Puff Daddy it “killed any art that came from sampling, as far as bands being able to release stuff.”) they drove forward to bigger success especially in Europe, largely based on their chops as live performers.

In fact, ‘live’ performance, coming from a background of clubs has always been part of the band’s DNA.

FAST explains that in the beginning they started filling in for bands that didn’t show, and just ended up getting more and more gigs. In two years they only played six shows that they arranged themselves! At the end of that they invited record execs down, and the rest is history.

Their dynamic live performances saw them take the European gig and festival circuit by storm, with them becoming mainstays on some of the best line-ups of the late 1990s.

Now in 2016, returning to the beginning now feels like the right moment. Fun Lovin’ Criminals are more than a band that broke with a stunning debut – FAST is a DJ and producer, and Huey Morgan is a national institution on BBC 6Music – they have an established audience and this anniversary has the opportunity to bring new fans into the fold.

Like many ‘old’ bands FLC are finding their gigs are becoming generation-spanning parties, as much likes there’s proves to be timeless in a way.

“People grew up with us. They’re coming to our shows now, they’re in their forties and they’re bringing their 15, 16-year-old kids. The kids are standing at the back bar, while the parents are up the front moshing.”

This reissue and tour marks a celebration of the moment that a great band made their mark.

20 years on, they may not have the same radio play and magazine covers any more, but they are still doing things on their own terms.

That is worth celebrating.

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