Tears for Fears: ‘Some people can bulls*** through music, but we can’t’

Music as therapy: on the couch with Roland Orzabal (left) and Curt Smith (Frank W Ockenfels III)
Music as therapy: on the couch with Roland Orzabal (left) and Curt Smith (Frank W Ockenfels III)

Roland Orzabal is weeping. It’s a Saturday night in Los Angeles and Tears for Fears are midway through a triumphant set at the city’s Forum venue, which has already included a towering performance of mammoth 1985 hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and a euphoric version of 1989’s “Sowing the Seeds of Love”. It’s the reaction to new song “Rivers of Mercy”, however, that has 60-year-old Orzabal sweeping his flowing white locks aside to dab away tears. Thousands of voices sing along in unison while phone lights illuminate the darkness. His are not the only damp eyes in the house. “With ‘Rivers of Mercy’, I look into the audience and almost every night I see someone crying,” Orzabal explains later, when he and fellow founding bandmate Curt Smith, 61, speak to me over video call. “If you concentrate on them you start doing it yourself... and then you can’t sing!”

It’s little wonder Orzabal finds that moment of connection so overwhelming. “Rivers of Mercy” is the emotional centrepiece of the duo’s recent album The Tipping Point,their first in 17 years. They’d begun work on a new record in 2013 but scrapped and replaced most of their early material in the wake of the death of Orzabal’s wife Caroline in 2017. The couple had been together since they were teenagers in Bath and were married for 34 years, the last five of which Orzabal spent as her carer as she gradually succumbed to dementia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism.

“For me, the song ‘Rivers of Mercy’ expresses, within the album, the point at which there seems to be an emotional shift towards letting go of things,” explains Orzabal, his West Country brogue cracking softly. “It’s not easy, but that’s the only way we’re ever going to heal ourselves. It was written in 2020, at a point in my life where the anger and rage that I had been, in a sense, suffering from privately for many years when I was Caroline’s caretaker gave way to this deep feeling of peace.”

Each night on tour he is reminded just how many others out there in the darkness are grieving too. “When we’re feeling these things we think we’re on our own,” he says. “We don’t even seek connection, because sometimes there are no words. When I was going through the stuff with Caroline I thought nobody else would understand, but feelings are universal. They really are. What I feel and what you feel are extremely similar. The trick with music, I think, is that it’s the language of the unspoken. Some people can bulls*** through music, but we can’t!”

Orzabal lets out a gentle laugh at the truth of what he’s just said. Tears for Fears have always done their best work mining their deepest feelings and opening up about mental health issues. “We’re kind of typical English guys, but when it comes to baring our souls we just can’t help but to have that outpouring,” he continues. “We’ve done it since we were kids. We came up in an environment with the likes of Joy Division, where all of a sudden you were allowed to gaze at your shoes, wear black and write songs about suicide. We haven’t gotten better than that! We had this huge pop surge where we sort of watered everything down, made it more majestic and more huge and it took off in America, but really the joy of what we do is countering the periods of mania within the set with the more emotional things. You’re taking people on a rollercoaster, and they really appreciate it.”

Orzabal and Smith onstage during ‘The Tipping Point’ tour in West Palm Beach, Florida, on 9 June 2022 (Larry Marano/Shutterstock)
Orzabal and Smith onstage during ‘The Tipping Point’ tour in West Palm Beach, Florida, on 9 June 2022 (Larry Marano/Shutterstock)

Orzabal and Smith first met as young teens on a hot summer’s day in Bath in the mid-Seventies. They started making music together in a youth club band called Duckz and then in mod-revivalists Graduate, who released a solitary album in 1980 before splitting. “That was just pure pop music,” recalls Smith. “We ended up leaving because we had a real interest in stuff that had more depth. We got really into production, while the rest of the band were more interested in just having fun, playing live and picking up girls. Meanwhile, we were listening to Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, David Byrne and Brian Eno through headphones going, ‘How did they do this?’, so our interests diverged.”

The pair founded Tears for Fears in 1981, taking their name from the work of primal therapist Arthur Janov. Debut album The Hurting, which went to No 1 in the UK in 1983, was likewise directly influenced by Janov’s theories about childhood psychological trauma. Both Orzabal and Smith were champions of his 1970 book The Primal Scream. “We both read it and were like: oh, my God! This explains everything!” says Orzabal. “Which it did at the time. It’s the old idea, they f*** you up, your mum and dad. The reason you have existential problems stems from the terrible things that happened in your childhood. We became very evangelical and, when you’re gripped by a belief system like that, creating out of it becomes quite easy. In fact, it becomes quite vital. ‘We’re gonna take this message to the world!’ Of course, everyone thought we were nuts. It was like, ‘You’re too young to be talking about that stuff. You’re in the prime of your life, you should be going out sowing the seeds of love!’ But no, we were hooked.”

Second album Songs from the Big Chair, released in 1985, spawned signature hits “Shout” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and broke the band in America. Despite all the trappings of international success, Orzabal remained fixated on turning inward. “We were No 1 in the States, and all I wanted was to go and do primal therapy,” he remembers. “I went out for dinner with [keyboardist] Ian Stanley and he said to me, ‘Do you know how much money you’ve made?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t f***ing care!’ Because I didn’t! I had this spiritual journey that I needed to complete.”

Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal: ‘We’re kind of typical English guys, but when it comes to baring our souls we just can’t help but have that outpouring' (Frank W Ockenfels III)
Tears for Fears’ Roland Orzabal: ‘We’re kind of typical English guys, but when it comes to baring our souls we just can’t help but have that outpouring' (Frank W Ockenfels III)

In the second half of the Eighties, during the production of third album The Seeds of Love, Orzabal would regularly leave recording sessions to attend primal therapy sessions inside a padded room. “At the peak, I did one male therapist and in the same week one female therapist, because they’re bringing up different things. One is your dad, one is your mum,” he recalls. “Then I did group therapy, which was absolutely horrific because you’ve got people who are literally going crazy.” During this period, Orzabal’s father died. “This deep, deep well of grief came up right from the pit of my stomach, and I was shuddering and shaking,” he says. “That was because my body could take it, because I was young enough and healthy enough to experience grief.”

Although Orzabal explains that, despite the name, primal scream therapy is more about mourning than screaming, he says his knowledge of Janov’s theories offered him little comfort when faced with the decline and death of his wife. “With Caroline it was years and years of this f***ing craziness,” he explains. “I had become a drinker. I was taking pills to sleep. When she went, I just couldn’t do it. Any time that grief signal would come up, I’d take something. Knock it back. So no, it didn’t help at all.”

What did help, what has always helped, was music. In the year that followed Caroline’s death, Orzabal postponed an international tour with Tears for Fears to focus on his health and go to rehab. When he reunited with Smith they poured their feelings into songs, just as they’d done in the Eighties. “There was a point where we separated for a bit and just kept our distance until Roland got himself to a better place,” remembers Smith. “Then we started writing together again and it became easy. Literally, when we got back in the studio it took us four months to finish the album, which for us is nothing. It’s because we knew what we wanted to do. Music for us is a form of therapy for us, there’s no question about that.”

After surviving the worst years of his life, Orzabal says he’s found catharsis in everything they’ve since made together and in the way audiences have responded to it, finding their own lives and private tragedies reflected in their music. “I don’t know why we have to be constantly put through the wringer to make something of value, but you have to accept, well, that’s your life,” he says reflectively. “That’s the way you’re built. When Curt and I get together that’s what happens, but it’s worth it.”

Tears for Fears tour the UK from 1 July to 26 July. ‘The Tipping Point’ is out now