The early years of MTV were filled with quirky and telegenic British bands who embraced the medium long before most American acts warmed to the idea of putting pictures to their sound. The Fixx (from London) were the musical evangelists of the network, making an impact in America with striking videos for politically-charged songs like "Stand Or Fall" and "Red Skies." While newly-minted video stars like Duran Duran and Culture Club sang of sex and love, The Fixx were our surrogate conscience, urging us to action and warning that the end was near (by way of nuclear holocaust, no less).
Cy Curnin is the group's lead singer and lyricist. He has a lot to say about his songs from 30 years ago because in many ways, they are more relevant than ever. "One Thing Leads to Another" shows how politicians can seize power and turn their backs on the electorate; "Saved By Zero" tells of turning inward to shut out the distractions of a world in chaos.
Appropriately, we spoke with Cy on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The terrorist attacks and political fallout were enough to send him off the grid - he moved to France and became an organic farmer.
The Fixx never broke up, although Cy has taken plenty of detours, including an expedition up Everest with the drummer for The Stray Cats. In 2012, they released the album Beautiful Friction, which follows a theme that threads through the band's history: less is more.
Cy Curnin: It is. Yes.
Songfacts: And I was looking through your biography and it said that 9/11 prompted you to make a decision to regain control of your life and your basic needs. And so you went and bought a farm. Has this lifestyle change affected your songwriting, and are there specific songs that reflect how 9/11 affected you?
Cy: Well, that's a long question. [Laughing]
Songfacts: It is. I'm sorry.
Cy: And there are a lot of talking points. I think I'll jump in at the fact that I think everyone's life changed on 9/11. Taking the obvious aside, what affected me was the lack of control and impotence that I felt watching the whole system start to shake when two airplanes hit the World Trade Tower. And I suddenly realized how closely knit the whole web of our society is and that the whole money chain, food chain, health chain - everything is hanging from a thread, and I have very little control over any of it. And half of what has stood as a mandate doesn't represent me and how I feel in my soul. That said, I felt I needed to gain some control and not try to think of changing the world, but change my world.
I'd been having a relationship with a French girl who moved back to France before 9/11. So I was already thinking about moving back, moving to Europe, anyway. My mother is French and so I have roots in France. Then 9/11 happened, and then I started thinking, 'Well, what happens if the supermarkets shut? And I'm not enjoying the kind of food I'm eating anyway. I'd like to start exploring getting my hands dirty and scratching at the soil.'
So I moved for love, really. And 9/11 happened to be the catalyst that made it all make sense for me. Then when I got to the farm that we ended up buying, it was an organic piece of land. There'd been no pesticides or fertilizer on the land since time began. It wasn't one of those parts of the world that had been sprayed. So I was lucky there.
In the village where I live there are all boys who have lots of knowledge and no children to pass it onto, because their children had all left the farm to get jobs in the city. So they watched me with my shovel getting blisters and laughed. Eventually, after they stopped laughing, they started giving me a few tips of which I'm still taking now. My garden is blossoming. It's kind of "Gardening for Dummies," but there's no such thing as "Food for Dummies." It's food for survival.
So from there the rhythm of the city left. The psychobabble, eventually after a couple of years, drained away, and my mind started to clear. There was a different clock. Instead of looking at the weather forecast on the television, I could see it and learn to read what I was feeling in the sky, in the air pressure around me. The animal behavior that we have on the farm, the way they behave tells you the weather. There was a different rhythm, the rhythm of the day needing to get up really early because animals just work day in, day out on a rhythm. That rhythm of life is a different rhythm.
Eventually that trickled into my mind and my psyche, and a sense of peace really came. My songs since then have been more hopeful than I ever thought I would be. But I have children and I feel partly responsible for having come from an age where we thought democracy was just an X on a piece of paper, and that was it. Didn't have anything to do, I wasn't accountable for any of the issues; I wasn't responsible for anything. But we are all a little to blame just by not standing up and doing our fair share of what's needed. We expect food on the table, we expect supermarkets to stay open, we expect rock bottom prices, we expect everything and do nothing.
So that's where I'm at today.
Songfacts: So you're a much more positive person?
Cy: Yeah. Very much so.
Songfacts: And not so much because of the events, but because of how you changed yourself.
Cy: Exactly. And I think that fear as a tool has been bandied around for so long now that opposites attract. And in as much as fear being used as a tool, then therefore hope is being instilled in people, too. You can't have one without the other. It's the end of the opposite spectrum; it's the natural law of the universe, action and reaction.
Songfacts: Well, I want to talk about some of your big hits. I was in college when MTV happened, and I had no idea who your band was. But then all of a sudden you were the biggest band in my world, because I saw you every hour on MTV. From that era, which of the songs do you think stand the test and have retained their impact the best?
Cy: Well, I think they all do in a kind of way to me. But I imagine the real crossroads songs for us were "Stand or Fall" and "Red Skies," which echo back to that sense of impotence that I felt after 9/11. I was feeling that sense of impotence back then in the early '80s or late '70s when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were getting in bed together, metaphorically speaking, and designing a whole defense system that involved Europeans' lives without asking us - it was never on any electorate ballot that I can remember. That struck a chord.
And then immediately after that despair was a song of hope called "Saved By Zero." Action and reaction again. That struck a chord with a lot of people and it still does today.
Songfacts: Now, I've read a number of different things about interpreting "Saved By Zero." Can you explain what your thinking was behind that song and what the title means?
Cy: Well, to me, "Saved By Zero" at the time meant I couldn't fall. When you're on the floor, you can't fall further, you can only go up. Life was starting to get more full with distractions, and I'm a sort of minimalist at heart. I always fight for that space. So it was a sort of a mantra that came from some of the teachings that I was learning back then with my earliest dipping into Buddhism. It was East meeting West for me. It was Eastern ancient philosophies that people live as a daily code over there to necessity. And we in the West absorbing this Buddhism, at the time it wasn't a necessity for functioning life, but it was a necessity for calming the mind and getting to a place of no mind and losing frustration and ego. So that's where it was for then.
But since then I've learned that a lot of other people's interpretations of the song have been equally as important. There has been the invention zero as a number by the ancient Indian mathematicians. Without that, calculations would have been completely wrong. Because we were following the Roman rhythmic calendar which believed that one was the first number. In fact, zero is the first number. Because what stops one being minus one is zero. It's nothing. That's a number. That's a plus unit. It's not negative one. There's no such thing as a negative zero, there's just zero, which is this side of the line. Which is lying in the decimal point. You have 0.1 and in the binary code and in all the other codes. Not that I was thinking that when I wrote "Saved By Zero." But, you know what, I'm taking it anyway. [Laughing]
Songfacts: So maybe something was speaking through you before you even realized it.
Songfacts: I've never heard it said that way before.
Cy: I'll just look at them and go, "Wow." And then I set about learning what they mean to me and I start to recognize them. And maybe there's a little refinement - that's maybe where the craft is. It's getting the initial vomit and then turning it to something that bears repeating and get some grammatical sense into it. But the initial inspiration is an automatic writing.
Songfacts: The Fixx' music doesn't sound dated, it doesn't sound like '80s music. Was there a conscious effort on your part to avoid the stereotypical '80s elements when you were making these albums and these songs?
Cy: It just came out naturally, to be honest. We were never really drawn into the poppy lightweight hooks that were going on. Some people did it very well, like Culture Club, and I really respected Depeche Mode. I thought they had what you would call an '80s sound, but they managed to mature it up. Bands like The Police had a beefier sound.
Our sound just evolved through the natural characters of the musicians in the band, Jamie West-Oram and Rupert (producer Rupert Hine) melding together to create a huge night sky in which I could hang my little twinkly star lyrics. That's how we survived. We never thought we were too in. If you've never been too in, you can never be too out. [Laughs] We were aware of other stuff that was around, but it wasn't a question of copying. Inspired, yes. Drawn to, associated with, occasionally. But not copying or trying to keep up the veneer.
And no, I don't like the name '80s as a musical term. It just denotes a time period. There's no way of really describing what '80s music was. It actually was such a mixture. If you look at the radio formats, they were so fragmented; it was a lot of different things. It was big hair bands, it was R.E.M., it was The Police, it was Psychedelic Furs, it was The Fixx, it was INXS, it was Human League, it was Men Without Hats, it was Flock of Seagulls, a lot of little different deviations. You can't call it the blues or rock or funk or R&B, so they had to call it a timeframe.
But if you go back, that period of music was a very original period of music. There were so many different forms coming out that really today we would have different musical divisions. I think globally we as musicians don't see ourselves as separate or we don't compete with each other. The nature of competition was very much born in the whole excess of the '80s and striving for as much cash as possible. And competition was good. I don't think most musicians think that way.
Rupert also produced Turner's Foreign Affair and Break Every Rule albums, as well as the Rush albums Roll The Bones and Presto. He even inspired the Stevie Nicks song "Rooms On Fire"
The Fixx, however, hold a special place in his heart. "More than any other band that I've worked with before or since, I always felt that I was becoming a bit like the sixth member of the band," Rupert told us. "Every song, we dreamt up something different or intriguing."
Cy: Rupert had an amazing insight to what made this band tick. He was very aware of Jamie's unique guitar style. He was aware of Rupert's truly original synthesis sound. Simple rhythm, but very evocative. Good groove. And interesting lyrics and good sense of melody. What Rupert brought further out of us was an enormous sense of arrangement. His sense of arrangement and vocal arrangements, particularly all the backing vocals and where the middle eight should come in and how long they should be and the way the codas were structured, that's what he brought to the band.
We wrote the songs and had the sound and the vibe, but he tailored us. We were the cloth, he was the tailor. He taught us a lot about ourselves and had a less haste, less waste kind of thing.
Songfacts: There's one song that was more of a minor hit. I think the title is "Less Cities, More Moving People," do I have that right?
Cy: Yeah. It's funny you should say that, because today I just posted on the Fixx Facebook and my Facebook the opening line for that song for my memory of 9/11. "Hand is shaking from the rubble. This must be spirits still alive." It's the opening line of that song. And I just said, "Rest in peace to those who've passed, but now we must focus on the good."
"Less Cities, More Moving People" was our biggest hit in Germany. That's the song that they liked the most. It was this sort of nomadic gypsy sense that we had and the way we sit on our couches and wait for the news to come to us instead of going out to find out what's really happening. That's my anti-soundbite song. Cities that were based on deltas and riches were one thing, but cities that were built on misinformation and supply chains are short lived. So that's what I was saying.
Songfacts: What attracted me to that song was the groove to it. It just gets under your skin. Do you remember creating that song and how you came up with it and who had the ideas?
Cy: Yeah. Jamie and I were just goofing around in the rehearsal room. In the mornings we would turn up, because we were rehearsing every day. We would say, Let's do something a little bit like this. I may have been listening to a rockabilly track the night before, and I said, 'Man, I really love the way rockabilly moves. Almost like Stray Cats.' We were just talking about that and then Jamie started playing and Adam Woods joined in and before you know it, I just started spouting my words and it became a Fixx song. We just wanted to get that groove going.
Songfacts: That's funny that you mention that. Now that you say that, I can hear it. I can hear the rockabilly influence. And I never would have put rockabilly together with The Fixx. However, you can't deny that that definitely has that feel.
Cy: Yeah. Funny enough, I've become really good friends with Slim Jim Phantom, the drummer in the Stray Cats. We climbed Everest together.
Songfacts: Well, that would be an interesting combination. Have you ever made music together?
Cy: Yeah, we have. We played together in Nepal and we're aiming to play together again this year at some point.
Songfacts: How fantastic.
Cy: He's a good guy, he's a good soul, that guy.
Songfacts: You had mentioned earlier the whole Reagan/Thatcher thing, and how the songs can be relevant to different situations. Do you find that younger people are discovering your music not knowing the original inspirations and applying some of these lyrics in these songs to situations in our world now?
Cy: I'm hoping they would do, because it's the kind of music to fit the backdrop of a questioning mind. And the situation has come around again and again and again. Election time is every four years and times of crisis seem to come around quite often. It's feast or famine or democrat or republican, day or night. The cycles continue. These songs were written as the backdrops, and if you specify the times they were in, then they become historical and dated. It's just our style, I guess.
Naturally, we like to keep it fairly enigmatic and talk about the effect. Rather pointing fingers: this is the cause, maybe that's the reason, and this is the effect. Cause and effect.
Songfacts: When you wrote the lyrics, though, did you have in the back of your mind that you wanted them to be timeless, or is it just naturally how you write?
Cy: Just naturally. I have no idea how long it would last. In fact, I'd no idea that it was going to connect this far. Extremely grateful and very proud. But I had no idea at the time. I can't say any of it was a plan.
Songfacts: Who were the songwriters that inspired you when you first started writing songs?
Cy: There was Bob Marley, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Barry Reynolds - he was a small songwriter assigned to Island Records, wrote a lot of songs for Marianne Faithfull.
Songfacts: Can you remember when you wrote your first song that you thought was good?
Cy: Yeah. When I was about 8. [Laughing]
Songfacts: And do you remember what the song was called?
Cy: Yeah, it was called "Linda." It was about an au pair girl who had just left. We had these au pair girls that would come and stay for a year and then they would leave. And no one realized the catastrophic effect it had on me that I'd spent all year bonding with these women and they would leave. An 8 year old is not supposed to feel the rejection, but I did time and time and time again.
Songfacts: Oh, my goodness. It sounds like you realized even then that you probably felt more deeply than most people do.
Cy: Well, I felt. I knew I felt maybe over-emotional. I could always make myself cry.
Songfacts: Which kind of brings me to another point. You haven't had any big hit songs that were romantic songs.
Cy: No. I prefer to make love rather than sing about it.
Songfacts: So you don't have any regrets that they're not playing your songs at wedding receptions?
Cy: No. But they do. They play "Secret Separation," which is very strange.
Songfacts: What is that song really about?
Cy: It's about reincarnation. It's about soulmates re-meeting in another time and continually re-meeting, and when they meet sometimes they can't function as lovers in this life, but they have been lovers in a past life or maybe a future life. Therefore the love affair continues through the ages.
Songfacts: It fits a little bit.
Cy: It's sort of spiritually romantic, if you like. It wasn't written by me, though. It was written by Rupert Hine's girlfriend at the time, Jeanette Obstoj, who directed our videos, "Stand or Fall," "One Thing Leads to Another," "Are We Ourselves," "Less Cities." She wrote a couple of lyrics for us. I got very close to her and she wrote "Woman on A Train," which is an album track off the Phantoms album. And then she wrote "Secret Separation."
For me as a songwriter it was good to just formulate the melody and sing the melody and not have to worry about the words.
Songfacts: Is that the only time that you've used other people's lyrics?
Cy: Yes. I've used a couple of Adam's, the drummer in the band's, lyrics. But they're kind of family, and a band effort.
Songfacts: Do you believe in reincarnation?
Songfacts: And do you have any hints as to what you might have been in a previous life?
Cy: Somebody's dog. Which is a good life.
Songfacts: Do I take it you're an animal lover?
Cy: I love dogs. Yeah. I love animals.
Songfacts: You're still doing the farming life. What's your favorite thing about farming?
Cy: Something for nothing. But it's not really something for nothing. It's very rewarding. You sow, you reap, you eat. And there's a natural rhythm to it and it's enormously satisfying. And it tastes good.
Songfacts: That's interesting. You mention this rhythm as if the key to happiness is finding that right rhythm. Do you think you've found that right rhythm for your life?
Cy: Yeah. I think I have. For now. It may change, but for now, which is all I have, the future only exists now. One can only think of the future in the present. It doesn't exist in the future, it exists now. So if now is good, then the future is good. If now is bad, then the future is bad. So let's make the future good by making now good. That's kind of my wish for the planet.
December 10, 2012
Get more at thefixx.com
Photo (1): Sascha Steinbach
More Songwriter Interviews