The smooth and semi-psychedelic sound of chamber-pop quintet Fanfarlo might lead one to imagine their tour bus as a rolling cannabis hotbox, with cough-syrup cocktails in the cup holders. But it's actually more like a library reading room on wheels.
"Reading is probably our favorite activity, aside from making music," says Justin Finch, bassist of the eight-year-old British band. "We tend to share books." Anything related to sociology or science tends to be a hit: Multi-instrumentalist Cathy Lucas has a degree in sociology, with a focus on gender studies, and keeps up with both disciplines in the vast hours between gigs. Finch and lead singer Simon Balthazar are into vintage science fiction. Even the band's name comes from a book: French writer Charles Baudelaire's 1847 novel La Fanfarlo.
"I admit we aren't exactly the Sex Pistols," says Finch.
The literary lifestyle definitely permeates the band's music. Its 2012 album Rooms Filled With Light somehow made shoegaze-style art-pop out of the mechanisms of the mind. (A sample lyric: "Motives and means, now they seem like a dream within a dream / Concepts and ideas starting soon to be making any sense.") The follow-up, Let's Go Extinct, released in February, takes a more macro view of the human experience. The album's first words ease listeners into an exploration of cosmic harmony and the smallness of humans in the vastness of the universe: "Coming from afar and heading for the sun / I think of us when we were molecules," sings Balthazar, in his hiccup-y voice. The sound is trippy, but not in a jagged, distorted way. Think Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin.
"People ask, ‘Are you trying to be deep by asking all these questions?' Not really," says Balthazar, the band's central creative force. "‘Who are we?' ‘Where are we going next?' I just think that in the same way these questions make good science fiction, they can also make good pop music."
Balthazar says he has always been more influenced by writing and ideas than the music of others, something he attributes to his upbringing in the tiny village vaguely near Gothenburg, Sweden. "There wasn't much music there," he says. "My parents had some folk music, some orchestral stuff and some cheesy crooner-pop. That was it for me. I don't think I was influenced by that much."
He took six months of piano lessons at age 12, but that was his only formal training. The rest of his musical upbringing came from toying with a slew of instruments that, like those records, were just lying around.
"There was a piano, a ukulele [and] a glockenspiel," recalls Balthazar. "I'm not sure why it was there. No one [in the family] was serious about music." That scattered, multi-instrumental approach would later be applied to Fanfarlo's albums, all of which feature about 20 or so instruments.
As a young man, Balthazar moved to London without much of an aim: "I moved to London the same way people moved to Berlin or New York City," he says. He started working on music alone in his bedroom, but "London is the kind of place where you can't go five minutes without starting a band. People started asking me to play their clubs or parties, so I put together a band."
Finch saw Balthazar lead a precursor to Fanfarlo at "a hot and sweaty bar called Nambutu." Immediately impressed by the musicality and original songs, Finch asked to join as a keyboard player, later switching to bass to fill a void in the ever-evolving lineup.
"It took a while to get the band we have today," says Balthazar. "People came in and out."
Once the band had a (somewhat) permanent lineup, Fanfarlo self-issued a series of EPs, singles and albums while racking up tour dates on both sides of the Atlantic. Fanfarlo's songs have been featured in everything from an episode of Grey's Anatomy to The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
Still the band members' lives consist largely of reading, communal dinners and occasional retreats into the Welsh countryside, which is where Let's Go Extinct was recorded.
"We put ourselves in isolation," says Balthazar. "I think that's when your art really blooms. ... You need to be in that bubble and not care what the world thinks to get a sense of how you [as an artist] really think."