“I don’t really feel like we are successful,” Natassja from Fickle Friends tells me as we sit in the rather grimy upstairs of the Bullingdon, with everybody gnawing away at cheese toasties. The band, from Brighton, have been spending the autumn touring the UK after a busy summer in Los Angeles recording their upcoming debut album. On a dark and rainy evening in Oxford—the band’s first headline show in the city—the prospect of sunny Los Angeles seems a million miles away.
In a country that so often feels cold, distant and uncaring, Fickle Friends’ music appears ostensibly to offer a glimpse of a brighter world. With an airy and upbeat sound, songs such as ‘Brookyln’ and ‘Say No More’ create an impression of carefreeness that contrasts tellingly with the high-octane Oxford environment. But Fickle Friends lure you into a false sense of security: atop the dreamy synths and guitars, the lyrics portray a tale of twenty-first century incompleteness. ‘Swim,’ the 2014 single which propelled the band through the blogosphere, tells a tale of endless irreversible drift—an uneasy and bittersweet sense of finality pervades the music.
A product of the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, the group first met over four years ago, but the band didn’t really begin until 2013. “We were really bad students,” I’m told, “because we were never there – they hated us.” It didn’t take long for the band to develop a loyal following, particularly after the release of ‘Swim’ and its immediate success online. The band’s ‘Inherent Vice’ aesthetic, similarly, arrived almost fully formed with the band, a combination of the group’s relaxed approach and bright, upbeat airs. There’s no overriding sense of mission here, just five Brighton millennials trying to articulate some of our generation’s angst.
The band took to the stage with fan-favourite ‘Say No More,’ the first of an hour-long set, with lead singer Natassja front and centre on stage. Though the vocals quickly hit soaring, summery heights, the night belonged to the keyboard, which particularly shone as the band moved on to ‘Cry Baby.’ Described as pop with a “slightly mental indie feel,” ‘Cry Baby’ offers a remarkably modern take on groove and pop; the synths, though clearly in charge, never become claustrophobic while the scattered beats give the audience an invitation to dance it cannot resist.
Just as the audience begins to appear in need of a break, Fickle Friends steps down a gear with ‘Paris.’ The band’s first single to move beyond playful summer energetics, ‘Paris’ provides just the breather for the moment. The vocals change direction, becoming soft and caressing, while the dreamy melody creates a sense of peace and serenity. As Natassja croons “give me everything you want to forget,” heartbeats seem to slow as the audience gently sways; the cry to “balance me out,” however, keeps the band’s existential incompleteness at the forefront of the music—even in moments of reflection, there’s self-actualisation to be done.
As the band acknowledged in the upstairs of the Bullingdon, after abandoning their cheese toasties, some songs can perfectly capture a band’s message. The group finish their set with ‘Swim,’ which the band re-released after signing with The 1975-producer Mike Crossey. The disco-tinged strut brings the audience to life, and there’s not a person to be seen with their arms crossed. It’s almost as if the bittersweet line “you are not alone” is the guiding principle of the evening. In that moment, the difficulties of life seem absorbed by the synthesiser, and the vocals evoke a seemingly unjustifiable optimism. As the song comes to a conclusion, it seems like the room is being dragged against its will back down to Earth: outside lies rainy Britain, not sunny LA, and the everyday pressures and challenges it brings. Everyone seems rather dismayed to have to return to their daily lives. The hour of respite provided by Fickle Friends’ indie pop, no matter how shallow, will not change the world, but will help make it a more tolerable place to live.