Life is a cabaret, or so the song goes. However, when A New International’s frontman Biff Smith was asked to write for a death-themed play, he leapt at the chance.
The Dark Carnival stageshow was an immediate attraction to Smith, despite having never done anything like this before. Matthew Lenton, of theatre company Vanishing Point, sounded out the band, who quickly responded. “I even had a question of my own,” Smith smiles: “When can we start?”
The show’s sellout runs in Edinburgh and Glasgow have already finished, though the full houses presumably mean a return to the stage is likely. But for now, the band have released the soundtrack to the epic.
As Smith reveals, he started pretty much from scratch. “I had one song – ‘Up The Lonely Stairs’ – languishing in the miscellaneous file – I know how it feels!” he laughs. “All the others were written for the show”.
Fortunately, the rest of A New International were on hand to assist in the arrangements which encompass violin and brass as well as the standard ‘rock’ guitars and drums setup. “I write the songs,” Smith says. “After that, I need all the help I can get to play them.”
Anyone already having seen the play will realise that the album works in its own right, not just telling the tale of a band of musicians cast into theunderworld.
“We wanted the album to work as an enjoyable experience on its own, independent of the show,” Smith recounts, and indeed the album’s track listing shuffles what listeners mayrecall from the theatre version.
Listeners of a certain age and disposition will recall Smith’s previous band The Starlets, who largely form A New International.
“We called ourselves that as we wanted to sound like one of the ’60s girl groups – The Shirelles, Ronettes, Shangri-Las... it occurred to me that A New International was a far better name for the sound we were making than ‘The Starlets’ and that we should have the courage to start again.”
Watching Biff and co. as the “cabaret band from hell” it does seem that their role came very naturally. “I’m fascinated by the Weimar-era cabaret and the more melodic writers of that world such as Kurt Weill,” says Smith. “There’s always been theatricality to our music but The Dark Carnival felt like a license to explore – or indulge! – our more extravagant tendencies.
“I knew the show was set in a graveyard – above and below ground – and featured a cast of lively corpses, jolly gravediggers, bungling ghostbusters and drunken angels. I felt like my job was to explore this world freely and report back to the audience with my findings. What an extraordinary privilege. It’s not everyday we are invited to run wild in the underworld.”
This however wasn’t Smith’s first introduction to the world of theatre, having worked with Cumbernauld Youth Theatre in his younger years.
“Oh, and I landed the role of First Shepherd in the P1 nativity,” he adds. “I started off as Second Shepherd but was quickly upgraded because the guy in front of me kept dropping the lantern.”
But with the band’s theatrical reputation rising, could they be tempted to return to the underworld?
“I am open to offers,” agrees the singer. “The more unlikely and ludicrous, the better.”
‘The Dark Carnival’ is out now.
More at www.anewinternational.com.