Already four albums into their career and major stars in their native Australia and other parts of the world, the members of INXS were beginning to wonder if breakthrough success in the United States would ever come. Then came 1985’s Listen Like Thieves, a top 5 single in “What You Need,” and ascension to exalted pop music status all over the world.
35 years later, Andrew Farriss, the band’s keyboardist and one of its chief songwriters, often in tandem with singer Michael Hutchence, looks back on the creation of this masterpiece with great fondness, as he explained in an interview with American Songwriter. Farriss stated that the band, which also consisted at that time of his brothers Tim and Jon as well as Kirk Pengilly and Garry Gary Beers, started to really hit their stride when they began being truer to who they were.
“We started out as a pub band, but we kind of molded ourselves as hard rock so we didn’t starve,” Farriss says. “But the kind of music that we wanted to play wasn’t exactly that. We loved the early stuff that we recorded. But in the very early years of the band, we used to cover a lot of funk stuff. We had a really good feel for the groove thing.”
“Michael and I talked about that particular change that we made, moving into funk stuff. And we realized, why don’t we try to do that same, funky thing, but just make it tougher sounding? Take the funk thing and join it with rock more, so it’s really slamming. It’s not weak. It’s hard and it’s funky.”
Working with Nile Rodgers on the song “Original Sin” from 1984’s The Swing jump-started the process of returning them to their funky roots. But what really set the transformation in motion was when they hooked up with producer Chris Thomas. Farriss remembered the unlikely way that the producer approached them.
“I remember standing on stage at the Palladium in Los Angeles and there’s some dude walking around on stage and he wasn’t part of the crew. He half-smiled at me, and I just thought he was a nutter. At the end of the set, I’m like ‘Who’s that?’ Someone was like ‘That’s Chris Thomas.’ And I’m like ‘What was he doing walking around on stage?’”
“Chris came back and talked to us as a band. He said, ‘I’m just frustrated. I come on stage and watch you guys live and I listen to your records. I love the songs, but I’m not completely convinced that you’re tracking them properly. What I want you to do is bring all of your back-line gear that you use live, including your monitor system, into the studio. I want you to set up exactly like you play live. When we went into the control room and listened to what he was doing, suddenly there was this whole different animal coming from the speakers. He was recording us playing live. He wanted the bleed. He wanted things to run into each other. He wanted that sound. And I immediately recognized the warmth in the sound.”
Thomas was also instrumental in coaxing the band’s biggest hit to that point out of Hutchence and Andrew Farriss. “By the time we had come to the end of recording the album, we felt we had an album we could be really proud of and take out to the world,” Farriss remembers. “But Chris got Michael and I and pulled us aside and said, ‘This is a really, really good record that you’ve made, but it’s not good enough. You need a song that’s going to kick everyone in the ass, something special. You two go in that room over there. I’ll give you 48 hours and I’ll come back. I want to walk in the room and hear something really special.’”
“It was one of the defining moments of our career. It was my brother Tim who said, ‘Andrew’s got this groove thing. I really like it. Why don’t you work on that?’ Michael heard it and he liked it too. So we messed around with that. And that’s how ‘What You Need’ was born.”
Farriss said that his songwriting partnership with Hutchence was atypical in that they weren’t strumming acoustic guitars waiting for ideas to come. “Michael never played an instrument,” he explains. “His voice was the instrument. He wasn’t particularly lengthy with his lyrics. It was almost like Japanese haiku or something. He’d say a hell of a lot with very few words. I recognized that right from when we were kids. He read poets and philosophers, people like Hermann Hesse and Khalil Gibran. What he liked about my songwriting style was the quirky nature of what I did. I’d kind of shrug off worrying about whether anyone liked what I was doing. What I cared about was if I liked it. He knew my personality and how I worked.”
“We’d talk in abstract terms. Like what we do want to do next? Why are we doing this? What are we looking for? That was important. Because if we didn’t have the answer in the room while we were talking, we’d do some research and find the answer. In a weird way it made our writing partnership unique because we didn’t have any clichés.”
“This Time,” one of the other signature songs from Listen Like Thieves, was written solely by Andrew Farriss. “I had a bust-up in a relationship,” he remembers. “I was feeling tumultuous about it emotionally. And I was trying to suppress those feelings, which is a normal, immature male reaction. But I thought, you know what, the good thing about beginnings and endings of relationships is that it is the last time you have to go through that. Once it’s over, it’s over.”
Farriss explained that Listen Like Thieves, while successful in its own right, was also important for the way it set the stage for Kick, INXS’ 1987 follow-up which would spawn four Top Ten singles in America. “For us, it was a major shift in how did we everything,” he explains. “It’s a bit like when you go fishing. And you go out in your dinghy and you throw your line over the side. ‘Did you get any bites?’ ‘No, not really.’ ‘Should we move the boat?’ It was the same thing with Listen Like Thieves. It was like we suddenly moved the boat and we got bites.”
The lesson for other bands? Carve out your own path, even if it doesn’t make sense to anybody else. “You hear about bands being sequestered from the world,” Farriss muses. “For us, it was different. We worked in 52 countries. We were children of the world and absorbing all of those experiences. We were exposed to a lot of different cultures. And I think that had an effect on us. We’d hear people saying, ‘Oh you gotta do this for U.S. radio.’ And we were like, ‘Why?’ All six of us created this thing. It was only us that really ever understood what we were doing.”
INXS is set to release ‘Live Baby Live’ on DVD and Blu-Ray, if you are interested in learning more, click here.