The story of Ten Fé is a love story, of sorts. For the songwriters at the centre of it – Ben Moorhouse and Leo Duncan – the band is the eventual realisation of two respective careers spent navigating the bumpy terrain of the music industry. Both have been in bands before, some successful, some less so, until in each-other they finally found a musical partnership built on a deeper understanding. As they prepare to release their second album, the pair are reflecting on where they’re at and how they’ve got there.
Leo is from the Black Country. He grew up in Walsall, an industrial town north-west of Birmingham – a place regularly voted “the armpit of England”, he adds, beaming with pride. He describes his household as “Catholic-socialist”, all about inclusion, and steeped in a tradition of folk singing passed down through his Irish family. Ben on the other hand, originally from East London, found his musical feet in school – picking up a guitar, and moving through Britpop into psychedelia and then jazz as he progressed through his teenage years. Separated by 150 miles, the pair both spent their formative years writing songs and playing shows. On leaving school Ben made for the Royal Academy of Music, where he focused on jazz guitar. Leo spent a brief spell in London, before crossing the Irish Sea for Dublin from where his family hail originally, to try and earn a living from music there.
Their first meeting came about in 2005 through a mutual friend who was also studying at the RAM. “It was a musician’s party,” Ben remembers. “People were jamming and we started playing an old rock and roll song on stage together.” While this meeting left an impression on them both, it wasn’t until 2008, while Ben was beginning to enjoy success playing bass in indie outfit Golden Silvers, that the pair reconnected and decided to try their luck busking as a duo. It’s a decision that has come to define their relationship. During the past decade the pair have spent countless hours crammed onto the District Line during rush hour, dodging the police; being handed punches, £50 notes and everything in between. As respective bands came and went, the nights spent living under the city’s fingernails, trying to make ends meet, remained a constant. In this respect, busking is integral to understanding Ten Fé: who they are and where they’ve come from. “There’s a sense of the trenches,” Leo explains. “That’s how this band was formed.”
In 2012 Ben joined Leo’s then band Real Fur, and it wasn’t long before the two of them began hanging around after rehearsals, trying out songs they’d been writing that didn’t fit their current outfit. They spend hours listening to the Cure, watching old videos of Springsteen live on Youtube, both burning with a desire to write a simpler sort of song. “We hadn’t purposely set out to start a new band,” Ben stresses, “but it became something different of its own accord.”
“It was a bit like being married and having an affair,” Leo agrees with a grin.
It didn’t take long for the affair to consume the marriage, and the pair went it alone, initially as Santa Fe, then just Fé, until finally settling on Ten Fé. Between busking and tutoring nascent musicians, they wrote songs in each-other’s bedrooms, and eventually in 2015 started releasing music. After relocating to the thriving artistic streets of Berlin to begin work on an LP, their debut album Hit the Light arrived in early-2017. Perhaps indicative of the 15-plus-years they’d spent working towards this point, it was a record of stadium-sized ambition. Anthems such as “Elodie”, or the pounding psychedelia of “Twist Your Arm”, demonstrated the pair’s near faultless understanding of the pop song – songs in turn sent stratospheric by M83 producer Ewan Pearson. It was a statement of intent Leo puts down to the “explosion of relief” that they were finally working with each-other. “We wanted to celebrate that.”
Hit the Light received widespread acclaim, with comparisons to Britain’s Madchester scene of the late 80s and early 90s and Springsteen-esque Americana. It struck a chord, enjoying in excess of 30 million streams on Spotify and inspiring sold out shows in the UK, America, and Europe. An EP of remixes that followed soon after, featuring reworks from electronic heavyweights like UNKLE, Roman Flügel, and Lindstrom, further showcased the diversity and malleability of the duo’s songs.
Playing the record live meant finding a band, and while the duo initially backed the idea of touring with session musicians, they quickly realised they needed to be surrounded by people as passionate about Ten Fé as they were. First they called on Rob Shipley to play bass, a childhood friend of Leo’s from Walsall. He was soon joined by another old school friend, Johnny Drain, on keys and the complement was completed by Alex Hammond, also from the Midlands, on drums. Far from being background musicians, the expanded Ten Fé family have become the band, allowing Ben and Leo to fully realise their songs surrounded by musicians they trust implicitly. It’s a lineup that also leaves Ben as the only Southerner in the unit, although Leo is quick to confirm he’s been sworn in as an “honorary Brummie”.
The pair felt a renewed confidence when it came to writing a follow-up. They set up shop in a vacant driving licence office in Walthamstow. Rented as part of a Guardian Scheme, the unconventional headquarters quickly became the site of all sorts of unexpected and unruly behaviour. Leo remembers vividly writing new material behind a one-way pane of reflective glass that faced the building’s car park, which allowed the band to observe the comings and goings of questionable characters who gathered there, day and night. “It was surreal,” Leo nods, “but it was totally our space.”
Writing sessions were fruitful but it took time to produce anything of the standard Ben and Leo had set themselves. Then, like a bolt from the blue, in the space of a month they wrote half the album: “No Night Lasts Forever”, “Not Tonight”, “Isn’t Ever a Day”, “Won’t Happen”, “Caught on the Inside” and “Echo Park”. Along with the rest of the band, they took their collection of songs to Oslo where they worked with producer Cristian Engfelt on the bulk of the collection, before returning to work with London-based Luke Smith (Foals, Depeche Mode, Petite Noir, Anna of the North) to complete it as a duo. Finding a sweet spot somewhere between the woozy drawl of War on Drugs and the taut melodrama of Fleetwood Mac, they focused their sound into something distinctly Ten Fé.
The resultant record is a poignant, uplifting meditation on everything that’s brought them to this point, and all they’ve left behind in getting there. An early standout, “Won’t Happen” bounces with a lithe groove that disguises a resigned, almost bitter edge, where “No Night Lasts Forever” finds pop perfection in altogether more dreamy territory, carrying longing and optimism in equal measure on a wave of blushing synths. “We had a big debate about whether that’s an optimistic or a pessimistic statement,” Leo laughs, when discussing the latter song’s title. It’s impossible to miss the sting of regret and passing time that colours tracks like “Not Tonight” and “Isn’t Ever a Day”, yet their ear for an infectious melody elevates the sentiment above ever feeling morose.
Take “Superrich”, a gently purring slice of pop that on a cursory first-listen seems laced with political imagery, yet in fact masks a melancholic reflection on being careful what you wish for. In fact, Leo considers the song’s refrain – “Heaven ain’t the place you thought it would be” – as emblematic of the entire record. “I didn’t think the first time we would be on Radio 1 I’d still be busking on the District line. That’s what ‘Superrich’ and the album is all about.”
As with their first album, the duo share vocal duties 50/50 – a split that reflects their division of labour as songwriters. “We never sit down with a blank piece of paper,” Leo explains. “It’s always: show me yours and I’ll show you mine. To me that’s true collaboration.” This exchange of ideas is embodied perfectly in single “Not Tonight”, which was written by Ben. The pair knew they were onto a winner with the song, but it took time to draw the lyrics out. They worked on it almost every day for two months, line by line, word by word, until they got it right. “There are about three unreleased versions of that song,” Ben adds, smiling.
What their second album adds up to is a record about time – the time it takes, the time you’ll never get back, and the times still to come – from a band with a deep appreciation of taking the rough with the smooth. From avoiding major labels, calling on their closest friends to join the band, to recording in the belly of an abandoned office in Walthamstow, the journey to its completion has been about stripping away the distractions and being truthful to themselves. “I think we realised that we need to be real about it,” Ben muses, reflecting on the path they’ve taken to making this album.
After everything, Ben and Leo have finally stopped chasing other people’s dreams and brought it back to a simple connection that is unique to the two of them. Translated into English, Ten Fé is the Spanish for “have faith”. The simple, two syllable motto is the perfect moniker for the pair of songwriters at its core – a band who’ve learnt to trust each-other, and know the rest will follow.For tour dates and more visit: www.tenfemusic.co.uk/