Rock’s New Everyman Sam Fender Blasts Off

Ahead of a sprawling tour, the 25-year-old Geordie talks God camp and the state of England.

The everyman-turned-rockstar construct has been showing its age in the U.S.—not because its patron saint, Bruce Springsteen, turned 70 this week, but because the blue-collar values that Springsteen-types once represented have been all but co-opted by an increasingly alienated, right-wing political base. But this is why we (Americans) can’t have nice things (relatable heartthrobs who sing about their emotions). Thankfully, other nations are producing rockstars in the mold of the Boss—like Sam Fender, whose guitar-heavy tunes and industrial roots in North East England (where he still resides) recall an earlier era of stadium-filling rock. 

And while Fender proudly identifies as a “Geordie”—that is, someone from the region that inspired Geordie Shore, the U.K.’s 2011 Jersey Shore spinoff—his music is anything but provincial; on his debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, which yesterday hit #1 on the U.K. charts, Fender confronts the personal and political with equal, guileless candor (see: “White Privilege,” in which he reckons with, well, his white privilege). 

Starting today, Fender’s world tour will test his stadium-rock mettle. What to expect, other than walls of doe-eyed fans from Denver to Amsterdam? (U.K. tickets have sold out.) If his conversation with VMAN is any indication, the 25-year-old’s tour will be part guitar-fueled-catharsis, part myth-making-odyssey. Here, Fender talks about his quote-unquote normal upbringing—from battling illness as a youngster to being a church-camp vandal.   

VMAN You describe your debut album Hypersonic Missiles as “embryonic.” What do you mean by that? 

Sam Fender It’s very much about my journey from when I was 18 and 19, up to 24. It’s a classic debut, in that it doesn’t have one set theme or one sort of sonic [quality], because it’s a lot of years and sounds that have come together.    

VMAN Was there anything that propelled you into that phase of songwriting, when you were around 18?

SF I started writing when I was about 14; I have just always loved doing it. But there were a few things, like getting ill when I was 20. That changed my perspective on life a lot, to be honest—a brush with mortality at 20 years old. Before that, I tried to write songs that I thought would do well, as opposed to writing for myself. I think that’s what happened. This album is full of songs that I wrote after that period.

VMAN If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of illness did you have? 

Sam Fender (photo: Jackson Whitefield)

SF I am going to keep that to myself for now, but I will talk about it another time. Just because, at the moment, I’d rather sell an album based on being a musician rather than the basis of being a sick kid. 

VMAN Your sound is reminiscent of a style of rock that goes back to the late 80s, early 90s; you have likely heard comparisons to that classic, Springsteen vibe. Are you consciously harking back to a certain style? 

SF I have never consciously gone, oh I am going to go against the grain or try to be different. Because I am not really different. It’s all just a regurgitation of stuff that happened in the past, just in my own words. 

VMAN You’ve mentioned that current events or social issues are present in your work, but you are not overly involved. Can you elaborate on that? 

SF I think when I first started writing, I was writing about [certain themes] that not a lot of other rock bands were writing about. But nowadays, so many mainstream bands are becoming more politically active—which is fucking amazing. Because I am not that politically literate, to be honest. I am not that clever. It’s quite refreshing to see [musicians like] Matt Healy from The 1975, who is getting mega political now, or Fontaines D.C., an Irish band that’s quite ahead of the game. So I find it really humbling to be a part of this time in music.

VMAN What sorts of issues are you glad to see being addressed?

SF I feel like because of leaders like Boris Johnson in the U.K. and Trump in America, it has given more right-wing people a soap box to stand on and therefore there is a big push to the right essentially. In the U.K. we’ve got older generations who have vote for us to leave the EU, and I can’t see any other reason for [that] other than that you just don’t like immigrants being in your country. There’s no justifiable, good reason, and there’s not one positive thing that has come of it so far. 

The powers that be are ignoring the fact that the world in a particularly dire situation when it comes to the environment and the economy. I feel like that is being ignored. But I [also] feel like the younger generation—younger than me, and I’m 25—are probably a hell of a lot more intelligent than me and my generation. I am like, fuck, I wasn’t half as clever as these kids when I was 16. There’s this wave of incredible minds being born out of necessity. I’m just a person with a guitar—I am just going to play my songs. 

VMAN Is there a song on the album that you [were] most excited to share with people? 

SF I [was] most excited to share “The Borders,” and a song called “White Privilege,” as well. Privilege a hard thing [to reckon with] because you become so numb to [it], when you have it. You become unaware and ignorant. So that song was about my moment of realization [around that].

VMAN Another track that might seem like a reckoning is “Play God.” Does the title refer to a religious upbringing? Were you raised religious?

SF It’s actually not [about that]—it’s about the concept of governmental powers being above the playing god with the world—essentially like 1984 by George Orwell. But all of my family is very religious, on my mother’s side. I went to God gamp when I was 16. 

VMAN What was “God camp” like? 

SF It fucking sucked [laughs]. My aunt and my uncle were camp leaders there, [but I still] nearly got kicked out like three times. I just fucking hated the place, and was causing loads of trouble. I and another camper once got absolutely fucking bollicked, and drew a pentagram with this strawberry lube [laughs]. They were like, “Help, someone has brought lube into the Pentecost and drew a satanic symbol!” Yeah, it was pretty funny…

VMAN You’re about to go on tour. What are you most looking forward to about that?

SF Seeing the fans! My shows are getting bigger, and it’s always exciting to play for bigger crowds. But mostly I’m excited to do what I do best, and just go mental every night. 

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