British Pop Star Sam Fender on ‘Bonkers’ Experience of Playing U.K.’s First Major Socially Distanced Gigs

Fender admit he had hesitations about playing "the biggest human cattle market" but ultimately found the shows thrilling. And he had some words for Piers Morgan, who called the concept "“sooooo weird."

Sam Fender ahead of his concert

British music star Sam Fender found quite a platform when he played sold-out, back-to-back shows at the Virgin Money Unity Arena, a pop-up venue in Gosforth Park, Newcastle. He found 500 platforms, in fact. The outdoor shows had fans gathering in groups of five in that many elevated pens, for a total capacity of 2,500 on the massive field each night. Jealous American music fans looked at photos and news coverage of the event, which was judged to be a happy, beer-soaked success, and asked: Why not here?

“Why not here” is also a question Fender’s U.S. handlers are no doubt asking, as they hope Fender will follow in, say, Lewis Capaldi’s footsteps in becoming a cross-Atlantic sensation. That may wait until his sophomore album, which he’s been using quarantine time to work on, rather than his current one, “Hypersonic Missiles,” which entered the U.K. albums chart at No. 1 last fall, following his already having won the Brit Award’ critics’ choice award in 2018 on the strength of a debut EP. It’s hardly difficult to imagine his appeal being a pond-crossing thing, and the media attention he’s gotten for the socially distanced shows in his home region has certainly given him… a platform.

Fender spoke with Variety about the attention-getting gigs — which he calls “bonkers” — and how his year has differed, in bad ways and good, than the 2020 he anticipated.

VARIETY: Not just the U.K.’s but the world’s attention fell upon you this past week as the result of being, maybe, a canary in the coal mine, or whatever metaphor we use.

FENDER: Well, I’m from a town of coal miners. That was our industry back in the ‘80s. So, I’ll happily be the canary in the coal mine. I had a little sense of pride when you said that!

And, to use another metaphor, you got to be the trial balloon for Van Morrison and some other stars who will appearing in that same makeshift venue you inaugurated.

I will happily be the trial for Van f—ing Morrison any day. That’s an honor in itself.

Toward the beginning of the year, you made some statements in your interviews that now seem prophetic or filled with portent. You said, “It’s a big year ahead — mental things are coming.” This should counts as a mental thing, foreseen or unforeseen. The other thing that sticks out is you talking about how you’d had to cancel gigs at the end of 2019 because you’d been ill and your immune system was “s—.” You were maybe the only star talking about immune systems at the beginning of 2020.

It wasn’t a good year for somebody with a compromised immune system. [Laughs.] But I’m good now. To be able to play the last two shows was such a f—ing honor, and the fact that Newcastle and the Northeast region were the trailblazers on this one, and hopefully this model can go all over the world, I’m really proud of that. Just to be back with the crew and back with my band was really cathartic, and really good for the head. Because I think a lot of people have suffered during this lockdown mentally as well as financially. It was almost like a break from reality, which was fantastic. So, yeah, I’m in a good place today.

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Sam Fender on stage at the Virgin Money Unity Arena, a pop-up venue in Gosforth Park, Newcastle. Fans in groups of up to five people are watching the show from 500 separate raised metal platforms. AP

When the idea of these shows was raised to you, were you like, “Yeah, hometown show, trailblazing — I’m totally in,” or was there a moment’s hesitation for any reason?

I was like, “Of course I’ll do it. I don’t care what capacity we will do this in, in what format. I want to be on a stage with my band playing to some people.” Because I want my job back! I think everyone wants their job back.

But obviously I was skeptical. It was like playing in front of the biggest human cattle market. But it was fantastic. Of course it’s not going to have the same vibe as a gig where there’s a mosh pit and then people having to go to the emergency room. There weren’t as many pints flying around and flags and crazy stuff. But when we went on stage, there were two and a half thousand people singing the songs back to us. The drinks were flowing. The classic British weather came in with a nice rain. It was fantastic. It was a show. And that’s what we need. I think we’ve proven that it can successfully work, and we have at least some format in which we can enjoy live music as punters and as artists to tide us over until we get out of this parallel universe that we live in, this weird nightmare. It’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

Do 2,500 people sound like 2,500 people, whether they’re spread out across incredibly wide aisles or not?

This is the thing I (worried about), yeah. I thought, yeah, so there’s two and a half thousand people in a 30,000-capacity. space This is going to be probably really quiet. But I think they made up for the space with all the pent-up frustration of lockdown. You could hear it in their voices. You could hear people were gasping for the communal spirit of being galvanized by the beautiful sonics of live music. You could feel that in the air, man — people were dying for it. And them two and a half thousand people might as well have been 20,000, the way they were screaming. It was fantastic.

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Sam Fender on stage at the Virgin Money Unity Arena, a pop-up venue in Gosforth Park, Newcastle. Fans in groups of up to five people are watching the show from 500 separate raised metal platforms AP

Had you followed the recent history of what was happening with people trying to do shows, especially in America? We’ve had like a lot of drive-in shows with people who were supposed to stay in or around their cars.

I saw a video of a live car show, and it was just people beeping their horns for like two hours. I was like, that can’t be good! So I haven’t followed loads of it, because I think I was quite pessimistic about the whole lockdown. It didn’t affect me very well, so I kind of went into my little bubble and into my shell. Plus I was (skittish) for a bit as well because we didn’t know what the (situation) would be with my health issue. So for a while I just sort of stayed in the house and played PlayStation and ate chicken burgers for about two months straight. Which didn’t do well on the old lockdown (psyche).

As far as your immune system after being ill, did you feel like you’re finally over the hump with all that, that you felt comfortable with the idea of playing live when the time came?

I’ve been fine so far, and they’re saying, “You’re still a young guy, you’ve got youth on your side. All your vital signs are normal.” My vitamin levels and things are all good. So to quote Fontaines D.C., one of my favorite bands from Ireland, “Don’t sacrifice your life for your health.” [Laughs.] That’s the most Irish thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

On the second night you performed this week, you had some words for Piers Morgan. [Fender said “F— Piers Morgan” as he took the stage, after the talk show host tweeted that he thought photos of the first night looked “sooooo weird.”]

Oh, God.

It sounds like he was a little bit apologetic after you said what you said, like he was trying to tell people he hadn’t meant his remarks to sound derogatory.

Yeah. I had heard that he basically slagged off the idea of it, and I just felt, for Christ’s sake, man, for somebody who’s been preaching social distancing and staying safe, I thought he would be behind it. So it just annoyed me that somebody who’s been so vocal about this pandemic and so vocal about people remaining safe and remaining distanced, to then be negative about it — it just wound me up. Whatever. It is what it is. I’m sure Piers Morgan isn’t too upset about me talking about him, because he’s not shy of being controversial and he’s not shy of getting into spats with people. I’m sure he loved it, really.

With the year you’ve had, you were supposed to be doing an arena tour. And you’d already delayed touring twice. So your mind probably boggled at the thought that no one would be touring, after you’d already delayed yours twice.

It was a nightmare. Just before lockdown, we had a sold-out arena tour with a show with like 90,000 people in England, the biggest shows we’ve ever played. And we were going to move to New York for three months and do the second record in Electric Lady, in Jimi Hendrix’s studio. I was going to live out my dream: I was going to be 26 in New York, recording my second record. It was such a kick in the teeth to have to sit in my house for months on end and play PlayStation when I had all them things lined up. But it’s just the nature of the pandemic. We’ve just got to crack on and stick on it and just do my thing until this is over.

Were you looking forward to coming to America because you hoped to tour here and cross over as a star here? Or was it more about just recording here and worrying about the rest later?

For either the second or the third (album), I’m going to try and crack America. Because I love spending time there. I’ve got good friends there. I wanted to record in New York because obviously musically a lot of my (favorite artists) are from there or started there, or in New Jersey. I’m a big Springsteen fan… A lot of my favorite artists come from that neck of the woods, and I wanted to go over there and kind of just get a feel for the place. And every time I’ve been there, I’ve always loved my experience there. People in New York remind me of people in Newcastle – we’re quite loud mouthed, quite a similar sort of “No bulls—” sort of attitude. … My dad played me thousands of artists from America. I grew up on a lot of old soul musicians. And Canadian artists as well, like Joni Mitchell. I just fancied (coming) to the other side of the pond. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that one day. But I’m happy to do it for the third album.

I want to be somewhere else to kind of have something else to write about, some other experiences. ‘m very lucky to have been in the situation of being able to tour other places. I want to utilize that as much as I possibly can and have as many experiences that I can look back on when I’m old and dithering, an old bloke in the back of the bar sipping my beer and talking to my grandkids. “Your old pops spent time out in New York when he was a young man.” It’ll be total bollocks.

Are you well underway on the second album?

Yeah, I’ve got about 40 songs to record. And I’m constantly in a war with myself sonically, because I’ve kind of written an album which is really, really cohesive and beautiful, and that is a lot more introspective and a lot more personal than the first record. It genuinely just has more continuity. The first record was essentially a hodgepodge of material that I’d written over the course of five years. Some of the songs on “Hypersonic Missiles” were written when I was 19. This for me almost feels like my first record, because it’s songs that I actually wrote within the time that I’m playing them, if that makes sense. But at the same time, I’ve (since) written a load of really pretty, sort of stripped-back stuff. … So it’s just trying to figure out what I’m going to do. Do I just mash it all together and make some crazy album with so many different f—ing angles on it? Or do I release an EP and release an album separately? I don’t know. I’m just still in that process.

You brought up Springsteen being a hero of yours, and you’ve mentioned him a lot before. When you’re playing in kind of a large-scale setting like the one you just did in Newcastle, do you ever think, “What would Bruce Springsteen do?”

When I last saw Springsteen in Manchester, I felt like I knew the guy, I guess because I know all his songs as well. But I feel like  he talks to people as if he’s one of them, and I think that’s important, especially at home. It’s easy for me to speak to Geordies, people from Newcastle, because obviously they’re my people. And I like to sort of treat it like some sort of really, really, really big party, that I’m the kind of nervous host of.

But I think Springsteen also just chucks a load of “one, two, three, fours” in, and that kind of riles everyone up. It seems to work every f—ing time. So I chucked a couple of “one, two, three, fours” in the other day. It felt pretty empowering. [Laughs.] I think if you’re having a good time and if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, that resonates with people. I think people see that you appreciate your job. I mean, I think Springsteen appreciates his job more than anybody. The guy plays for f—ing three and a half hours. So I think it’s about showing how much you care, and that makes them care a lot more. I think people can read that and can see exactly how you’re feeling when you’re on stage.

I just try to always be grateful, and try to always sort of appreciate the moment and live in that moment when I’m on stage. Because I don’t know when a f—ing pandemic is going to come around and you’re not going to be able to gig again for another 20 years.

It sounds like the crowd was really grateful — or the two crowds, we should say.

Yeah, they were fantastic.

We can imagine the thrill of being there for them. 

Well, if you want to sort one out for L.A., I’ll come over! [Laughs.]

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Sam Fender plays first socially-distanced gig in Newcastle. People during the Sam Fender concert at the Virgin Money Unity Arena, a pop-up venue in Gosforth Park, Newcastle. Fans in groups of up to five people are watching the show from 500 separate raised metal platforms AP