[Thanks to Ross Thompson for sharing this article.]
HISTORY LESSONS: THE FRAMES by Ross Thompson
Originally printed in AU
Eight albums, multiple line-up changes, miles upon miles travelled across various continents and one very successful movie. The unfolding incarnations of The Frames have packed a substantial amount into their rambunctious career in spite of the fact that they were, and perhaps still are, not an easy fit. Record labels fail to see their potential, or appreciate just how fervent a following they have nurtured in Ireland and further afield. After their prodigal appearance at Electric Picnic, violinist and original member Colm Mac Con Iomaire talks about the bumpy path which led there and back again…
Once, John Carney’s keenly observed musical of sorts, was a success for many reasons, but the main one that it was true. Glen Hansard, the protagonist who was essentially playing himself, spent his formative years busking Dublin streets, not for the money, but for the music.
“Glen had got some money,” Colm says, his voice at once disarmingly warm, “I think his mother went to the bank manager for a loan for an extension which never happened, and he made a demo. Island records were interested and he put the band together from his busking friends. It was myself, Dave Odlum, Noreen O’Donnell, Binzer and John Carney, who was the precocious, up and coming bass player at the time.”
That demo transformed into Another Love Song (1991), a rollicking debut whose vim, vigour and youthful exuberance concealed the fact that this group of friends were making it up as they went along.
“It was ramshackle from the point of view of today’s standards where people go to rock school, or The X-Factor, where it’s all about presentation and polish. It was very much a learning curve for us and our first time in a professional studio. We were entering a world where other people were experts so we certainly didn’t know how to articulate our ideas that well.”
The wide-eyed joie de vivre didn’t last and playing footsie with industry hobnobs soon lost its lustre. The experience of “being ingloriously dropped by Island records” clearly still rankles.
“It was very much a poisoned chalice: we were the last band to be signed by Chris Blackwell on his last day in the office, so we were old luggage from the outset.”
Being offloaded from a major label would have rent most young bands asunder, but it made The Frames stronger and hungrier. “It was definitely something that needed to happen. It was a good kick in the teeth,” laughs Colm, “like having your heart broken for the first time.” The next album, Fitzcarraldo (1995), was an infinitely more troubled affair, the sound of hopeful, naive teens being kicked in the teeth, having their hearts broken. “Another Love Song is definitely the smiling innocent whereas Fitzcarraldo is the innocent after he has been mugged,” agrees Colm.
A fresh dose of recording galvanised the band, and an acclaimed video for Revelate, made using a post office security camera on a budget which wouldn’t even buy P Diddy’s shoelaces, attracted the attention of another big-hitter record label. Hungrier but not, by Colm’s own admission, any wiser, the band swallowed the lure all over again.
“ZTT offered us a deal, and having just got off one roundabout treadmill we foolishly went onto another one. It was completely the wrong direction.”
The worst thing, the real kick in the teeth – and a bad kick in the teeth at that – was that Fitzcarraldo was released twice. The album was re-embellished with drum loops, filters and nice, clean sounds which went against the home-made ethos which The Frames have always held dear.
“It wasn’t really about making the songs better from their perspective; it was about them owning their songs, about getting their hooks into them. It was quite a cynical operation where a record company was moving money from one pocket into another pocket through you. Record labels at the time liked to collect shiny things like follies, and we felt as if somebody had taken a fancy to us, but they had no vision or plan for us. But in the end we met our current manager Claire there, who went from gamekeeper to poacher as we like to remind her.”
A transitional period followed, during which the band worked on Dance The Devil (1999) and relations with the label dissolved irreparably, and in doing so they rekindled the spirit which had first inspired them to give up school and respectable jobs in favour of busking to fill a woolly hat up with pennies.
“What had happened over the course of Fitzcarraldo was that the live thing had picked up for us in Ireland. We started putting the money we made from gigs into making forays into east coast America. We had also invested our own equipment, so the label weren’t controlling our creative output like they used to. The independent side of it just took off. The label would flatly refuse to give us any money to America, so we would say, ‘fuck ye’ and go anyway. We were quite stubborn in that way.”
Arguably, this stubbornness might appear rather like obtuseness, an act of cutting off the nose to spite the face, but the intuitive will know that it is something much simpler: the truth.
“You have to keep yourself interested and stimulated. Ultimately, the aim is always to make a record you would want to buy yourself rather than make one for everybody else. The law was always to make something you thought was worthy.”
In the following years The Frames would buff and hone the independent formula which has become central to their approach. They would make For The Birds (2001) with Steve Albini (Colm: “It was definitely a high watermark. There was such a sense of relief of getting off a label and to have your life and music back in your own hands.”) and Burn The Maps (2004), records which favoured the leftfield over the mainstream.
“We bypassed the music industry. The independent model was our revenge on dealing with fuckwits and eejits who were being paid out of money from our records which we would never see. The key was to become wiser and not bitter. There was always a sense of incremental progress in everything we did, no matter how small. I think the redeeming continuum through all of this is that our gigs were always really rewarding.”
Most recently, several members of The Frames have provided the lifeblood of The Swell Season, Hansard’s project which originated in part due to the popularity of Once. This project has thrown the future of The Frames into question, but he is quick to point out that this “parallel universe” does not spell out the demise of the parent band.
“It has been a funny existence in that initially it started as Glen sheepishly asking, ‘Here, lads, would you mind sitting in on this tour?’. It was supposed to run for six months and here we are three years later. It’s about having the maturity to know that everything is in its own time and we’ll see what happens after. The Swell Season saved The Frames from having to call it a day. The best thing that could have happened to us was having a couple of years off.”
After such a lengthy absence one can understand why the band’s performance at Electric Picnic created so much speculation, positive or otherwise.
“The stakes were high for The Frames. You could hear the knives being sharpened – or rather, pencils being sharpened for obituaries. It was pleasantly surprising to find that the notes stayed in the body and that you we could play the songs. Electric Picnic certainly reignited our Frames passion again.”
The show, as it turned out, was spectacular, and reaffirmed the reason why The Frames are renowned as one of the business’s most compelling live acts. It was inspiring, cheering, vindicating.
“I remember getting my cards read in Dublin around 1996. They said that it was going to be another ten years before we had any success,” Colm says, laughing again. “It was very demoralising at the time, but I’ve had a great life up until now. When you talk about trevails and fights with the music industry, that’s only being a tiny aspect of hundreds of thousands of great gigs with great people getting loved up every night giving their energy. We’ve had a great run.”