The Frames Take Flight by Kim Porcelli
With the release of their fourth and finest album “For The Birds”, THE FRAMES have zoomed straight into the Irish top ten for the first time. Now, with critical acclaim ringing in their ears, and their glowing fanbase sensing that something special may be about to take place, they prepare to take the Green Energy Weekend by storm. Could it be their time has finally come? Interview: KIM PORCELLI. plus mainman GLEN HANSARD gives us a glimpse inside his private diary.
There is a song near the end of the Frames’ fourth and best album, For The Birds, entitled ‘Santa Maria,’ about the last and fever-haunted days of the painter Egon Schiele. A long, murmuring, tactile study of restraint, followed by even more restraint, followed by full-on, shocking catharsis and ecstatic release, it works as a tidy metaphor for the long history of this most familiar of Irish bands: from early hype and radio singles, through the major-label mill and out, miraculously intact, the other side; to their current incarnation as proud torch-carriers of independence and artistic integrity. Integrity, in the sense of decent behaviour in this most wicked of businesses; and integrity, in the sense of something that is able to withstand unthinkable force and pressure while remaining essentially unchanged.
As we accompany them for several dates of their national tour in support of For The Birds, it’s clear that the Frames are tougher, yes; wiser, yes – not to mention currently at the delicious zenith of their game as musicians. But, perhaps most satisfyingly, they appear essentially unchanged, while at the same time being closer than ever to the band they’ve always wanted to be. It’s been a long, difficult, lonely, expensive, soul-destroying, valley-of-death calibre of journey; but – and this might be a subtle trick of new Frames waiting-songs like ‘Santa Maria,’ or it might be the truth – it feels like something great is very, very much about to happen for this band. As if it’s just out of view, just beyond the fingertips. Just waiting for them to fly delightedly over and greet it, over the next horizon.
You can feel it.
Wexford. The Hotel Curracloe. Friday the 6th of April.
We’re in a room at the hotel where The Frames will later be playing. Everyone is tired and edgy about tonight’s gig, and we’re killing time. Glen Hansard is on one bed, staring with admiring fascination at a very odd sport on the television, which involves round objects being carefully flung down a runway of ice, while two attendants clear a path ahead of it with tiny brushes. What the hell is this?
“I dunno what it’s called,’”says Glen. “But I love it, I watch it all the time. It’s so complicated, and so strange. And so careful.” A glance over at him confirms that he is in earnest.
Dave Odlum, the Frames’ lead guitarist and road manager of this leg of the tour, knocks in. Dave spent the bus journey down to Wexford on his mobile while the others read and ate and slept, wherein he averted several minor disasters involving missed connections, tonight’s PA and a smallish road accident involving two overexcited newlyweds and the Frames’ right front bumper (don’t ask). Dave, it should also be noted, accepted a phone call today from For The Birds co-producer Craig Ward, on the topic of OK Computer producer John Leckie’s professed interest in working with them, the tone of his voice not altering an iota. Dave, who Glen later describes as ‘a man of incredible grace – a swan,’ and of whose staggeringly calm omnipotence we are now convinced, will know what this sport is called.
“Curling,” Dave says shortly.
“That’s it!” says Glen.
Into sport, then, Glen?
“No. I don’t follow it at all. And I never did any when I was a kid.” He considers. “Except long-distance running. I was pretty good at that.” Then he realises, and laughs. “I guess I still am.”
He still is. They all are.
Tonight’s Hotel Curracloe show – as reported in a previous Hot Press – is a good one, but is mostly admirable from a lion-taming perspective – especially as the lions in question fall squarely into one species or the other: the near-silent, bashful, seated ones (up the front), and the ones who have been drinking with a pool-shark rapidity that gives the lie to their underage status and Kurt Cobain T-shirts (propped loudly against the back bar). The semi-savage beasts are brought round via a combination of daredevil acts of bravery (several of the most quiet, intimate songs from For the Birds are rendered with an exceptional, eyes-closed, we-are-alone-in-this-room tenderness) – as well as excerpts from that Frames blessing/curse: their staggeringly popular back catalogue.
Playing Fitzcarraldo-era songs is not a lazy or pandering setlist choice: it’s strict Framesian policy to ‘make people comfortable,’ as Glen puts it later: to not be precious, to ask people what they want to hear, to balance pushing themselves as artists with making sure people go away happy. That said, most of tonight’s crowd are already singing along to the new songs. It should be noted that – at this point in their tour – For The Birds has been available to buy in the shops for exactly one week. It is nestled cosily in the Irish album charts at number six. Within seven days, it will have outsold both Dance the Devil and Fitzcarraldo, its two immediate predecessors.
So much for all that guff about the Frames being ‘essentially a Dublin band,’ then. But that’s not been strictly true for years, anyway. Upstairs, before tonight’s gig, Glen shows me something a fan has made for him: a paper token of some kind, wrapped with fabric and tied with ribbons, with a poetry fragment and a few good wishes written within. He professes amazement and gratefulness, and tells me how people present them with similar objects of affection all the time. Items like these, however, are not the only gifts with which the Frames are constantly presented.
London. Chicago. Prague. Berlin. Boston. Austin. Dublin. Cork. New York. Round the country, and round the planet, there exists a network of music-industry allies working on the Frames’ behalf, more often than not for free. These are people, it seems, who love their music, who have clocked the band’s absolute lack of pretence and industry bullshit to go with their talent, and who have responded by putting their money – and their time, and effort, and industry expertise – where their mouth is.
There’s Steve ‘In Utero’ Albini who lent his take-no-prisoners recording philosophy to Birds and Craig ‘dEUS’ Ward who helped produce. There’s the friend in Prague sorting out festival dates and distribution; the contacts in New York helping to get them signed; the musician friend in Boston arranging local media coverage; the college-radio broadcaster in Chicago who e-mailed this writer looking for places to read and disseminate more Frames coverage; the media people in various cities and towns dotted round the globe, who for some reason will do whatever is necessary. When speaking of these people, Glen constantly uses the word ‘heroism.’
But then it takes one to know one. Like finds like. In a week, we will watch the Frames deliberately dent the momentum of their own best show in several days – the second of two Kilkenny performances at Cleere’s – in order that some local musicians can get up and have what is, for them, the ineffable honour of sharing a stage with their favourite band. We will watch this, and we will consider how the Frames, over the course of this tour, constantly speak of their own successes in terms of what a good omen it is for the vibrancy of Ireland’s independent music culture as a whole. And then, upon seeing and remembering all this, we are forced to think of a band like JJ72, and their remarks to the effect that ‘nothing is going on in Dublin’… and we have to feel a tiny bit sorry for them, that – for all their current success in the UK – they have missed out, big style.
Dublin. Jump cut back, for a moment, to Dublin.
Estimating the impact of the Frames on music in the capital city these past ten years is a slippery thing, a question whose answer folds up upon itself out of sheer obviousness. They are, in a way, the twin smokestacks of Dublin music: a constant as the city has changed around them; rarely in the foreground, but known and beloved; and held closely dear, in a symbolic, fierce manner that has to do with an odd kind of Dublin civic pride.
That’s the wide-angle view, anyway. Zoom in, and you’re in the warm wood-panelled interior of Whelan’s, with freesheets and flyers crammed in the frosty window and half the musicians in Dublin at the bar; you’re in Simon’s Place in George’s Street, the whole city passing by, calling in; you’re in the wide streets and twisty side-alleys of the city, where the Frames have a street-level connection, a gorgeous holdover from a time when the city was more given over to such things, to accidental a pied meetings and plans laid in coffee houses, to surprise gigs in Simon’s (and, occasionally, in the streets themselves). More recently, you’re in the expansive, low-ceilinged cosiness of Vicar St., a venue designed not in order to give its owners optimum financial bang for their buck, but rather constructed with sensitivity toward audience engagement and music listening. And of course, as of a fortnight ago, you’re in the hallowed gilt-and-rococco walls of the Olympia.
What’s crucial to note is that this connection with street culture, as well as with what many of our Tiger-spawned arrivistes would consider the ‘old city’, has nothing to do with nostalgia or a withdrawal from the brave new world of credit cards, nice clothes and, bloody hell, a future. On the contrary. The Frames, if anything, are probably the most modern band in Dublin. They are business people, sussed, skilled and internet-savvy, with a more international contacts book than most people working in Irish major labels. They operate via the (very modern, for the music industry) twin ideas that, one, they are fully responsible for their own destiny; and, two, that it is a good and desirable thing to help others who are also on the way up. Viz the Frames-assisted rise of David Kitt; viz their ‘Star Star’ single of a few years ago giving its B-side over to a collection of tunes from the cream of Dublin musicians; viz the fact that most good things that have happened in Irish independent music over the last five years, has had some connection, however close or distant, with them. They understand that all this dosh sloshing around city and country equals more than ‘01 regs and eating well. It means choice. It means independence. It means freedom. And it hasn’t been smooth sailing, but they’ve sailed all the same.
Cork. The Lobby. The 7th of April. A Saturday afternoon.
Where Dance the Devil would have shouted – in rebellion, in defiance, a sparkling, exuberant, pop-tastic fire alight in its belly – For The Birds whispers, is plain, is naked, is basic, is brave. But, in the same manner as youthful bluster gives way to the much more deep still waters of experience and adulthood, this move towards what Hansard calls a much more ‘simple’ approach to songwriting, away from the primary colours of noise and pop adrenaline, actually has the happy result of making everything more complex. Their performance at the Lobby – an alcohol-free show in a tiny, high-ceilinged room – is where we begin to get the full picture of the extremes of light and shade this band have become capable of in the process of seeking this new simplicity.
From the languid, wordless tideline pull and ebb of opening track ‘In The Deep Shade,’ to the Midnight Cowboy wanderer’s optimism of ‘Lay Me Down,’ to the frowning Mercury Rev stomp of ‘Fighting On The Stairs,’ to the staggeringly direct love-declaration of ‘Headlong,’ which by rights should be a radio single if not for the fact that its shattering beauty would cause traffic to slow to a stunned halt in the streets… Well, they’ve come on a thousand miles from their early guitar heroism and even the craftier indie subtleties of Dance the Devil. They’ve still – very much so – got fire in their belly; but now, in counterpart, there’s also percussion as subtle and vital as your own pulse; a violin for whom near-silences and the papery noise of gut against string provide undiscovered countries’ worth of new colours and tones; and Glen’s voice, murmuring and cracking under the weight of its own tender revelations. “I’m feeling everything,” Glen whispers in ‘What Happens When The Heart Just Stops.’ “Nothing gets by.”
And we in the Lobby – holding our breaths through the long, long, heart-in-mouth tideswell crescendo of ‘Santa Maria,’ watching the band’s brave new colours unfurl – we feel everything as well; and as it rushes through us, exploding in that crucial moment into a thousand tiny filaments of noise and light, we can only look on, gobsmacked, mouths open, and wonder how this lot aren’t the biggest band in the world.
Kilkenny. Cleere’s. The 21st and 22nd of April. Saturday night, and Easter Sunday.
“When I was a kid, and anything went wrong,” Glen remembers as we sit upstairs in Cleere’s bed-and-breakfast after the first of two shows here, “I remember always being, like: It’s okay, I’m going to outlive this. I was signed to a publisher when I was eighteen – it was one of the worst publishing deals in history,” Glen says with a black-comic glee, “according to the solicitor who had a look at it later. And I remember thinking, The only way out of this, is to outlive this guy. And I did. He died, and the publishing came back to me. And it’s the same with Island, it’s the same with ZTT, or whoever else. I’ll keep fighting, and I’ll keep fighting, and I’ll keep fighting, and they’ll break.
“And this album has been a long time coming. And again, it’s just another chapter, in an ongoing story, that will continue to unfold. At the end of the day, it’s only music, and it’s only art, and it’s…” He trails off.
Strange sentence, that, I suggest. It’s only art.
“Yeah. Cos it’s my lifeblood,” Glen agrees instantly. ‘But I just don’t wanna ever become too absorbed in it.’
This makes me think of Hansard’s oft-stated idea of songwriting being craftsmanship, an egoless, honest trade, rather than art. It’s a humble idea, and one which it is easy to imagine a sussed and unprepossessing band the likes of the Frames ascribing to. Less easy to believe is this: as you watch this singer open himself up yet again this evening in Cleere’s, it’s difficult to imagine him any more absorbed in it. And when they plow a blazing path through the descending final crescendo of ‘Revelate’ later tonight, still afire after all these years, with its repeated final soul-demand, full-throated above the swirling din: ‘Redeem yourself… Redeem yourself… Redeem yourself…’ you have to wonder whether, at some level, it is he himself that the singer is addressing.
Glen Hansard left the Frames in December of 2000.
“We were in Amsterdam, and we were doing this festival,” Glen says, nearly inaudibly. “We had just come back from Steve [Albini]’s, we had just finished the record. And I left my band,” he says in the tones of a man admitting to abandoning his child in a field. “I left the band. I was at this gig, and I saw Low play, and I saw Dirty Three the same night, and I saw Tindersticks. And it wasn’t because I saw these bands, these bands really inspired me, actually. But I remember just coming away from the gig and just feeling really… really tired.
“We’d been kinda going for a long time, nonstop,” Glen says, “and I sorta felt – I remember sitting with Colm [Mac Con Iomaire, violinist] in the bar, and he was like: ‘Are you okay, man?’ And I just broke down. I said, ‘I really don’t think we’ve made a good record. I don’t think we should put it out.’ I got a genuine feeling that we had blown it. And to me, the greatest fear is that you’ll make something that’s substandard, and that you’ll think it’s great, and that everyone’ll go, Nah, it’s not. And I really felt that we had done that. And I was so frightened.
“And I just said to the lads, Look, I’m going home. I’m getting a job. You know? I’m not getting involved in this record. They’re good songs, but I’m not getting involved. I wanna go home, and just fucking get a job, and just forget about this music, it’s too emotionally – there’s too much weight involved in carrying this music.
“And then I went home, and I listened to it, and I thought, Oh my god, we’ve made the best record. Something clicked in me (snaps fingers) and I just thought: Be brave, Glen. This is your best record. Be brave. And I said to the lads, Right. I’m sorry. This is fucking great. Let’s do it.”
Easter Sunday. Cleere’s. A great set; a packed, sweaty, jizzed-up, exuberant house. Glen, triumphant and beaming, is about to hand the show over to two local blokes for a few songs, but not before winding up the Frames’ own set via a bludgeoning crash-landing segue from ‘Revelate’ into a jagged fragment of Sparklehorse. “YOU’RE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WIDOW IN TOWN!” he shrieks, as the band squall and bruise and blister around him.
“Em. It’s really appropriate that Glen just sang that bit of Sparklehorse there,” says one of the kids whom the Frames have invited up, as he steps gingerly before the mic. ‘“That’s a song called ‘You’re the Most Beautiful Widow In Town’. And we just wanted to say, that with all they’ve been through with the music industry and the record companies, and with such an amazing album, and…” he stumbles nervously, “…just how they’ve kept going, the Frames really are the most beautiful widow in town,” he finishes – and the audience, in reaction, go absolutely spare. “They’re an inspiration to all of us who are trying to do this,” the bloke carries on over the din. “We love them.” There follows tremendous, gut-wrenching, sustained applause and screaming. It’s an incredible moment: as if we, tonight in Cleere’s, are suddenly at the very epicentre of everything that has been worth fighting for in music, in artistry, in independence, over the last ten years. In a way, we are.
And indeed, the widow – brave, smiling, bruised but unbowed, face turned toward the future – has never looked so beautiful.
The Frames are the special guests of the Divine Comedy who play Dublin Castle on May 5th as part of the Green Energy festival. Appearing at Dublin Castle on the following evening are Travis, who are interviewed by Peter Murphy on page 76 of this issue.