[Thanks to Sara Phillips for sending this interview.]
You’ve Been Framed by Peter Murphy
7 July 1999
The Frames DC Come Good.
Over the course of their turbulent ten-year career, The Frames DC have had a rough ride from the pundits. Up to now, in critical circles and celebrity squares, this combo have been paying for the sins of their distant past, continually branded as a failed experiment in welding Nick Drake-like pastoral vibes to fierce Pixies licks, with mixed results. But in fairness, even at their most long-haired and fiddlesticked, this band were as likely to draw on the desperate lust of Loudon Wainwright’s ‘Sleep With Me’ as Van Morrison’s ‘One Irish Rover’. Glen Hansard and cohorts may have long since moved on from the days of those early, searing Baggot Inn shows, but their detractors are still slinging mud that dates from the turn of the decade.
And while the band have always had trouble translating their kinetic chemistry onto tape, resulting in patchy albums, one can’t help but wonder if they haven’t received a raw deal, judged on the criteria of style, not content. Yes, their first album Another Love Song was all but strangled by Gil Norton’s taskmastery, but songs like ‘Before You Go’, ‘All Downhill From Here’ (written for Marianne Faithfull) and ‘Picture Of Love’ could hardly be denied.
“We’ve always been incredibly impressionable as a band”, is Hansard’s hindsight opinion. The Frames are holding court in a Temple Bar restaurant a couple of hours before they take to the stage in Vicar St. for what will be a gloriously ragged gig, and their singer is in typically effusive form. “We sort of realised that last year in the middle of recording the album”, he continues. “It kind of led to Binzer leaving the band. Everyone we meet, we’re like, ‘Oh, he’s a really nice guy’ or, ‘Oh, he’s on our side’, and last year we found the strength to go, ‘Fuck the guy who thinks he can make it sound good’. Everybody in the band knows how to record now, we’re all engineers.”
To a lesser extent, the band’s second album, 1994’s flawed but frequently brilliant Fitzcarraldo, also suffered from the musicians’ passivity, and the critics often dismissed it for possessing the very qualities they praised in Jeff Buckley’s Grace. And even though it seemed the band were gaining valuable ground on America’s east coast, their impetus was constantly interrupted by fluctuating line-ups, staggered release dates and changes of musical direction and management. On top of this, their strategy has often been unfathomable, resulting in vital songs like ‘Bye Bye Bouquet’ being omitted from albums in favour of so-so stuff like ‘Roger’, or demos that exceeded their CD counterparts in terms of raw energy being left in the vaults. Steve Albini’s willingness to re-record key tracks from Fitzcarraldo testified both to the strength of the material and the weakness of the recorded versions. And truth be told, The Frames DC in 1999 have much in common with Albini’s former clients The Dirty Three.
“Warren Ellis is the master of self-sacrifice, of walking on stage and throwing himself into these situations where he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and just dealing with it”, Glen observes when I mention the Oz band. “People are stunned by him, and all he’s doing is being honest, saying this is how I am right now in this moment. Because people are so used to seeing rehearsed music, when they’re met with real music, it cracks them open. Warren’s an artist, he talks loud and demands champagne and pizza in the middle of Leap at all hours of the morning, and you can’t scorn him cos he’s living in the moment. He’s the doctor, he’s the shaman. To me, that’s a real band, you’ve got somebody who’s allowed to go: Alright, I’m the frontliner, whatever I do, back me up”.
Indeed, speaking to Glen at last year’s Liss Ard happening, the singer remarked how a solo support set to the Dirty trio in Leap had a profound effect on his approach to the live experience, one that couldn’t but bleed into the band’s latest incarnation.
So now, at last, after one of the worst cases of mistaken identity in Irish rock ‘n roll, the tide is turning for The Frames DC, and they’ve finally delivered an album, Dance The Devil . . . , that bears out their long-squandered potential. The independent EP I Am The Magic Hand telegraphed the changes last February (the quintet worked out a Beck-like deal with ZTT whereby their more uncommercial material could come out under the Plateau imprint), but this third long-player unveils a new agenda, a kinship with the finest US underground acts, evoking Grandaddy on the kaleidoscopic swirl of ‘God Bless Mom’, or Pavement on logically enough ‘Pavement Tune’. And on stage, the band are now prone to the kind of envelope-pushing one would associate with some weird acoustic incarnation of The Birthday Party (whose Dead Joe they’ve been known to mangle for sport) or Tom Waits.
And at last, the Brit, if not Irish press are onside; Melody Maker recently acclaimed the latest opus as Mercury Rev meets dEUS meets Will Oldham, in heaven. Only much better. Album of the year, already! Not that their patronage amounts to a hill of beans, but it’s a useful indicator of the changing climate. Dance The Devil . . . is the record The Frames always vowed to make.
“It’s getting there”, Glen concedes. “The next one is, I think. One very valuable thing we learned in the making of it is that you don’t have to shout at people. And you’re taking a huge risk, because what you’re saying is, I’ll sing quietly and maybe people won’t hear me. And if you sort of withdraw and do it intimately . . . it’s the busker logic, it’s like, if you sing loud, people are gonna hear you and be captured by it, and it takes a long time to get out of that. And I think we’ve kinda learned as a band how to play less.”
The new album was recorded in a barn in rural France, at the suggestion of Steve Albini. Rates were lower than the cheapest in Dublin, and having used the in-house gear in his own Chicago studio for years, the Nirvana/Pixies producer reckoned it was the best on the continent. But the recording process took its toll: as Glen indicated several paragraphs ago, drummer Binzer departed two months into the sessions (he was replaced by veteran Dublin beatkeeper Dave Hingerty), and the band underwent more than one long, dark night in the hole.
But on the positive side, violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire was coming into his own, experimenting with wheezy old harmoniums, samples, kids toys, dictaphones and all manner of aural extraneousness, complementing Dave Odlum’s angular guitar lines. Tunes like ‘Star Star’ and ‘Rent Day Blues’ found the band juxtaposing pathos with wit, adopting a less bombastic, more human approach. The Frames DC were getting weird, and it suited them.
“This album was amazing for us to make because we were a lot less precious”, Glen recalls. “You actually found yourself sometimes wanting to take the microphones out into the street and record while the cars were goin by. I think home recording really turns you on to all that, because your little brother calls you in the middle of it, or the phone rings, and it’s just on the track, and you always end up loving that bit.”
However, even though the band felt they were doing their best work, they had a fight on their hands. Glen doggedly maintains that the version of the album initially submitted to ZTT was the definitive one, a dark, dank quagmire of a record. The contrast between those early sessions and the finished product is highlighted by the differing versions of ‘God Bless Mom’ on the EP and the album. The former is all Orpheus-in-the-underworld, a frankly creepy piece of work, the latter Trevor Horn-produced model more strident, more polished. This listener loves em both, but Glen still cherishes his tape of those early mixes.
“My whole level in France was, I don’t give a fuck, this album has to sound the way we want it”, he ruminates. “If we make another compromised album, we’re fucked, we might as well throw it there. And ironically, we did make a compromised album, but this time we won, we got the bigger stake of what we wanted on it. Because we never made any money for our record company, we didn’t have any decision-making power. That’s why I say our next album will probably be better. On this one we got away with a lot, thank fuck, but not as much as we’d like to.”
So why haven’t The Frames ever sold any records?
“Because we’ve never left this fuckin town! We’ve been outside Dublin for about 20 seconds in our whole career. A lot of that is our fault, because we’ve never decided as a band to go shack up in Australia or London or New York, but I think now we have the strength to do it.”
And is it harder to turn people’s heads now?
“We stopped trying to do that years ago”, the singer replies. “In the last year we’ve sort of gone, ‘We live here, and nothing in Dublin can become political for us’. If we were to spend our days hoping George Byrne would one day write a review . . . who cares?”
“There’s always a tendency when you’re in Dublin to get really cynical and bitter”, Colm chips in. “But for us, on a mental or psychological level, we all left about five years ago. We’ve nothing to prove here. It actually makes things much easier. ”
It’s a rare and quare thing: The Frames DC are one of the few Irish rock combos who can genuinely boast a strong fanbase after nearly a decade of misfires. But then, there have been nights when this writer thought the band might spontaneously combust from the sheer intensity they were putting out through songs like ‘Fitzcarraldo’ (and given the adversities they’ve had to face, one can understand why Hansard might empathise with Herzog s fanatical idealist). Here’s one ensemble that instinctively know how to go the extra mile on stage, perhaps the only act amongst their contemporaries who could feasibly make the transition from ale-house to arena. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that The Frames DC’s grass roots following has remained so steadfast it almost constitutes a religious cult.
“I actually see a turnover, it’s really interesting”, Glen muses. “You see people coming to your gigs for like, two years, and they’ll sort of move on and you’ll see them get into other stuff. It’s almost as if this is gonna sound really out there but if you take the analogy that you’re a kindergarten teacher. With any music that isn’t referring to cars and girls, when you get out of baby music, and you get these bands that somehow evoke something in you intellectually, or more importantly, spiritually, it has to be more than just playing in front of people. For us to validate what we do, it has to mean more than just showing up and entertaining them.”
“The Frames’ position is that we’re lost, lyrically and musically”, he elaborates. “You don’t really know where you are, you’re confused, and in a way that’s the first basis to relating to anyone who’s interested in anything spiritually, to say, ‘Something’s not right, it’s all a bit lost, and we’re all a bit mad’. For me, I listen to someone like dEUS or Captain Beefheart and it brings me to another place. And Captain Beefheart stays there, his job is to be there and try to figure out his own life. So, somehow you’re a rung in a ladder for somebody on the way to somewhere else. You’re not the be-all and end-all, and you’re not the destination, you’re a dweller on the threshold, and people are getting into other music through you.
“As well, our music’s kinda changed recently, and we found ourselves getting involved in a slightly different circle of musicians and bands in Dublin. Everybody in Dublin is going, ‘I don’t fit’, everybody’s paranoid about not belonging to some scene, and it makes you very free.”
Watching The Frames DC soundchecking a couple of months ago after not having witnessed them live for almost four years, this writer was immediately struck by a series of fundamental shifts. If, once below a time, the group resembled a bunch of hash street kids straight out of rock college, intent on cramming their tunes with more thrills, spills and bellyaches than was scientifically wise, then the ’99 version is a foxier model.
Before, the band’s rhythm section could clank and grind like two Robocops having unlubricated intercourse (“I think Fitzcarraldo was a lot like that, six individuals trying to play together, as opposed to one animal”), but here, the new boys at the back understand how to ooze. Joe Doyle, the group’s third bass player in eight years, favours feel over flash, as well as contributing off-centre backing vocals, and his partner Hingerty, the latest Frame, is close to Binzer’s equal in terms of athletic prowess, but less inhibited by the simpler figures demanded by the new songs. Judging by the hair-raising nature of their current live show, the players are clearly living by a new dictum: Everything Is Permitted, Nothing Is True.
“That’s exactly what it’s like for us playing gigs”, Glen responds. “That’s why it’s always been a great celebration, because for the past couple of years, whenever we play a gig, it’s like the messy room, anything can happen. You’re almost setting yourself up for a fall, you’re putting yourself up there and you don’t know what you’re gonna do next, but you deal with it, and it somehow allows the audience in. The audience is at least 50% of any gig that we do, and when we’ve got very few people there we can t be good. We can play well, but we can’t be good.”
So where do The Frames DC go from here?
“It’s always been a long term thing with us”, the singer concludes. “We just wanna make 20 records, getting better as they go along. I think, at one stage, everybody withdrew the amount of commitment to this band, and I think that’s a very important step that anyone has to make with their vocation. But then again, there’s always the fear with us, that as soon as anything goes right for us, we’re gonna split up. Because the only reason we’re together is in spite of what’s going on!”
Which is as fine a reason as any to be in a rock ‘n roll band. As long as life sucks and love stinks, The Frames DC will be with us. There’s a comforting thought.
Dance The Devil . . . is out now on ZTT.