The Peoples’ Band by Peter Murphy
Photos by Mick Quinn
11 June 2003
(This is part 2. Here is part 1.)
The industry may not have always liked them but their fans couldn’t be more passionate. Ten members, four studio albums, three managers and two major labels later, The Frames still managed to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Peter Murphy, with help from Glen Hansard and other key players brings the story of the band up to date in this, the final part of our two-part special.
Former Frames tour manager Brian Spollen once told me he reckoned the point where The Frames’ early momentum started to falter was when they elected to change the working title of their debut album from the bravura of Live Forever to the more self-deprecating Another Love Song. Retrospect being the only exact science, it’s easy to post-mortemise on why the record didn’t make them superstars, but one factor was hiring veteran producer Gil Norton on the strength of his work with The Pixies on Doolittle when the sound they were actually looking for was the warts-and-all wallop Steve Albini achieved for Surfer Rosa. Either way, it soon became apparent that the producer/record company camp and The Frames were working to separate agendas. As well as haggling over song selection, Gil Norton and Island hired session players to rewrite Colm’s string parts, and on some songs, replace Dave Odlum with the guitarist from the Blue Aeroplanes.
“I remember during the recording of Another Love Song, there was a sense among us that something was wrong,” Glen Hansard says. “It was almost like Gil had been given a separate list of songs to record than we had intended to record. I remember actually having this conversation: ‘What about ‘15 Seafort Parade’? What about ‘The Wolf Song’? What about ‘Stamp My Name?’ Why aren’t we working on the songs that I really want to put on this record?’ And I remember the words back were, ‘Look, let’s record ‘Masquerade’, let’s record, ‘Live Forever’ and then we’ll decide.’ I think when they heard the wild energy of the band they thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got a pop/rock band on our hands.’
“And I’m my own worst enemy in that I had just got into The Pixies, it just happened. And I couldn’t play electric guitar then. So suddenly I was writing all these half songs, I mean if you listen to ‘Live Forever’, ‘Another Love Song’, they’d no lyrics. But those songs didn’t live. The only songs on that first record that stayed alive in my opinion were the songs that I really worked on like ‘Picture Of Love’ and ‘Before You Go’and ‘Telegraph Poles’ or ‘All Downhill From Here’, the songs that had really grown with me. That first record should’ve been a folk record. It got away from us because we weren’t confident enough in certain ways to go, ‘Look, these are my songs and I’m not doin’ this.’”
When Another Love Song was released in September 1991, it was neither a critical nor commercial success, with many die-hard fans finding it hard to reconcile the band’s live sound with a slickly recorded facsimile of it. That Nick Drake-meets-The Pixies tag looked well on paper, but it didn’t gel on tape. Worse, on the day of the album’s launch, disaster struck.
Glen: “We were on stage and basically Colm’s lung collapsed.”
Colm: “Actually it happened that afternoon, it was the day we were launching Another Love Song in The Project. I was in Casualty, and so I basically signed myself out of hospital, went and did the gig and then went back to the hospital afterwards. From then we were due to fly out to America and I couldn’t do any flying with the lung as it was, so, probably foolishly, the band stayed at home. Obviously at the time being a youngster the idea of the band going to America together for the first time, I would’ve been devastated had they gone without me, but still…”
Glen: “It was a funny thing, they were like, ‘Just get another fiddle player, we’ve just set this thing up, you’ve gotta come.’ And we really thought about it, it wasn’t just like, ‘Absolutely no we’re not going.’ We thought about different people, and then we thought, ‘No, you know what, we’re gonna stay here.’ And it was funny, ’cos The Cranberries went on tour instead of us, they had just been signed to Island, they went off on tour and… the rest is history.” (laughs)
Colm: ‘Bada-bing, bada-bong!”
Glen: “Yeah, it was funny.”
But it wasn’t funny for long. Island opted not to release the album in America, a natural target market for the band. Within a year, The Frames were dropped. The last days with Island went hard on Glen’s ego.
“Devastating,” he says now. “It was the worst. It was just so, so, so sad. The first time you’re ever dropped is definitely the hardest. It knocked my confidence for a loop completely. I was supposed to go to New York and meet all these professional songwriters and sit down with them and see if I could come up with anything, and they paid for me to go, I had to meet up with these guys and talk – I never did. I ended up spending all the time on my own, but I did come up with something, I came up with ‘Revelate’ and ‘Fitzcarraldo’and ‘Angel At My Table’. And they listened to the stuff and they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s good, we like it but… not really.’
“I was sitting in meetings in Island Records, man, where the guy took my album and threw it at me and said, ‘This is rubbish! What are you doing in my office with this? We don’t even want you on the label!’ You can imagine sitting there… the relationship wasn’t really gonna work out! And when they dropped us eventually, it was mad; they paid us a lump sum of money. We owed them something like 400 grand, I don’t know how it ended up happening, and they ended up giving us 10 or 15 as a sort of severance thing, and then dropped our debt.”
Dave: “The label had already picked up the option on the second record which meant they had to buy us out of the contract, which was really, really handy.”
Glen: “I remember saying, ‘You know you’ve done me wrong, you can see it, it’s there in black and white. And you know what? I’ll outlive Island Records.’ And I had this huge sense of, not spite or anger, but just like, let’s not fight about this because I’m gonna be doing this longer than you are.”
In the aftermath, Brian Spollen left the Frames organisation for a career as a promoter, while John Carney quit to become a film director (later masterminding the television series ‘Bachelor’s Walk’). The latter was replaced by Graham Downey, son of Thin Lizzy drummer Brian. Cementing the link, former Lizzy road manager and Pogues wrangler Frank Murray had taken over the band’s business affairs from Ronan Wilmot, reckoning ‘The Dancer’ was the best Irish single he’d heard since ‘Teenage Kicks’. Still, prospects seemed uncertain.
“We did a gig in the Baggot not long after John left the band and Brian left the situation,” says Dave Odlum, “and I remember it was really poorly attended. That was one of those real kind of, ‘Okay, we have to pick ourselves up’ (moments). I was a 22 year old father of a two year old, it was turbulent time for me, and for Glen, he’d just had a whirlwind two years of just being in a big movie, limousines all over the US and getting a record contract, a publishing contract, getting a band together, making his first demo, the whole bit, and then suddenly it’s like, everything stops, it’s like, what goes on now?’ We were smashed broke, we didn’t have money to eat; we were forever running up tabs in the Ormond for the sandwiches or whatever.’”
Glen: “Myself and Noreen walked home from rehearsals via North Strand and we’d look under bushes to see if we could find money because we literally had no bus fare and we would be able to get a bag of chips. We were so broke, but every penny of our dole went into band rehearsals. We were literally pumping all of The Frames’ money into The Ormond.”
It was a far cry from the days of squandering money through renting equipment they could’ve bought for less. At this point, Glen discovered the film ‘Fitzcarraldo’ by German director Werner Herzog, the story of a man intent on building an opera house in the South American jungle. The image of Klaus Kinski dragging a boat up a mountain while blasting Verdi at the natives struck a chord with the singer, who felt that getting The Frames back off the ground was an equally daunting task. He focused all of the fury and frustration of the previous year into the title track of The Frames’ second album, and probably their single greatest song.
“I saw the film one day after rehearsing,” he explains, “it was pretty soon after we were dropped, and my confidence was just so shattered, gutted, we didn’t know whether this was the end of our career. But because we were buskers there was this huge sense of, ‘The cops aren’t gonna stop us, Big Brother isn’t gonna shut us down.’ There was this sense of survival goin’ on within us. And ‘Fitzcarraldo’was really important to me because when I saw the film it just seemed to reflect the momentous amount of getting up off the ground that we had to do. And musically it was a step forward for us, that part in the middle where Colm and Dave were like: Da-da-da-da-da-da… this was like the best music we had written, as a band we were pushing the envelope.”
Colm: “It was a quantum leap.”
Glen: “We were beyond ourselves, way beyond ourselves.”
Bloodied but unbowed, the band held a summit with the Donals Dineen and Scannell, who convinced them to record, package and release one of their strongest new songs, ‘Revelate’, under their own steam. It was a top 10 Irish hit in 1995. Accompanied by a video that allegedly cost a fiver, recorded on the security system of a local post office, the resulting airplay on ‘No Disco’ further increased the band’s profile. The gigs in Whelan’s on Wexford Street – now theatrical, epic affairs – plus the input of friends and family provided them with funding for their second album.
Glen: “And just before we released Fitzcarraldo this major record label steamed into town and said, ‘We think you’re great, we love you, we won’t do what the last record label did, we’ll give you total freedom to do what you want,’ blah-blah-blah. And basically the decision among the members of the band was we should do this.”
The record company was Trevor Horn’s ZTT label; home of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Seal and Art Of Noise. Much as an adult’s behavioural patterns are largely determined by their childhood experiences, the band’s career graph for the next five years was largely predicated on repeating mistakes and learning the hard way that The Frames work best when they rely on their instincts and their audience, steering clear of mainstream industry machinations and big money management. The marriage with ZTT throughout the late ’90s proved a stormy one, although they did have allies in the camp, mainly former NME writer Paul Morley, plus label manager Claire Leadbitter, who subsequently became the band’s manager. 1999’s Dance The Devil is many people’s favourite Frames album, but it took its toll on the band. Graham, Noreen and eventually Binzer left over a three-year period, replaced by a new rhythm section of Joe Doyle and Dave Hingerty. The reconstituted Frames fought on, becoming more and more willful and determined to experiment, and the live shows grew loose and unpredictable to the point where Beefheart and Birthday Party references weren’t far off the mark.
Glen: “Trevor’s whole thing was, ‘If you would just shut up and trust me, I’ll make your record massive’. And we were like, ‘Fuck ye. You can’t do that to us. We’re a band. Yes of course I want to sell fifty thousand copies of our record, but as long as it’s good. As long as I can stand beside it and go, That’s my art. That’s me. And I will represent this ’til the end of my life.’ We got out of it after a very, very frank conversation with Trevor which went something like, ‘We are not gonna make you any money.’ It was like the Alan Parker conversation. ‘ No more, it’s not gonna happen, you have to let us go. You’re not gonna make a penny out of us.’ And he said, ‘Fair enough.’”
With Claire Leadbitter at the helm, and drawing on the support of their ever-growing fanbase, the band recorded For The Birds with Dave Odlum in Kerry and Steve Albini in Chicago. Although far from the band’s most commercial record, it was the one that was most faithful to their live sound, and eventually went double platinum in Ireland. In its wake, Dave left to fulfill his ambitions as a producer, and was replaced by Steve Albini’s right hand man Rob Bochnik. (Dave Hingerty also departed in early 2003, leaving Glen and Colm as the sole original members.) By now, the band’s shows had become the stuff of local legend. Plus, the Internet explosion worked in the their favour, facilitating direct access to their own audience. At Claire Leadbitter’s estimation, their database runs to some 10,000 e-mail addresses.
Now, 13 years after the Frames were first formed, they are capable of filling 6000-capacity venues, reaching a level of emotional connection with their audience comparable to stadium acts like Springsteen or U2.
They have gone through 10 members, four studio albums, three managers and two major labels to establish themselves as the godfathers of a thriving independent network that has transformed the live scene from the doldrums of the mid-’90s. Now with their live album Set List, recorded at Vicar Street last November, having topped the Irish charts, they have reached the level of the country’s biggest cult band, and they got there with little or no help from the mainstream media or music industry establishment.
“Certainly being in The Frames we’ve had more than our fair share of dark moments,” Colm reflects, “but the importance for me has been to actually be able to take that step back and have a reality check and consider myself very lucky to be doing what it is that so many people deny themselves, which is to actually go for it. Why not live the life that you want, y’know, follow your dreams? I wouldn’t swap the experience that I’ve had for the past 12 years for anything.”
Postscript. Rewind to the heart of winter, 2001. Mic Christopher has passed away as a result of injuries from a fall sustained while on a European tour with The Waterboys. Gathered around Mic’s graveside are people I haven’t seen in ten years or more. The remaining Mary Janes. Acko and Swanny. Brian Spollen. Liam O’Maonlai. Kila. Bronagh Gallagher. Maria Doyle Kennedy. All you can see are broken hearted faces singing ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ and ‘May The Circle Be Unbroken’, the old busking standards. Earlier, Glen had sung The Mary Janes song ‘Friends’ at the funeral mass and the depth of feeling was almost unbearable.
The wayward wind works in mysterious ways. Mic’s posthumous album Skylarkin’ went on to win a Meteor Award. Many of those who were blooded in the late ’80s are now producing the best music of their careers. Kila are poised to break out of the trad ghetto with their powerful new album Luna Park. Interference are back together for a forthcoming show at Vicar Street in Dublin. Maria Doyle Kennedy re-established herself with a strong debut Charm, and if demos of her new songs are anything to go by, she’s about to take her music into some seriously amniotic waters. Her husband Kieran Kennedy has loosed himself from the singer-songwriter straightjacket and found his niche as a producer and driving force behind the wonderfully scuzzy Daddy’s Little Princess. Maria McKee’s new album High Dive is her masterpiece. Mike Scott has even reunited with Steve Wickham in The Waterboys, with a new album Universal Hall in the pipeline. And of course, there’s the web of contemporaries fired up by The Frames’ example: Mundy, Damien Rice, David Kitt, Nina Hynes, Margaret Healy, Josh Ritter, Mark Geary, Gemma Hayes.
“I think it’s absolutely vital that you share what you do, that you share your energy,” Glen concludes, “’cos if you don’t, you become a miser, and if you become a miser you become lonely. I want to feel like someone from Dublin who makes music and hangs out, and I want The Frames to travel the world and be nomadic because I think by nature that’s what we do, but I want to be part of a community, I think it’s really important.”
And now, irony of ironies, Claire Leadbitter has sited The Frames’ base of operations in Kilmuckridge, Co. Wexford, a spit from where this writer grew up. The band has been rehearsing in The Hydro, one of the nightclubs where I did my teenage drinking and whoring. Colm Mac An Iomaire is looking for a house in the area. We Free King Joe Kingman moved to Wexford town years ago, and my spies tell me he’s working on new music with none other than Acko. Swanny’s there too.
For this writer, that old wayward wind is blowing homeward.