Interview with Jon Fratelli – 17/10/2013

The Fratellis are back. Seven years after their hugely successful debut Costello Music, the trio from Glasgow have slipped under the radar somewhat and returned with 3rd album We Need Medicine following a three year hiatus (read the review here). As the band prepared for their tour of the US, frontman and songwriter Jon Fratelli spared twenty minutes to chat to me about performing live, songwriting, Pink Floyd and what makes The Fratellis mark 2 a different animal…

First off, I’ve listened to your new album, out last week. I heard you say somewhere that it was an album that you wanted to be playing live. What kind of thinking was there behind that?

JF: Well it was more just that we came out at the end of it with a record that we could play live. It’s not always the first thing in your mind when you’re making a record I guess, but when we got back together to play some shows it was kind of obvious that if we were gunna make a record we really needed something where almost every song from it we could go out and play live. That’s kind of a thing I guess. I mean I like making records but being able to go out on stage and play is what guys like us get off on.

Like that’s what it’s all about?

JF: It kind of is; and it’s really the only place where we get any sort of control. We wanted a record where, like I said, everything from it could be played live, and so far we’ve managed to do that.

Yeah I could definitely hear that on the record. Do you have any favourite moments or favourite tracks, or even parts of tracks, from the album?

JF: Not really. If you ask any band, at that particular point in time, what their favourite songs to play live are they’ll always tell you the newest ones. Because, you know, it’s not that you dislike old ones, it’s just you’ve played them so many times it’s hard to maintain 100% enthusiasm for them. You play them for people because people buy tickets for them and they should get what they want from them.  We’ve been playing all summer and been throwing all these songs in, and usually when you’re playing new songs it’s most people’s cue to head to the bar or the toilet. But we haven’t noticed that, we seem to be getting away with it which is always a pretty good sign. And we go on tour at the end of this month, and like I said any musician will tell you they’re just desperate to get out and play the new stuff. Cos also…it’s kind of a hard sell playing new songs to people. Even if they’ve just got your record, maybe they’ve had it a couple of weeks, it’s still hard to get them enthused by playing those new songs, and I guess maybe that’s the challenge in a perverse way. You almost have to work even harder to sell those songs to them live, and that’s what we’re looking forward to I think.

Which song would you say has had the best reception from you’re live shows?

JF: Um, I mean, Seven Nights Seven Days was I guess what you would call the single from this record. Singles don’t really mean the same as they did for a band like us you know, but it fairly respresents the record. And definitely live… I mean that song, and pretty much most of the record is filled with songs you can really get your teeth into you know. I mean by this point we should have learned what it is exactly that’s easiest.. not easy to sell on a stage, but it needs to have a certain something for us to be able to connect with it night after night. But that song, live, so far it absolutely has. It doesn’t seem like we could ever get bored of it. Ask me in a few years and it might be different you know. But I think most of the songs on this record have that thing where I can see them definitely holding my attention.

Something that interested me about the album was that there wasn’t a big departure, sound wise, from the previous records. Obviously you had the three year hiatus, shall we call it, and you had one or two side projects. Is there anything that you picked up from that hiatus that may have fed into this new Fratellis era?

JF: I mean, time does that anyway you know, it’s impossible to fight time. But there are elements of us that probably will never change, it would be impossible to change. We’d have to fight tooth and nail to make it change, and it would kind of be a waste of time at the end of the day. But at the same time as having those thigns that will never change about us, time itself just changes you. That first record we made seven years ago; the songs for it were written in the space of a month… let’s call it 28 days. And it’s an odd thing that 28 days, 7 years ago ends up defining you. I wouldn’t even know how to get back to that headspace you know. I’d have no idea. I remember being in a pretty good mood, you know. You wouldn’t even start to even try to get back to that, so it’s a strange thing when it ends up defining you. But at the same time, you know, you then just stop caring. I think with this record, we had no record label, we had no management, basicially we had the three of us, and it was almost like making the first record again. Also the people who liked us previously didn’t know we were making this record, so, you know, what I’m getting at is that we had nobody waiting for it. You bascially get to just please yourself. I wrote the songs on it for my own amusement, we recorded it for our own amusement. And I hope it sounds like that, I hope it sounds like a band who were just entertaining themselves.

There’s definitely a sense of freedom on the album. For you, obviously you write the songs, when you sit down with the guitar, with no lyrics, without anything, has the songwriting process changed much for you over the last seven years? Or has it always just been the same formula?

JF: Even just in the last year it’s changed. It probably changes all the time without you noticing it but sometimes it’ll change in a way that you can’t help but notice. All I’ve noticed recently is that, again, it’s getting back to that thing of only pleasing yourself. There was possibly a certain point with the last Fratellis record, and then the stuff I did after that, of getting sucked in way too much into other people’s requests for singles. Kind of like ‘the hit’; Jesus how would you even start doing that? So it’s possible that that happened at that point, and it’s nice to completely leave that behind. I probably started to conciously leave it behind and now it’s completely unconcious, you know. There’s nothing else that’s important other than ‘do I like this?’ And it just makes the whole thing so much easier, you’re writing for the sake of it. You’ve actually caught me in the middle of working on some stuff, cos we’re recording again in January, and at this point there’s so much material that’s just coming out of writing for the sake of writing. So that’s definitely changed, cos that hadn’t been that way ever since… probably just about the time we started it is the last time I can remember it being this easy.

So it’s almost kind of ’round two’?

JF: It’s nice for me personally to rediscover that. I thought I’d lost it, it had become a slog. I could still do it but to do it was for some reason getting harder and harder; slightly arduous. It’s nice to rediscover the way of making it easy.

As you said before you’re going on tour soon. I heard you say somewhere that the further north the shows are, the louder the crowds are. Do you stand by that?

JF: Mmm yeah it’s half true. But then at the same time…it’s a popular question to ask ‘where’s the best crowd?’. And to be honest, I really like the fact that the truth is you never know where you’re gunna find them. Because if you always knew where you were gunna find them life would get pretty predictable for us, and I know now from experience that you just have no idea. When you look at the list of dates and for some reason sort of unconciously pick the ones you think are gunna sort of catch fire, and the ones that might not, most of the time you’re wrong. But it’s good, I like that. I don’t think I even look at the dates anymore, I look at the actual dates but not in any geographical way, because it’s been completely proven that you just don’t know. A strange alchemy happens some nights between you and the venue and the crowds, and it’s just impossible to predict. But it makes it interesting.

My girlfirend told me that I should ask at least one kind of quirky question; so imagine you’ve just finished a show, what do you usually get up to? Say you don’t have a show the next day or anything like that, you’ve got the day off tomorrow, what would usually happen backstage?

JF: You know, anybody poking their heads around our dressing room door or on the bus would probably be disgusted at how dull we are. There would have been a day, definitely, when you look for the nearest night out till about half 6. But you know I just can’t do it anymore. Like, in a purely practical way it’s impossible to burn the candle at both ends really. We used to be able to be able to do it, but I reckon the gigs might have…

Might have suffered from it?

JF: Totally, oh absolutely, I’ve got no doubt that they did. But you definitely get that high after gigs, which becomes a bit of a tricky thing, cos you just wanna keep going. Especially if you’ve had a good one you just wanna…

Wanna play another one straight away.

JF: There’s a lot of energy there looking to be expanded, but that’s just how you get into trouble. I try to avoid trouble.

Yeah I’m in a band myself and I can definitely identify with that.

JF: Yeah well if you can get away with it then great. I don’t think I can get away with it anymore.

You’ve been in the ‘business’ for 7/8 years now; do you have any advice for, say, a younger band trying to come through now? And do you have any favourite up-and-coming new bands?

JF: I’m completely out of the loop, not just with music but with life. I’m kinda the last guy to know anything about what’s going on. But any advice… You have to never take no for an answer, cos you’ll get told no quite a lot and you shouldn’t really be willing to accept that. But also, you really do just have to….dyou know what I was gunna say you have to completely just do exactly what you want, but it doesn’t always necessarily work though does it? There’s no sort of magic formula other than… I kind of believe that some people just know that if they continually do it then it’ll get somewhere. At the same time I suppose some people just kid themselves on. I think those people who really know that, they will always end up… you know as I said, the not taking no for an answer kinda thing, that helps. Cos it’s impossible for anyone ever to really knock you down when that’s your attitude.

Finally, just one more then I’ll let you get off. This one’s for me really, I was just wondering what your record or CD collection is like at home?

JF: Well, it’s pretty big, it’s just that it hasn’t changed for a long long time, hasn’t been added to in a while. Pretty much the same selection I’ve had since I was about 16. The thing is most of the people I listen to have like 40 year careers, you know that’s a lot of music for me to get through, and it’s just never left any time for finding anything new. I’m entirely convinced that there’s an entire world of music that I’m missing out on, but I don’t really feel the need for anything else. For instance, with Dylan, there’s 40 odds records there, and that’s just one artist. There’s not enough time in the day for me to devote to finding anything else; and I’m sure it makes me sound dull, but I’m ok with it. It depends on your needs, if you need it then that’s ok.

I heard you say in another interview that Pink Floyd were your first love.

JF: They were yeah. And you would never know from…it’s funny how you can be influenced by somebody without it coming out in your music. Cos you’d never know that listening to our band. And you can never shake your first love, you don’t get another shot at it; you’re sort of stuck with it. It still transports me back to just discovering rock n roll for the first time, it was through them, and you never get that feeling twice which is why I sort of always go back to them. Not more than anybody else, but they definitely give me that feeling cos nobody else did.

Do you ever see yourself, I don’t know, 20 years down the line, making a Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon?

JF: I mean who wouldn’t want to right? But you sort of are what you are. Like what I was saying earlier, I could just spend endless futile hours trying to be something that I’m not. I’m much happier sort of, for better or for worse, just letting me be musicially what it is that I am, which is definitely not a guy who makes Dark Side of the Moon.

Alex Orosa