The Heat is On
Following the huge commercial success of Set List and “Fake.” The Frames look posed to ascend to Rock’s premier league with the upcoming worldwide release of the Burn The Maps album. Kim Prcelli joins the band on the day of their triumphant show at marlay park to dicvuss the pros and cons of pop-stardom. The departure of Dave Odlum, the abiding influence of Mic Christopher, and the challenge of creating their most eagerly anticipated record yet.
Saturday night, Marlay Park, Dublin. We’re about a third of the way through what will go down on record as one of the parties of 2004: the Frames’ largest-ever headline appearance, topping a bill that includes Supergrass, Idlewild, Bell X-1 and Halite, in front of nearly 18,000 people.
Just as the band smash euphorically into the chorus of “God Bless Mom”, the Frames’ muslin-white Set List backdrop falls on cue; behind it is another, representing their upcoming album Burn The Maps –it’s a start, Basquiat-esque black-and-white image, much more darkly commanding than its predecessor, and as it is illuminated by rich peacock blues and searing white-gold’s it’s arrestingly beautiful, an artificial sunset in lieu of the one that hasn’t happened yet, glowing electrically in the azure still-brightness of this summer night, as the crowd swoons and screams.
There’s something perfect about the symbolism of this moment, of The Frames careering through a several-album-old (albeit still daisy-fresh, mind you) fuzzbox-and jubilation-propelled pop song in front of a spanking-new, high-art backdrop: it’s a snapshot not only of a band on the cusp of a new album and a new era, but a band who are very much in the process of having a play with the boundaries of what kind of band they can be.
The Frames in 2004 are so many seemingly contradictory things at once: critically lauded, yet popularly adored; handmade in their aesthetics, yet rich with electronic noise; independent, yet internationally hooked up (as of January 2005, Burn The Maps will become the first-ever Frames album to receive a proper world wide release). As well, they’re famously entertaining; but are also defiantly, unequivocally, about pop music as art.
Last but not least, on the one hand they are kin to off centre mavericks like Sparklehorse, Dirty Three, Low, Pixies and Sonic Youth, but on the other hand- in light of the increasingly large stages they occupy, and in view of their darkly beautiful fifth album Burn The Maps, they appear to be currently exploring their potential to take those elements and test their massive emotional reach on a much larger scale.
Meanwhile, just to mix it up slightly more, in September of last year they made their biggest mark on the Irish singles charts since the release of “Revelate” in 1996 with “Fake”: a clever sweet, suckerpunching, unashamedly pop, er, pop single of such concise purpose a besneakered Cole Porter could have written it. And as of yesterday, they followed it with its complete opposite: “Finally”, a dark, self-lacerating, hope-against-hope, heart bursting gallop of a thing that, by all appearances, seems to be at least in part about the bitter sweetness of, I guess, being in an independent, very successful, very beautiful, very schizophrenic Irish band you may have hear of.
Being The Frames is getting pleasantly complicated these days.
Flashback. Saturday night, Marlay Park. About 8PM. The Frames will be onstage within a half hour. A ateenage boy, noticing our notebook, approaches us; he has a Framesian white fabric skull mask – as worn by Glen Hansard when performing “lay Me Down” from their last studio album, 2001’s exquisite avant-folk masterpiece For The Birds- kerchiefed round his head beneath his upturned hoodie. He is hugely excited (“You’re going to give them a good review, right? He says pointing a stern finger.) But there’s something else in his voice as well. It’s the ardent, slightly proprietary nervousness of the diehard fan whose secret favorite thing very suddenly belongs to everyone.
“I don’t see any other people wearing masks,” he worries, scanning the crowd for fellow believers. “There’s, like, one girl with one.” He shakes his head. “I mean it’s great, all this is great,” he says to me, in a very for-the-record tone of voice. “They fuckin’ deserve this. But…” He gazes across the heads of the massive, teeming, unfamiliar throng. “Who are all these people?”
Good question. Flashback further still: we are in the graceful surrounds of the high ceilinged, white-and-pastel-hued, wedding-cake-like Marlay House, earlier that afternoon, Glen Hansard (songwriter/singer/guitarist), Joe Doyle (bassist), Colm Mac Con Ioimair (violinist) and Rob Bachnict (guitarist) are recalling the complicated path that took them from Set list (the live album that documented the post-For the Birds periods, shot into the Irish charts at number one, went platinum, and, at this writing, is still there a year later, at number eight) to here.
“We were in Australia,” Glen is saying, “and I remember I was in the garden, and I was like , “What do you think of this, lads?” (making strumming motion, sings) “You’re telling me I should forget you…” (in not sure tones) ‘Jaysus, lads, it’s really poppy’. And Mark Stankey – our tour – manager in Australia – was like “You have to do something with that”. So I finished it. And so “Fake” was like this weird song” says Glen, “that wasn’t like any Frames song that had ever come before, and that kind of came out of nowhere. And because Set List had done so well, we were like, “We should release this as a single”. So we did.
“and then…” Glen pauses, his tone shifting to awe. “It plugged us into a whole different audience. It was really strange. I remember we were in Galway, playing the Black Boc, and also I had just done that Even Better Than The Real Thing song (A cover of Justin Timberlakes ‘Cry Me A River’ for a Today FM compilation.) And after the gig there were all these kids waiting outside, asking us for our autographs. And they were all like – one of them had a Kylie T-shirt, and another had a Justin T-Shirt…”
“The front rows of those gigs were all, like 16-year old boys and girls,” Joe remembers.
“That tour was a much younger audience,” Glen agrees. “And we were frightened by it. We were going (whispered, slightly panicked amazement), ‘SHIT!’ Cos all of the people who have been with us all the way, meanwhile, all of our old following, were kinda standing in the background going (skeptical, folded arms), “Dunno, lads.” There was kind of a sense of…” He breaks into a pained grin. “It was almost like, any cool points we had earned on For The Birds were suddenly just fuckin’ erased.” He makes a sweeping movement with his arm. “Friends of ours, like. Going (shakes head disapprovingly), ‘Lads. What’s the story?’”
It’s complicated, being complicated. People are much happier if you stay in your box.
“Yeah. And then,” says Joe, in a voice indicating the imminent addition of insult to injury, “Then of course at this stage we wanted to start playing new songs. Which, you know, I think for old Frames fans would have been great…(whispering, we’re-fucked voice) ‘They’re never gonna get this’.
“The other thing that made it complicated,” continues Glen, “ironically, was Set List doing so well. We’d already been playing that gig- and we recorded Set List at the very end of that. And ironically, when we released it, it pulled us right back three years.”
“The entire point of Set List,” says Joe, “was this’ll be like a marker, for the end of this phase, and hen we’ll do something else. And then we went to do gigs and it was like…”
Glen (calling out, as if he’s an audience member): “Tell the dog story!” He shakes his head. “Fuckin…(in his own voice, addressing the punter, trying to be reasonable) ‘The dog story’s on the record’. (In a fan voice again, only louder) ‘Tell it!’”
Rob grins across at him. (Also in a fan voice) “Dance, monkey!” We all fall about laughing.
It couldn’t have been easy. Indeed, we have to admit that, the popularity of the ‘dog story; set notwithstanfin, it was the band’s noticeably more taut performances, which began to emerge late last year, that got this listener excited all over again: their brace of gigs in the Olympia in late 2003, for example, or their secret show in Whelan’s in spring 2004 (for which they were billed amusingly, as The Arnotts) following their meteor Awards win for Best Irish Band of ’03.
These showers were short, sharp shocks and while they were by no means chat-free or emotionally remote, something had changed: They involved the maximum-intensity, minimum-fuss delivery of, crucially, new material alongside old. It was there we began to see what kind of record Burn the Maps might be: there where we first witnessed the runaway-horse pound-and-simmer of current single ‘Finally’, and the shattering emotional clearinghouse of ‘Keepsake’.
“This is kind of a difficult one for me personally.” Says Glen, when we ask whether this change is the Frames’ approach to live shows was by accident or design, “Cos I’ve come under a bit of pressure from the boys about this.
“The boys were like (quiet, serious voice), ‘Tighten ship. Just tighten ship’.” Glen pauses. “To be honest, it was born out of us touring constantly over the last couple of years and seeing professional bands roll into town and play really fuckin’ together gigs, night after night. And what it is is if you’re playing a lot = and this is where I totally agree with the boys- you can’t depend on spontaneity. If spontaneity is your magic, and you need to call up it every night, and you’re knackered,” he says, “it’s not there some nights. And what ended up happening with us was we became either a very, very good band live, or…pretty average.”
“Basically, it was just about relying on the music to do more of the work,” Joe sums up. “Kinda going: means we have one song less’.”
“But even putting the story on at all was an issue.” Says Glen, to murmurs of agreement. “Because it go us thinking. We were like, ‘What is a Frames gig? Like, for us? What’s a Frames gig?’ Cos I’ve always viewed it as…” He pauses.
“It’s funny that I should end up talking about U2, about this, “Glen begins again. “But I always kind of look at it like: you trust your leader. And sometimes your leader’s gonna take you out and get yis all killed. Do you know what I mean? And sometimes he’s going to bring yis to victory.
“I remember watching U2 in ’85,” Glens says. “We were busking outside for the money to get in, myself and Colm, and we went in, and I saw a band where they totally trusted their singer, and he brought them to mad places, and talked a lot of shit. And people hated him for it, because he was talking about politics, and about whatever, and it was like, ‘You’re a rock band!’ But the point was, he sort of brought them somewhere. And it’s kind of –
“For me, I have a weird position within the Frames, in that I know I can take it somewhere else, or I can blab on about it. So, is a Frames gig just this kind of loose…chat, hang out, have a bit of a doss with your audience? Or are we a proper rock band? As in: go onstage, heads down, amp knobs to the right? Or…what?”
Fortunately for all four of them, Burn The Maps has such immense emotional scope it will pretty much allow the Frames o be any kind of band they want to be. A sumptuous, darkly beautiful exploration of love, loss, intimacy, betrayal, bitterness and rage, leavened by a typically glittering thread of hope that shines through even the album’s darkest moments, Maps sees the Frames take their familiar skewed, tactile, handmade-folk starting points, and draw them out into richly textured, fully realized epic melodramas, complete with searing, heartstoppingly beautiful string sections that sing over Hansards wracked voice with the emotional specificity of love letters.
As usual there’s the Frames’ now patented tremendous dynamic range: the whole audible spectrum is here, from tense, barely-breathing near-silences (‘Keepsake’) to full blown, cataclysmic apotheosis (‘Dream Awake’). Lyrically, it’s as brutally candid as Hansard has ever been, from the helplessly twisting frustration of ‘Happy’ to the emotional violence and sheer longing of ‘Finally’.
It’s full of surprises, too, moments where songs suddenly swing off their paths and go in wholly unexpected directions – as when the cautionary folktale of ‘Dream Awake’ bursts into swirling, cataclysmic noise; or when the handcarved simplicity of ‘suffer in silence’ gently unravels into a beguiling mirrorball slowdance, complete with Motown-worth string-and-brass outro; or when the stick, digitized mini groove of ‘Ship Caught In The Bay’ detonates into a clanging static-jam of electronic cacophony shot through with whistling melody: a sinister song to FTB’s ‘Santa Maria’, as rendered by Kid A-Period Radiohead.
This dark, complicated, sonically fucked-up, old-souled, melodramatic pop, with the Frames’ trademark irrepressible lifeforce blazing through every track like a flare in a starless sky.
Marlay Park, midday. As we sit at wooden picnic tables on the lawn outside the wedding-cake house, Colm recharges his IPOD from his laptop- a battered ibook with its hinge so exhausted he props the screen up against what looks like a heavy microphone case.
He shows me an A4 notebook with a blue plastic cover. Inside, the pages with instruments lists (“Violin, viola, brass”) set against song titles; pages with musical notation, written out, complete with bow-direction indications; pages with arrangement-layering instructions; pages of longhand prose, written in Irish, dated and labeled thing like ‘Ciarral’.
Throughout their doodles of awesome intricacy; mostly round, multi-spoked mandalas with endless triangles and crescents and silver shapes within them, like views seen through a kaleidoscope. The whole thing makes you think simultaneously of ancient illuminated texts, and Kurt Cobain’s journals. Thinking of the density and huge feeling of the completed string parts on Burn The Maps, and then seeing the simple, organized portability of the place it all came from, is quite something. Colm smiles at my wonderment. “So, yea. This is Burn The Maps,” he says.
Of course, depending on which Frame’s rucksack you rifled through, you’d probably locate other, different maps, so to speak, of Burn The Maps. Recorded mainly in Black Box studios in France and Electrical Audio in Chicago, with ex-Frame Dave Odlum and Rob Bochnik at the desk, the band’s fifth studio album, explains Joe, was very much a “band album”, with different members taking control of small bits of the project based on where each musician’s interests lay, and then reconvening with the results. “It really made us excited to work on it”, he says. “we haven’t really woked like that since as far back as Dance The Devil, I don’t think.”
It also meant different band members’ specialty areas could come to the fore. For example, Glen says, in addition to filling the very large production shoes left by Dave Odlum (the Frames’ guitarist/producer who departed to be a full time producer in 2001), Rob is especially good at the sort of surreptitious catcher-on-the-fly of spontaneous good ideas. We’ll be soundchecking, and I’ll be freaking out over something, and without me knowing it Rob’ll have a Minidisc on the go. Then, weeks later, when we’re working on stuff, he’ll pull it out and say, ‘Do you remember when we were onstage in Cincinnati and you had that idea?’”
“My relationship with Joe and Colm is brilliant,” Glen will also confide later. “It’s so…” He considers, then finds the word. “It’s fiery. We have fights-we fight like brothers. Joe and Colm will constantly be my devil’s advocate. For a long time I mistook it as resistance. And what it is, is temperance. I’ll be like (zealously) ‘Lads, I tell ya what, I really wanna fuckin’…’ and the lads’ll be like, (reasonable voice) ‘Why? What’s the point to that?’
“They’ll go with me,” Glen assures me, “but first they’ll argue with me every step of the way. And then, they’ll be right behind me.” He stops. “It’s brilliant. It’s the kind of relationship that becomes more and more important as the years go on.”
What is apparent is that the four have evolved into a compact, tight-knit group who, emotionally as well as musically, are able to play the metaphorical equivalent of a four-way catch-me-when-I-fall-backward trust game – and the Frames, of all bands, have needed this kind of security. Because, for all the wonderful things that have come to them over the last several years – the location of a likeminded comrade in their manager Claire Leadbitter, the breakthrough success of For The Birds, the worldwide deal with Californian label Anti (labelmates: Nick Cave, Tom Waits), the unexpected successes of Set List and ‘Fake’, the repeat tours to the US and Australia and eastern Europe, yielding better reviews and slightly larger venues each time – alongside these, have been less positive events, ranging from the merely traumatizing to the truly gutting.
There was Dave Oldum’s departure (“He was so much more than a guitarist and producer,” says Glen. “He was kind of a mother and father figure to us. His leaving forced us to grow up”), as well as the departure of drummer Dave Hingerty (Bell X1’s Paul Noonan and Halite’s Graham Hopkins supply drums and Maps). Worst of all by far was the awful accidental death of Mic Christopher, a longtime Frames mate and Glen’s best friend, 2001.
“There aren’t any songs I worked on with him on Maps, no,” says Glen, “but he’s on the whole album. Believe me, he’s on every single track.” In fact, we’re quite relieved to be reporting on the release of Burn the Maps at all, because back then, as each next hard thing happened, we remember wondering how much more of a battering this band could take.
Are and of these songs, I ask Glen, about your relationship with the Frames – not the people but with the band itself? Or with your own creative process?
Glen: (after a pause, deciding there’s no point in dissembling) “Yeah”
What is ‘Finally’ about?
“That’s a good question,” he says, extremely tentatively. “It’s about a couple of things…It’s a good – It’s a very good question, because it was just…anger. I as just angry, when I wrote it. I was trying to write a song of encouragement, to…probably myself, you know, and I ended up, like (mean, dark voice), ‘Did you fall on your way? It’s such a long way down Welcome back to your place’. As in, like, fuckin…’I hope you know it now’. Like: stop having aspirations beyond your station. You were born to struggle. Now fuckin’…struggle.
“But yeah, definitely the first part of it is kind of about the band. It’s kind of about our career – I mean, I keep going back to it, for songs. That same thing of, like (quietly) ‘ Come on, you’ll be all right, just keep your fuckin’ head focused. Stay on the good road. Don’t fuck up’. Do you know what I mean? Just stay on board. Stay on the surfboard, or whatever it is, that you’re trying to keep up on, and you’ll be alright.” He stops. “The same thing that made me write ‘Fitzcarraldo’ is still in me.”
“The phrase ‘Burn The Maps’ first came up when I was introducing ‘Keepsake’ at a gig one night,” Glen is explaining. “I said, ‘This song is about burning all of the maps that go you to where you are.’”
So it’s not about burning maps leading you into the future? It’s about burning old maps?
“It’s about burning everything that got you to where you are. Only existing in the present. The only thing I don’t like about it, in retrospect, is the negative connotation. As in, that it could be perceived as us, The Frames, destroying our history. ‘Cos it isn’t. But for me, it kind of means forgetting about all of what’s happened to get you here, and starting again.”
I remember reading once, I venture, that in order to create great art, you have to, as it were, burn your maps: that is, you must discard all your assumptions, and all the normal cultural symbols you rely upon. The idea is to force yourself to take nothing for granted. And that it’s when you get too comfortable, that you get stuck…
(Immediately) “Yeah. Absolutely. You get fat. And I’ve always had this thing, from when I was a kid-the one thing I never, ever, ever want to be is comfortable. And the way I’m using the term is ‘getting fat’ is, not getting fat in your belly: getting fat in your thoughts. I always believe your music must remain lean.
“I’ve always been terrified of the idea of, you known, in my own life, making music, people loving it, me kinda getting a bit of an ego about it, making slightly less good music, people buying it, me kinda…and eventually just kinda going (shrugs shortly), ‘Yeah, it’s good enough’. And me losing all of my editorial…you know…(laughs) where you just become kind of…overweight, egotistical – someone who can’t just go and pick up a guitar and walk out on the street. For me, that’s the most important thing. If, in my life, I can always pick p my guitar, go out on Grafton Street and sing a song – if I can always do that, then somehow, that to me symbolizes that I’m lean.
“Like, I was busking last week in a small town in the Czech Republic,” says Glen. “I busked for two hours. I didn’t make anything, I hadn’t even got my case open. Someone bought me a pot of honey, and someone else bough me flowers, and it was lovely. But for me it was like, ‘This is what I do’. And I had sold out the local castle – 5000 people, in this castle courtyard – the night before.”
Did anyone recognize you?
“Ah yeah. People stopped and watched. But that wasn’t what my idea was. I just wanted to play my guitar.” He considers. “Not to…tune into my fucking muse, but just to…just to be what I am. And not to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I played in a castle last night’.
“And it’s night like I’m apologizing for playing in a caste,” he states. “I’m not. I just wanna always be able to plug back into what I do. Like – I sincerely said to Gerry [McDonnell, Frames soundman], is there any way we could set up a microphone in the middle of the audience at Marlay Park? Cos I wanted, at the end of the gig, to go into the middle of the audience, and sing a song, with my guitar. And he was, like, (head shaking, out-of-the-question voice), ‘There’s no fucking way, man…’”
What would the purpose have been?
“I dunno, man,” he says, passionately. “It’s something I always want to do.”
So that you’re getting rid of the thing where it’s like – I gesture with two hands held for apart – stage…audience?
“Yeah. Stage, audience,” he gestures as well sweeping both away. “Burn the stage. Burn the fuckin’…” He bursts out laughing. “Just go into the middle of the audience,” he says, “and play the tune. And just be like, Alright. We’re all here. Come on!”
By Kim Prcelli The Hot Press.