Interview: Jon Fratelli
Published on April 13th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
The Fratellis always were a cut above the ‘garage rock revival’ scene which our nation’s fair media so idly bracketed them with. 2006 debut Costello Music and its 2008 follow-up Here We Stand constitute two albums’ worth of material which, although sharing with its peers a highly energised sense of urgency, also showcased the kind of melodic instincts, classic pop sensibilities and music hall eloquence that could only be made by a great British band (as opposed to merely a Great British band, you see).
Although the Glaswegian three-piece announced the end of their short career together precisely one year and seven days ago, the writer-in-chief of those wonderful songs has this week returned in solo form to present us with Santo Domingo, a fuzzy and squelchy blast of sheer delirium the likes of which Beck might have come up with if he’d opened the doors after a Scottish winter to find the sun shining down on an impromptu street party. Why not see for yourself?…
As such, Jon Fratelli‘s debut solo album Psycho Jukebox would appear to be just cause for rabid anticipation ahead of its scheduled July release. Taking some time out from singing the chorus of Santo Domingo over and over to myself involuntarily, Rocksucker caught up with Jon to discuss the record, the joys of unconventional production methods, setting fire to stuff, the importance of melody, how his old band came to stifle him creatively and what exactly ‘dumb-rock’ might be…
Psycho Jukebox is penned in for a July 11th release…
Yeah, so there’s still a little bit of time [before it comes out]. It’s always weird because you make the record in October and, by the time you bring it out, you’re starting to think of the next one.
Do you have material already written for the next one?
You start to sort of formulate the idea of where it might go. Sometimes it’s a reaction to the one you’ve just made and sometimes it’s a continuation. I think the next one will probably be some kind of continuation rather than a reaction because I really like this record [Psycho Jukebox]. It gives you a pointer of the direction you might be going in.
The two songs I’ve heard – Santo Domingo and ‘Rhythm Doesn’t Make You a Dancer’ – certainly sound like a reaction to The Fratellis’ material, what with their ‘dirtier’ kind of edge and use of electronic sounds. Should these songs give us a good idea of what we can expect from the rest of the album?
I’d hate to say that they do because then it would be quite predictable but they’re a good taster of the album. But I couldn’t make a record where all the songs were just that; I wouldn’t find it interesting to make or listen to. Hopefully it’s eleven songs that have no connection to each other but at the same time make some kind of sense.
Did recording the album in LA have any kind of impact upon the music?
Not really, I just found myself working there more than anywhere else, probably because Tony Hoffer, who produced the record, works there. He could come over and we could do it here but it’s a lot nicer to go and do it there. I don’t think it [being in LA] really had an impact; there were only maybe two songs written while I was there. The rest were written in the same room in Glasgow, where you have to use your imagination while the rain’s lashing down outside!
What made you decide to team up with Tony again?
I guess there’s a relationship there; he mixed the Codeine Velvet Club record [and produced Costello Music]. But apart from it being familiar, it’s also the fact that he’s really good. He’s really inventive, especially on this record I think. Sonically, it’s a very different and strange-sounding record. It’s not really a modern-sounding rock record, which is good because I’m not really a big fan of modern-sounding rock records. It’s good to work with somebody who’s inventive and likes to take some chances.
The fuzz bass and electronic sounds on Santo Domingo spring to mind…
All of it, yeah. The sound of it is kind of the sound of the rest of the record. It’s all quite wrong-sounding and most sound engineers wouldn’t do things that way because they’re kind of technically wrong! But it means that you end up with a record that doesn’t sound like anybody else’s, you know. Like I said about the modern rock record thing, they all just sound very shiny and American, they’re not that interesting. I actually prefer the sound of hip hop records to rock records now; they’ve got an excitement and an edge to them that a lot of rock records don’t have. So I’m really glad that I’ve ended up with a record that isn’t a ‘rock-sounding’ record, you know. It’s a slightly ‘wrong-sounding’ record but it’s right because that’s a good thing for me.
Personally, I loved the way the last Flaming Lips album [Embryonic] sounded madly distorted in, as you put it, a ‘wrong-but-right’ sort of way…
Yeah, Dave Fridmann’s one of my favourite producers. He also did the first MGMT record and it sounds like him. I’ve always loved the way The Flaming Lips’ records sound so wrong. Some of it sounds like they recorded it in the bathroom, you know. I’m interested in the way that records sound, the magic of sound in general, and that’s why I’m not a big fan of rock records from just now, you know. They’re not magical in any way, just very conventional. You’re right, that Flaming Lips and Dave Fridmann idea of pushing everything to the extreme, it just makes for an interesting-sounding record.
The video for Santo Domingo looks like it was a real chore to film, lugging all those instruments around a desert…
(Laughs) It’s left me with a very strange walk! I was trying not to let on how heavy the damn thing was. It was fucking heavy. Until you’ve strapped a 28-inch bass drum on your back and walked along a highway, you’ve no idea how heavy it is! I was determined not to let on how heavy it was but, each time they yelled “cut!”, I did let out a scream: “Fffuuuck, somebody take this thing off me!” It was an interesting little journey, two days wondering around a place called Slab City, which is basically a sort of man-made trailer park in the middle of nowhere. People just sort of opt out of conventional life to go and live there; they don’t pay tax. They don’t like strangers hanging around their trailers so we got chased off a few times, and there was this smell of crystal meth in the air! It just added to the surreal-ness of the whole thing.
Did it pain you to throw that guitar in the water at the end of the video?
Nah, it was a cheapo. What I wanted to do was set it on fire but they wouldn’t let me. The Mayor of Slab City told us we couldn’t set anything on fire. There’s actually a Mayor of Slab City, and he doubles up as the Pastor! Nice guy but he wouldn’t let us set anything on fire. I thought it would have been cool if we’d thrown it into the lake while it was still on fire. Could have done myself an injury I guess but it’s nice to destroy things!
Well, that’s another parallel with The Who; correct me if I’m wrong but you began your present tour as a special guest of Roger Daltrey and you’re ending it “Live At Leeds”.
(Laughs) I’d never thought about it like that. There’s a sort of ongoing relationship [with The Who] – just professionally, I guess – and it rears its head, you know. I was just so happy to be there, to do that one. You could never get tired of playing at the Albert Hall. They’ve always been good to us and always made an effort. Maybe they genuinely like the music, I don’t know – you never want to assume that’s the case – but maybe they just do.
I’d imagine they would. Pete Townshend apparently loved The Kinks and, to my ears at least, your style of song-writing has more in common with the likes of Ray Davies than the ‘garage rock revival’ scene you were lazily lumped in with. There’s a much keener sense of melody, structure and story-telling in those Fratellis records than its media-supposed contemporaries.
I hope so. I was really uncomfortable with what we got lumped in with at the beginning and it probably, in a bad way, meant that some of the musical reactions that I made were because of it, which isn’t necessarily the best idea. But yeah, I never felt I had anything in common with the music [being made by other bands at the time]. There was one point where we were “the Scottish Libertines”, which is pretty laughable. I’m not having a go at them – I’m sure they’re nice – but, apart from any obvious records of theirs that might have been on the radio, I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Melody’s definitely underrated these days; I could go on about it forever but melody is the most important thing in my life, I think. I’m always looking for the melody and interesting combination of notes and it completely pains me when I hear…almost 99% of all records now don’t pay any attention to melody. It makes me genuinely sad that something I care about so much is discarded in that way.
A lot of people underestimate the level of artistry involved in writing melodic pop music. I read a recent interview with you in which the author handed you what I thought to be a very unfair backhanded compliment by describing Fratellis songs as – and I quote – “not clever but always big”.
I don’t know what “clever” is meant to be. It’s that thing of “if it sounds easy to do then it was easy to do” but it’s not as straightforward as that, you know? It doesn’t keep me awake at night or anything but I guess that’s also because the melody idea isn’t very popular or important today. So I guess if you’ve got someone writing for a paper who’s been brought up listening to stuff which isn’t melodic then they’re not going to recognise it and it might seem…’dumb’ is the word we always got. I think I might even have read the word ‘dumb-rock’ once. I have no idea what that would even be. You always hope that you’re making something interesting and, melodically, I’m always looking for interesting combinations.
Lyrically as well…
Lyrically, not less so but…I like the sound of words more than any real meaning behind them. Sometimes I inadvertently stumble upon something that does make some sort of sense but I like the sounds of words more than consciously trying to make them particularly meaningful.
How did you feel about the way that ‘Chelsea Dagger’ was embraced by ‘lad culture’, appropriated as a sports anthem, as it were?
It was strange but I don’t really feel like that song belongs to me anymore, and I haven’t for a while. I’m ok with that, that’s fine, because when you have so little control over that…I mean, at one point, there were football teams using it in their stadiums and then you hear it’s getting used in ice hockey stadiums in America and other football stadiums in Spain and Europe, then you feel like it’s completely out of your control. At first I was slightly annoyed by it but, when you have so little control over it, you can’t hold onto it. Strange one, though. I was really happy when Celtic used it [read about Jon’s love of Celtic here]; I’ve been away so much that I hadn’t had the chance to hear it first-hand in the stadium but then I managed to get back for a Champions League group game against Milan, who were European champions at the time, and we beat them 2-1 with the second goal in the very last minute of injury time. There’s nothing like being in the stadium in the rain when sixty thousand people are that happy and your song’s the soundtrack for them. It’s kind of unforgettable.
Your decision to go solo probably means stepping back from playing at the biggest venues, top festival billings and the like. Did the idea of almost ‘starting again’ – going ‘back-to-basics’ and just focusing on the music – appeal to you or influence this decision?
No. For me it was just inevitable, the only way forward at the time. I try not to get too deep into it because I’ve been asked about it a lot recently but that band wasn’t getting on together, it really wasn’t and it didn’t seem like it was going to mend itself. You can’t make music in those circumstances. I’m not too comfortable with tension like that. Some people can do that – some people thrive on it – but I definitely don’t. I can’t work in tension and that band was tense, so the only way you can musically move forward is to take yourself out of it. I wouldn’t say I definitely wanted out of that band, it was just that the band wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t make music and music’s the single most important thing.
What made you decide to go with the name Jon Fratelli rather than your real name Jon Lawler?
When we started the band, we all just adopted that name. We did that before we were signed, before anybody knew us. We called each other that from the beginning and I actually felt more comfortable with that as I can’t say my surname very well. It doesn’t roll off my tongue very well, whereas I could always say ‘Fratelli’. When I first met my girlfriend, I told her my name was Fratelli! I just felt like I suited the name and the name suited me, so it didn’t seem the natural and straightforward thing [to go back to using Lawler].
Can you see yourself working with [Codeine Velvet Club collaborator] Lou Hickey again in the future?
I really wouldn’t have thought so. We weren’t best suited. It was just meant to be what it was at that time, just like everything else. I still really like half of that record but I haven’t spoken to her in a while and I don’t see that we’d have much to speak about.
So you’ve had your scrambled eggs there.
(Laughs) If that’s how you want it! But yeah, absolutely.
Which festival appearance have you most enjoyed? Your Hop Farm headline show?
Hop Farm was beautiful, actually, but it’s usually the ones you’re not expecting, the ones you didn’t think about, just turned up and it turned out great. I can’t actually think of one now but the first T in the Park that The Fratellis did – it wasn’t the main stage or anything, it was in one of the smaller tents – we drove up to it and there was as many people around the outside of the tent as there was inside it. They couldn’t get in! That’s still a pretty big thrill because we weren’t expecting it, nobody told us; it just happened in the space of half an hour and it’s still pretty exciting to remember that.
Do you get much time to enjoy yourself when you’re out on the road on a tour?
Yeah, totally. It’s something I’ve gotten a little bit better at, remembering to try and enjoy it when you’re in the middle of it, because sometimes you forget. I’ve definitely got to remind myself to enjoy things.
Finally, could you name – as of this very moment – your top three albums of all time?
London Calling, Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road.
Jon, thank you.
Santo Domingo, the first single from Jon Fratelli’s forthcoming solo album Psycho Jukebox, is out now on Universal Island records. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit jonfratelli.co.uk