The Fratellis... Melodic medicine with a spoonful of lyrical sugar
Interview: The Fratellis
Published on September 26th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
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The Fratellis return with their effervescent third album We Need Medicine on October 6th before embarking on a slew of live dates across November and December, taking in first the US, then the UK and Europe.
An opportune time, then, to catch up with front man Jon Fratelli for a ruddy good chinwag about the new record, his unreleased solo LP Bright Night Flowers, and how songwriting starts with the vowels…
We Need Medicine is brimming with energy; there’s a spark that suggests you were itching to get back to playing together. Would you say there was any element of that?
I don’t know, we really just did what we wanted to do at that time. It’s not as if we were making a record for any reason other than for us; we had no record label asking for it and we had no management.
We sort of got back to where you are when you first start a band, in a room with your friends. It’s a slightly nicer room than we had when we first started the band but it was still that sort of thing.
When you make your first record, you’re only writing, performing and recording the songs for yourself, because there’s not an audience yet. I guess we’ve got a sort of audience now but they weren’t expecting a record in any way, so we got to go back to just making a record that we like.
Whatever song we recorded on any particular day was what we liked that day, and I hope it sort of sounds as if we’ve just pleased ourselves. If after that some other people like it, then that’s the good part of being in a band. It was nice to be able to make a record under those circumstances, because we didn’t do that with our second record; we got too wrapped up in all the stuff that goes along with it.
Were all of the songs written in the time since you got back together?
Not all of them. I would write songs for this band whether I knew it or not, so there definitely a couple of songs on the new record that were already written. There’s a certain mood I get in, and out of that mood will come certain songs that just suit us. For good or for bad I’ve realised that’s the case and I can’t really run away from it.
We got back together for no real reason other than we wanted to see if anybody would want to come and see us play live, so we did three or four shows and people came. We did some more shows and people came, so then you’re like, “Okay, there is some sort of life to it,” and if there’s going to be life afterwards then you’re going to make a record.
We didn’t get back together with the thought of making a record, but now it’s eight months or so down the line it seems obvious to have made a record. It was only because we put shows on and people were interested; if they weren’t interested then I don’t think we would have bothered.
You need to know first if there’ll be any point. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than releasing records to people who don’t care (laughs).
Were any of the songs on We Need Medicine pencilled in to feature on your as-yet-unreleased second solo album Bright Night Flowers?
No, not at all. That’s just a record I made for me.
Will it be released?
I can’t see any reason why it would be, which seems odd I guess, to make something and not release it. But it’s hard to release a record when you have no audience, and I didn’t have one.
Everything you do should be a reaction, and that record was a reaction to making a record that nobody bought! I’d made a record [first solo album Psycho Jukebox] that wasn’t made how I’d wanted to have made it.
It didn’t do anything and died very quickly, and you’d have to have a heart of stone for that not to affect you in some way. So I just thought, you know what, I’m going to make exactly what I want to make at this moment in time. That’s been the thing now for me, to do that all the time.
With Bright Night Flowers, I made a record that’s just got nine songs on it, and each song is seven or eight minutes long. It took two months to make and cost a lot of money – it sounds great, really beautiful – but I don’t think anyone will ever hear it. I quite like that, it’s quite perverse!
I’ve stuck it on and listened to it every few months and I still think, “Wow, that’s great,” but I’m not going to try and sell it. I’m quite happy for it just to stay in my top drawer.
In what way is We Need Medicine a reaction to what’s gone before?
Sometimes you just have to get things out of your system, I guess, but this was just a realisation of what our band is and what it is that we do. There’s no point in us trying to be world class experimentalists; we’re not that, and we wouldn’t know how to be that.
So we should actually stick to what we do and try to stretch it as far as possible. We’re basically just a rock and roll band; that is what we are and what I hope this record sounds like, just us doing what it is that we do, not trying to fight it.
I’m okay with that. For a while I must not have been okay with it, thought “god it’s so dull just to be that one thing”, but I’m okay with it now. As long as you do that one thing well and it’s enough to hold your attention – and so far it has held my attention – then it makes no difference to me.
We just wanted to do what it is that we’re any good at, rather than spend lots of time trying to work out what you’re not good at and get better at it, which seems pointless to me. You should spend your time making what you do well even better, or at least more interesting.
Also we just wanted a bunch of songs we could play live. That’s probably the long and short of it, because when we did get back to playing together we realised that the set was heavily in favour of the first record. We couldn’t find much off the second record that we wanted to play, which says it all.
We needed a record that we could play everything from live, and I think we’ve got that. We’ve been playing them over the summer, throwing them in at festivals where people were hearing them for the first time, and they do fit. They’ve got something about them that we can sell. It’s hard to sell a bunch of songs when they’re not the right songs for you, and maybe that’s what happened with out second record. They just weren’t good enough.
Hopefully now we’re selling songs onstage that suit us and we can communicate them better because of that. Now we’ve got a record that we could play songs off of for ten years and not get bored of them, which can happen. You don’t want to continue when you’re relying on your first record. That would be horrible.
Who did the album’s cover art?
We were actually looking for something where we could fit “we need medicine”, looking for scenarios where it would be a recognisable scenario. I didn’t realise it was a sort of pop art thing, thought it was more of a classic cartoon type thing.
The thing was more about: where could we put “we need medicine” where it would have the most impact? A girl screaming it down the telephone, I quite like that, because what the hell has she seen? What’s happened that they need medicine for?
When it comes to visual stuff, though, I don’t really pay too much attention. I’m just happy that we have album covers and that somebody does it.
Would I be reading too much into the title We Need Medicine if I saw it as a comment on society’s need for numbness?
It doesn’t mean anything, really. It’s not a social statement, at least I don’t think it is; I don’t remember putting too much thought into it. I’m more attracted to combinations of words and what pictures they paint when you hear them.
That changes from person to person, so it’s actually far more fun not to give an explanation anyway. Everyone can paint their own picture in their head when they hear certain combinations of words.
We Need Medicine? It could be interpreted in a million ways, and I couldn’t say that any of them would be wrong because there is no right answer.
When you’re writing a song, do you ever find yourself singing certain syllables or sounds at first rather than actual words, then fitting the words around that?
I only recently realised that that’s how lots of people write. I can’t remember where I would have seen this – I don’t watch many rock documentaries – but it was a well-known song and as part of the documentary you got to hear the band demoing it in the studio. It was possibly Bowie.
Anyway, the vocals were all just vowels and noises, and because you know the song now you can sort of hear how the words were being fitted around those vowels and sounds.
I had no idea, but now I know that I do that; I don’t necessarily record it, but a lot of times songs will be just be a bunch of vowels. It’s more about getting the phrasing right. Rhythmically, I’m definitely attracted less to meanings of words and more to how they fit the music.
If they can mean something too then that’s great but usually they’re just nonsense, which isn’t to say that I’m not attracted to a turn of phrase. But yeah, you do just make sounds until words show themselves.
Finally, is there any new music from this year that you’ve enjoyed?
I don’t buy records. I used to feel that I needed to defend myself over this, but I have no need for new music; I have a huge record collection and it hasn’t changed since I was about 16.
Most of the people in it have about thirty or forty albums, so it’s a lot of music. There are a lot of Dylan records, a lot of Springsteen records, a lot of Stones records, a lot of Pink Floyd records.
There’s plenty there to keep me going. I know it makes me sound out of the loop, but I’ve always been this way. When I was 16, everyone was into Nirvana and Oasis and I was into Pink Floyd. It just didn’t occur to me to change that, and it still hasn’t!
Jon Fratelli, thank you.
We Need Medicine will be released on October 6th through BMG.