The Fratellis are amazed at the success of their comeback tour, and frontman Jon says he’ll never take anything for granted – except his yearning to write new songs
Jon Fratelli is sounding slightly hoarse. Back home in the west end of Glasgow he’s just flown in from Los Angeles after the US leg of the band’s tour and is about to head off the next night for ten UK dates, including Glasgow on Friday, before playing the same number of European gigs.
His voice is husky, but he’s at pains to point out that he’s fine, despite having to pull out of the Seattle gig on this their first US tour for five years because of a sore throat. It’s more that he’s just flown in from LA the night before.
“I always sound like this,” he says. “People ask me if I’m jet-lagged but it’s a popular misconception. I was embarrassed and defeated by having to cancel a gig – I never get ill, but it was just bad timing.”
So the voice is back and The Fratellis – Jon, Barry and Mince – are in rude health with their first album and tour since they announced their reformation last year. This time round they’re determined to savour the experience after their stellar rise to fame back in 2007 when their debut album Costello Music charted at No 2 and went on to win the Best British Breakthrough Act at the Brit Awards, with the band appearing at Glastonbury and T in the Park.
A follow-up album, Here We Stand, saw them touring the US from New York to LA, before they split up and went their separate ways in 2009, with Jon making a solo album, Psycho Jukebox, and another with Codeine Velvet Club. Their reunion album We Need Medicine has drawn on their four-year hiatus and sees them return slightly older and wiser. It’s less of a slowing up than a growing up, with more of an emotional depth to their slightly retro sound. There’s still plenty of attitude and stomp for fans to enjoy as The Fratellis deliver their new bluesy rock tracks live, and so far the tour has been a sell-out all the way.
“We were overwhelmed by the response in the US. In New York we had three standing ovations just for walking on stage. I thought everyone had forgotten about us and I don’t think I gave people enough credit for having a longer attention span. I’d assumed that because we’d disappeared we would be mostly forgotten. I was surprised we were able to go in the first place as it’s not a given you can just go and tour. It costs money, so you have to have a big enough audience to sustain a tour. That all the dates sold out with no exception, that’s a complete surprise. We were just overwhelmed by how warm people were. We’ve never had so many gifts before.”
Gifts? What kind of gifts did the Fratelli fans of America choose to shower upon their musical heroes? Underwear, compilation tapes, notes with phone numbers on them?
“Baking, funnily enough,” says Fratelli. “I don’t know if they think we need food, but the amount of baking we got was amazing… lots of cupcakes. Loads of women turning up with cupcakes.”
Cupcakes? So have the band that had the nation bouncing up and down on the football terraces and in clubs to the anthemic duh-duh-duh of Chelsea Dagger entered their cupcake phase? Are they about to settle into a more sedate middle aged spread?
“I hope not,” says Jon.
In fact, he is still only 34 and cuts a long lean figure that’s little changed over the years, but Jon, along with Mince and Barry, has learnt a thing or two about overnight success and how quickly it can disappear. The success of Costello Music saw the band playing festivals and multi-seater stadiums back in 2007 as they burst on to the music scene.
“We only know now that that wasn’t normal. You assume that’s how it goes; of course it’s not. If you’re in the right place at the right time then it has a life of its own. It’s only when you come down the other side of that – and we definitely did – that you realise it’s not normal. But you need that kick in the teeth. It’s really helpful. It’s horrible at the time, and you feel aggrieved no-one warns you that things don’t constantly go up the way, that they either have to level off or come down sharply.”
So why did the band split up? Musical differences, hectic touring schedules or life/work imbalances?
“We just got fed up with each other,” says Fratelli. “It’s OK to say that. I’m somebody who for better or worse heads in whichever direction seems the likely direction to go in at the time. Usually I get it wrong, but I’d much rather do that than hang about somewhere I’m unhappy. The albums I went and did were complete failures commercially, but I don’t care.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened, because when you start again you’re different. Your sense of reality is different and you realise you just don’t take things for granted, especially an audience. It isn’t a given. It’s something you build and then you have to please, not in the sense that you do it begrudgingly, but you have to constantly feed it and give it a reason to be there. I quite like that challenge now. It gives us some sort of control, especially when it comes to playing live, because if all else fails we know we can get on a stage and play. Other things like getting on the radio and getting the right press, you can’t control, but knowing you can just get up and play to an audience and make money, that means I can sleep soundly.”
Not that it’s about the money or material gains for Fratelli, who insists he would be a singer/songwriter no matter what the rewards.
“Money doesn’t even come into it. We just spent two weeks in the US and lost money even though we sold out, playing for the thrill. But you hope you make it back over the next 12 months. God knows. There was a certain point, when we had sold a million records but didn’t earn a penny from them for five years. You read about things like this in rock biographies, but it actually does happen. I don’t even know how much money I have, but I know there’s money in the bank at the moment.”
If going out to play live is what keeps Fratelli sleeping at night, his conviction that the music will always be there for him also keeps him going.
“There are always more songs. For every one that’s good there are four or five that are awful. I can live with that because there’s always going to be more. We are going to record 14 or 15 new songs in January that just happened to appear after we’d made this new album, so why not do another one straight away?”
We Need Medicine came out of The Fratellis’ desire to have an album they felt they could get on stage and play in its entirety, rather than either of the previous two which had tracks they might not wish to play every single time, despite the chants of the audience. Could he mean Chelsea Dagger?
“I don’t hate Chelsea Dagger, but I don’t really understand… It has a life of its own and you have to let it go because it could get on your nerves. I did let it at some point, and then you realise you can’t control it and it would be ridiculous to resent something from nine years ago. I was desperate to be noticed back then, so to be resentful seems ridiculous. In Chicago the ice hockey team uses it and I get so much air time because of that. And I get the royalties, so… it’s ok.”
“We needed an album where we could play the whole thing. We also made this record with a complete lack of caring or worrying about what we were making. It was made for our own amusement and we hadn’t done that before. With other records there was a voice in your ear saying make sure you do some singles, is this going to get on the radio, and for all the worrying about that, there wasn’t anything you could play on the radio, so what a waste of time mentally. This time everything was made without trying too hard.”
With its striking pop art cover and title, the new album is The Fratellis’ attempt to shine a light on the absurdity of life and the importance of music in helping us to get through.
“It’s not any great social commentary or an ad for pharmaceuticals – that’s never been my thing. But we need music. It’s a comfort blanket to me. My collection is full of Pink Floyd, Dylan, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Debbie Harry, although you’d never know that from listening to us, and I’m attracted to music from the mid-Fifties too. I like the simplicity of it. So much can be wrung out of three chords. That’s where I go back to,” he says.
Being in a band was never the be all and end all for Fratelli; he just wanted to play music. Born John Paul Lawler, he joined the band after answering an ad in a music shop and hooked up with Gordon McRory and Barry Wallace, with the name of the band coming from the 1980s film The Goonies.
“We had a name before we had a band. We had a lot of things. We met up one day through ads in a music shop and by the end of the night, very drunkenly, we had the band name and an album name, and we stuck with them – before we had any music and when we didn’t know if we would like each other.
“I never had that thing about wanting to be in a band, where people just like the lifestyle. I don’t like the way that’s sounding… very pompous. I mean that some people revel in the social life, but outside of this I don’t know many other musicians. I like the two guys I’m in the band with because they’re my friends, but the lifestyle doesn’t appeal to me. But you find yourself with a set of skills and mix that with a little bit of ambition and if you have the tiniest bit of creativity you can’t suppress it. I would be doing this even if it wasn’t a success, even if I couldn’t do it for a living.
“I do like playing live now though. I get a thrill out of that on a purely egotistical way. It’s not adulation, but there’s a thrill being on stage and being applauded, if you’re applauded, But it’s still less of a thrill than when you nail a song or lyric.”
Such is Fratelli’s self-contained nature, he’s happy to admit he has an album he made sitting on his bedside table that he has no intention of ever releasing. Made after the failure of Psycho Jukebox, he made it for himself to prove he could make something he liked.
“Psycho Jukebox wasn’t the best time in general and it’s a bit of a muddled record. I felt really proud of it but some of it, I’m not sure what was happening in my head. Then right after that I finally made the record I wanted to make. It’s a bit perverse keeping it just for me, but I don’t have to record it and release it. Just like you don’t have to answer the phone every time it rings.”
Fratelli lives with his “wife, two cats and son, erm, not in that order”, but beyond that he’s disinclined to discuss them.
“I don’t talk about them because it’s not relevant. I just don’t find that interesting about people. It’s not like I’m a big celebrity, but I think they should be separate. I don’t tweet or Facebook. God no. My life is actually that dull. I barely leave the house. It’s ridiculous. At the LA show I bumped into Greg Hemphill and we live one street apart, but I never see him. We have to go to LA to meet.”
For now it’s back on the road, up and down the UK then Europe, promoting We Need Medicine, then two weeks off at Christmas before working on the next album. The Fratellis are on a roll.
“We have lost a lot of time and it’s not about making up for it, but it won’t be coming back. Life’s not hanging around. So you have to do it while you can. And there’s nothing wrong with just trying to entertain people. I’m OK with that. In fact, I’m very happy.”
The Fratellis, O2 Academy, Glasgow, Friday, 7pm. We Need Medicine, BMG Rights, £7.49 (www.thefratellis.com)