(This interview was originally published in WAV Magazine, which gave birth to Kotori Magazine, in the Spring of 2004. Click here for a PDF of the full print magazine, which also includes interviews with Saul Williams, The Crystal Method, DJ Dan and much more.)
If you’ve never heard of Irish folk rock band the Frames, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Despite selling over two million copies of their last studio album, For the Birds, recorded with the help of famed Nirvana producer Steve Albini, the band remains relatively unknown in the States, relegated to opening slots for indie faves such as Calexico and Damien Rice. The band’s newest offering, entitled Set List and slated for a February 24th release here, debuted at number one in Ireland.
No small feat considering that the band initially planned to release it on their own over their website.
Fiercely independent, the band, who got their start playing on the streets, has been dropped by two major labels throughout their 14-year career, but they’ve never looked back. In the meantime, their live shows have attained cult-like status in Ireland, bridging the gap between audience and performer, and often creating an awe-inspiring communal vibe that is readily apparent on the new live disc. We caught up with frontman Glen Hansard to see what he had to say about life, music, and the major labels.
You want to explain to our American readers what “busking” is?
It’s just street performing. To me [busking] is the most direct way of communicating. Playing on the street, there’s a very powerful sort of learning in it, you know? I think it certainly taught me a lot about being able to stand still while the rest of the world is moving, having enough confidence to stand there and go “this is my song”. When I was 13 I left school. I fucking hated it. I had a really small group of friends who I didn’t really know that well [and I was] doing all the sorts of things that teenagers do like stealing cars and breaking into houses…When I discovered the guitar, really a whole new self was born. A whole new fucking personality… The first time I went out [to the more affluent South side of the city], I put on my guitar and I started playing…the next thing I knew I was living with a painter and we were coming to town everyday, busking all day, meeting amazing musicians. I met most of the people who are my best friends today through that. We met all of our heroes, particularly The Waterboys. They were living in Dublin and they’d come busking with us. I met Van Morrison through busking [and] Bob Dylan. I discovered other music through busking as well. I discovered REM and the Pixies. I discovered I liked a lot of American bands.
You ever go out busking anymore?
Oh yeah, Jesus, sometimes we still do it, absolutely. I never really did it for money, to be honest. We have the dole, you don’t have it in America, you know social welfare. It’s given to people at a younger age, there’s not such a stigma attached to it as there is in America. So when I was younger the social welfare--it’s not a lot of money but it takes care of stuff like paying your rent and everything else--it allowed busking to be a love rather than a job. It’s one of those things that I and the rest of the band have tried to steer clear of making money off of. It seems friends join bands, and they make good money, and it gets very comfortable and before you know it they’re just doing whatever makes the most money. You see it in all artists, especially painters. They hit on a good painting that sells well in galleries and before you know it, they’re not asking questions anymore. They’re just repeating themselves. It’s really important to try to keep the whole idea of money and that part of success out of your immediate frame.
One of the most striking things about Set List is the incredible energy being thrown back at you guys by the audience.
We have this kind of relationship with our audience – it’s almost like one of those shareholder things where, when they invest any money in the gig, we let them know exactly where its going. Those gigs were a real special event for us. The whole ambition behind that record was just basically to make enough money to make the record we’re making now. There was no deal in place. We were thinking hopefully we’ll sell a few thousand copies. And then this distribution company in Ireland had the money to put us out properly. We put it out and it fucking knocked Justin Timberlake off of number one. We were shocked. It wasn’t like “Yes, we’ve done it!” it was more like, “that’s really funny,” you know? And it’s now our biggest selling record and the whole philosophy behind that record was literally, “Let’s just throw this thing out and see what happens.” A lot of major [label] marketing philosophies are just like the mushroom theory: keep them in the dark and feed them shit. Keep everybody, including the band, in the dark about the finances or the marketing strategies or whatever else, you know? We’ve always had a pretty direct relationship with our audience even when we were signed to a major [label].
Tell me about the antiwar rally you played last February in front of 100,000 people.
Ireland is a neutral country, and you know, fucking England’s all crazy, going off to war, and they’re using airports here in Ireland as a sort of stop off point. It wasn’t a celebrity act, no bullshit like that. It was just about going and being part of the people, you know by being another human body in a crowd. My presence was my protest and it counts for something, you know?
So you don’t see the Frames becoming politically motivated in terms of their lyrics?
Certainly not. I think music is in the realm of dreaming. Politics – I mean Woody Guthrie did it so well, Bob Dylan did it so well – I never even dreamed of making a social comment in music. Music should be about what goes on in the heart and not what goes on in the head. I have to let the whole lyrical thing be much more of a spiritual thing – not Spirit, but you know, something that comes out of your chest rather than something that comes out of your brain. My brain is a bad neighborhood, you know. Every time I go in there I get beaten up. This head music is very interesting for a couple of listens, but in terms of a record you listen to all your life – Joni Mitchell’s Blue or Tom Waits’ Closing Time, those records were all born out of the blues as opposed to our political climate. To me, I find that once it becomes political it becomes dated and all good music is timeless.
“Fitzcarraldo” – great song. Is that the song that got you motivated after Island dropped you guys?
Absolutely. After that record we were so hurt. We were such a young band. We had been dropped man. That’s it. All the big questions start coming, like what the fuck am I doing with my life, you know? Am I wasting my time completely? And afterwards we just buried ourselves in rehearsals. And I think the only reason we rehearsed every day was to be together, to console each other. Because basically, we were all fucking hurting. I remember coming home after rehearsals one day and [a] film was on the TV. At the end of it, I was so taken by the film and the music that I wrote down all of the credits, and I asked people and they said, “Oh that’s Fitzcarraldo by [German director] Werner Herzog.” And I went out and I found the film on video. I went and wrote a song based on the experience. Getting over that kind of loss, like being dropped off your label – the last time we were dropped we had a party. It was like, “Yes! We’re fucking clear of that bastard.” But that first time...it really hurts. You know that whole, “How the hell are we ever going to get over this?” But we did. And that’s what the film is all about. A couple of years later we actually managed to get a copy of the album to Werner Herzog.
Some day that song just might propel someone else who’s been rejected.
Well, lets hope, man. That’s what it’s all about, you know.