Back to the Beginning

Published August 20, 2015

ABOVE: THE FRATELLIS. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHEN KYLE.

It’s fairly likely that you’ve heard at least a song or two from Costello Music, Glaswegian indie-rock trio The Fratellis’ debut album, since its release in 2006. Hits like “Chelsea Dagger” and “Flathead” quickly drew high praise and comparisons to indie-pop contemporaries such as The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys, while raking up countless awards and radio airtime around the world. The Fratellis’ sound was equal parts retro, glam, and catchy with cheekily humorous lyrical narratives to boot. Unlike some of their peers, however, Jon, Barry, and Mince Fratellis’ commercial success slowly began to falter. The band’s next album, 2008’s Here We Stand, showed a noticeable decline in sales, despite heavy touring. Then when We Need Medicine came out in 2013, the album dropped out of the Top 100 albums chart after merely a week. If the band’s latest album Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied (out Friday, August 21) is any indication, though, the trio will soon be reliving their initial success.

After decamping to sunny Los Angeles and reuniting with Costello Music producer Tony Hoffer, the group have created an LP that emits a fun, energetic depth with subtle nods to rockabilly and Cali-rock compositions. If the band had said “Thief” was a lost track from their debut, we would easily believe them.

Earlier this week, we chatted with lead vocalist and guitarist Jon Fratelli to discuss the new record, creative process, and just about everything in between. We were in New York, while he was in London preparing for last night’s show at The Borderline.

DEVON IVIE: Are you excited for your concert in London?

JON FRATELLI: Possibly. It changes from moment to moment. But at this point, I haven’t given it much thought.

IVIE: With your tour starting up soon, I wanted to ask: What do you think were some of the best or most memorable performances you’ve ever had?

FRATELLI: There are so many shows in my memory. There was one particular show in Webster Hall in New York years ago. We walked on stage to an ovation that didn’t stop until about five minutes later. We thought, “Well, that hasn’t happened before.” That sticks in the memory.

IVIE: Hopefully that’ll be replicated when you’re back in September.

FRATELLI: Well, I don’t think these things can easily be replicated, which I’m quite happy with. These things are fairly magical when they happen. But to be quite honest, we’re just really fortunate to be able to go and play to people. So they’re a little bit special from that point of view.

IVIE: Do you have anything that you’re keen on doing when you get to New York?

FRATELLI: I’ve actually spent quite a bit of time in New York in these past few years. I go to the theater every time I’m there. It wasn’t something I’d done very much in life until the last couple of years. This time around I’m actually going to stay with some friends upstate for a week at the end of the tour. Other than that, we have one day in New York, which I guess we’ll see from the back of taxicabs. I just like the place. I can go there like I’m home. People will say, “What did you do in New York?” I’ll say, “Absolutely nothing.” I’m always quite happy to go somewhere for the sake of being there. But I do enjoy the theater.

IVIE: You should go see Hamilton. It used to be off-Broadway, but now it’s officially on-Broadway. It’ll be running for a while, for sure. It’s so hard to get tickets.

FRATELLI: Oh yeah. In March I went to see Skylight, with Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, and it was very expensive as well. Like, $200 a ticket.

IVIE: For Hamilton, it’s $300 for the nosebleed seats.

FRATELLI: What! Wow. It might be worth it. It think these things are worth paying for.

IVIE: I agree. Do you have any tour rituals?

FRATELLI: We’re not very interesting—at least I don’t think we’re very interesting. [laughs] It’s an extension of the lifeline. Nothing much happens; it’s such an extension of home life. The most exciting part of everything is the show. I keep to myself in general.

IVIE: How long has Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied been in the making?

FRATELLI: The songs that ended up in this record were all written in a fairly short space of time last summer. We recorded in October last year. The actual recording of the record took four weeks. We’re not really the kind of band that has the concentration required to record for months on end. I think it must be fairly spontaneous to a degree—well, not necessarily spontaneous, but captured quickly. The process has always been that way. So any album or record that we do will be captured fairly quickly.

IVIE: How did recording the album in Los Angeles, as opposed to Glasgow, influence the album’s overall sound?

FRATELLI: Every song in this record was written in my home in Glasgow, so in that regard it didn’t really have much of an influence. I’ve never felt a real connection with geography and creation. Having said that, it’s the place where we recorded our first record and I did a couple of records there, too. There’s a really, really big difference between Los Angeles and Glasgow. I just like the sunshine; it makes for a good mood, where it’s always sunny, maybe because we come from a sun-starved place. [laughs]

IVIE: You wrote all of the songs on Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied—tell me about your creative process for songwriting when you’re at home in Glasgow. How do you approach writing a new song?

FRATELLI: I don’t actually think anybody ever approaches writing any song, I think the song approaches them, truth be told. Usually what happens is that a song arrives and afterwards you say that “I wrote the song,” and it’s not actually true; they find you, they write themselves. There’s no way to explain that thought… From that point of view, you can be the most patient person and still not come up with anything. Some people talk of writer’s block—you got all of these ideas but nothing happens. The truth is, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s to the degree that you want to write. The thing is that these things show up whenever they feel like it.

IVIE: It’s funny that you mention writer’s block. One of my questions was what you do to combat writer’s block, but it appears you don’t get it at all.

FRATELLI: I don’t think it exists. It only seems to exist because you can say it does. [Ideas] may not arrive exactly on time, it may not be the most convenient thing for you. For me that happens a very small amount, but if for whatever reason it’s not arriving at the moment, it may last forever. Thinking about it won’t change any of that.

IVIE: Do you think there is an overarching theme throughout Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied?

FRATELLI: Nothing conscious, no idea behind any of it, in retrospect. We really made it for it’s own sake. It wasn’t meant to take on anything; it wasn’t made so we can have more songs to play live. At the time we had no record label and we had no real reason to do it, so it was only done because we just decided to. In that regard it was very free; it had no real constraints.

It’s like when you make your first record. When you make your first record, you have no fan base usually. Nobody really knows you who you are yet because you haven’t released a record. So you can only be making it yourself, to entertain yourself. It’s kind of going back—there was no reason to do it, other than just for the pleasure of doing it.

IVIE: Costello Music, your debut, was the most commercially successful album. When I listen to it now, it brings back a lot of memories, especially since I played it constantly during my teenage years. Do you look at that album with similar nostalgia?

FRATELLI: Oh yes, it’s impossible not to. You do that with your own records. There are certain records and songs that instantly transport you back and I’ve never felt anything quite as exciting as that initial feeling when you relate to stuff in music. There’s nothing like that initial start. If you could capture it, you could be the most powerful person in the world. [laughs] It’s maybe not as intense, but it only takes one song sometimes to completely take you back.

IVIE: I’m sure the pressure for your second album must have been enormous coming off a massive success like that.

FRATELLI: Personally, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at that point. I remember being very tired. We released our record and had to do it fairly quickly, because we had a bunch of festivals for about six months. We had gone through those festivals once, some of them twice already, for that one album. I had no idea what we were trying to do at that point. I did know I would never be able to write those same kinds of songs again that we had on the first record. But in that case, I can’t write those, what would I write? It’s strange from that point of view.

IVIE: There are a lot of clear influences in Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied, most noticeably to me was The Beatles’ “Come Together” melody on “Dogtown.” In what ways did you want to sonically experiment or even pay homages to other musicians?

FRATELLI: Homages will always be there. I’ve never deviated from my record collection, and I mean that in all seriousness. The record collection that I fell in love with has always stayed the same, so I’ve always picked from that. But sonically, I owe that to Tony Hoffer, he’s the man to blame. [laughs] He has a particular style. He did our first record, and people associate us with that record. They associate the sound of that record with us, but it’s not really our sound. They may be our songs, and we bring character to them with the way we play them, but sonically it’s all him. And it’s all him again sonically for this record too. I was really happy for that to be the case, to have him on board and let him do whatever he thought was right, no matter what that was. So we ended up with a record that, when we finally got to listen to it, was almost like listening to somebody else’s record. I enjoyed that.

IVIE: You mentioned your record collection. What are some of your favorites?

FRATELLI: Abbey Road never gets dull and I never cease to find things that are new each time. The truth is, in the last couple of years, I’ve completely stopped listening to music. I’m no expert. I have no real explanation for why that has happened. All I can say is that it has happened. I have moments where I desperately need a song on, but then it disappears again. I wasn’t really listening to anything when the record was recorded. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on out in the world musically. It’s quite possible that I just listened to too much music over time.

IVIE: I’ve always liked your album cover art. What’s the story behind this particular cover’s aesthetic?

FRATELLI: I’m the wrong guy to ask. [laughs] With titles and artwork, the three of us have fairly different tastes, so we usually just go with the first one that we all agree on. If we don’t do that, it could get into an endless cycle of discussion. I much prefer to just choose and move on. We decided quite quickly that we liked the artwork, same with the title. I like the blank canvas. I thought it looked straightforward and simple. I’m not sure if it’s eye-catching. The thing is that I’m not very visual, I don’t think in pictures, so it’s hard for me to judge whether something is eye-catching. That’s why I ask other people to do it.

IVIE: Have you started to think about album number five, or is it too soon it discuss?

FRATELLI: Well, I haven’t written anything. It’s quite possible that the best thing to do is to start touring again and get a release musically through that. When I finish a record, I’m always thinking about straight away to the next one, because I get bored very easily. I always think, “Okay, what will we do next?” But it hasn’t happened this time; that’s a strange one. So, it could be never. It could be next year. I have absolutely no idea at this point. And I’m ok with that… My bandmates might not be. [laughs]

EYES WIDE, TOUNGE TIED WILL BE RELEASED ON FRIDAY, AUGUST 21. FOR MORE ON THE FRATELLIS, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.