How do you cope with sky-scraping success? Specifically, how do you live with a song that was a giant, culture-puncturing hit, that won’t go away, that is still all over the radio and the terraces and stadiums, that remains as catchy and infectious and invigorating as it was when it was released seven years ago. You come up with an album such as ‘We Need Medicine’ – the third studio album due for release by The Fratellis on October 7th.
Jon Fratelli knows ‘that’ song you’re talking about is ‘Chelsea Dagger’. The Fratellis’ deathless breakthrough single is the song that set the band on the road to selling over a million copies of debut album ‘Costello Music’, , and to winning a Brit Award (Best British Breakthrough Act, as voted for by the listeners of Radio 1). But at the same time, he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
“I’ve long since stopped caring about all that,” says the Glasgow trio’s frontman and songwriter, his speaking style as relaxed as his performing style is urgent. “For a start you have no control over it– to see it still continually growing. It’s an odd thing because it’s just another song. I really never have, and never will, think about it in any special way. It’s just a song in the middle of a bunch of others songs. I hadn’t even written ‘Chelsea Dagger’ when we got our first record deal. So I know that there was other stuff that people were interested in.”
Equally though, Jon knows what side his bread’s buttered on. “Of course the song has made life easier for our band. It really has – and not just financially. Not everybody has that kind ace to call on. And I only now realise that. So I’m quite easy with it now. I’ll quite happily take the royalties,” he grins. “I couldn’t possibly dislike it.”
In any case, there’s no point in looking back. Summer 2013, and the rebooted Fratellis – Jon (vocals/guitar/piano), Barry (bass) and Mince (drums) – are all about the future. ‘We Need Medicine’ is the rallying cry of a band looking forward. Bend an ear to the brilliantly energetic and robustly tuneful songs propelling the band’s tonic of a comeback and you’ll feel better in a flash. That’s the smile-inducing Fratellis factor for you.
The Fratellis went away, but now they’re back. Where have they been? Typically, Jon isn’t one for PR blather.
“I just did a few interviews in Europe,” says the singer who took his band all round the world, repeatedly, between 2007 and 2009, in support of their follow-up second album ‘Here We Stand’. “And the word ‘hiatus’ kept coming up, which was quite funny. It’s a really good word for having split up. I don’t mind at all, but there’s obviously somebody somewhere who thinks that we shouldn’t use the worlds ‘split up’. But,” he shrugs, “that’s really what happened.”
It was, he agrees, the same old story: pressure and workload and expectation winding you up and getting you down and pushing you apart. The three members of The Fratellis had to go their own ways.
“I don’t know,” Jon reflects, “I think sometimes you need something as extreme as that to be able to move on – even if it is move sideways. For some reason just taking a long break didn’t seem like an option. Maybe I needed something more absolute.”
Inveterate, compulsive songrwiter that he is, Jon didn’t retire to his Scottish castle, or even just to the pub. He formed a new band, Codeine Velvet Club, and released an album. He recorded & released a solo album, ‘Psycho Jukebook’,. He recorded another album, Bright Night Flowers, and put it in “my top drawer. It’s still there.”
But, with time, a weight was lifted, and last year he spoke to his former bandmates. How about doing some gigs? No promises, no big plans, but just for kicks? He wanted to see “if anybody cared enough to come along and see The Fratellis. ’Cause it’s not a given. There are so many reasons for people to just not come and see you.”
After four or five shows, four or five great nights, the band were surprised and adrenalised. “It was only when that happened that the thought was; well, to have some sort of life we have to have another record.”
It didn’t take long. Jon already had some cached songs written for the third album the band never made. With his dander up, others quickly took shape. Repairing to a mate’s Glasgow house – albeit one stuffed with studio gear – and with Jon in the producer’s seat, ‘We Need Medicine’ was whipped together in three weeks.
The pounding piano of ‘Jeannie Nitro’ its title taken from a novel by Charles Bukowski, the writer that Jon reads compulsively, (“it’s like background TV noise for me”). It joins the cast of great Fratellis character songs such as Chelsea Dagger, Henrietta, My Friend John, Mistress Mabel. ‘This Old Ghost Town’ leaps out of the speakers, aturbo-charged piano-drums-guitars blast, while ‘Seven Nights Seven Days’, the first single, is a rollicking, jump-around anthem whose exuberance belies the subject matter.
“I always think that in print these things sound very self-indulgent but lyrically it is quite desperate-sounding. And I guess it’s sort of autobiographical. On the record as a whole, while there’s far less of that sort of fantasy stuff, there’s still enough of it on there – ’cause I still think the world needs an element of nonsense from rock’n’roll,” he smiles. “Especially in music – I keep hearing stuff that’s very bleeding heart. I don’t know how 19 year olds can have bleeding hearts -But anyway, there’s three or four songs on the album, and that’s one of them, that have to be autobiographical. Just a sense of slight desperation and looking for some hope somewhere.”
Does that feed into the idea of the song ‘We Need Medicine’ – a heavy, stomping belter – being chosen as the title track?
“I guess so, but more in a sort of jocular fashion with that song in particular. Sometimes it’s good to poke fun at yourself and all your inadequacies.” But for Jon, it’s more important to sing of his passions. The album’s opening song is the raucous ‘Halloween Blues’, a song dressed in a leather jacket and sporting a pompadoured quiff.
“It’s a nod to the very beginnings of rock’n’roll. I can’t pretend not to be obsessed with just the simplicity of all of that. It just continually hits me – any time I play an old record, whether it’s something from Sun or something similar it seems like it would have been nice to have been around in such simple times. And ‘Halloween Blues’ is just a nod to that”
It’s an idea bookended by the punchy melancholy of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Will Break Your Heart’. “The title of that song says it all, really,” Jon says. “And any overly sensitive souls who find themselves in love with a genre of music and a time of music, but out of place and out of time, would understand the sentiment.”
This summer, though, The Fratellis have found themselves in the right places at the right time. They’ve been knocking it out of the park at festivals across Europe, with the responses at their T In The Park homecoming and a brace of Spanish shows in particular leaving the band close to speechless. All of which nicely tees up a heavy international touring schedule stretching towards year’s end and into 2014.
“Those shows were really overwhelming,” he reflects. ” Oh man, the laughter afterwards! You just knew it was something quite special. We all came into the dressing rooms after those shows, without speaking, and all just broke into laughter. I’d forgotten it could be like that.”
Laughter, of course, being the best medicine, along with rip-roaring songs and heartfelt sentiment. ‘We Need Medicine’. We need excitement. We need tunes. We need The Fratellis. Three cheers for what’s likely to be the best comeback of the year.