Firing questions at anyone for a half an hour about their motivations and identity is bound to produce contradictions, but an interview with Glen Hansard, chief songwriter from Irish band the Frames, throws up more than its fair share. It’s not that he’s confused, or indeed confusing. Rather, the context that he and The Frames are working in is bizarre.
We’re talking in the bar of a hotel in an out of the way provincial Italian town, a couple of hours before the final gig on an exploratory tour through Europe. “I got that overwhelming feeling that ‘I’m too old for this'”, laughs Hansard, talking about playing a free televised gig in Milan two nights before. “There are situations that we find ourselves in now,” he continues –“that you think a band that’s a year old should be doing this, not a band that’s been going for a long time. For the want of a better term, we’ve earned our stripes, we’re not apprentices any more, we’ve moved out of that”. And yet, with the worldwide release of their latest album Burn the Maps, they have become precisely that – apprentices, albeit with 14 years experience and a back catalogue of songs that have made them one of Ireland’s favourite bands.
The night’s gig is lined up in a venue that is to all intents and purposes a huge disco. It’s hi-tech and impressive, with video screens aplenty, but a disco nonetheless. It’s also host to “British Night”, a weekly disco specialising in brit-pop. To book an Irish rock band, with a sound influenced more by Radiohead and Van Morrison than Oasis or Blur, and ask them to play in a room festooned in Union Jacks, would elicit a strong response from an apprentice band. Instead, the Frames sigh and get on with it. A room is a room, and a chance to play is a chance to play.
The band, formed in Dublin in 1990 by Glenn Hansard, then a young songwriter in possession of a recording contract with Island Records. Their first album, Another Love Song failed to set the world alight and the band were unceremoniously dropped (a chain of events shared by a number of Irish bands in the ’80s and ’90s).
“Another Love Song” says Hansard, openly, “was from a very young man, who took the first record deal that came his way. It happened to be a very bad record deal. They say that boxers and musicians are the two most abused groups in entertainment because all they want to do is go out there and get in the ring and fight, and it’s so true. All I wanted was a contract. When I saw the contract it wasn’t money I was thinking about. All I saw was a big stage, and loads of people. Me, guitar, song [laughs, wide eyed]. All I saw was the opportunity to go out there and become Bob Dylan, which was what I left school to do. I got out there and made my mistakes! I wanted the guy who produced Surfer Rosa to do the record but I didn’t even know his name. I knew the Pixies, and loved the record, but I was never the sort of person who read sleeve covers, or who knew the bass player’s name on Harvest by Neil Young. So they said ‘we can get the guy who did Doolittle‘ [Editor’s note: Gil Norton], and I thought fine. But all my songs were country songs, or –[correcting himself] not country but folksongs. I grew up on Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van the Man [Editor’s note: Van Morrison], so I was basically doing a very stupid thing first off by wanting to make a rock album as my first album, because I didn’t know how to write rock songs. They weren’t part of my vocabulary at the time.”
Finding themselves dropped, the band licked their wounds and continued writing and gigging. 1995 saw the release of Fitzcarraldo, their second album through Trevor Horn’s ZTT label. Prior to signing with Horn another version of the album was released in Ireland – now a collectors item. If Another Love Song was a false start, Fitzcarraldo was a confident return. Songs like Revelate and Monument combined Hansard’s poetic sensibilities with an unambiguous harder sound. The band had incorporated rock into its vocabulary. While a fans’ favourite, it’s an album that Hansard, looking back, is often puzzled by: “When I was younger there was a lot of desperation, it was very anthemic. There was one point, when I hit 31, when I looked back, and I listened to Fitzcarraldo and wondered ‘what the hell was I on?’ [laughs]. What was I so hungry for? It’s funny, as you get older your ambition hones and clears until you eventually realise that all any man really wants is to have children who are proud of them. I think I’m finding my way to that place, where you want a good wife, a nice house. You want to be able to provide good meals etc. I’m not at that point yet, but I like saying it because I know I’m getting there. I know that at some point I’ll do it”.