The anthemic sound and ‘blistering’ [™ Music Journalism Clichés] live shows signalled a band with a bright future. At gigs in Dublin it was not unheard of to glimpse Hollywood stars like Matt Dillon. A shoestring video for Revelate was nominated for an MTV Europe music video award. Things were, it seemed, on the up.
The bands next album Dance the Devil, had a more considered sound, produced for the most part by the band’s then guitarist Dave Odlum [Odlum has since moved entirely into production, working on albums by The Frames, Mic Christopher, Gemma Hayes, and Josh Ritter]. It was met with critical approval, but there were obvious ‘artistic differences’ between band and label surfacing. The independent release of the I am the magic hand ep, which contained alternative, lo-fi versions of both God Bless Mom, and The Stars are Underground, two of the three tunes produced directly by Trevor Horn, suggested a band unhappy with the radio-friendly direction envisaged for them by their label. The feeling was mutual, it seems, and band and label parted company.
The problem with the Frames, from a record company perspective, was surely that they were/are consistently unwilling to produce one type of song. Had they allowed Trevor Horn to produce 12 songs in the Revelate mould, perhaps things may have been commercially very different for them. It’s not something, unsurprisingly, that Hansard would countenance: “I’ve always had this problem with the notion of art and commerce. You know, I’ve met so many people, craftsmen, potters etc who make one thing brilliantly, like a pot, and they hit on a formula and they spend the rest of their lives making, reproducing the same thing. They spend their whole life repeating that moment of inspiration, where they hit on one thing that’s commercial, in the true sense of the word, that brings them money. They then spend the rest of their lives marketing it, and I’ve real problems with that, with endorsing that.”
And so, in what was becoming almost a pattern, the band re-grouped to work out their next step. It was to be the self-financed, and largely self-produced album For the Birds [A number of tracks were produced by legendary producer Steve Albini]. The sound was stripped back, the songwriting introspective, and above all, it refused the temptation to ‘rock’. The album was a critical and commercial success in Ireland. Not only was it a recognition of the album’s merits itself, but it was also a significant example of the power of word of mouth marketing [record companies had yet to discover the ‘street team’ concept]. For years the band had been playing brilliant live gigs and producing complex and dynamic albums. For the Birds arrived at the right moment to capitalise on the growing audience interested in the band.
Which pretty much brings us to the current album Burn the Maps. Recorded in Chicago, with a significantly changed line up, after the departure of Odlum as guitarist [Hansard and violinist Colm Mac Con lomaire are the only two original members], the album signalled a different approach from For the Birds, which, as bassist Joe Doyle suggested to Three Monkeys Online, was less band orientated and more a case of Hansard’s songs with the band playing a backing role. “I kind of took a step back” admits Hansard, in relation to Burn the Maps. “I took a step away from my usual role, which is kind of the ‘Van the Man’ role, demanding that things have to be my way – the classis singer-songwriter pose of every now and then having to pull out that line ‘it’s my fuckin’ song’ [laughs]. On this record I was really into the idea of letting the band members take songs away and fix them up, because I really like the band at the moment and the way everyone contributes. For example Sideways Down was a song I wrote in a couple of minutes, a total doodle, and then Joe [Doyle, bassist] went off and did something with it. Underglass was another one where it was just an idea and then Joe went off and took it somewhere else.Fake was another one – twenty minutes in someone’s back garden and the lads all said ‘yeh, that’s a good tune’. I didn’t even think it should be on the album, yet we released it as a single and it topped the charts in Ireland, and weirded our audience out! No-one who liked the Frames liked that song. We sold about 15,000 copies of the single in Ireland, which is more than we’d ever sold. So we had a whole new audience through just one song, which was very weird.”
To many, the success of For the Birds, followed by their signing of a worldwide deal with anti records, has paved the way for . The plan should be simple, to go out and get their return on that. “I suppose if I could have anything in the world,” responds Hansard, “a kind of ‘dear Santa’, it would be to be able to go anywhere in the world, and play to a room full of people, and not necessarily a room full of drunk people wanting to hear Revelate. Basically to have patrons all over the world. That’s the goal – not the rock star thing. That’s never fit. I agree with you that For the Birds has opened up a new chapter for the Frames, and it’s great, but I’d be very foolish to think that we could now go out there and almost elbow our way into chart positioning, or compete. I wouldn’t want to. It’s something I’ve always hated, and it’s something you see all the time in the English music press for example, where one band is being pitted against another. Even the charts themselves as an idea are reducing music to the level of a sport where there’s a winner and a loser. I really don’t think that music or art, or anything that involves creativity should have to be compared. You can prefer music over other music but it’s not a competition.”
The Sacred and the Profane
There are two types of music fans, I suggest: the first is the evangelist, who, having gotten into a band, wishes global success on them; the second is the purist, who checks their favourite band’s performance against an unwritten list of artistic regulations. Hansard is quite probably both. “It’s a weird one”, Hansard says, talking about the pressures between different types of audience. “People want you to be big, and at the same time they don’t. I’ve been through this with people that I’ve liked, where you love them and they’re yours, then they go off and become big and they’re not yours. It’s not even that, though”, he pauses. “For example, I loved AC/DC when I was a kid, and they were huge at the time, so I was into a really commercial band. I loved that band so much though. I remember going to see them in the RDS [Dublin music venue] in 1980, I think, and I was so upset because everybody else was there, and there were people there to see [incredulously] Y+T. I wanted everyone to realise that this was AC/DC, to completely understand just how special and important this was to me! I was almost upset with the audience that they didn’t all turn around and reverentially nod ‘this is AC/DC’! It was just another gig at the end of the day, but for me it was one of my first gigs.”
Hansard’s attitude to music, to success, and to his audience is complicated and contradictory, but all seem desperately genuine. He’s involved in promoting and selling his music, the spinal tapisms of touring, interviews, award ceremonies etc. You get the feeling that he’d be delighted to play stadiums as well as clubs, but only if everyone in the audience was passionate about the music. Much of it comes back to his concept of what Music is, and does: “Without wanting to sound too ‘arty’,” he says, “I think music is basically medicine. I realised this last year when I got an i-pod. All the band had one, so I got myself one and spent about a week loading all my songs into me [sic] computer and then on to the thing. I though ‘this is so cool’, having all my records on this. Then, there’s a thing on the i-pod, your most listened to tracks, and I realised that I only ever listen to Radiohead or Pink Floyd, and mostly Pink Floyd. Even though I have this device that allows me to listen to any of my tunes, and I’ve so much music, but I only ever listen to what I need. At home I’ll stick on whatever – a bit of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or a bit of Van Morrison while I’m making the dinner, and I’ll buzz off that in a really light kind of way, but on tour I go into that thing where I need my mother’s breast, where you’re in that foetal position. You’re out in the world and your skin is getting thinner by the day, and it’s almost like travelling wears your defenses down because your soul is usually fuckin’ miles behind you. So it gets to a point where you just need music. It’s like today, for a half an hour in the hotel room earlier, it felt like being on the verge of falling off. At that point, instead of reaching for a guitar, you reach for the music that you know heals you.”