As we move through our lives, musicians come and go. We create and relive memories through the songs that serve as momentary soundtracks to our lives and the concerts we went to that sustain them. And when we leave, the musicians and the band move on, the tour bus departing for another city and show. It’s a life Glen Hansard, lead singer of Irish rock band The Frames, knows well.
In town last month, Hansard spent some time in his cluttered tour bus before a show at the Aladdin Theatre talking to the Vanguard about touring the U.S., their new CD Burn the Maps and making a spot on CMJ’s top ten list.
Hansard compared touring to a pirate ship, his Irish accent lending a charm to his comfortable honesty.
"This is our home. The ship docks into a new town, we all get off, we go to the venue, we sing songs, we drink as much beer as we can, we rate the local women and we get back on the ship and take off. That sounds more like a metal band really then the kind of band we are. We sort of come into town and go the local cafe, drink Earl Grey, smile at the local women."
The question of what kind of band The Frames is has been a blessing and the curse. Despite comparisons to U2 and Coldplay, pigeonholing what kind of music the band plays is hard enough for the members let alone music critics and fans. Hansard said the U2 comparisons drawn in the U.S. come from two superficial things, "We’re from Ireland and we sing emotional music. Marketing people had a real problem with The Frames because we weren’t indie rock, we weren’t a pop group, we weren’t folk, we were all those things."
But Hansard said the industry has changed a lot since the band’s forming in the early ’90s, with the waning domination of marketing bands like The Frames are allowed to grow into a position where people can finally accept their music. But that position of acceptance, especially in the United States, was a long time coming.
First The Frames were dropped from their first record label, Island Records, the first of many barriers to any hope of success. "It was really hard. Like any band that’s been dropped from its first label it can really hurt you and it’s a great kick, it’s the biggest kick in fact," Hansard said. "If you survive then I think to a certain degree you’re worth your salt, or you’re stupid. It can be one or the other."
And with Hansard and The Frames, eventually it proved itself to be the former.
The band stuck it out and made its second and third albums, Fitzcarraldo and Dance the Devil with the English label ZTT, in what proved to be an unharmonious relationship. Both records were immediately shelved. Hansard said they weren’t given a chance and the band eventually left ZTT.
But during that time, The Frames toured and Hansard said it was then that they carved themselves a tiny but loyal following.
It was with their fourth album, For the Birds, that The Frames finally had control over the band’s image, and were able to make a record without having to cater to anyone outside of the band. They worked with Craig Ward, ex-dEUS member, and Steve Albini, who’s worked on notable albums like the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Nirvana’s In Uturo, creating what Hansard calls their black and white album.
"We purposely made it a very stark and simple record and we thought to ourselves, anybody who likes The Frames only vaguely won’t like this album. So what we’re going to do is cut away anyone who half likes us and we’re going to keep everybody who really likes the band."
It was a brave move and one Hansard said they made to know where the band stood. And it worked.
"We gained a whole new audience, which for us was really exciting, and the kind of audience who really seemed to get the joke at last, the kind of audience who seemed to go, ‘I really like this band top to bottom, everything they do, not just this or this, I like all of what they do.’"
It was a period of positive change for The Frames. Part of the stepping blocks towards acceptance and a changing attitude from the U.S. media, which Hansard said came at just the right time.
"We were never in the press, so it’s almost like a blessing. We never had our shot, we never had a title. You know how sometimes the press will get behind you and go, this band will be the next big thing and six months later they’ll kick the shit out of you?"
Their tenacity garnered them a Meteor award for best Irish band, a tour with Damien Rice and stage time at major festivals throughout the world. Whether or not their formula for success works in the U.S. still remains to be seen. Hansard says it’s not an easy place to break into.
"America’s basic truth: America loves the dollar. If you have the dollar you’re going to get played first and it’s just always been the way. If you want to break it down to simple terms it’s the major label bands that get the radio play because it’s the major labels that have the money to put into advertising and radio stations. America is black and white, two extremes. You find people who are absolutely on your side and people who couldn’t care less if you died tomorrow. It has the most innocence in that way, and the most enthusiasm and the least enthusiasm."
That enthusiasm can be found in college radio, where The Frames recently found themselves with a number ten spot on the CMJ chart – exciting news for them because, according to Hansard, they’re the people playing what they want.
"That will always be the place we gravitate towards rather than being number one."
The Frames’ latest album, Burn the Maps, is a repetition of the black and white formula that worked so well for them with For the Birds, a formula ironically reminiscent of Hansard’s view of the United States as black and white.
The two extremes Hansard spoke of are visible in this album. The record has a unique sound of melancholy: dreamy, dark melodies whose influences range from David Gedge’s The Wedding Present, 10-CC and the Pixies to HBO’s "Sex and The City."
"With this album the only real criteria, the only real agenda that we talked about before making it was to just have a really colorful record, to make a record that has a sense of dynamic and sonic comfort," Hansard said.
Initially comprised of half-written songs, tracks and demos that Hansard wrote, the band then worked together, manipulating and fleshing it out.
"It’s a bit like the A-Team, where Mr. T comes and brings the bit of scrap metal in and they go and win the battle," he said.
Its successful end demonstrates the band’s original, hard-to-nail-down vision. They’re no U2, they’re no Coldplay, they’re just The Frames. They’re a band whose music, Hansard said with a laugh, is best described as music made for people breaking up.
"It’s funny because that’s the best description of what we do that I could come up with. We’re all here living this life and some of us are enjoying it and some of us aren’t. All a band really offers is the same questions you ask yourself. There’s no promises. That’s really fucking important. It’s just a band. They’re just songs and it’s just music."