interview by Michael McCarthy
It’s been roughly 12 years since the release of The Fratellis’ universally loved debut album, Costello Music. Their newly released album, In Your Own Sweet Time, is their fifth and certainly one of their best. I was, honestly, blown away from the first time I heard it. I wouldn’t bother trying to convince Costello Music fanatics that the new one is better because people who fall madly in love with a debut album always wind up thinking that it’s the band’s best album no matter how many others they release. I imagine it must be frustrating for any artist, like singer-songwriter Jon Fratelli (born John Lawler), who I interview below, to always be compared to something you did over a decade ago. But I’m here to say that I find In Your Own Sweet Time to be superior to Costello Music. In fact, I think it’s possibly the band’s best album to date. Call me crazy, but still. It’s amazing, rich in kaleidoscopic color, and you never know just what the next turn (meaning, the next song) is going to sound like. Regardless of which previous album by The Fratellis is your favorite so far, if you’re truly a fan then you owe it to yourself to check out their fine new tunes. They’re quite contagious. And they should get you up out of your seat, commanding you to shake those hips and dance your ass off. That’s how fun it is.
Also, if you’re a big fan of Jon’s then you’re in for a real treat here because our interview covers many, many topics. You’ll see.
MM: Is your line-up still the same three guys as when you debuted?
JF: Yup, still is the same three guys. [Jon: vocals/guitars/songwriting, Barry: bass, Mince: drums and backing vocals.]
MM: What’s your secret to staying together?
JF: That’s a good question. I don’t have an idea. We don’t argue very often. Maybe that helps. Not arguing helps.
MM: Some of your new songs, especially “I’ve Been Blind” and “Indestructible,” remind a little of The Monkees with their upbeat music. Are they an influence at all, by any chance?
JF: No. I don’t think I know any of The Monkees songs.
MM: The Monkees was a TV show about a band called The Monkees, but they became a real group and had a lot of hits and they still have some popularity here.
JF: Yeah, it passed me by a little bit.
MM: Is “I’ve Been Blind” going to be a single? Because that one has hit written all over it.
JF: It is the next single, yeah. So, I think that goes to radio in the next couple of weeks. I guess it is catchy. I’ve never been very good at that. What will and won’t get on radio, I’m just terrible at choosing these things, but people seem to think that one will.
MM: Have you made a video for it?
JF: There’s been a video made, but we haven’t been on any of the videos for this record. Sometimes I think that, really, to dance in a video really isn’t going to look good. We much prefer just giving a director free reign to make whatever he wants to make to make for the single. So, I think somebody has made a video for that song.
MM: Have you seen it yet?
JF: I haven’t. And the thing is, I have no idea what constitutes a good video. So, it seems that I’m the last person who should ever comment on it. I’m happy to let somebody make one.
MM: How is the new album doing so far? Did it debut well on the charts?
JF: I think we’re in the top five in the UK, which is nice. Other than that, I have absolutely no idea. I’m the last person to know, usually. I don’t keep up to date with talk online. Little aspects, you know? We played a UK tour that finished last week and that’s the place where we get to see people’s reactions. When we played those songs, people didn’t go to the bar or the toilet and that’s probably a good thing.
MM: “Sugartown” reminds me of The Doors somehow. Did they inspire that song at all?
JF: Yeah, not really. It was more a doo-wop kind of thing. But I guess it has a ’60’s sound to it. It does have some ’60’s organs in there so that’s probably why you made the connection. But it was more of a doo-wop thing.
MM: What’s it like playing a huge festival like Glastonbury?
JF: Um, I have a terrible memory so I don’t necessarily remember these things. I remember bad shows. If I have very few memories of gigs it’s because we had lots of good shows. I don’t have a bad memory of Glastonbury, so I guess we did OK. [Both laugh]
MM: Do you ever get stage fright before going on in front of a massive audience like that?
JF: Nope. No, that’s not really my thing. I feel like playing live is the one thing we know how to do. So, if we’re nervous about that then we might be out of a job.
MM: You worked with producer Tony Hoffer again this time. Was it always going to be Tony producing the new record or did you consider working with other producers at any point?
JF: No, it was always gonna be him. And as far as I’m concerned, I hope it always is. We have a really good relationship and he is exactly the kind of guy that we need. We need somebody who can come in and take the music to a level that we can’t take it. And he does that for us. So, I hope he makes the next one as well.
MM: You did co-produce one album, though, right? You co-produced We Need Medicine with Stuart McCredie, if I understand correctly.
JF: Yeah. I mean, I’ve done little bits of what you may call production, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it production. It’s not really my thing anymore. I quite enjoy just writing songs and then letting somebody else figure out how’s best to record them and how best to present them to people. I like not having to worry about that. I like having somebody else to worry about it.
MM: How does the songwriting process usually work for you? Do you start by laying down some beats or a guitar part or lyrics – how does the magic happen?
JF: It can be either one of those three things and it usually only lasts for three or four seconds. Those little flashes. Those flashes of inspiration. They’re tiny, but as time goes on you become less fussy about where they come from where you’re more bothered if they don’t come at all. It can be through software or some guitar or some keyboards. It could be with the piano. Anything that just gets that idea and you become less fussy about where it comes from.
MM: If you get an idea while you’re out shopping or something, do you sing ideas into your phone?
JF: Yeah, yeah, I do. And I write little notes as well. So, the iPhone is particularly helpful. I usually remember them, but sometimes it’s nice to make sure you have that. Because sometimes you forget.
MM: Have you ever written songs for any other artists?
JF: Not so far. And I’ve never really written songs with anybody else. It always has been just something I do. Not for any particular reason. But it’s how I get my kicks.
MM: When you did the Codeine Velvet Project, did you write the songs alone for that one?
JF: I think there were two or three songs on that record that were co-writes, but we didn’t write together. I think where I had music and I just sort of handed it over to work with, and so those guys and I, we never sat in a room together to write anything. I’m not sure I would know how to do that.
MM: Do you prefer writing and the studio or performing live?
JF: It’s hard to say because I get a lot of enjoyment out of starting something new. To me, that’s where most of the fun is. It would be silly to deny that. We like playing live. It’s just that it can become a little repetitious. But then it can be compared to audiences, even though we play those same songs every night, if the audience is great then it’s worth someone saying, “It’s terrible. I mean, it’s repetitive.”
MM: When the band was inactive, that’s when you did Codeine Velvet Club and your solo album between 2009 and 2012?
JF: Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
- A classic song from a classic album:
MM: It’s funny, but I didn’t know Codeine Velvet Club was you. I love the album and I had no idea it was you. So, I was surprised when I read that on Wikipedia yesterday.
JF: Ah, well, it seems like a long time ago. It was just something I did for the pleasure of doing it at that particular time. That record has some pretty good stuff on it.
MM: Yeah. In fact, I collect songs about California. I have over 700 songs about California and your song “Hollywood” is one of my all-time favorites.
JF: Oh, wow, that’s a nice thing. That’s very cool. I think “Hollywood” and the other song, “Nevada,” were written during the same trip. It would’ve been when I was in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. So, it was kind of a productive time.
MM: You supposedly did a second solo album that’s unreleased. Will you ever release it?
JF: I re-recorded it last year and I’m just finishing that off. So, it will probably see the light of day at some point. Probably not this year because the band’s really busy for half of the year. So, maybe next year, if somebody wants to release it. I’ve paid for it now, so I might as well release it.
- One Jon’s excellent solo songs:
MM: Is it still called Bright Night Flowers?
JF: Yeah, I think it will be. Yeah.
MM: So, you’re coming to the United States soon, aren’t you?
JF: We are. I’ve got a few weeks to get rid of this cold. I think we start on the 26th, yeah.
MM: How long do you have to be on the road before you start getting homesick?
JF: I don’t really get homesick. I can be comfortable most places. Mince, our drummer, may get a little bit homesick, but, as for me, not really. I don’t get homesick. There just comes a point where you’re moving from one point to the next constantly. I get a little bit tired. But it’s a small price to pay for getting to play music every night.
MM: What would you say are the best and worst things about being on the road?
JF: The best thing is that you get to do the one thing you know how to do. That’s a lot of fun. The worst thing? I don’t sleep very well in a tour bus. Or in any moving vehicle. So, as for me, that would be the worst thing.
MM: You opened for The Police’s reunion tour here in North America. How did you get that gig?
JF: I have absolutely no idea. It was a time when we were really busy. There was so much coming in, it just seemed normal, joining The Police reunion. “Yeah, of course.” Without even asking, why us? So, your guess is as good as mine.
MM: Was that your first time touring the States?
JF: I don’t think so. I think we’d done like a small tour just before that. I maybe be wrong about that, but I think we had done a slow tour of California. We had toured the country. We had just done New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco. My dates may be a bit mixed up.
MM: I know you’ve played Boston before. Do you know what venues you played in Boston?
JF: I think it’s always been The Paradise. I think that’s what it’s always been. And as far as I know it’s always the first show to sell out when we do a U.S. tour. And I think it’s the same this time. It was the first sell-out. So, I’m pretty certain that we’ve always played there.
MM: Do you have any particular Boston memories that you could share with us?
JF: Well, we have friends down there. Just from having gone back over the years, which is nice because they’re always waiting for us as soon as we arrive and it’s always nice to see them. I mean, really, I think there’s just that sort of Celtic connection.
MM: There are a lot of Irish people in Boston.
JF: Exactly. And Glasgow has that as well. So, it kind of feels familiar. In some ways it does, which is nice, you know? It’s nice to play what can sometimes seem like a hometown gig.
MM: You’ve done some benefits for the Teenage Cancer Trust. How did you get involved with that?
JF: I mean, we’ve done a few events since that. They’re sort of ongoing things. The Teenage Cancer Trust, I mean we did a few shows and that would’ve been 10 years ago now. I don’t know how it came about, but it probably was as simple as being asked and the band saying yes. With the charities we work with, it’s an easy answer to say yes if they think we could help. It’s better than saying no.
MM: You also raised money for the Eilidh Brown Memorial Fund. What can you tell us about that one? I understand she was a teenager who lost her battle with cancer before her 16th birthday. Had you met her?
JF: No, unfortunately, we usually come in when it’s too late to meet them. It’s such a shame. Her dad had got in touch because, I think, we’ve unfortunately known lots of parents now that have lost their kids. And what seems to be the case is that they seem to [contact us] after the grief. I mean, the grief never ends, but you then start to do something positive with all that’s happened. And in Eilidh’s case, her parents wanted to do the same thing. It’s a tricky one because I can’t say we’re happy to be involved. That implies that we’re happy. We’re not happy. We just never say no to that sort of thing. We’re there to help if people think we can help.
MM: I understand the goal of that one was to raise money to build a respite home where families could go for a holiday or just to relieve stress while they’re dealing with someone who has cancer. Have they been able to open the place yet?
JF: I think they’re almost there. I think this year is the year that they’re actually gonna start building. It’s been about seven or eight years that they’ve been raising funds and this year they just about have enough to start.
MM: There’s an organization here in the U.S., and it might even be over there, called the Make A Wish Foundation. What they do is help the dreams of terminally ill kids come true. And one of the ways they do that is by getting rock stars and other celebrities to visit them. Have you ever done anything like that?
JF: We have. And, as you can imagine, it’s kind of heart-breaking, but we’ve been in that position. And it’s like I said before, you’re not happy to help. You can’t do anything but what people think you can do, you know? There’s something you can’t rush into more than necessary if that makes sense.
MM: Since your band is named after the bad guys in the Goonies, I have to ask, what other ’80’s movies are you a fan of?
JF: I’ve actually never seen that movie. I’ve seen bits of it, but I haven’t seen the whole thing. But, for me, the usual stuff. Indiana Jones was probably my favorite ’80’s movie, like Raiders of the Lost Arc. Or Temple of Doom. Man, the ’80’s was my sort of my time. Lots of TV. Loved E.T. Loved Star Wars, but I don’t know if that’s more ’70’s or ’80’s, but Indiana Jones stands out for me.
MM: Who were your childhood heroes? They can be real people or superheroes or anything, really.
JF: I should know. There were some ball players. There was a guy who played for Glasgow Celtic soccer team called Paul McStay. I think he was my champion. My hero. Because I played a lot of soccer when I was a kid. It would be more like someone than a superhero because he seemed tangible.
MM: Did you ever consider playing soccer professionally?
JF: I wasn’t that good at it. I was enthusiastic, but sort of lacked the talent.
MM: Are you personally very active on social media?
JF: I’m personally very inactive on social media. It’s not really my universe and I’ve not the sort of clue of what I would even share with people. It’s not that I have anything against it. I just don’t know how it works. I don’t know what you’re supposed to share. I think it’s pretty cool and if a business or a band is to use it then it’s a really good way of connecting. But I don’t know how I’d use it personally.
MM: Now Facebook, which is probably the biggest one, is under controversy for taking people’s data and sharing it with a university or something. I don’t know what they were doing with it, but they supposedly paid Facebook millions.
JF: Definitely not my universe.
MM: You’re probably better off that way. So, do you guys all live in Glasgow?
JF: Yes, we’re still here. There’s no reason to leave.
MM: What’s it like there? Is it a very friendly city or are people generally down-trodden?
JF: I mean, I would say it’s friendly. When you know when you live somewhere and you’re immersed in it all the time you kind of lose objectivity. So, it’s kind of hard to tell. The main way I would measure it is that I could have left and I never left. There has to be a good reason for that. I’ve obviously stayed. Glasgow has never given me any reason to leave.
MM: You didn’t like the weather better in Los Angeles?
JF: I mean, I do. The weather here is terrible. And I would love a lot more sunshine than we get. But Glasgow must have something going for it or I would’ve left.
MM: What was your impression of Los Angeles? I lived there for three years.
JF: I’ve always liked to go there since 2006. But usually a couple of times a year. I know lots of people sort of – it can split opinion, right? Some people like it and some people really hate it. But I always liked it. People had said it was sort of false and plastic, you know, someone might have a better word. But I don’t see it that way. There’s a certain comedy element to it. I was willing to see the comedy, but especially with people who’d come back and say, my God, the people were so friendly, but they’re fake. What would you prefer? Somebody telling you to have a nice day and being fake or telling you to fuck off and mean it? I’ll take the fake. The fake friendly. Any day of the week. I don’t see it as fake. I think it’s a nice place.
- The Waterboys, recommended by Jon below:
MM: Can you tell us about a few artists from Scotland that my readers should investigate?
JF: I mean, I should know, shouldn’t I? But I have not had a lot of influences that I grew up with who were ever really Scottish. The Proclaimers are probably as near to a perfect Scottish pop band as you can get. I always like The Waterboys, even though they were sort of half Scottish, half Irish. The Waterboys are probably my favorite Scottish band. But there’s some really great ones. Simple Minds were from Glasgow. We probably have lots more than I’m able to name. It’s just that a lot of my influences were American.
MM: Who are the biggest pop stars there? Like Top 40 like Dua Lipa or Kylie Minogue?
JF: You mean now?
MM: Like in the U.S., Madonna is the biggest pop star.
JF: This is where I’m definitely the worst person to ask. I have no idea what’s going on in the world. Like I don’t have a radio. So, I don’t know where I would hear what was going on out there. Madonna was pretty big in the UK, too. But the most up to date stuff, I haven’t…
MM: What are you listening to right now?
JF: The thing is, I don’t listen to lots of music. It was a daily ritual for years and now it’s more like a monthly ritual now. And I’ve always listened to the same things. I’ve always listened to Dylan and The Beatles and Springsteen. Neil Young. I tend to go back to those artists.
MM: What was the first album you bought with your own money?
JF: With my own money, it was Pulse by Pink Floyd.
MM: What do you think about the vinyl comeback? Are you a vinyl collector at all?
JF: I’m more of a CD collector. I’m definitely a digital guy. Because I like not having to take care of anything physical. So, I don’t have a record player. And I don’t have a tape player. I have nothing to play music on anymore apart from my phone or my laptop.
MM: Are you currently binge-watching anything?
JF: I kind of do that sometimes. I’m trying to think of the last thing I binge-watched. There was a documentary on Netflix that was six episodes and I watched them all last Wednesday on my day off. It was called Wild Wild Country. It was about an Indian guru named Osho and this sort of drama that unfolded when he set up in Portland. It was kind of compulsive here so I watched it in six hours.
MM: Are there any other Netflix shows that you like?
JF: You know, just the obvious ones. I thought Stranger Things was great. I loved House of Cards. Yeah, House of Cards was probably the first one where I did that thing, watching ten episodes in one call.
MM: It’s too bad with what happened with Kevin Spacey. Now I don’t think they’re going to finish making this season.
JF: The show was getting a bit kind of ridiculous anyway.
MM: They kind of jumped the shark when they made him President, I think.
JF: [Laughs] It had to go that way, but, yeah.
MM: Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
JF: Not really. I remember the first time somebody called me to say your song is on the radio. I remember that more than I remember hearing it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard much of my stuff on the radio because I never listen to the radio. [Both laugh]
MM: Who told you it was on the radio that time?
JF: Probably one of my family. It’s a thing family gets excited about.
MM: What was the worst day job you ever had?
JF: I only had two. Like I worked in a sporting goods store and then I worked as a mailroom delivery boy in an office. I didn’t like either of those jobs, but both of them kind of… There must be worst jobs than that. The mail room job is probably the one I’d call worst because it was the one I did for four years and it got a little bit tedious.
MM: If I was looking at your contract rider, what would I be surprised to see there?
JF: [Laughs] Probably the lack of anything interesting. We don’t have much on there that’s that extravagant.
MM: Is there any certain food that you ask for or anything?
JF: No, not really. As long as there are enough beer and wine to go around, everybody seems happy.
MM: How often do you write songs?
JF: It can depend. I go through periods where it’s every day and then there are days where I can’t write any song eventually at all. On periods when I’m feeling the mood to do it, it’s pretty much every day.
MM: Do you ever get writer’s block?
JF: No, no. I don’t think it exists. I think it’s a myth.
MM: Well, I’m sure some people would disagree, but I hear you because I don’t really get it very often and I write all sorts of things. How old were you when you wrote your first song?
JF: I don’t really have a clear memory of it, probably my sort of mid-teens. I don’t seem to remember exactly, but I seem to remember in my mid-teens, starting to play around with songs.
MM: Name three artists that people might be surprised to know that you like?
JF: Abba. Billy Joel. I’m a bit lost…
MM: OK, final question. If you were going to record a song in a foreign language, which language would it be?
Special thanks to Jon for taking the time to answer my many questions and to Andrew Scott at Reybee Inc for setting it up!