By Mark Guarino
Joyce, Beckett, Shaw, Yeats — these are the totems that tower over any current Irish writer staking out a spot on their country’s literary map. Whatever they write will inevitably be cast in their shadows.
For musicians from Ireland, the list is much shorter but easier to pronounce: U2.
The Frames and U2 have a relationship even though either side will claim that is hardly the case. Both bands started in Dublin in the pre-iPod era, U2 in 1976, The Frames in 1990. As U2 strode into stadiums brandishing anthem after anthem of populist rock, The Frames quietly morphed through a succession of different line-ups, resulting in albums of melancholy, gritty rock songs often taken to larger than life extremes on the live stage.
During their first decade, the Frames’ reputation built steadily thanks to a prodigious touring schedule, during which they were continually referred to Ireland’s “Next Big Thing,” journalistic shorthand for “The Next U2.” The expectations for the Frames to do outrageous things like hang VW Beetles from stadium rafters, don buggish sunglasses or even have a hit song were high and with each successive album, the public and press pushed a variety of greatness on the band that they were incapable of delivering.
Even U2 was rooting. In his 2003 speech accepting the award for best band at the Irish Music Awards — a trophy they picked up ten years counting — Bono seemed to be embarrassed the Frames didn’t win. The next year, they did just that. Main Frame Glen Hansard, 36, regards the long-earned recognition with a shrug: “It was the year U2 let everyone else win.”
“All the indie rock press were saying, ‘this is it for the Frames, this is the moment when they’ll cross over to a bigger arena’,” he said. “When I say it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen on the scale they were predicting.”
Burdened by living in a small country that’s home to a massive band and a storytelling culture fascinated with overnight success, the Frames realized early that hype is fleeting and longevity comes by way of the gut.
“I remember hearing an old interview with George Bernard Shaw and he was asked, ‘when do you think you really became an artist?’ And George Bernard Shaw said, ‘in my ‘70s.’ Which I thought was so fuckin’ honest. Because we’re still learning. I don’t want a moment where suddenly I have to buy a house because I know next year I won’t have a fuckin’ penny in the bank. I want a life.”
The Cost is the Frames’ sixth album, but if you are in the band, you have the tendency to think of it as only their third. Hansard says that his band is in an entirely new chapter and that the rebirth of the Frames took place in a city not unlike Dublin: Chicago.
The 11 years preceding For the Birds, the Frames album that brought them to the U.S. and gave them their biggest hit in Ireland, were not necessarily pleasant ones if you valued security, recognition and respect, none of which they experienced as they were trod through a series of record labels, mismatched with producers who didn’t understand them and exited labels as unceremoniously as they entered. Starting with Island Records and continuing on ZTT Records, a dance label co-founded by British producer Trevor Horn, The Frames made albums they would later distance themselves from. Hansard’s songwriting could not be lassoed into a specific category and he deflected attempts to make him streamline hits. No salve could wipe down the disgust he was starting to accrue thanks to being matched with Horn, the British super producer best known for his work with Yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Pet Shop Boys, not exactly bands appreciated for their subtle charms.
“I don’t think he ever got the band,” Hansard said. “He always used to say, ‘you know, I see the Frames the same way I see Hootie and the Blowfish. Hootie has that same bar band thing that you have.’ And I was like, ‘bar band? You think we’re a bar band?’ In a way I can see where he was coming from, but fuckin’ hell: Hootie and the Blowfish?”
The Frames spent almost three years fighting Horn’s directions in the studio, resulting in an album the label ignored. “When Dance the Devil came out, it was clawed back to a point where I could maybe say, ‘yeah, I was involved with that’.
“When you’re in a situation like that, it’s tough to watch your child beat up and molested by this lunatic you don’t trust. What happens is, you get sick. And that is kind of what happened to me,” he said. “I got sick.”
When Hansard was busking in the streets of Dublin as a young man, he had one directive he hoped his life would follow. “I always wanted to be Bruce (Springsteen),” he said.
The Frames came together physically before they did musically. During Saturday busking sessions on the streets, local kids banded together into what was an informal fraternity of musical hobbyists who shared big dreams and cold afternoons. “It became really, really popular, it was almost like a Saturday afternoon occupation,” said David Odlum, 37, a former Frames guitarist and now the band’s official engineer. “(Hansard) seemed to be louder than everyone else. I think he was a born entertainer.”
Hansard, the son of a former prizefighter and a mother who sold fruit at an outside market, felt preordained to make it thanks to his guitar, a gift from his Uncle Paul, his mother’s younger brother and a musician who ended up in an Amsterdam prison after trying to smuggle heroin across Europe. During his incarceration, Hansard took possession of his uncle’s guitar and was encouraged by his mother to learn a few songs he could play at the airport terminal the day her brother came home. When that day arrived, Hansard, then 12, positioned himself in the airport terminal to serenade his uncle and family with Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” His first public performance soured when his uncle walked off the plane, saw his nephew, and went red, shouting, “he’s fucking playing my guitar!”
Time cooled him down, convincing him to take his young prodigy on the road with him as a second guitarist. They played American country music in Dublin bars for three years. The payoff came when Hansard was taken to a music store and told to pick out any guitar he wanted. “I still play that same guitar today. Because I earned it,” he said.
Earning what you have would be a lesson Hansard would learn a second time halfway around the world. Although he knew the East Coast thanks to a job playing in the Irish cover band the Commitments, a time he used to play cafes with Jeff Buckley, then the band’s guitar tech, Hansard had never been west. He was lured to Chicago by a fan who got him solo gigs and introduced him to producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, the Pixies).
After their first meeting at Electrical Audio, Albini’s studio, Hansard remembers running across a Chicago River bridge, while jumping in the air. “I knew something had just happened in my life,” he said.
The Albini connection extended to other players in Chicago independent music scene, including Corey Rusk of Touch & Go Records and Howard Greynolds of Thrill Jockey. They started conferencing with Hansard about his music, exposing him to a way of making music that was a night and day difference from what he once knew.
“I’d never in my fucking life had conversations with people that were so straightforward. Howard said, ‘if we sell 10,000, we are doing really fucking good, it we sell 15,000 we’re on the pig’s back.’ I remember at the time thinking, ‘that’s a very small number.’ I had signed to labels that told me ‘if we don’t sell 100,000 copies of this, it’s considered a failure.’ Suddenly these guys were talking in a super realistic way. I was realizing that in order to do your music truly, you have to let go of this bullshit concept of becoming Bruce Springsteen.”
Reborn in the U.S.A., the Frames recorded two albums with Albini, the first on Overcoat Recordings, the independent run by Greynolds, and the second on Anti, both raising the profile for the band in the U.S. Greynolds became their American manager. After a decade of line-up changes, the Frames had found a new purpose to keep going. This summer the band will play Coachella, its biggest U.S. stage to date.
“Realistically, it’s been about four different bands,” said Colm Mac Con Iomaire, 35, the Frames violinist and string arranger who had been in the band since their busking days.
“Thankfully I’m in my favorite band at the moment. It’s just been a long apprenticeship, really. We’re in a new land.”
The Cost captures what the Frames do best: songs that grind to life slowly but eventually tower in the clouds, raised by symphonic textures, guitar combustion and Hansard’s go-for-broke vocals, the sound of a man pushing himself to find his breaking point. For Odlum, that comes from the magnetism of their live shows, where there is “almost this thing where the band pushes the audience and the audience pushes the band back.” “It really is a dialogue. There’s this build-up of energy. Glen’s a great frontman in that respect. He really gets caught up in the moment and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, almost as if he’s trying to burst the song,” he said.
Lyrically, The Cost sounds like it cost Hansard a considerable amount of late night introspection. “Try to focus on the good/I’m tired of diving for the pearl,” he sings (“Song For Someone”). Later, he addresses himself directly: “And the price of fame/is that they love you when you’re gone/but I better stop complaining now/it’s useless because/too many sad words/make a sad, sad song” (“Sad Song”).
The album’s inconsolable edge is rooted in a meltdown Hansard experienced last summer when, after years of constant touring and striving for success, left him a “fat, overweight, bald, selfish prick” with an alcohol problem and who was abandoned by his best friend who walked away from him in disgust. The cost in the album title is normalcy, something Hansard realized he had nothing of the sort.
“You’re in a rock band, you’re touring the world and everything’s great. But the sacrifices are you’ve got no life. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have kids. I’ve come institutionalized. I eat better on the road. I sleep better when I’m on the road. It’s almost like I know that life better now,” he said.
Mac Con Iomaire said the entire band was also having trouble getting over the death of songwriter Mick Christopher whose song “Heyday” they covered on a recent EP.
“He was just a fellow busker with us. To lose him really put the cat among the pigeons. It’s like W.B. Yeats said, ‘everything has changed, changed utterly.’ I think the joy definitely went out of being in Ireland. Mick and Glen were inseparable for the previous couple of years. They were best friends. The process of grief expressed itself in different ways. For Glen, it took him awhile to figure it out.”
Hansard, who has since come to control his drinking, has a place to stay in Dublin but he lives mostly in Prague. A robust economy and overdevelopment in his home country made living there difficult. “Everything’s for sale, we turned it into a very ugly place. I can’t stand it. Ireland’s a very beautiful woman but right now, she has so much makeup on, she looks like a whore,” he said.
Despite the momentum, newfound purpose, and a trophy borrowed from U2, Hansard said it was his American experience that prepared him for what’s next. “What I always loved about America is it really responds to hard work. If you’re willing to go and work your ass off you can have the dream. And what is the dream? The dream is to go to any town in America and play to 2,000 people. I have no aspiration to be U2, to be Coldplay, to be any of that,” he said. “What I am interested is to be playing when I’m 60 and filling a room.”