King folkie Damien Rice has one hell of an ear. His excellent 2003 debut O was raw and exposed, drenched with understated grandeur, but it packed a sting that stunned the music world into submission. When it comes to soul-crushing passion, startling melodies and biting lyrics, Rice is a bankable authority: when he speaks, those in the know listen. And who does he rate? "Radiohead and The Frames," says Rice. "They set standards I aspire to."
Radiohead, sure. But The Frames? You probably don't know them, but clearly you should. The band might deserve Rice's big-up, but Glen Hansard, The Frames' amiable front man, is no Thom Yorke. Sitting in the back room of the Paris venue his band will play later tonight, the Irishman radiates such sunny optimism that it's not clear if he's suffering a severe case of denial or tripping on Prozac.
But Hansard's cartoonish sanguinity is for real. He's knackered, feeling the jet lag from the band's recent flight back from Australia, but he doesn't grumble. In fact, he's so tirelessly enthusiastic that he comes across a bit Forrest Gump. Hansard seems unfazed by life's knack for throwing curve-balls, and he's shown an almost foolhardy resilience and ability to grin in the face of disappointment.
In their 13 years, this Celtic-tinged rock band have released five studio albums with four different labels, but have still not seen a cent from their labours. Most bands would find the experience dispiriting. But not Hansard.
"Being in a band is the best life in the world," he says without a hint of irony. "It really is, you know. And any band who ever complains about this life is utterly ungrateful. I would rather you wrote nowt about us than talk to me about how sad our career is," the singer says defiantly. "Every interview about us ends up talking about the things that have gone wrong for The Frames. But we've had an amazing career."
Hansard's blind optimism and steadfast perseverance have already served him and his band well. The Frames' trajectory has been an unusual one. They may have made no money so far, yet the Dublin-based four-piece have became a cult band. Until February this year, they hadn't released an album outside Ireland, but thanks to years of self-financed international dates, they sell out 1,000-plus capacity venues across Europe, America and Australia.
And, despite being dropped by a succession of labels, they have become an arena band in their homeland, big enough to headline to 18,000, as they did last summer, casually nipping at U2's heels in the popularity stakes. Their last album, the Ireland-only For the Birds, released through the band's own label, went platinum there, yet until now they've hardly made a ripple this side of the Irish Sea.
In fact, in the UK, Hansard is probably better known for his role as Outspan Foster, the guitarist in Alan Parker's 1991 feature The Commitments. Quite ironic really considering the film's quest was "to form the world's hardest working band" - which is pretty much what The Frames have become.
But fortunes for The Frames have taken a big leap. Last year, the band signed their first international deal with the Epitaph imprint Anti, an occasion Hansard hails as "a miracle". The relationship was consummated with the worldwide release of The Frames' fifth album, the majestic Burn the Maps, in effect their debut outside Ireland. The album was greeted with gushing reviews in the UK.
Of course, Hansard and his crew are chuffed about the critical acclaim, but they are more excited about the foreign momentum the reviews represent. The Frames have started to make an impact. "We've spent 13 years on the starting blocks, and it's only this year one of our feet has come off," Hansard says. "Now it feels like we're actually moving somewhere. And it's a very gratifying feeling, because the only reason you should ever stay in a band is when things are actually moving forward." But even when progress amounted to less than what Hansard calls "a slow forward roll", quitting was never likely.
Hansard's passion is an old raging fire, much too big and furious to put out. He sang to his first audience on his fourth birthday (a sprightly rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire") and by the age of 13 had left school to busk on local streets. What Hansard always wanted was a record deal, and by 17, having formed The Frames, he got one with Island. But his dream was short-lived. No sooner had The Frames released their 1992 debut album, Another Love Song, than they were dropped.
The front man admits the rejection fractured his self-belief but, he says, giving up was never an option. "A lot of bands view this as a temporary job: if it doesn't work out, they've got a back-up plan - a graphic design degree or something. But I've only ever had this. I left school to be a singer, and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to see it through."
Though hugely disappointing, The Frames' experiences with Island and later ZTT (who also signed and dropped them) proved turning points. "We left both situations scratching our heads thinking, 'What do you have to do to be successful?'" Hansard remembers. "Eventually we reached the conclusion that we just didn't know." From then on, things started to go right.
Sick of pandering to labels, The Frames took the DIY approach and began releasing their records themselves (they put out two before they were picked up by Anti). In doing so, they were forced to look at their music from a new critical perspective. "We had to learn to be our own judge," Hansard says.
With no room for complacency, The Frames had to oversee their own make-over. They tightened up their act, cutting-out the superfluous and boldly accentuating their music's unique, crashing grandeur. In the course of two albums, The Frames turned themselves into a taut beast of a band brimming with an infectious fervour rivalled only by that of the army of followers they'd recruited. (Later, when the band perform, the fans - a passionate mix of French and Irish - sing back Hansard's lyrics.)
Burn the Maps is the glistening culmination of The Frames's streamlining efforts. The album is a stirring storm of duelling emotions, where lyrics inspired by anger and heartbreak - feelings Hansard says he needs to write - clash with his irrepressible optimism. "I can never write music for leisure," he says. "I pick up the guitar because I'm hurting, and somehow playing is medicinal - things just come out."
It's a record of extremes that lurches from folky stillness to roaring violence, where tumultuous seas of surging guitars are tamed with emotive pianos and calmed by Hansard's ravaged, honey-and-oats voice. But, thanks to Colm Mac Con Iomaire's soaring violin, the overriding sensation is one of hope. And hope is essentially what The Frames are about. Hansard and his band have seen dark moments, but the front man's faith and conviction have kept them invigorated.
With Burn the Maps, The Frames deserve to break beyond their cult status. But, this being The Frames, things aren't going to happen overnight. Burn the Maps is selling slowly but surely, and their upcoming UK tour is their biggest yet.
"I'm grateful I'm not jaded," Hansard says. "Friends of mine have been through similar stories, and they are angry. And that's cancer." He shakes his head. "My philosophy is, as night follows day, just do what you do. The world might never cotton on that The Frames are a great band - but that's not important. If you do your thing and keep your eye on your own ball, some people will get it, and that's great."
"For the first time in our career, we feel like a proper band. We're not outside any more - somehow we're being let in." Hansard smiles, thrilled. "It feels really strange. And really good."
'Burn the Maps' is out now on Anti
THE ALBUMS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
Another Love Song (Island, 1992)
The Frames' debut finds the band setting out their folk-rock stall. The slickly-produced album fused indie-flavoured alt.rock with traditional folk, but the songs seemed the product of naive experimentation.
Fitzcarraldo (Plateau/ZTT, 1996)
Recorded and released twice, first by the band, then ZTT, Fitzcarraldo was written after their parting with Island. It plays with themes of defiance and reveals a more tempered, groove-driven sound.
Dance the Devil (ZTT, 1999)
Though at times sounding over-produced (thanks to Trevor Horn's sonic sheen) Devil the Dance was a turning point. Hansard's folk influence smoulders more prominently in a newly acquired, clean, simple, lo-fi ambition.
For the Birds (Plateau, 2001)
Recorded by Steve Albini, the self-released breakthrough album is a stark contrast to its predecessor's gloss. For the Birds is a thrilling, back-to-basics album, where fragile lulls compete with sonic squalls.Reuse content