The Fratellis: Running with the Frat pack

In little over a year, The Fratellis have had a Top 10 album and two hit singles. Nick Hasted joins the Glaswegian trio on tour, witnessing the highs and the lows of life for a band on the rise
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It's slate-grey in Oxford, and raining hard enough to soak you if you step outside. So The Fratellis stay inside their brand new tour-bus all afternoon, and listen avidly as their manager tells them that their debut album, Costello Music, has climbed the charts again. "No 7?", the singer Jon Fratelli, whose puff of curly hair and wire-thin frame irresistibly recall his hero Bob Dylan, enquires. "So how many have we sold?" The conversation turns to what the next single should be, and the next, and the next, the singer half-heartedly baulking at such exploitation while the manager gently pushes.

Formed in March 2005, the Glasgow trio cracked the Top 20 in barely a year (with "Henrietta"). This August saw "Chelsea Dagger" reach No 5, and become the late summer's anthem. Its twisty, jaunty lyrics about a wild boho girl, and mix of glam stomp, Blur bounce, and early 1960s innocent exuberance was the calling card for Costello Music (named after the keyboardist in the great rock comedy Still Crazy), which has lodged in the Top 10 for two months, and shows no signs of leaving. When I joined the Fratellis on their latest UK tour last week, I found them just starting to adjust to the pleasures and costs of sudden success.

"It's bittersweet, isn't it, when you cross over to a bigger level?" are almost the first words Jon Fratelli says when I meet him, in K West, the rock star-favoured west-London hotel, as he waits to be taken to a gig. "Because people who were there at the start, on the websites, they wish they could still have you in the same way they did. And it's impossible. You get the good side, which is to play to really big crowds, and sell out places really quickly. It's a bit of a buzz, but it doesn't last long. It still is like we're in a community with our fans. But it's impossible to keep it like that all the time, isn't it? It's gonna go. It's been a really long and short year for us, this one. It's gone everywhere and nowhere."

The moment when the madness started is etched in his mind. "It was T in the Park this year. The tent we were staying in was big, man, it held 4,000 or 5,000. We were on at the same time as The Who. And we drove up to it, and we could see that all the exits had flooded out with people. We thought it was for the band before us. Then we were told it wasn't, that all of a sudden half an hour ago they'd just started piling in. That's when we realised, man. Walking on stage was like getting hit by a bolt of lightning."

The bassist, Barry Fratelli (the only member whose surname is genuine), is sitting with us, too. The drummer, Mince, wary of interviews, is still upstairs. The three met in the most mundane way. "People always think we tell a lot of lies," says Jon. "But the true story is, we met working in the shows, in Glasgow. And because down here you call it the fairground, it makes it sound more romantic. But it's not, man. It's six rickety old rides that travel round Scotland, and roll up at the worst of places, and charge 50p to kids to go in teacups. We did that."

We talk on, about Dylan ("I'll just get on with ma dinner..." murmurs Barry, as Jon launches into an impassioned assessment of Modern Times), Keats's and Ginsberg's rhyme-schemes, and Barry's heroes Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash. As the van taking them to the Astoria cruises along the Westway, The Fratellis' talent for bluntly speaking their minds (having recently insulted Pete Townshend and the "junkie degenerate" Pete Doherty) comes quickly to the fore. "I was doing one of those Juke Box Jury things with Katie Melua," Jon recalls, "and I hated everything she liked. She said she liked that Razorlight song "America", for God's sake. I'd been listening to that the day before, praying they wouldn't give us it. I've been trying not to say things that get us in trouble. But that song's an abomination, a pure insult to Americans.

"Remember that time we pretended to be Franz Ferdinand?" he free-associates. "We were in Ireland, for a festival, by a big table of wine, and this Irish woman comes up and says, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it's you guys.' I felt quite heartened by it, until I realised she thought we were Franz Ferdinand. And this big strapping Irish guy with me said, "Aye, we are." You can imagine what the wine bill was like, and they gave it to us on the house because we were Franz Ferdinand. Imagine if they'd played there the next day, though..."

As they pile out in an alley by the Astoria, Mince suddenly says to me, "I'm dead nervous, man. I always am." The dressing room, reached up a series of urine-stinking stairs, fills with fast-talking Glasgow friends. The man who booked them at London's tiny Metro club only 10 months ago stops by, a sign of swiftly changed times. The mood is calm and casual, till they clear the room for a minute's only half-joking "bonding". I finally feel I may have outstayed my welcome for the evening when I race up the stairs behind them, and almost find myself on stage. "You're going down those stairs, man..." the singer says, appalled.

With neon back-lighting his hair, and wearing polka-dot shirts, on stage Jon looks even more eerily like Dylan circa 1966. When they play "Chelsea Dagger", the floor becomes a springboard, and girls happily tumble over other fans' heads, trying to stage-dive. But the gig doesn't quite catch fire, and The Fratellis know it. They leave almost immediately, Jon joining his wife of six weeks (whom "Chelsea Dagger" is about) to watch Dita von Teese's burlesque show across town. The after-show party carries on without them, with girls in short, angel-winged dresses ferrying drinks, and a madman challenging all-comers to pour vodka down an ice slide into their eyes ("It goes straight into your system," Barry blithely tells me later. "You should try it with Buckfast - Glasgow's national drug"). I see Jon quietly pass through the K West's lobby at about 4am. Then it's lights out all round.

I see them in Oxford next. "We've just been chilling out watching the EastEnders omnibus, man," Barry says in greeting, when I enter the bus. The Arsenal match and the anodyne sitcom As Time Goes By flicker on the TV as everyone sits chatting casually, sipping mugs of tea as often as beer, the spirit of rock'n'roll not instantly apparent. The bus is startlingly clean and tidy, with only a faint stale-sweat smell in the seats, almost unbelievable when 14 men have been living in it for weeks. "It's so calm and straightforward with them," the roadie the band call Son of God, for his hippie-Jesus looks, confirms. As Barry explained to me back in London: "If this had happened to us when we were younger, it'd've been a different ball-game. Now, you want to buy property, settle down and walk your dog, rather than going out and getting pished night after night."

"You and me are 27," Jon agreed. "We feel separate from the really young bands coming up. Things don't excite or faze you as much - you've seen it before."

Today, Barry, the most sober of all The Fratellis about the storm of fame and acclaim they're entering the eye of, is trying on the first fruits of success, a free Burberry jacket. He's also bought a house in the good part of Glasgow's East End, where he always dreamed of living. Not coincidentally, he'll be handed the keys the day that they play the city's legendary venue, Barrowlands. Life could hardly be sweeter. His character is revealed when a manager pushes him to do something for a magazine he dislikes, claiming it's "necessary". "Nothing is necessary, son," he snaps back. "I've learnt that."

Upstairs, shortly before he numbs his nerves by smoking loads and howling with laughter at a Tenacious D DVD, I finally talk to Mince. "I don't really like to do interviews, I don't want to contradict the others," he tells me. "I was always into 100mph punk bands, Slayer, and weird, big, 10-piece American ska bands. Whenever we're got on our own, we slag someone the others love." Mince is so gentle and shy that he seems almost frightened. I leave him communing with the Son of God and go back down to find a flu-hit Jon holding court.

The mood up till now has been one of creeping boredom, as the long hours of waiting before a single hour's playing drag on: the defining, dull reality of road-life. But as showtime finally approaches, things speed up.

The band are desperate for a good show. They hated the Astoria, and the Birmingham gig disappointed, full as it was of "'Chelsea Dagger' fans", as Jon characterises an element of their new audience. He elaborates, "It's the fans that carry you. Because you get tired, man, and you get done in, and we give everything we can in gigs. There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It's a cliché, but it's true. Mince bleeds every night. His hands are scarred, he's got huge blisters on them. So we give a lot. And you're playing the same songs every night, and you're bound to get bored with them. And so you rely on crowds to lift you, especially at the end of gigs. If they're not too tired to jump around, then we're not too tired."

That night, he gets his wish. The crowd at Oxford Brookes University's compact student union venue all look a decade younger than the band and, if their constant chant for "Chelsea Dagger" between songs shows how that hit currently defines The Fratellis, they sing and dance and punch the air to everything. Barry is wearing his Burberry, and Mince, bashful stoner no more, earns the ugly grey wound on his hand by smashing the drums with fierce force and control. "Cool... cool," Jon murmurs happily, forgetting his flu-ravaged throat to belt out the closing songs. "Nae bad," deadpans Barry back in the bus, as I say goodbye. Waiting for the train back to London, a gaggle of young teens roar by, chanting "Chelsea Dagger", and I recall what Jon said in the K West about how this all started: "I wasn't romantic or a street-Bohemian, the way you think my lyrics sound," he told me.

"I lived in a cupboard. I haven't seen enough of anything, really, to write songs, so I have to make things up. This band's been a shot in the arm for me. I'd never been in bands, I didn't want to be. If I could've stayed in my little cupboard and wrote songs that people liked and never had to go out and play, I might have been happy, actually.

"But now that I've seen the other side of it, I feel I'm part of a long chain, where I didn't before - not the chain of just now, but you feel linked to the people who you respected and liked, like Dylan and The Beatles. You've got to go and play to people. I didn't know that before. I shouldn't really be the frontman in a band. And I shouldn't really be the guitarist. This whole band was started by mistake, really. It was a good mistake, though."

'Costello Music' is out now on Island; The Fratellis are touring until 10 November and then supporting Kasabian until 22 December ( www.thefratellis.com)

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