Scottish band The Fratellis just dropped their pandemic-delayed sixth album Half Drunk Under a Full Moon today. The upcoming album boasts several firsts for the band, who released their landmark debut album, Costello Music, back in 2006. The band split and reformed in 2012. This album sees the band bring in backing singers for the first time to bolster the huge choruses.
We interviewed Jon Fratelli on Zoom to chat about the upcoming album and more. The frontman discussed how he doesn’t watch his own music videos in full, how he writes songs primarily for his own amusement, his reasons for collaborating with Mark Leseraux and Roger Manning Junior, and the best advice he ever received.
Congratulations on releasing your latest single “Need a Little Love,” which was very fitting for its release during Valentine’s week. Where did the loved-up lyrics come from?
I hadn’t equated the fact that it came out on Valentine’s week. I didn’t even know it was Valentine’s Day until I saw a text from somebody yesterday. It was only my sister saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” So clearly I forgot. The love thing, I don’t know… pop music is always a love song one way or another. Pop music is always a love song even when it doesn’t sound like one. It seems like that’s been the case all the way back to the ’50s. This particular song is pretty straightforward, that chorus especially. It’s love rather than sex, which is a big difference, there is a big difference. It’s kind of its own explanation.
You also released a nostalgic black-and-white music video alongside the song. Why did you choose the video to be that style?
The honest answer is we didn’t. Somebody way more qualified than us decided to go down that route. We don’t actually star in our videos that often. We do everything we can to not be in them. But we were persuaded this time to do it and the truth is I’ve only seen one third of the video because I tend not to watch anything with myself on screen. So I checked the first third, which is what I do with everything just to make sure that it’s not an absolute nightmare. But that first third looked quite classy to me, so I know he did a great job on it.
We shot the video in an old dance hall in Edinburgh in February last year when the temperature was -2. The place didn’t have any heating so my overriding memory of it was that it was really fucking cold. I remember looking behind me and seeing the images that are projected. They are real, they weren’t put in in post production. I remember seeing them and thinking that this is a step up from our usual videos. So the first third that I watched, I feel like I was right about that.
What is your writing process like when you’re making a song and has it changed over the years?
It’s definitely changed but the basics are the same, which really are that I have one reason to write. That one reason is to keep myself amused. It would be great if I could frame that in a more sophisticated way. You know, if I could be somebody that could say, “I write because if I didn’t I would fall down dead.” But that’s not what it is, it’s purely to keep myself amused. It’s not even to scratch an itch, it really is that I need something to get me out of bed that day. I always have and it’s a fairly unhealthy way to live but I haven’t found a better one by this point.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t bring me pleasure, it does. It’s really all about “is this holding my attention today?” The method changes all the time but the basics are the same. It does drive me mad though.
Would we be right in saying that you get more amusement out of it than madness?
Yeah, it can be quite equal. I think the amusement side probably wins out a little in the end.
Your band released “Action Replay” in January. How did that song come about?
Yeah, good question. The problem is that not only did we record this record in June 2019, the songs for the record were written in the 12 months leading up to June. So from this viewpoint, March 2021, it’s almost impossible to remember how any of that stuff came about. It really isn’t too far away from feeling like someone else must’ve done it. I lose touch. It doesn’t sound to me like a song that was written quickly. There’s something about the main phrase that happens in that song over and over that tells me that I played around with that single phrase quite a lot. It probably took a long time to build a song around it. I get the impression that it took four or five months. It seems like I put some thought into that one.
It’s been 15 years since your hit debut album Costello Music. How do you look back on that album now, after creating so much more music?
The honest answer is, I don’t. I don’t look back at it in any real way. To me it wasn’t that different to any other record. At that particular time you have a bunch of songs that you’re excited by and then really quickly afterwards, not excited by. It’s like a kid at Christmas when they get new toys, they almost cry with the joy of the whole thing. Then, come Boxing Day they’re bored and ready to go spend the money that their grandparents gave them on new toys.
The only thought really is to move on and make the next one. I guess the only difference with that record is that we had made a record and we had a lot to learn. Even in those six weeks that it took to make, I feel like we learned a lot. We had spent years before that saving up our money and going into local recording studios separately to bang out some tunes. Invariably you’d bring the tape home and you’re almost instantly beyond disappointed, because it doesn’t sound like a song you’d hear on the radio.
Making that record was the first time we actually got to understand what it actually takes to put together a production that sounds like a shiny, finished product. That on its own was the most valuable thing that we learned. Other than that, our friend Tony produced that record and he’s produced our last three records. I’ve become good friends with him and his family, so if nothing else came out of it, we gained a friend.
You’ve previously said that the new songs are by far the most colorful you’ve ever written. The triumphant track “Six Days in June” is proof of that. What inspired you to write upbeat songs?
They’re just there. If there are songwriters who are able to decide what type of song they might write, then I’ve yet to meet them. If people say that they exist then I’m not gonna argue with them but I haven’t met anybody who can decide. If they really could decide then you would write the greatest song ever written, every day of the week. It seems like perfect proof that you don’t get to decide. It usually starts out quite faint and you won’t quite be able to make it out, then it’ll become a bit louder and you’ll be able to make it out a little bit more. Eventually it comes close enough to realizing a general feel and sound of an album. This is before you’ve written any songs. You start to feel and hear that before you do the writing, at least it’s been that way for me. Then the writing of the songs is easy because you know what kind of record you’re going to make. Content is the easy part, the tricky part is grabbing onto that overall sound and idea. That part, you can’t do anything about.
This is why people talk of “writer’s block.” But really, there’s no such thing. Whether it’s music or literature, it doesn’t exist. It really is just all to do with at that moment in time that next wave of this idea hasn’t started to come your way and you can’t make that happen. If you could make it happen you’d be the richest person alive because you could sell it to other people.
The pandemic delayed the release of your new album. What can you tell us about it?
It really is a lottery when you put a record out. I get the feeling that there might be people at first who will need a few listens of this record to work out where we’ve gone. They might notice changes, some people might like it straight away. Again it harks back to the idea that not only were these songs written for my own amusement but they were recorded in the same fashion. When you do that you’re constantly at risk of doing something wrong. That’s the gist of it, putting all that work in and not knowing whether people will appreciate it or not. It’s kind of exciting. The majority of people might not like it but there’s kind of an aliveness in that and an aliveness in not knowing. If someone offered you the superpower to know what’s gonna happen in your life and everyone else’s life, would you really want to? I couldn’t think of anything worse. Right there and then you would have no reason to live. I wouldn’t swap the aliveness for anything.
Roger Manning Junior and Mark Leseraux helped out on the vocals, why did you choose to collaborate with them?
Mark Leseraux is the best male singer I’ve ever met in person. I’ve never heard a better male singer in person. He’s a friend of mine from New York and he’s been putting out records for years. He’s one of those cases where, I used to think if people were good enough and what they did was good enough in terms of quality of writing and the way they sing, I used to think that it would be impossible for those people to go more or less unnoticed. I thought that those people always find a big enough audience that befits their talent. Then I met Mark, he kind of proved that lifelong theory of mine wrong. He’s gone under the radar so much, when he has so much more natural talent than I’ll ever have. So much more natural talent that a number of people I could mention have. It’s nice to have been proved wrong, except for the fact that more people don’t know him. To get him on board was to basically get someone who’s vocal ability is astounding.
Roger Manning Junior and Mark Leseraux were good because they added to the dense vocals on the album. There were lots of intricate harmonies on every single song. It really came down to workload, when it came to the workload of this record, this is the most intense, extreme thing we’ve ever done. We were halfway through and I knew I didn’t want to keep doing all of the backing vocals myself. It was such a nice breather to bring some people in. All of the things that they sang would’ve taken me three days to do, I had already done five weeks at that point and we were still only halfway through. They came in and did it in a day, it was my favorite day of the whole recording process. Because I got to sit on the sofa and once I’d given them direction of what was needed they just did it. It was so nice to rest and hear someone else bring their talent into the thing. But mainly it was nice to have a rest.
Live music has been put on pause because of the pandemic, but what’s your favorite show that The Fratellis have ever played?
Ehhh. The first gig we ever played is still my favorite. We played in the basement of a bar in Glasgow called O Henry’s. We rented it out and we’d been selling tickets. From memory, the bill was basically us. We got our friend’s dad who played in a blues band and his mates to play before us. It was pretty unconventional, it wouldn’t make the list of like the coolest nights ever. It would probably make the list of the most uncool nights ever. But, that place officially held about 50 people and we ended up with about 150 people trying to get in. That to me was the most exciting thing that had happened up to that point. Nothing we’ve ever done since has felt more exciting. It was a small place, you could hear that up the small set of stairs there was this massive noise coming from the group of angry people outside that couldn’t fit into the venue. It was beyond exciting and nothing has beaten that. We only had about seven songs to play at that point and we played them at about double the speed that they needed to be played. I knew from that moment on that we were going to be OK and that it would work out.
Lastly, what’s the best advice that you’ve received during your time in the band?
If you hang around for long enough and you work with people who are of a certain quality, you learn from them without knowing that you’re learning from them. I can’t remember any specific piece of advice that’s stuck with me, but you know when someone gives you a real pearl of wisdom and you’re like, “Wow, I hadn’t thought of it that way.” But I’ve certainly had enough people giving me little pearls of wisdom that I didn’t realize at the time that they were right and it was only afterwards that I realized they were right and I should’ve paid attention. You can only really pay attention when you’re ready to pay attention.