First things first, first song first.
The Fratellis’ new album, In Your Own Sweet Time, opens with Stand Up Tragedy. It’s a typically robust, typically earworm Jon Fratelli composition. It’s a thrilling mix of razor-sharp guitar riffs, air-punching piano stabs, falsetto vocals and Sympathy For The Devil “ooh ooh’s”.
“That song might sum up this record in a lot of ways,” muses Jon, this band’s engine-room whose songwriting skills only seem to sharpen as each year passes. “Really the whole thing was quite playful. For instance: when I was writing that, I just came out with a falsetto voice. I’d never sung falsetto in my life. All of a sudden it comes out, and I was just ready to start singing that way. Even just using that type of voice, it can’t help but be fun. And it kind of set a tone.”
Playful, punchy and purposefully relaxed, The Fratellis are back. Jon (vocals/guitar/piano), Barry (bass) and Mince Fratelli (drums) are roaring into their second decade with a fifth album that plays to their strengths while also pushing their sound in vivid new directions. Mantric Indian rock, anyone? A bit of sampledelic funkateering? In Your Own Sweet Time is the sound of a band finding a brand new sweet spot, aided by repeat collaborator Tony Hoffer (OK Go, Depeche Mode, Belle & Sebastian) in his Los Angeles studio.
“The Next Time We Wed feels like a good representation of the record,” observes Jon of the boisterously Prince-like track. It’s being released as gratis teaser track to a truly global fanbase, one that stretches from China (where the band played this summer) to Russia (a hotspot on the tour prior to 2015’s Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied) to heartland America.
“This whole record was far more spontaneous than I’ve ever done before. Usually I’ll have books full of words and phrases and ideas, and I’m just waiting for the right home for them. But this time that didn’t happen – I just sat down and wrote. But I do remember with The Next Time We Wed that it was a very sunny day, which doesn’t happen very often in Glasgow. And I feel good on those days, so usually I try and work. And generally what will come out will be something playful and upbeat. And I like the comedy: ‘the next time we wed…’ I thought, that’s nice, I’ll have that.”
Before they began recording the new album, The Fratellis had some past glories to revisit. At the end of 2016, they undertook a 16-date UK tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Costello Music. It was the debut album that roared: 83 weeks in the charts, begetter of a Brit Award for Best British Breakthrough Act, home of the deathless, dauntless Chelsea Dagger.
“It’s not really in my nature to be nostalgic,” admits this writer forever with his eye on the next song, but he admits he couldn’t help but enjoy the experience once he was in the thick of it. The idea was to perform the album from start to finish, “but we quickly realised that if you do that, the two most popular songs – if you do it in the right order – come right at the start of the gig. So you start to get a bit more creative. But I figured that as long as we played all those 13 songs on the same night, people would be OK with that.”
Meanwhile, away from the giddy, celebratory gigs, Jon was busy writing. Some things hadn’t changed – to this day, he observes, “I still haven’t written a song with another person”. But in other ways, he was quietly determined to do things differently.
“I couldn’t tell you the last time I sat down and wrote a song on the guitar, or on the piano. Almost every song on this record started by paying around with software. I had a lot of fun with that, with opening the laptop every morning and not knowing what you were going to find. Using a software-based programme like Logic Pro, it’s just infinite. And you just use that as a place to start. And you might start one place and end somewhere completely different. That was just the natural way I wanted to work this time round.”
The happy result was a newfound freedom. For all the identifiably Fratelli-esque core strengths – basically, melodies you could hang your coat on – In Your Own Sweet Time bristles with songs that evidence Jon pursuing brand new creative routes. There’s the fleet-footed Starcrossed Losers, another falsetto’d number, which “has a lot of dynamic in it. It sticks out like a sore thumb ’cause it’s slightly slicker than the rest of the stuff on the album. But sometimes you have to serve the song, and that’s what the song needed. On the last album I’d never sung as many vocals. Well, this one was double that, especially on this song. We pushed the boat out on this one, just to make it work. There were a lot of little elements to pull into a four-minute song.”
Advaita Shuffle is another outlier, a driving song that started as an instrumental and is, to quote a hoary old advertisement, full of eastern promise. What were the influences there? T’internet defines “advaita” as “a Vedantic doctrine that identifies the individual self (atman) with the ground of reality (brahman)”.
“That’s a very google explanation,” Jon smiles. “If people are curious it’s much better if they go and look for themselves. There’s enough clues in there.” As for why it includes the lines “she’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes”, all Jon wilI say is it just fitted and it had him “howling with laughter. That’s all the song needed to be finished. I hope that bit is out of copyright.”
There’s another thrilling left turn on Indestructible, on which Fratellis got the funk. Jon explains that it in part derives from the old drum samples round which he based many of his demos.
“That just comes in a lot of ways from having a short attention span. I can maybe keep a thread going for a couple of songs, and each new song is usually a reaction to the last one. A good example of that is the fact that even in the middle of these songs, I had a real need to go off and sit at a piano and just play quietly. I needed something that was the opposite of these songs.”
In Your Own Sweet Time ends as it began, with the epic I Am That – a track that, despite its length and its title and its sound (The Beatles at their wiggiest, basically), is no existential, meditative farewell. Rather, Jon insists we just enjoy for what it is.
“I Am That is almost seven minutes long, and took at least three times longer to get right than any other song on the album. There’s so much going on in there, it’s like a big wall of… stuff. It could only be a last song. Lyrically, again, don’t take it too seriously. I’ve never tried to sell anything to anyone. I’m not a message person.”
But he is a tune person. The Fratellis’ In Your Own Sweet Time is the sound of a band hitting a new stride a dozen years into their existence. March 2018 will see them celebrating their lucky 13th year with a UK tour, followed by another hefty trek through America.
“We’re like, hey wow, we still get to tour America!” Jon Fratelli smiles again. “We’re not oblivious to the fact that, my God, we still get to keep doing this. It’s not a guaranteed thing, and it’s not a small thing either. Because we’re unemployable in every other way."
Little wonder because, as he points out, “I’ve been in bands and making demos since I was 17, 18. I’m not prodigious in the slightest – I’m a slow, slow learner. But listening to this record, while it doesn’t feel like the end of a journey, it certainly feels that I’m finally getting to the point where I’m able to get down on tape everything that I want. It can take years to translate your ideas into the right song. This album is the first one that finally feels like every single song is putting across exactly what I’d like to put across.”
In their own sweet time, to their own exacting standards, to our immense benefit, The Fratellis got there.