Jon Fratelli Dishes on the Lyrics and Philosophies Behind The Fratellis’ Music and Latest Album
You probably know The Fratellis from their mid aughts hit song, “Chelsea Dager.” The Glasgow outfit makes fun and festive, raucous, rock ‘n’ roll that excites crowds, and propels bodies into motion. They emerged amid a slew of Libertines-esque bands, but have evolved over the years, and burrowed into a niche of their own. Their latest record, “In Your Own Sweet Time” is a marked progression that showcases the band exploring its voice and boldly venturing in new musical directions.
The new album is a collection of loose and soulful rockers, with well-informed nods to fifty years of rock and pop history, and moments of epic ambition indulged with a playful levity. The lyrics are filled with lighthearted, absurdist humor, but also tap into heftier themes. Singer and guitarist Jon Fratelli spoke Entertainment Voice about his musical proclivities and creative process, while delving into the new songs, untangling specific lyrics, and getting philosophical about the concept of time.
What’s the biggest difference that comes to mind between your latest album, “In Your Own Sweet Time,” and your previous work?
In lots of ways, that’s almost not a question for me to answer. It’s a question for people who listen to the record to answer, because it’s kind of tricky for me to have any real perspective on it, but off of my head, I think this record has a lot of color. That’s really the main thing that springs to mind. It feels colorful, and, for whatever reason, I associate music with color, and this record feels kind of multicolored. If I’m obsessed with anything in music, It’s melody, and melodically, it feels like a very colorful record.
There’s a unique vocal approach on a lot of the new songs, in which you layer your voice, with one line in the lower register, another on falsetto, and all sorts of gasps and yelps thrown in here and there. Where did this approach come from?
It just comes from trying to keep yourself entertained, you know? I would class myself as a slow learner. I always have been. I was never prodigious. Some people can use that whole range of vocal techniques from like seventeen or eighteen, and it just took me a long time to develop a voice that I could play with, whereas in the past, I really didn’t feel like I could play with my voice, and now, it feels like there’s probably not much that I can’t do, in terms of stretching from those lows to those highs. And also, we want to keep people’s ears engaged. We just want to have people listen to the records where it doesn’t ever become repetitive, or they start to tune out. I don’t think I have a particularly interesting voice, so you have to use all these tricks.
You’ve spoken of your love of Michael Jackson. What’s a particular moment on this album when this influence particularly seeped in?
Not really. As chance would have it, I was watching the documentary they released, right after he died, of those rehearsals he was doing for the shows he was supposed to do. It’s worth watching because you get to see how frail he was, and he was carrying a struggle, but you also see that there are just moments when the Jacko that we all know just came racing up to the surface. But there’s really no point in trying to recreate any of that. We’re three white guys from Glasgow, you know? I’m not sure if there’s any direct influence, but the truth is, I think, when you’re a pop writer, you’re influenced by fifty years of pop music, and if you have a set of ears that are open, then you can’t not pick this stuff up.
Some of the new songs seem to have a vaguely roots rock sensibility, and a southern rock feel. Do they strike you that way at all?
Um… I really haven’t heard that. We’re not really ones for overly big, distorted guitars. I’m much more a fan of twang, and this record is the twangiest we’ve ever been. If that’s what you’re referring to, yeah, I can hear that. That, to me, is just sonically more interesting than, sort of, set-clock guitars. We’ve never done that, and every time we’ve strayed into that, I’ve instinctively just kind of disliked it. We’ll always head more towards that twang. I kind of hesitate when it comes to talking about American music, or southern music, or country; to me, it’s all the same, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the kind of thing that is attractive to my ears is generally what people would class as “American,” I guess.
The passage of time is a prominent theme on the new album. There’s the title, “In Your Own Sweet Time,” and two songs, “Told You So,” and “I Am That,” contain the line, “Time Just Slips.” Will you expand on this theme?
It came, I think, from my realization that there’s no such thing [as time]. No such thing, a completely manmade concept. And as such, it brings a laugh, it brings hilarity, and then you want to play with the whole concept, especially now that you know there’s no such thing.
No such thing a time?
Have you ever experienced time? I’ve never experienced time. I’ve never experienced myself moving along an apparent line that began in one place and seemingly ends in another. Language has created time, and language is the only thing that has created time — which is kind of hilarious. It’s hilarious that hundreds of years of physics trying to prove, explain, or describe time has missed a really vital part of the puzzle, which is that it’s only created by language. I’ve never experienced it, so I have absolutely no need for any kind of belief that I haven’t experienced, you know? So that’s probably why the word keeps cropping up in lyrics.
Your song, “Indestructible,” features a litany of cat calls, “Krakatoa / Eiffel Tower / See how she gets busy in the magic hour.” There’s a hilarious moment in the second chorus, when the repertoire has expanded to, “Prince of Darkness / Chairman Mao.” Chairman Mao?! Please explain.
(Laughs) I try to be absurd. Those lyrics jump wildly from one character to another. For some reason, I’ve always been attracted to that, and the stranger the better. But these things are never planned out. These things make me laugh when they come out. There’s a song on the record [with the] ending, “She’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she comes,” and that just appeared. I thought it was hilarious. I just laughed at how ridiculous as it was, and that sort of stuff just attracts me. It’s absurd, right? It shouldn’t be there. It’s a little ridiculous, but I like a little ridiculous.
That song, “Advaita Shuffle” and “I Am That” showcase The Fratellis venturing into uncharted territories, with Eastern strings, world percussion, and some progressive rock elements. What inspired you to take this musical direction?
It would be kind of disingenuous to have an answer that claims that I did it for any particular reason because that’s just not the case. It’s a strange phenomenon, and, to me, songs seem to write themselves. We like to claim responsibility after the fact. Any thought you’ve ever heard, have you ever chosen to have that thought? If you think about it, you realize, “Oh my god, I’ve never chosen a thought in my life!” And by the same token, songs and lyrics, or poetry, or painting, nobody chooses those. They arrive on your doorstep — if you’re lucky.
About your song “Advaita Shuffle,” Advaita is a Hindu term, describing the idea that the individual soul is the same as the ultimate, universal, metaphysical reality. What are your thoughts on the idea?
Hmmm, I think that’s quite convoluted. It’s far simpler than that. The word, “Advaita,” translated, means “not two,” and I prefer that as an explanation. I write these things down in a little notebook, and I just heard somebody say, I don’t know where, “And before you know it, you’ll be doing the Advaita Shuffle,” and I just thought, “Oh well, I’ll have that. That may be useful.”
One rather enigmatic lyric of yours is from, “I Guess… I Suppose,” when you sing, “Why does only ‘pretty’ rhyme with ‘city?’ What a pity,” which is a contradiction. What were you trying to say here?
(Laughs) Back to the absurd, you know? It’s a complete contradiction, and that’s the point. It’s just an attraction the absurd. I love absurdity whether it’s in music or in comedy. I always, sort of, gravitate toward it.
A lot of your music is festive and fun, and seems like good pub music. If you had to imagine a setting for which your music is particularly well-suited, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
(Laugh) Well, here’s the problem: I’m not the most social animal. I don’t got to bars very often. I haven’t been to nightclubs in my entire life, so it’s kind of tricky. I would hope that it’s music that people put on to dance to, I guess. Not all of it’s going to be music you can dance to, but is that not the point of music? To cause this strange reaction in people’s bodies that we call dancing. If somebody told me that all it makes people do is dance, then I would be incredibly happy with that.
How are American audiences different from Scottish ones? Are there any particularly funny differences that come to mind?
They are different, but it’s kind of tricky to put your finger on why. In North America, in general, There’s a certain enthusiasm — which is not to say that in the UK, people are not enthusiastic. It’s just expressed a different way, and for the life of me, I can’t put my finger on what that difference is. I think, possibly, if you were talking about, say, California, in general, you guys get way more sun than we get, and maybe that lends itself to a certain type of enthusiasm. It’s almost impossible to put into words what the difference is, but there’s definitely a difference.
How has coming from Glasgow shaped your sound and your perspective?
It don’t think it’s shaped our sound at all. We’ve been asked that over the years. The thing is we’re probably more influenced by what people would call “American music,” and by that, I just mean “rock ‘n’ roll.” I’m not sure whether it’s shaped anything musically, but no matter where you come from, you cannot help but be shaped by that culture. I’m not sure how we’ve been shaped by Glasgow culture because I’m not even sure what Glasgow culture is. It’s almost an impossible question to answer, and a lot of it comes from just not paying enough attention (laughs.) I don’t seem to retain information for very long, or pay much attention, which was on my report card every single year at school: “Must pay more attention.”
Tell us a little bit about your live show for the new album, and what fans can expect from your current tour.
Well, the thing with us is that we basically have one thing to sell. We’ve only ever had the one thing to sell, which is effort. We don’t dance. The entire show has to come from us, making sure that every night we put in as much effort as we can for that day, and so hopefully, that’s what everybody gets when they come to see us. At the moment, obviously, with a new record, we’re desperate to play new songs, but at the same time, we are intelligent enough to realize there are certain songs that people are more familiar with, so we make sure that we play enough of those songs, because when people buy tickets for a show, they expect something, and we are in the business of giving them what they expect.