The Fratellis, and frontman John Lawler in particular, have had a career of ups and downs. Their rush to stardom almost 15 years ago, followed by their breakup and consequent reunion is the quintessential rock band tale, and one that seems to be heading toward a happily ever after.
At heart a folky garage band, the Fratellis integrated blues and pop into their rock. Now on their sixth album, they have scaled out to a grander, more orchestral, portrait. Half Drunk Under a Full Moon, set release on April 2 following several lockdown-induced delays, is the sonic culmination of the band’s existence.
John Lawler, the man behind “Jon Fratelli,” took some time to talk about the outside forces that guide the Fratelis’ writing process, the shift in the band’s music-making journey and the particular way this new album was constructed.
RIFF: The Fratellis have had an incredibly long career. What does it feel like, when you look back at how far you’ve come?
John Lawler: Let’s say you check back on a memory from when you were 7 or 8, and then sort of check in with a memory with something that happened yesterday. You’d probably realize quite quickly that there’s really nothing different about [those memories]. So nothing feels any different to me. The only difference would be that at the very beginning, you’d remember how exciting it was. There was that going on when the band was in its infancy, and that’s not there now, but it’s not been replaced with something that’s the opposite. Just by my nature, pretty much everything I ever did up until 2015 I could find lots of fault with. On the first album; I can find a lot wrong with it. Everything since then, I can find so little fault with, so I can listen to it and actually enjoy it.
John Lawler: There was a moment where it was completely organic. I had been writing songs since I was 15 or 16, and I’ve written mountains of bad songs, some that people have heard and some that people haven’t. I would never describe myself as particularly talented, but what I think I did have is a sense of perseverance. There was never a day that went by that I didn’t wake up in the morning and the day didn’t hold promise, because I might go to bed that night knowing a song that wasn’t there before. I think what happened, at that point in 2015, was that all of those years in practice kind of bloomed, and I found really noticeably that I had a whole lot more in the way of ideas. Because nobody controls whether you have an idea or not, it’s what you do with it when you have it. Ideas are the easy part. Having tools to shape them are a different story.
It seems like your first three albums were a part of one era, and the next three are part of a different era. How did that schism happen?
John Lawler: After We Need Medicine, I was having a hard time working out what it is what we did. I had no idea what sort of songs were acceptable for another record, and I thought to myself in this ridiculous scenario, “I don’t know what we’re supposed to be.” And maybe a year later it struck me that I had been really dumb. In that statement I had missed the most obvious thing, which is if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, then you have free rein and license to do whatever the hell you want. It seemed containing, but it was the opposite. And that period was the most productive I had ever had, because I no longer cared what we were supposed to do, which meant I just did anything.
Now that you feel like you’re able to do anything, what did you want to do with Half Drunk Under a Full Moon?
John Lawler: I can only really speak for myself, but I really started to have really clear ideas before even having written songs for a record for what it might be. And with Half Drunk, that reached its highest point. I had the entire sound of the record before I even had a semblance of even one song. It’s almost like you already knew where it was going, you just didn’t have all the right pieces yet. Whether that happens again in the future, I don’t know. But it happened this time.
Where do you think this sound came from?
John Lawler: You start to hear it almost as if you’re underwater, and you’re hearing music coming from above, like if you’re in a swimming pool. You can imagine you’d be able to pick out certain parts of the music, but the rest of it would be vague. But maybe the closer you got to the top of the water, it would become less vague, until you get to the surface, then you hear it clear as day. There’s no surprise to it. Even though you were hearing it when you were really far underwater, you knew what was being presented. Where does it come from? The same place everything comes from. Answer’s on a postcard, you know? You can’t try to give a name to it, or you’ll chase it away.
What did having that preexisting sound mean for the making of the album?
John Lawler: In lots of ways, it meant that so much of the actual making of the record had been done before we even set foot in a recording studio. It had to be that way, and I understand why it had to be that way. There wasn’t a single song that wasn’t really orchestrated. And some people who have heard this record have told me there’s not that many guitars on it–but there’s a hell of a lot of guitars on it. It’s just that they’re all in tiny snippets that make up something bigger. That was such an integral part of the actual writing of the songs. There became elements that had to be there.
How did that manifest in the studio?
John Lawler: I wouldn’t want to work that way again. I don’t think we used the talents of everyone there anywhere near to the fullest, whether that’s the other two band members, or Tony Hoffer, who produced the record. I was putting them in a little bit of a straitjacket, which they never complained about once. But you know, if you’re going to work with people, especially because of particular talents they have, it’s pointless to have them involved and then not let them use those talents. It distressed me a little bit, actually, for six weeks, day-in-day-out, to be in a room with people knowing that on this one occasion that I had to be really forthright, and for lots of things there was no room for negotiation. The end result justifies it, but I don’t want to do that again.
Why do you think there was no room for negotiation, that this record seemed so predetermined?
John Lawler: Well, there’s kind of an easy answer to that. I have blue eyes. … I don’t remember choosing my eye color. There is a hell of a lot, if not everything about life and this world that we live in, that I don’t remember choosing any of. So you’re left with only one conclusion – which is that you didn’t choose, and you don’t choose, and you can’t choose. Life gets easier when you notice that and accept it. This isn’t sort of new-age; you’re not given this by some outside force. But we’ve never invented words to talk about these things. We probably realized thousands of years ago that we can’t get close to it. Music gets close to it, though.