If you've never heard of The Frames, you're not alone. When the Irish band took the stage at Go! Room 4 in February, the vast majority of the packed house was there to see The New Pornographers, the Canadian power-pop outfit that headlined the show.
Yet in about 45 minutes, The Frames served notice that they were far beyond the typical opening band at an indie-rock club gig. Alternately hushed and hammered guitars twisted and twirled against an elegant violin, eventually exploding in brilliant bursts of anthemic pop bliss. The center of gravity was singer Glen Hansard, whose engaging presence and enchanting lyrics, alternately playful and cathartic, gave sustenance to the sound surrounding him.
If it seemed they were much too tight and talented to be an upstart opening act, well, it turns out they've been around for 10 years. Hansard formed The Frames in the early 1990s after he signed to Island and needed a band to help him make his first record, Another Love Song (which came out in 1992).
The album flopped and the band floundered. They eventually regrouped, with some lineup changes, and made Fitzcarraldo (released in the U.S. on Elektra in 1996), which fared little better. A third album, Dance The Devil, was a major artistic breakthrough in '99, but it didn't even come out in the States (despite a major-label release on Universal overseas).
A small Chicago label called Overcoat released the group's most recent record, For The Birds, in October 2001, and suddenly the pieces started falling into place. For The Birds was a departure for The Frames; it's quiet and contemplative where the previous albums were often raging and bombastic. It's also "sold more than the rest of them put together," Hansard says.
Ultimately, however, it's the tension between hard and soft that The Frames express so passionately. "I think when we started, like a lot of young bands we wanted to be the biggest, fastest, loudest," Hansard says. "And as time went on, we discovered that restraint was a subtle magic. This was the hardest lesson."
He's also quick to credit the influence of one particular band. "The extreme dynamic was totally learned from The Pixies," he confesses. "They are the masters of loud soft. I sincerely don't know where rock music would be today if that band hadn't inspired so much greatness."
Early on, Hansard's fascination with The Pixies' aesthetic diverted the direction of his own songwriting, which turned the Frames' debut disc into a bit of a train wreck. "The first one was a case of bad timing for me," he says, in retrospect. "I was writing country songs mainly and folkier tunes, with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison being the template for everything I did.
"And then suddenly I discovered The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, just after being signed, and was very influenced by the energy I got from it. And that energy, that hunger for violence in the sound, turned the record into a confused mishmash, that otherwise could have been a pleasant country record."
Hansard's musical vision came into sharper focus as the '90s progressed. Fitzcarraldo was a solid step forward, but the Frames fully flowered on Dance The Devil, which fused the anthemic and elegiac elements of the band's live performances with the catchiest collection of songs Hansard had gathered to date. It's telling that a vast portion of their aforementioned set at Go! Room 4 came from this album, rather than the most recent one.
But it was also partly because the band had never really toured the U.S. behind Dance The Devil, since it wasn't released here. Though their fortunes in this country are finally beginning to flourish, the support they receive on their home turf still paves the way for their overseas exploits. "It's the one sustaining part of our history," Hansard acknowledges. "We've always had a crowd in Ireland who will come and allow us to gather up the seeds for another campaign abroad."
They've also gradually gathered enough connections in the U.S. to make things happen over here. "We have a bunch of smart friends out there who now know how to book a show, through years of us ringing saying, 'We have some money, we're coming out," he says.
They've also made some vital friends among fellow musicians, including one here in the Triangle. When violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire fell ill in the midst of their tour in February, Chapel Hill's Margaret White (Sparklehorse, Regina Hexaphone) filled in on a handful of dates in the Midwest.
"We met Margaret in Chapel Hill last time, and being big Sparklehorse fans, we talked for a while," Hansard recalls. "A few days later, Colm suffered a collapsed lung, and we had to decide whether to go home or carry on.
"I had Margaret's number and Colm said that we should carry on, that he would see the necessary doctors and get back on his feet in a week or two. So Margaret stood in for a few shows. It was great to have her there; she didn't know the tunes and didn't know us, but she played it great and helped us immensely."
Such fortuitous meetings tend to find their way into Hansard's world. A prime example dates back to the days just as the Frames were forming, when he scored a notable role in the 1991 film, The Commitments. "It was quite simple--I was busking in Dublin and the casting agent thought I should try out for it. I did, and it worked out," he says.
The animated charisma Hansard displays onstage suggests there may be a connection between his acting experience and his approach to performing, but in fact that wasn't the case "at all," according to Hansard. "Acting was very unnatural for me; I was trying so hard to do it.
"With playing music, it's so natural; if it doesn't feel easy, then it's not working. Performing is almost like revealing yourself, and allowing the audience to get so close to you. It's not like acting at all for me."
That connection to the crowd is essential for Hansard. "I think that music at its core is a communal experience," he says. "When there is an audience and a band, there is the potential for magic. The audience is at least 50 percent of the overall experience. A good band doesn't play their tunes oblivious to what the audience feels; a good band rides a wave that's created by both parties--a shared willingness for magic."
"Oh it's so hard for me to talk about it without sounding like an idiot," he concludes. "I just know that the mood is more important than any individuals."