Frankie & The Heartstrings might sound like the house band from 'Happy Days' or something of a similar ilk, but the reality of their existence couldn't be further from the truth. Hailing from the not so rock and roll confines of Sunderland, their happy-go-lucky fusion of C86 infused melodies and bittersweet lyrics has brought them to the precipice of mainstream success. Furthermore, their relentless tour schedule has helped them become one of the most efficient live acts in the country at this present moment in time. Earlier this year, the band released their debut album 'Hunger' to a clamour of positive reviews, and with a non-stop festival programme about to kick in, the band aren't in a position to relax just yet.
Contactmusic is sat in a London boozer with singer Frankie Francis and drummer Dave Harper, and immediately the discussion turns to their hometown.
So, Sunderland then. A great place to start a band or not?
Frankie: It depends on your attitude. Most people start a band because there's nothing else to do basically.
Dave: You don't have any distractions. It's not as if you're going to buckle the trend because nothing about the place ever will be trendy.
Frankie: There's a core scene I guess of about a hundred people, who've always helped each other out and supported each other's gigs. People like The Futureheads and Field Music, and I guess it stretches to Newcastle with the guys from Maximo Park. Same with the venues and promoters, everyone sticks together because they have to.
Does it feel like there's a smalltown mentality holding musicians and bands back?
Frankie: We're quite lucky I guess because people like The Futureheads, Field Music and before them, Kenickie all made quite a name for themselves outside of the area and I'd like to think we could be added to that list at some point. There is an outsider mentality and that's why we all help each other out and we definitely wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for those bands because it takes one band to break out.
Dave: It's the politics of the area as well, you know. There's no one there telling you how to sound, or what to wear, and we've got to be grateful for that. We've probably got a confident and arrogant approach compared to most bands because no one sets us a bar. No one expects us to achieve anything from that area, so for that reason we've never felt the same pressures as bands from London probably do.
It's interesting you say that as your band's image has been focused on somewhat by the media. Do you think it's been important in helping gain recognition up to a point?
Dave: No, because we've never focused on the image at all. The way that we dress and the way that we behave is not phoney, and if anyone wants to come along and challenge us about that they're more than welcome to be honest.
Frankie: Dressing a certain way is one extension of who you are as a person, but it's one tiny spoke in a pretty big wheel.
Dave: Most bands probably presume that they have more to them than people focus upon but we can't control that so you've got to roll with those punches and be flattered by it not kick against it. Unless you're being dishonest about something then what does it matter?
Your music and image do work pretty well though, as well as the band's name, in terms of the whole C86 and 1950s doo-wop style you portray. Some of that must be intentional, surely?
Frankie: I guess so, because when we considered the idea of forming a band we were all listening to a lot of C86 affiliated music and we were taught a lot of 1950s cinema, so for me a lot of it comes from that.
Dave: I don't think Oasis got asked this question about their name. I don't think people asked if they were big fans of shoe shops at the time! When we came up with the name, there weren't many "And The" bands around. The next thing you know, that Florence comes along and ruins everything!
In the current climate it's increasingly difficult for bands to get signed now, particularly if you're from an area not normally renowned for music. Bearing that in mind, do you feel your band has to spend more time in London than you'd like to?
Dave: No, that kind of suggests that there's a resistance between north and south and I find that a very dated attitude to have. We don't have to be down here, we choose to be down here because we enjoy playing live. It wouldn't matter to me if it were South Shields or Mansfield or anywhere really. If we played the Shithead Arms in the far arse corner of England we'd have the same motivation as we would in any other part of the country. It's about being fair to the people who buy our records, wherever they live, and it might come across as old fashioned and slightly sensationalist but.tough!
How instrumental was former member Pete Gofton (aka Johnny X of Kenickie) in helping the band get signed?
Frankie: Very. I mean, we make no bones about that. When we first started out we were very naïve. None of us had ever been in a studio before except Pete, so I guess he made us realise just how much potential the band had as individuals. We've got to be grateful for that, but he's not in the band any more and I think we've acquired a better musician in Mick (Ross, guitarist). He certainly comes up with more ideas.
Dave: We were in a crisis at the time. Sunderland has a very small core of people compared to other towns and cities in terms of a music scene and by luck or by design; I've always been involved with the music scenes in both Sunderland and Newcastle so I was aware of Mick. Well, to tell a lie, I'd probably been stalking him in that respect actually! He is an incredible musician. At times he reminds me of Bernard Butler when he was on it, and no disrespect to Pete.I'm not in the business of slating people when they don't deserve it which is why I'll slate Pete, because he does!
Do you see the band's sound evolving in a different direction now that Mick's in the band?
Frankie: No, because Michael (McKnight), the other guitarist, is the one that always comes up with the majority of ideas for songs. He'll come in with a snazzy guitar break or something and we'll build around it so I don't think that will ever change. I'll always write in the same way, and I think Dave will always have the same attitude, and (Steven) Dennis is a very accomplished bass player as well so we have to play to each other's strengths really. Michael and Mick are like oil and water, you've got to shake them together to get something! It shouldn't work but it does.
Dave: Michael will buy a guitar from a car boot sale because it looks good. It might only have three strings but he'll argue that it looks amazing so there!
So where would you put Frankie & The Heartstrings if you had to classify the band under one specific genre?
Dave: I don't think we could.
Frankie: It's pop music.
Dave: It doesn't make any difference to me. The worst thing we can do is to categorise ourselves with another scene. That's got to be suicide and if that's what you want to do then fine, but you can only go so far and we don't want that to happen to our band. I mean, the next album's going to be 100% Ragga! Of course we want to be successful, but not like other bands who put this whole fame and sex and drugs and rock and roll as their main aim, but because our songs are good enough. I genuinely believe our songs are better.
Frankie: We judge our success on the goals we set. We set a target of making a record in a studio with someone who understood our sound and we achieved that with Edwyn Collins.
Did you expect the album to be as well received as it has been?
Dave: I don't think any of us were surprised, put it that way. You've got to be honest. If you've made a good record then say so. At the same time I've the utmost respect for bands who come out and say don't buy our record because it's not as good as we wanted it to be. Most of the time it's because they've been pushed in the wrong direction but at least they're being straight and up front about it. The new stuff that we're currently working on excites me even more. At this moment in time, I don't have the ability to say its rubbish.
Some of your songs contain literary or film references, 'Tender' being one song that springs to mind with both Johnny Marr and Mike Leigh's 'Naked' getting a mention. Is this a feature of the newer songs as well?
Dave: We just write from experiences.
Frankie: I never think about inserting references in our songs for the sake of it. They're genuinely about things we've read or seen or listened to because that's basically who we are. You'd get labelled as being a fraud very quickly if that weren't the case.
Dave: We always said call our bluff. Someone tried to do that in Holland, obviously with the benefit of hindsight it's easy to say now, but I was rubbing my hands together and saying "Do you really want to go through with this conversation because you're wasting both of our of time?" I'm pleased it happened. You should have the balls to be able to challenge any band and ask them whether they're the real deal or not.
You've also been labelled as twee. Is that a label that you can identify with or do you find it offensive?
Frankie: Not really, no.
Dave: I don't find it offensive I find it wrong. I can understand why people would think that but at the same time if you looked through all of our record collections you'd find things in there you probably wouldn't have dreamed anyone in this band could possibly like. I mean, we get compared to Orange Juice and Aztec Camera yet if you bumped into Edwyn or Roddy Frame or any of the guys from those bands you wouldn't use the word twee.
Frankie: Edwyn's drummer for the past twenty years has been Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols..
Dave:.are you gonna get him down and call him twee? As personalities I can't imagine any of us being described as twee.
Frankie: I don't think you could describe our live show as twee either to be honest.
Talking of your live shows, I've seen you several times over the past year or so and you seen to have grown in confidence. Would you agree with that?
Dave: I think we started off as fairly confident performers. I've definitely watched Frankie develop mind.
Frankie: Yeah, I mean I'd never been in a band before this. I'm learning all the time, adapting my role between the audience and the band.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Frankie: Make as much music as we can in downtime then play as many gigs as we can for the rest of the year. We're in a privileged position to be in a band full time. We all had full time day jobs before so we don't want to waste a single day.
Finally, what kind of relationship do you have with the music press in general and what role do you think they will have on bands and the record industry in the future?
Dave: I find we have a very symbiotic relationship with them.
Frankie: We're not ones to do the whole you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours kind of thing. I'm not interested. We've been lucky that the people we've met so far on that side have all been fairly pleasant.
Dave: We've got used to all the clichés by now, and we're quite prepared for people calling us a poor band. Of course we're a poor band, we're from Sunderland for Christ's sake!
Have you been treated differently for that reason?
Dave: Not by the press.
Frankie: We've always played up to that because we're very proud of where we come from. The imagery that we use is a very North East thing.
Dave: I mean, if we came from Devon I couldn't see us putting a picture of a factory in Exeter or something. That just wouldn't make sense. It's not about where you're from though is it, it's about where you're going next.