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Going Dutch

The Frames and BellX1 stormed the palisades of Groningen recently as part of the Eurosonic Festival. John Walshe was there to see it happen and to revisit the spot where the great Mic Christopher met with his tragic accident. Plus: the latest news and reaction to the Frames’ new record deal

John Walshe, 06 Feb 2004

Backstage at Groningen’s Grand Theatre, it’s two minutes to showtime and all is not right in The Frames’ camp. Glen Hansard’s face is drawn tight with tension. Behind him, Colm Mac an Iomaire is looking uncharacteristically anxious.

Thankfully, there’s no in-band tension or inter-band rivalry at play, though. This problem is something far more basic. Glen and Colm are forming an orderly queue for the bathroom, and Turn frontman Ollie Cole is taking a ridiculously long time in the toilet, the result, he later informs us, of an 18-hour van journey that took himself and Turn’s drummer Ian Melady from Dublin to the Northern Dutch city of Groningen, via Sheffield (to pick up gear), Dover and Calais. At last Ollie is finished and Glen gets to avail of the porcelain before dashing off downstairs to rejoin the rest of The Frames. Poor Colm, it seems, has to cross his legs and think of Ireland.

In front of a capacity crowd at the EuroSonic Festival, The Frames are magnificent, winning friends with a mixture of old favourites like ‘God Bless Mom’ and ‘Santa Maria’ and brand new tracks like ‘Keepsake’ and ‘Locusts’, touchingly dedicated to the late Mic Christopher, whose tragic accident in Groningen led to his untimely death.

Only an hour before The Frames, BellX1 were on this very stage, proving why they are fast becoming one of the bands most likely to break in mainland Europe this year, as they delivered a sparkling set drawn from their brilliant Music In Mouth album.

Later, BellX1 frontman Paul Noonan admits that the gig was a bit scary. “It’s always weird when you’re doing a gig, knowing that it’s being broadcast,” he reflects. “It’s a very different animal listening to a gig when you’re in a big, loud venue to listening to one at home on the radio,” Paul opines. “We were a bit daintier than usual. It’s strange: I wasn’t quite lost in the gig because we knew it was being broadcast on the radio.”

Paul enjoyed his first EuroSonic experience, though: “It gives you a chance to play to full houses where you don’t yet have them yourself. Doing a show outside Ireland with The Frames was brilliant. Being in Groningen the next day and Ciaran from Simple Kid stopping by and saying ‘Howya’ was great. There was the ex-pat factor for that brief day or so, which was fun.”

We’re at the Noorderslag Weekend in Groningen, one of the major European music events of the year, which is split into three parts. EuroSonic, the European Showcase Festival, has become the place to see the continent’s rising stars before they make it big, and this year’s event sees 110 acts performing across more than 10 venues in the city. The Noorderslag Seminar is an annual three-day meeting where 1,300 music business professionals get together to discuss important issues relating to the European music industry. Noorderslag itself sees the latest breed of Dutch rock, pop and dance acts strut their stuff in front of fans, media and assorted industry professionals.

This year’s event has an eclectic line-up, representing the entire continent: from the angular Talking Heads-isms of Glasgow’s Franz Ferdinand and the ferocious aural onslaught of Iceland’s Minus, to the hip-hop jazz fusion of Finland’s Don Johnson Big Band and the psychedelic guitar pop of Sweden’s The Soundtrack Of Our Lives.

The two Irish acts (along with Simple Kid the following night) prove that the Emerald Isle is still producing acts who are right up there with the best Europe has to offer, and both BellX1 and The Frames can be extremely satisfied with their performances. Turn, incidentally, aren’t on live duty: Ollie, Ian and Alan are embarking on a tour of the EU’s accession states with BellX1 the following day, so they’re on serious fun patrol.

Frames’ bassist Joe Doyle is delighted with their gig. “I thought the gig was really good,” he enthuses. “We really enjoyed it. I was listening to a recording of it afterwards and I think it sounded great. It can be a little difficult getting up on stage in front of an industry crowd. I guess it’s not very dissimilar from getting up in front of a group of musicians, in that they tend not to be as willing to get involved as the average person coming to see a gig. It can be difficult to get some participation going but I think we did quite well for an audience where a lot of people didn’t know us and a lot of the audience were industry people.”

Glen Hansard is similarly enthusiastic about the gig: “I enjoyed it very much. The Dutch audience, like the German audiences, are kind of famously a little bit stiff. I think what that does to the band is that when we go to a place like that, we’re always expecting the reaction to be a little bit colder than it ever is. I thought the audience were really warm.”

Particularly since there were a lot of music industry people in the room…

“Absolutely,” he agrees. “Most of the time, they’re the people who are the most jaded. Whenever you play a music industry bash, for every band it’s always a bit scary. But we’ve always been lucky in those situations.

“I suppose the duty of a good band is to destroy the distance between the listener and the song and we were fortunate to get that early on in the gig, as opposed to having to wait around until our set is almost over. Most of the time, in these situations, you only have 40 minutes to play and for a band like us, we’re usually only warming up then, but lately we’ve been trying to tighten that up and get into the gig as soon as possible.”

Being so used to seeing The Frames play sold-out shows around Ireland, playing to diehard fans, I found it refreshing to see the band having to work the crowd.

“I think that’s something we all really enjoy,” Joe says. “Playing in front of new people is one of the things we enjoy the most, that’s why we spend so much time out of the country. Being able to get up in front of people who don’t know your music and having them hooked by the end of a gig is a great feeling. Because they’ve never heard you before, you seem to get a more genuine reaction, particularly when you’re playing new songs.

“With the older songs, you tend to know what they do and how they work and what reaction you get from most people. It’s great to play new songs in front of new people because they don’t know any of your songs so if they like the newer ones, it definitely gives you a lot of confidence.”

The reaction to the new songs in Groningen was especially positive, considering that the set was almost equally split between new songs and old favourites.

“We’ve been playing an awful lot of new songs at the moment,” Joe notes. “We’re getting ready to go and record again so we’re trying to play them in a little bit and see what they’re made of.”

It seems that it wasn’t just the punters who were impressed by both Irish bands. 2FM’s Ian Wilson was in Groningen, both to organise the live broadcast and to take part in a variety of seminars and meetings, and he feels that both bands acquitted themselves remarkably well.

“I know the vibes from home were very good in terms of the broadcast,” Ian notes. “Plus, we had a meeting with the European Festivals and The Frames got mentioned by a good number of festivals as a likely act they’d be booking, and BellX1 got some mentions as well. They were strongly approved of by the professionals there. I think it was a result for both bands.”

So thanks to ETEP – the European Talent Exchange Programme, designed to stimulate and increase the possibilities for bands to perform at Europe’s major summer festivals – we could be seeing The Frames and BellX1 at some big European events this year, including the likes of Glastonbury, Rock am Ring, Pinkpop, Roskilde and Lowlands.

For related articles just click on one of these links:

Remembering Mic Christopher

The Frames: The new deal

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