THE best compliment for a musician is someone saying, ‘I got that album, I was going through a tough time, but that song made everything feel a little bit better’.” Ashley Keating, drummer for legendary Cork indie band, the Frank and Walters, is defining what he loves about making music. It’s what many fans love about the Franks, too.
The Frank and Walters have been playing their upbeat tunes for 25 years, and they’re celebrating with a headline gig at Cork Opera House during the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival.
We talk as Keating drives us through Cork’s south side, early evening sun blazing, to pick up guitarist, Rory Murphy, and drive to engineer Cormac O’Connor’s Maple Rooms studios near Robert’s Cove in south-east Cork. There, we’ll meet singer and bassist, Paul Linehan, for a recording session. Keyboardist Cian Corbett, based in Dublin, won’t be attending.
Things don’t go to plan. Outside Murphy’s house a slightly built woman approaches Keating. Next thing, she’s gingerly sitting into the car and both musicians are moving their gear to make space.
The woman wants to be taken to hospital. She had fallen a few days before, and hasn’t healed; she’s in pain.
Still, she wants to chat. “Are ye in a band, lads?” She saw the guitar and cymbals. “We are,” says Keating.
She asks where we’re going. “We’re recording a new album, down near Robert’s Cove.” “Ah sure lads,” she says, “wouldn’t I love to be going with ye?”
The car explodes into laughter. Keating drops her at Cork University Hospital; she’s well enough to make her own way to the door. “It was all set up to prove we’re very caring people,” Keating jokes later. The Frank and Walters: raising spirits with classic tunes since 1990; ambulance services also available. We head south again.
For Murphy, in the band since 2010, joining the Franks was the realisation of an abandoned dream. “I played with a struggling band for seven years, and we split up about a year before I joined the Franks. I took a job up in Longford, kind of with the thought, ‘That was it, I’ve given it a go, I’ve failed, I’ll move on to the next thing’.”
Instead, he’s toured all over the world, and is about to play on his second album with the band.
We link up with Linehan at the studio, amid a backdrop of rolling green hills. The band work through several versions of two songs, methodically chopping and changing their construction. The material sounds crisp, and definitively like the Franks — catchy guitar, sweet melodies, and hooks that burrow their way deep into your skull.
Songs like these have brought the band special memories. Asked what stands out from their 25 years together, Linehan and Keating remember the seismic shifts of early success. “I remember when we got our first EP,” Linehan says. “It arrived in the post. We were with Setanta Records, it was a vinyl EP, and I remember thinking, ‘We’ve made a record, and I have it in my hand’.”
For Keating, it was getting a call telling him the band had booked a session on Dave Fanning’s radio show. “Paul and Niall, they lived down the street. They couldn’t afford a phone. I remember getting off the phone and legging it down — they actually didn’t have a knocker either, or a letterbox — so I was beating the door down at dinner-time, ‘We got a Fanning Session!’ It was the biggest thing in the world.”
Just signing with a label to make a record is a success few have experienced. “It was life-changing, because 95% of bands couldn’t do it,” Keating says.
“No-one else could afford it,” Linehan says. “Anyone can make a record now and throw it up on iTunes or Bandcamp or Soundcloud.”
That climate can be hostile to the almost-antiquated tradition of paying for music. Asked about U2’s recent decision to make their album free to download on iTunes, Linehan is critical.
“They’re setting a bad example, and they’re devaluing music. For a band who come across as caring about other people and the world, it’s a bad statement.”
Linehan says reports of U2 receiving $100m for Songs of Innocence, if true, smack of having your cake and eating it. “They want everything. For a band like them, I actually think it was a cheap gimmick.”
Nonetheless, Keating says downloading and streaming have enabled the Franks’ music to be heard by new audiences.
“The last album, we played places we’d never played. We played in Japan, did tours all over Europe, and definitely the internet did that. With iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify, you’re releasing to a worldwide audience.”
But, Keating says, making music pays less. “We were able to live from music, without doing day jobs, for the best part of 15 years. For the last 10 years, we’ve had to do bits and pieces.”
They still work within music — booking bands, teaching music — but it’s a far cry from the rock’n’roll dream so many of us have absorbed. Yet Keating says their longevity has relied on that industry-wide change. “If it was back in the old regime, the band could’ve been long gone,” he says.
“You needed a major label to make a record back when we started. We haven’t had a major label deal in about 12 years, so we probably wouldn’t have been able to make the last three records.”
He understands the frustration, but for him, music isn’t about financial concerns.
“If you want to make money, you’re definitely in the wrong business, like .0005% of musicians will make a decent living. The rest will struggle, but it’s a lifestyle, and a form of expression. There’s no better buzz than nailing that new song, or going out on stage.”
That’s part of why, even with their two longest-serving members well into their 40s, the Franks have no intention of stopping any time soon. “As long as I’m healthy personally,” Linehan says. “I always have the desire to keep writing songs. We’ve written 80 songs for this album, the lads have actually asked me to stop… I’ve never been more prolific in my life.” Long may it continue.