Frankie and the Heartstrings: 'Music needs a bit o' spite'

Frankie and the Heartstrings are flying the flag for the surprisingly fertile Sunderland scene. They tell Dave Simpson how classic kitchen-sink dramas and the miners' strike are still alive in their music

Frankie and the Heartstrings played at Sheffield Leadmill not long ago, part of a tour of the country. There was barely anybody there, but frontman Frankie Francis wasn't fazed. Running a hand through his shaking quiff, he gave a commanding performance, all quivering hips and gyrating bottom, and frequently ended up in the middle of the meagre audience. By the end of the night, Francis's showmanship and the Heartstrings' rumbustious, spiky soul had transformed a graveyard atmosphere into a party, with the handful of people there queuing up to shake his hand.

"We were actually quite down at that gig," he says, "thinking, 'Shall we pack the band in?'" But as the tour rolled on, audiences got larger and wilder. "Walking out in Bristol felt like we were playing Shea Stadium," says Francis. "It was, like, 'Yes, we're back!'" After our interview, Francis will show the 100 Club why the Heartstrings – making their headlining debut in London – are one of the best live bands in Britain.

"We've got a policy where you can never rely on the crowd," he says. "A gig isn't their job. It's ours. You've got a responsibility to put on a show even if it's to just one person."

Frankie and the Heartstrings might be called the Sound of Young Sunderland, in acknowledgement of the role of the Sound of Young Scotland – the bands on Postcard Records in the early 80s, including Orange Juice, Josef K and Aztec Camera – in shaping their sound, although there are other confessed influences, including Dexys Midnight Runners, Bobby Conn and Billy Childish. "By the time we were 16, we'd already exhausted the Beatles, TV and all the other usual stuff," explains Francis, who's now 25. "You've got to dig deeper."

Like Dexys, the Heartstrings have a stance, an aesthetic running through everything from Francis's quiff (modelled on James Dean) to guitarist Michael McKnight's penchant for plus fours. "When we supported the Paddingtons, everybody laughed at us," admits McKnight, who is clearly the most obsessive about the band's moral crusade against chain-store tops and tracksuit bottoms. "People can get quite aggressive with you for dressing a bit dandy, but it never put me off. I'd just prance around town and deal with it."

Francis reckons the band's look derives from watching old kitchen-sink dramas such as This Sporting Life and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. McKnight says he's trying to look like a wartime evacuee. "I always say the same thing to the barber: 'A 1950s short back and sides, tapered round the ears and a cheeky fringe.'"

"Cheeky" is a word that peppers their conversation, and describes an attitude that covers everything from asking the owner of the Italian cafe where we meet if he has any waitresses available, to insulting other bands. At just two singles old, Frankie and the Heartstrings have already claimed to be "bigger than Jesus" and "better than the Beatles", while both U2 ("shit") and the Drums (whom they recently supported) have been cheerily dismissed.

"It's all part of the fun of being in a band," shrugs drummer Dave Harper, who could have stepped straight out of a 1950s fairground. "We never take it personally when other people slag us off. A man came up to me absolutely steaming, 'Better than the Beatles? You're not even the best band in Sunderland.' We ended up having a good laugh."

The banter disguises a hunger to be more than one of the better bands in Sunderland. Although the city doesn't have much in the way of venues or musical facilities, it's always produced pop. In recent years there have been Futureheads, Maximo Park and Field Music. A decade ago there was Kenickie and Leatherface. "When you think of the city's size, we're not doing too bad," says Harper. And playing drums, he says, isn't real work, like going down the pit, or the potato-picking he did in his teens. "But if you're pampered and spoon-fed, your music is gonna be spoon-fed. Music needs a bit of edge, a bit o' spite."

The gang go way back. Francis and McKnight were at college together. Harper and McKnight have played in bands for years. They came together as a group when Francis mentioned he'd bought a bass and asked to have a jam.

"He was the worst bassist ever," says Harper. "Asking him to sing was the only way to get him off the bass." Francis turned out to be a natural frontman. "Two gigs later he was on the floor, pushing his quiff back and serenading whichever young lady was in front of him at the time."

The three made their debut as a four-piece when pal Steve Dennis joined on bass. But the fifth member was pivotal. Keyboardist Pete Gofton was once better known as Kenickie drummer Jonny X – he's also Lauren Laverne's brother – and did more than knock the music into shape: he used his contacts to get it heard, and they duly signed to indie heavyweight Wichita. "I'd always thought of record labels as a little man in a big chair," says Harper. "But they were a big man in a little chair, in a room piled high with records. They are the loveliest people and they don't have a bad band on the label."

The Heartstrings are idealist and romantic about pop. The band's record sleeves are beautifully designed, featuring photographer Keith Pattison's images from the 1984-85 miner's strike – not that their provenance is immediately obvious. "We didn't want a policeman wrestling a guy to the ground," Francis says. "But if you look at those children's faces [on the sleeve of Tender], they haven't eaten for 24 hours and they're queuing up for food. You can see the confusion and hurt."

The band will play the launch of Pattison's book, and the strike has clearly cast a long shadow over the band's families and upbringings. Both McKnight's grandfather and Harper's father were striking miners in the pit village of Murton. Harper says that while he was always educated about the strike, he has only just heard his father's stories in detail: "They never talk about them. I'm not a guy to cry, but I cried my eyes out."

McKnight looks up from his coffee and sweeps back his cheeky fringe, noting that while the strike was terrible, the camaraderie that was built within the communities is still talked about today. That's what the Wearside Soul Brothers want to achieve with pop.

"We've grown up in households where we were taught the enjoyment of sharing things with other people," he says, while Harper adds, slightly cheekily, "We're a very caring, sharing, tactile sort of band."

Frankie and the Heartstrings play Glastonbury on 26 June.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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