Chris Francis interview
Former Ten guitarist Chris Francis has just released ‘Scratched Matinee’,a very enjoyable album.
1.What are you currently up to?
Well, I just finished the new album after a couple of years of working on that, so I’m just trying to get it out there a little; Send out some promos, get some reviews, hopefully get some interest going in the project. I’m terrible at the business side of all this though, and I’m already itching to just ditch it all and start working on the next one (which is already written and I plan to start pre-production in the New Year).
2. Could you take us through the songs on the new album ‘Notes From The Incurable’
Nothing would give me greater pleasure:
1) ‘Intro’. This was, I believe, the last track to be written on the album. I fancied the record needed a proper introduction to push it even further in that kind of theatrical direction, so I came up with this ominous little builder. Lyrically it’s from the point of view of a psychiatric patient who can feel he has a psychotic episode coming on, and he’s describing a mixture of dread and a sort of acceptance as he’s wheeled through the hospital corridors with all this kind of nightmarish imagery creeping in as his state progresses. It’s theatre really.
2) ‘The Scarlet Ice’. ‘Intro’ segues into this kind of Gothic little tale about a murder, so again the subject matter is very macabre and theatrical here. Musically it’s a real up-tempo driving punky rocker with lots of energy. Maybe it has hints of Alkaline Trio, or perhaps Enuff Z’ Nuff if they were heavier and darker. This was one of the earlier songs to be written for the record and it helped solidify the subsequent thematic direction of the album.
3) ‘BZ’. This is the closest thing to metal on offer here I’d say. There’s a little Metallica influence in the tom work and maybe hints of Megadeth elsewhere. It’s not a thrash track though (or even really metal as such), it’s a little proggy maybe to some, a little punky perhaps. It’s certainly upbeat and rowdy; very much a modern rock song. The subject matter is a lot of kind of preposterous conspiracy theory stuff, influenced by the film ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. Again it’s theatrical and overblown, with even some dialogue from our protagonist in there. Also one of the earlier songs to be written.
4) ‘Those Long Winter Evenings…’. This pulls proceedings in a more eighties rock direction. There are, musically, elements maybe of Def Leppard, but also something a lot darker and more bombastic. Possibly hints of HIM are in there also. It’s another Gothic tale, this time with a rather Edgar Allen Poe inspired plot wherein a man murders his lover during a domestic fracas and then immures her in the basement. Then, consumed with remorse, he decides to release her from her tomb so they may have one last romantic dalliance. It’s, like, well messed up but not to be taken seriously. To further the sense of insanity that’s prevalent throughout the album, this one is actually quite a feel-good tune, musically. It was based on a recording I dug out of my archives of ideas, where I was strumming some chords and humming a melody, so the original seed was probably some years old.
5) ‘Horror Show’. This one is the first track to introduce a funkier groovier kind of vibe to the record. It’s got that great tempo for groove based rock and comes over like maybe a much darker Aerosmith perhaps. There’s a horn section that pushes it even further in that direction too. Lyrically, it’s one of the tracks to feature a little politics. It’s a character song delivered from the point of view of a kind of Victorian freak show proprietor, announcing his sinister displays to the punters, but it’s all a metaphor for some of the dark voyeuristic material on the internet, which all seems so miserable and nihilistic to me. Oh and there’s some sweet talk-box lead guitar all over this one too.
6) ‘New Moon Monday’. I’m a little hesitant to keep explaining my lyrics here because half the point of enjoying any of the creative arts is in interpreting them (not to want to sound pretentious), but this is another dark little tale. The actual events that we’re dealing with are only hinted at, but there are clues all over these lyrics. Musically, it’s the first ballad on the album and certainly one of my favourite songs here. It’s mostly piano driven and has lots of vocal harmonies that I took a lot of time and care arranging. As with all the tracks, Phil’s vocals are tremendous here.
7) ‘Mother Medicine’. Maybe something of a departure stylistically this one (though the whole album is musically eclectic certainly). It could be thought of as a kind of power pop tune perhaps. Lyrically it’s another example of a feel good song belying its own dark subject matter. I like doing that. I think it was J.D. Souther who called it “sugar-coating the pill”. Anyway this one’s about someone who chooses, and even craves and celebrates, their abuser. It happens, and it’s an idea that interested me.
8) ‘Theatre Insane’. This second ballad builds to being another very theatrical song. There are people who’ve hurt me, others who’ve let me down and others who’ve actively abused me, and the only way I could deal with those things and move forward was to address them and write about it, and there’s certainly some of that in the lyrics here. It’s interesting; I read an interview with Joe Bonamassa about his new album at the time (probably about a year or so ago) and he said that he only draws from fiction with his lyrics because there’s nothing worse than being embarrassed by getting dumped, and then further embarrassing yourself by writing a song about it. Well, that kind of provides me with a useful reference point against which to give my own philosophy; his opinion there is the antithesis of my own: I think being an artist and being creative is supposed to be about courage, and a kind of generosity. Great artists really give you something of themselves and that’s what makes their work affect people the way it does. It should feel kind of like showing potentially millions of strangers naked pictures of yourself. It should be an extraordinary thing, and you do it certainly at the risk of humiliation. Anyway, musically ‘Theatre Insane’ is a bit of a journey, and has probably the most instrumentation of all the songs; There are horns and trumpets, oboes, flutes and strings, as well as all the layers of vocals and various clean, acoustic and heavy guitars, plus all sorts of other stuff; A mixing engineer’s nightmare!
9) ‘Ward 19’. This one’s a little story told in third person; one of the more straight-forward tunes, musically and arrangement-wise. Thematically it examines the (apparently variable) value of human life through the experiences of a woman who’s been committed to a psychiatric hospital for her suicide attempts, and specifically through memories from her youth during World War 2 that now torture her.
10) ‘Mr Spencer’. This one was a highly ambitious piece of song writing (that I hope I’ve pulled off!). It’s very theatrical and bizarre. The subject matter deals with a psychotic who periodically hears from a character named Mr Spencer, who tells him he’s special and must assume his rightful position of power and authority over others. It’s not supposed to be serious (and it’s actually ethically dubious of me to have appropriated such subject matter for the purpose of titillation, but surely good taste should play only a limited role in Rock n’ Roll!). Anyway, it was great fun to create these loony arrangements and what have you. The music reflects the multiple-personality aspect of the subject matter; the state of our man is dependent on whether or not he’s been taking his meds, and so is the music!
11) ‘The Artist’s Bride’. This one’s a third person story of love, illness, loss and grief; a sort of emo fairytale if you will. Musically it’s quite unusual I think; very melodic and poignant but with these bursts of rage and despair. It was another of the early ones to be written, and one of my favourites.
12) ‘Summer Days’. My favourite of the set I’d say. Another ‘sugar-coated pill’. It’s a big melodic ballad that’s maybe Bon Jovi meets My Chemical Romance. It’s quite oblique in that there is a story but it’s not very easy to discern, as the lyrics take the form of a letter written by one character to another, so you’d have to try to piece it together from what’s there I suppose. It deals with the themes of injustice and the death penalty. Sounds miserable, but it’s actually quite a feel-good song.
13) ‘Last Respects’ is a kind of sequel to ‘Theatre Insane’. I wanted the album to finish on a note of drama and bombast, but with hope and positivity there too. A rowdy, melodic, emotive and ambitious number this one.
3. How did you hook-up with Phil Philsworth who sings on the album?
I know it’s not the kind of romanticised set-up that music fans enjoy reading about, but he simply works through a session agency in the States and was able to work with me on this album through the wonder of the internet. I’ll tell you three things about Phil: 1. I’ve never met him 2. He’s American 3. Phil Philswoth isn’t really his name but it seems his agent doesn’t return calls enquiring as to her clients’ surnames for the purposes of album credits.
4. What were the highlights of your time in Ten? Are you likely to work again in the future with Gary Hughes?
Well, there were many highlights: The great feeling of having joined a real serious band, my first visit to Japan and getting treated like a rock star there, playing these festivals in cool locations around Europe with some really famous bands, getting to push myself as a player and chart that progress throughout the several albums recorded during my tenure.
As far as working with Gary again, I wouldn’t rule it out but I couldn’t see how it would really come about; Gary tends to find a guitarist he likes and then use him for everything he does, whether it’s Ten, his solo albums or other artistes he’s producing. I did my time as that guy and then decided to move on. I was really more of a session player in that situation anyway, so you ask if we’ll ever work together again but we never wrote songs or anything. I got to play lots and he really indulged me as a lead guitarist and let me run amok (I mean, listen to the Essential Collection; even I wouldn’t let me play that many solos!). I guess it’s like actors not wanting to get known for only working for the one director or playing the same character.
5. Your previous solo albums have been all instrumental. What made you want to do a vocal based album? Did you envisage having just one singer throughout and did you consider having a few guest vocalists?
I felt as though I’d achieved everything I’d set out to do as an instrumental guitarist (artistically I mean, not commercially). Also, I wonder if I was hiding behind my guitar playing somewhat; coming back to what I talked about earlier with song-writing and creativity being about generosity and risk. It seems perhaps a little safe making a whole album of guitar instrumentals when my playing is obviously well in order. I’m a good guitarist and I could keep making albums of good guitar-playing and nice tunes but I’d rather take risks and possibly end up looking like a pratt, but also possibly end up making something genuinely special.
I didn’t for a second consider having multiple vocalists. The reason being that there’s quite a variation of styles amongst the material that comprises the album, and for that reason there needed to be a real identity that tied it all together. Whenever I produce an album, even the drum sounds change massively from song to song so the lead voice needs to be a consistent element for it not to seem somewhat like a compilation album. Queen is a good example of a band that hugely varied their style from 50’s rock n’ roll to 70’s funk to 80’s hard rock and film score type stuff and Music Hall even, and if it all hadn’t had Freddie’s voice as a common thread I don’t think it would have had their identity.
I see why you ask the question; a lot of the time when a guitar player who doesn’t sing – eg. Carlos Santana, Slash, etc – makes a solo album that has vocals, they’ll use a cast of different singers. I guess this could be because it may seem weird having their name on the cover and someone else singing the whole record (just because of the tradition of the ‘artiste’ being considered to be the person who sings the tunes, regardless of who wrote them). So using different singers through their album brings about the impression that the guitarist in question is the only constant throughout. Well, obviously this doesn’t apply to me because this record is released under the ‘Scratched Matinée’ name (which is sort of my make believe band) and also I don’t care; it’s far more important that the album holds together as a cohesive experience.
6. What have been the live highlights for you in your previous bands and why?
Well there are probably fewer than twenty live shows I’ve ever played for me to choose from here. I particularly enjoyed the Osaka show we did shortly after I’d joined TEN. Playing Summer Rocks 2002 in Budapest I really enjoyed because it was the first time I hadn’t had any nerves before going on, and I took that as an indication that I was starting to feel in my element on stage. My two Guitarist of the Year performances were great from a technical point of view; when you spend a month rehearsing one four-minute song you tend to get it pretty well nailed. I think the best performance I’ve ever been part of was Ten live at the Gods 2002.
7. If you could form a fantasy band lineup – who would be in it and why?
1) Unreconstructed loud-mouth Chad Kroeger on triangle; he will be made to stand at the back, styled to look foolish (his own clothes and hair-cut will do nicely). No talking or singing will be tolerated from the triangle player.
2) Me on lead guitar and my son Henry on bass. Henry may be three months old but Eddie Van Halen has shown us all the way.
3) The keyboard player from Frankie Goes To Hollywood on keyboards. I don’t know for a fact, but I’d imagine Chad back there is a bit of a homophobe, and the inclusion of such a flamboyant wooly-woofter in the group can only further antagonise him. Our man will need to use a key-tar to facilitate maximum mincing.
4) My wife Antonia on percussion. She may not sing or play anything but Paul McCartney has shown us all the way.
5) On drums we have Mahatma Ghandi. All that passive resistence in the face of abuse will have caused a real build-up of repressed aggression; combine that with glow-in-the-dark sticks and you’ve got yourself a crowd-pleaser. The only complicating factor here is the matter of his death in 1948 (yes, I had to Wikipedia that).
6) Finally I’d have Joe Satriani on rhythm guitar and Chris Martin on lead vocals. All the song-writing duties will fall to this pair and their high-priced music business lawyers.
8. Do you think there been an upswing in interest in rock music in the UK of late given the success of Journey via ‘Glee’, songs used on games and specialist magazines like ‘PowerPlay’ and ‘Classic Rock’ in High Street stores?
I don’t know really. Rock fans are always talking of how this big ‘second coming’ type of thing is going to happen but I think what it is is that popular culture is being mined and recycled in that kind of post-modern way that’s engulfed the entertainment industry.
The AOR community, say, gets really excited when Journey hit the charts because they think it signals a return of their genre, but a new AOR band is no more likely to get the attention of major labels than they were, say, ten years ago (unless they market themselves as an ‘ironic’ AOR band maybe, but AOR and irony do not good bed-fellows make.).
When a song like ‘Don’t Stop Believin” is used in a TV program it’s done on the understanding that the audience is aware that it is a kind of corny song from 1981 and we’re all in on the joke. What happened with Journey in particular though is that they were never the successful act in Britain that they were in the US, so that song didn’t exist in the collective consciousness over here. These American shows often do really great business in the UK though, and when they make them they don’t consider the relevance of its pop-culture references throughout the rest of the world because, well, they’re Americans. But I suppose when a children’s show uses a thirty year old song it isn’t necessarily expected that its audience will ‘get’ it, so for all intents and purposes we Brits were children as far as Journey references go. It’s good anyway because it’s about time the UK caught up on all of those great Journey songs.
Though it’s probably all just in keeping with globalisation. Sorry, I’ve forgotten the question. Ah yes, I do think it’s a great time for Rock music; Bands like My Chemical Romance and Coheed and Cambria embrace a lot of the traditional aspects that always made rock so great, aspects that seemed almost illegal during the 90’s. However, rock music is still a passenger on the sinking ship that is the record industry.
But basically nothing changes; real rock fans never go away and never abandon their scene and the wider public are happy to have it imposed on them if the media decides it’s time for that again, but they’re also happy to forget about it when the mainstream moves on.
9. In this age of downloads and declining CD sales has the internet helped you get your music out there or has it in some ways hindered it by websites offering free downloads etc
Yeah, unfortunately I feel inclined to say that the internet is killing recorded music rather than liberating it. It’s just everywhere now and it seems to have lost all value. Everyone and his cousin has access to Garage Band or whatever, and can start a MySpace page and put their recordings up there and it’s like this miserable artistic dystopia. It’s not so much about being able to make money from music – to me that has always sounded rather fantastical – it’s, as I say, about the art-form of writing and recording songs having seemingly lost all value, as everywhere you click there’s some poor artiste begging you just to take their material for free, and it makes you care even less. MySpace, for example, was talked of as this miracle that had arrived to save all songwriters; a way they could truly get exposure for their work, but in reality it’s a million bands swapping feigned interest in one another’s music, and that gets none of them anywhere. Also the anonymity of the internet is a real problem I think. I know people who’ve been in bands and their manager has made each member spend an hour a day going through the message boards and forums of major artistes, posing as fans and raving about this “great new band” and posting links, etc. As a result, people don’t trust anything they read and quite rightly so. If you’re going to do that then what’s the fucking point anymore? Everything you say becomes meaningless.
10. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time away from music?
I love comedy. Music and comedy make life a lot easier to live, I find.
Anything else to add and a message for your fans…
Merry Christmas. Thanks for reading. Cheers!