A candid, open conversation with The Fratellis frontman...

By now we should really know The Fratellis. Fun time indie guys, right? A few massive singles, a BRIT Award, a hiatus, and a return that pleases fans.

Fifth album ‘In Your Own Sweet Time’ arrived a few days ago, and Clash has agreed to met up with Jon Fratelli to talk about something a bit different. It’s an aspect he doesn’t share that often, but something he feels able to finally discuss, if only once.

Jon has suffered depression his entire life. It’s a condition that has shaped much of his world-view, leaving marked experiences that inform both his art and some of his personal choices. It’s something that has been debilitating – during our conversation he is frank about his darkest moments – but it’s also something he has accepted, and learned to live with. In fact, that’s the point he wants to raise: that even at its worst, he still found space within the illness to be happy.

Maybe it helps that we’re both Scottish. Looking back on his childhood, Jon recalls trips to the countryside, the sort of breathtaking vistas that appear on postcards sent back across the globe. “People talk about the Scottish countryside and the scenery being wild and beautiful but that used to really bring me down for some reason,” he explains. “So when my folks would take me out to the country the odd time it would bring on this extreme sadness.”

“I couldn’t explain it at the time because I was six or seven... And then full on depression would have been late teens onwards and constantly after that.”

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It’s a remarkable revelation. The Fratellis’ output is dominated by indie disco thumpers, by stadium filling choruses capable of being sung by thousands. Funnily enough we’d both – separately – watched Scotland play rugby the previous weekend, and caught the band’s colossal breakout single ‘Chelsea Dagger’ being played in the warm up.

The conversation turns to those initial heady days of early fame, following years spent working on music as an unknown. “We were a little older, I suppose, but still young,” he says. “And I was certainly young in terms of world experience – I hadn’t been outside of Scotland! I’d been on holiday when I was a kid to, like, Spain and stuff but I hardly had been anywhere outside of the little village I lived in.”

“It was quick, and it was exhilarating,” he smiles. “We should have enjoyed it a little bit more, I think. In retrospect. We took it a bit too seriously – in fact, way too seriously. None of this should ever be taken seriously. Barely anything should be taken seriously. It took a long time to learn. It was definitely a whirlwind of a time.”

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None of this should ever be taken seriously...

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Over the past few years the music industry has begun to engage in a conversation about mental health, and way in which young artists can be supported. For Jon, however, the discussion needs to be much broader, connecting with wider cultural attitudes.

“I’m not sure that it’s really anyone’s job to offer you a support system, so to speak. It’s more a cultural thing,” he reflects. “We have a particular culture that has these particular ideas, and they’re really the biggest contributor to almost all depression.”

“It’s innocent. We don’t know we’re doing it, but we’re all doing it. You think of the word ‘culture’ and you think culture is out there… but it’s us. We create so many problems for ourselves that are completely unnecessary. I’m not sure support systems are needed. I think what’s needed – if anything is needed – is a cultural shift.”

And that culture for The Fratellis, and for Jon himself, was the west of Scotland; a place dominated by Scottish industrial history, by the country’s two dominant strands of Christianity, and by the simple fact that men aren’t encouraged to be open, or even to recognise, their own feelings.

“For whatever reason I was always fairly sensitive,” the singer recalls. “Wasn’t the typical west of Scotland guy. I put on a good act at being it! Especially when The Fratellis broke. I suddenly developed a really broad Glasgow accent, which I hadn’t had before! And I started to sing in a Glasgow accent, which I’d never done before either. And that was all an act. Probably at the time it was trying to maintain some sort of sense of identity… which now, in retrospect, is laughable.”

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This collision between Scottish repression and sudden fame sparked new modes of behaviour, which Jon now recognises was fuelled by depression. At times it was ugly – he certainly recognises negative aspects of that time, and his own actions.

“It certainly led to lots of unnecessary suffering... bad choices, bad career choices. It can led to you acting out in a particular way that pisses people off that it would be best not to piss off. Because I think when somebody is in the middle of various levels of depression they’ll do anything to deflect from it, they’ll do anything to ignore it. They’ll look a million different directions so they don’t have to look there. And you end up indulging in a lot of behaviour that is pretty self-destructive.”

“Way too much booze,” he sighs. “Also just pissing people off at various TV and radio and press that career-wise wasn’t very helpful. But aside from it being career-wise it just wasn’t particularly attractive. It was ugly. Again, though, it was what my culture taught me. It backs that up really well. Without you realising.”

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It just wasn’t particularly attractive... It was ugly.

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As we chat we return to Scotland, and to the religious hangover which informs many of the country’s attitudes. “You’re meant to carry the cross,” he says with shrug. “There’s definitely an idea of self-flaggelation. Which is nonsense but it seeps in under the radar.”

“We’re taught – sometimes overtly – to be happy, but not too happy. Don’t have too much pleasure. You can have a little bit of pleasure but you can’t have 100% pleasure. So if you’re starting to feel like wow, life is pretty great there is this in-built notion that something just isn’t right. Especially coming from the west of Scotland. It’s not right to be too happy.”

Throughout our conversation it’s clear that Jon has endured more than his share of unhappiness. He’s open – often frank – about the depths of his depression, and how low he has sank at times. But he wants to express something he has learned – that it’s possible to suffer from the illness, but also experience happiness, moments of real, lucid joy.

“What I really think is the fundamental lesson from either depression of anxiety or illness is that it’s possible to be absolutely free in the midst of even the worst depression,” he states. “And it’s a freedom that doesn’t mind if depression is present. It doesn’t care what’s present. If you could be joyous, it doesn’t mind. You could be in the depths of despair and it doesn’t mind. It’s there for the right person.”

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I tried every drug they gave me, I tried every therapist they gave me...

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“Some people might hear that and be really offended. Depression isn’t OK. It’s only going to be for the person who can see that depression is absolutely fine. It’s not necessarily something to be feared, to go to war with. Which seems to be what we do. Even though things like mindfulness are helpful, it’s still with the end goal of ridding yourself of depression.”

“There’s always this: how do we get rid of it? And I stopped trying to get ride of it,” he admits. “I tried every drug they gave me, I tried every therapist they gave me, and eventually just saw the hilarity of that. Why am I expending all this energy? It’s there. It’s obviously OK that it’s there, because it’s there. It’s not an abomination, it’s not wrong… It can be unpleasant but once you do that, the sense of freedom is limitless. You’re then free to be depressed and you’ll no longer spend any more time on it. If it comes, it comes.”

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When Jon discusses mental health each word is chosen carefully; he’s astonishingly aware of how personal, how different each individual’s experience can be, but his views are also evidently informed by years spent locked with depression.

“It comes back to the cultural aspect,” he explains. “Everything in our culture is set up to teach us to avoid stuff. How do we cure anxiety? How do we cure depression? Well, what if we don’t have the cure? What if it’s possible to live a completely free and happy life while still having those things creep up from time to time?”

“I wouldn’t say that if I hadn’t been on the suicidal spectrum – and fairly high up on it, at certain points. So I feel like I can speak about it from some kind of experience, so it’s not me preaching. But really, it is absolutely possible to be in the depths of depression and be completely free of it at the same time.”

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There’s no such thing as an adult, and there never has been.

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This notion of freedom crops up time and again with Jon; on one hand, he’s completely free – an artist able to work on his own terms. We discuss new equipment, his delight with the progression of software, meaning that he can work on complex material from his home. In this sense, though, he means something a little deeper. “

The freedom I’m talking about is more an innate freedom that we have anyway, that we overlook,” he says. “Kids have it! Watch kids play in a sandbox or just play with toys and that’s the closest I can get to as a good analogy. Where they’re completely free. We seem to lose it.”

“We’re told we’re supposed to grow up, be a grown up, and there’s an imaginary line – I’m not sure what age it is, but it’s completely imaginary – this idea that kids become adults. There’s no such thing as an adult, and there never has been. But we just lose that sense of freedom. But if somebody can re-connect or just realise that this sense of freedom they had as a kid never left, then that freedom is big enough to encompass anything.”

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It feels a little remarkable, then, that with such depth and insight into depression that these experiences don’t tend to crop up in Jon’s songwriting. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing; we’re told that it’s fine for tortured artists to suffer from mental health problems, but knockabout indie geezers must be happy with their lives. After an extended, enthusiastic exhortation of his love for Leonard Cohen - “he was funnier than people gave him credit for… he was a comedian!” - Jon rejects this manner of compartmentalising both art and the artists that create it.

“You have no choice over the music that you make,” he insists. “You have no choice over anything that you create. I know we have this idea that people decide to do a certain thing – I know for an absolute fact that I didn’t decide anything. You just find yourself heading in a particular direction depending on what sounds most pleasant to you. If you’re a photographer then it’s what looks most pleasant to you. Nobody chooses that. And I love that fact.”

“Another thing we get hung quite up on is the whole area of choice… that we choose life paths. When really if you look backwards you realise actually, no, I didn’t choose anything. I’d no more choice over the colour of my eyes than I did wanting to play music. To me, to talk of having chosen to do something is as ridiculous as saying I chose to have blue eyes.”

“The music that we play is just what we found ourselves doing. I get what you’re saying about… how can somebody in the depths of despair write that music? And I guess some people might wonder if it’s a sort of antidote to it, but it wasn’t… It wasn’t an antidote. It was the natural thing that came out at that time. It’s far more simple than that, really."

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I’d no more choice over the colour of my eyes than I did wanting to play music.

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One of the things which comes through most strongly during our chat is Jon’s overwhelming sincerity. Relatively late to the game – he first scored a hit while well into his mid 20s – The Fratellis’ hiatus was followed by tours of tiny venues, including a somewhat haphazard solo trip to my own, fairly remote, home-town of Wick. It’s clear, then, that Jon isn’t doing this for the money.

“We would do this if nobody listened, if we didn’t get paid to do it,” he enthuses. “We’d still do it. We’d go and play anywhere, a rehearsal room, because when you find the thing that brings you the most joy to do then you have no incentive to stop.”

“It’s not a job you retire from because it’s not a job. You’re doing the one thing that you know how to do, and you do it until somebody taps you on the shoulder and says: you’ve had your time! And it could come tomorrow, or it could be another 50 years. You do it until your time’s up.”

“It might be up tomorrow. I have no idea. But I like having no idea. It’s nice to drop the pretence that you know. I have no idea what might happen this afternoon. And that’s nice!”

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The Fratellis' new album 'In Your Own Sweet Time' is out now.

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