WHO’D have thought that when Frankie Francis and his James Dean-esque quiff stepped on stage at Sunderland’s Independent to front the Heartstrings first-ever gig that they would scale the music ladder quite so quickly?
That was on December 22, 2008 and, in the past 12 months alone, they’ve supported Florence And The Machine, played Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals, their single was named record of the week on Radio 1, they’ve played in Japan, Europe and New York, and been dubbed as one of the “best live bands in Britain” by The Guardian.
It’s enough to make you out of breath, but when we meet at the not-so-rock ‘n’ roll Penshaw Tea Rooms (my suggestion, not theirs) the Heartstrings are a pretty relaxed bunch.
There’s an air of effortless sartorial elegance about them – lead singer Frankie was recently named as the 39th most stylish man in Britain by GQ magazine – and a cool confidence that stems from the knowledge that they know they deserve the success that’s landed at their winklepicker-clad feet.
The founding members – guitarist Michael McKnight, 26, from Grangetown and drummer Dave Harper hooked up with singer Frankie while hanging out at the former White Room bar, now Plugged Inn, in Sunderland city centre, where Frankie was landlord.
Bassist Steven Dennis – known as Den – knew Frankie and Michael from their days at Shiney Row College, and the band was formed.
Even back then, though Frankie & the Heartstrings was still in its infancy, the band knew they had something special.
Dave, 32, who hails from Murton, recalls: “Soon after we had a bunch of songs that were really good, well-formed songs. Something just felt right. Frankie had never sung before, but there is something nice about that.”
Former Houghton Kepier pupil Frankie, 25, adds: “I suppose if we were to give advice to bands, it would be to say no to the wrong gigs. You don’t have to play every week. Before we knew it we were playing in New York and Japan. But we sounded how we wanted, and did what we wanted to do, and because of that we stood out.
“In the last six years the majority of bands have had a discordant punk sound, and what we did was the complete antithesis of that.”
Guitarist and keyboard player Mick Ross joined eight months ago and compounded the sound that is earning the band a legion of fans across the globe.
When we met they were fresh from playing Eurosonic, Europe’s premier showcase for emerging artists, and are gearing up to play the South by South West festival in Texas, which is an important way of introducing acts to the American market.
All this and the band haven’t released their first album yet. That record, Hunger, which was recorded at Edwyn Collins’ studios in London, is out next month.
Michael said: “The album is just as we imagined it would be, and it was amazing to see that come to life.”
Frankie added: “We are immensely proud of the album. If we don’t create anything else we will be happy that we produced this album. It’s pretty much timeless, and we want it to be a good addition to people’s record collection.” Though the band’s passion for their home city is palpable, they have become a success despite Sunderland’s music scene, not because of it.
Aside from gigs at Split Festival, Independent and a recent set at the Victory Club, in Monkwearmouth, they don’t regularly play Sunderland.
Michael said: “The big problem with Sunderland music is that the university isn’t as big as places like Newcastle and Leeds.
“We choose to play places like The Cluny in Newcastle because we know we can comfortably fill that venue.”
But what Sunderland may lack in gig-goers, it makes up for in peer support.
Whereas Newcastle bands often have a fierce rivalry, Sunderland seems to have fostered more brotherly relations between bands.
Mick says: “Sunderland is always in the shadow of Newcastle, but then how many bands from Newcastle have been signed in the last five, 10 years, when Sunderland bands have had a lot of success?
“There is a lot bitchiness with Newcastle bands, but many of the bands in Sunderland support each other.”
Such support has played a key role for the band. Whether that be ringing up the Brewis brothers (of Field Music fame) for advice, bumping into Jaff from Futureheads in the Ivy House pub or Futureheads frontman Barry Hyde giving Frankie tips on how to engage with the front row of the audience.
“I think the thing about Sunderland bands is that they have a level of sophistication,” said Michael. “You see that when you look at the likes of Futureheads, Field Music and Lucas Renney.”
Dave adds: “I think it’s because you are told by the press that if you are from Sunderland you’re not supposed to be into arts and music. But contrary to what they say, we can’t all go round stroking whippets.
“I think in London you can suffer from being spoon-fed culture, it’s so easily accessible that you take it for granted.
“Growing up in a village like Murton you’re told that music’s not your job and you’re not good enough, but kids need to be taught that it is a realistic option.”
For five self-confessed oddball school kids, it certainly was a realistic option, and one which is seeing them travelling the globe as they ascend rung after rung on the ladder of fame.
l Frankie & The Heartstrings release Hunger on February 21. Their Hunger tour kicks off at Durham Live Lounge on February 11. For details, visit www.frankieand theheartstrings.com