Monday, June 8, 2009

Frente (1994)

(Originally published in B-Side in late 1994 or early 1995)

In late March Angie Hart, Simon Austin, Tim O'Connor, and Alastair Baden came to the United States from their native Australia for one reason and one reason only: to tell the citizens of the most powerful nation in the world that, album-cover graphics to the contrary, there is no exclamation point at the end of their band's name, Frente.

"That just happened," giggles Hart, Frente's singer. "You don't have to put that the exclamation mark in."

"It's not compulsory," adds Austin, the band's guitarist and main songwriter.

"It happened, like, on a piece of artwork that I did," Hart explains, "and then people were so respectful that it kept on happening."

What a drag! I mean, what a drag.

"I prefer it without," Austin admits. Then, in a moment of weakness, he concedes, "Actually, it's good to have it with and without."

Semi-indie bands--they never know what they want. And it gets worse. It turns out that Frente can't even release a single properly in the United States. The song from their Labour of Love EP (Mammoth/Atlantic) that radio stations were supposed to play was the title track, an acoustic, jivey bop down the 59th Street bridge, feelin' jazzy. But programmers began playing the quartet's version of New Order's “Bizarre Love Triangle” instead. Unplugged and condensed to its 1:59-essence, the song has even begun to dent the playlists at top-forty stations.

"We didn't release it as a single, but it got played on the radio," giggles Hart, "which has kind of turned everything upside down. We shot a video for it because it's gotten a lot of attention."

Has New Order heard it? "I've heard that they've heard it," says Austin. "But there's been absolutely no comment, which is typical for New Order."

Even if New Order hasn't, lots of other people are about to, and not just from the radio. By the time you read this, Frente should be well into their first musical tour of the States, a tour designed not only to capitalize on the success of Labour of Love but also to draw attention to Marvin: The Album, the full-length recording that's made Frente into minor celebrities in their native land and that Mammoth released Stateside on May 5.

Labour of Love is like a distillation of our first two EPs," Austin recalls by way of explaining Frente's discography, half of it Australia-only at this point. "We released an EP called Whirled and another called Clunk before Marvin.

"When we were on the charts in Australia," Hart adds, "we were on the charts next to--who was it?"

"It was us and ABBA," Austin answers.

"Australia is very--I don't know," Hart laughs.

"It's hard for us to explain," Austin explains. "If you knew anything about the Australian charts, you'd just scratch your head and laugh."

In one sense, Frente and ABBA actually have something in common: romance between bandmembers. Sordidly enough, the story begins in a pub.

"Yeah, like, I was drinking at this pub," Hart confides, "and I was underage, and Simon used to have to kick me out."

"Yeah," Austin confirms. "I was the barman."

"We kind of became friends."

"Yeah. It wasn't as if Angie would kick and scream or anything. She'd just say, 'O.K., I know I have to go.' The pub was the premiere Melbourne alternative gig. It had a very high profile, so the police were always there, trying to close it down and kick everyone out."

It wasn't long before Austin decided to make something of his own chops and get someone to sing with him, someone female.

"Angie's big sister was working with there, and I was teaching her how to make drinks. She suggested Angie as a singer, and Angie showed up the next day. And it was like, 'I know who you are! I kick you out of here all the time!'"

Hart laughs. "The pub where Simon worked, they'd just offer us gigs because we lived upstairs. We were always on call. They'd have bands bow out, so we'd do sets all the time."

"We did a lot of them in the early days of the band," Austin recollects, "like in '90, '91. A lot of them were acoustic shows, which was kind of fun at the time because Melbourne was extremely 'rock.' We'd play really short shows because we had no songs. Our first set list was, like, eight songs, so we played 'Labour of Love' twice."

Frente still specializes in brevity. Over half of Labour of Love's seven songs clock in at two minutes or under, with "Risk" falling short of thirty seconds. And at a recent invitation-only New York show for industry people, they stopped after forty minutes.

"They're just very succinct," comments Hart, who prefers short songs. "You don't want to go blah, blah, blah after you've written something really meaningful and really tight. You don't want to have to space it all out with rockin' solos and la-la-la's and stuff."

"Not that there's anything wrong with a rockin' solo," Austin observes, "but the song 'Testimony' especially is so, um, densely packed. If there were another chorus, it would be too long. And 'Risk' was originally, like, a six-minute disco song, which we trimmed down to thirty seconds."

Frente are obviously going to have trouble ever coming up with a boxed set. But in their defense it should be noted that while a couple of their tinier songs seem incomplete as opposed to "succinct," the majority of them auger well for the future of acoustic, pop miniaturists everywhere. Meanwhile, they’re anything but miniature in Australia.

"We've done really well there," Austin reflects. "We've had a really successful album and a few successful singles, and we've managed to play some larger shows."

"We're big enough that we've been told we've sold out," laughs Hart.

Alas, the success came with a price: the failure of their romance.

"We've been broken up for about, like, two years now," Hart estimates, adding that, unlike ABBA, for whom the end of love meant the end of the music, she and Austin have labored to make sure that the nature of their relationship doesn't affect the band's equilibrium.

"It did affect it," Austin admits.

"It did hugely," Hart concurs.

"But I think we've actually survived," Austin adds.

"I think we've finally conquered it," Hart agrees.

And now, thanks to “Bizarre Love Triangle,” they're on their way to conquering North America as well.

It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch.

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