Here you are again, checking out another interview, this time with Neal Francis. Never heard about him? The first time I read about the 34 years old has been in a magazine from a German drugstore. Unbelievable? Yes, but it’s true. You see, it’s always good to look beyond one’s own nose. So when I was checking out his music I’ve been amazed and could not say for sure what kind of music he’s playing. Is this just old school rock? Kinda old fashioned Rolling Stones? It’s hard to peg him somewhere!
After his European tour got postponed several times, it’s finally happening. With a little help from my friends I meet the piano wunderkind (not my words) before his show at the Häkken and I need to admit that I’m a bit excited! But let’s take it easy and let the man speak for himself.
Neal, would you be so kind to introduce yourself?
Neal: Hallo, hier spricht Neal Francis!
What kind of music are you playing?
Neal: We’ll be playing here tonight in Hamburg. We play rock, we play funk, we play soul, we play electric groove music.
Is this your first time in Hamburg?
Neal: Yes, I was once here in April of this year with my girlfriend on a leisure trip. We were in Berlin for ten days and we came to Hamburg one of those days on the train.
Just for one day?
Neal: Well we stayed over night. But there’s a lot more to explore here, for sure.
Did you enjoy and visit the Reeperbahn?
Neal: We actually didn’t even make it to the Reeperbahn. We toured the central city, we went up in the Nikolaikirche. And we went to dinner across the canal, or, I don’t even know in what direction it is. Probably west of where we are now. But it’s lovely.
Before we start the proper interview.
I want to know: It’s Star Wars or Star Trek?
Neal: Star Wars! 100 percent!
Neal: Yeah! Well I mean Star Trek has its merits. And I think that it goes deeper philosophically and I appreciate that aspect of it. But for me growing up it was definitely Star Wars. Because I think visually it was more arresting. That’s what I dug about it. But of course J. J. Abrams was tasked with producing both films, which is quite astounding, isn’t it?
With the age of 18 you were called a piano wunderkind.
Neal: I don’t know if anybody called me that back then, but …
But then you crashed from 100 to zero.
How much did this kind of title or the success affect your downfall?
Neal: I thought I was successfull at the time but I really didn’t have much. I learned a lot in the process. I was in a band called The Heard and we were touring the United States, but it was very low level. Learned a lot about how not to run an organization from that band, but also a lot about just how beautiful the camaraderie of being in a touring group is, you know? Even in the most spartan conditions. It was just a very austere way of touring that we had.
So it wasn’t as glamorous as …
Neal: As this? No, certainly not (laughs)!
Well, we had a band that was achieving success. Which is I mean, even to reach the level of success that The Heard, my previous band was reaching, is like, so rare I think. It’s so difficult to achieve any level of popularity with original music. It is very hard to do. But it was like seven guys in a hotel room, one hotel room, you know, that kind of like.
Pretty rough touring.
Neal: Yeah, it was pretty rough. But it was also like the most fun. And the bass player from that band is still in my band.
So you’ve got something from that time.
Neal: Yeah. And I mean, I’m still close friends with everybody from that group. It took a few years for me to get back in good account with everybody. But yeah, eventually I did!
In relation to the question beforehand – who’s your favourite piano man?
Neal: That would be so difficult for me to answer. I was just telling someone earlier that Ray Charles was a huge influence growing up. Otis Spann was one of my earliest influences. You know I love classical music too, Bach is a huge influence. I tried to learn music as much as possible and practiced that music, but the list goes on and on. Another of my heroes is Allen Toussaint, who’s been written about a lot. I returned to that music over and over, not only because of his piano playing, but his composition and his ability as a producer of other artists as well. He’s fantastic!
What about Elton John?
Neal: Of course! I love Elton John. I mean I grew up listening to Elton John, Billy Joel, all the classic rock groups. Yeah, The Who, The Beatles, The (Rolling) Stones, everybody. I was just very lucky to be in a house where there was an eclectic range of music being played at all times.
The music and the videos of Neal Francis himself
Alameda Apartments is the first track on your current record In Plain Sight.
It’s such an eclectic song, how did this one become the track which it is now?
Neal: That song is actually the oldest song I have recorded in terms of when I wrote it. I wrote it probably in 2015 – I was on my way out of The Heard, but I wrote that song after another pretty terrible breakup I had. I just always had it in my head kicking around for all these years. And then it didn’t make the first record, but I had the demo of it recorded and then it was one of the first ones I took a crack at for the In Plain Sight sessions.
We talked about piano men, a bit about your music, which is kind of old school rock. That leads to my next question:
Is rock ‘n’ roll dead?
Neal: Aah, I don’t think so. There’s no shortage of people who are putting on really killing rock shows. I mean, we just got off tour with Marcus King. He certainly brings that energy. It’s a tradition like any other. There are people who are pushing the boundaries, like Idles, this is another contemporary band. We just saw Courtney Barnett play in the Netherlands, we were actually sharing kind of a bill with her in Groningen for the TakeRoot Festival there. Her show was just straight up rock ‘n’ roll man, it’s a three piece, just kicking down the door. She is outstanding!
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, amazing! It’s certainly not that there’s droves of people who want to go see that music still. It’s just, I think, the popularity, I mean, you can talk to so many people about this. Like, it went from being a very popular pop art form to being something that’s more fringe perhaps. So you won’t see people … maybe Kevin Parker from Tame Impala – he can sell out a stadium. Although, I mean, Red Hot Chili Peppers can still sell out the stadium. They’re old. You know what I’m trying to say it’s just, rock is not dead. I don’t know if we’re a rock band, but we certainly like to rock.
So rock and roll is also a kind of lifestyle, I guess.
Neal: Yeah, that’s true. This is a very unrock ‘n’ roll band. In most regards. We’re pretty wholesome, I think, in contrast to the historic and romanticized version of rock ‘n’ roll band, partly because we’re doing a lot of this work ourselves. So there’s not a lot of time to go off and cavort. And none of the guys in the band is really, you know, into partying. But we do like to have a good time. We do most of our rocking on stage.
In Can’t Stop The Rain we can see you headbanging, while water pours down from above.
Source: YouTube, Neal Francis
How much fun did you have with this one or with doing music videos in general?
Neal: Oh, man, thank you for asking! I love the director of that particular video, Alec Basse. He was also the the director of Problems and Prometheus. He is just a visionary and skilled technician. And collaborating with him and continuing to collaborate with him has just been a great pleasure. He came up with the whole idea for the Can’t Stop The Rain video and Problems and constructed those sets. And we shot it all on 16mm film. He’s a real craftsman. And that’s what I’m trying to do with our music, so I think we’re kindred spirits in different disciplines.
The Problems video was like, okay, he’s dancing, I don’t know, in a waiting hall or something like that. And then the walls begin to near, what the hell is happening, and you just kept on singing. So it was pretty fun to watch as well.
Neal: Yeah, it was really fun to make, too. Alec is really good at getting a dramatic performance out of me, because there’s usually some degree of suffering involved in creating his videos. You know, for that video it’s getting squeezed into a tiny space with many people. And then for Rain, it was like, sitting in cold water for hours. And then for Prometheus, it was also sitting in a cold field for hours. Just like, yeah man, he’s, he’s, he’s something else.
I take this as a compliment for him.
Neal: Me too. It was given as a compliment, for sure.
I think he won’t get it wrong, if he will read this.
So the name of your upcoming EP is Sentimental Garbage.
Also a great song by the way!
Neal: Thank you!
But what’s your very own sentimental garbage?
Neal: I just have a lot of bullshit in my head at any given moment beholden to the past. And trying to let that go and move forward is, I guess, a somatic element in most of my music. But the focus of my work outside of just music is trying to live.
So it’s time for you to let go of stuff like this?
Neal: Of course! Yeah, I think everybody can relate to just having a lot of baggage from the past. There’s all these relationships that can last for years. And you know, those never really go away. There’s all these vestiges of those relationships. And memories are very powerful, and letting go of that, but also preserving it in a healthy way. Also not being completely beholden to your thoughts and emotions. I’ve been just trying to observe them, through meditation and let them dissipate rather than let it completely destroy my day. But that’s part of the path I’m on, I suppose. I don’t know if that answers your question at all.
So the last question is – it’s my question of the year – what’s the key to unhappiness?
Neal: The key to unhappiness. Being sleep deprived and hungry. And lying to your girlfriend. Or lying in general. That’s a surefire recipe. If you want to be unhappy, those three.
I’ll mix them up and then ..
Neal: Yeah, man. So in a band, yeah – you’ll have an easy time. I’m just kidding (laughs).
Dear Neal, I’m not sure, if you will read this, but at first let me thank you as well. And now I’ll explain what took me so long. This interview has been a wild ride, especially after we did it. Because after a few days after our talk I’ve been to London and got my phone stolen. Gone were many memories, contacts and the interview, at least I thought so. Though I had no back up (stupid, yes!), I thought that the interview was lost. So it took me some time until I discovered that through some kind of miracle my new phone had indeed a back up of my contacts and my interviews! Yay!
And that’s how the lost interview eventually made it.
Also a big thanks to Kevin Winiker/BACK ON STAGE for being my company at the Häkken and to the Messed! Up Magazine for making another magical night possible.
Also feel free to check out my first night out for the Messed! Up Magazine: Ten questions to Giant Rooks
Text, interview & Polaroid pictures: René Biernath
Once again thanks to Kevin for some nice shots on a cold night!
Instant Film: Black & White, For Use With 600, Classic White Frame