10 years of Frankie & the Heartstrings: Sunderland band reform for anniversary gig

Playing Split Festival in Mowbray Park in 2015. Photo by Paul Swinney
Playing Split Festival in Mowbray Park in 2015. Photo by Paul Swinney

The Sunderland band who took their unique brand of Mackem-infused indie pop around the world are getting back together for a 10th anniversary gig.

Much has changed since a little-known Frankie & the Heartstrings stepped on stage at Independent for their first live performance in December 2008: Independent was housed in the former Marlowes site, none of the band members were dads, SAFC were still in the Premier League and the band’s culture hub, Pop Recs, was just a twinkle in their eye.

On stage that night was the original four members, frontman Frankie Francis from Houghton, drummer Dave Harper from Murton and guitarists Michael McKnight from Grangetown and Steven Dennis from Downhill, who proved popular with the festive crowd thanks to their original, upbeat sound.

Speaking about how they formed, Dave recalls: “Me and Michael had known each other for years and we used to go to the White Rooms (now Josephs bar) a lot back then. Frankie was manager at the time and we used to have a few drinks together.

“Me and Michael had been in various bands over the years of various levels of ability. Frankie played bass, not very well, but was good looking so we made him the frontman. Michael already knew Steven, who didn’t realise just how good a guitarist he is, and we asked him to join.

“There were so many names that we rejected, they were awful and borderline illegal. When we came up with Frankie & the Heartstrings there wasn’t a lot of names like that around, but then bands like Florence and the Machine and Marina and the Diamonds came along.”

Frankie and the Heartstrings at the original  Pop Recs in Fawcett Street in 2015.

Frankie and the Heartstrings at the original Pop Recs in Fawcett Street in 2015.

The newly-formed Heartstrings would go on to be joined by keyboardist, and former Kenickie member, Pete Gofton, who left in 2010, who was replaced by Mick Ross, before releasing debut album Hunger in 2011.

Hailed by the critics who compared their sound to Orange Juice and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, it made no 32 in the album charts and led to tours of Europe, Japan and Australia, as well as high profile festival slots at the likes of Glastonbury, Leeds, Latitude and T in the Park, and support slots with household names such as Florence and the Machine, Kaiser Chiefs and The Vaccines.

Recording their debut, and most commercially-successful, record with producers Edwyn Collins and Seb Lewsley at studios in West Heath, London, was a turning point in their lives. “The experience of recording that album was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Dave. “We lived like The Monkees, these lads from Sunderland living in West Hampstead, the most middle class suburb you can get in London. They treated us like family in that studio and listened to our ideas and respected what we thought. I think we took it for granted and thought that’s how all albums were recorded, which we later found isn’t always the case.

“I’ve never had an experience of recording like that since and we’re so grateful to them.”

The band pictured in 2013

The band pictured in 2013

The album became a fan favourite, particularly title track, the anthemic Hunger, which has been used countless times as background music, most notably on the Domino’s pizza advert, and took the band around the globe.

It took the band members to new countries and introduced them to new experiences, both good and bad. “There’s pros and cons of touring and what it can do to you physically and mentally,” Dave says candidly. “But it is still the best job in the world.

“We would fall out on tour properly, but also make up properly. We would fight like brothers but if anyone else ever started on the others we would stick up for each other. That was our life for five, six, seven years.”

For second album, The Days Run Away, which was released in June 2013, the band took over a derelict Tourist Information Office in Fawcett Street, Sunderland, to create Pop Recs Ltd.

Frankie and the Heartstrings band. Frankie Francis, Michael McKnight, Dave Harper, Dennis, Mick Ross in Herrington Country Park in 2013

Frankie and the Heartstrings band. Frankie Francis, Michael McKnight, Dave Harper, Dennis, Mick Ross in Herrington Country Park in 2013

They’d only intended to run the pop-up record shop for a fortnight but it soon snowballed into a gallery, gig space and independent coffee shop.

Over the years, Pop Recs has brought big names to the city to play the humble shop space, including The Charlatans, Badly Drawn Boy, Franz Ferdinand, James Bay, The Vaccines and Edwyn Collins.

It also became the rehearsal space for the band where they worked on their third album, Decency, which was released in 2015 with Dave, Frankie and Michael joined by Ross Millard, formerly of The Futureheads, on guitar who replaced Mick Ross and Steven Dennis, who was replaced briefly by

Michael Matthews, formerly of This Ain’t Vegas, on bass after the album’s release.

When the site was sold by the council to developers, the lads refused to give up on the culture hub and, with the help of a crowd-funding campaign, they moved to their current premises in Stockton Road where it still plays a vital role in the city’s cultural landscape, fostering home-grown arts talent whilst also still attracting support from established artists such as James Bay.

It was the arrival of Pop Recs, many of the band members becoming fathers and Dave being hospitalised with heart condition dilated cardiomyopathy, which put paid to the bands’ long days on the road.

Frankie and the Heartstrings playing the 'Olympic Torch Relay 2012 celebrations in Herrington Country Park.

Frankie and the Heartstrings playing the 'Olympic Torch Relay 2012 celebrations in Herrington Country Park.

Dave says: “We burned ourselves out and didn’t really know who we were as a band anymore, so before we really fell out we stepped away from playing for a bit, but have always remained friends. We always simmered as a band, but then bands do, nice people don’t make good records.”

Dave and Michael turned their attentions to Pop Recs which this year also opened in derelict buildings at the bottom of High Street West. Much work is still being done to breathe new life into the listed buildings, which once housed the original Binns store and over the next few years around £2.5million will be needed in grants and donations to transform it into a larger culture hot spot for the city.

Dave, who is dad to Sonny, five, said: “Once the door of Pop Recs opened I didn’t want to shut it again. In 10/15 years when you leave your flag in the sand, this is the level of legacy I want my son to see.”

Though the band may not have played live for a while, their music lives on, appearing in films such as Inbetweeners 2 and shows such as Gossip Girl, as well as on the BBC’s World Cup 2018 coverage, and there’s hopes for a fourth album in the future.

Dave said: “I’m insanely proud of what we achieved. For a bunch of idiots with limited skills and talents, we managed to tour the world. I never thought people would be buying tickets to see us and I’m grateful to every single person who does.”

For one night only you’ll be able to see Frankie, Dave, Michael, Ross and Dennis perform tracks from across their three albums at the place where it all began. Well, almost. They’ll be performing at Independent’s new home across the road in Holmeside on December 28.

Tickets for the venue’s smaller room sold out in a 24hours, so they’ve moved it to the mainstage with some tickets remaining, priced £12, from musicglue.com

Promoting Split Festival in 2011

Promoting Split Festival in 2011

The original five piece in 2011

The original five piece in 2011