On July 1st, 2017, Frank and Earnest will be playing its final show as a band at The Avenue Cafe in Lansing, MI. In addition to the great support acts (including GTG-released bands Bong Mountain and Small Parks) this show will also feature a reunion of the “classic”/ Old Francis lineup – Ben, Paul, Otis, and Ryan – of the band which, barring two one-off performances, parted ways in fall 2013.
Full disclosure, I’ve been a member of Frank and Earnest since Otis left in fall 2013 and prior to that I had been heavily involved with recording their output (with the exception the album Modern Country which was recorded by Isaac Vander Schuur, though I did assist with some demos for the album) and being party to many of the band’s shenanigans. “Shenanigans” is an important part of the band’s story (and it’s also probably one member’s favorite Green Day album) – one of the first things I think of in this regard was the time in 2010 or 2011 when the band was doing a radio interview and performance but Ben couldn’t get out of work in time to take part so Otis, Paul, and Ryan went on the radio with me impersonating Ben in an absurd impression, except when I sang one of his songs – “Red and Black,” a clever, catchy and passionate ode to the misery of working as a line cook – which I made it a point to sing as much like myself as possible. To compound this nonsense, Ben then called into the radio station from work, got the DJ to put him on-air so he could call me out as an impostor and we had a “Ben vs Ben” argument on the radio that would have been entertaining had we actually been notable public figures, but pretty much anyone listening to this while driving around Lansing on a Thursday night… well, honestly, they probably stopped listening. I did have a friend later tell me that they turned their radio on right as Ben called in to the show and were baffled that their idiot friends were carrying out this nonsense in a public forum. In a way that anecdote kind of distills the band – the great music that it all revolved around, the opportunities to share it with the public, and the absurd squandering of the opportunity for the band’s own amusement.
We decided to do this final show about two months ago, and in the intervening time I’ve been periodically thinking about how I needed to do one of these essay things about the band in the spirit of some previous writings I’ve done about GTG bands and friends. The thing is, I’m too close to this project to really be able to step back and give an overview, and I’ve been struggling to decide if I wanted to do a blow-by-blow history of the band or get into my own complicated feelings towards the whole thing. I also do a lot of non-music work in the spring and early summer, so I can’t pretend that narrative existential angst has been the primary procrastinating factor here. The strangest thing is probably that this is the first time a band I’ve been in has actually “broken up,” and I’ve played in at least a dozen gigging bands in the last 17 years. Sure, bands have fizzled out, but the only other time a band I played in broke up was 2 Minute Nothing in 2004, and that was an unceremonious after-the-fact acknowledgement with the band basically then turning into My Apology. (Shout out to Timmy who will be the sole reader of this to get excited at my mentioning those bands). Every other time a band I played in went inactive the door was always left open so that when and if we did decide to play again we wouldn’t have to feel like “oh shit, the band is back together and it’s a big deal!” and could just play without baggage, which usually has happened. Does this mean that Frank and Earnest is dying a true and merciful death on Saturday? Hard for me to say, I’m the Ronnie Wood/ Slim Dunlap guy that entered the picture when people stopped caring about the band’s new material.
(But fuck you! This song is great!)
Recently a friend of the band posted on facebook about “Greatest Lansing Music Scene Disappointments” and one of them was “Frank and Earnest Post-Old Francis.” We all saw this while discussing specifics of the final show and basically thought “cool, someone cared enough about something we did to be disappointed later on.” It all returns to Old Francis – most bands never make a record that good. I really, truly mean that. I can say that as a fan, and even though I’m the person that recorded it, I feel like I’m objective enough as the truth is I cringe at most of my production decisions 7 years later and I still love listening to that record. Back in 2010 Razorcake gave it a glowing review comparing it favorably to Iron Chic, D4, and Avail which practically guarantees you a packed room at The Fest and the fact that Frank and Earnest never actually did that is a crime. Speaking of crime, the always-entertaining UK rag Collective Zine gave a less-than-glowing review of the record, calling it “a musical hate crime” which is up there with “shit sandwich” for quality negative reviews. But most people that heard the record were fans of it, and I’ll admit to going back and re-reading the positive review RockFreaks gave it when I’ve been down on my limited production skills. Everyone in Frank and Earnest has played a lot of shows with a lot of bands and as lackadaisical as the band likes to be it feels really fucking good when someone gets what you’re doing, feels some sort of inspiration from it, and lets you know. Old Francis is one of those records and while I’m not a member of the band on that record I did live through making it and it actually pre-dates any of the positive national press I’ve gotten with The Plurals or other GTG projects so it will always have that distinct place in my memory.
My two favorite Frank and Earnest songs have always been those two posted above, “Stick A Fork In Me, I’m Done” and “BFF.” Otis and Ben both equally hit all of the points of a punch-you-in-the-heart punk rock song, with both being songs that I can say I wish I was the one that had written them. It’s these kinds of highs that are hard to reach repeatedly, and while I’m committing the same “I love the early stuff” sin that frustrate bands while they keep creating, it’s not knocking any of the other stuff to point out this early stuff is great. But Frank and Earnest is a multiple songwriter band, and I don’t want to leave Paul out. Paul’s the best singer in the band and his songs are the most fun to play live.
The band started unofficially on Bermuda Snohawk 2008, with Otis – off of a few year stint touring as bassist with Michigan punk bands Hell Or Highwater and Matadors of Shame – recording a solo acoustic version of “Stick A Fork In Me, I’m Done” under the name Frank & Earnest. Sans ampersand, Otis formed a full band under this name with Ben – a bandless Lansing native who had recently returned from a few years living out of state – and Paul – who had previously played with Otis in Grand Ledge ska punk band Shoelace – a few months later with John Bruce (Cavalcade, Shoelace, etc) on drums for the first show at GTG House on March 21, 2009.
GTG MVP Hattie Mae Danby was the next drummer, playing a run of shows around Lansing in spring of 2009 and recording the first 3 song demo, which I actually can’t find online anywhere. The “true” band lineup was solidified by Ryan Horky (the Cartridge Family, The Ryans, etc) joining as the drummer in June-ish of that year, and the first time I saw them play together was at GTG Fest 2009. I know at one point Ryan ate a watermelon while playing drums and I swore there was a photo of that somewhere but I couldn’t find it. They also opened this show with a ragged version of ZZ Top’s “Legs” for no apparent reason.
From there things took off. More songs were written, midwest and east coast tours happened, Old Francis, various compilation songs and covers were released, the performance art pop-country alter ego band Paul Dubya and the Oak River Bridge Boys Band staggered into existence and the band was voted Best Band in Lansing by City Pulse readers in 2011 and 2012, to the band’s own confusion. In 2011 Mac’s Bar was also voted the Best Venue in Lansing and shortly after the results came in Frank and Earnest was playing at Mac’s so the marquee (back before the city’s Cartridge Family banning saw the dismantling of the marquee at this famed Lansing institution) triumphantly read something to the effect of “Best Venue In Lansing Hosts Best Band In Lansing.” I ran the door at Mac’s that night and for whatever reason hardly anyone showed up to that show, which the band found profoundly amusing. This was the exception though, the shows were generally packed and raucous during these years and when the band was on point I watched from the audience and thought they were pretty much untouchable.
This is one of many ways in which Frank and Earnest was and maybe still is the most Replacements-esque band I’ve been a part of – with complete sincerity the band could be a tight, passionate, engaging unit onstage, or it could descend into drunken rambling banter with a few songs peppered in, or it could be all country covers performed in character as another band (or AC/DC covers performed in character as that same country band doing an AC/DC tribute set – that one proudly happened during my era!), or sometimes it would just fall flat, but it was all “real” no matter what happened. And maybe that’s why it can’t last forever.
Otis left the band and moved away in fall 2013, but he and the rest of the band wanted it to continue so I officially entered the picture at that point. We had some fun times and played some great sets but the energy was naturally different and the standard ebbs and flows of any band and music scene lowered the band’s profile, but it was still never phoned in. Ryan had to stop playing drums for awhile in 2016 so “original” drummer John Bruce came back for awhile and we started getting into a groove with new material but after awhile he had to leave the band too, hilariously leading to original “replacement” drummer Hattie coming back briefly this spring. The lack of stability had become a little much at this point, so after some deliberation we decided to tie up some loose ends and call it a day with the band. Ryan came back and somehow, insanely, we recorded an EP of new material largely in the last week. Through a semi-finished recording with John from late last year, old house show recordings, and on-the-fly practice and acoustic sessions we were able to get 6 songs finished and recorded that feature everyone who was ever a member of the band, including Otis who came into town late Sunday to sing and add a little guitar to most of the tracks and then sat with me while I mixed it all in a daze. I’ll be posting about the EP more tomorrow since I bet a lot of people haven’t read this far down! Get ready!
Maybe someday I’ll be able to do a more thorough assessment of the band as, contrary to the relative length of this post, I didn’t really even get to a lot of what I’d like to say. I can just sum it up as saying the friendship felt within this band is some of the best I’ve ever had and I really appreciate the time that we all spent together. Fuck, that wasn’t bad.