Dunken Francis, waxing lyrical on: his time fronting The Wildhearts, Mournblade and mental health in music
For anyone not aware, Dunken Francis (or Dunken F. Mullett as he was known in 1990) joined The ’Hearts as frontman fresh from his previous band Mournblade after Snake, The Wildhearts current frontman left. However after a year or so Dunken was replaced when Snake returned to the role.
Dunken now lives in New Zealand: he’s an Aikido instructor in the week and rock n roller in several bands come the weekend.
At 5am UK time, 16.00pm New Zealand we begun a wonderful half an hour video chat.
Dunken: Hello geezer.
Are we all go?
Dunken: You got me?
Yeah can you hear me?
Dunken: Yeah I got ya nice, no worries.
After a brief chat about my Wildhearts book Zealot in Wonderland Dunken went straight into joining The ’Hearts.
Dunken: I was only really part of it in the early days, for about a year after Mournblade. I did the early demos. There was still a lot of shit with East West hanging around so it was a bit like walking through treacle; there wasn’t a lot going on. We did five or seven songs as a demo with one of the worst recording sessions I’ve ever been involved in. Ric Browde had produced ‘Every Rose Has It’s Thorn’ by Poison and he brought his wife along with him and he was busy spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on booze, yet he didn’t have a car. I was the only one sober enough to drive so I spent half the week driving him backwards and forwards to places, which kinda fucked me off a bit to be honest.
The whole vibe of the week was just fucking weird. We’d been together around ten months as a band and rehearsed our guts off. We’d done a couple of gigs and stuff and this dude shows up and it was obvious from the word go he just didn’t like my voice at all; he clearly wanted to do a Guns N’ Roses kinda vibe with the band, you could see in his head that was what he wanted from just the way his conversation was and stuff… it was just horrible, fucking horrible, it really was. If I could go back now with the experience I’ve got I’d have just decked him. You could feel that the rest of the band weren’t particularly happy with it.
Ginger did this crazy ass thing with a ride on lawnmower, where he drove it into the swimming pool; it was like, ‘really’. They had to get a crane in to fish it out and I kinda new that was the fucking death knell of it really. To be honest I’d been chatting with Glen Matlock from the Pistols ’cause he was talking about getting a band together, so I had one eye on that as well and it was more kinda up my street. It was a funny time. Great songs! You can’t knock Ginger’s songwriting as it was great, but it was a week of recording that was never gonna produce anything that was ever going to be of any use to anyone really.
That’s a shame.
Dunken: It is, it is, because live it was good. We did a couple of gigs and it was brilliant! We played somewhere that was in the middle of nowhere up north and we totally tore it apart. We did one in Southall somewhere I think in west London, at a big rehearsal studio but I might be mixing it up with another band, it was twenty eight years ago ya know. But we definitely did a gig somewhere up north in some club, it was a decent size stage like a hall somewhere. There was a bingo machine on the stage with like ping pong balls in it and there was some pissed bloke who kept coming up on stage making a nuisance of himself; in the end I just gave him the fucking heave-ho and he went smashing into this ping pong machine and they went fucking everywhere. All his mates got the arse and… y’know, typical Wildhearts night out.
It’s funny you just mentioned the recording session with the ride on mower. I suppose it’s one of those stories that gets embellished through time, as now it’s turned into a….
Dunken: A Rolls-Royce or something?
Na, it was a tractor apparently.
Dunken: It was a little red ride on lawnmower. It was probably still a couple of grands worth. They’d just been cutting the grass around the swimming pool and Ginger decided it was a good idea to drive it into the pool. Oh my God what an accident; for fuck’s sake, really ya know.
You weren’t into that kind of behaviour then?
Dunken: It’s just fucking stupid! If you’re in a band and someone’s paying for your recording time… I’m only six months older than Ginger but I’d been around a long time, I’d done ten years of Mournblade and a couple of other things before it and I know damn well if you run up a bill with the record company you’ve gotta fucking well pay that off somehow. To smash up a three grand ride on lawnmower and then the crane hire to get it out and everything else, you gotta pay that back. They’re not just gonna give it to ya for being lovely wacky musicians, it’s a fucking business; that kinda thing gets on my tits a bit. I’ve been a professional musician since I was fifteen and one of the reasons I get work is because I’m a proper pro, not necessarily because I’m the most talented person in the world but if people hire me to do a job I do it to the best of my ability. I’m not having a crack at the boys, the week was weird. Everyone was pissed most of the time and it was a weird setup, if it hadn’t have been that something else would have happened. I mean, CJ’s like the loveliest human being on the planet, he’s an absolute sweetheart and you could tell even he had the arse as well.
They’re all lovely lads, I’ve meet and spoke to all of them many times. Especially Danny, I love Danny.
Dunken: Yeah Danny’s great.
You used to be known as Dunken F. Mullett, I’m guessing that was in regard to your hair?
Dunken: My real name is Dunken Francis Mullett, it was hyphenated. Now I grew up in a shit arsed west London school where if you had a hyphenated second name you’d get punched randomly in the face everyday ya know. I used to go by Dunken Mullett as school but having a name like a comedy haircut or a deep sea fish isn’t exactly rock n roll. It was alright in Mournblade because that was kind of my band and it didn’t really matter so much. I’ve used Dunken Francis for most of the music stuff and then for the rockabilly stuff nowadays I’ve got an actual stage name, but that’s more in keeping with that kinda thing.
So Mullett is your actual name?
Dunken: It is yes, Mullett.
Oh sorry, ha ha ha!
Dunken: I know. It’s a corruption of moyer which is like a spiked ball you find on heraldry; my Mum’s family go back to ten sixty six. I’ve got an uncle that did that history family tree thing; it’s some French Normandy family thing.
Did you ever meet Snake?
Dunken: Yeah by accident. He left for whatever reason and they auditioned me and I got in and then when I went he came back for a while and did some more… look, it’s always been Ginger’s band, he always writes the songs even though there was some real good songwriters in the band. I’ve written songs for all the other bands I’ve been in, in fact I’ve been the main songwriter. Willie Dowling from The Grip is a great songwriter and Danny can write songs. If you’re in The Wildhearts you’ve gotta kind of accept it’s Ginger’s project and that’s the deal. I think that Ginger likes the security of having the control of that, it suits his view on what he wants to do musically, which is completely cool, that’s fine. But then to have a frontman who gets all the attention I don’t think that works for him particularly well: I think it took him a while to realise that himself. And again I’m not having a dig, I just think that it took him a couple of attempts to work out that he’d be better off just standing there singing into a boom mic and doing it himself. The Wildhearts songs are about the songwriting not about, like Guns N’ Roses having an amazing vocalist and an amazing guitarist: they’re about the songs.
What was the vibe of the band like when you joined?
Dunken: I knew some of the Quireboys lads so I was aware of Ginger from back then. But obviously that was the tail end of when Ginger was off the rails kinda thing. I knew people that had known them; there was a band called Horse going around at the time that I ended up later joining for six weeks and they were mutual friends as well. Ginger and I chatted by phone or whatever it was and I went down to some studio in London and we just jammed through a load of AC/DC songs and a couple of Zeppelin songs. At the end of the rehearsal it was kinda let’s do it, so it was pretty informal. I’d just got out of the Mournblade thing so I was quite keen to get back into something that was fairly serious.
What was the transition like from going from the kinda theatrical side in Mournblade to The Wildhearts which is more of a straight up rock n roll band?
Dunken: Yeah, I mean Mournblade was always a bit more like early Motörhead meets Alice Cooper kinda thing. The first album was a bit more kinda spacey punk but the majority of it was new wave of British heavy metal stuff but with a definite show to it; consume changes… you got your money’s worth. But it was massive high energy and we gigged loads… I think one year we did one hundred and eighty gigs or something, which was just ridiculous for a band doing pubs and clubs and support slots. So I wanted a band that was gigging and had lots of energy and it just seemed like a good idea. It was obvious as soon as I met them in the rehearsal studio that they seemed like nice guys and they could all play. Transition wise it was just one high energy band to another high energy band; not a huge difference. I guess the only thing was, that once I realised I wasn’t going to be doing any songwriting that took a bit of adjustment because I’d always been the major songwriter for Mournblade, but I just joined the band and that was it.
I just watched the Mournblade reunion documentary. It was wonderful.
Dunken: I hadn’t seen those boys for twenty five and a half years and we had literally three rehearsals over a day and a half and they absolutely canned it. They’re another level of musicians those guys, absolutely: the guitarist Steve Loveday is technically one of the best guitarists I’ve ever played with and I’ve been lucky enough to play with some really good people. If you think about it the combined age of the people on that stage was two hundred and four. We were one of those cult rock n roll bands that was around for over a decade; we made two official albums and about six unofficial ones as well as loads of bootlegs floating around. We did hundreds and hundreds of gigs and supported every band that ever existed pretty much but we never really broke through: I think our attitude put record companies off a little bit. We had a couple of people approach us and ask if we wanted to do a single deal or whatever but you could tell they either wanted you to be a hair band or whatever the flavour of the month was; with the personalities of the band it was just a case of no one was interested. We were kind of our own worst enemies in that respect but at least we ended up doing our own thing for our own reasons. Integrity but poverty at the same time ya know.
There was a band with Glen Matlock and Rat Scabies which also had a guy called Jerod on guitar who was kinda a Jimi Hendrix Strat player; he was an amazing guitarist: we did one or two gigs. Me and Glen used to write; we had around half a dozen songs but The Clash manager Bernie Rhodes jumped in and wanted to start managing it. He saw it as a bit of a punk supergroup so managed to elbow me and Jerod out the way pretty quickly and the whole thing just fell apart. I still speak to Glen all the time, his a lovely guy. That lasted about eighteen months and Glen reformed it as The Mavericks; funnily enough with a Kiwi guitarist who now lives just down the road from me. All QPR fans as well which is really fun, ha ha!
Can you tell us about your present band?
Dunken: In the last eighteen months me and the other half have been touring with a band called Boom! Boom! Deluxe, which is like a neo-rockabilly band; again it’s high energy and in your face, kinda nineteen fifties vintage sounding but it’s still rock n roll and has lots of hooks and there’s elements of western swing in there and punk and that kinda stuff. It’s good fun! Over here and Japan there’s quite a big thing for it so it means we get to play all the hot rod shows and that kinda stuff which is pretty cool. My other half is the double bass player so we’re half the band there and then. We did a six track EP earlier in the year which has had some amazing reviews around the world. We’ve been very lucky with that and I’m halfway through writing the first full length album which we’re gonna do later this year. We’ve got a real good German label which is great, who have been supportive and there’s a Kiwi label over here that looks like it might pick up the CD release as well.
So you’re an aikido instructor?
Dunken: Yeah that right, it’s a Japanese martial art; it’s the one Steven Seagal used to do. It’s jujutsu but more standing on your feet and not so much ground work. I’ve been doing it since I was about nine, around seventy three, seventy four. Most of my life I’ve been teaching it as a kinda side thing and over here now I’ve got a big converted barn with a full-time dōjō in it, so I teach six or eight times a week. It keeps me fit, I mean I’m knocking on a bit now so it’s good motivation to get a bit of exercise.
Yeah, for the want of a better word I saw the roll you did on Facebook. You glided across the floor; it was quite impressive.
Dunken: Yeah, you make a nice circle and you don’t hurt yourself. When you’ve got arthritis in your toes and type 1 diabetes and fused shoulders and stuff you try to land as softly as possible, ha ha!
I’ll have to try and remember that when I’m pissed.
Dunken: Ha, ha, ha, ha!
All Things WiLDHEARTS (The Original Family) questions
Jim Reader: Was it you with the magic skull mic stand and if so do you still have it?
Dunken: Oh blimey! No I don’t still have it and I’m not quite sure where that went; that was left over from the Mournblade days. The good thing about it was the top of the mic stand that had the mic in it would pull off, which meant you had something to wander around stage with; but it also meant that if the gig got a bit out of hand you basically had a bloody great lump of wood in your hand which was handy as well. The actual body of it was a bit of old furniture that we found on a dump from like the eighteen thirties or something. I think it was the carved edges to a bookcase or something and I just took those bits off and thought that would look good on a mic stand. I nailed them together for a gig and fifteen years later I’m still using it.
Did you use it for The Wildhearts gig(s) you did?
Dunken: For the gig up north with the bingo machine I definitely had that mic stand for sure.
Much to my surprise Danny McCormack popped up when I approached people for questions. He said hi and sent his best to Dunken.
Dunken: He’s a smasher! We used to spend a lot of time over in north London somewhere were Danny and Ginger used to live. Me and Danny… shared a lot of things together, let’s leave it at that. He’s a legend. He’s one of the nicest guys on the planet.
Yeah he’s lovely! I bumped into him at Camden Rocks festival at the weekend and said hi. He always has time for everyone. He was playing in his new band The Main Grains.
Dunken: Ok, I’ll check ’em out.
Rich Johnson: What was your favourite Wildhearts song you were involved in and have you followed anything from the band after leaving?
Dunken: I wouldn’t say I really followed the band but if new stuff was released I’d always have a listen to it out of interest. The problem with being a full-time musician is you’re always busy with your own stuff, especially nowadays with social media where you could be on it all bloody day just promoting your own stuff. But I’ve listened to all the albums and kept an eye on stuff. My favourite song of the era I was in was probably ‘Wild Wine & Whisky’ I reckon. I always thought it needed a harmonica solo; but that’s speaking as a harmonica player.
Paul Radish Radford: What’s the music scene like in New Zealand and would The Wildhearts have made it if they’d started over there?
Dunken: No, ha ha. The music scene is small. I mean the whole population of New Zealand is about the same as Coventry or something, it’s about four and a half million. You’ve got two or three main cities and the rest is just spread out towns. We’re touring at the moment and you have to go away for the weekend and do two towns to even make it worthwhile doing, because the population is so small it’s impossible.
There’s a big reggae scene over here, there’s a lot of nu metal with a chick singer and guys with blue beards doing processed metal kinda stuff. There’s a little bit of the Green Day modern day punk, that isn’t really kinda thing. There’s a lot of singer songwriters with a guitar and a beard, the same as it is in every country, but there isn’t really a particular scene for anything because there simply isn’t the population. Any band that starts over here, the minute you get something that’s worth doing something with, you get out of New Zealand. We’re trying to get over to Australia and Japan as we speak because within a year you’ve done the country. Good question though.
Lee Gauntlett: You played one gig with The ’Hearts, how was it? And do you have any funny memories?
Dunken: If Danny was here with me and we could have a quick confer, then yes. But I wouldn’t like to say anything in public without getting his ok. He’s one of those guys that could walk into a room full of women and it’s like going for a walk in the woods: you know those little sticky things that stick to your jeans, he does that with women. He could walk through and he’d walk out and they’d be going, ‘Isn’t he lovely, isn’t he sweet!’ He’s an absolute monster. But it’s because he’s such a nice guy.
What a lovely way to conclude our chat. I’ll have to admit that when Jonny Gray asked if I wanted Dunken’s email address with a view to getting in contact for a possible interview, I was a little indifferent to the prospect.
Before our chat, Dunken F. Mullett didn’t even feature in my periphery; he was merely a footnote in The Wildhearts’ pre-recording history and subsequently of little interest. However during the interview it struck me that Dunken’s role (as well as Snake’s) was as much a part of The Wildhearts story as anything else I become to know and love.
Upon the conclusion of the interview I mentioned the mental health side of my book and Dunken gave his view on mental health regarding musicians.
Dunken: If you’ve got a creative mind I think you’re so much more susceptible to it because you view reality through a different window to kinda more mechanical people. I’ve been surrounded by artists and musicians all my life and it is hugely common: I would say around 25 percent suffer from it enough for it to effect their daily life.
And I think they maybe create music as an outlet in which to offload?
Dunken: I think it’s part and parcel of the same thing. I think the brain is wired in such a way that means you have to produce something creative but it also gives you this terrible dissatisfaction with just, everything. Nothing you ever create is good enough. I know lots of talented people and they just can’t be happy because they’re so critical of everything they do and are involved in. It’s the way creative people are wired and it’s a sad thing, but that’s what makes great art, unfortunately.
You’ll never be happy with the work you’ve produced. It’s like with my book, I could’ve gone on forever changing bits but eventually you have to put it to bed. A creative mind will never stop.
Dunken: My Aikido book had about thirty rewrites and in the end I had to just publish it because I’d have never got it out otherwise.
I’d like to say thanks a million to Jonny Gray for hooking us up. Jonny has a wonderful ‘Earth vs The Wildhearts’ dedicated website where along with all sorts of other goodness he interviewed Dunken.