Andrew Franklin estimates that he was sick for a full year before finally being diagnosed. It was last May when doctors told him he had bile duct cancer; soon, more bad news arrived, as a less-advanced form of lung cancer was found as well. Since then, Franklin's life has included regular doses of chemotherapy, painkillers and fatigue.
But that word, "fatigue," shouldn't be confused with "lethargy." Creating and performing music has become a critical, energetic focus of his healing. Still, the effects of the drugs are there, always present in the background. For an interview, it takes about four days to line up schedules during a week of aggressive chemo. Some days have been more challenging than others for Franklin.
"Several times, I've wanted to give up," he says. "Not to the point of calling someone. But music's a healing force, the most positive weapon on the planet. And there's a science we can't see: the care we have for each other as humans. So I have to at least try."
Since being diagnosed, Franklin, 29, has responded with a true recommitment to writing, playing and recording. Combining forces with collaborators new and old, he's just live-debuted his new band the Sugar Kings at a recent, last-minute gig at 2720 Cherokee. He's taking part in an upcoming James Brown tribute at the Demo, and he's musical director of My Posse in Effect, the Beastie Boys tribute act that will play the WayBack version of Pointfest on July 9.
The funky-with-depth music of the Sugar Kings, though, is clearly his primary musical love. He says it's "where I am now and where St. Louis is, too. This town needs more than a good time."
The Sugar Kings lineup contains a crackerjack twenty-year-old guitarist in Zach Arias. Franklin is, as usual, on bass, and two friends join from his prior group, Big Brother Thunder & the MasterBlasters: sax player Jacob Johnson and Franklin's musical twin and rhythm section partner, Gabe Bonfili.
"It's kinda funny," Bonfili says of his musical relationship with Franklin. "In everyone's words, they say we're locked in together, we're part of the same unit. It's kinda weird, how we can read each other's minds. It was always like that. We're vibrating on the same frequency."
Despite the core of the group having played together before, Bonfili says, they're collectively creating a set from scratch.
"All new stuff, to my ears," he says. "A lot of it is Drew reaching for Afro-Cuban and Latin-type sounds. Funk from those parts of the world, in a '70s style. It's a breath of fresh air, and there's nothing like it going on in St. Louis."
Unlike the MasterBlasters, with its eight players and host of influences and personalities, this smaller unit, to Bonfili, "makes it easier to hear and shape-shift when you want to go in a different direction. And everyone's listening really well, which is super refreshing and important."
Bonfili says that the sound they're woodshedding allows "a freedom that's nice to have. There's an equal amount of freedom and structure. It seems that we kinda want to create stuff that you can dance to, that you can feel in the groove. But there's that other side, too, the jazzy instrumentals. We're trying to figure out where to do both, at what times. Hopefully, as we get everything tighter, we'll just know when to open up and improvise."
The songs start with Franklin, who figures that he's got "an album or two" of material tumbling around his handsome, busy head. Even as the group has just begun, Franklin's been pushing for material to go down on tape. A couple weeks back, the group outfitted their rehearsal with mics, taking, as Franklin says, "an old jazz approach. The room has some sort of sound treatments, but it's really a set-up from the '40s or '50s." Committing songs live, he says, suggests that "everyone's got to know the music."
And while Bonfili is content in saying "there's no need to rush it," speaking of both the project and the recording process, Franklin feels greater urgency.
He says, "I can't wing it anymore. There's no time to wing it."
Franklin is sitting on a flight of steps outside of Soulard Market, joined by his "girlfriend and best friend," Jessica Bellomo, on a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon. Over the course of an hour, he spins lengthy stories about music, health, work. On the latter, there's been huge change in his life. The son of a fireman, Franklin himself spent ten years as a firefighter, most recently for the city. He admits that, right now, "I'm not healthy enough to to ride a firetruck."
The time away from the work has allowed to him to reflect on a decade spent in one of the world's most dangerous professions. He, and even his doctors, figure that "just a couple of calls" may have led to the basis of his cancers: smoke inhalation for his lungs, handling hazardous materials for his bile duct.
Franklin holds out the possibility that he'll rejoin the fire department as an instructor, something he says, "I'd wanted to go into already." There's a chance that this won't happen, thought, and if so, "I'm dyeing my hair the day I'm officially cut loose." Already, he's found comfort in not shaving daily, in letting his hair grow out. These days, he doesn't pack out of a gig at the Broadway Oyster Bar at 3:30 a.m. only to go to work a couple hours later.
"What I miss most," he says, "is, simply put, the guys. It felt that we all grew up together in the firehouse. You can't replace those kinds of relationships. And you know that you'll have moments with them that you'll never have again. There's this knowledge that you'll be safe. But some of that can transfer over to bands, too: the brotherhood and camaraderie, knowing that you can call someone at any time of the night, the checks and balances of humility."
As he talks, a group of little rascals nearby, straight-up south city hoosier kids, are banging sticks on trash cans and tossing branches. Just as Franklin riffs on how they're distracting him, one, a scrappy blond boy, walks up to him and hands him a handful of little yellow flowers yanked from the nearby garden. As he comes back with more, Bellomo suggests he leave the rest for the bees.
Next to her, Franklin pops off his broad-brimmed brown hat, cinches the flowers into the hat-band and asks, "What was I just saying about hating kids?"
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