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A Quietus Interview

Being Frank: Gallows On Hardcore, Racism And Grey Britain
John Doran , April 16th, 2009 07:45

John Doran hangs out with the Gallows and feels the (Ty)burn. Don't complain about the puns - it's all in the execution. Wait, come back . . .

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Punk rock done badly is a terrible thing indeed. There are many who think that punk should have existed only as an explosive ripple spreading violently through rock music, rather than being allowed to become a genre. And sometimes they think this with good reason. Peculiar pressures and constraints exist within punk regarding musical complexity and levels of production. This in turn this means music from this genre often has to be judged on concepts that border on the abstract such as intent and delivery. Against this background it would be wrong to see most punk groups working currently as existing on a linear scale with amazing at one extreme and terrible shite at the other. Punk (as with music in most genres if we’re honest about it) exists on a bell curve with what we perceive to be very good and very bad, actually being relatively close together. There are lots of reasons for this – punk consumers expect certain standards of musicality, certain traditions are a given, record labels that are genre driven will have A and R departments with similar expectations. In these instances bands can be so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable when one isn’t a fan of the genre. In these instances it is the smallest of details that are crucial. Frank Carter from Gallows sounds like his vocal cords are about to shred when he sings for example. Dickhead from The Offspring doesn’t. Gallows' intent and delivery are unquestionable. But added to this, they are musically progressive as well, showing just the right amount of disdain toward's punk's strictures, while still remaining definably a hardcore band.

Gallows in short do punk rock very well indeed. And you can immediately sense, feel, revel in the utter commitment. They were in fine fettle recently when we met them to talk about interacting with the crowd, national pride and water colour painting.

A lot of people will be surprised by your new album. There’s a lot of hardcore punk on it but there’s also a song called ‘Vulture’ on there with Frank singing over an acoustic guitar, there are some quite baroque and gothic string arrangements, there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to upset young angry people on the internet a lot.

Lags: We’ve had that already.

Frank: That’s why we’ve put it on there you know. We’ve always been about putting the music first. If the fuckers want to complain about it, let them complain.

Stu: Water off a duck’s arse.

When you were younger and just starting out were you more into progressive punk bands like Refused or Fucked Up or D Beat stuff?

Stu: Sort of. I got into Refused later into my – I don’t know what you’d call it – hardcore career. They came out with The Shape Of Punk To Come in 1998 and I’m 29 this year. So initially SSD and Bad Brains were an influence on me. In the band we jokingly refer to ourselves as Swedophiles because we do listen to a lot of Scandinavian hardcore stuff but I wouldn’t say they were like a huge influence.

Lags: I would say that they were more of an influence on the first album than the last album. I would say that JR Ewing were more of an influence on this album.

Steph: I think we came into our own more on this album so we just decided to write fuck off big heavy riffs and fast heavy songs.

Stu: I think if you look at Refused then Songs To Fan The Flames Of Discontent is more relevant than The Shape Of Punk To Come.

So the music was all written separately, so you [Frank] just get to swan in like a proper rock star at the end of the process?

[the band laugh] Frank: It wasn’t like that unfortunately. I wish that was the case. I swanned in and crashed and burned.

Stu: It didn’t really take the form that it has now initially. Frank came in to do the vocals and then we chucked four or five songs out of the door once we had the vocals because we knew what wasn’t going to work.

Steph: I actually co-wrote three of the songs with my brother which is something I’ve never done before. That’s why I think it’s slightly more focussed and slightly less scrappy than the first one. We all put input into it and we all had an input into song writing.

Punk’s pretty old now, 33 this year by my clock, the same age as Jesus when he died. Punk’s nearly as old as I am but not quite, so I’m guessing it’s older than all of you lot. For such an old genre it has actually begun to feel quite fresh and vital again over the last few years with bands like yourselves and Fucked Up and Rolo Tomassi. Do you still see it as being a valid art form?

Lags: I think punk’s always been about just doing your own thing and I think if you were to put Rolo Tomassi’s album [Hysterics] against Never Mind The Bollocks by The Sex Pistols – which people would say was the most famous punk record ever – you can tell that it’s completely fucking different.

Stu: I think that the vitality of the punk scene and the hardcore scene connects directly to what’s going on in the world at large and how stagnant mainstream music is. If you look at hardcore or punk bands of note even of our generation – say when Rage Against The Machine dropped their first album there was nothing else going on. Everywhere else was just like Blur or whatever and only RATM were giving the whole social commentary thing. They were coming out of that other recession and now with the state of the world now we’re going to see more good punk bands coming along. People are going to be angry.

Frank: I think the key of what you just said is when you used the words art form. Punk has changed. You had all those late 90s pop punk, So-Cal bands where it became quite lost and it became quite comedic but now to be punk . . . nobody really knows what it means. Now we’re trying to reclaim it and it’s about not having any rules and it is about bands like Fucked Up, Tomassi and us trying to put art back into heavy music. I would consider us artists rather than a band. And that’s what it’s always been for us. We’re artists and I don’t think many bands are artists any more. There are a lot of kids out there who think ‘I want to be in a band, I want to be a rock star.’ It doesn’t work like that. We never thought we wanted to be rock stars. We thought we wanted to be artists and that’s what we’ve done on this record. We got lucky with the first one because we just threw it out there and it was a necessity for us; we just needed to do it because we didn’t have anything going on. This time round we have the means to do it. We wanted to do something that would stand the test of time. We wanted to approach it from the art angle. There are a few bands coming out now who are treating it as an art form. And there are bands coming through now who approach it as an art form and I think that’s a brilliant thing and if that happens then we’ll have even more original bands and a better quality of music. And hopefully that will filter out all the shit.

I appreciate what you’re saying. But if the world needs Gallows or needs bands like Gallows then are you still thinking of knocking it on the head this year or next?

Frank: I think when I said that I wasn’t saying I don’t want to be in the band; it was more a case of me genuinely saying that I didn’t know how long it would last.

So you aren’t putting a time frame on it?

Frank: Nah, how can you? I mean every night we get up and play a show and I’ve had six serious hospital trips in the past two years just because of playing gigs, do you know what I mean? So that’s really what I was commenting on. “Where are Gallows going to be in five years?” Probably the morgue. I don’t really know. If we carry on playing with the same level of intensity as the early shows then how much blood can I really give before I start running out?

Talking of which, how is your throat and what’s your prognosis on that?

Frank: It’s a lot better. I had an endoscopy in the last week of recording to look at my throat and then I had an oesophageal endoscopy, where I swallowed it into my stomach and that’s where they found the problem – I had really bad acid reflux which is set off by stress. And the irony is that the most stressful part of my life is being in a band and all it affects is my throat. I can function as an everyday, normal human being but the only thing I can’t do is I can’t scream – can’t put any power in it. As soon as I found that out I just thought ‘Fuck you – I don’t know why the hell I’ve been stressing myself out about this. I’m in a band I just need to relax.’

What do you do to relax – water colours?

Frank: Crocheting. Well here’s the thing I’ve painted my whole life because I was a tattoo artist before I was in a band. I started oil painting for the first time in my life in the last couple of weeks. When we were in the studio I just took a month off. And that was like the biggest gamble and quite a brave move on the part of the band because we were so close to finishing and then I decided to take a month off and just rest and do nothing. I just sat on my X Box for a month. So when I realised it was stress that was setting it off we literally bought the equipment, drilled a whole in the bedroom wall, ran some cables through the wall and Steph’s bedroom was the control room and my bedroom was the live room. And it sounds great, you know. There was no stress there, recording it at home with my brother. He knows me, he knows my temperament, he knows when it’s right to say ‘We’re going to record this vocal now’ or ‘We’re going to record this vocal later’.

I think one of the most impressive things about Gallows live is that complete removal of barriers between the band and the audience and how you’ve taken it to an extreme like a band such as Lightning Bolt. I don’t think I’ve seen you play a gig where you haven’t spent a serious percentage of the time in the audience. Are you going to have to call time on that for health reasons?

Frank: I think unfortunately, yeah. If I’m going to be perfectly honest with you .

Lags: Probably more for the crowd’s safety!

Frank: On the Warped Tour, then yeah I’m probably going to get into the audience every fucking day then because they just don’t know what to expect or what to do. But here unfortunately it’s getting to the stage where our fans are getting so young and they don’t really understand or appreciate the respect that goes with hardcore . . .

Lags: They want a souvenir, do you understand? “I’ll have his foot!”

Frank: Exactly! I just keep on getting choked out until I pass out and then, understandably, when I come round and get put back on stage I’m quite pissed off. It’s an occupational hazard and it comes with the territory but as we get bigger more people want a piece of me and I’m only 5’7” as it is. There’s not that much of me to go round. I’d quite like to retain a percentage of my body for future use.

How did Warners react to hearing the album?

Lags: Positively. Well, they let us in the building today . . .

Steph: Well, we were more nervous about it than they were. They’ve come back and they’re really behind it. It’s crazy.

Well, it’s a double edged sword isn’t it? I can see why some people would be suspicious of a punk band signing to Warners but at the same time they’ve got a lot of hectic acts like Mastodon and The Flaming Lips.

Stu: Well that’s it and everyone’s worried that when you sign to a major label that you’re going to change your sound in order to sell more records but they signed Gallows and they’ve got a 101 other bands on the roster that fill every other niche that they want to market to. They don’t want us to sound like Green Day because they’ve already got Green Day. They signed Gallows because they want to put out our music. So while I can understand why people would be concerned about us getting into bed with them people need to remember that we’ve got full control over everything that we do and they do support that. Yeah, we might get dropped quicker than a hot brick if we don’t sell any records but with the internet and the industry the way it is a the moment, we’ve had two years on the back of this corporate machine building up our profile, if they want to let us go then we’ve still got that profile, we can do what we want. We can’t really lose.

So was it a tough decision including unplugged or acoustic stuff on the album? Was it actually physically difficult for you to sing rather than scream Frank?

Frank: It wasn’t easy, I’ll be honest. I’m not going to lie about it. It happened almost by accident though. I was singing the lyrics one day and tried to do them differently and off the back of that I started singing them quite gently. Then I thought, that it might work. I said to Steph ‘Let’s just try an acoustic and see what happens.’ And it just worked you know? I said to the boys that I’d like to give it a burn and I said that I didn’t know if I could do it or not. I mean I’ve sung with old bands before but never that intimately. But it works and I don’t think it really stands out too much on the album. I think it fits the ebb and flow of the album. The record is supposed to be played from start to finish and I just think it fits where it is quite naturally.

There are some fairly straight-forwardly anti-religious sentiments on the album. Are you all Roman Catholic?

Frank: Yeah but it’s about all religion really.

Lags: It’s anti dogma.

Frank: I don’t want to pick on one religion when I hate all of it.

Stu: Catholicism is definitely the background we know.

Frank: Yeah, it’s how I grew up. I went to first communion, I was baptized. I got fucking confirmed. I was just standing there thinking this is just a complete waste of time. But you get to the age when you realise you don’t have to go to church. [pause] I’m actually a huge fan of religion, it’s absolutely fucking fantastic for all the architecture and artwork and I would happily go and sit in a church or cathedral wherever we are because it’s the most interesting place to be. But I don’t buy into that shit. There are a few major glitches with it. That song ‘The Great Forgiver’ is about how confused I am and saying if God is all forgiving and that when I die I don’t want to go to a place where rapists, paedophiles, domestic abusers and murderers are just because they happened to apologize for what they did. I don’t understand how just by confessing your sins to God means you can be a saved soul. If that’s the case then I’ll take Hell.

How was it playing with Rage Against The Machine and did that lead on to using Garth Richardson?

Stu: The Rage thing was going back two years ago to SXSW. We played in Emo’s and Tom Morello was in the crowd and he was really into it. We found out because he told our management and then we didn’t really hear much about it but we were in touch with Garth and he must have been in touch with Tom and Zach because then it came out and they offered us a show. We said great where is it, and they said Italy. We said fuck it, it’s Rage we’ll play wherever. We have to make this work. When a band like that ask you, you can’t turn it down. But it was in a football stadium and I remember getting straight out of the van from the airport and walking up to the top tier of the stadium and thinking ‘Shit!’ My arse was clapping at that point. That was when it was real. And these stadiums seem so much bigger when they’re empty. It was mental.

Lags: It was our first gig in Italy as well. And we had toplay to 25,000 people. And our drums didn’t turn up. We were the main support so we had to follow one of Italy’s main metal bands who were like their equivalent of Bon Jovi or something but luckily they let us borrow their drums.

Frank: I remember at one point getting hit in the head with a salami sandwich and I turned round and Tim C [RATM bassist] was head banging at the side of stage. I’m holding a sausage thinking ‘What the fuck is going on?’

On to the big question: why Grey Britain?

Lags: Normally we’d say ‘Just look outside’ but it’s actually quite a nice day!

Stu: You can only ignore it for so long and if we weren’t going to say it then I’d like to think that someone else would have taken up the mantle. While we were making it I was concerned that someone else would come out with a state of the nation album and no one did. We’re in the worst state we’ve ever been in and yet everyone’s just singing about ‘Valerie’ or going down the shops.

Frank: It was a natural progression for us leading on from singing about living in Slough and being in a band and then touring and travelling the world. When you’re on tour for three years, you see the bigger picture.

Lee: When you’ve had the privilege of going to Japan and seeing how things run over there . . . it’s mental the differences. Obviously there are going to be differences.

Lags: It’s even just how the streets are clean and the young are taught how to respect the old. We all feel that something is totally lost in Britain at the moment because the generation gap is so small. Kids having kids at such a young age . . .

I share some of your concerns but aren’t you worried about coming across like really conservative people? Like Daily Mail readers?

Stu: Look I know exactly what you mean but where do you draw the line? We’re not talking about harking back to old school values. What we’re talking is being less apathetic and actually giving a fuck about things. When you’re in a society where you’ve seen your mum and dad work their whole lives and then their pension has been wiped out like that [clicks fingers] because of greedy fat cats. You’re living on a council estate and your teachers can’t do fuck all because the second they do their parents will step in and say ‘You can’t talk to my kids like that.’ So it’s easy for them to pick up a knife and go and sell drugs to get the quick fix in life. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the glory days of Rule Britainia And we’re certainly not saying on this album that this is the solution. We’re just saying we’re fucked and this is why.

Frank: We get so many people saying ‘Well, what’s the solution?’ But there is no solution, do you not understand? The plug has already been pulled and we are slowly draining away. Climate: there’s very little we can do to change that now. You can’t presume that people are going to change their thinking and then pass their learning on to their children. People keep on making the same mistakes. We’re just as bad . . . check our carbon footprint . . . we’re just as bad as everyone BUT we’re not out robbing and selling drugs. We have a work ethic. We work for ourselves.

Stu: To address your point about the whole Daily Mail reader thing; our grandparents may have grown up in better times but we grew up in the 80s coming out of one recession and then coming to this: the worst recession. We haven’t lived through any good times. We’re not even trying to say let’s bring back our grandparents’ times. It would be naive and hypocritical of us to think that. We’re just saying we’re fucked and that’s it.

There was one track that kind of worried me slightly and that was ‘Queensberry Rules’ which is probably more to do with my age than anything else but that song mentions the colours black and white in relation to the Union Jack. Is this song about race?

Frank: No. There’s very little about race in there. I don’t want to get misconstrued in any way shape or form on this. I have steered clear of any race issues on this record because I don’t have any. I don’t think the colour of your skin should define anything about you at all. I don’t care about it, I treat everyone as equal. The only thing I do have a problem with is somebody who is supposedly a holy person and they claim that they can show me the right way; when that right way is death. In the bigger sense I’m the holy person because on one of the other songs the last line is ‘Go out and kill yourself because there’s nothing left.’ On that song it is “The Union Jack has bled away/it’s black and white and it’s fucking grey/the cells are cold/the streets are the same/there’s been a death somewhere/and we’re praying for rain.” The whole song is saying “let’s take it back to the old school, let’s live our lives by the Queensberry ruels.” The old days? Britain had more colour. It was a brighter place. It was bolder. It was multi-cultural back then, if on a much smaller scale. Back then people duked stuff out like men. Nowadays if someone has a problem with you before you even know about it you’ve got a knife in your ribs from behind. The black, white and grey idea came from a short film I wanted to make which would literally show the colour draining out of the Union Jack. The flag is three colours that represent three countries and how proud we are to call ourselves Great Britain but how many people actually feel like that? The Scottish don’t want to be part of it, the Welsh don’t, the English don’t. You take the national colours away and you’re left with black, grey and white. Very few people are proud to be British. People complain about immigrants but they come here and they work so hard. They have more British pride than the Brits. The Brits are teaching their kids ‘Don’t work like a dog. Claim the fucking dole. £44 a week? You can live off that. Free flat? Fucking sorted.’

Stu: Where’s the incentive to do anything?

Well, I get the feeling that I’m about to get kicked out of the Warners building and back onto the streets. So to end on an upbeat note – looking out of the window I can see some trees, a bit of blue sky. It’s not all that bad is it?

Frank: Well, life is fucking amazing. We’ve always been about having a good time. We’re happy. We wanted to make an album that we’re proud of and we wanted to have a message and our message is still just writing about us and our situation but this time we just decided to write about the bigger picture but frankly? I’ve never been as happy in my life. Don’t write that though! [band crack up laughing]