Gallows: What drives a band to sing about date rape and disgust?

'I urge people to punch me at all our shows'
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The Independent Culture

The horrified looks from his fans told Gallows' singer, Frank Carter, that something had gone very wrong. Blood was dripping from an inch-deep gash in the top of his head down to his chin, after he had stumbled and smashed into a monitor. That was in Stoke last week. The next day, still giddy and confused from waves of concussion, and trying to keep out of trouble in the balcony at a Gallows show in Inverness, where his brother Richard, from the band Blackhole, was filling in as singer, Carter saw his sibling being abused by the crowd, and, blindly furious, tore down the stairs into another mêlée. Finally admitting defeat, Gallows cancelled two shows. When I join them in Cambridge, the blood and batterings haven't slowed them at all.

Such drama is no more than you'd expect from the first UK hardcore punk band to be given a multimillion-pound deal with a major label, which came partly on the strength of Frank Carter's ferocious live presence. He is a wiry 5ft 7in redhead covered in self-applied tattoos, including one on his neck that could be a rash. Photos from Gallows gigs show him as a shirtless berserker with a thousand-yard stare, his skinny frailty somehow adding to the sense of threat. His claim to NME that "I invite people to punch me at every show we play" confirms Gallows' confrontational image.

When you get to know them, though, a different picture emerges. Carter's rage is real. But he is also a quiet, polite 23-year-old with deeply artistic instincts and sometimes troubling philosophies. Those dates were cancelled, for instance, not from fear of his head taking another pounding, but from disappointment over losing that head so badly. "I don't ever like to be out of control," he says. "Even onstage. It's why I don't drink, don't smoke. The whole idea behind our record is about maintaining that angry beast that is inside you, and realising that it's a great gift, if you focus it properly. And at our gigs, I get to release it safely, with other people. That's what I love about wolves. They're a pack animal. When they hunt, they persevere. And that's where the idea of our album's name comes from, Orchestra of Wolves. An orchestra of wolves would be the most focused, creative thing you could imagine. Which is what we want to be."

The Hertfordshire band's debut was initially self-released, recorded for £1,000 in the small hours at a friend's dad's office, and has been out a year. Even with the backing of their new label, Warner, it is still hardly flying off the shelves. The uncompromising subject matter – date rape, divorce, disgust – and its expression in Carter's shrieked, densely poetic lyrics may be one reason. But that literacy, joined to guitarist Laurent Barnard's deceptively melodic musical sense, again means there is more to Gallows than meets the eye. Far from nihilistic, incomprehensible punk thrashers, they are in fact a deeply intense pop band. And a moral one, motivated not by anti-social hate but an embattled sense of love.

Backstage in Cambridge, I find Carter considering his latest scars. "Glued it up. Can't even see it," he says with satisfaction, patting his tufty red hair. His brother Richard is among those milling about, after opening the show screaming with Blackhole. Another sibling, Steph, is a Gallows guitarist. Their mum is ever present, too, ready to drive her boys back to their homes in Watford and Hemel Hempstead for a rare day off tomorrow. Frank hugs her, a loving son before he's any sort of hard man. Home-made cakes and water are the stimulants of choice. The only suggestion that rock'*'roll may be in the offing are the hardcore tunes coming from the other band members' laptops, which they sit quietly tapping, minutes before they go onstage for another feral musical assault.

Outside, Cambridge's young punks are clean and well-groomed. One has a red top decorated with slogans learned from the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer – "Know Your Rights", "The Future is Unwritten", "No Future". A "Love Music, Hate Racism" stall has been set up at the back, also giving away a local photocopied fanzine, more tangible signs of punk's enduringly idealistic spirit. A rapturously received support slot from Lethal Bizzle – currently building bridges from London's inner-city grime scene to any rock fan that will listen, and guest rapper on the new Gallows single, "Staring at the Rude Boys" – shows the open minds here. His brilliant sampling of the neurotic bassline of The Ruts' punk classic "Babylon's Burning" gives Cambridge's security, looking shell-shocked already, their first wave of stage-divers to catch.

When Gallows play, Carter looks self-contained at first, standing on the speakers, staring out impassively, and thumping the mic into his heart. But then, in the corner of my eye, there's the blur of a body seemingly hurled through the air. Whoever it was, seconds later, two girls are staggering out of the crowd, looking as concussed as Carter last week, and checking their heads for blood. As the casualties mount, the singer strips off his shirt, then runs in mid-air like a cartoon, before landing in the crowd. He reappears minutes later at the back, his mic-lead threaded around his fans' necks. He soon has them singing the closing, clinching lines of "Orchestra of Wolves": "The hardest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved in return." There has been no fake angst, no emotional theatrics or violent feeling. Instead, Carter the fearsome punk warrior gets us to wave at his mum.

Backstage, the dressing room empties around him, leaving Carter and I alone. He is eager to talk, barely needing prompting. "I've got a very short temper, a very low boiling point," he says of the fury in his songs. "Before I had the band, I was a wreck. I'd get in fights every week, pretty much. I was born angry, out of frustration for myself and not being able to get what I wanted."

The crucial turn in Carter's life may have been his parents' divorce six years ago, detailed in the song "Six Years", which boils with hurt at a father he sees as abandoning him. "I had a great upbringing," he remembers of the years before that in Hemel Hempstead, "a perfect life. I rode my bike, hung out in treehouses, played football with my brothers. Then you have that ripped out from under you. Me and my dad had a relationship, but it wasn't a father-son relationship. It's been six years been and gone. But who's counting 'em? Eh, Mum," he says, as she passes by. "You all right? I wrote that song then, as if he's the bringer of destruction. And he's not. But that is when I started to realise how amazing love is. Because it's not hate you've got to worry about. Love is what drives you to feel so strongly. And that is why that song is so important. And why I don't know if I'll play it again."

Laurent Barnard, one of the band's guitarists, tells me later: "We've stopped playing 'Six Years' because it destroys us sometimes. We give it so much, to do it justice." We're sitting in Gallows' bus as it heads back to Watford, sampling the staple rock tour diet: kebabs and beer. "Songs like that are therapy. The same way 'Will Someone Shoot That Fucking Snake' is about date rape, because it happened to my ex-girlfriend. We'd just broken up, and someone spiked her drink. And I lost my mind. I was at work at the time, and I was ready to go to Clapham, where it happened, and go to every bar and find that person. I told Frank about it. It's a really violent song, but that's how it makes us feel. I want that person to suffer."

Carter and Barnard met on the then-flourishing DIY gig scene around Watford. They both hated the casual weekend violence of the town, and formed Gallows with kindred spirits. Recording Orchestra of Wolves after the nine-to-fivers had gone home, they had to get up for work themselves hours later. Carter endured major dental surgery without anaesthetic to finish the record, after realising the drugs would numb his vocal chords. Worse, he had to drive back every night to a squat in Slough that he'd painted black, where downstairs he worked for his father.

"God, those days were dark," he says. "I woke up every day in Slough. The sky is white. There's no blue, there's no black, it's just grey forever. And what a horrible life. Satellite towns are a plague. Because they make your life so comfortable that you don't have to be a wolf, you can live comfortably as a sheep, and you can die in the same field you were born in. What kind of a life is that? It isn't for me, it shouldn't be for anyone. It wore me down, in a horrible town, with horrible people, who are all sheep – but sheep that can fight. These are people that are comfortable being horrible. That is when you realise, 'I need to sort this out.' Every night, I realise no matter how little we're getting paid, how few records we sell, it doesn't matter. Because all I wanna do is never go back there."

Look at pictures of Carter, topless, scary and tattooed, and this talk of wolves and sheep may seem disturbing, even verging on the fascist. In reality, he is more like a Hemel Hempstead equivalent of the Black Muslims, giving himself an iron self-image to escape destructive surroundings.

Carter's image also hides a dark, sophisticated sense of language that is startling in a hardcore punk band, as in the Slough kiss-off, "Come Friendly Bombs": "Black knuckles and broken teeth/ Grey days and grey streets/ Same faces the same release/ If this town had a name it would be defeat". Iain Banks, Roald Dahl and Shakespeare are his lyrical influences, part of a highly developed, unembarrassed sense of Englishness. "The England that I like and appreciate is really way gone," he admits. "When I write songs about it now, it's hard, because it's a confusing and lost little country. In my tattoos, the imagery I like to focus on is Victorian. Britain's a religious country, and a regal country – two of the greatest archives of images. I walk around Buckingham Palace, and I'm gobsmacked. I love churches, too. I just look at them and take inspiration, and turn it into a drawing that I can put on someone's skin for the rest of their lives. I like beauty in all objects."

The Frank Carter who has reveries in cathedrals and devours Shakespeare seems a long way from the bloodied figure making the people of Stoke flinch last week. It's no surprise that he and Barnard can both already see a life after Gallows. "Everyone's got goals," Barnard says, as the bus nears Watford. "The scary thing with Gallows is, we're meeting these goals way too quickly. And eventually, there's going to be nothing left we want to do. I'd like to get into soundtracks afterwards." For Carter, too, Gallows is only a sideline. "Tattooing comes first," he says. "I have loved drawing since I was a child. Tattooing is my dream, it keeps me at peace with myself. Gallows' success just crept up."

Driven as he has been to get Gallows where they are, and simmering with rage though he remains, this punk terror's visions of his future are as placid as a country garden. "Wearing myself out, sitting with a cup of tea in Hemel after I've done too many tours – that's what I want my worst time to be," he says. "I want to have control of my life. And I've got that now. I'm a lucky man."



'Orchestra of Wolves' is out now on Black Envelope/Warner

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