"When I lived the 'rock star' lifestyle I have never felt so far away from myself. At times I actively hated myself and sought out my own destruction." How Frank Carter stepped back from the abyss and learned to love and be loved again

Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes
(Image credit: Brian Rankin)

Valentine's Day may be over, but love is still in the air in the UK music industry.

Introduced by a killer debut single featuring the chorus "And you can hold me like he held her / And I will fuck you like nothing matters", The Last Dinner Party currently have the UK's number one album with the darkly romantic Prelude To Ecstasy. Today, February 16, Idles, a band best known for their savage dissection of societal ills, released their first album of love songs, TANGK, with combative frontman Joe Talbot telling anyone who'll listen that "Love is the fing." And tonight, Talbot's one-time collaborators Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes will feel the love of a hometown crowd once again when they close out their UK tour with the second of two sold-out shows at the iconic 3,300-capacity Roundhouse in Camden, north London, in support of their superb new Top 10 album Dark Rainbow.

Though it's not explicitly being marketed as such, Dark Rainbow too is an album of love songs. At one point during its creation, the collection bore the working title Self Love (also the title of its penultimate track), dealing as it does with trying to find one's authentic self amidst the white noise of modern life, shedding skin, casting aside old routines, making meaningful connections, and walking out of the darkness to give oneself - and others - permission to embrace the beauty and joy and wonder in life. Written down, that sounds simple and straightforward, but life is complex and humans are complicated, as Frank Carter knows as well as anyone.

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Back in the mid-noughties, when the world was still learning his name, Carter would end every gig onstage as the frontman of Hertfordshire punks Gallows screaming, "The hardest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return", the closing lyrics of the title track of his band's incendiary debut album, Orchestra of Wolves. Almost always, he'd walk off-stage battered and bleeding, his bruises, cuts and scars self-inflicted as often as not. This intensity brought acclaim and rewards. In January 2007, this writer, then editor of UK music magazine Kerrang!, put Gallows on the magazine's front cover with the tag: "The world's most exciting new band": within 24 hours, almost every major label in the world had offered the quintet a deal.

This, honestly, was not wholly unexpected: months beforehand I'd sat down with Carter and Gallows guitarist Laurent 'Lags' Barnard in a Camden bar within spitting distance of the Roundhouse and cautioned them that appearing on the magazine's cover would change their lives, and not necessarily always for the better. Truthfully though, none of us realised that day to what extent this truth would be borne out. Though I would spend literally thousands of hours in Gallows' company in the years that followed, it wasn't until 2019, when Carter and I met up to discuss The Rattlesnakes' third album End Of Suffering, that I realised, with some horror, just how traumatic, and sometimes terrifying, the experience had been for the singer.

"When I look back and see me in 2006 I just see how damaged I was, I can see through all that bravado and see so much insecurity," Carter told me that day. "I was scared… and with good reason: the things that were happening to us were fucking scary. One minute I’m a nobody from Hertfordshire, the next minute we’re touring the world, with a big record deal and a huge amount of expectation placed on us.”

"Onstage, I’d give people the spectacle, I’d just explode, with blood and fury. After gigs people would look at me like, ‘Mate, you need to slow down.’ I could see that in their eyes. But instead they’d just say, ‘That was a great gig’ and we’d roll on to the next. I could never say what I needed to say. I could never say, Can you help me? I was beating the fuck out of myself in the hope that someone might intervene. But no-one ever did.

"There were times with Gallows where I didn’t know what was going on," he continued. "I’d just be a mess of emotions, like, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t handle this, I’m not good enough for this… my anxiety was out of control. But I just never spoke about it, I hid it for years and years, because I thought that vulnerability was weakness, because that’s what society had told me. I was supposed to be a fucking man, whatever that means. Be strong, be tough, be a gladiator, be a warrior, be a soldier. Certainly don’t cry. Certainly don’t tell people what’s wrong with you."

Five years down the line, Frank Carter is determined to show the world who he really is. Dark Rainbow finds the singer, never afraid to reach inside himself and tear out his beating heart, at his most honest and open, unfiltered, unashamed and unafraid. When sharing the album's first single, the striking southern-gothic ballad Man Of The Hour, last September, the singer suggested that both he and his band were undergoing a transformation, admitting "I’m still trying to come to terms with who I am and what the authentic version of me is. By giving people what I thought they wanted I think I got further and further away from who I actually am.”

That was a statement which rather invited the question: who is Frank Carter now?

"Fucking hell, a bit early to be asking that, isn't it?"

Frank Carter and Dean Richardson, his songwriting partner, dear friend and Rattlesnakes guitarist, burst out laughing.

It's barely 9am, not an hour musicians generally chose to do interviews, and the pair's amusement is not unwarranted. But, all credit to Carter, he doesn't side-step the question, immediately launching into deep dive as to where he, and by extension his band, are in 2024.

"You've known me for a long time Paul, you've watched me navigate the world of rock and roll, and when I was forcibly taken off stage and not allowed to perform [as a result of the Covid shutdown], I realised that I didn't know who I was," he begins candidly. "I got so lost in the trappings of life - success, rock and roll - I got lost in the 'Who am I?' I was really looking for a foundation in myself. And I went looking in all the wrong places."

When I lived the 'rock star' lifestyle I have never felt so far away from myself

Frank Carter

"When you knew me early on in the world, I was kind of like an anti-rock star," he continues. "And now I can safely say that I have definitely lived through that moment of excess. And when I did that, I have never felt so far away from myself. My friends would check in with me and say, 'Where are you right now? Because we don't recognise you.' And when I looked in the mirror, I didn't recognise myself.

"So when I talk about the death of the rock star, I'm trying to remind people that our role is an important one, but there isn't a huge amount of support. Everyone can get their 15 minutes of fame, for good or for bad reasons, but I would like to live a lot longer than that. I think I've got more to offer. Man Of The Hour is about finding your authentic self, and that might not always be what other people would believe it is. It's important to work through that, but fucking painful along the way."

The exact nature of the "excess" which Carter alludes to here is no-one's business. As the singer succinctly put it in a recent interview, "I was sober for 12 years in my life at one point, but then I wasn’t." The fact that the 39-year-old singer deviated from the path of sobriety isn't in itself a revelation - listening to The Drugs, the band's thrillingly direct 2022 single featuring Jamie T , it was all too evident that lyrics such as "White arrows for my chest / It’s 10am and I still haven’t slept / If the sun comes up then we're going again / It's the patron saint of the fucking sesh" were written from the perspective of someone with direct knowledge of cocaine use - but it's still somewhat jarring to hear Carter talking about a battle with addiction knowing how much he used to despise the music industry's tolerance of, indeed reliance on, Class A drugs.

"It's hard to explain it, because it's difficult when I look back on it now myself," he admits. "I described it once to someone as like sitting on a beach and slowly putting pebbles on yourself. You can keep doing that for ages, stone by tiny stone, and it seems like fun, until the moment you realise that you're up to your neck and you can't actually get up. That's what it felt like, and it's like you don't know it's happening, until it's happened."

"Those years were really difficult. I think, ultimately, what took me to that place was deep grieving. I wasn't allowing myself to grieve. You know, I was trying to do everything in my power to not feel. I'm more surprised than anyone that I became that person. Back when I was sober, I think I was sober from the fear of the unknown. Now I'm sober because of what I know. It's been a really powerful moment, a defining point in my life. And I can't say I wish it didn't happen, because the life I'm living now, I'm so grateful for it. I wake up every day and I feel really lucky to be here, and really lucky to do what I do. And I'm interested to see what I can do with that kind of motivation, and that opportunity."

While his friend and bandmate is speaking, Dean Richardson sits listening quietly and respectfully. It's obvious that Richardson is the kind of best friend anyone would wish to have, non-judgemental, supportive, mindful of boundaries but unafraid to call someone out when they cross a line. Ask how he felt while watching Carter slide ever closer to the edge of the abyss, and his answer is typically thoughtful and measured.

"Obviously, I've thought about it loads," he says, "because once you realise that someone's in a bad way, your first instinct as a human is to overstate your own responsibility and think you could you have done something. But the analogy Frank used is interesting, because, again, if you spend enough time with someone, it isn't this stark overnight, Who is this person? What's happening to them? I think everyone can relate to that some extent. I was also dealing with something very serious in my life, separately, and I often wonder - I haven't actually spoken to Frank about this -  how that kind of gave you more space from me in a way, because I was going through something I had to focus on. But yeah, it was a difficult time."

The degree of trust, love and respect that Richardson and Carter have for one another carries through into Dark Rainbow, not least on the album's stunning centrepiece, two beautiful, tender songs - Queen of Hearts and the piano-led Sun Bright Golden Happening - which are quite unlike anything we've heard from Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes before.

Listening to the latter track in particular, and remembering Frank Carter's roots, this writer is reminded of the leap that Nick Cave took from The Birthday Party to leading the Bad Seeds, a comparison with which Carter and Richardson are rather pleased, given that Nick Cave was one of the artists  over who the pair first bonded. [By coincidence, the band also share the same management company with Cave]. It should be noted, however, that Sun Bright Golden Happening was actually written at the same time as the majority of the songs on the band's last album, 2021's Sticky, a reminder that its creation is part of their continuing evolution rather than a break from the past. That said, the Rattlesnakes of three years ago (the group are rounded out by bassist Tom 'Tank' Barclay, drummer Gareth Grover and keyboardist Elliot Russell) might not have had the trust in their own art to let these two songs sit side-by-side at the very heart of the record.

Some of the questions this record asks are, what are you living for and what do you love?

Frank Carter

"Sun Bright... was written in this cabin in the woods," says Carter, "one take, live piano, live vocal, in front of this massive glass window, with sunlight coming through the trees. That song to me is a testament to love, because lyrically it was structured from lots of beautiful little moments about how it feels to be a dad, when you're just overwhelmed by love. It's quite personal to me, but it's also quite magical, with like, the feel of fairies in the garden. I still cry often when I hear it. Some of the questions this record asks are, what are you living for and what do you love, and it's about finding that and embracing it."

Amid all this emotion and soul-searching and introspection, there are moments where Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes swagger like never before. Happier Days has the cocksure strut of prime Queens Of The Stone Age, while the soaring Superstar - "a nod to the bands that I loved growing up, like Deftones and Soundgarden" Carter explains - features the killer couplet "Dance like no-one's watching / Fuck me like they all are". The brilliant Self Love too is a song where Carter sounds fearless, ready to embrace love once more after taking endless beatings at his own hands. "Your smile a butterfly cascade," he sings. "And your voice so gentle and so pure / Your love might be the cure." 

"It's about falling in love with my best friend," Carter explains, before stopping, and blushing slightly. "This is tough, because she's sitting at the end of the table..."

Another pause.

"Ah, she's not even listening!" [Laughs].

"I've been friends with her for a long, long time," he continues, "she's such an important person in my life, and it wasn't that I couldn't see that, but I really didn't like myself, I really, really didn't love myself. I would go as far as to say that, at times, I actively hated myself and sought out my own destruction. With this song, I was really desperately trying to reach me, to say like, You're all right man, you just need to just gotta start taking this shit seriously, because otherwise you're never gonna be able to have a relationship with someone that actually really, really loves you. Because ultimately you can't have a lot of caring, kind relationship with anybody, until you have that with yourself. You have to be able to love yourself before you can start giving that to other people and be there for other people."

"And the sad part about that is that we can romanticise that as great sacrifice," he adds. "You know, it's like, No, no, I'm not gonna love you, because I will destroy you. But if you spoke to her, she'd be like, What the fuck are you going on about? Get your shit together. You couldn't destroy him, even if you fucking tried!"

In speaking these words aloud, Carter could be talking about himself, and his own band. The singer and his nearest and dearest have been through a lot, and after all blows that have rained down upon them, both external and internal, they're still standing, not merely surviving, but thriving. Their journey is far from over, but that rainbow that has appeared overhead after these storms, is a signifier of rebirth and new beginnings.

When Carter recorded the vocals for the album's title track, he went out into the studio's garden, and cried for an hour.

"It was fucking brutal," he sighs. "That song leaves me in pieces. I hope no-one who listens to it is going through what I was going through, because it was fucking bleak, but if they are, that song will support them."

"This interview, and every performance we do, and every song I write from now on, is testament to the fact that you can make it through, and there's another life," he says quietly. "That song may be the end of the record, but it's also essentially the beginning of this band."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.