Made In Britain
From the doorway of Smith Street Tattoos in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Gallows frontman Frank Carter, 25, looks like any other young tattoo artist as he sits at a desk and traces a drawing of a six-shooter and a rose onto a transparent yellow sheet of paper. His signature fiery red hair is tucked under a snug black baseball cap, which matches his jeans and sweatshirt. For the past few days, he’s come to this shop, which is owned by local masters Bert Krak, Steve Boltz, and Eli Quinters, to tattoo a few friends and earn a few bucks.
Not that Carter necessarily needs the money. Gallows sell loads of tickets and T-shirts, and they were paid over $1.8 million to sign a four-album deal with Warner Bros., which will release their second record, Grey Britain. So, why is the wiry vocalist spending his vacation time designing tattoos on a sunny spring day while reggae music throbs from a back stereo?
“This is my idea of vacation,” says Carter, revealing just a hint of contempt. “Tattooing is what I love to do, and the band is never gonna last for 10 or 15 years. So, I’ve been coming in here to learn from watching these guys, who are experts. Eventually, I’d like to open a shop in my small hometown, near London— because I may look okay onstage, but I’m not all punk rock and cocaine. I’m Diet Coke. I’m as simple as you get, man. I want a quiet life with a girlfriend and a puppy and I’ll be a happy man.”
It’s hard to believe Carter isn’t fucking with us, but after a long pause and a short stare down it’s obvious that he’s for real. There’s a stark contrast between the plain-clothed Carter and the crazed and shirtless 5´7? Gallows vocalist who, during shows, has been known to hang upside down from light rigs, jump from 15-foot PA stacks, and get in punch-ups with hecklers. Those two sides of Carter make Gallows one of the most exciting bands in decades, while simultaneously threatening to put an abrupt end to the group.
“I’m a completely different personality on and off the stage, but the way I am during a show isn’t an act,” Carter insists while tracing an image of a prosthetic limb onto the yellow paper. “It’s just a part of me that’s sitting there ready when I need it, which is when we play shows. Then, I lose my mind a little bit.” By “lose my mind,” Carter really means that he goes wall-crawling mad. A Gallows concert is a demolition derby with no rules, created by Carter, his brother and guitarist Steph, guitarist Laurent “Lags” Barnard, bassist Stuart Gili-Ross, and drummer Lee Barratt. And while the musicians are clearly inspired by vintage punk and modern hardcore, they’re equally fueled by the lack of excitement and sincerity they see all around them.
“I really don’t fucking want to hear another kid singing about another fucking party he went to and how much fun it is being young because, frankly, it’s not that much fun,” grouses Frank. “It’s fun when you’re about 14, then life gets really shitty. You grow up, you’re a fucking adult all of a sudden, and everything fucking sucks. That’s why I think my band is important. We’re not trying to make out that we’re anything but exactly what we are, which is a bunch of very angry young individuals.”
In the four years since Gallows formed in the town of Hemel Hempstead, England, the band has developed a reputation for volatility and unpredictability. The birth of Gallows was preceded by years of Frank and Steph jamming in basements with various musicians after Steph was given a guitar at age 13. At first, they followed groups like Pennywise. Then, when they were in their mid-teens, their parents separated, and the brothers embraced angrier, more underground bands. “What do you do when you discover the two people who you thought would never, ever have a problem on the planet suddenly decide they can’t be with each other anymore?” asks Steph, 24, talking on his cell from Watford, England. “The whole perfect, happy family thing is not a happy family anymore. That really took a toll on Frank and I.”
In 2004, when Steph left for college, Frank formed Gallows with his three current bandmates, whom he knew from the local scene, and another guitarist who later left the group. Frank left several times too, first to focus on tattooing, and again the day the band entered the studio to record their debut album, Orchestra of Wolves. Gallows auditioned other vocalists, but none fit the mold, so Frank decided to return. “I think when the band tried out a lot of other people, he realized no one’s ever going to be able to fill his shoes in the band,” Steph says. “And he also realized how much he actually needed the band himself.” Once finished, Orchestra of Wolves gushed with attitude, addressing social dystopia and personal pain with the blunt force of a sledgehammer. The album came out in 2006 on tiny indie label In at the Deep End, received universal praise, and was rereleased by Epitaph in 2007. Since they wanted two guitarists live, Gallows recruited Steph, who had just completed college, to fill in on tour until they found a permanent replacement. They never did. As energized and enjoyable as their songs are, Gallows went supernova because of the power, passion, and danger of their concerts. Whether performing in tiny clubs or stadiums, they left the crowd slamming, banging their heads, and eyeing the exits, wondering what the fuck was going to happen next and if they’d have to make a quick escape.
“There are no rules at a Gallows show, and that scares people,” Frank says. “You can do whatever the fuck you want. Obviously, we’d rather you were having a good time and not hurting people, but you can do whatever the fuck you want, and we can do whatever the fuck we want.”
“A Gallows show is not a show unless one of us ends up limping offstage or hurt afterwards,” adds Steph.
He’s not exaggerating. The injuries Gallows have suffered in their four years together are staggering. Frank has been bloodied and stitched up repeatedly from head wounds, broken his nose, and even suffered whiplash. “I couldn’t hold my head straight the next day, so I went to the doctor’s and they were convinced I had been in a car accident and wanted to see my driver’s license.”
The other members aren’t safe either. Steph had his nose broken by Frank during an onstage accident in Japan, has endured a series of back injuries, and was accidentally knocked out by Gili-Ross, who hit him in the back of the head with his bass during the first song of a set. “I can’t remember anything, but I was told later that I went down, hit the floor and came back up 30 seconds later. Then I fell off-stage, stumbled into the back room, and glued my head back together with toilet paper and gaffer’s tape. I played the rest of the set bleeding all over myself.”
Once Gallows had developed a reputation for self-sacrifice, some punks decided the band’s shows were violent free-for-alls. They flung punches in the pit, threw beer and bottles at the musicians, and even challenged the members to fights. Unwilling to back down, Frank often wound up in bloody skirmishes. “People completely misunderstand where we’re coming from,” he grumbles. “They think we’re just a bunch of thugs. I fucking hate fighting, but I’ll do it if I have to.”
The worst of those fights occurred last year, at the London Astoria, when the singer climbed into the crowd and an audience member pulled him over the barrier and choked him until he passed out. “I woke up on the stage dry heaving,” Frank says. “Who the fuck chokes out the lead singer of the band you’re there to see? And this kid was like, ‘Yeah, it was me.’ He was bad-mouthing me and called me an idiot and said, ‘Come back down here and I’ll do it again.’ So I jumped down and beat the shit out of him with the microphone, and then I got put in a bear hug by a security guard, and that was the end of that show.”
The more out of control Gallows shows became, the more people wanted to see them. Major labels came calling, and Gallows were involved in a wild bidding war. In the end, BMG’s offer of about $400,000 per record was trumped by the Warner Bros. bid of nearly $500,000 per album for four records. “There are no rules at a Gallows show, and that scares people. You can do whatever the fuck you want.”
“It’s like The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, part II,” Frank says, referring to Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s manipulation of various record labels in the ’70s. “But we did, probably, the most punk rock thing by taking the money and writing a better album than the first one. Instead of taking the money, becoming drug addicts, and running like pirates, we’re like pirates that are employees. We’re still getting the money, and that blows my mind.”
Both Frank and his brother are straight edge. They’re also mama’s boys. They used most of their advance to buy a house for their mom, with whom they still live. The other members of Gallows are also close to their parents. “They travel all around the world to see us,” Steph says. “It’s really strange to think we’re one of the most inspirational punk bands at the moment, and our parents are our biggest fans.”
Yesterday was a bad day in London’s financial district. Riled by the collapse of England’s banking system, protesters assembled at the G-20 summit, where ministers from 20 of the wealthiest nations discussed the global economic crisis. A riot kicked off, police swarmed in, and a man walking home from work was shoved to the ground by police and later died. At the time, Steph was in London, 10 minutes away from the action, oblivious to the turmoil in the streets.
“I don’t think half the people who were rioting understood what they were protesting against,” he says from a nearby shopping center, where he and his girlfriend are looking for a sewing machine. “It’s quite shocking that someone died, but to me, the riots themselves seemed a bit silly. There seemed to be more people in the square with cameras and video equipment filming it than actually rioting. It just became this big media event.”
“I just don’t see any point in protesting,” adds Frank with a sneer. “I sit and watch demonstrations all the fucking time. They happen every single day and people think they’re achieving something, when really they’re not. It’s very rare that a demonstration will ever make a government change their ideas about a particular situation. And once the demonstration is over, life just seems to go from shit to worse.”
Gallows’ second album, Grey Britain, is clearly political, yet Frank offers no hope, instead condemning society—especially British society—for turning its back on idealism and opportunity. Like the Sex Pistols, Gallows scream, “No future,” and Frank seems to believe the apocalypse is imminent. But rather than wallow in hopelessness, they raise their middle fingers to the entire mess.
“The only way to possibly change the system is to completely start again,” Frank says. “And the only way to do that is for a whole generation to kill themselves so that when it starts again, maybe we actually have a slight chance. That to me is the most sensible option. But obviously, I’m not holding my breath.”
Frank describes his lyrics as “antidogma, antiauthority, and antilife,” adding that Grey Britain is “about trying to find your place in a world that’s completely fallen apart.”
“The U.K. is not a great and proud place like it once was,” adds Steph. “People aren’t taught to work hard for a living. Nowadays, parents are telling their kid that if they can just get their girlfriend pregnant at a young age and claim benefits, they’re going to be making more money than if they went out and worked hard for a living. Who wants to be part of a country like that?”
That sentiment holds Grey Britain together like a blood-soaked bandage. While the blitzkrieg riffs recall the best of Refused, the vocals are more melodic, the rhythms more dynamic, and the songs more eclectic. “Death Voices” is driven by stabbing guitars and a pummeling beat, but also features an a cappella chorus and a stirring piano-and-strings ending (several of the songs feature strings). And “Queensberry Rules” is driven by a riff reminiscent of early Metallica that segues into shout-out vocals and double-bass drums that tip a cap to New York hardcore. “There’s a lot more focus and drive behind Grey Britain,” Steph explains. “All five of us wrote the album together, so all of our individual influences came through in a way that didn’t happen on Orchestra of Wolves, because Lags wrote all the songs on that record.”
As cohesive as it sounds, Grey Britain was a bitch to create. The band had been on the road for 18 months, so their songwriting chops were rusty when they started working in March 2008. And although there was no shortage of creativity, the ideas were scattered, and they scrapped more music than they kept. Finally, in September they entered a London studio with producer GGGarth (Atreyu, Bloodsimple, From Autumn to Ashes). For the next eight weeks, Warner Bros. put Gallows up in a deluxe flat in central London—not the best move for a young band from a small town.
“There were, like, 12 beds in that flat, and the tattoo convention was right in the middle of our session,” says Frank. “So all of my friends came over and gambled and got drunk. And that was just the second weekend. Then there was Halloween and other events like birthdays that made it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to focus.”
With such distractions, it took Gallows seven and a half of their eight weeks in the studio just to record guitars, bass, and drums, leaving Frank only four days to track all the vocals. All the stress and tension gave the vocalist acid reflux, and every time he tried to sing, he would nearly throw up. Frank and Steph decided to return to their mum’s house and record the vocals there.
“We knocked a hole in the wall and set up a microphone in Frank’s bedroom, and the computer with Pro Tools in my bedroom, which worked great,” Steph says.
“As we’re doing it, I’m thinking to myself, Why the fuck didn’t we just do this in the first place instead of spending all that money on the studio?” says Frank.
Seemingly tired of talking about the band, Frank returns to work on the prosthetic arm design. When he’s done he shows it to Boltz, who suggests he shade in the edges a little to make it look more three-dimensional.
Frank first became interested in tattoos at 7, when he noticed his uncle’s huge back piece of the crucifixion. “When I saw this tattoo I was just transfixed, and that was when I knew I wanted to either be tattooed or tattoo people,” he says, brightening at the change of topic.
Frank started by drawing tattoos on himself and his friends with colored Sharpies, and didn’t get any real ink until he turned 18 and went to a local shop to get an image of three daggers, one for each of his brothers. Convinced he could do a better job than that artist, Frank built his own machine and started tattooing himself in his friend’s kitchen. “It was about as ghetto as it gets, and those tattoos were really bad,” he says, lifting his T-shirt to reveal a wavy-lined tattoo of a revolver that covers most of the left side of his lower abdomen. “That thing is fucking brutal,” he groans. “It still hurts me thinking about it, but it’s nice to look at that and then look at an okay tattoo that I do now. Tons of times, people have said, ‘I’ll touch it up for you; I’ll fix it for you,’ and it never felt right to do that.”
Right now, with Grey Britain complete, Gallows are sitting on a veritable powder keg, an album that could redefine punk and sweep the streets of watered-down emo in the same way grunge wiped out hair metal in the early ’90s. Yet the more attention they receive, the more anxious Frank becomes—and not because he’s worried that Gallows will fail to live up to people’s expectations.
“The biggest problem I have is wanting to stay in a band when tattooing is such a big part of my life and I enjoy it so much more,” he explains as he finishes the prosthetic limb, which is now holding a blossoming flower. “Being in a band is very businesslike when you sign to a major label. You don’t have as much control anymore, and things get kind of difficult. I enjoy playing the shows, but those have become sort of secondary now. The rest is sorting out merch deals and budgeting the tour, making sure the routing’s right, making sure there’s gonna be enough people there. And that takes all the fun out of it.”
He lifts his hat, scratches his tattooed scalp, then continues. “If I could just go and play shows every day, I definitely would. But the shows are the only thing that actually keeps me in the band. That’s my fucking catharsis.”