Frank Carter and The Rattlesnakes

Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes had just played the gig of their lives, headlining Alexandra Palace in London, when the world pressed the pause button. At first, they went into the studio to bottle that intensity, of being one of the best live acts in the country, with a number four album in 2019’s End of Suffering. But during the uncertainty of the past year, where they snatched pockets of time to write together when they could, Frank Carter and Dean Richardson ended up with something far gnarlier, channeling all their frustrations and the grittiness of the city into 10 eviscerating tracks. Let’s get one thing straight, though: “It’s not a lockdown record,” says Carter, “it’s a freedom record.”

Sticky, their fourth album, clearly marks the next phase for the Rattlesnakes and was produced, for the first time, by Richardson. It solidifies the pair as one of the most exciting partnerships in punk-rock and Carter – since his early days in hardcore punk band Gallows and then as Pure Love – as a vital voice in UK music, rallying against injustice, the patriarchy, right-wing politics and toxic masculinity.

Over the course of three albums since 2015, the duo has built a reputation for blistering anthemia that owes as much to brooding desert rock as it does blistering hardcore and power-pop – sex, rage and letting rip. They’re the very definition of a modern rock band, both artists as well as musicians – Richardson with his design studio Yuck and Carter, a well-known tattoo artist. But on Sticky, their sound practically punches out of the speakers with a new directness and immediacy.

The opening title track is a snarling call to arms, in which Carter fictitiously roams a city at night looking for a sticky situation, to get sticky with someone, or perhaps craving the stickiness of a mosh pit. “I think ‘pent up’ is a good way of describing everyone’s energy for the past year,” he says. Carter himself faced not just with the halt to live music but having to shut his brand new east London tattoo parlour, Rose of Mercy (named after his young daughter Mercy) just after he signed the lease. He says he was craving the unbridled freedom of “running around and causing trouble” and on Sticky, he sounds like an untamed force of nature, embodying the impish menace of Keith Flint one minute, Sid Vicious the next.

Speaking of true British originals, Sticky has plenty alongside Carter: Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie, IDLES’ frontman Joe Talbot and singer Cassyette all feature. There’s a clear connection between these characters and The Rattlesnakes: “It’s all underdogs,” says Carter, and “outsiders,” echoes Richardson. Together, they sound like a gnarly mob racing around a metropolis at night, or perhaps the Sunset Strip in 1989 – there’s a hefty dose of glam and sleaze on tracks like ‘Off With His Head’, with Cassyette, a  Bonnie Tyler for Gen Z to Carter’s Axl Rose or James Hetfield.

When Carter’s on his own, he’s more introspective. Vocally, he’s at his best and most expressive, singing about bad girls (‘Cupid’s Arrow’) and temptresses (‘Cobra Queen’). Or there’s album closer ‘Original Sin’, in which Carter sings about resisting desire until Gillespie’s breathy voice arrives, like the devil on his shoulder – or perhaps salvation – talking about Jesus and lust. Gillespie and Carter had met at a Chapman Brothers exhibition (Jake of the duo had directed the video for their 2017 single ‘Wild Flowers’). “I could always hear him on ‘Original Sin’,” says Carter. “He liked the song and when he came to the studio, it was just effortless.” He had one sentence “about Jesus being a raggedy figure, written on the back of a contract he’d found in the studio, did three takes, and that was it,” says Richardson.

But there’s also an undeniable irreverence on Sticky, which spills out in songs like ‘Bang Bang’ and ‘Go Get a Tattoo’.  “Irreverent is a good word for that song,” says Carter of the latter, with its lyrics like “Smash your sadness / Go get a tattoo / We were born to win not born to lose” and which sounds not unlike a turbo Madness or The Specials. Although the song has a more serious undertone, too. “I'd worked my entire life to get to the point of getting a shop, and I’d finally achieved it, and I couldn’t even open the doors,” he explains. “So yes, when this is over, I need everyone to come and get a tattoo.”

One notable person he did tattoo for the album was Joe Talbot of IDLES. Carter says he saw Talbot’s Bristol band perform and couldn’t stop crying –“they had a tremendous effect on me” – and the two have since become firm friends. Carter invited Talbot to guest on the standout track ‘My Town’ – if Queens of the Stone Age did oi-oi punk – a bruising metaphor for “our collective mental health falling apart,” he says. It’s about the people who had to confront problems that they were evading, he continues, and “coming to terms with the fact that we’re all just the same.”

Carter is particularly outspoken about mental health and how it’s changed his perspective on masculinity – he is sticky just as much as he is unashamed to come unstuck. He is open on social media about his struggles and how he’s taken his anger out on himself during shows, coming back bloodied – even one time, he remembers, in a wheelchair. “There was a lot of self abuse and self loathing in my early bands,” he admits. “I know now that a lot of that was just misdirected energy. I was frustrated about societal constructs of being a man when I didn't really feel like one. So I’ve been able to manage that a lot better now.”

There was a time, both Rattlesnakes say, where they felt they had to be tough to be successful in rock music. “This is armour, all this stuff,” says Carter, pointing to his tattoos (there are more of them than bare skin at this point). “I’m a 5ft7 seven redhead. I'm the epitome of trying to present a tough guy image just to be left alone. I guess because that's what society told me I needed to be. I’m equal parts feminine as I am masculine, and I find a lot of strength in vulnerability. I try to show it everywhere I can, and talk about it, to break down those barriers, so that more men feel like it's the right thing to do.”

Richardson agrees. “I grew up thinking men had to be a certain way, and I was confused,” he says. “I didn’t feel super masculine in a stereotypical way. But I don't really think many men really do.”.

What, indeed. The Rattlesnakes are redefining punk-rock, challenging its tired cliches, and setting the world to rights. It’s easy to forget, perhaps, that Carter was taking aim at the country’s social, political and economical issues on Gallow’s 2009 album Grey Britain almost a decade before any of his current contemporaries. “I've never really got into music for recognition,” says Carter. “If you're the tip of the spear, you’re already out the other side and onto the next target. I'm always the tip of the spear. I was making songs with Lethal Bizzle in 2007, we were doing the grime and punk crossover then.”

But now with Richardson, on Sticky, he’s struck upon a sound that straddles eras and genres while putting The Rattlesnakes in a category all of their own. “Someone described it to me as ‘they felt their youth’ when they were listening to the record,” says Carter. “When you make albums, those are the ones you want to make. Nostalgic, but classic. Timeless, and also modern.”

The time is now, then. Get stuck in.