The arena-sized singer-songwriter has just announced his new album ‘Be More Kind’ and he's getting stuck into his second flagship festival, Lost Evenings, this May. Here’s all you need know from the man himself
‘Be More Kind’ is your seventh album – when you started your solo career post-Million Dead, did you foresee that there would be a time when you’d have that many records under your belt?
“There’s a difference between daydreaming and rational expectations. I’m very pleased that it worked out this way and I would have said that’s what I wanted, but whether or not I actually expected it is a different question. There was a moment after ‘Sleep Is For The Week’ (2007) when I thought it had run its course, I didn’t think that many people cared. So it’s a pleasant surprise.”
‘Be More Kind’ is a Clive James quote – why did it stand out to you in particular?
“I’m an avid Clive James fan – ‘Cultural Amnesia’ is a book that completely upended my understanding of the world, and I tend to follow everything he writes if I can. He’s terminally ill and his poems about death have been blowing my mind since he started writing them. It’s not the only time that I’ve read someone in recent years talking about kindness as being the thing that survives of human life, it’s just the most pithily put version of that. It to be a recurring theme that I read about older people and more importantly wiser people – that your compassion and decency to your fellow person is the thing that comes out in the wash.”
So is empathy the answer to all the world’s woes right now?
“Goodness no, there is no single answer to all the world’s woes. I think that searching for simple answers is in and of itself a bad idea because the world is a complex place and I think that I’m inherently suspicious of people who have simple answers – that tends to mean they’re painting in extremely broad strokes which tends to paint over people, in my experience. Having said that, one of my preoccupations at the moment is the nature and state of political discourse in our societies. In particular on social media I think the structure of how we discuss politics on Twitter is extremely bad and I think that it is doing really terrible things to our society and to the cohesion of our society. I think that people have forgotten that it’s a good thing to be able to understand your opponents in any argument. I’m not sure you can have a meaningful argument with somebody unless you understand where they’re coming from.”
So would you say this is a political album? I know you’ve shied away from politics in your songwriting, despite being painted as a political singer/songwriter when you first came out.
“That’s a difficult question for me, I’m tempted to say it’s a liberal album because what strikes me about liberalism as a political philosophy – as I understand it – is it’s the only philosophy that’s concerned with the rules of the game rather than rooting for one particular side. At least, the classical form of liberalism, it’s about saying what a liberal society aims to achieve, and what we have achieved for a long time, is a society in which people can disagree without taking up arms, and I think that is something a lot of people have taken for granted and become blasé about, and we will seriously miss that when it’s gone. It’s an album that addresses the world as it is, much more so than the last few records I’ve made, but it’s not a Billy Bragg record, it’s not a Rage Against The Machine record.”
You’ve been quite open about the fact that you’ve taken a fresh approach with this album sonically – what has changed?
“I always try and have a different mental approach to each record that I make. The last album that we did was sonically and stylistically a bit of a retrenchment, a bit of an attempt to restate first principles, and I liked it, I’m really proud of that record. We cut the record in nine days with a live band and it’s quite stripped back and lean, but now it’s absolutely different. And it’s my seventh album, I feel like I’ve earned the right to expand my sonic boundaries and possibly a duty to as well. There are people in this world who want me to remake ‘Love Ire & Song’ every two and a half years and they are going to be disappointed, but at the same time I’m not taking Love Ire & Song’ away from them. The idea is that I wanted to explore some new territory. I discovered arpeggiated synths on the keyboard. I started demoing for the record at home on a laptop. I got quite into that idea of using beats and loops as opposed to a traditionally more rock approach to rhythm. There are elements of the album which aren’t radically different from things I’ve done before, but there are quite a few that go in new directions.”
There was talk initially that it was going to be a blue-eyed soul record. What happened with that idea?
“That idea got slightly put on the back burner. There are a couple of tracks that headed down that route which are on one side possibly for an EP in the future, but that’s a long way off for now. Josh and Austin [White Demin] did the Leon Bridges record and they seemed like the right people to talk to about that, but thankfully they are so incredibly wide ranging in their talents that when my thinking had moved on a little bit from that I stayed in touch with them because we got on very well. I mentioned where my head was at and they were both just like ‘Yeah, fine, that sounds great’, so on we went.”
How did you end up going out to Texas and working with them?
“Record labels are quite keen for people to work with producers who’ve just had a hit, that’s always the way. My tour manager knew them personally, so when they were suggested it seemed like people who I’d like to hang out with and get to know, which I did. We just got on like a house on fire.”
What is the first single from the album and why have you chosen it? Why does it represent the record so well?
“The first single from the record is called ‘Blackout’ and it’s certainly a song that goes in a newer sonic direction. It’s kind of got a dancey vibe to it. We are also leaking a track – as people do these days – called ‘1933’, and that’s more of a traditional angry punk song. It seemed like a good way to come out of the gate swinging.”
Tell me more about that track – what’s the significance of the year 1933?
“1933 was the year that the Nazis took power in Germany. Obviously I’m quite consciously aware of Godwin’s Law and the idea that mentioning the Nazis gets pretty tired in principled debate pretty quickly. But it still, nevertheless, seemed like it was a turning point which in and of itself didn’t necessarily seem apocalyptic at the time – in 1933 I’m not sure that anybody in Germany was thinking of 1945 and yet they were inextricably linked. The year 2016 in particular felt quite momentous to me, it was a threatening year, and it’s a song that was written when we were touring in the USA in the summer of 2016 while the election campaign was ongoing.”
So is the song’s lyric “A shower of bastards leading the charge” a reference to 1933 or 2016?
“I’d say it’s in reference to quite a lot of 2018 now. One of the subjects the song addresses and something that I’m really quite bothered by is the complete and utter lack of talent in the political class on both sides of the Atlantic. If you look at, for example, the post-war period, despite their enormous disagreements I think we can all agree that both Attlee and Churchill were political and intellectual titans. I’m not sure you can say that about anybody in the current political world! I think clearly something’s gone wrong there. You shouldn’t necessarily ask musicians for solutions to these things, but something’s gone awry when you look at the people leading the country right now and they’re just idiots, in my opinion. That’s not just because I disagree with them, they are bad at what they are trying to do and it’s intriguing to me that they’re so crap.”
Your festival in Camden, London – Lost Evenings – is on the horizon. How much has been booked?
“More than we’ve announced because we’re just working through it. It turns out that booking a festival’s quite a time-consuming thing to do! Last year we didn’t have any idea what we were doing with Lost Evenings, we just sort of winged it and by the skin of our teeth it actually came off really well. In retrospect, there’s quite a lot of stuff that we could tighten up and improve. Quite a lot of stuff only worked through blind luck last time around. We’re working to make it bigger and better. One thing that’s really important to me is maintaining and expanding the community aspect of it. We’ve got lots of plans for stuff happening around Camden, charity and activism plans to come into the festival. We’ve got an absolute motherload more bands to add to the bill. I think it’s going to be bigger and better than it was last year.”
So there’ll be panels and screenings and things like that too?
“We’ve got panels, we’ve got booked readings, a lot of discussion groups – that kind of thing. We’re doing quite a lot of outreach with the Roundhouse and programmes that they do for local, low income families. Just trying to expand the idea that it’s not just four days of me chatting about myself – I mean it is that – but it’s got a community angle to it. I think that’s important.”
At 19.33pm today (January 29) Frank will be doing a very special Facebook live Q&A and performance of first track ‘1933’.