Hi, Frank. Your new album is called Be More Kind. Is that an order?
It’s not a bad suggestion. The title is borrowed from a poem by Clive James. I’m a gigantic Clive James fan; he’s terminally ill and has been writing poems about facing the end of his life. For a man of such emotional intelligence and wisdom to sum up his take on life with, ‘I should have been more kind,’ there’s meaning and there’s impact in that. It’s not a particularly original statement, but when I read it, it hit me quite hard.
Your title track says the world ‘has decided to lose its mind’. What does that mean?
A lot of this record started coming together when I was on tour in America in the summer of 2016. It was at the peak of the Trump/Clinton debacle. I’m a huge fan of America, so it was a very disheartening time to be there because it seemed that Americans across the spectrum were giving into their worst instincts. Similar things had obviously been happening in the United Kingdom, too: the journey from the Olympic opening ceremony to Brexit will go down in history as one of the more depressing declines in a national culture.
What caused that decline?
The deeper malaise has to be with social media. We’ve accidentally built a machine for dehumanising our opponents. This premium has been placed on hot takes and good put downs and snark, which has bled out from computers into real life. When I was on that tour in the States it struck me that there were an awful lot of people who were talking past each other, and that the beginning of the solution would be for people to talk to each other as humans again.
How should people treat each other, then?
As a musician I’m not sure I have hard and fast answers, but put it this way: if you want people who voted for Trump to not vote for him again, you have to find a way of talking to them about the problems that they perceive in their lives. If all you do is shout at people and call them arseholes for making choices you disagree with – and it strikes me that the American democratic left is doubling down on that strategy – they’re going to make those choices again.
Your last album was called Positive Songs For Negative People. Are you a positive or a negative person?
Like most people, I have tendencies in both directions. In my writing I tend to have this incorrigible optimistic streak, and no matter how hard I try to be a goth or a nihilist, some form of silver lining tends to emerge in my writing. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true in all facets of my personality, but I certainly don’t see the point in going to the lengths of writing a song that ends in a negative and depressing place.
Do you think music has a duty to uplift people?
It’s a role of music, but there’s plenty of music I enjoy that is resolutely nihilistic and negative. I’m just not very good at writing that kind of music myself. Certainly, for me, music plays a function of relief and empathy and, therefore, some kind of optimism.
What’s the saddest thing you’ve listened to recently?
I quite often listen to music people think is sad, but I think is happy. My favourite songwriter is John K Samson of The Weakerthans, and I regard their music as being resolutely upbeat, but lots of people seem to find it sad.
And what’s the most depressing gig you’ve ever played?
I did a show opening for The Offspring in New Jersey in 2009. Sum 41 had been advertised as the opener and instead it was me with an acoustic guitar, at a time when no one in America had any idea who I was. That was an extremely rough show, but I came out unscathed.
Is it true you went to Eton with Prince William?
I was sent there on a scholarship at the same time he was there, yes, but we weren’t friends.
You weren’t invited on Harry’s stag do, then?
Well, I actually got in trouble while I was at school for putting up posters for the ‘March Against the Monarchy’, which featured a massive picture of a guillotine. They pointed out to me that I was essentially advocating the murder of another pupil’s grandmother. That was frowned on by the authorities.
What was the punishment?
I was told to take the posters down. Which I did, like the meek little anarchist that I am.
Frank’s new album Be More Kind is out now