Frank Turner interview
Basically, what it says on the tin. He was one of the most interesting and lovely people I've ever met.
ROSANNA HYNES interviews Frank Turner.
Frank Turner is well spoken, polite and terribly friendly. He is also skilled in the art of interviews, as he should be after nearly ten years of tireless self-promotion. He was also filled with a restless energy that comes through in the form of constant movement, making our photographer, JAMES WILBY frustrated in his attempts to catch Turner still long enough to get a decent photograph. Turner fidgets and interrupts himself, as though there is so much to tell he can’t wait to finish the previous sentence. Articulate and sharp, Turner seems knowledgeable about almost any subject we bring up, including traditional folk music, punk and politics, though these are clear specialist topics. He is very self-aware; always bringing the subject round to selling his future and current projects, but to catch glimpses of what really gets to him is a rare joy worth chasing. When Turner talks about being onstage and his fans, his face lights up with a broad smile that shows how far he has come from the days of struggling in tiny venues to make a name for himself away from the stigma of Million Dead’s mysterious break-up. Tonight is Turner’s biggest headline show yet – nearly 2,500 adoring fans wait for his peculiar blend of hardcore punk ethics and Springsteen style delivery. We caught him backstage at Manchester’s Academy for fifteen relentless minutes.
Your 2008 single, Long Live The Queen, was in aid of Cancer research and you have supported many other fundraising events, such as relief in Haiti. Do you feel that this is something that you have to do alongside your music?
I don’t ever feel that it’s something I have to do particularly; it’s something I like to do. At the end of the day, an awful lot of my job is self-promotion, and that’s fine, but it’s just kind of refreshing for me to be promoting something other than me. Doing the whole breast cancer thing, obviously there was a personal level on that for me as well, because my friend Lex was deeply involved in that kind of fundraising… Anyway, so I’ve been getting involved with more political groups recently as well. We had no to ID doing stuff on the last tour, and I think we’ve got the UK libertarian party doing some bits and bobs on this tour as well, which is my political bent. I feel like I’ve got a platform, so I’m going to talk about it.
On the last tour, you played a harder, more rock version of “Long Live The Queen” – do you think that this was to, in a way, make the song easier to play live, as it is so personal?
No not really, I like to try and do something different with the set list every time we do a tour in order to make it interesting, and to give people a reason to come back again. It’s fun. I believe that songs are skeletons, and they can be fleshed out in different ways. There was a moment in time when that song was going to be like that anyway, when I was writing it, and then it changed. We’re playing it the old way on this tour, but it was kind of fun to do something different.
You recently released a DVD; do you think you play differently when you know you are being videoed?
No not really, actually. One of the things about the shoot on that tour was that something I really didn’t want was for people at the show to have their experiences spoiled by some dickhead with a camera wandering all over the stage… so the crew was all quite discreet. Once I am up there, onstage, I’m quite kind of focused on the crowd, so I didn’t really notice to be honest.
Do you find it strange that a lot of the music that espouses the punk ethics nowadays is not traditional-style punk music, it is more melodic? How do you think this reflects the supposed death of punk?
Ugh. People have been calling punk dead since about six months after it started. So much like Mark Twain, I think it is, reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. To me punk is an attitude that comes in many shapes and forms and I think if you only look for punk rock in skinny angry white boys playing guitar you’ll probably get bored really quickly. Right, not like I want to make out like I think it’s a movement like some people think it is, but this whole punk-folk kind of thing that seems to be going on which I get lumped in with a lot, which is…. Fine, because it’s fair cop to a degree, but that’s a really good example. It’s a really cool thing where, if I’m thinking positively about it, a lot of people, particularly American punks, are reminding themselves what they liked about punk in the first place. The first time you hear Jawbreaker it’s amazing, but when you hear the hundredth band that sound like Jawbreaker it’s kind of like… Eeeh. By taking the same attitude and ethos and ideals, and quite a lot of the time some melodic structures and stuff, and developing them in a new format, it shocks you out of the haze in a way. If punk was ever to officially die, I’m not sure I’d really give a shit. By which I mean that I just like music. For me, I grew up listening to a type of music called punk rock, and if people aren’t making any new punk rock records, then I’m still going to go home and listen to the “First Four Years” by Black Flag.
You just covered Barbara Allen, a traditional folk song. How does that side of music affect what you do?
Well, one of the things about that is that I’ve recently gotten very heavily into finding out about traditional English music. It kind of combines my two passions in life, which are history and music. So I’m working on doing a traditional album at some point, hopefully releasing at some point next year, as well as writing another album, and a book, and being on tour until the middle of next year. Barbara Allen was fun to do, and also kind of a challenge for me because singing acapella is not really something I’ve done before, so I was kind of bricking it the first time I did it, but it turned out alright. I really like the whole notion of kind of traditional music, such as found songs, where people don’t really know who wrote them and they have hundreds of years of history. And loads of different versions, I mean I have six different versions of Barbara Allen, and they’re all based around the same kind of riff. To be honest with you, the version that I sung is my version, - I tinkered about with the lyrics, and the tune a little bit, but that’s the idea, that’s the whole point, and it’s a living tradition.
How many instruments can you play?
A few. Drums, badly, bass reasonably well. I can play guitar, well, rhythm guitar, I can’t solo to save my fucking life. I can play mandolin, lap steel banjo, but they’re all kind of variations on a theme really. Not that many, but I’m lucky that the band I work with includes some serious virtuoso players. They’re all fucking great but particularly Matt, my keyboard player, is just one of the most disgustingly talented people in the whole world ever. I’m doing an Australian and Chinese tour on my own, and Matt was just like “pick an instrument for me to learn while you’re away” and I chose accordion and he said “I’m on it”, so I think we might have an accordion in the future.
How did you meet your band?
When Million Dead were still together and not on tour I didn't want to not be on tour, so I was crewing for other bands. I was out on tour with Reuben, who are good old friends of mine, who were supported by a band called Dive Dive. Dive Dive featured a guy called Tarrant Anderson (who is now Frank’s bassist) and they are fucking amazing, and very nice people to boot. Then when Million Dead broke up, those guys had their own studio at the time in Oxford. They offered to let me use it to record some stuff, and also offered to play on it. So I went and recorded the Campfire Punkrock EP with them, and it just sort of ballooned from there. We had about a million different keyboard players, most of whom were shit, or annoying, or both. Apart from Chris TT, who was in the band for a while, which was great, but he has his own stuff to do. In the end, Nigel (Powell, Frank’s drummer) met Matt in a poker game, which sounds fucking rock and roll, ad found out that Matt was a musician and a keys player, and we trialled him out, and he was insanely good. When Matt joined the band it really felt like my shows and the band hit a totally different pitch to where they were before, and it’s really come together now. I’ll still do things in my own name, but I want the band to be kind of like the E Street Band where they are a backing band, but people know who they are. It’s important to me that people know that I play with the same people, and people know that they are a band. We’ve been trying to come up with a band name, and haven’t really succeeded. Apart from, and they are, they fucking are, joking with this one, but they like Lazer Child. So maybe, Frank Turner and Lazer Child, but I think not, somehow.
Do you prefer to headline small venues or play support slots in larger venues?
I actually don’t really care. I don’t think shows are made by made by that part, or at least that’s only a really small part of what makes a good show. For me, a good show is about atmosphere, and I’ve seen Springsteen create a good live atmosphere with sixty thousand people, and similarly I’ve seen that it’s possible to play to a huge number of people and have no atmosphere at all, and I’ve done shows where there’s been five people there and it’s been amazing. It’s something a lot less tangible than the size of the venue that you’re in.
What’s been your favourite ever performance you have played so far?
There are a few, here and there. I do so many gigs that it’s hard to pick one. The show last night in Edinburgh last night was great. One was when we were in St Louis, Missouri with Flogging Molly. We had a great tour with them generally, but there was something about that show that was just really… I don’t know, we just came on and killed it, straight away. I really felt like we owned that show, and it was a really good feeling, and the crowd seemed to agree. Everyone was coming up to us telling us it was amazing, and I just had to say, “Yeah, it was, wasn’t it”.
What inspired your newest album, considering how quickly it arrived on the tail of the previous one?
I’ve been writing quickly recently. One thing was, Jay, who is also known as Beans on Toast, is a very old friend of mine, and someone whose opinion I value enormously, about life, music and everything else. We were having a discussion one day about the song “The Ballad of Me and My Friends” (from Turner’s first album, Sleep is for the Week), and he was basically having a go about that song, saying that it was overly pessimistic and saying that he isn’t giving up. I won’t tell you how old he is, but he’s in his early thirties and he’s a club promoter and a folk singer, and he said, “I’m not planning on doing anything else with my life.” His question, essentially, was why do we have to stop living exciting, adventurous lives just because we hit a certain age? I was kind of stumped, basically. So I thought about it a lot, and that whole conversation turned into the song “Live Fast, Die Old”. That’s the first track I wrote for the album, and it really felt like it had to be the first track on the album as well. Things kind of went from there for me. Generally speaking though, I tend to write about what’s going on in my head at any moment.
You’ve been touring almost non-stop for nearly seven years – do you plan on slowing down any time soon?
Not any time immediately soon, I had three weeks off at Christmas, and it drove me out of my fucking mind. I feel like I’m going to record another album this year, and get it out next year, and do another promotional tour. After that, I feel like it might be time to do something radical like take six months off and just kind of… assess. Although, I say that, the other thing I’m thinking of doing is setting aside a year, probably 2013 off the top of my head, to be the year of the side project. I’ve had so many awesome ideas of side projects and collaborations with people, like Beardy Man. There’s also the super group. Everybody potentially involved in the super group wants to do it, but it’s a question of scheduling. It would be Ben from Million Dead on drums, Jim from At The Drive-In on bass, Jim from Jimmy Eat World on guitar and me on guitar. It came about when me and Jim and Jim were hanging out in Arizona, and having one of those conversations where everyone is agreeing with each other over a pint. We were talking about how Hot Snakes are the single best punk band that have ever lived, and we decided to form a band that sounds like Hot Snakes. We’re going to be called “Hammer Zeit”, which is German for “Hammer Time” and the album is going to be called “Halt”. It’s going to be fucking amazing, but when on earth we’re all going to find the time to do that is beyond me.
You once said in a song that “the only thing I’m offering is me” – how true do you think that is today?
I hope it’s still one hundred percent true. There’s no fiction in my songs, not because I disagree with fiction, I think it’s possible to be very artistically honest with fiction, but because I’m really rubbish at it. I feel like I write good lyrics when I tell the truth, so it’s all still pretty straight up.