In conversation with Frank Turner
British folk-punk singer/songwriter Frank Turner made a whirlwind visit through Toronto last week. He played a concert in my living room on Jan. 25 and then three more shows over the next two nights.
Some of Turner's time was also spent talking to journalists to promote Poetry Of The Deed, which was released by Epitaph Records last September. Spinner ran an article from my interview with him yesterday, but we talked about so much else that I thought I'd post our entire conversation.
It's long, so I won't waste any more of your time with this introduction.
But if you'd like to turn this into a drinking game, down a shot every time Turner utters a derivation of the word "fuck." You'll likely be loaded before you make it to the end.
Here's our Q&A session:
Steve McLean: You're playing your first few North American dates solo before getting a full band for your stint opening for Flogging Molly. Will you have your British band or will you be picking up players here like when I saw you in Austin last year?
Frank Turner: I always like that you had Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band or Neil Young and Crazy Horse. I want my backing band to be a set group of people so the people who are into my stuff are going to know their names and know who they are. I don't want to have a bunch of sessionistas. The English band played on the last record and they're my friends and they're consummate musicians — much better than I am. This will be the first time that I'll be able to bring them to this side of the Atlantic, and I'm really excited about that. As much as I enjoy playing solo and that is the core of what I do, and will remain the core of what I do, I feel we're going to turn some heads on the Flogging Molly tour because no-one here has seen it before.
Do you have a preference in playing solo or with a band?
It generally depends on what I've been doing more of recently. I think both of them have their own thing. Right now when I'm doing a band show, it realizes the kind of sound I'm trying to make most fully at the moment. The first show I did this year was in Kingston in south London. We made a very cheap ticket price and it was crazy and we sold 1,000 tickets in a week. I played solo on a tiny stage and there were people around, above and behind me. The vibe was just amazing.
You performed in my living room last night. Do you do many shows like that, and why do you do them?
The reason that I'm a lucky and privileged person is that I get to travel the world and I don't have a desk job. But much more important than that is that there's nothing I enjoy more than playing guitar and singing. It's my favourite thing to do in the whole world. As a corollary to that, I really enjoy entertaining a crowd. It's a really fulfilling thing. I don't care if it's for five people or 5,000 people. I've been working with the Epitaph guys for under a year and I'm still convincing them that I'm serious when I say stuff like "Any after-shows or house parties, I'm in."
We have this thing about the number of days I do in a row while I'm on tour. On the Flogging Molly tour, we've been filling in all the off-days and we've reached a stretch now where there are 21 shows in a row. I'd just be sitting around playing guitar on an off-day anyway, so I might as well do it for some people. It's simple for me. I just love playing. If it's at someone's house where they want to hear my play, I'm in. It's all just playing.
Do you think your profile is growing in North America, and is it reflected in record sales and concert attendance?
In the U.K., things are pretty well established for me now because I've been touring there a lot more. Mainland Europe generally falls in behind what the U.K.'s doing, so things are going pretty well in Europe right now.
North America is a thing unto itself. I feel like there's more work to do here. I did plenty of hand to mouth American tours where I'd play to 20 people in a bar every night. Now I have an L.A. show next week that's sold-out. That's a big fucking difference right there. I want to move it to somewhere bigger because loads of people are e-mailing me. But from a promotional point of view, it's good to be turning people away. And we're doing Coachella now. And the fill shows we're doing on the Flogging Molly tour are 200 or 300 capacity venues, and it looks like we'll be getting good crowds. Things are definitely moving in the right direction.
I don't know if people recognize this over here, but there's this almost terminal obsession in the U.K. music industry with breaking America. They talk about it like it's a black and white thing, as in if you don't go over there and become as big as The Beatles then you might as well not bother going at all. And I'm all, "What the fuck are you talking about?" If I reach a point in my life if my career in North America plateaus out and I'm playing to 200 or 300 people a night, that's amazing. That's fucking great. I'm thousands of miles away from home and 300 people want to hear me play. If it goes further than that, that's brilliant and I'm not going to complain about that. But there's this funny thing in England where you're either fucking interstellarly huge or you're nothing. But you can sort of be medium. I have no problem with being medium.
You posted on your Twitter and you mentioned last night that you've been working on new songs. How are they coming along?
I've got a ton of ideas coming at the moment. I'm quite strict at trying not to be meta-analytical about my songwriting. I try not to sit there and think about what direction I'm going to go in because that feels really contrived to me. I just try to sit down and write a good song. I do my best to try and not put any other angles on that because then it seems like you're forcing it. Having said that, when the next album is starting to coalesce, you can't help but think about what it's going to be like.
Without going into details, I'm recently single again and not in a particularly nice way, and that obviously sets me hurtling down a slightly different path songwriting-wise.
Directionally speaking, my one kind of caveat about the Poetry Of The Deed album is that I think I got a bit over-excited about the fact that I had a band in the studio. I think it's a tiny bit too much of a band record for me. I think it could have done with a little bit more solo stuff on it. Something I'm planning on doing next week is sitting down and making sure I have guitar and vocals done for every song. There are a couple of songs on Poetry Of The Deed that I can't really play without a band, and I feel a bit funny about that retrospectively. It feels like I've broken my own golden rule.
But I'm really excited about some of the new stuff I've got coming up. I think that the first three records fit together in a way, and it's not like I'm going to make a completely left-hand turn and go crazy, but I want to be a bit more experimental lyrically. I've been listening to a lot of Nick Cave. At the risk of doing a Nick Cave-slash-Dylan or whatever, I've been writing about religion quite a bit recently. I'm an atheist, but I come from a very religious family and I find the whole thing fascinating. So we'll see what happens.
Do you have a life philosophy that makes its way into your songs?
I wouldn't have anything so coherent that I could write it down and publish it, but my guiding lights in life are still things I have from growing up with punk rock. I believe in self-reliance and independence and individuality. To a large degree, you make your own luck in life and that through hard work and self-belief you can achieve a lot.
I've always loved the introductory quote from Get In The Van by Henry Rollins where he says, "I'm a man of average intelligence. If I've achieved the things that I've achieved through hard work, imagine what you can do."
I actually had that stuck on my wall for a little while because it's such an inspirational quote. That's my general take on things. Life is short and there's lots to do, so keep busy.
I have so much planned for the next year. There's a live DVD coming out in March, which has got two full shows from London as well as videos and tour diaries. I'm going to be touring all over the world for the rest of the year, and then hopefully in early 2011 I'm going to put out two albums at the same time. One will be the next record, but I'm also going to do a record of traditional English songs. Someone has also asked me to write a book, which I've started working on as well.
What's the book about?
By the end of this year, I'm probably going to be up to 1,000 shows. The idea is to go through those and pick 100 shows and I'm going to write them us as diary entries. I'll pick shows that have an anecdote with them or have a point, so it's not going to be just a straight tour diary. That seemed like a cool premise to write something that wasn't going to be as pretentious as writing an autobiography when I'm 28. It's one of those things where at first it seems daunting and then you say "I can do this," and then you realize that it's an absolute fucking ton of work. That's something that's going to take over for a while.
Is the live DVD coming out through Epitaph as well?
It's coming out through Xtra Mile and I'm not sure if Epitaph is going to fully license it for the states, but they have an online store that they sell shit through, and I think we're going to give them a bunch of copies.
One of the shows on the DVD was at Shepherd's Bush Empire in October, which is thus far the biggest headlining show I've done. It's this amazing venue that holds 2,000 people and, if I may say so myself, it was the show of a fucking lifetime. It was right at the end of a tour, it was a full band show and everyone was so fuckin' tight. The crowd was awesome and everything went like clockwork.
The other show was at Christmas last year at a venue called Union Chapel, which is actually a church that holds about 900 people. We did kind of an unplugged show, so it was with the band but my drummer was using brushes and percussion and my other guitarist was on acoustic and mandolin and we worked up alternative versions of songs and dug out songs that we hadn't done for a long time, and one or two that I'd never played live before. There's a song called "Hold Your Tongue" from The First Three Years that I've totally rediscovered because we recorded it and never played it live. I think it's a really nice DVD package that has a lot of shit on it.
Do you try to find a balance between personal and socio-political, and now maybe religious, songs?
I'm not settled in myself about either my opinions or my relationship with politics as an artist. I never wanted to be a protest singer and I don't consider myself to be one. But it's funny how in putting out three records, each of which has one political song on it, that there are still plenty of people who see me as a protest singer. Imagine if I actually did write protest songs.
The other part of it that I find quite challenging are the assumptions that people make about my politics based on I'm a white kid with a guitar who sounds a bit like Billy Bragg in places. I oscillate between being hugely entertained by them and utterly dismayed by them. Basically people think that I'm a socialist. But I'm not and I never was. In fact I couldn't be any further away from that.
I describe myself as a libertarian. I believe in resisting tyrannical governments, and I think that almost all government is tyrannical by definition. That's where I fall, for what it's worth. The music industry as a whole is sort of a soft left place, and that's fine. But I suddenly realized that I was not saying what I believed in and I kept changing the subject about politics, largely because I just couldn't be fuckin' bothered to have the discussion. But there are a lot of people I know who get slightly offended when I tell them that I think socialism is insanity and slavery.
And then I realized that all of us, myself included, go on and on and on about how we should stand up for what we believe in, and here's me doing the opposite of that. I thought if I have any fucking moral fibre as a human being, I need to write fuckin' songs about this and sing them. "Sons Of Liberty" is sort of down that line, but I want to be a little more explicit about it.
So there's this new song I've finished about Che Guevara T-shirts that I think is going to annoy a lot of people. The guy was a murderous, homophobic thug. What's to be idolized about that? He took great pleasure in shooting people who disagreed with him. I don't care what your political spots are, that makes you a twat.
Do you attribute your way with words, knowledge of history and social awareness more to your formal education or other factors?
I really enjoyed my formal education and I think that academia is where I'm going the minute that I'm not able to make a living out of playing music anymore. History was my subject and I'm very passionate about it and interested in it. I think that history is vastly important. I don't really understand that I have friends who know nothing about history and don't care. I can't understand how they can just exist at all without being inquisitive about it. History explains why we're here and why things are the way they are. How can you not care about that?
So you're an advocate of higher education.
Yeah, but I'm really kind of old-school about it. Languages, science, philosophy, maths, history and stuff like that are good. But I have friends who do degrees in hotel management. That's not a fuckin' degree. That's a skill, which is fine, but it's not a degree. It's a different thing. Particularly in the U.K., there's been a lot of confusion between the polytechnics which teach skills and universities. Basically, I'm in favour of utterly useless knowledge. I want people to go to university and learn nothing that will help them in life. I went to university and I got very fucked off with people in my class who were waiting out their time so they could get a stamp on their CV so they could get a high-paying job. Fuck you. Go and do a business management course or an economics degree.
Are there any songs that you're particularly proud of that you'd like to talk about?
Yes, but it's difficult because it's kind of like having children that you're supposed to equally love. But there are one or two that sort of rise above for me. "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous" said a number of things that I wanted to say as well as I'll ever say them. I was also very pleased with "Journey Of The Magi," because that was lyrically a slight departure and I was a bit nervous about trying my hand with it. But I felt that it came out okay.
I have this new song that I'm working on about Bob Dylan and Patty Hurst standing around on a pirate ship. I'm really, really fucking pleased with how that one's coming.
Old-school pirate ship or new-school Somali pirate ship?
It doesn't really specify. It's about a lot of things, but that's one of the images in it. I figured that those two would make a cool couple sailing around the world and robbing people.
I remember you telling me last year about how everything came together with Epitaph. Can you share that again?
I was on tour with Gaslight Anthem in Europe and I was having a shitty day. You know when you're in one of those moods where you're like the next person who calls me is going to get a fuckin' ear full. It doesn't matter if it's the fuckin' Pope. Then my phone rang and had an unknown American number and I was like, "Who the fuck is this?"
I answered the phone and it was Brett (Gurewitz). I grew up with Bad Religion and Epitaph Records, and it was really funny because he started telling me who he was and I said, "I fucking know who you are."
He said "My name's Brett and I play in a band and I run this little record label," and I was like, "I know."
He was cool and straight-up and said, "I really like your stuff and I'd like you to be on my label."
And I said, "Cool."
We were talking to a lot of other labels at the time, and I did actually hang up the phone on a very, very big major label deal that was worth a lot of money. That was difficult. I'm not particularly morally opposed to major labels. I think that's a false dichotomy.
But my one major condition was that I wasn't going to leave Xtra Mile Recordings in the U.K. because they're like family. Million Dead did records for Xtra Mile as well, and when we broke up and I announced to the world that I was going to do folk stuff, everybody apart from two people just said, "Good luck with that and call us back in six months when you're back in hardcore bands."
One of them was a guy who does a punk show on Radio One called Mike Davies. He said "I get it. I totally fucking get it."
And then there were the guys at Xtra Mile. I don't think they were quite as enthusiastic about it as Mike was, but eventually they said, "Let's see where this goes."
I didn't want to ditch them, and all of these labels that offered big money said they wanted to sign me for the world. And I was like, "Hello. You're not listening to me."
And in that very first conversation with Brett, he was like, "What are you looking for in a deal?"
I told him he could have rights to the whole world outside of the U.K., and he was like, "Cool, that's fine."
It was ridiculously easy. It was about six weeks after that that we signed a deal, which is very fucking fast. It's been great since then and I'm pleased with the way it all worked out.
What was the impetus to make you leave a punk band and embark on a solo career?
There were a lot of different reasons at the time. Part of it was getting older and developing a changing taste in music. I'd started to get heavily into country and folk in the last few years of Million Dead's existence.
The other major factor was that Million Dead was a really, really intense band. We were like willfully intense. We used to beat each other up verbally. We had to be a cross between Black Flag and Refused. Every show had to be the greatest hardcore show ever. I remember Tom, our guitarist, at one show where our bass player missed a note and he walked right over to her and got right in her face and yelled "Fuck you" in front of 500 people.
The whole atmosphere around that was just really fucking intense. I think we were a pretty good band. We made some good records and I think we put on some good shows.
The band nearly broke up over the cover artwork of our first album. It literally got into a fist fight. One of the guys was like, "If you put that fuckin' photo on the cover of the album, I'm out of this fucking band."
When the band broke up, I was like, "I am fucking through with being in bands."
I wanted to keep making music and touring, but I didn't want anything fucking resembling what I'd been through. The farewell tour we did was utterly out of control because I started doing quite a lot of drugs — mainly to piss everyone off because they were all very anti-drugs. So I was like, "Okay, motherfuckers, let's see where this goes."
That last tour was unhinged, but we played the best we'd ever fuckin' played and the crowds were great. But after the show in the dressing room, two members of the band would be punching each other, someone else would be doing massive amounts of cocaine, and somebody else would just be crying. It was just fucking mad. At the time, we all kind of took it in our stride. But looking back at it now, I'm like, "Jesus Christ."
But I didn't want anything at all to do with that, and going out and playing songs on my own made a lot of sense. Even I wasn't sure if I was going to do it forever when I first started doing it, but it very quickly felt like I'd hit my stride.
Being in a band like Million Dead was kind of like we were so bent on making every song so fucking weird and complicated and odd and intense and unhinged and uneasy. To go from that to just going, "G, C, D" was relaxed and I could have fun with it.
Do you consider yourself a punk, a folkie or do you try to distance yourself from such labels?
It's funny that I somehow in life ended up with the two most contentious words in the genre dictionary. I must be some sort of masochist. But I grew up in punk and it will always be the bedrock of what I do. But I've been known to describe what I do as folk because I want it to be considered community music. But at the end of the day, descriptions only exist until you actually hear the band you're talking about.
If I had to pick a word to describe myself, I'd say I'm an entertainer. I'm really adamant that I don't think that anybody can describe themselves as artists. I think that's illegitimate. It's not for you to say about yourself. Other people can tag you as an artist, particularly after you're dead, but my day-to-day job is entertainment. Hand in hand with that statement is the fact that loads of people are disparaging about that word and that concept, which I think is bullshit. What could be a nobler profession than to be an entertainer?
What could be a more fucking wonderful job to have than when people get to the end of their busy week and come down to your show and pay a cover charge to get in and you make sure that they have a good fuckin' time. In saying so, that puts me into the same ballpark as everyone from actors to vaudeville. I like that association. When people come to my shows, it's like if they don't walk away having a good time after I've played, then I'm not doing my job properly.
I get really fucked off the way that Dylan now just seems to be trying to irritate the shit out of everybody at 100 pounds a ticket. If it was a free show, maybe. But fuck you, I've paid a ton of fuckin' money. I saw him and he sat behind the drummer and played piano all night. I was like, "Don't be a cunt. Get up and play some fucking guitar."
The whole self-conscious artist thing just fucking gets my back up.
Campfire Punkrock was the title of your first EP. I think it's a good, succinct description of your music.
I stole that off a guy. I was in Dundee and I'd just finished playing a show and I was outside having a cigarette, because I was smoking at the time, and this catatonically drunk Scottish guy walked up and said, "Ah, you're fucking campfire punk rock you are, you bastard," and then walked off.
I was like, "Thank you very much," and took out my notepad and wrote it down.
In the sleeve for the EP, it says "Thanks to the drunk guy in Dundee who gave me the title for the EP." You have to take your inspiration where you can get it.
Is there anything we haven't touched on that you'd like to talk about?
My ideal kind of night is kind of chaotic, careening around the place, old friends making new friends, playing songs and drinking a lot of whiskey. That's me in my happy place.
It's nice to be in Toronto. As I was saying last night, it was kind of surreal. The first show I played here was in an amphitheatre and the second one was in your house. It's nice that we have this show here (Horseshoe Tavern) tonight. It's like a leveling out.
I've been reading a Neil Young biography and it has a lot to say about the Toronto music scene. We walked past Massey Hall yesterday, and I was excited by that. A lot of people have good things to say about the Canadian music scene and I've always been well-treated in Canada. It's nice to be here and hopefully I'll be back soon.