Interview: Frank Turner

Dillion Eastoe speaks to Frank Turner ahead of the first night of his arena tour at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena.

Tonight is the first show of the tour, how are you going to translate the live show from the smaller venues you’re used to, to playing in an arena setting?

Frank: It’s a question I spend a lot of time thinking about actually. The reason we’re doing these venues is because I want everybody to be able to buy a ticket if they want to. You know, it’s like we could do a smaller place, sell it out, and then lots of people are excluded, loads of people start touting tickets, which I hate. So, yeah, bigger place but to be blunt it’s easier to put on a good show in a smaller venue, because you’re right there, or to put on an intimate show. It’s not impossible to do in a bigger place, we’ve had a bit of practice here and there, doing the Wembley show and we’ve done support at venues like this a number of times. But it takes a bit of thought and effort, we’ve been- I mean I should not take any credit for most of this, my band and crew have been incredible and we’ve put a show together and hopefully it’s going to retain a sense of intimacy, personality, connection and all the rest of it. I mean, haven’t done the show yet so we’ll have to see how it goes tonight! But yeah we’ve been in preproduction rehearsals for a few days, and I’m excited about it, I think it’s going to be good.

No pyro then?

Frank: No pyro no, to be honest with you mainly because it’s too expensive. Umm I mean at the end of the day, I don’t want to harp on about this too much but I’m proud of the ticket price on this tour. It’s roughly a third of what other gigs at this sort of venue would cost, I research this kind of shit. And for me, you know, that’s the thing, I don’t want to suddenly become an artist who charges £60 quid to go and see a show, because it’s rubbish. But, the flipside of that is that it means we can’t generally afford pyro and wireless and stuff like that because there’s less money in the pot. But still-

You don’t really need it?

Frank:  Yeah, that’s the thing, I totally agree. You know, you go and see- I remember going to see-  I should preface this by saying I am a Coldplay fan and I don’t care who knows it. But you see a Coldplay show and there’s lots of kind of bells and whistles and tricks and sort of lights and costume changes and all of that. And that’s fair enough, but then you go and see Springsteen and the E Street Band and there’s nothing, it’s just a bunch of people on stage playing music for a few hours and you know, I find that quite inspirational, do you know what I mean? You need to muck about, you just play good songs.

You’ve played over 1000 shows since going solo. How do you balance life on tour with life off the road?

Umm, I mean, well, that’s a question that’s become a bit more relevant to me lately. For a very long time there wasn’t really a question of balance, all I did was- I was on tour, I didn’t have my own gaff and I just kind of was on the road and if I wasn’t on the road I would be in the studio or kind of just travelling around visiting friends kind of thing and umm and on that level it wasn’t even something I really had to adjust to or whatever it was just kind of my normal mode of existence. Umm, in recent years I have got my own place again now, which is a bit weird. We just had 5 weeks off the road and I woke up in the same place every day for 5 weeks, which really started freaking me out after a while. But umm, but I mean you know, it’s funny, I think that I don’t wanna- I’ve got no plans on stopping touring, but there was definitely a moment in my life where there was an element of bravado involved in my tour schedule, “I can tour harder than everybody, I can stay on tour forever!”. And now, it’s not like I’m old particularly, but there’s a difference between being 32 and 22, and now I’m a bit just kind of like, I’m really sure who is impressed by it other than me, do you know what I mean? And it’s just like, umm, I’m quite comfortable with the idea now that we’re gonna do- this tours like 9 days, then I’m gonna go home for 3 days, then we’re gonna on tour for 3 weeks, then I’m gonna go home for 3 days, then we’re go off and- you know, it doesn’t have to be this utterly masochistic brutal kind of death march, do you know what I mean?  Umm so yeah, maybe that’s me getting long in the tooth there.

If you look at the 90s, the 80s, the 70s, you’ve got Springsteen, you’ve got Nirvana, who are like cultural icons. Who could you see from the 21st Century filling that role? Or do you think the time for that has been and gone?

Frank: Umm I think that, I would argue that in some ways the time for that is gone, in a good way. The thing about it- ‘cause it’s about democratization. The music industry pre-internet was a very monolithic place. Like if you look at Nirvana, I love Nirvana don’t get me wrong, but like, the way that Nirvana broke in the UK, you get on the bill at a couple of festivals, you get one radio station behind you and one magazine and you’re the biggest band in the country. And that’s it, you’ve done it, and if you don’t get those then you’re not, and that’s just it, you know? And it’s very, kind of pretty close shot, do you know what I mean? And umm, what I like about the internet is that I think the days in which- ‘cause that was it, Nirvana arrived and everyone was into Nirvana because they were everywhere, and I just don’t think that can really happen anymore, because people go and find the music they like and  it’s very kind of- yeah it’s decentralized and it’s democratised, and I think that’s a good thing actually, because there’s something slightly kind of authoritarian about this idea that just the music industry decides “This band is the band everybody’s into now!”, and I think there’s something a bit crap about that. Umm so I doubt they will be quite on the same level, d’you know what I mean?

When you first picked up a guitar, what was the first song you learnt to play? Or was there a particular album that moved you to pick up a guitar?

Frank: [laughs] Ahh well, yeah- that’s two separate questions really. The first band I fell in love with, and who remain one of my favourite bands is Iron Maiden, and they were the band that got me into music, and I love them. I’ve actually just got a massive Iron Maiden tattoo done on my leg! [Frank eagerly pulls up his trouser leg to show me. He’s right, it is massive.]  You know, love ‘em! But from them I sort of got into you know Metallica, and then Pantera and then….. I shudder to say this out loud but Guns ‘N’ Roses, a band who I now despise. But umm, at the time the first song I ever played on guitar was ‘Knocking On Heavens Door’, which is obviously a Bob Dylan song, but I thought it was by Guns ‘N’ Roses. In my defence I was 11 years old, so, you know…

But it was Bob Dylan so it’s fine

Frank: That’s the thing, I should have just lied at this point and just tell people “yeah, I learnt a Bob Dylan song”. But umm, the truth is I thought it was Guns’N’Roses.

Listening to your album ‘England Keep My Bones’, from the title through to the lyrics it’s really unashamed in how fond you are of England. Was this a response to a lot of bands that rave about ‘the American Dream’ , or did the themes of the record come organically?

Frank: Umm,  a little bit of both. I mean, I’ve certainly- you know a song I found very inspirational, the first punk band I fell in love with was the Clash and I still adore the Clash and my favourite- the first song of theirs that really grabbed me was “I’m so bored of the USA”, and it’s like- I love America, I adore America, I love the culture, I love the bands, I love the music, I love touring there. The bottom line is, I’m not American, and…my cultural references are not generally American, and I don’t want to make music that sounds like it’s American, and I feel like some bands do, and I think there’s something slightly dishonest about that. It’s important to state that I’m not – a lot of people listen to that record and consider me to be like a patriot or even like a nationalist in some way. So – no I’m definitely not. I mean there’s many things about being English that…. fuck me off as there are that I like, and at the end of the day it’s all just a geographic and genetic accident where you happen to be born anyway and there’s nothing special about it. Umm, but, you know, I am- I mean England, Englishness is the culture that I grew up in, and I’m sort of interested in how that interacts with my personality I guess. And so somewhere in the middle of all that…. I guess the other thing as well is that I kept kind of sort of mentioning it in songs and I thought it’d be a good idea to get it all out of my system in one go. And that’s- it’s funny like with ‘Tape Deck Heart’ [Frank’s most recent album] lots of people were kind of “ahh, urgh, there’s no songs about England on it?”, and I go-

I was just about to ask, how does that contrast to themes on ‘Tape Deck Heart’?

Frank: It’s a different record and that’s the point. Do you know what I mean? And like people go [Frank adopts a stuttering snivelling voice] “There’s no- there’s nothing about England on it!” And I go “Yeah I know-“

Just listen to the other one!

Frank: Yeah, totally, it amazes me sometimes how conservative music fans can be. ‘Cause every single time I’ve released a new album, there’s always a couple of people somewhere who say something along the line of essentially “IT’S NOT THE SAME AS IT WAS BEFORE!! Why isn’t it the same as it was before?!”. To which I go “I’m trying to make it different! That’s what art’s about.” …you dickhead, umm. You know so, I mean in many ways it was quite liberating to write ‘Tape Deck Heart’ ‘cause I felt like I didn’t have to say anything about England anymore and that was quite nice. And the next record I write won’t be about anything to do with tape decks or broken hearts. And we’ll move on and I’m sure right now, out there in the world there is somebody who is kind of warming up their fingers to send an email going [Frank puts on a voice more reminiscent of a Noel Fielding character this time] “It’s not about broken hearts.” And uh, it’ll just be like, God damn it… you can’t win [laughs].

In the past few months you’ve had quite a lot of exposure on TV, firstly winning Celebrity Mastermind, then last week playing on Newsnight [in tribute to the late, great Pete Seeger]. How satisfying is it to be able to appear on shows that are slightly more sophisticated rather than normal talent show performances you see from a lot of mainstream acts?

Frank: Uh, it’s nice. I mean- umm…. Mastermind was a really cool thing for me, ‘cause when I was a kid I was a total geek. And me and my geeky friends used to talk about Mastermind. And all of them have gone off and become like… umm, I mean I’ve got a friend who works at NASA, and you know, sort of university lecturers and shit like this… and I’m the one who went off and got tattoos and got drunk and joined a band. And I’m the one who won Mastermind damn it! You know, and that made me feel pretty good. Umm, and the Newsnight thing was a bit weird, it was slightly random. But stuff like that’s great because it’s- it’s within my mum’s field of reference, so she kind of thinks that I’ve actually got a job which is- ‘Cause my mum doesn’t know what like Hammersmith is, you know or Wembley, she doesn’t give a shit. And then she sees me on Newsnight and goes “Oh right, yeah ok, you’re doing alright. That’s my boy that is.”  That kind of thing. So yeah it is cool. I don’t know it’s not- at the same time, and this is true of an awful lot of things that I do in my career right now, the only thing I really care about is music, right? And trying to write good songs, make good records and play good shows. Something like Celebrity Mastermind, yeah, of course I’m going to do it, because it’s fun, but it’s all done with a pinch of salt, and if it didn’t happen I wouldn’t give two shits. But umm, it’s funny ‘cause occasionally people go “ah no, you’re a sell-out appearing on Mastermind”,  and it’s just like, for fucks sake. If I hadn’t been doing it that day I would have been probably just like watching TV, in my house…

Watching the same show…

Frank: Yeah, right, exactly. And it’s kind of like what’s to lose? It’s just fun you know, just god damn it get over yourself.  [laughs] Sorry, I’m sounding too defensive now.

Carrying on from that, if you were asked to go on X-factor and play a song, would you do that?

Frank: No, I don’t think I would. ‘Cause that’s a slightly different thing, ‘cause that’s to do with music. Mastermind is a non-musical thing and whatever, as indeed is Newsnight. X-factor… I’m not one of these people who spends their every waking hour getting angry about Simon Cowell’s existence, because I think it’s a waste of energy ‘cause it’s not going to affect Simon Cowell in any way. And in many ways what I’d like to do is draw a firm line between his world and my world, because what’s frustrating is people both use the same terminology: ‘music’, ‘records’, ‘artists’, that kind of thing, to describe both, and I view them as being pretty fundamentally different. And as long as you can make sure that line exists good luck to you, do you know what I mean? One Direction? Carry on, I don’t care, you know, have fun. But for that reason, that’s I wouldn’t want to kind of cross that line. You know as long as that divide exists then I’m perfectly happy for everybody to live and let live.

Last year when you were on tour in America you received your first ever religious picket (other recipients of this behaviour include Foo Fighters and Bon Jovi, amongst many others). Where does that rank in the most surreal moments of your career?

Frank: Ah, that was such a great day. Umm, I mean you know, it was two guys and apparently they do it for quite a lot of the bands who play there. But it was a special moment, you know? When you’re a kid you sort of watch- I mean, you know Iron Maiden got picketed in the states, and Marilyn Manson, stuff like that…

It’s a sort of validation?

Frank: Yeah! It’s a rite of passage! And it was so lovely, ‘cause we were all in the venue, just hanging out and Nigel who plays the drums kind of came in and went “Umm, there is a religious picket” and first time I was like “Oh bollocks is there”, then it was like no there really is! And so we went running outside and I got my photo taken with the guy which was lovely, he had no idea who I was which I thought was even funnier. But it was a- yeah a fucking hilarious thing.

Has anything weirder than that happened to you?

Frank: Yeah [laughs], some very strange things. I mean being on tour is a strange mode of existence full stop, which is one of the reasons that I like it is that lots of odd things happen all the time, sometimes good sometimes bad, you know what I mean? It’s funny, occasionally people go “What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you on tour?” and I go- I mean where do you wanna start, do you know what I mean? Umm, but yeah, people are a strange bunch, human beings, I’ve had some very strange requests made of me, and people have given me odd things and done odd things… but yeah, let’s not talk too much about these.

When you made the switch from your heavier early work with Million Dead to your more acoustic songs, did you get much support from the friends you’d made in the hardcore scene, or was it starting again in a sense?

Frank: Umm, yes and no. I kind of don’t want to overplay it too much in either direction, and nostalgia is a funny thing because it- I try quite hard not to be rose-tinted looking back at things. In some ways I wanna go “No one cared!” you know? And certainly there was a moment when the last Million Dead show in London had 800 people at it and the first solo show I did in London had 3 people at it, and that was a bit of a kick in the teeth. But I got an awful lot of gigs in the early days from promoters who knew who I was ‘cause I’d been in Million Dead and I got the support on that level. And also Xtra Mile Recordings have been involved with Million Dead and they were supportive so, and I don’t want to kind of do that down. But there definitely was a lot of people that said to me “you’re mental.” And I don’t want to kind of claim to be a trailblazer particularly but there was definitely- it’s a bit more of a thing now to go from playing heavy music to playing acoustic stuff, a lot more people have done it. And it was, a lot more people thought I’d kind of had some kind of psychotic episode at the time, do you know what I mean? But it’s weird ‘cause at the time I definitely thought I knew what I was doing, and everyone else thought I was mental. And now everybody looks back at it and thinks I must have known what I was doing and I think I was mental. Because it just kind of….- with hindsight it seems quite a strange series of decisions that I made, but you know, it’s kind of worked out so…

Yeah, you’re doing alright…

Frank: [laughs] Yeah, exactly, I’m not complaining about it.

So with your side project Mongol Horde, you went back to a heavier style of music, was it easy to slide back into that?

Frank: Yeah, from a sort of musical point of view because I still listen to quite a lot of heavy music. Umm, I was quite pleased in the very first rehearsal we ever had that I’ve still got my yell, know what I mean? It was like, I hadn’t done it for years and it was like “Can I still do this?”  and I kind of went [Frank does a low volume imitation of his scream] and “oh yeah, I can”, so that’s nice. Umm, yeah I mean Mongol Horde’s loads of fun, we’ve almost finished an album, it’s gonna come out soon and we’re gonna tour this summer hopefully, I’m not gonna swear to that just yet because it depends on a bunch of other stuff. But yeah, I love Mongol Horde, it’s a lot of fun. One of the things I like about it, and- this is now getting slightly musicologist about heavy music but I- for me, I’ve listened to a lot of heavy music in my time you know, metal, hardcore, death metal, black metal, grindcore, all that kind of thing. The dividing line for me has always been about a sense of humour. The reason I was never that into like Emperor, and Bathory and stuff like that is because it takes itself too seriously, whereas Pantera, who are for me one of the fucking greatest bands of all time could always definitely laugh at themselves. Obviously there’s moments of extreme intensity in there, but you know there was a kind of sense of humour about it. And Mongol Horde, I’m not trying to say we’re a comedy band and we’re not a serious band but there’s definitely a lot of kind of tongue in cheek stuff there, and I love it. Incidentally I think that’s one of the things that for me set Million Dead apart from quite a lot of our contemporaries is again there was quite a lot of humour in it, and it’s funny to me how a lot of people don’t get that. So there’s a line on a Million Dead song- there’s a song that starts with “The leg bone’s connected to the hip bone” and you know, it goes on to be a song about export processing zones as it goes. But I remember one review for the album that was just so fucking angry about that and it was just like [Frank feigns the reviewers angry mumblings] wow! You know? It was just kind of tongue in cheek, get over it, it’s like “these are the worst lyrics I’ve read in my life!” to which I think, man, wait ‘til you hear the Mongol Horde record, there’s some fucking crazy shit on there.. [At this point Frank’s press manager opens the door and signals to Frank to wind it up. We’ve been talking for far longer than the allocated ten minutes.]

Okay, one more question.

You’re an artist who’s toured and recorded with a really fierce work ethic to get to where you are playing arenas. How important would you say it is for the public to support up and coming musicians by buying records, going to show to keep music alive?

Frank: Umm, well…. It depends what the general public are into, I mean you know, one thing I’m always quite careful to think about is that…  I’m not entitled to anything in life, I’m not- no one has any obligation to like my music or  buy my records, come to my shows, I have to make music that’s worth listening to, you know? And on the flipside you know, if you like music, particularly underground music then you have to contribute to it you know, in some ways. And that’s been- the business model of the music industry has been derailed… or upended by the internet. I don’t really care about business models very much so… so what? Do you know what I mean, as long as music’s still getting made, but the important point, and this to me is the only thing that really matters in the whole ‘illegal downloading, internet blah blah blah’, is that if you want music to exist as a functioning economy then you have to contribute to it. And the thing that bothers me is that I have young cousins who are like 13 who don’t understand why they should ever financially contribute to the music that they like. And it’s like, THAT’S the problem, do you know what I mean? ‘Cause at the end of the day, being in a band costs money, and I’m not talking about making millions of pounds, ‘cause I don’t make millions of pounds, so it’s hilarious, everybody thinks I must be a millionaire and it’s just kind of like “Errm, no actually?” But umm, you know it’s…-you have to contribute if you want music to exist, and I think that’s the important message to get across. And how- and it’s our responsibility at the other end as people making the music to present just and fair and equitable ways for people to contribute, which means making records that are worth buying, putting on shows that are worth going to, you know, making merch that’s affordable but also cool, whatever. However it is that you do it, you know, enabling people to engage with it economically. But yeah, there has to be some kind of give and take. Put it this way, ALL my friends in bands try and give me free copies of their albums when they make them, and I always make a point of buying them when they come out.

There we go [Frank laughs and claps his hands] What a place to end! Thanks!

Thank you very much!


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