Frank Turner has risen to prominence since the break-up of Million Dead in 2005, releasing three solo albums and somehow managing to successfully merge both folk and punk into his music. We caught up with him backstage prior to his sold-out gig at Rock City on 18th November to talk music, illegal downloads, tattoos and much more…
Firstly, your new album ‘Poetry of the Deed’ was released last month. Could you tell us a bit about the album?
Frank Turner: Well, it was a big change for me, as on previous records I was playing by myself. This time around I worked with a band and I’d say it’s a bigger sound, which is what we were aiming for. I’ve been working with Alex Newport, who is an amazing producer but it was a lot of work to get the album done. We recorded it in just three weeks in both the UK and America, which was pretty intense!
You’re currently on a UK tour in support of the album. How’s that going so far?
FT: Mental… Not in a bad way! But I’m out of my comfort zone despite touring for years, as I’ve never headlined venues this size before. Today is actually going to be the biggest, 1900 tickets have sold for tonight and I’m a big Rock City fan.
Before going solo in 2005, you were in the band ‘Million Dead’. How does touring solo compare to being with the band?
FT: Well for a start I don’t want to kill everybody on my tour all the time! *laughs* With Million Dead, It was a lot of fun and I think we were a good band but we were never gonna last. On principle we were very democratic as a band, which I think was the right decision but meant that literally we’d get into screaming fights over, like, a drum fill.
Right now I feel like I’ve got the best of all worlds; on the one hand I’ve got a regular band and we’ve got the camaraderie of the whole band thing. But at the same time I have dictatorial control! Well I say that, but maybe power of veto would be a better way of putting it, as the guys in my band are all phenomenal musicians, far better than me! So everyone puts their suggestions in and there is a degree of collectivity to it.
Where are you most looking forward to playing on the tour?
FT: I’m kind of 50% from London and 50% from Winchester, but London headline shows are always great. I can’t wait for Shepherd’s Bush; I mean, it really blows my mind. Me and Jay (from Beans On Toast, supporting Frank Turner on tour) used to make jokes about playing Shepherd’s Bush – he even wrote a song about how me and him were always going to be playing pubs whilst our friends would play at Shepherd’s Bush!
I saw you play at Leeds this year on the NME/Radio 1 stage, did you enjoy that and how does it compare to Reading?
FT: That was great, Reading is kind of my festival, I always used to go when I was kid and Leeds is a very different atmosphere I think. It was probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever performed to, not including as a support act. Although I must say it was a challenge coming on after Lethal Bizzle, who was amazing!
You’ve supported The Offspring, who are a pretty massive band, how was that and how did your sound go down with their crowd?
FT: The Offspring was surreal, I grew up listening to them so to tour with them was a bit weird! It was arena shows, so like 5,000-10,000 people per show and then little old me with my acoustic guitar. The other support act was fucking Sum 41, so got a bit nervous and ended up convinced I was going to get eaten alive by the crowds. But it actually went great; the shows went well and the crowds generally really welcoming.
And of course you’ve gained quite a following in the States over the years, how does that compare to the UK?
FT: Yeah it’s really kicking off. I’ve signed with Epitaph Records which is amazing because when I was a kid, Epitaph were just like the label and through it I’ve met a tonne of my heroes which is crazy.
Do their gigs differ much from ours?
FT: You know, the actual shows are not massively different but obviously the geography is just vast. I did a tour last year where we went from LA, California to Tallahassee, Florida in three weeks. Take Wyoming, why?! We once drove for 10 hours straight through Wyoming without seeing a single building, and then left the state!
About your sound: your music has taken quite a considerable transition from the music of Million Dead to your current records, wouldn’t you say?
FT: Yeah I’ve definitely shifted over time, part of that’s getting older but I’ve never only listened to punk-rock although that has been the foundation of my tastes in music. Actually I was thinking about this the other day, Neil Young was really really big on my radar when I started doing solo stuff and I’d almost forgotten that, but I was listening to him the other day, and I just really wanna be Neil Young! Also about a year ago I woke up one morning and just ‘got’ Bob Dylan. The thing that really annoys me is that loads of friends had said to me ‘one day you’ll get it’, and now I just can’t get enough!
Lyrically you’ve always been quite original and inventive. What do you think makes for good lyrics?
FT: I had a very long drunken conversation with a friend recently about this. I would say that the finest part of lyric writing is when you take something specific and make it universal. Stuff like Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, who writes lyrics made up of little pictures which, in some inexpressible way, make you know exactly what he’s talking about.
And you seem to have gained a bit of a, perhaps unfair, reputation for political music, how does that make you feel?
FT: Ah, the thing about all of this is that, I have written songs that talk about politics, but the thing that I worry about is that I think there is nothing worse than being tarred with the ‘protest singer’ label. The perfect example is Billy Bragg. His songs from the heart are infinitely better than his songs about politics, but you ask anyone about Billy Bragg and they will think of the miner’s strike. His most famous song ‘A New England’, specifically says ‘I’m not trying to change the world’. But nobody’s paying any attention because they’ve decided he’s a protest singer so people stop listening.
The thing about the Thatcher song (‘Thatcher Fucked the Kids’), it’s an alright song, I happen to think it’s a bit throwaway musically but people just then make these insane assumptions about my politics. People have e-mailed me going “yeah you should come and play this festival because it’s totally in line with your politics”, I’m just like “What!? You don’t have a clue what my politics are, you dickhead!” But I totally reserve the right to talk about politics if I feel like it, and I will do so. There’s a song on the new record, which is very political, ‘Sons of Liberty’, it’s all about civil liberties. But I just don’t want to be that ‘rent-a-quote’ musician guy who gets wheeled out anytime there’s a protest. I’m a musician, and I want to be judged on my song writing and I want people to talk about my music.
Absolutely. Whilst we’re on the hard-hitting questions, I wonder if I could get your views on illegal downloading?
FT: I did a blog post (www.frank-turner.com/blog) on this recently which garnered quite a lot of interest, including death threats, hate-mail, the lot, as I suggested people might want to pay for the products of someone’s labour. Basically, the way that we make and distribute music is changing, that’s an unalterable fact. I’m generally very pro-internet, it’s radically liberal and democratic which I’m in favour of and I think that it’s inevitable that we’ll come to a point where all music will be free.
And do you think that will have a negative effect on musicians and the music industry?
FT: Well, in the long run, maybe not, I think in the long run it could even get better. But, and this is the crux of the issue, there used to be an established economic model for being a musician and this enabled people to make music, and make a living. The problem is that at the moment people, if people just take records without paying for them, without changing anything else, the whole model breaks.
So if we’re gonna make music free then we need to change other parts of the industry. I’m not entirely sure how… But actually I think Madonna has got it right, surprisingly! Basically in the past albums would generate income and the tour would promote albums, but now tours are more valuable. So from a strictly business point of view an album will exist in order to promote a tour, and Madonna has paved the way for that by signing a deal with Live Nation. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad way of doing things at all, and an emphasis on live is something that I’m in favour of. There’s nothing that angers me more than bands live who can’t play their own songs. But the reason that I get angry about illegal downloading is that in the short-term, it isn’t Britney Spears and David Geffen who are losing out, it’s smaller musicians, people working at studios, people working in small record shops who are suffering right now.
One other thing – I am constantly enraged by how few people know that musicians don’t make very much money. Last night, for instance, in the bar after the show, this kid comes up to me and goes “get a round in”, and I only had a fiver in my pocket! I was considerably richer when I was a student than I am now, but it’s the best job in the world and I love it but I think a lot of people talking about illegal downloading are under the impression that I could lose 50% of what I earn and it wouldn’t make a difference to my life. But I live with my mum, I can’t afford to live anywhere else!
Yeah, I can definitely see your point. Onto some lighter topics, what are you currently listening to?
FT: Three things off the top of my head. Loudon Wainwright, who a friend of mine sent me a CD of his with a post-it note on saying ‘fucking listen to this’, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. A band called Crazy Arm as well who are amazing and I’m taking them out on tour with me in March next year. And finally, Ben Marwood, who should be infinitely more famous than he is. We were talking about great lyrics, well that guy’s got it down.
If you had to name one main influence on your music, who would it be?
FT: I’m gonna be boring and say Bruce Springsteen! He combines song-writing with performance and musicianship in such an incredible way.
Finally, I can’t help but notice your tattoos. Which is your favourite?
FT: Well I’ve got loads and each one has vast and tedious significance! My favourite is my newest one *takes shirt off*, St.George and the dragon, an engraving from a church in Peterborough. The only tattoo that doesn’t actually have any significance is this outline of Texas (right arm), which I got when I was really pissed in Texas! It was a night of legendary proportions though and if you check Casey Lee from Fake Problems (supporting Frank Turner on this tour) you’ll see that he’s got one of these as well!
It’s been great talking to you Frank, thanks a lot for taking time out to speak to Impact. Best of luck for the show tonight and for the rest of the tour.
FT: Thank you, it’s been a lotta fun. Enjoy the show tonight!
Frank Turner released his third solo album ‘Poetry of the Deed’ in September 2009 and is currently on a UK tour being supported by Beans on Toast and Fake Problems.