Interview: Frank Turner

Abbas Ali chats to controversial folk punk artist Frank Turner about collaborations with The Gaslight Anthem, the punk ethos, and *that* blog post.

Jayne Robinson

Date published: 30th Sep 2010

Abbas Ali chats to controversial folk punk artist Frank Turner about collaborations with The Gaslight Anthem, the punk ethos, and *that* blog post.

Former vocalist with hardcore punk band Million Dead, Frank Turner’s solo career began in 2005 with debut LP, Sleep Is For The Week. His solo material saw a change in direction towards a gritty folk style not dissimilar to punk poet, Billy Bragg. Starting with small solo tours, Turner has gradually won over a bigger and bigger audience over the past five years, winning a record deal with Epitaph in the USA, and a growing fanbase within the country’s punk scene.

Last year, album number three, Poetry Of The Deed, saw his distinctive brand of confessional folk-punk attract a bigger crowd than ever before. His recent single, ‘Try This At Home’ was released last month, and forthcoming record ‘I Still Believe’, will be out soon.

What is ‘Try This At Home’ about? Do you feel there is a dearth of music in your wake, or are you optimistic about the next generation of musicians?

I guess that song is about the ideals of punk, in a way. I think the most exciting and empowering idea contained within the miasma that is punk, for me at any rate, is the idea of doing things yourself, being independent and self-reliant. As Against Me put it, "we can be the bands we want to hear". I think that's awesome. There's loads of good music out there and I think always will be. A lot of older musicians get all grouchy and start thinking there's nothing interesting to listen to, but they're pretty much always just demonstrating that they're out of touch.

You’ve toured extensively with The Gaslight Anthem, and you’re good friends with them. Has that relationship had an influence on your music? Can we expect any collaborations?

Uh, sure, I mean, I've spent a lot of time listening to them in the last couple of years, so that's bound to seep into my thinking somewhere along the line! I have huge amounts of respect for their work ethic as well - they rehearse a lot of covers as a band, which I think is a really interesting way to keep your mind fresh, writing-wise. Collaborations? Sure, why not, somewhere down the line. Nothing planned at the moment, but I'd love to do something sometime.

You wrote a famous blog post last year entitled, "Angry Thoughts on a Tired Subject". What are your thoughts on illegal downloading?

Ah yes, the infamous blog post. I think I wrote that slightly more in anger than I needed to, and part of the point of the exercise was to stimulate debate, through which everyone can shift their opinions and learn new things. Some people did debate me seriously, which was good. A lot of people just sent me abuse and even death threats (seriously - how lame). I think I have shaded my opinion on the subject slightly differently since posting the article. But a lot of the thrust of it remains accurate, for me. I think the important thing is to recognize that the music industry is changing massively at the moment, and that's potentially a very good thing; the problem, the thing that pisses me off, is that in the short term a lot of decent, hard-working people are getting screwed, financially, by a lot of selfish people who take and don't give, and who refuse to admit that their actions have consequences. I think it's a real fucking shame that people who work their arses off trying to bring entertainment to people end up either starving or giving up because the people who reap the benefits can't be bothered to contribute. Call me crazy.

While others don’t doubt your sincerity, there are people who dislike you because they resent your family background, education, etc. (Turner attended Eton, and his father is ex-chairman of high street retailer, BHS). They see your background as being at odds with your music. How do you feel about that?

This is something that I find a little depressing, and I should also add that it's almost exclusively a UK -based phenomenon - one of the things I like about the US is that, culturally, people care about where you're headed, not where you're from. I had no choice about my background, education or whatever - there's a word for judging people by facets of their lives they can't control, see if you can guess what it is. As for anything being at odds with my music, well, that's clearly specious bullshit because my music is, by definition, a product of my personality. It might be at odds with people's tedious and ill-informed preconceptions of something they don't know much about, but that's hardly my problem. Haha, sorry, don't mean to sound quite so pissed off about it! I don't lose sleep over it, put it that way.

Your level of success seems to have risen gradually over the course of three albums, up to last year’s Poetry Of The Deed. How do you feel about that, and ambition in general?

I am an ambitious person, though my ambitions are not anything so dull as "headline Wembley!" or whatever. My ambitions are to write the best songs I can - maybe one day I'll write a song that can hold a candle to anything by Townes Van Zandt - that'd be amazing. Similarly, I am ambitious to put on the best live shows that I can, and I suppose for as many people as I can in as many different places. My job is to be an entertainer, and I want to be good at it. The last few years have been fucking crazy, so many wonderful things have happened for me, and I'm very lucky to be where I am. I try to enjoy it!

Your musical background from Million Dead, your previous band, is in post hardcore and punk music. That seems to have had a big impact on your identity. What do you owe to punk music? For the uninitiated, what does it have to offer?

Punk is like Catholicism, in that if it gets you when you're young, you're in it for life - you can become an ex-punk, but never a non-punk, haha. I love it though. Obviously there's an element of tribal self-identification when you're a teenager, which is fine. But there's a real ethos behind the music - independence, defiance, self-reliance - that I love and still informs pretty much everything I do. Plus much of the music is kick-arse.

Your solo material started out as folk music. What caused the change in direction from MD? Following on from that, you seemed to have returned to a louder, rockier sound in the past couple of years, touring with a band, etc. What inspired that?

After MD split, I just wasn't interested in being in a hardcore band anymore, musically I felt really worn out, and also pretty burned from being in a band generally, so I thought I'd try doing something on my own and it worked out. Since then, well, I just try and do what I think sounds good and not overthink things. I suppose part of it is that my desire to distance myself from my recent past with MD made me tend towards the quieter end of things, whereas now I don't really have any hangups about the past anymore, so I'm more comfortable making a bit more noise.

 

You have an interest in traditional English folk music. Tell us about that.

I'm a history geek, and I love music, and looking into traditional music combines the two quite neatly, haha. I'm also interested in national identity - I'm English, and I'm interested in my culture and its history. English traditional music (and culture in general, actually) are generally neglected, much more so than is the case in Ireland or Scotland, say (which obviously has its own historical reasons). There's a world of wonder to discover out there, loads of achingly beautiful, sad, funny, bawdy songs. I have a plan to do an album of found songs some day, though time is not currently on my side, haha.

Your lyrics are very confessional, whether it’s talking about growing older, being cheated on, etc. How do you feel about putting yourself out there so completely? Do you hold anything back or the private Frank very much what we see on stage?

There are days when it can be a little difficult, but then the thing I like in art is when you catch glimpses of the soul, when you feel like someone is exposing something deeper about themselves. Aidan Moffat from Arab Strap is one of my favourite lyricists, for that reason. Having said all that, there is definitely a line for me between the public and the private, and there's plenty that I hold back. Sometimes people miss that nuance and think they know everything there is to know about me. Alas they are mistaken! It's not that I'm secretly a Jesuit wife-beater or anything like that, more just that some things are for me only.

You have an incredible work ethic. Where does that come from, what drives it?

Haha, a protestant background maybe? Um, I'm not sure. I wake up every day possessed by the fear that I'm going to die, and it makes me jump out of bed and get the fuck on with things. I think I get bored easily too. Something like that.

More about Frank Turner

 

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