Interview: Frank Turner


    Frank Turner has been riding a wave of success recently here in the states and overseas following his latest album, Poetry for the Deed. He’s been touring for months on end, and is hitting many U.S. festivals this year, including Coachella, Lollapalooza, ACL, and this past month’s Bonnaroo. I caught up with him there and we discussed tattoos, touring the states, and his upcoming projects; including a possible booze-fueled album with Jon Snodgrass, an “evil-electro” side project, writing his first book, and his official follow-up to Poetry of the Deed.

    Okay, first of all, how are you enjoying being here [at Bonnaroo] so far?

    Pretty good, I mean we got in this morning – I’m pretty jet-lagged to be honest with you – like I arrived in the states yesterday, and I was in the U.K. for one day before that and before that I was in Israel. So, like, ohh… I don’t know what fucking county I’m in {laughs}. But yeah, good. Bonnaroo seems cool. I’m… I’m wary of saying this because I don’t wanna sound patronizing and I am actually trying to make a positive comment, but it’s funny… festival culture is so much deeper engrained in the music scene in the U.K. that it’s kind of nice for me coming to bigger festivals in the States in my experience, because everyone is kind of just getting used to what festivaling is like and it’s cool because it means you definitely kind of avoid the festival monster kind of weirdos and all that. And it’s just kind of a sunnier disposition, which seems cool. We went around like… we went on a ferris wheel, that was pretty cool. We were just sitting on top going “AWESOME!”  (laughs) So yeah, Bonnaroo seems like fun.

    Yeah there’s definitely a smaller festival scene in America.

    Sure, I mean this is a big festival, don’t get me wrong, but in the U.K there’s like multiple festivals every weekend and all that.

    Yeah, no comparison. So you just came from the U.K. and Israel, and you’re going to fly out to the other Manchester right after this right?

    Yes, the other Manchester, yes. Next week is going to be madness. I’m opening up for Green Day for two shows and they’re stadium shows, so the Manchester, U.K. show I’m doing is 50 thousand people and the London show is 90 thousand people. So I’m a little bit nervous, I’m not gonna lie.


    Have you done something that big before?

    No I haven’t done anything that big before. I mean I played for 20 thousand people once, but you know, 90 is more than 20. I checked the numbers. (laughs) But I mean it’s funny because on the one hand – I kind of oscillate between two different points of view on it, because on the one hand it’s kind of like… “Holy shit… fuck!” but then the other time it’s like… playing a show is playing a show. Just put your head down and do what you do well. You know? It shouldn’t make that much difference how many people are around. So I kind of pinball back and forth between those two opinions on it, depending on how drunk I am and what time of day it is. (laughs)

    But do you generally prefer the smaller shows just for fans?

    You know, for me, the thing that makes a good show or a bad show is that unquantifiable thing – atmosphere. Like, I’ve seen Springsteen play to 60 thousand people and have an incredible atmosphere, and I’ve seen bands play to 200 people and have shit atmosphere. You know what I mean? It’s not nearly, it’s not about what venue or what number of people, it’s something about the energy and the atmosphere in the room. I like playing shows with good energy and good atmosphere, and whether that’s a stadium show or a house show to three people, it doesn’t matter. One of my favorite shows I ever played was I played a show in Brooklyn to four people. Four people came to the show, so I just fucked off the PA – they were sat at a table and I just went and sat with them and we were basically just talking and I was playing some and it was just really cool. And all four of those people are now really big fans of mine, so…

    Cool. Yeah that’s one great way to make fans, but another is doing those big shows to get introduced to a new audience.

    Yeah, definitely. Both are exciting.

    So you used to be in some harder bands like Million Dead, what’s the transition been like going from that to a more folksy, acoustic style?

    Well at the end of the day it’s been fine, for two reasons. First of all, because it’s gone well, and secondly it’s what I wanted to do and felt like it was the right thing to do. I mean it wasn’t the obvious move. It seemed obvious to me, but retrospectively I look back at it and go ‘Wow I was out of my fucking mind.’ And the weird thing is, it’s kind of like, in a perverse way… the easy thing to do would’ve been to form another hardcore band, because Million Dead did okay in the U.K and if I had just joined another hardcore band straight away we probably could’ve signed like a major deal within like a months time. It would’ve been fine and we would’ve been around for a couple of years and that would’ve been that. But it would’ve been quite boring.


    I remember at the time a lot of people were just like ‘wow you’re fucking insane, what the hell…’ but, and it’s just really important to me that I’m not trying to be bitchy or defensive in any way by saying what I’m about to say, but nowadays there’s kind of a vogue for punk singers doing acoustic records. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that vogue really did not exist, certainly not in my corner of the punk scene, five years ago when I was making these decisions. I mean there’s was Chuck [Ragan, of Hot Water Music] and there was Mike Ness [of Social Distortion] I suppose… but that was about it. And a lot of people, well – pretty much everyone was just like ‘you’re fucking crazy, what the hell are you talking about’ – whereas now, it’s a much better worn path. You know what I mean? That doesn’t make me a better human being than everybody else but it was a kind of… a weird choice to make. And it’s kind of funny because I just remember at the time everything made perfect sense, it was all fine, and now looking back I’m like ‘I was totally mental.’

    Yeah I was on the way over here trying to explain to my friend who you were, your transition and everything and he said ‘oh yeah like that Edward Sharpe guy’ and I was like, yeah I guess it is becoming somewhat more commonplace.

    Yeah, and like I say, there’s nothing strictly wrong with that but it’s just like kind of part of my pride, if you like, has something to say like…. It was a more challenging decision to make in 2005 than in 2010.


    As you said, Million Dead did okay in the U.K., so did you already have a built in audience over there when you went solo?

    Yeah, although an awful lot of them really did not get what I was trying to do. And I mean it was…. everyone tries to pretend they don’t have an ego but everyone does have an ego, and like the Million Dead farewell tour we did, we were playing to like 500 people a show, and then my first solo tour I went out and I was playing, I think the largest crowd was 50 and the smallest was one. You know what I mean? And at the end of the day, one’s pride takes a beating in that case. It was like, literally two months ago, I would play a show with my band and 500 people show up and now it’s like one person here like what the fuck? The first year of being solo was… not the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. And it was kind of tied in with me having some personal issues and stuff at the time, but, like I said earlier it all paid off. And also, to throw in a philosophical point, any musicians complaining about any of the business of being a musician are full of shit anyways, because at the end of the day you could just not do it, you know what I mean? People complain about touring, it’s like… ‘Cool, go home. No one’s gonna care.’ (laughs)

    So you did that in the U.K., toured and built up an audience for your solo career. After a while did you also have to come do the same thing over in the states?

    Yeah, although it’s been kinda different in the states, like I came over and did whole bunch of touring around. I toured with Fake Problems for a while and I toured with Look Mexico, a band from Austin, Texas… So I did a whole bunch of like those kind of tours, and it’s been kind of different, because then Epitaph stepped in and I’ve been working with them as a label so that obviously ramped everything up to a degree, and Chuck Ragan from Hot Water has actually been an amazing help for me in my career in the states, and I owe him more beers than money can buy. So it hasn’t been exactly the same, the U.K. was literally from nothing to something, whereas the states have been from something to something a little more, or… hopefully (laughs) but at any rate, we’re still climbing this mountain.

    But it’s cool, I mean the funny thing is – it’s hard to kind of explain what this means to an American boy, I’m assuming, but there’s something about… because America is so culturally enthralled to the states, generally speaking, and particularly in the business of rock and roll, and there’s something about touring America that is just so kind of iconic. And even if your tour of America is going badly, you’re still touring America. There’s still a kind of… there’s a kudos to it, as an English boy. It’s like, “Shit man, I’m fucking touring America!” Even if you’re in Little Rock, Arkansas and only ten people show up to your show, you’re still like “I’m in fucking America on my tour” and it kind of works I guess.


    Has that kind of thing been happening on your tour?

    Actually, do you know Jon Snodgrass? He’s a singer, he plays in Drag the River and Armchair Martian and shit like that. Me and him were on tour last year and we played a show in Little Rock, Arkansas and about ten people showed up, and me and him were just like, who gives a shit? So we put our chairs down on the floor and went out and played the show and then Jon bought a bottle of whiskey from the bar and at one point bought a shot for everybody in the room – the barstop, the  audience, the crew, fucking everyone – and after the show, me and Jon were hammered drunk and we wrote a song together in 15 minutes called “Big Rock in Little Rock”. It’s a tune about how those kind of shows can be the best and if you have a problem with that kind of shit then you’re in it for the wrong reasons. So yeah it took us 15 minutes to write and record the song, so this summer I’m going to his house in Fort Collins and we’re gonna try to make an album in two days. He’s got an old school tape machine and a handle of whisky and we’re just gonna fucking see what happens.

    Oh cool, my next question was going to be about a possible follow-up for Poetry of the Deed, so is that your next project?

    Well, that’s probably going to happen, I mean when that’ll be released… it might be total bullshit anyways so maybe it’ll never be released, but even if it’s great, I’m not sure when it would be released. I mean I’m of the opinion of just record and release, who gives a shit. So that’s kind of going on, and I’ve got a couple of irons in fires, like I’ve got a kind of evil-electro side project thing I’ve been working on with a friend of mine, and I’m writing a book of my own, which is, it turns out, a lot more work than I thought it would be. (laughs) Also, I’m gonna be in the studio in January making a new record. I’d say about more than half of it is written. I’m gonna play a bunch of new shit tonight, actually, so you can decide how you feel about it. I mean I’ve done an album a year the last three years or four years, well and then I put out a live record this year so that kind of counts. And then I’ll put out a record next year as well to kind of keep up my work ethic.

    Is the book you’re writing autobiographical?

    Well, well… I got asked to write a book and I was like, no. Because I hate autobiographies when they’re anything less than… to me, you need one of the following two things to write an autobiography. You either need to be over 70, or you need to have won an international award. Those are your two fucking options, (laughs) neither of which count for me. I spoke to the publisher and his idea was to just make it like a tour diaries kind of thing. It doesn’t have any kind of intentions of being this overarching story of my life. I’m a storyteller, that’s what I do for a living on some basic level. I can spin a yard, I can talk a lot, as you’re currently witnessing, and he was just like fuck dude, because I know the publisher quite well, and whenever I get drunk I sit around just telling stories about the tour. And he was just like, ‘just fucking write a bunch of them down and we’ll publish it.’ And I was like… okay. So that’s kind of what’s happening.


    So you’ve got this show, then back to the U.K. for a tour, then back to the states for another tour…

    Yeah just ping-ponging back and forth indefinitely forever.

    So will you be testing some of this new material out of the road?

    Yeah, but it’s kinda weird. Whenever I do solo tours it’s easier for me to play new stuff, for band shows obviously there’s four more people who need to rehearse the new material, but I’m working on getting them rehearsed up. So hopefully we’ll have some new stuff for the band as well.

    I just noticed you have a tattoo of the state of Texas on your arm. I wouldn’t expect that from an Englishman. What’s the story there?

    Well, I got really fucking drunk in Texas – at SXSW last year – and basically I had just signed a record deal, so I was in a good mood, and then I don’t know if you know a band called the Van Pelt? They were an indie band from like the mid-90s, I had never seen them play because they never toured outside of the states, but they did a one-off reunion tour that so I was like “fuck!” so there was that and then when you’re in Texas, drugs are cheaper and stronger, so everything just kind of went to shit. Then I woke up the next day with a tattoo of Texas on my arm! (laughs) Like an asshole. The worst part is, my mom hates tattoos, well I’m one of those people that I’ve got like a really long, boring, tedious explanation for all of my tattoos, it’s really philosophical and cultural and the rest of it, so I kinda talked her into this whole thing that there’s a kind of philosophical explanation for me getting these done and she just about bought it and then I came home with a fucking tattoo of Texas that I got when I was piss drunk and she was like “AHHH!” and I was like, “shit, I just lost this argument”.

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