New music social
An Interview with Frank Turner
By Mark Glenister
“We miss the crush, the gig, the buzz, the noise, the gathering, the sweat”
It started with a text some 12 years ago, from a friend whose opinion I value greatly, and still do, it said ….
“Singer songwriter, right up your street, you’ll love him”
This was how I used to find out about new bands, through a group of friends I met through football, but whose music tastes and opinions I grew to value, if they recommended someone, then 9 times out of 10 they were spot on - So, I downloaded, I purchased and then I went to see this singer songwriter play live. First to a few people, then a couple of hundred, then a couple of thousand. Saw him play at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, play a headline show at the O2 and busk to a few hundred people alongside Billy Bragg.
I did get selfish about him at one point, not wanting him to sell out and get 'popular', I then saw him smash Alexandra Palace (just under 10,000 people) to pieces, and I realised he hadn't changed no matter the crowd size, you still sang along, danced, sat down and did star jumps (yes you heard right) and you still walked out with a huge grin on your face and some faith in humanity, and Rock N Roll.
Today, I got the chance to chat to this man, we spoke about learning new skills in lockdown, small venues, what constitutes a definite gig (there are rules), cats and their music tastes, and everything in between. The singer songwriter that my friend Michael texted me about is Frank Turner, and this is our chat . . . .
So, during lockdown have you learnt any new skills like a lot of people seem to have?
Yes, quite specifically a couple of things. I bought a build your own guitar kit for a beginner to intermediate, which I thought would make sense, thinking that it wouldn’t be that hard. Turns out it’s an absolute nightmare, its really very difficult. But I’ve learnt things about sanding and spraying, aligning fretboards, screwing holes and all that kind of business - which is a thing I’ve watched other people do to my guitars endlessly over the years, but never actually done much of myself.
More specifically or more usefully I should say, I have been doing some online courses in music production and mixing in particular. I have been toying around in an amateur fashion with Logic for years, just always thinking to myself that there is a skills cut off point beyond which I won’t bother going. When we make an album, I go in with a producer who’s in charge of all the difficult bits. I am sort of most of the way there on a lot of things, so I have been learning lots and lots about delays, compressors and saturation, and that kind of thing, which is going to be useful.
Totally agree, the more insight and knowledge you can have in to making a record, will only benefit you in the long run
Yes, definitely agree with that !
Apart from learning new things, how have you approached lockdown? I know a lot of bands have been doing different things, and you seem to have continued touring even if it is from your own front room.
Haha the things is, the central thing about the nature of my character is that I have a busy brain, and I get very bored very easily. Most of the time my busyness is geographically focused, I‘ll be on tour, so I can be busy in Berlin for a few days or busy in Munich, or wherever. But at the moment its slightly more universalised because of the nature of what’s going on, and the fact that I broadcast through certain channels that are the same every day, I think a lot of people are like “oh my god he is everywhere”, where in fact I’m less busy but people are seeing more of what I do normally, because they have less to look at.
I wanted to stay busy, certainly for my own mental health, I find idleness quite difficult. Its trying to make the best of a bad situation, I think like most people lockdown has not been one kind of universal monumental thing, its changed as its gone on in a number of ways, in terms of the reality of it, as like most people when it started I was thinking well maybe this will be for 3 or 4 weeks, and yet here we are on week 900,000 or whatever it is. So my expectations have had to be managed as to what’s going to happen on the other side of this, because again I think at the beginning a lot of people, myself included, were sort of imagining this joyous day where the church bells would ring, and we would all run into the street and hug each other, and everything would be fine. I don’t think that’s going to happen, I don’t think there will be any sort of black and white end to lockdown, so that’s been a thing to manage.
Also, just in terms of at the beginning I was like “right I am going to be really productive, whatever it is, I’m going to have no distractions” and then I remembered this one enormous distraction which is a fucking global pandemic! Which counts as a distraction in my opinion! Then I had a couple of weeks of achieving nothing at all as a writer, which was very frustrating. I still find it quite difficult, you go to write and I don’t want to just write songs about lockdown, not least because I think there will be a huge pile up of lockdown songs in about 9 months time, which will obviously be quite tedious.
I say this as someone who has written a few lockdown songs, because what else are you going to do! And at the same time writing about anything else is quite challenging, because there is this huge weight pressing down on everything we do. I don’t know about you, but at least twice I day I suddenly go “fuck” and remember what is going on, you get busy with something, you carry on with your day and then you suddenly go “oh my god global pandemic”, its very weird.
I think for myself I generally have that ‘What day is it?’ feeling most days, and I know for my own mental health that I need to stick to a routine, and as much as I like doing things like this, it would be good for me to get back to work and have a 9 to 5 day
Yes definitely, one of the things for me, is the way my life generally works is this sort of extreme contrast between when I am on the road, I tend to be on the go for 24 hours a day. And usually when I get home from tour the very first thing I want to do is do nothing at all, I want to sit in a darkened room and watch Netflix and talk to no one, well apart from my wife. Its very much about powering down, so I was in the middle of a tour when this first started, so initially it was well this ok, but then it turned in to the first few days after tour for ever, which is not a scenario I wish to get trapped in. I do think routine is a very important thing for a lot of people, a bunch of people have said to me “I really glad you are doing your shows every Thursday, because that gives me some structure to my week” my reply to which is “you and me both” I tend to know what day of the week it is relative to how long it is till I’m playing again.
The gigs you have been doing from home, you have added those to your list of total gigs that appear on your webpage (currently 2491 Gigs in 48 Countries).
I have, I was ambivalent about that at the beginning, but again that was at the point where we thought this would last just a few weeks, so it seemed much more like a passing phase. The rule I have always had about gigs is that they count of you play more than 5 songs, and the audience out number the performers on stage, which has not always been true in my career. The things is there’s my wife and my cat in the room, and the cat is standing in as an extra person in the band!
The cat definitely counts as a band member!
She is not fan, I’ll tell you that, its quite funny. My wife is a singer as well, we sort of realised that the cat (Queen Boudicat) has never known what we do for a living prior to this, because we don’t tend to do shows in the house during the normal course of life. She is not a fan, particularly as I sing very loudly when I sing, and the very first time I sang for one of these shows, she stuck her head round the day and looked as if to say “what are you doing” she has revealed herself to not be a die-hard Frank Turner fan
Cats can be very judgemental sometimes
So, the gigs you have been doing have all been in aid of various small venues around the country. As a music fan and as someone who follows bands that play in these venues, I understand how important they are. As an artist, how important are these small venues to you?
On a basic level, culture needs a space in which to exist, and particularly noisy culture needs a particular type of space in which to exist. I notice you are wearing a Crows t-shirt today; I love Crows, James is an old friend (James Cox - Crows Lead Singer). A band like Crows, they have to play somewhere, they can’t just play on the street, they need that space to play and exist. For me as a performer it’s a place where I built an audience, built a career, figured out myself as a writer and a performer, and all this kind of thing. Its interesting, I do a lot of work for the Music Venue Trust, one of the sort of PR lines we go down for that, for understandable reasons if you consider the audience its being pitched to, is that people like Ed Sheeran, Adele, Muse, Radiohead and Biffy Clyro all found their feet in small venues, and went on to arenas and stadiums. Now that’s all well and good, but I do also feel its really important to also stress that some of my favourite bands will never play to more than 200 people, and they are equally as valid. Small venues are not just an audition ground for the “big leagues” , they are also the place where awesome fucking bands can make the racket they want to make for the people who want to hear it.
Definitely, most of the bands I follow play in small venues, its how they grow their fan base and reputation. Even if its to just a 100 or 200 people, it’s a 100 or 200 people that want to be there to see live music.
Right, and that’s completely valid. Its funny, live music, particularly live Rock N Roll music has always been the awkward stepchild of the arts world, and I don’t mean to say this with any sort of bitterness, but there are plenty of theatres that get loads of government funding, that have a 200 capacity. And quite a lot of venues that hold 200 people, don’t get that funding. What I would like in the world is an equal playing field. I’m not saying that everything has to be government subsidised or nothing needs to be government subsidised, but it would be nice if there was some sort of equality across the board on these things. The fact that the Music Venue Trust exists even when there isn’t a global pandemic, goes to show its not the easiest thing to run a small venue at the best of times. So, when the pandemic kicked in, I was looking for a thing I could do that would be helpful. I’m not sure that I am going to save the NHS, and I might add that I’m not sure its my job to do that! I was thinking about a forum with which kinds of funds I could raise, and the kind of actions I could take would make a meaningful difference, and this seemed the best one (Supporting Small Music Venues).
So, with these front room gigs, you have been playing entire albums, b sides, rarities over the past few weeks. How have you found that, as there may be some tracks you’ve never played live or at least haven’t played for some time?
Oh yeah definitely, in a way its probably not interesting to anyone other than myself. I’ve found the process of systematically playing through every song I’ve written in roughly chronological order, to be really quite an interesting experience. Because each record that I write, its such a concentrated period of time that I find it hard to compare my first record to my fifth record for instance. Its like comparing being 12 to being 25, not that I was 12 when I wrote my first album, its an impossible comparison to make. However the act of playing them through week by week, its interesting to look at it, almost with a degree of detachment for the first time. I’ve certainly spotted commonalities in song writing, that’s the polite way of saying it, between some songs in terms of certain chord changes or rhythmic tricks, that have cropped up more than I thought they had, because sometimes if I write two songs that are roughly taking the similar approach, one of them will go on the back burner.
And now when I’ve been playing both its “oh yeah they are kind of the same song” not exactly but there are moments when you realise that was the trial run for that one. As I say I am writing at the moment, so its quite a good discipline to play through everything prior to writing something new, because at the very least it shows you what you’ve done and therefore shouldn’t do again.
Totally understand that, you are learning by mistakes - because as you get older, things change, and the way you wrote about something years back, won’t be the way you perhaps look at things now.
I believe incredibly, emphatically, that it is the duty of the artist to change. There are a handful of bands who are allowed in my mind to repeat themselves, ACDC and Pennywise spring to mind. The world is full of people who want me to put out ‘England Keep My Bones’ again, or ‘Tapedeck Heart’ again, or ‘Love & Ire Songs’ again! and I’m not going to do that, or at least try not to do that, because these records still exist. I still play tons of material off them live, and if you want to listen to it, its there. It’s on Spotify or its in your record collection. I want to make sure with what I am doing is at least in some ways fresh and new in my own catalogue.
I think as an artist as you grow older your audience grows with you, they will be experiencing different things, so they’ll look to you to be expressing these things in your songs. So, you’ll keep the fanbase that you’ve always had, but perhaps bring some new fans in as your material grows.
Well hopefully, fingers crossed – I think the other thing for me is that so much in the broadest sense of the term ‘Pop Music’ is concerned lyrically with events that take place between the ages of 16 and 25. I understand why that is, it’s because that’s the moment in life where people feels things very viscerally, and its therefore the easier fuel for song writing. At the end of the day there are bands out there who release songs about High School when they are in their mid 40s, and I’m like what the fuck are you talking about, what would you know and why would you care? I can’t remember the last time I thought about school, it’s just not a day to day concern in my life. One of the reasons I’ve always loved for example the Hold Steady, Loudon Wainwright III or people like that, is that they always write about grown up things, in way that I find very powerful, because I am now in my late 30s so I think about the kind of things that people in their late 30s think about.
Well yes, you are married, you have a cat . .
LOL yes exactly, by the way are you familiar with a singer call Chris Woods, he is folk singer who has been around for a while. His most recent record was called ‘So Much to Defend’, as an example of grown up song writing about grown up life, it is devastating, the best writing I have heard in years.
Ok, I shall have a look for it (I did, its brilliant, seek it out) – that brings me nicely to my next question, if you could have written one song by someone else, what song would it be?
There are endless examples of this, to be honest I’m quite jealous as a songwriter, if I hear a good song I’m like ‘fuck!’ – which is not a terrible instinct for someone who is a writer. The example I would pick is ‘This Love won’t let you Fail’ by Chris Wood. Its about his daughter going away to university, if that song doesn’t make you cry you have no soul in my opinion. I don’t have a daughter that is going to university, but it is just the most beautiful exposition of emotion and adult growing up emotions, it’s a really wonderful song.
So, as we have mentioned you are currently touring from your front room, how important are fans to you now and outside of global pandemics?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I always get this disclaimer in, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the word ‘Fan’ because it reeks of Marie Antoinette, its describing people who like my music ‘Oh it’s the fans’ it just sounds a little bit like ‘Oh the proles’ (I’ll admit I had to look this up, the Proles are the working class in George Orwells 1984) So having got that little disclaimer out the way, I have been very pleasantly surprised by the consistency of the people listening to my music, in terms of not just the basics of checking out the viewing figures of my weekly shows. The very first one was massive, and then it dropped down a bit which I expected, and I was expecting to continue dropping, but it hasn’t its stayed really constant, and its actually risen with the recent shows. And similarly the amount of money raised for the venue each week, I was expecting to tail off as the weeks went by, as peoples patience and pockets got exhausted, and that really hasn’t happened, and again the amount raised has been climbing as the weeks have gone by. So the thing that I did the other week, I was really awkward and defensive about this, in a way that my wife eventually persuaded me that I didn’t need to be. I did a show that was effectively for my own benefit, I did it through the medium of my merch company and my record label, it was like buy stuff as it helps those companies and in turn helps me. My source of income has ceased to exist in the short to medium term, I’m ok financially and I’m not going to be evicted any time soon, but at the same time I do have to think about that type of thing after a certain period of time. So when I was setting this up and doing the live stream, I was so defensive and apologetic and ready for the grief, and after a while my wife was like ‘Shut the fuck up, no one is complaining, everyone gets it’ and people were very generous then and I really appreciate that, as it is going to help get me through this.
It’s a funny thing because I guess on some levels I’m looking to hard at the fact that I am supported by the generosity of people listening to my music- not because I don’t appreciate it, I don’t want what I do to feel too transactional. But at the same time it is true I don’t have a regular office job because people like my music, and feel bound to financially contribute to it from time to time. And I am very grateful for that, because I still don’t have to get a normal job for the time being, so lucky me!
See I think you do have a normal job, I think a lot of people would love to do the job you do
Absolutely, this is the thing, I have always been a bit ambivalent about the word job because on some levels what I do is very much a job, there are lots of boring grinding shit bits that I have to do. But at the same time, I would have killed for this when I was a kid, most of my friends would kill for it now. I am the luckiest mother fucker in the world, I am my own boss, I do something creative for a living, I do my creative passion for a living, I don’t want to ever sound ‘this is my job’ about it, I want people to know I’m aware of how fucking lucky I am.
To be honest with you I feel you’ve always come across like that. Most people that know you and your music would never accuse you of taking it for granted.
Well, thank you, I really appreciate that
We briefly mentioned Crows earlier, speaking to them and some of the other bands I follow, its pretty apparent just how important fans have been during this pandemic. Fans that would normally be buying gig tickets, are helping keep these bands alive by buying albums or t-shirts or tote bags, and a real community has grown up around this.
Yeah, I’ve been really impressed with how quickly the general public for want of a less apt term, have grasped that idea. An interesting comparison for me, I was just about around when streaming really properly started massively reshaping the economics of the music industry. And everyone was like ‘Its destroying it’ well its not, its changing it. At that moment in time people were very slow to appreciate what the financial realities of this change was going to mean particularly to smaller bands. I remember when I had my first song on Radio 1, I was technically homeless, there was a sofa in hallway id sleep on when I was in London and had nowhere else to go. I was in bar where some guy came up to me and was like “oh you got a song the radio, buy a fucking round in for everyone then yeah” and I was like what are you talking about, you are out of your fucking mind, that might have been true in the 70s and even then! So, I just feel that in this moment in history people have really looked at it and gone ‘cool I get it, I understand what an impact this is going to have on bands. I think people have sort of accepted that touring and merchandise is the way that most people make money as a band, and if you take one of those out of the equation something else has to pick it up.
I know as a fan, how much I miss going to gigs at the moment, so anything I can do to help that band to ensure they will still be around once lockdown is over, I’m going to do whatever I can
Totally, I was having this conversation with a friend the other day, in a way that wasn’t planned by anybody which I find interesting. What lockdown and the whole livestreaming phenomenon has done has really very like precisely and scientifically isolated what’s good about gigs. I think livestreaming is great for the time being, it’s not a terrible replacement and blah blah blah, and even the minor sense of community with the comments coming through on the screen. But its not being in a fucking gig, James (Cox) doesn’t crawl on your fucking head during a live stream, and I miss that. Its kind of cool because in the long term there were lots of people talking about things like virtual reality downloads of shows, buying a USB of the gig as you leave, and always thought that was kind of horse shit basically. I think that everything that is happening now, is really pinpointing what is good and different about the live music experience, in short that is gathering really, and that’s obviously problematic. There are all these people and bless them they are trying to come up with socially distanced gigs. I saw some video footage of one and it was the worse thing I’ve seen in my life. Its not what we miss, we don’t miss sitting in a fucking car park watching a band on the stage at the end, we don’t miss it being roped off in individual seats 10 metres away from everyone else in a massive auditorium. We miss the crush, the gig, the buzz, the noise, the gathering, the sweat – now it may be a while before we are allowed to do that again, but the positive is that that’s become very very clear that it’s a very uncopiable experience.
It’s funny I was chatting to my friend Dave, Dave Danger who was my best man. He said about a week before the lockdown kicked in, somebody asked him to go and see band, a band that he liked, he was just like I’ve had a long week, another time maybe. And now he is like I will literally go and see any band, I don’t even care, any band in the history of music, with the possible exception of Screwdriver. He was like just give me a gig, and that’s how I feel as well at the moment.
So what are your thoughts on the current music scene, not the top 40 as I don’t think that has any relevance now, but the current ‘alternative’ scene?
I guess the first thing I would say is that I would hesitate to crown myself as fully qualified to talk about it, do you know Cal McRae by any chance?
Yes, he is the Crows manager
Yes that’s him, the thing about Cal is, I’m 10 years older than Cal and I fucking love him, quite often he is my voice through the underground. If Cal is going to see a band and I have a free evening its probably something cool, relevant and hot so I’ll stick with him and I mean that in the best possible way.
I am getting to the answer of your question I promise. The second thing I would say, as compared to when I grew up and I don’t know how old you are but at the very least I would say we are of similar age (I said nothing and took the compliment), before the internet the things like scenes and movements meant a bit more in my opinion. What the internet has done is it’s removed the geographical constrictions of being into music. In 1991 if the NME declared that guitar music was dead then that meant something, because it meant the access to guitar music for your average kid was hugely restricted. These days if someone says that guitar music is dead, anyone listening to guitar music goes ‘ok carry on’ and keeps listening to the bands they like, so its not so tidal or fashionable, and I think that’s a really good thing.
But anyway, having said all of that, it seems to me that there is a lot of good music coming along. In terms of Punk there has been a really interesting wave in terms of British punk, maybe not British but not American, so you have IDLES, Fontaines DC, Slaves, Crows. It’s a very noisy heavy thing that isn’t like American Hardcore, I love American hardcore, its what I grew up with, its really cool to hear bands that are really heavy but not sounding anything at all like Sick of it All (American Hardcore Punk Band). I think that’s really exciting and interesting, so as far as I am aware which is limited, I think there is some good shit going on.
You need to speak to Cal again quickly so he can tell you
Well exactly, can I like phone a friend?
Errr No! I think IDLES are a good example, its so refreshing to see a band that aren’t young, haven’t been put together. And they are speaking about things that so many people have or are going through which is so important, and it makes other bands realise they can do the same.
Absolutely, the thing I thought when I heard IDLES and I mean this as the biggest compliment, I don’t know any of those guys, the biggest compliment I can pay them is that it was the most threatened I’ve felt listening to a punk band since the Sex Pistols pretty much. There has been a thing that has happened in my lifetime, and even which I arguably play a role in and I will fess up to that, which I would call the nice-efication of punk rock! A lot of it comes from the late 80s posicore thing, and a lot of it comes from more progressive political ideas, and that’s great. But there is a part of me that remembers punk rock was also about threat, it was not necessarily about feeling nice and everything being nice. There are moments where a punk rock show was supposed to be dangerous, so the first time I heard IDLES, I was like ‘Mother Fucker, I’m scared of this guy and that’s awesome. It’s been a long time since I was scared of the front man and that’s what I want, not all of the time but some of the time at least.
As a side bar, in recent years I love The Clash, but I have definitely decided in the Pistols versus Clash debate, I am hardcore on the Pistols side of that, I just thought the Pistols were fucking incredible. When Johnny Rotten sings ‘I look around your house and you’ve got nothing to steal’ its just fucking terrifying, even now when you listen back you can understand why people shit their pants when the Pistols came along. Its such a punch in the face!
Totally, its so confrontational, I think that’s what IDLES do so well, you see them on stage, they have that aggression but there is a lot of thought in it as well, its not aggression for aggressions sake!
Well there’s intelligence to it, its intelligent aggression. Its been a while that I have felt that in a band, and I really appreciate that, its so important.
Agreed – moving away from that, is there one person dead or alive, doesn’t have to be music related, that you would love to meet and interview?
Clive James, I am an enormous Clive James fan, and one of the great sadness’s for me is that the moment I started to get into him was when he first became very seriously ill. He was given 6 months to live but ended up living for another 8 years, which is a wonderful thing for those of us who are a fans of his work, because in my opinion as a poet he did some of his best writing during this time. But like Cultural Amnesia is a book that changed my life, from top to bottom, just rearranged how I did everything. Its weird because it was a time of my life where I could have met him if he hadn’t have been ill, in terms of where his celebrity was and where I was. If he wasn’t terminally ill I could have figured it out we did have one or two vague mutual friends, but you are not going to call someone who has leukaemia and ask if they want to meet a fan, its not the done thing! I just sort of felt that he had probably had enough of people like me in his life, so I didn’t do anything about it. I think that was the right decision, he passed away last year, and very sad about that I was too. Its just a shame because I feel like everything I know about the guy, shooting the shit with Cline James would have been the best. I think like yourself probably I knew him as the guy off TV, and it wasn’t until they started publishing his poems when he first got ill, that I was like wait a minute he is poet, yeah and cultural critic and a giant intellect, and his autobiography is the best book ever, so yes I was a late comer to his oeuvre!
But at least you found him
Yes, very true
So, last question, when this is over, do you think when we return to whatever normal is now, that the community spirit we’ve seen over the past few months with supporting the NHS or helping small venues will remain, will people have learnt lessons from all this?
I think we are in a point in history as you and I have this conversation today, I’m reticent to make some sweeping predictions, going back to what we said at the beginning, the enormity of what we are living through has become clear as its gone along. In the beginning it might have been this weird thing that happened in 2020, that we’ll look back on in 2 years’ time and go ‘wow wasn’t that strange’. I think that the comparisons to the wars or whatever are pretty overblown, no one is bombing us and no one is being shipped off to shoot at people they don’t know. Nevertheless, in terms of it being a society wide impactful event that I suspect will last for many years in some form or another, I think that this is the large event of our lifetimes. I am big history buff as is my wife, and she said a fascinating thing the other day ‘I’ve always loved reading about history, not that keen on living through it’ and I couldn’t disagree with her.
I don’t know, I suspect that the world will be much changed on the other side of this. I hope that those changes will empathise the better things to come out of lockdown, the sense of community, the most positive thing to come out of lockdown for me was that almost everyone I know first instinct was ‘How can I help?’ I think that’s actually a really positive reflection on mankind, of course there is negativity out there, but generally speaking most people were like ‘how can I help, how do I fit in’ – there was a thing for a calling in service for old people isolating alone, to be on the phone for them, we were up for that, but we went there and they were like we have already had 400 times more people than we needed after the first day, like everyone wanted to do something. Friends of mine are doing catering deliveries for people, or whatever it else might be. Is that sustainable change for the rest of our lives, I don’t know, there are plenty of bad things about lockdown, but who knows, I think that it will change everything radically
Let’s hope so – thank you so much for doing this, its really appreciated and I’ve enjoyed chatting. Hopefully see you on stage properly not in your front room soon!
I must admit the day when I play a gig, even if it’s a livestream in another building, that’s going to be a nice day. Whenever it might be, I really feel like the first time we are able to do a proper gig, and you and I both know what the phrase ‘proper gig’ means. The first time that happens again its going to be really emotional, its going to be a really powerful event!
And with that, the interview is over, I could have chatted to Frank for ages. Afterwards I sit thinking about how life takes us on twists and turns, if someone had said to me years ago that I would be interviewing musicians who I admire as a hobby, I would have laughed at them. Yes, they usually got it right when it came to suggesting bands to listen to, but I never held out much hope for them predicting the future. I hope the one thing that does happen, is that we can get to go to gigs again. We understand how important they are to us, as Frank said “We miss the crush, the gig, the buzz, the noise, the gathering, the sweat” and that first gig is going to be a very very emotional moment for a lot of us!
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