I only found out I was interviewing Frank Turner two days before the event took place which in itself was a bit of a wake-up call. Going from doing nothing but pondering on a daily basis in between the mundanity of the daily college bus runs; to interviewing a guy who’s not too long ago sold out Wembley Stadium. Wow. But then again, I wasn’t too nervous either.
I wasn’t too keen on Frank’s music or his Eton upbringing. But now I can admit that I wrong. As I was shown into his dressing room at Warrington’s famous Parr Hall, I was firstly shocked by how tall he was. I’m tall enough myself but jeez he must’ve been six foot five or so. Jesus, he was a giant. But it’s not all about his height. He changed and challenged my rudely negative preconceived perceptions about him but you can read that for yourself.
Warning: Interview does contain strong language.
[WAM]: You’ve recently celebrated 10 years of solo shows; did you ever expect to notch up a top 10 album and a sold out show at Wembley Arena along the way?
Frank Turner (FT): Erm, no is the short answer to that question, but then again I suppose every kid who wants to be in a band lies awake at night and daydreams about stuff like that. But that’s very different than actually expecting it to happen in real life. When I was a teenager -and without trying to sound cool because that’s tedious- the bands I used to go and see used to play played venues like The Hysteria which has about a 2000 capacity and all. I’d never been to an arena show beforehand so that was kinda weird.
When I was about 16 and angry it was a point of pride to me that I didn’t own any records that were in the charts, because Fuck the charts man. So there’s a level on which it’s all kinda odd. But I’m not complaining. Fuck it. When we got to Number Two in the album charts it was kinda like ‘huh… that’s fucking weird.’ It’s a very strange feeling.
[WAM]: What is your lasting memory from your show at Wembley Arena?
FT: The Wembley show was weird because there was so much high stress about everything that I didn’t actually have time to sit back and enjoy it. To be honest with you my sort of enduring memory with it now is probably the fact that my friend Josh was there and he… is er, no longer with us. He was a ‘security guy’ and well I don’t need fucking security you know but I found a way of running him through the budget as security which meant he could fly over from Washington DC and just hang out with us for the week. So me and him were just shooting shit and wandering around London and having a good time and yeah that’s probably my biggest memory.
[WAM]: Was Wembley one of your favourite gigs?
FT: Yeah, it was up there. But it’s funny really because there was just so much pressure on it like ‘God gotta get this right’ ‘gotta get this sound right’ and a lot of the time my favourite kinds of shows are the ones were there’s no real plan and everything just falls together and erupts like fucking crazy.
[WAM]: I can only imagine haha. You’re coming to the end of your Autumn run of shows, where you have played places off the usual trail, what was the reason behind the choice of playing smaller venues than usual?
FT: Well, partly because we’re testing a lot of new material on this tour and not to kind of belittle the tour or the shows or anything but it’s not you know, the main tour. But also we wanted to spread out to different places – It gets boring playing Manchester, Birmingham and London all the time so it’s pretty fun to spread it out. I grew up myself in a town where touring bands never, ever came through so I know what it’s like. But yeah it’s been fun. Dunfermline last night where I ended up drinking wine from a pint glass, and Hartlepool a few nights ago was fucking insane. So many people were coming up to me after the show and saying ‘NOBODY EVER COMES TO HARTLEPOOL’ so yeah it’s great to give fans that opportunity.
[WAM]: What are your first impressions of Warrington so far? Have you been before?
FT: Other than on the train no. So far I haven’t had much time to get out and explore but I’ve had a little venture around and well what can I say, it’s great to be back in the north.
[WAM]: How do you approach putting a set list together, given your extensive back catalogue? How much is geared towards promotion, and how much to playing the songs you know the audience loves. Does the size of the event dictate things?
FT: Writing a set list is a fine art, and it is one that I’ve spent a boring amount of time in my life thinking about and perfecting because aside from the fact that I want to play at least one song from every album I’ve done, and to play some sort of obscure stuff that the purest fans will be happy and then playing some new stuff – on this tour – as well, you’ve also got to play some of the big songs as well that the casual fans will want to hear. I always get people asking like, ‘Please please please will you play, so and so’ and it’s like… ‘Well I can, but maybe five percent of the audience will actually know that one’.
So there’s all of that sort of thing. But then you’ve also got to manage your energy a lot in a set list. Which sounds like a weird thing to say but you’ve got to grab people with your opening and then maintain that energy level. If you’re going to go down to a solo section, you need to think of a way to get down to that level and then to get back out of it so that you don’t lose people’s attention. If you’re going to play a new song then you need to place it in such a way that it’ll capture the audience’s attention. Like you can’t play two new songs in a row or else people will just fuck off to the bar or whatever. So it’s all this kind of stuff. Thinking of what you’re gonna open with, what you’re gonna close with etcetera.
[WAM]: Wow, I didn’t realise so much thought went into it
FT: YEAH yeah yeah, it’s that sort of thing when people occasionally email me or whatever and say ‘Oh I was thinking in your set list, maybe you could play this one at some point’ and I’m like ‘well I don’t want to be rude but you wouldn’t fucking believe the amount of thought that’s gone into that set list.’
[WAM]: Hahaha. It must be nice to take some time out to return to your roots with a much harder sound?
FT: Yeah, well the next album I’m going to make will be my sixth album and there’s really nothing inherently interesting about a bands sixth album is there? I mean when a bands on their second record you’re kinda like ‘ah what’s going to happen!’ so a lot of bands get to their sixth album and they’re kind of treading water and repeating themselves. I’ve been looking a lot at artists who have made a career with numerous brilliant albums such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Nick Cave and obviously I’m not comparing myself to these people but there’s a definite degree of reinvention that becomes a part of it I think.
To me, I feel that Tape Deck Heart was kind of a dense, deep and surreal and weird studio project kind of thing so for this next record I want to strip all that shit out and say ‘this is me and my band playing hard and fast’ – that seems the way to go for me.
[WAM]: You recently put out a petition with over 22,000 signatures in support of the Agent of Change principle, which is music venues being threatened with closure because of changes in planning laws to encourage more residents to move into town centres. How important is it to yourself to protect these smaller venues?
FT: Well I’m passionate about live music. When I’m not on tour I go to gigs, that’s just what I do. And I owe my career to these smaller venues because I’ve come up from the bottom and I’ve played most small venues in this country and a lot of them more than once, that’s where I cut my teeth and learnt my trade and made friends and all the rest of it. And it seems like the least I could do to try and help them out. But it is important. It’s part of our culture. We still have this sort of weird cultural hangover where we perceive rock ‘n’ roll and pop music as considered less than the likes of classical music and opera and that pisses me off because aside from the fact that rock ‘n’ roll isn’t well funded it still brings a lot to our economy and all of that bollocks. This is the art form I love and care about and it’s just as valid and meaningful and deep and profound as any fucking classical music ever written as far as I’m concerned and I feel that the powers of our legal system don’t recognise that actually.
[WAM]: I couldn’t agree anymore. Well since you’ve spoken about playing the smaller venues, what advice could you give to up-and-coming artists?
FT: Erm, well on one level I could sit here and teach a fucking class on it. Ah actually I don’t know about that, that’s an arrogant thing to say. The two things I’d say to anybody are one, work hard. Being in a band is hard fucking work. Some people have this idea that when you get signed then you just lie down but it’s like, ‘dude It gets so much fucking harder once you get signed.’ But if you’re doing it for reasons such as love then it’s not hard work, its fucking awesome. I get paid to play fucking guitar you know what I mean? It’s ridiculous. And the other thing I would say is be your own harshest critic.
I’m always trying to tell myself what I’m doing right and wrong and how to correct myself; what am I slacking on and so on. With Million Dead we scrapped our entire set list of songs, twice, but we just thought, we can do fucking better than this but yeah, I could draw you huge long lists of everything that’s wrong with every record I’ve ever made and of what I would do differently. I think if you have that mind-set then you can’t go wrong. There’s something deluded and boring about those bands who are like “we’re fucking brilliant”, it’s like ‘no you’re not’. Nobodies brilliant.
[WAM]: Who are your favourite musicians and bands at the minute?
FT: Well, my all-time favourite band are a Canadian indie band called The Weakerthans who are just simply my favourite band. You know those people who say ‘ohh you can’t have a favourite band’, yeah you fucking can. The Weakerthans are the band for me. But recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Will Varley, Felix Hagan and the Family, erm Little Robyn. She’s beans on toast’s niece she’s that cool haha.
[WAM]: Without trying to criticize you I’d just like to ask if you’ve ever heard of a few different musicians and if not you should definitely check them out.
FT: Yeah man, go ahead.
[WAM]: Emmett Tinley?
[WAM]: He’s an Irish singer who you need to check out; he’s one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard. He was in a band called The Prayer Boat and they released an album called Polichinelle about ten years ago now, maybe fifteen and it is literally so unknown and to me it’s the most underrated album of all time.
Have you ever heard of SparkleHorse?
FT: Yeah yeah, my older sister was obsessed with them; didn’t their singer die or something?
[WAM]: Yeah he shot himself in the heart in broad daylight a couple of years ago
FT: Wow, that’s mad, I’ll definitely dig out a couple of their records again.
[WAM]: Damien Dempsey?
FT: Yeah I know Damien Dempsey yeah. He’s really good
[WAM]: I can see a book by your side, so I’m guessing you read a lot? Who are your favourite writers?
FT: Yeah besides music reading is the other one of my loves. I actually wake up in the middle of the night worrying about how I’ll never have the chance to read every book I want to read. At the minute my favourite writer is WG Sebald who’s this insane travel writer. I’m really into my travel writing at the moment so I read a lot of Paul Theroux and Robert McFarland. I like reading people who can take you to a time and a place that’s far away. When you read Rebecca West it just blows your mind. This WG Sebald book I’ve just read talks about him walking along the coast of East Anglia but the way he speaks about it makes it sound like this far off and mystical place and it just really makes you want to go there and explore and adventure.
[WAM]: Are you into art at all?
FT: Hm, well I don’t know masses about art at all I just ‘I know what I like’. But I recently bought a piece of art the other day for the first time in my life and for some reason it made me feel kind of dirty if you know what I mean. I bought something of, argh whats his name. Polish artist. I’ve got the books out on my fucking kitchen table. Erm, it’ll come back to me in a minute. AH BEKSINSKI. He does these insane nightmare dream scape paintings. Really bizarre shit. I only found out about him because I read an article about him and how he was murdered by his own son who was a heroin addict and he stabbed him several times just for a couple of pounds so that he could get his next fix which is really heart-breaking. But it said in this article as well that he used to listen to death metal as he was painting so I was kind of like ‘wow really, how strange’.
[WAM]: I’ll definitely check him out. Anyway, I read in an interview with the guardian that you’re a great fan of John Stuart Mill is that true?
FT: Yes, very much so.
[WAM]: Well I know John Stewart Mill was alike yourself ‘a classic liberal’, and he wrote ‘one part of the people rule over the rest’ which is most definitely still very much a certainty. But do you not feel like you are a part of this minority being educated alongside the likes of Prince William. Of course it is not your fault but surely it is undeniable that you are a part of these. And when you speak of ‘equality of opportunity’ do you not feel like a hypocrite considering you were born amongst the elite.
FT: Well yeah yeah.. Erm. I was definitely raised in a sort of establishment context but I like to think that actually a lot of my politics comes from that because when I was thirteen and I got a scholarship to Eton it became so obvious to me that this was incredibly unjust. I don’t think anybody should be held any better off or worse off just as a result of accident of birth because that’s obvious bullshit.
And I was surrounded by these kids who were quite clearly being groomed for jobs in politics and law and all, and I too was supposed to fall into this as well to a certain degree. When it comes to equality of opportunity, well I don’t really hang out with people who went to public schools.
They’re not really my friendship group you know. The range of talents that human beings possess is definitely not determined by what your parents do for a living that’s bullshit. It’s just basic politics.
[WAM]: I love the writer Jean Genet. A French Algerian who never knew his father and was raised for several months by his prostitute of a mother before being given up for adoption into the hands of really rough families before falling into a life of petty crime to make a living before discovering literature. I find his story so fascinating.
FT: Yeah, it’s amazing. I have friends who went to pretty shitty schools but if they had had the education that I was given they would’ve done such amazing things in their lives. I was just very lucky to receive the education I got. I mean, they still did great things in their lives but it just makes me wonder, ‘fuck imagine if they had that opportunity’.
[WAM]: Do you think you would’ve been this successful had you not gone to Eton? Or for that matter, anywhere near as successful?
FT: That’s an interesting question. That’s a very good question to which I do not… I don’t know. I mean in that environment one thing they teach you is a great degree of self-confidence and that certainlyhelped me in doing what I do. But at the same time, I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about my life but the music industry is still one walk of life in which going to a public school is a hindrance rather than a help. I’ve cocked an awful lot of shit in my time just for going to Eton.
The time when it really really got to me was when I was about sixteen or so and I got into punk rock. So since the age of 13 when I went to Eton on scholarship I had felt really alienated and lost and then punk became my sort of antidote and I started going to London for weekends on the train, going to the Anarchist Book Fair to see different punk bands; and I formed a band with a few friends and we played out and at first it was fine, it was great, but then a group of people from the scene found out where I went to school and there was just a huge tonne of hatred thrown towards me and I was like ‘oh fucking hell not you guys as well. Everyone at my school hates me because I think they’re all cunts and I tell them I’m not interested and want to hang out with the hardcore kids, and now you’s all hate me and think I’m a cunt as well. It’s like fucking hell, thanks guys.’ So yeah that was pretty depressing. But then again other people were so cool about it and they were like “you’re just a fucking person. We’ll judge you on who you are not how you were brought up” and they are still the people I’m friends with. But yeah it’s a pain in the arse, but I am grateful for the upbringing I had. I just try and treat everybody I meet as an individual who has the capability to be the best or worst person in the world,instead of something as fucking stupid as what their parents do for a living because that’s just shit.
[WAM]: The next question is entirely different. What are your views on Scottish Independence?
FT: I am an Englishman. So I felt quite strongly during the debate that it is none of my business really. I have a lot of Scottish friends on both sides of the divide. But yeah I just feel quite strongly that if Scotland votes one way, then okay, or if votes go the other way, then yeah okay. One thing that I would say is that I am always in favour of the decentralization of power. So anything that brings decision making closer to the people is good in my book. So if we’re going for some Scottish revolution then I’d hope to see some English revolution too because the concentration of power is such a bad thing in my eyes.
[WAM]: What’s next for Frank Turner?
FT: New record. Once this tours done. Not entirely sure where to record but yeah the record is pretty much written and we’re rehearsing it every night on the tour so yeah, I’m excited. It’s going to be good.
[WAM]: Okay that’s great! Well that’s it! Thanks a lot Frank!
FT: Awesome! Thanks man. Nice to meet you!
Interview by Joe Loftus
‘Tape Deck Heart’ is out now from all good music retailers and online stores.
You can sign Frank’s Petition to the Culture Secretary here.