Frank Turner talks fame, music, and The Guardian - The Metropolist
Twenty minutes into our interview, Frank Turner’s tour manager, Tre, enters the small dressing room. She motions it’s time to wrap up. In the middle of his sentence, Turner turns around. “This is my favourite interview of this tour so far, so we’re going to keep talking,” he says with a cheeky grin, causing everyone to laugh. This is why Frank Turner inspires love amongst followers. He speaks his mind, with absolute honesty. So much so that he started his On Blackheath set by talking about his tough year. “Around the recording and release of Tape Deck Heart I went through a massive break up, which is what that album is about. And I was on the receiving end of negative press for the first time in any serious way. It’s a curious experience that I’ve had a lot of time to think about. You can’t really complain about press commenting on your public statements if what you’ve spent your time doing is trying to let the world know who you are. If the world then turns around and doesn’t like you, you can’t really go ‘awww shut up’. You chose to put yourself out there, and you have to take what comes with it.” Turner has received a lot of flack recently for exactly that. “It’s not pleasant to have Guardian articles written about how they think you’re a Nazi, thanks guys,” he says with sarcastic thumbs up, “because I refuse to agree with their narrow and utterly authoritarian politics, for the fucking record.”
Whatever leftover malice he feels quickly dissipates. Reclining on the sofa facing a wall of mirrors, Turner never once looks at his own reflection. He’s about to start a two-hour set. With a plethora of material, some songs understandably get left out, but why? “That’s an excellent question.” Turner gives the first of many thoughtful pauses. “For me the studio and live are different environments. I like the idea of trying to slim down the gap between the two, which means bringing the studio closer to the live environment. I’m not sure there’s any songs I wouldn’t play live, but Broken Piano we spent ages messing around with that. At one point I had a guitar on the floor with tinfoil wrapped on the strings and I was hitting it with a drum stuck. Obviously live…” he stops and smirks. You can’t break out the tinfoil? “It’d be a bit much to do that just for one section of one song.”
With such a variety, it’s a surprise Richard Divine never gets played. “You know I haven’t thought about that song in a really long time. It’s a weird one for me because it was about a friend of mine’s brother, and my friend was not stoked about the song. It surprised me but that’s probably a demonstration of me being insensitive. It just slightly mothballed the song for me. With Ballad of Me and My Friends I stopped playing it for a while because it’s about revelling in failure and being the underdog. I felt a bit weird playing that at the o2 Arena. Having said that, I have played that song at big places but you have to do it with pretty heavy tongue in your cheek.”
Turner has been playing the big venues, including a massive American tour. “That tour schedule got insane. I’ve toured hard for a while but 2013 was way harder than anything I’ve ever done. And in the middle of it suddenly there was this new constituency of people rejoicing in calling me a cunt on tour. There were moments where I thought ‘I could do something else’. There’s part of me thinking about taking a year off and working in a bar in Costa Rica or something. Just do something completely removed, ‘cause it does get a bit fucking weird existing in this bubble, and I’m aware that I exist in a bubble.”
Bubbles are easily popped, and for Turner there must be a moment where the man on stage and the man behind the music collide, but what is that moment? “Well… yeah… Christ,” he laughs. “That’s a very profound question. It’s better than ‘how’s the tour going?’” a question he seems to get a lot. “That’s…” another thoughtful pause fills the room. “I’m stumped for the first time in a long time.” Silence stretches out for a few more seconds as Turner rubs his tattooed hands over his legs. “I’ve always tried not to have a divide between my personality and the music I make. Emotional honesty is the quality I enjoy in music. The problem with trying not to have barriers is there’s a degree to which my name gets commodified. I walk around with signs with my name written on them, there’s a big fucking backdrop with my name on it, it’s on tickets and it’s on tee-shirts, and there’s an extent to which I feel like that lettering,” Turner points to a piece of paper taped to the mirror, “right there is kind of detached from me. Occasionally I worry that maybe I should have a divide so I can have an inner sanctum to retreat into before I go completely mad.”
Regardless of whether he’s discovered that inner sanctum, he’s handled the past year well and is already looking to the future. “I guess part of me wants to sum up the new record, obviously it’s not made yet so I don’t know what it’s going to be, by saying ‘it’s going to take more than that to fucking kill me you losers’.” Turner didn’t do it on his own, which he readily admits to. “My survival has an awful lot to do with my crew and my band and the people who came to shows and still gave a shit.”
Fans are undoubtedly enamoured with Turner because of the emotional honesty that courses through his music. But even they can be fickle. “I’m constantly surprised anew by the conservatism of a lot of music fans. A lot of people want you to be what you were when they first came across you which, A. is boring, and B. it’s like, I’m not your fucking property anyway. People occasionally go ‘yeah, man, I like your first two albums but fuck the rest of it,’ to which I go: fine, go listen to them. You can still come to shows; I play a fair amount of material off those two albums. It’s not like I’m coming to your house and wiping your copy of Love, Ire, and Song by recording Tape Deck Heart. The idea that I’m behoven to other people to remain who I was at 23 in order to keep them happy makes me kind of angry. It’s like fuck you, no. I’m not your puppet man,” he says with a chipper laugh.
He may not be a puppet, but Turner is there to entertain. So at what point does ‘FRANK TURNER’ the commodity overcome the posture-poor tattooed man on the sofa who writes songs?
“Well… um…,” he laughs and puts his hands over his face in a mix of embarrassment and excitement. “Honestly this is the most interesting set of questions I’ve had in a really long time, so I’m really enjoying this. I hope you’re enjoying this too.” Again, Turner’s earnestness shines through, making him even more endearing. “If you ask me what I do I would tell you I’m a professional entertainer. It’s a funny thing, historically bands balk at the idea. Saying ‘we’re not just fucking entertainers’ is totally misguided. I love the idea. I use the word entertainer and it puts me in line with musicals, vaudeville, the circus and theatre. If you take a sociological schematic of a society you’ve got all these people with real jobs. Then on a Friday night they pay 20 quid to get into a show. It’s my job to lift the weight of the world off their shoulders for two hours. What a wonderful thing to be within a society. I’m slightly dodging the question in a roundabout way,” he admits. “Giving the crowd what they want and what I want to do is pretty synonymous. In every set list I write there’ll be a couple of curve ball songs in there to keep me interested, but I don’t want to be one of those bands that doesn’t play the songs everybody wants to hear.”
For those who don’t like his newer stuff there are plenty of people lining up to take their place as Turner’s popularity increases. As a pessimist Turner isn’t banking on it lasting. “I never feel I’ve been relevant in the way music journalists use that term. I’ve never been cool, I’ve never been a buzz band.” A proud smile comes across his face, “Vice Magazine hate me. They hate me in the first place for not being hip and ironic and skinny enough. Now they hate me because I’m successful and they didn’t like me or pick up on it. Incidentally I feel duty bound to say there have been people and magazines who’ve helped me, I don’t want to belittle them. But British media like NME only started covering me once I was playing Wembley Arena. They actually had the decency to send an email going ‘fine, now we have to write articles about you’, and it was like ‘yeah cool fuck you, we didn’t come grovelling to you – we built this without your fucking help.’ But at the same time I’ve spent a lot of my days feeling like Wile E Coyote who has run off the edge of a cliff and I’m kind of waiting…” Never looking down, each new album “has been a step forward so far. I wonder how much longer this can actually go on realistically, but maybe I’m just a pessimist and pessimists are pleasantly surprised from time to time.”
Even as a pessimist, Turner is surprised at his own reputation for being hard to interview. “Something that does keep me up is there are people who think I’m arrogant. That troubles me. I actually regard myself as hyper self-critical.” Perhaps it’s his penchant for speaking his mind that comes off as arrogance. “I consider myself to be reasonably easy to interview – I just talk endlessly. It’s not often I get prickly in interviews. I do get pretty bored of people saying ‘you used to be in a punk band and you started playing acoustic guitar, what’s that all about?’ I’ve answered that question for a decade now. A good interview is one in which I feel intellectually challenged, where I have to stop and think about the answers to questions, which I definitely have done today so it’s been great. For me this has been an enriching experience, I’ve come out of this with a lot of bits that I’m going to chew over later and that’s a great thing. It’s better than ‘how’s the tour going.’”
The tour went swimmingly, and it’s clear Turner’s fan base is stronger than ever. “There’ve been moments on this tour where I’m trying to find songs that not everyone in the first five rows knows the words to. I dug out a Million Dead song the other night and everybody knew the words to it. It’s a good thing for me, but I don’t know what quality it is that makes people want to do that.” Perhaps it’s everything the hour-long interview proved. No matter what the question, Frank Turner answers with unbridled emotional honesty.