Frank Turner

more so than any other misleading genre title, folk is ignored and reviled. Frank Turner is the UK’s premier export of that much-maligned commodity, and may well be its most important proponent from these shores since Billy Bragg. Since cutting loose from his former band, Refused-esque hardcore-with-a-conscience pluggers Million Dead, Turner has released two EPs and a debut album of melodically pristine take-no-shit acoustic yellalongs and is preparing for a second LP, all whilst touring the country more times than you’d care to repeat with just his guitar and a constant supply of Doritos and Jif lemon juice.

He’s just completed the 17 date Softcore tour with emo-when-it-wasn’t-shit survivor Jonah Matranga, and opens the interview announcing his intention to take a day off to eat pizza in the bath. Concrete shithole Peterborough is the final stop, but after 17 solid nights of drinking and, by his own admission, eating rubbish food in insubstantial quantities, he has no desire to remain in it any longer than required. He hopes Stylus doesn’t take offence. It doesn’t.

Turner is charming, affable, and scrupulously sharp on any political issue you might care to put to him. Stylus ambushed him in a cupboard-sized dressing room to talk about disgruntled anarchists, “SMTV hardcore cack,” and why “folk” is not a four-letter word. I need not point out he stays true to his name. And like his kid-fucking nemesis, Baroness T, he’s certainly not for turning.

Are you finding your solo shows more tiring than when you used to be in a full band?

Million Dead was an incredibly physical band. I used to sweat somewhere in the region of four pints a night doing that, and I was in much better physical shape then than I am now. I was younger as well. Million Dead was a band where basically you came off stage and if you didn’t feel totally and utterly just, finished, then you hadn’t done it right. It had to be, we were almost evangelical about that, we had to just pour everything into every single show. Which we did, but, fuck no, playing solo is a lot more… chilled.

What do you think is the biggest difference between your hardcore and your acoustic stuff, in terms of songwriting approach?

It’s not so much the approach, it’s more just that there’s only one of me now; because Million Dead was a really rigorously democratic band. Every single decision about everything had to be approved by everybody, and it kind of makes it easier only having one person to agree with—myself. But then it also can be scary as well because you’ve got less minds contributing to something and I quite often find myself finishing a new song or something and I’ve got no idea whether it’s any good. Because I haven’t had any walls to bounce it off. But then, I have a circle of friends who I play early demos to—

So there’s people you can trust to tell you whether it’s good or whether it’s shit?

That is essentially it, it’s the people who I can trust to tell me when it’s bad. Because everybody will tell me when it’s great because, they’re my friends, but it’s the people who’ve got the balls to turn round and go “it’s shit, it sounds the same as this, or it’s derivative or it’s boring, or you’ve done it before,” or whatever it might be. Hopefully they keep me on my toes a bit.

Is there any artist you think you’re ripping off most? Acoustic music may be harder to vary…

Well, actually I don’t think it is, I think there’s a lot of scope for what you can do, I mean even just taking solo stuff, the difference between Leonard Cohen and Billy Bragg is pretty extreme if you actually sit down and pull it apart.

Which do you prefer?

I will not choose. It’s as simple as that, I love them both dearly. I don’t think there’s any one particular artist that I rip off, at least I certainly hope there isn’t. I mean I have days, it happens to every songwriter in any context, where you come up with something like “that’s really cool” and then ten minutes later you go, “oh fucking hell, that’s ��The Final Countdown’ by Europe.” You just come up with something else that someone else has written, I mean it just happens, if you spend enough time hanging around music.

I had a song where I’d ripped the melody from a friend of mine’s band and it took me a good couple of months to realise what I’d done, and then I went “oh, for fuck’s sake!” Quite often I find myself sort of parallel-writing the same song in two different versions, and it’s only after both of them have started kinda coming together that I’ll realise that they’re actually the same song, and then I’ll get really annoyed. But then it’s kinda cool cause you can sort of bring the two together and make something really good.

Are there any songs that you’ve actually released that’ve been written like that?

I remember “A Decent Cup of Tea,” and there is another song that was essentially the same song, and I sort of eventually twigged that I was just copying myself, ripping myself off, with two songs at once, and I went and finished it and then went “oh right.” But it’s cool because in the end it’s kind of nice cause it made me kind of sit down and evaluate which parts, what I liked about the idea, what I was talking about, and come up with one better song.

Would you say you found your writing voice fairly instantly, when you started writing acoustic songs?

The thing about it is, for most of the public perception I went very quickly from my old band to doing what I do now but the point is that, I think the idea had been brewing on some subconscious level for quite a long time. And then also we agreed to break up quite a long time before we actually did, and my formative experience was actually—after we’d decided we were going to break up I went and had a “drowning my sorrows” weekend in a bar called Nambucca that’s run by my friend Dave who plays drums for the Holloways, and me and him and a couple of other people sort of got wrecked and got involved in floating some ideas around.

“The Real Damage” and “Romantic Fatigue” came out of that weekend, and that was the moment when I kind of was like “I can actually do this,” you know, these songs aren’t bad. I mean I think that I’ve, having said all that, learned an awful lot about the type of music I’m trying to play and about songwriting as a craft in the last two years, learned a hell of a lot, and I know it’s like everybody says this and you usually wish they didn’t, but I think my next record’s gonna piss all over my first one.

So, what are your favourite songs that you’ve written to date; are they new records songs, or old record songs, or…?

Well, yeah most of them right now have been new record songs because they’re the ones that I’ve just finished, but of old songs, I really like… well, choices for my favourite songs usually confuse people a bit. There’s a song on my album called “My Kingdom for a Horse” which is probably my favourite song that I’ve written just because on a sort of emotional level it says everything that I wanted to say about that subject quite neatly.

Also, it’s got a kick-ass key modulation in it, which I’m always a big fan of. And then just, the whole thing seemed to come together quite neatly. My only kind of thing is, it’s not heavy enough on the album version, I prefer the version with us playing it live as a band, cause it’s heavier and I was kind of shying away from being too heavy while we were doing the album.

A change?

Yeah, right, that’s it. The way I’d think to describe the two albums, the one that's out and the one that’s in my mind, is that “Sleep Is For The Week” was a bit like a rebound shag, and this next one’s gonna be like a new relationship. And what I mean by that is that “Sleep Is For The Week” was reactive, it was like, this is finished, and I’d just spent four years with these people in this context, playing this kind of music.

And I needed to do that, I needed to react against something, and be quieter than I perhaps would otherwise have been, and less angry, because I’d just spent four years being really fucking loud and annoyed with everybody. So yeah, I guess what makes me feel good about the new stuff, is that I feel that I’m finally now just writing to be as good as I can be rather than for any other sort of ulterior motive.

Do you think there’s more craft in what you’re doing now than what you were before?

Not more, just different really, I think that, it’s a lot more about melody, and structure, what I’m doing now, but then—

There’s still the anger there, if you need it.

Yeah, yeah, right, I think that my new stuff, I mean I’m gonna play some of it tonight, is angrier, but then I think that playing hardcore has a fair degree of craft to it. I mean, I’m not gonna mention names cause I always get in trouble when I do that, but I think that an awful lot of the hardcore bands out there at the moment are fucking dross.

Me and Ben, the drummer of Million Dead, often discuss maybe just doing like a five-track EP or something of hardcore, just to demonstrate that it’s not actually that hard to not suck, and to not just be this pathetic kind of mainstream SMTV hardcore cack that’s being peddled at the moment. Bands sounding like poor versions of bands who sound like poor versions of Black Flag.

You say you’re writing some angry songs, are you writing any more what could be called protest songs, like “Thatcher Fucked the Kids”?

Well OK, I’m gonna do that classic thing of deconstructing the question a little bit here, because I dunno, I’m wary of the term “protest songs” in the same way that with Million Dead we were wary of being called a political band. Because the one thing that we weren’t then and I’m not now is normative in my statements, in the sense that “Thatcher Fucked the Kids” is descriptive of how I see a certain situation, but it’s not telling people what to do, and that’s the thing that I’m wary of.

I fucking haven’t figured out what to do with my life, and ordering anyone else about just seems crass and arrogant. I think that there’s certainly more political songs on there than there were on “Sleep Is for the Week” and I’ve started getting annoyed about the world, and I’m quite interested in trying to be descriptive, but it’s still incisive within that, and hopefully I think that by laying something out in a different way you can have a different perception and come up with new ideas or something, and that, that, is something I’m interested in. And I hope I never have—well that’s not true actually, there’s some early Million Dead songs that I’m a little embarrassed about, but I never really have and hope I never will actually stand up and tell people what to do.

I’m a firm believer in, if I had to pick any shade of affiliation, philosophical anarchism I suppose, and I’m a firm believer in people being free and responsible to do whatever the fuck they want, and it’s not my place to tell anybody else what to do.

So, with Million Dead maybe being a little pigeonholed as “political,” a song like “Once We Were Anarchists,” did that piss a lot of people off?

I did get a couple of emails. I got this one email in particular that said “Dear Frank, it’s interesting to see on the basis of that song how you’ve become a total fucking pussy,” so I responded: “I’ll explain it when you’re older,” or “old enough to understand,” something like that.

Yeah, I’m sure it did, but honestly—I couldn’t give a fuck. Other people’s opinions about what I do—you know sometimes you get these bands that are like “we’re doing it for the fans!,” my response to which is “you’re idiots.” If you’re doing it for the fans, be a fucking Led Zeppelin covers band or something, do you know what I mean, then you’ll get more fans and keep more people happy.

Obviously on the flipside of that, people buying, financially contributing to my music, enables me to do it, and I’m very grateful for that, and it’s flattering to me enormously that people care about my music enough to pay to come to shows and buy my records and everything else. But, at the end of the day my artistic target audience is myself, and anything else is dishonest in my opinion. Writing music for “the fans,” is one step away from writing music for “the Coca-Cola corporation.”

Bold statement.

Take it out, pull quote, whatever. I really do think that the only possible way to be honest is to write for yourself as your target audience, and hope that other people agree.

Are a lot of your fans from the Million Dead days that would say you’d be the only “soft” artist they listen to?

Yeah, I guess I’m wary of being sort of the token acoustic act within the hardcore scene, because I’d like to be judged by my peers and interact with Chris T-T, Ryan Adams, stuff like that. Kid Harpoon in particular. He’s totally, incredibly amazing. So I don’t wanna be the token hardcore act, but then something that a lot of people say which really pleases me, kids come to shows and they say “this is the first acoustic show I’ve been to,” or at least “it’s the first acoustic show I’ve been to that I really enjoyed.”

And it’s just kind of nice, without getting too “mission statement” about everything, to try and demonstrate to people that acoustic music and folk doesn’t have to involve some git with his hair in his face moaning about how his girlfriend doesn’t love him any more, or on the other hand, old men knitting their beards and talking about country fairs, and that actually, it can be as strong or as weak a type of music as anything else.

I mean the analogy that I always pick is that I think it’s quite a lot like punk, in the sense that if you meet somebody who’s like “I don’t like punk because I don’t like the latest Green Day album,” then you sort of weep and bang the floor and go but … whh… huh… uhh, that’s not it! You know what I mean, punk is musically such a broad church, and similarly with folk and similarly with country, as well, I mean people go “I don’t like Dolly Parton or Waylon Jennings or something,” and it’s just kind of like… Neil Young is a country singer, he is responsible for all that is good in the universe! So it’s kind of nice that I can do both.

A lot of people don’t hear folk anymore; it isn’t really on the radio –

Well you see, that to me, that’s the contradiction in terms right there, the word itself. If folk music becomes conservative and ossified, then it’s lost its whole fucking point, it’s supposed to be community music, it’s supposed to be vibrant and vital and people communicating with each other about stuff that means something to them, in a simple format that anyone can engage in. That’s how I would define folk.

And who do you think is doing that best today?

Kid Harpoon, Chris T-T and Beans On Toast would be the first three that spring to mind. I’m wary of the idea of a scene, but it is kinda cool that there seem to be a lot of people around at the moment making cool music in a sort of folk vein—but I mean, fuck man, Billy Bragg’s still doing his thing, and he’s still the king.

Are you still covering the Chris T-T song (“When the Huntsman Comes A-Marchin”) that I’ve seen you doing in your earlier gigs?

Yeah, I do it every now and again. It’s kind of nice, because Chris has officially gifted that song, to me, he said it was mine now. He’s actually just signed to my label as well, Xtra Mile Records, and I will take some small degree of credit for that, just in the sense that the label boss was like “yeah I’ve been talking to this Chris T-T chap” and I went “SIGN HIM, SIGN HIM, SIGN HIM, come on!”

So how important do you think the issue is, that Chris is discussing in that song, to you, considering you were saying about not preaching politically or anything…

Again, I’d say that’s a descriptive song. He’s not ordering people to do anything but I think that he’s taken a very direct and incisive, but new sort of angle on the issue, which is to look at it from the point of the view of being annoyed with the Countryside Alliance not because you’re necessarily anti-foxhunting. I grew up in the countryside and it means a lot to me to hear that, because my experiences for myself and everybody else I know who still lives there or whatever is that they’re extremely fucked off with the Countryside Alliance, and not because they’re anti-hunting townies.

I think the whole point is that people who are serious about the countryside couldn’t give a fuck about foxhunting, who cares? I mean it’s a class issue anyway, who gives a fuck. There’s much more important shit to care about, and that’s the thing, so that’s what he’s done, he’s taken an angle and he’s cut through to it and I think that when I heard it, for the first time, I just went “ohhh, I love you!”

There’s another Chris T-T song called “Preaching to the Converted”—what a fucking song, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted to say about the left in this country. Come on, stop just agreeing with each other and patting each other on the back!

How would you describe the current state of politics?

So utterly tedious, because what’s happened is that there’s no longer a left-right divide, a new class has developed, the political class, all the political parties collude with each other. There is no major political body in this country which opposes PFI as its main and central raison d’être as a party; it’s shocking and depressing and upsetting.

PFI is organised corruption, it’s theft. The private finance initiative is a way of funding, basically a way of stealth-privatising our public services, and it’s a way of balancing our current budget by basically mortgaging our children’s future. And it’s already way too late, we’ve already fucked the next fifty years of our economy on the basis of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair making the New Labour economic project work, and it drives me to fucking distraction there aren’t people fucking out in the street throwing bricks at cops about this.

Is there any politician or political party you could put yourself to support?

Well, no, fuck no, I mean—OK now we come onto the slightly broader issue, which is that… I’m not sure I would describe myself as an anarchist anymore, but it’s certainly my background and I certainly don’t vote in general elections because that would go against my principles.

I would consider voting at a local level, but to vote on a national level and then complain about the voting system seems like having your cake and eating it to me. My personal political ambition is to be left the fuck alone. You know, it’s a very old criticism of social contract theory which could apply to everything, but I never fucking voted for the police force or the civil service.

I never agreed to be part of the political system into which I was born and I don’t particularly want to overthrow it, because I don’t really give a fuck what other people want to do, I really don’t fucking care, but I’d like to just go to a small island and be on my own. You know, Jean-Paul Sartre: “hell is other people.”

What does the Greek tattoo on your wrist mean?

It’s actually from Petronius’ Satryicon but it’s the inscription at the start of The Waste Land. Today is T.S. Eliot’s birthday. I’m terminally, terminally obsessed with T.S. Eliot. It means “��Sibyl, what do you want?’ She replied ��I want to die.’” Sybil is the woman who had eternal life, and the one thing that she wanted is to die. And the point is that life is transient and should be taken for what it is, rather than hoping for something unrealistic.

I’m a confirmed atheist and personally I think religion is slightly irresponsible, because you’ve got to be yourself before any other issues, it’s kind of wiping off your hopes and dreams and everything else into another life. You’ve got one fucking shot at this, and that’s it, and if you’re gonna draw rules around the things that you want to do on the basis of satisfying your imaginary friend, I think it’s kind of wrong. I mean people can believe what they want, but that’s my opinion.

You went to Eton, is that right?

That is correct.

Are a lot of your fans surprised to find that out?

Um, probably, I dunno, again I’m not really sure I could give a fuck. I mean, I can sit here and say you shouldn’t judge somebody by where they went to school but where they’d send their kids, and I can say that actually as it goes I was there on an academic scholarship, and it turned me into an anarchist by being socially removed from the people I was surrounded by—but at the end of the day, my bottom line is that I feel I don’t even need to justify my education to anybody else, so whatever. But I mean it’s kind of ironic I say all that, because that phrase sounds very defensive in and of itself, but it’s just because there is a residual class relationship in this country.

[At this point Frank notices the venue’s PA.]

What is that horrible music? I can’t bear that. I don’t even know what it is.

[The band playing shall remain nameless, but rest assured they are as horrible as he says.]

Take That, that’s all it is. It’s Boyzone, it’s just Boyzone for the next generation. Just look at a photo of Boyzone and look at a photo of this band.

So what is worrying in the music that’s around today?

Well, I could sort of rant about this that and the other, but you know I think that every generation has its enemy, and you can talk about kids not knowing the roots of the music they listen to, and all this kind of thing. I think the one thing that I would say is that something that’s happened, particularly in the rock scene, particularly in the last five, ten years, is that someone somewhere has started commodifying emotion, more so than ever before. It’s so ironic that “emo” is called “emo.”

Does it bear any resemblance to bands you grew up knowing as “emo”?

No, but the point is that also just “emotional,” because this is actually exactly the opposite of what this is. It’s totally insincere to my ears, because it’s manufactured emotion, it’s sentimentality, it’s about as musically serious at looking at one of those picture postcards of the photo of the guy with a baby in the soft focus, you know what I mean. It’s very adolescent, very early adolescent kind of emotional range.

And that’s fine if you’re 15, 16, I found certain things emotionally affecting when I was that age which I don’t anymore—various bands that I was into that were cack. But I mean that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, what worries and disturbs and annoys me is when you see people who are in their kinda mid-twenties taking that kind of music seriously—or playing it.

To avoid this kind of thing, what sort of stuff would you advise to someone that wanted to start writing songs today?

Well, I got given this advice years ago—go back, because—you know, I’d never really heard any Leonard Cohen until I was into my twenties. I knew he was, but I never really listened to anything, and I think that the best thing that’s anyone who’s serious should go through is being slightly blown by how much good shit there is that’s already been done.

How far back would you go?

Well, as far as you want. I’m quite into a lot of modern classical music, I think modern classical music conceptually can be very interesting, but I mean in terms of popular music or whatever, whatever that means, I’ve spent a lot of time quite recently kind of checking out kind of the roots of the American folk tradition and even trying to get involved in the English Folk Dance and Song Society, that particular neck of the woods. You can get kind of Jacobean English folk songs that are still recorded, and that’s really interesting, for me.

Would you say it comes through, in what you’re doing?

I’ve actually consciously been trying recently to bring in a bit more of the kind of English folk tradition into what I do. I mean I think, this is the thing, up to this point in time direct influence from venerable English folk has been quite limited on my music cause I didn’t know very much about it.

But Billy Bragg is somebody who’s totally informed by the English folk tradition and a lot of people, even like Zeppelin some of the time show influence from the English folk tradition so I’ve probably come to it in that way. But I’m working quite hard on trying to sort of bring that in and—I’ve really been getting into that, a cappella, kind of one voice: [sings, throatily] “I fought with King William’s army…” That kind of shit, really, because I mean the great thing about tradition, traditionalism in music is when you hear something that is like a beeline into a moment in time that is four hundred years ago.

Like I say, I think that folk is an ethos as well, and it’s one that has such a positive role, to sing about your times, and your surroundings, and one of the things that I’ll take from a song about King William’s Men is that that’s somebody writing about their times and their surroundings right there and then. And I’m not like a military private or whatever so I’m not gonna claim that I am in song, I’m just gonna write about… playing in Peterborough.

As a writer of folk songs, what would you say you’ve learnt since you were green, first starting out?

That’s a difficult question—I’m not sure I could say one specific thing, I would say that I’ve learnt that trying songs out live before you record is a really fucking good idea, that’ll knock the shit out of anything for you. I dunno, I think that, it’s such a cliché, but what everyone needs to be reminded every now and again is that I think that any audience worth its salt can smell dishonesty very quickly, and I think that if you start trying to be something you’re not, or feel something that you don’t, or whatever, you will get rumbled reasonably quickly, probably not by everybody but by someone. And hopefully by yourself as well.

Related Links

Frank Turner @ MySpace
Live Review of Frank Turner

By: Richard O’Brien
Published on: 2007-10-18
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