Frank Turner has sustained a hugely successful solo career since parting ways with punk band Million Dead back in 2005. Since then, he has proved to be a relentless and stirring live performer, now closing in on 3,000 shows. His energy throughout a gig is matched only by the commitment of his loyal, large and growing fanbase. Over the years, he has headlined Wembley Arena, performed at the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games and released a string of commercially successful and critically-acclaimed albums. His most recent release, ‘FTHC’, topped the album charts and it’s a remarkable sign of his longevity that this feat should be achieved for the first time with his ninth studio album. Of course, this was no sudden or unexpected success as his previous four consecutive albums hit the top three. His music is variously described as folk, punk or some hybrid combination of the two although, honestly, genre definitions don’t matter if the songs are this good and the shows are this entertaining. Amongst his tireless touring schedule, he found the time recently to perform at both the Houses of Parliament and the Americana Music Association UK Awards ceremony. More importantly, back in the early days of the pandemic, he supplied Americana UK with our first ever exclusive ‘Mini-Gig’ – check it out here. AUK’s Andrew Frolish caught up with Frank Turner backstage before his gig in Ipswich in early February 2023.
Tonight’s Ipswich show is gig number 2736, I believe.
I believe so! I’m going to take your word for it. People think I remember it but I don’t – I read it off the set list each night! It’s always last night +1. I also get to go home tonight, which I’m quite excited about because I live in Colchester now. So, it’s not too far away these days. In fact I drove home last night as well and I drove here today. I’ll be home 45 minutes after getting off stage, which I’m very excited about. Maybe I’ll be performing in Ipswich more often from now on; it’s definitely an easy commute. I could have a residency!
I’ll start by asking about a couple of recent performances that were, perhaps, a little different. Recently, you played at the Houses of Parliament. What was that like and what was that all about?
It was very odd and I knew it was going to be. It was lending a shoulder to the wheel of a cause that I do a fair amount for: the Music Venue Trust . It was funny because I have been detained by the law outside the Houses of Parliament before when I was younger and angrier and I’m probably going to leave the details of that there! It was a long time ago! It was quite funny to show up at the entrance way and get waved through on a checklist. It was good. I think the work the Music Venue Trust does is really important so it’s good to support them. I knew it wasn’t going to be like a headline crowd or whatever but Tom Watson was in the audience – I don’t know what everyone might think about that!
How did they react to it?
Alright although I’m aware that it wasn’t really a gig. The purpose of the exercise was very different from what I’m doing this evening. The purpose of the exercise was to get people in a room, to get influential bodies in a room and to get them to sit up and pay attention. I played shouty ones because that tends to make people pay attention rather quicker. We got a singalong going – I taught them the ‘I Still Believe’ call and response business and they did that. They joined in in their suits!
It sounds like a very strange day. Was it the same day that you performed at the Americana Music Association Awards ceremony?
Yes – it was it was a day off from touring, so I took a train from North Wales To London did parliament and then the AMAs, which was just lovely. It was obviously not my first time there but it’s nice company to keep, do you know what I mean? It’s a good bunch of people. Also, I got to share a dressing room with Nickel Creek, which I thought was awesome but my wife nearly imploded because they’re her favourite band of all time. I was politely shaking hands and saying it was nice to meet them and I enjoy their tunes and she was a gibbering wreck in the corner. She actually ended up making quite good friends with them while I was playing.
She didn’t watch you then!
I think it was while I was sound checking! But yeah I think she has a new friend in Thile.
So that’s quite a different crowd?
Yeah, but even that’s not a regular gig. I’m entering a weird period in my career where I’m very much the odd one out in a way that I’m quite proud of. I’m not a hot, young, new band and I’m not Mumford & Sons in terms of success. But I’ve got a steady career and a number one with my ninth album. Quite a lot of industry people are quite perplexed by my continued existence in a way that I quite like. Then, beyond that, it’s starting to get to a point where, I think this is true of the arts and music industries generally, if you survive for long enough you become kind of inarguable. People are perfectly entitled to not like what I do. God knows, some people don’t and that’s fine. But you can’t at this point argue that it’s completely without substance. It’s kind of nice and people do tend to kind of doff the hat when they meet you In a way that I’m getting used to.
Appearing at the AMA UK awards begs the question about your style of music. Do you see your music as Americana?
Not immediately. I listen to a lot of Americana music. I think the word Americana itself is a pretty loaded one in some ways. Specifically, in terms of my own music, I had a lovely moment a good few albums back now when I dispensed with a genre considerations as a writer, which I think is something that everyone should try and do anyway. That’s not to say that genre classifications are without any meaning or use but there is a degree to which they exist to give music journalists something to argue about – no offence! It’s like, who fucking cares man? Once you’ve heard the music! I do think that there is a broad palette that the AMAs are drawing from that makes sense and sounds coherent to me. I also think that one of the things they do that I really like, there is so much cliquiness in the music industry. Some bands get nominated for a Brit Award or whatever and you’re like, “Really? Did you listen to every album that was released this year and pick that one or is their manager your mate?” Do you know what I mean? And it’s kind of like the pretence to holisticness that some of the mainstream awards have is pretty irritating on some levels. I’ve spent quite a lot of my career out-selling tickets and records of quite a lot of bands who get a lot of awards. Obviously quantity and quality are not the same thing but there’s a certain point where it’s just a bunch of friends giving each other pats on the back. The AMAs is like an escape from that high school cafeteria vibe that you get in some corners of the music industry. What I would say about the AMAs is it’s a supportive place. Everybody is kind of on the same side and it doesn’t feel very competitive to me and I like that because the idea that music is a zero-sum competition is a dumb idea from the start. Given the Internet, it’s self evidently not true. I wish every band should succeed in what they do and it doesn’t affect me or take from me if another band does well even if they’re a band I don’t like, God love them – it’s hard.
There’s a lot of talk of community in the AMAs and Americana generally.
Yeah, definitely and I think everyone is stoked for everyone else. I’ve been to some other awards ceremonies and they’re not like that. I’m sure you’ve read the Nick Cave letter when he turned down his Brit Awards nomination. It was absolutely spot-on. Music isn’t a competition and it doesn’t need to be and people who treat it as such have ulterior motives that I’m not especially interested in.
When we last met, we talked about ‘No Man’s Land’, which was, of course, aside from the final song about your mum, largely an album of other people’s stories. For your most recent album, you’ve returned to writing more personal songs. Is it okay to explore some of those?
Of course – I’m the one who put them out there!
‘My Bad’, for example, take us through what that’s all about.
Well where to begin. The song started because I had that opening couplet for years: “My parents’ world just made me furious // So I ran away and joined the circus.” I thought it was a cool opening couplet for a song and it’s true! It’s a strange thing and a difficult thing for me to discuss and pitch correctly because, on the one hand, I do recognise things like inherent privilege and the fortune that I was born into blah blah blah. It’s pretty frustrating to me on a lot of levels because none of that was an act of volition. It wasn’t a choice and I want to be judged by the decisions I’ve made and things that I’ve done, and as harshly as you like on those things. It’s frustrating to be judged on things I found out as I grew up about where I was born and who I was born to. At the same time, you know, there are inherent structures of privilege that I’m not a huge fan of and never have been. My criticisms of my old school are pretty on point to be honest. It is a machine for churning out insensitive, entitled dickheads, certainly in the political sphere. I do my best not to be that. I’m not saying that I’m perfect at it. I guess one of the things about ‘My Bad’ is that I’m not actually standing for any political office. Brief aside, my politics revolve around – the centre of my politics is – not telling anyone else what to do with their life; those pesky classical liberals, coming over here and not telling us what to do! That aside, I’m trying to be a songwriter and make music. So, it’s a difficult one because there are some people I went to school with who make a career out of churning out books about how much they hated it. I despised the whole thing. I hated it. I found the experience of being sent away from home at eight years old pretty abusive to be honest with you but at the same time I just don’t want it to define me. I’m not that interested in talking about it all fucking day. I didn’t choose it. I didn’t want it. I left as soon as I could and I’ve done plenty of other things since, do you know what I mean? The other thing about ‘My Bad’ as a song – you know this about me anyway…ask a short question and you get a long answer – the other thing about ‘My Bad’ for me was that for a long time I decided never to discuss my upbringing or my education because I didn’t want to be defined by it. After a while, I realised that by choosing not to talk about it, I wasn’t killing the conversation; what I was doing was leaving the field open for every other dickhead to have an opinion about it. Actually, quite a lot of the time when a certain type of person bangs on about it, they’ve got no fucking idea about it. And I’m allowed to put my 2p in. With a song like ‘Fatherless’ and ‘My Bad’ in Particular, if you want to talk about it, I’ll tell you how it was, actually, because you don’t know, motherfucker! When people talk about where I went to school as a privilege, they talk about it as something that I enjoyed. In an abstract way that privilege might be true but I did not enjoy it or the process. I tried to commit suicide when I was 13 years old for the first time when arriving at my second boarding school. On the first night, I was there and I asked my parents if I could leave and they said, “No.” Don’t fucking tell me I enjoyed it! Right, end Rant!
Obviously that’s deeply personal and then alongside that you’ve got songs like ‘Fatherless’ and ‘Miranda’.
Yeah, sure they’re a trilogy shall we say. Obviously, my dad‘s identity is a slightly separate issue in some ways. I suppose my dad went through something similar to my educational gauntlet! And it was very much then inflicted on me. I could pop-psychologise about that if I wanted to. I don’t really feel like it’s my place to do that to be honest. I don’t to put words in anybody’s mouth.
When you’re writing songs like that and they’re deeply personal, do you think about the politics and the social side of it as well how they might become universal and speak of other people’s experiences or do they just remain personal?
I think that’s a good question. The thing I’ve learned over the years is it’s a little bit like one of those magic eye pictures: you have to see it by not looking at it. To put it another way, I think that if a song is written to be universally meaningful, universally appealing, you can smell it, do you know what I mean? It’s like this song is for everyone and then you end up with ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams, which is not a terrible song at all – it’s a technically well put together song but it sounds like it was written by committee to sell records and be on the radio because it was. You read stories about Bill Withers writing ‘Lean On Me’. He didn’t write that for everybody; he wrote it for him self and it turned out to be one of the greatest fucking songs of all time. You can only achieve the sincerity by being sincere. You can’t aim at sincerity. So, when I write there have been times in my career when I’ve toyed with this dilemma. Pretty strictly, I write what I think is a good song and says what I want to say meaningfully. You know, of course, you record a song and put it out in the world and you hope other people might connect but I personally feel that you have to try and separate those two parts of the process. I’ve had some cool responses to the song ‘Miranda’ specifically. I’ve had a fair few responses from members of the trans-community which is great but they don’t need a song by me to be validating for them. The more interesting thing I’ve heard is a few people say that it’s kind of helped them to have a conversation with their own parents. That’s cool. I like that. Even one of my best friends said he had an interesting conversation with his mum about that.
Are those songs easier to write because they flow from within you or are they harder to write and perform because they’re so intimate?
I wouldn’t necessarily say ‘column A’ or ‘column B’ necessarily. In some ways, like ‘Miranda’, for example, I took a decision to tackle that topic by being non-metaphorical. That song is really just a list of facts. It doesn’t use any fancy language. I thought that would be an honest and respectful way of approaching it. It’s worth noting that the online debate around trans rights and the rest of it is a vile hornets nest that I want nothing to do with. That’s the song – it’s like here’s some stuff that happened to me and you can take from it what you want. I think my opinion on broader issues is pretty obvious from that but I didn’t want to make it a table-thumper. It’s not my place to do that. Laura Jane Grace has written several records and they’re fucking brilliant and if you want to hear other such songs listen to ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ by Against Me! It’s not My place to write that record. Sometimes it is. The business of writing lyrics or, indeed, writing full stop is difficult – I can get quite philosophical about this if you let me. If you’re familiar with Clive James, he’s one of my heroes, idols, whatever. It’s a very precise business, trying to say exactly what you mean. That is a short sentence which describes the work of my adult life and anything I succeed and fail equally although that’s probably not for me to say really! It’s such a small way of putting out such an enormous thing, to try and see exactly what you mean. It’s very hard to do.
You mention Clive James. I’m going to do an aside now that’s not in my list of questions! You recorded a song with Emily Barker a bit back, ‘Bound for Home’, that was based around a Clive James poem – tell us about that.
Oh yeah, so Emily is Australian. We’ve been friends for about a million years but, funnily enough, we had never written together before. She suggested it and I said that sounded lovely. She came round my house and we were chatting away and I brought up Clive James and she wasn’t familiar. I was quite surprised. It’s an interesting thing because I think he’s much better known in the UK than he was in Australia as he spent his writing career in the UK. So, I then took her through his work. I have an endless library of his books and poems and essays and stuff. I took her through some of his poems about missing home, particularly his whole suite of near-death poems, for want of a less crass way of putting that. He got diagnosed with terminal cancer and then ended up living for about four years rather than the six months he initially got given. There is a poem in that collection called ‘Leçons De Ténèbres’ and it’s about the fact that he can never go home again because he’s too ill to fly all the way to Australia and how that feels. I find the Australian expat experience particularly interesting because it’s so fucking far away! I’ve got a tour starting in New Zealand next month. It’s a 40 hour journey with 12 time zone changes and I’ve got to play the next day. It’s just like what?! I’ve done it before and it was murderously awful and I was 10 years younger! So we’re gonna see how that goes! So, yeah, Emily is a sweetheart. She’s just move back to Australia, actually. I think home was calling but then hopefully I’m going to see her on tour.
Continuing on that tangent and the idea of not going home, you’ve recently moved out of London, something you thought you’d never do. How does it feel going back there now, walking those old haunts?
Like having dinner with an ex! It starts off and you’re like, “You’re fucking great,” and by the end of it you’re like, “I remember now why this didn’t work!” It’s funny. The word home is quite a loaded one for me and in a very solipsistic way is something I spend a fair amount of time thinking about. Funnily enough, I got sent away from home when I was eight in a pretty harsh and unforgiving and not-prepared kind of way. It was kind of like, “Fuck off out of here!” Again, one could pop-psychologise about getting into punk rock which helped with my rage and the borderline puritan work ethic of Black Flag and Minutemen who just toured relentlessly forever and made movement their home. I idolised Avail and got to know Tim Barry who is a proper train-riding hobo. For the longest time, it was like my aim was to do that – to make the road my home. I didn’t have my own place for about a decade. I was just in London bumming around. Even when I did have my own place in London, London is a transient city by definition. That was one of the things I liked about it. There’s few people who are there permanently. Everyone is heading somewhere else. Then, I recently moved to the coast in Essex. We’re at the end of the road, literally. It feels suddenly like I’ve settled and that’s not a bad thing at all but it’s a new thing and it’s an interesting feeling. When I go home, I go home now. I don’t go home, dump a bag and immediately go grab a cab to Camden to go raging for four days in a pub or whatever. I go home and this is an interesting development I’m trying on for size to see how it feels!
That pandemic period wasn’t all bad for you – life changed a lot.
Everybody had time to re-evaluate. A lot of people have left touring as a concept behind because they had a moment to stop and pause and they decided not to carry on. My version of that is that I still want to tour enormously. This year is going to be extremely busy for me and I’m lining up to release a new record at the start of 2024, which will then engender another extremely busy year for me too. So I’m gonna be on the road a lot. I didn’t really ever leave tour mode ever. My now wife points out that for the first three years that we were together I never unpacked my bag when I got home. I washed my clothes but I would leave my bag in the corner of my bedroom. One day, she was like, “Will you just fucking unpack please?”
It’s kind of a metaphorical.
Exactly and I did! So it’s a different vibe we’ll see how it goes. Will it affect my songwriting? Who knows?
During that period, you’ve done quite a lot of collaborating and producing with the likes of The Lottery Winners, Beans On Toast, Guise, Emily Barker and so on. What’s it been like working with others and not working on your own material necessarily? What do you get from those experiences?
Oh, I love it. Firstly, it makes me feel like I didn’t waste the last 30 years of my life because I didn’t consider myself somebody who knew anything about being a producer but it turns out, because I’ve been arranging and producing my own records to some extent for a long time and I did all these courses on how to be a producer, half of it is about arranging and listening. I was like, “Okay – I know how to do that.” Then, you spend ages learning how to dial and compress it, which is boring as fuck but it’s kind of cool, particularly having younger bands in and you say something like, “Let’s double track that guitar, invert the chords and put a capo on and just build a wall of guitars,” and they go, “What the fuck are you talking about?” They’re 19 and, yeah, I’m 41, so it’s cool to pay it forward. I find it hugely inspiring to be among new and younger bands. I think when people say things like rock music is dead, or any particular genre of music is dead, they’re saying more about themselves than they are about the style of music.
There seems to be a pretty cool scene in Colchester. You’ve got Armoured Man and Pet Needs, obviously, Ben Brown and Dingus Khan. There’s a whole bunch of punk rock and folk music coming out in a way that feels quite serendipitous for me. If I end up being the kind of in-house producer for the Colchester punk and folk scene that would be great fun. We have Wilswood Buoys – I made a record with them, their debut album which is incredible and on sale at the merch stand tonight. Pet Needs had an album out recently. I think Ben Brown is the greatest songwriter alive and we’re working on an album together. It’s taking for-fucking-ever for various reasons that I’m not going to go into! When that record comes out, it’s going to completely change music in my opinion, he says not melodramatically at all! I love it and find it very inspiring. Also, it’s not the same as being the artist. There is a certain kind of thoroughness, a method to being a producer; the band leaves and you sit there and you go through fades and edits and so on. For every day the band’s in the studio, you do another day editing. Some people hate that but I kind of love it. It’s kind of cool – you’ve got 68 tracks and every single one of them is got 14 takes on when you zoom into it and start doing the edit.
It’s work with purpose.
Yeah, it definitely feels quite satisfying at the end when you listen to the finished piece. I’m really enjoying it. I have less time to work on it right now because I’m so busy with my own stuff but I am going to self-produce my next record.
We saw Ben Brown and pet needs the other night. His voice is incredible and his stories, his take on life. He just looks like he takes such joy in it. Pet Needs were brilliant as well of course. They were who we went to see and Ben Brown was supporting.
So you do know what I’m talking about– he’s fucking unbelievable! He is left of the dial that motherfucker! It’s funny – in the music industry you encounter a lot of people who are trying to pretend to be eccentric and he is not pretending. Working with him is a blast. Honestly, the record we doing is taking a lot longer than I thought it was going to take but it’s going to be really good I think. In fairness, Johnny from Pet Needs introduced me to Ben but I was a bit disappointed when they took him out on tour before I did! Have you heard Dingus Khan as well? That’s Ben Brown’s band. They’re fucking demented. He told me they broke up but then they played a gig just the other day.
You said you are busy with your own music and have a new album coming out in 2024. What sort of new material are you working on? You’re obviously into that whole process.
I wrote 20 new songs last year, some of which were not good and some of which were good. It’s all part of the process. The main thing for me at the minute is that The Sleeping Souls is cooking with gas. Callum, our new drummer, is a joy. I love playing with him and I think we all feel pretty revitalised having him in the band. I’m excited we’ve got three new songs up and running now from just sound checks on the tour and he can basically play anything and everything. You go, “What if we can do this one in 6/8 with a kind of Cure vibe,” and he just goes and does it. He’s just invincible and there’s nothing I can’t throw at him basically. I’ve been trying! Even stuff like the other day I threw at him the most obscure reference I could: there’s an album called ‘Progression Through Unlearning’ by Snapcase, who are an early 90s hardcore punk band. There’s a kind of drum-feel thing on the first song on that. I said, “Spotify that for the next rehearsal,” and he nailed it. So I’m excited about that. We’re going to spend February and March rehearsing, basically and we’ll hopefully record at mine in the summer. It’s coming together. Material-wise it’s not that dissimilar to ‘FTHC’. I quite often change course immediately after an album but I liked ‘FTHC’ and I don’t wanna do that this time. I want to stick with where I am for a minute.
A lot of your albums are quite different.
Yeah, and I like the fact that we’ve jumped around a bit but ‘FTHC’ was pretty constructed. I’m going to make a serious, no-fucking-around country record at some point but not now. Not yet! I’ve got a title for it and everything. It’ll be done properly with pedal steel, harmony vocals, the whole 9 yards. I am the biggest George Jones fan you’ve ever met and I want to make that kind of music. I can’t fucking sing like George Jones but never mind! Then I’ll book the AMA with joy in my heart.
I’m a sucker for pedal steel and if you can get pedal steel on a Frank Turner album that will be amazing!
I know a very very good pedal steel player in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a dear friend of mine, so we’ll see how that goes.
We always like to share new music with our readers and you’ve mentioned a few artists tonight. Is there anything you’ve been listening to recently that would be of interest to the Americana crowd?
I’ve been in a bit of a noisy experimental phase recently listening to a lot of Butthole Surfers but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it! I don’t think that’s for the Americana UK crowd! What I love about Butthole Surfers is that most people are familiar with them from album four or so onwards and everyone thinks they’re an extreme band and it’s like, motherfucker, have you listened to that to that record called ‘Locust Abortion Technician’? it’s barely music. It’s screeching horror and I fucking love it! But that aside, the main thing I’ve been playing lately is Anaïs Mitchell. Again, my wife got me into it. I think that her new record is fucking staggering. That ‘Little Big Girl’ song and ‘Now You Know’ are amazing. I think she’s a really amazing writer. I got to hang out with her the other day, actually. The Bonny light Horseman stuff is cool too but I think I prefer her own stuff. It’s out of sight. So, that would be the main thing I’ve been listening to that the Americana UK readers might like. Have you ever heard of a Lingua Ignota? That’s not for the AMA people! It’s a woman from New York who does something between baroque classical music and death metal and electronic noise. She plays all the instruments. Her third album is one huge concept piece about Catholic religious imagery and sexual assault and it’s one of the most extreme, intense sonic experiences of my life and I fucking love it. I grew up listening to grind, death metal, gabber, thrash, everything and it’s quite rare for me to hear something and be intimidated by how heavy it is. When I put on Lingua Ignota’s record called ‘Caligula’ it’s like I’m terrified of this person. It’s a really unique listening experience. You have to kind of brace yourself as it’s really fucked up! It’s quite scary in places and not in a kind of Hammer Horror kind of way. It’s the sound of somebody really dismantling their mental health on a record. It’s very good. She played live, which she rarely does, in London the other day and I was away touring, so I was sad to miss it. That’s part of the touring life – we miss a lot of people as we go.
We leave you with one of Turner’s most intimate and heartfelt songs to date. Taken from his last album, ‘FTHC’, ‘A Wave Across the Bay’ is a tribute to his friend Scott Hutchison, the singer from Frightened Rabbit, who took his own life in 2018. Musically, this soars. Lyrically, it is achingly well written and exposed. The video is a lovely accompaniment, particularly in the way it finishes on a pencil drawing of Frank and Scott together.
Excellent interview, thanks. He has an unparalleled work ethic, and was kind enough to record a “happy birthday” message for my wife’s 60th!
“I Still Believe” features in the trailer for the next series of “Ted Lasso”…