For the past ten years he’s been singer-songwritering. But just because there’s a melody, it doesn’t mean Frank Turner doesn’t want you yelling along. Quite the opposite. His new album Positive Songs for Negative People shows Turner’s hardcore roots creeping back out from underneath his folk growth.
He keeps a mental tally of every show he’s played since he started his solo career.
Turner came through Nashville last week. He played to a sold out crowd at 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville, Tennessee. I got to talk to him before he took the stage and notched one more tally in his mental bedpost.
So which number show with this be tonight?
Tonight is show number 1,800 on the nose. I have an in-store this afternoon at Grimey’s Records and that’ll be 1’799.
How’d you get your start playing music?
Rock n’ roll wasn’t really a part of my life growing up because my parents didn’t believe in it. Then I just sort of stumbled across it when I was about ten. And just straight away wanted to be involved…which I think is kind of a personality thing to a degree as well. It felt like something that I wanted to try my hand at. And my parents got me one of those 60 buck Strat-copy starter packs, comes with a little amp, from like a department store for Christmas. My next door neighbor got a drum kit and we played together. And that was twenty-fuckin-three years ago… Jesus Christ. Long time ago.
What is your goal with the music you make? What are you trying to accomplish with your songs?
Well you can answer that question on a lot of different levels – which is, I suppose, why you ask it. Well, you know, I’m trying to make a living. That’s the most mundane level. But I’m mean I’m trying to create art that I think is worthwhile. And I’m trying to express myself. And most of what I do falls somewhere between those two poles.
Yeah, it’s funny that piece of information has… it’s not that you’re wrong, it’s just that [that bit of info] has slightly assumed a life of its own. Basically there was a period in my life, because I grew up listening to metal and punk and hardcore, where I didn’t have anyone guiding me through the history of popular music. So I knew everything there was to know about Agnostic Front before I’d ever heard a Bob Dylan record. Nebraska was a moment for me, but it was really a whole series of records. The American Recording Series by Johnny Cash was probably more important. It was that idea of being able to create meaningful and, I suppose, heavy and intense art, that didn’t involve taking your shirt off and screaming.
Yeah I figured it couldn’t have been as simple as just Bruce.
Yeah, the other thing that is worth mentioning is that Springsteen is obviously very famous in the UK, but he’s not quite as culturally ubiquitous [as in the US]. So as far as I knew growing up, Springsteen was “Born in the U.S.A” and that was it. That’s all I knew. And I’m still not an enormous fan of that song. And particularly if you’re listening to Minor Threat. That song did my fuckin head in. So a big part of the Nebraska thing was just finding out that he had that kind of depth as an artist. It was news to me.
So your music sits somewhere on the spectrum between the folk-acoustic world you’ve entered into and the hardcore-punk world you came from. And over these past ten years, you’ve been everywhere on that spectrum, back-and-forth. Do you ever find there is a tension between a direction you want to go, and another one you feel like you should go?
I don’t really do “shoulds” for reasons other than my own desire, really. It’s funny, because I think you’re right with the punk and folk thing. Folk-punk gets thrown at me quite a lot. Which is fine, I think it’s a reasonably accurate description. And that’s all good. But the there’s a big part of me, the older I get, the more I want to use the words rock ‘n roll to describe what I do. Simply because stylistically and structurally it’s guitar, bass, drums, and piano. It’s three and a half minute long songs. And it’s not enormously different from Sun Studios and Elvis Presley. There’s an expansiveness to what you can do as a Rock n’ Roller that I think is really cool.
I’d say your new record is maybe the easiest to categorize as just Rock n’ Roll.
It’s definitely the rock end of my spectrum.
So let’s talk about the new record. It’s a little over ten years now you’ve been doing the solo thing…
Yeah… [Nervously groans]… [Laughs]
And it appears to me that you’ve had a pretty steady climb. Which these days is almost unusual. These days a lot of people explode over-night. It seems with you, each year I hear about you just little bit more.
Certainly it’s been a bit unusual on that level. I feel very fortunate that I’m not one of those bands that gets one song and then just goes *bleh.* A few bands have that happen to them and then they have more to say and more to give and the rest of it. But that’s pretty often the death knell of a band. And certainly we have a world where the music industry is very much predicated on immediate success. And I haven’t had that. I don’t really fit into a lot of people’s boxes. Which occasionally can work against me. Even now some of the labels… some of them don’t quite know what to do with me. But taking the long view on it, I think it works in my favor. I just don’t really fit into that many neat categories, which is a good thing I think.
There’s an unfortunate tendency with bands where the further they get from their roots, the less connected and emotional their music becomes. That is something I do not think at all about your new record. If anything I think the emotional feel and intensity is there more than ever.
How do you personally try to maintain that integrity or feeling throughout your career?
Well there’s so many things to say. Certainly when we were making the previous record, Tape Deck Heart, I definitely had that feeling that a lot of bands stop meaning what they say, or become more sweeping in their tone, in a way that is slightly obnoxious. Tape Deck Heart was an attempt to do the exact opposite of that, and to try and write the most experientially personal record that I could at that time. It seemed kind of perverse and interesting to me. To, at the moment when I should probably start writing concept albums about the feature, to actually write the most gut-stabbingly personal thing I could. But, there’s a real tension with me. It’s funny you mentioned the word roots, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the new record. On the one hand I feel extremely strongly and adamant that it is the duty of an artist to change. The idea that an artist should be linked somehow constantly forever-anchored to what it was when they first started out is bullshit. I don’t want to make the art I would have made when I was twenty three for the rest of my life, that’s ridiculous. And plus I’ve already made it! I was making art then and it exists. That’s the other thing I want to say to people. There are occasions where people will say to me, sort of accusatorily “well I prefer your earlier records.” If I’m making a record that some people aren’t enjoying, that’s a bummer on some level. But it’s not like I’ve gone round to people’s houses and removed various records from their collection. [in a stern voice] “You can no longer listen to this one!”
That’s especially true coming from the punk and hardcore world where people can really take offense to change.
Yeah, it’s funny, because this new record is in some ways more “rootsy” for me, in that it’s more punk than anything I’ve really done in my solo career. But that’s not how my solo career started, it was me trying to get away from that, in a way. The thing is though, I’m totally fine having all these conversations. I think they’re good and well and interesting. But when I’m creating, when I’m writing, I think it’s really important not to have these conversations. I think one of the reasons a lot of bands disappear up their own ass, or lose their spark, is because they get used to being judged in the court of music criticism, and they become music critics before they’re musicians. And if you’re sitting there trying to figure out what Rolling Stone is going say about your songs before you’ve even fucking written them, or let alone recorded them, then of course you’re going to make bad art. So when it’s time for me to create, I think it’s really important to not think about any of that shit. It’s good not to think about how what I do relates to my roots or not.
You have a quote about working with Butch Walker, who produced your new album, saying you wish you had found him ten years ago. What is it that separates him from other producers you’ve worked with?[Laughs] Well the first thing is that is a statement I slightly regret making. As I realized after making it, there’s a slightly implied dis to some of the other producers I’ve worked with, which was not my intention at all. I also think that counter-factuality about your own life is really boring. You know, “What would have happened if I’d done this album with guy.” Just fucking get on with your life, you know?
Having said all that, the thing is Butch is just an immensely talented producer. Also, I think that he and I have a lot in common as songwriters, and as performers, as well just a producer-artist kind of thing. With Positive Songs I had this idea about how I wanted to make the record, and I just couldn’t find anyone that I felt really grasped what I was saying on a level that would make it work. Of course when you have a conversation with a producer who the label is putting up, they’re going to tell you that they understand exactly what you mean and exactly what you’re driving at. But with all of them I was like “No you fucking don’t, shut up.” Whereas with Butch the minute we started talking about it, it was just like “Yeah?” “Yeah!” You know one of those conversations where you agree on everything for a long period of time. I really feel like he understands what I’m trying to do. In part, because it’s not a million miles away from what he’s trying to do.
Listening to the record, it gets to “Silent Key,” and all of a sudden it’s this stunning female vocal. It’s placement on the record is a sort of shock of fresh air through the headphones. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?
Well firstly I will join you in the celebrating the joy that is Esme Patterson, who sang that vocal part. She’s incredible. I knew I wanted to have a guest vocal part, I knew I wanted it to be a woman. I also wanted it to be an American, because she’s playing Christa McAuliffe, so it seemed respectful to try to get someone from the same country. So we kind of ran through a list of people, and the label was trying to get me to get someone with a “name” on the record. Which… I don’t want to be overly punk about this—that would be cool on some levels. But it didn’t come together.
So, Esme is signed with Extra Mile Recordings, the label that I work with in the UK. We’d done some shows together. At this point, we’d actually finished recording the record, we’d done everything apart from that vocal part. And it was starting to become a bit of an issue, logistically speaking. And I did a couple of shows with her in January and the minute she started singing it was like “Duh! This is the person who is supposed to do this. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that before.” It was fantastic. I taught her the part, took her down to the studio and she cut it in two takes.
It really is great. She has a blending voice with yours, but it’s also totally different. And it’s so clear…
Exactly! It sounds like a fucking chiming bell! I love it. It just cuts through. And it’s effortless. The way she kind of slides into that first note… just uhh [fawns].
So I’d like to talk about your unreleased/B-sides recordings, The First Three Years, The Second Three Years, and those things. Why do you end up with so many unused recordings? And why then release them?
I dunno, I think most bands have a lot of material hanging around, and they choose to stockpile it, or not release it or whatever. It’s not that I have low-standards, per-say. I was recording yesterday, here in Nashville, just doing B-sides. I want my recordings to have a degree of verity to them. I’m not the best singer in the world, I’m not the best guitar player. We could do 400 takes and keep going until I get it absolutely 100% perfect, and there have been occasions when I’ve done that on records. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to do that. That doesn’t sound like me. It’s dishonest to a degree, you know? I’d like to think that as a performer and as a musician I have dirt under my fingernails. I guess what I’m getting at is I don’t mind knocking out a version and putting it out there, that’s cool with me.
So will you actually go into the studio to record B-Side tracks?
Sometimes, yeah. But sometimes it’s just the stuff hanging around. Another thing to mention is, I remember reading something years ago in an interview with Evan Dando, who is somebody I’m a huge fan of. He pointed out the word singer-songwriter (if that is the label that I have to bear in life, which apparently it is. It’s fine, it just makes me think of Jack Johnson, which makes me want to cut my own head off. But then again Neil Young is a singer-songwriter, and he’s punk as fuck. Anyway…). Singer-songwriter is a combination of two words. You can be a singer, you don’t necessarily have to write the songs. I think interpretation is a really undervalued art. I spend a lot of time playing other people’s songs; that’s how I learned to play music, that’s how I learned to write songs. All the time I’m learning other bits and bobs. I mean yesterday I knocked down an Elvis cover and there’s a British Musical act called Flanders and Swann from the 40’s and 50’s. I knocked out a cover of theirs as well.
Which Elvis tune did you do?
”Don’t Be Cruel.” But I’ve got a kind of weird plan for that one, so I’m not going to talk about it yet, because it’s controversial. The actual Three Years records that we had… the first one we did was because when you’re starting out you end up with a bunch of weird songs on weird compilations, and EPs and B-Sides or splits or whatever. And I thought, once all those original pressings are sold out, rather than Extra Mile or whoever having to constantly re-press all that stuff, let’s make it easier for people to get ahold of stuff. And then it just snowballed. Having said that, we just did The First Ten Years as a vinyl box set, which was a really fantastic thing to do, and hold as a physical product. At the same time, I’m not that interested in repetition, and there’s a part of me that thinks this might be an opportunity to get off that train. [Laughs]. I don’t know, maybe not. We’ll see.
So there’s a lot of bands that lean towards either being studio band or a live show band. You have this huge discography for just ten years, but on the other hand, you’ve won things like the AIM Best Live Act Award. It really seems like you are actively and excitedly living in both worlds.
I would say I pursue the live side of it with considerably more excitement. The studio is not my favorite place in the world. For a lot reasons. Part of me feels that there’s something slightly artificial about recording. Without being too melodramatic, it’s like pinning butterflies down in a photograph album. Songs continue to grow and live. Take a song like “Photosynthesis” off the second record we did. We’ve played that song every fucking day since we put the record out, and the way we play it now… I mean the structure of the song is the same, but the nuance and feel and the arrangement has mutated to the point where occasionally I’ll catch a brief snippet of the original recording and I kind of go “Fuck me, is that how people hear that song?” The thing about playing live, and this is the thing that makes touring such an appealing way of life, is that every night is a chance to do it again. You get another go at playing the song the way it’s supposed to be. Whereas that recording that I made in 2007 or whatever it was… It’s still fucking there. [Laughs] On CD’s and iTunes accounts around the world. That constant ability to reinvent is really important to me.
I found another quote from you from the midst of your first big arena tour. You said “Life should never be lived in your comfort zone.” How are you pushing yourself out of your comfort zone now? How do you plan on doing that in days to come?
Well I stand by that comment strongly, but at the same time there’s a part of me that is very proud of the idea of continuing to do what I do, and the way that I do it, for a long time. And the more I do it, there are people who started touring with me who have gone off and done other stuff. And there’s part of me that wants to be the lifer, and go “Fuck you short timers! I wasn’t kidding!” I want to still be playing Nottingham Rock City when I’m in my 60’s. This is my world, it’s my craft, it’s the thing I know how to do. It’s the universe I want to exist in. I’ve spent a majority of my life on tour buses and in dressing rooms and I’m fine with that. That’s ok. Creatively though I’m in the middle of deciding quite how extreme I’m going to be as far as going outside of my comfort zone on the next thing I do. Because there’s part of me that wants to completely ditch everything now and do something completely different. It should be noted that this will be after this album’s cycle of touring is done, which is still a year and a half away. But there’s a part of me that wants to fuck everything off and make a soul album or a bluegrass record or something. I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want people to go “Oh yeah, I know what that Frank Turner guy sounds like. I don’t need to get his next record.” I want to do something weird. We’ll see, I might retract all of this.
One thing that can unequivocally be said – Frank Turner has a comfort zone, and it is on stage. He took the stage with a confidence and comfortability that can only be earned over ten years and 1,799 performances. It was a full fifteen minutes of music before he stopped to say a word, and when he did he only added to the energy in the room. One would not be remiss in comparing him to a certain Boss (perhaps that’s why that quote is so popular…).
It is also clear that Turner benefited from his time in the hardcore scene. The stage presence of his band was fueled by the energy they all brought to the stage. On top of Turner’s songs having inlaid energy, the band brought even more to the performances.
But perhaps the clearest indicator of Frank Turner’s skill as a musician and performer is the audience. 3rd and Lindsley could not have held more people. And they were not just young rockers looking to get fired up. They were there, but those people’s parents were also there, dancing their asses off. And their kids. Not a song was played where there wasn’t at least one person singing along to every word. Many of the songs had huge groups of the crowd throwing fists in the air and belting. There is something in his music that just makes you want to do that.
Based on the size of the room and the statistics that exist in my head, there must have been someone jumping up and down on artificial hips.
But there was also a girl in the front row. I could see her from the balcony. She couldn’t have been older than 10 or 11. When Frank Turner walked on stage her eyes lit up like a Disney character. She clapped and cheered. She belted out choruses. She giggled when he said fuck. The look of happiness and wonder on her face was totally complete, and did not fade. Rather, it grew with each song. That girl had a better time than I think I’ve ever had doing anything.
If there is any truer measure of success in music than bringing people such pure delight, I don’t know what it could be.