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This year Frank Turner released his first book, his 6th studio album before embarking on a sell out UK tour. I caught up with him before his 2nd night in Manchester on that tour.
How was the first night in Manchester?
It was great. This is a true story; I had technical issues in the show, because the crowd was so fucking loud. Basically, I have in ear monitors so I can hear what I’m doing, and we have crowd microphones so I can hear some of the crowd. They broke the crowd mics, which is a good problem to have. When people got going, I was looking across at the monitor tech like “what the fuck?”
How’s the tour been going in general?
In general it’s been great. The shows have been great; everywhere has sold out except Llandudno which we weren’t expecting to sell out. We’re in London on Thursday which I’m very excited about, it’s the biggest show of the tour. We’ve got Skinny Lister and Will Varley with us, who are amazing.
The only note of reservation is, firstly we’re exhausted. We did a couple of months out in the states before this, and I was out for a month before that. (The attacks in) Paris has cast a shadow over this tour. I knew a few people who were shot, and I knew Nick Alexander who died as well. And they were doing what we do when it happened and that’s quite unsettling. The thing is, we keep doing what we do and I don’t mean that in any way that’s supposed to sound heroic. This is our life; we can’t just stop being who we are.
How important is music after something like that happens?
Music is my whole life. Not just in terms of listening to records and stuff, and it’s not just what I do for a living, it’s my culture. When I’m not on tour I go to gigs, all of my friends are touring people, at least all my close friends are. There is definitely a culture that exists, an international community. One of the things that are great about things like Reading Festival or the Riot Fest in the States is that there’s this gathering of the tribes.
You walk around back stage and it’s like, toured with you with The Offspring in 2009, toured with you with The Dropkicks in 2011. Everyone knows everyone, and we all know about things like bus calls, and catering locations, and sleeping with your feet facing forward. The thing that happened in Paris feels like an attack on that. This was on attack on my friends, in a place that I’ve been. There’s been talk of it happening at another gig, and that would be pretty calamitous. For now, I feel everyone’s quite angry and adamant to keep going.
Would it put you off doing more gigs?
No. I’m not going to lie, there’s definitely a moment in which it crosses your mind. Even last night (the first Manchester date of the tour) I could see the front doors of the venue from the stage, and there’s this flicker in your mind, the idea of suddenly seeing three guys with machine guns coming in. But the purpose of terrorism is to terrorise and you can’t be afraid otherwise you’ve lost.
On the last tour you did a lot of arenas, was it a conscious decision to move to smaller venues?
Yeah! We live in bizarro world where I can refer to somewhere like the Manchester Academy as a small venue. That’s fucking nuts. I always try and change things up on different tours, partly for my own benefit because it makes life more interesting, and partly for the audiences benefit. We did the arena tours, and we may do arena tours again on this album cycle. This is the first tour for this album. It was an experiment doing it in 2014, and it went well I thought. I thought the shows were good. At the same time I do feel this kind of level is our sweet spot as a band. But it’s also fucking awesome playing to 10,000 people at the same time.
In all seriousness one of the major stumbling blocks I had with the arena shows, and it was something I didn’t really know about because I don’t really go to arena shows, is the divide between standing and seating. Just the number of people I know, who said “we were in the seats and we tried to stand up and dance and the security came and told us to sit down”. And I hate that. On this tour we’re doing Alexandra Palace in London which is a big arena, but the difference is it’s all standing, which means that everyone can dance. When we did the O2 I could see security guards patrolling the seating aisle, and I was just thinking “this is bullshit”. It’s not how I want to present my music.
With such a large discography, how do you choose which songs to play each night?
How long have you got? I spend most of my working day thinking about the set list. There are so many factors to consider. I want to play a selection from all the records we’ve done, I’m a populist so I want to keep people happy, but I also want to play stuff that I want to play. And the order that it goes in, it’s like a game of whack-a-mole.
There is such a thing as a bad set-list and a good set-list. I don’t want to have a really good set-list and then not play it the following night because there are two people who were there the night before. I feel like those two can suck it up. We never play exactly the same set list, but we usually have the same four opening songs.
How do you find being off tour?
It’s a funny question – we ended up accidentally having a few months off the road at the end of last year and the beginning of this one. It was not a particularly happy time in my life for various reasons. One of which was I had all these huge arguments with various people about the album (Positive Songs For Negative People). I had a very clear idea of how I wanted to make it, and how I wanted it to sound. The record label, putting it charitably, said they didn’t get it and I suspect they wanted me to do something a bit more commercial sounding.
I fired producers, cancelled sessions, that kind of shit and then finally got it together, but I had all this time on my hands, just sitting around at home. It was the longest amount of time I’ve had off since I had 19, and I discovered I have the living habits of a 19 year old. I didn’t really know what to do with my time, and it wasn’t a particularly happy time in my life, so I was very pleased to be back on tour again.
Was that time influential to the album?
Not really, the album was written and kind of rehearsed by that point. I’ve had a very weird thing with this record, in that the songs were written specifically for me about recovering from the break-up that Tape Deck Heart documented. But then after that shitty time, the album took on a whole other level of meaning to me which I didn’t intend it to have when I wrote it. It’s almost like I wrote it for myself in advance.
What did you feel were the over-arching themes of the album? It felt like your most optimistic album to date.
Yeah! That’s what I was going to say, it was optimism. I think everything I do is reactive to a degree, partly because I don’t want to repeat myself so I’m always trying to do things differently. I think it’s a natural creative tendency. Tape Deck Heart which took ages in the studio making it, it was a really personally excoriating record about everything being shit. So it was a decision to go out and make a fast punk rock record about climbing out from under.
You released a compilation, The First Ten Years. Can you tell me about that?
We did The First Three Years after three years. The title is a nod to Black Flag, and we did it because there was all these weird songs hanging around – compilations, splits, EPs – and I wanted to put them all in one place so everyone could get the material easily. Then we did The Second Three Years, and The Third Three Years, and then obviously ten years. We also did a thing called Ten For Ten which had some extra odds and sods.
It’s been really fun, it’s a tangible achievement, you can hold it and go “I have done this”. At the same time, it’s lit a fire under me about song-writing. I never want to be a heritage act, even within the confines of my own limited success. There was a moment where it was like “no it’s not a fucking headstone God damn it, I must now write more songs, do more things” so it’s really inspired to get going.
What made you want to get back in the studio after Tape Deck Heart?
I write reasonably constantly. There are bands that have writing periods, and that seems weird as fuck to me. Writing happens, and I don’t really have much choice in the matter. Obviously there’s the inspiration and the perspiration parts of it, and you do have to choose to sit down and finish songs. It’s just a muscle, you use it and you get better at it, and you get into the rhythm of it. I’ve responded to every major event in my life with song-writing
So ten years as a solo artist, did you ever expect it to reach this stage?
Fuck no [Laughs]. To answer the question honestly, you make a distinction between idle day dreaming and realistic expectations. Idle day dreaming, yeah fuck it, I imagined headlining Wembley Stadium 10 nights in a row. I didn’t realistically expect this to happen, I never expected to be doing shows at the Manchester Academy or Alexandra Palace, and indeed around the world.
It’s the funny the UK is now, and let me explain this before anyone gets offended; it’s kind of like the bonus round in a computer game. We did two months in the States, love the States we do very well in some parts. But it’s hard work, telling people who we are. There were really long drives, I’ve got less crew so everyone has to work a lot harder, and I had to work harder to get the crowds into the show.
Then you get back to the UK, and you come to the Manchester Academy and it’s [sighs out of relief]. We can play anything, and they cheer when we come on stage. I don’t want to do it down, but it’s easy because we sell all the tickets and everyone gives a shit and it’s like coming home. It is coming home. You walk out on stage and it’s like walking into a warm room a cold day outside.
The songs from the older albums, do they take on a different meaning to you now? I was thinking of songs like Ballad of Me and My Friends.
Yeah they do. The thing is, I feel quite strongly that I don’t have ownership over interpretations of my songs, I don’t anyone does. I think that’s the thing that makes art interesting, is these different interpretations. Occasionally you see people coming along saying “you’re not allowed to think that about this song” and that’s coming at it wrong for me. The minute I first played Ballad of Me and My Friends it meant different things to different people, and in a way part of the knack of song-writing is writing songs that have layers of interpretation that people can dig in to.
Songs mean different things to me over time. Something I’ve been doing on this tour a little bit; there’s a song on the new record called Demons which is about one thing and since Paris is now very much about another thing in my head. I’ve been playing it and dedicating it to Nick. Songs like Photosynthesis mean different things to me. Love Ire and Song has most definitely changed over time, in terms of what that song does and doesn’t mean. To be honest I feel that song actually changes what it does and doesn’t mean in the confines of the three and a half minutes it lasts.