Frank Turner Interview

Finlay Pelling interviews Frank Turner

FInlay Pelling
20th December 2016
Finlay Pelling interviews Frank Turner

Finlay Pelling: So how is the tour going?

Frank Turner: Good, yeah, it’s just lovely touring the UK. We spend most of our year outside the UK these days. The world is a large place y’know, there’s work to be done in America, Europe, Canada and the rest of it, but obviously the UK is home and it’s fucking lovely. There’s shows all round, there’s loads of crew, I don’t have to do masses with my day, in terms of I don’t have to restring guitars and build guitars and do PA and shit, and yeah it’s relaxing almost. I don’t want to sound too much like I’m lying on a chaise longue but it’s a good feeling and it’s nice to connect with it. I mean there are a lot of people at shows who have been coming to see me for a decade and I think that’s awesome.

FP: Yeah so it’s been ten years since you released Sleep is for the Week as of 20 odd days. What’s changed for you since then? Obviously other than the scale of everything.

FT: (Laughs) I mean everything. Everything is a lot bigger, I’ve got [backing band] the Sleeping Souls as a full time permanent thing now which is great. I mean on other levels, I still think that my aims in life remain reasonably constant in that I’m still trying to write songs which I think are meaningful and worthy of consideration as art and presenting those in the best way that I can. That’s a bit… broad, shall we say but it’s funny though because I try quite actively to change from a creative point of view but the conservatism of some music fans is always slightly depressing because people kind of go, every time you release a new record, “It’s different from the last one!” and I go “I know, that was my aim in life!”. I’m not just going to sit here and release Sleep is for the Week over and over again for ten years, y’know? But I mean it’s cool. One of the other things about the decade thing is that I’m at pains for it not to turn into a nostalgia like ‘I’m done with forward thinking creative work’ kind of thing. It’s really cool to look back on and look back on a decade but and it’s not like I’m going ‘And that’s me’. I mean I’ve written fucking two albums worth of material right now.

"I’m quite consciously trying to distance myself from political and current affairs song writing"

FP: So are you working on new stuff right now?

FT: Yeah I mean I’m actually in a bit of a dilemma right now. I’ve written a concept record about obscure women in history which was great fun but then the world went a bit mad.

FP: Yeah 2016 has been a bit crazy.

FT: I’m having a bit of a creative dilemma at the moment because I’m quite consciously trying to distance myself from political and current affairs song writing for a while because that whole world got a bit trying for me, but I sort of feel like, as a sentient human, you have to respond somehow. You can’t really ignore what’s going on in the world. So maybe that concept record gets shelved for a bit and I do something else.

FP: You just mentioned about famous women in history- I remember when I first started listening to you when I was about 14, I think the first of your records I bought was Love, Ire and Song and the First Three Years and I remember thinking at the time that there was a lot of reference to history, and again in the next album. Is history something that you find forms your work a lot?

FT: Well y’know it’s my nerd out subject if you know what I mean. I studied history at uni and I read history endlessly. It’s all I do really in my spare time, is read history books. My main hobby outside music is London history, as I’m sort of an adopted Londoner these days, and I walk around and do lots of London history walks and that sort of stuff. It’s not a conscious decision but I wanted to spend most of my day doing that.

FP: I suppose it gives you a bit of a break from music?

FT: Yeah definitely, absolutely. I mean certainly I think that one of the attractions of folk music per say is that it’s sort of history music to a degree. So it’s kind of my two favourite things.

FP: And it’s sort of a social commentary.

FT: Yeah it’s fun looking into Napoleonic era songs and shit and folk music is the music of the people rather than the aristocracy and it’s interesting going into that.

FP: Yeah and being a bit different. What is your writing process like? Do you do it while you’re touring? Though I suppose you’re constantly touring so…

FT: Yeah I mean certainly I do it on the road. I don’t really have a process per se, it’s sort of quite haphazard. Certainly in terms of the basic writing of the songs I have, indeed in my head and in a pile of notebooks, bits of music that I like and I have a pile of bits of words that I like. The best shit comes both at the same time, but that’s rare. I’ve started my day positively today by waking up humming a tune which has words with it and I’m pretty sure that I’ve finished the song since I got up this morning, which feels fucking great, but that happens once every two years so most of the time it’s a much more blood, sweat and tears method and sort of banging your head on the table thinking about syllables and tenses and persons, like first person or second person or third person for example (laughs). But yeah it’s funny, I know some people write in a much more systematic way, and I’m sort of abstractly interested in that and I think that that’s something that I will try and do at some point in my career. It’s not something as of yet that I’ve felt the need to do because the tap is still running, if you know what I mean, which I’m very fortunate with. But yeah, one of my major inspirations/fascinations in life is Nick Cave and I don’t know how much you know about him.

FP: He’s just released a new album this year hasn’t he?

FT: Yeah, well there are two distinct periods of his career. There was his mad haphazard Berlin days when he was on loads of drugs and just used to make weird records, which are great but after he cleaned up, he treated song writing as a 9-5 job. He has a room which he has a piano in and he starts work at 9, works till lunchtime, has an hour for lunch, then does the afternoon, and that’s how he writes songs. It’s a really alien idea to me but it’s one I find intriguing and it’s one that I wonder what would happen if I were to do that.

FP: Yeah, just to lock yourself away in a studio for a few weeks.

FT: One of the things that I read was that he doesn’t have a pen and paper in there because he reckons that if you can’t remember it then it’s not worth remembering, and that’s kind of mad to me. But again, it’s kind of like ‘Huh, maybe’.

FP: Yeah each to their own I suppose.

FT: Yeah certainly that kind of stuff gives me optimism for the future, certainly if I do find myself in that kind of position where you’re just wandering around looking for writing inspiration method that there are other options.

"there is a very small part of me that would be tickled if I were able to say I had a number one record"

FP: Cool. So your last two albums have hit number 2 in the UK charts.

FT: (laughs)

FP: I was quite reluctant to bring this up. Is this something that actually matters to you?

FT: Not in any serious way. I mean, it matters to people at the record labels because they care about that kind of shit, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, I mean that’s their role in the world. Fine. I mean there is a very small part of me that would be tickled if I were able to say I had a number one record, but the flipside to it is that as a kid I sort of militantly hated anything that was in the charts, and it was a point of pride to me that none of the bands I liked had been heard of by anyone else. Part of that had to do with me being a self-important punk rock teenager, do you know what I mean? As I got older, sort of the counterargument for the obscurantism of punk is that art is about communication and there’s nothing wrong with communicating with a lot of people and finding connection with a lot of people can be, not necessarily, can be a sign that you are speaking well in your art, so I don’t know. Like I say it would be a nice thing. I think my mum would be stoked. I don’t lose any sleep over it.

FP: I guess for an artist such as yourself you seem to have maintained a lot, if not all, of your integrity and the authenticity of the music throughout the years, so with regard to chart music that’s not something which- as long as you keep your authenticity it doesn’t really affect that. Have you ever found yourself at odds with your record label for them trying to push you towards the charts?

FT: Yeah, well this film that we have coming out which may be further down your list of questions, I don’t know, but quite a lot of that is about the moment in my life when that was most starkly put to me because around the making of Positive Songs [for Negative People] the label very much wanted to put me on a different creative direction to where I was headed.

FP: And what creative direction was that?

FT: They wanted me to essentially make things more commercially accessible.

FP: Arena songs?

FT: Yeah, but it wasn’t even necessarily about the songs, it was about the arrangement and the production and the producer that I work with and that sort of thing. It was a very difficult moment for me because you can spend your life thinking about what you would do in that situation but it’s very different when it actually happens. So I stood my ground and I won the fight, so fuck yeah, but it’s definitely a thing that you come across. I mean talking about integrity and stuff, the moments of challenge to one’s integrity are more personal than that for me generally speaking. I often think that the moment when I first experienced what the word sell-out might actually mean and what having your integrity challenged might actually mean in practice is the first time I heard a song of mine on the radio, because I heard a song of mine on the radio and the next thing that happens when you pick up the guitar to write is that there’s a little fucker in your head who says ‘hey wasn’t that really cool? Maybe you should try and write another song that goes on the radio’ and that’s a compromised way to write a song. That was a learning experience for me, but that was a long time ago so I like to think that I am forearmed against that these days. One of the things that I think I’m quite strident about that a lot of people miss the point on is that, well people use the word sell-out far too often, but for me a challenge to your integrity is essentially writing any kind of music or kind of art that is counter to your own best judgment. That includes not writing songs trying to be commercial, but it also includes not writing songs to please your girlfriend or ‘the fans’ in quotes. I think one of the things people get pissed off at me for is not writing songs which sound like ‘Love, Ire and Song’ anymore or whatever. And I sort of want to turn around and say yeah, whatever, I was never writing songs for you, I was writing songs for my best judgment. If people like my songs I’m so happy, I’m so grateful but the idea that I’m trying to please a constituency of people who were into something that I did when I was 25 is bullshit and none of this means anyone has to like anything that I do, but it frustrates me when people are like ‘I don’t like this therefore it’s artistically compromised’ when in fact it’s the exact opposite which was true. I wasn’t writing it for you! I was writing what made sense to me, and if I was doing anything other than that then I’d be a dickhead, and people don’t sort of grasp that sometimes.

"it’s great to write a song about me being a fuck up and having 2000 people singing it back"

FP: I feel like that’s especially clear in your work which is so rife with emotional honesty and it’s so hard-hitting a lot of the time; you’re very open with problems you have faced in the past. I have a question here which was ‘do you try and create solidarity for these problems within your fan base?’ to make it relatable but from your answer there it seems not.

FT: Yeah that’s the thing, it’s a two stage process. If after writing a song people connect with it and people get something from it and people tell me stuff like that reasonably regularly, and I’m super happy with that, I think it’s great, I’m really pleased about it. It’s a wonderful thing to write a song like ‘Song for Josh’ [talking about his friend’s suicide] and have people really return and talk about it, but it’s not the thing that I sit down and think about when I’m writing like ‘hey, I’m gonna write a song for the waifs and strays man’ (laughs). That seems a little bit self-important more than anything else. But it’s great to write a song about me being a fuck up and having 2000 people singing it back and thinking ‘that’s pretty cool’.

FP: Yeah when I was an angsty youth myself and listening to your earlier stuff, I found myself very much relating to it as someone younger and now when I listen to it, it still has that resonance with me. I mean it’s been three years since I saw you at Reading, with the wheelchair…

FT: Fucking hell.

FP: Yeah that kicked off a storm.

FT: You know one of the things which I enjoyed about that was that at festivals it’s impossible to get any sort of Wi-Fi or data, and the whole Twitter kerfuffle about that passed me by basically, and also I’ve got better fucking things to do than read Twitter after I’ve just played on the mainstage at Reading Festival thank you very much. But the main thing about that, as I’m sure and hope you know, was that first of all I was incapable of walking until about two days before the show and secondly, it was a tribute to Nirvana.

FP: Yeah of course, it was 20 years on!

FT: I saw these fucking dickheads who had nothing better to do with their time than be pissed off on Twitter and be outraged about it. So we drive overnight to Leeds Festival right, and overnight my friend Howard who runs a group called Able2UK who work with disabled access to venues in the UK, who I do loads with, he’s a very heavily disabled guy- also the funniest c*nt I know, like total genius. He sent me this hilarious and completely furious email saying ‘Fuck these c*nts, I thought it was fucking hilarious, I was there, and any of these motherfuckers that want to speak on my behalf can go fuck themselves’ and that was the first wind I got that anything was amiss in the world. The next morning we arrived at Leeds to discover that the NME wanted an interview about the issue, and I was like ‘OK’. So they came down and they were like ‘so what do you have to say? Do you want to retract or apologise?’ and I was like ‘No I fucking don’t! Piss off. Get over yourselves. Stop trying to speak on behalf of other people’ you know what I mean? Stop looking for things to be outraged about.

FP: So you mentioned that you worked with Able2UK and you’ve also done work with other charities like Shelter…

FT: Yeah I mean, I try quite hard not to be too self-important, God I’m using that word a lot today, but I feel like there’s going to be 2000 people at the show tonight and there is a platform for us to at least talk about something, and it’s cool to use that for something. I try to spread that out, like we did a couple of years just doing all Shelter stuff, we did Teenage Cancer Trust for a while and now we’re working with Warchild and Safe Gigs for Women. I actually spent some of my morning doing the stupid thing of reading some of the comments on the internet, and the Safe Gigs for Women thing, to use an Americanism, is a fucking no-brainer. I posted something on my Facebook and then all these guys are commentating saying ‘This is femenazi propaganda’ and all this sort of thing and it’s just kind of like ‘You are thick as fucking mince mate’. First of all, 99% of the people who have a problem with it are burly guys, according to their Facebook profiles.

FP: The meninists.

FT: They’re like ‘Well I’ve never had a problem with it’...

FP: Well no shit

FT: (Laughs) Well that’s not the point! We’re not talking about you, you fucking idiots. But yeah some of the negative reactions to it has really made me want to double down on it, you know what I mean? The idea that anyone thinks that they have the right to act like that… and people are like ‘Well what about safe gigs for men?’ and it’s just like, yes obviously I don’t want men to have any trouble here but the point is that men don’t have as many problems at gigs as women do so let’s address the problems that actually exist rather than the ones that you’ve thought up in your man cave whilst tapping away on the internet.

FP: The keyboard warriors.

FT: Yeah you know what I mean? Ah people, fuck it. It’s frustrating. The whole point about it is that when Safe Gigs for Women first got in touch with me, they were saying that some people write testimonials on their websites and some of them were from my shows, and it did not occur to me that when I’m standing on stage that issues like that would take place at my shows because apparently I’m a starry-eyed idealist that thought that that kind of shit wouldn’t happen at my gigs and it turns out that I’m the fucking idiot. So the very first person that had their awareness raised for Safe Gigs for Women in this instance was me, you know what I mean? I would like to share that experience with other guys at my shows, you know? Anyway, sorry, rant over.

FP: (Laughs)  

FT: But yeah, anyway it’s a platform which can be used.

FP: Yes and as an artist you do have a good way of being able to speak to 2000 people at once.

FT: Right totally, it’s funny because I feel like you were dancing around the word responsibility there and the word responsibility is one that I have a difficult time with because sometimes when people ask me if I feel responsible for the way that people interpret my songs, and on a rarefied intellectual level the answer is a firm no, in the sense of I feel that my responsibility is to my art and I think interpretation is king and if people take one thing then take another I think that’s on them. Having said all of that, I am trying to live realistically and live in the real world rather than the world of rarefied intellectual discussion and I do think that, maybe ditching the word responsibility, I do have the opportunity at my shows to present a certain kind of way of interacting with each other and behaviour and sense of community and I would like to try and foster that if I can.

FP: Right, OK. I’m just going to ask you one more thing before we wrap up. Just about your film, ‘Get Better’, so that comes out on the 13th. What drove you to create this film and what’s it about? What’s the thrust?

FT: Firstly it’s not my piece of art, it’s Ben Morse’s. Ben makes my music videos, he was on tour with us anyway as a tour photographer and he pitched this idea about doing a year in the life of the guy who never stops working and I was like ‘Oh that sounds interesting’. The next thing that happened was that everything kind of ground to a halt because of this fight with my label and issues with my personal life, and I think Ben was a bit like ‘Really? What the fuck?’ but over time it became a more interesting film, I think, because it’s sort of about the wheels falling off and getting back together again. I mean, it’s a film that I find quite uncomfortable myself to watch but that’s probably a good thing because it’s not just hagiography, like arse-kissing for me as an artist. So I hope people enjoy it because I’m quite nervous about it because I’m going to the premier to watch me being a fuck up on a big screen in front of a lot of people, but yeah, I hope that people enjoy it.

FP: Great, thank you very much!

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