Interview: Frank Turner

Page 24 – Frank Turner, right image credit Tara NovakThis Frank Turner interview was originally published in Issue 5 of DrunkenWerewolf Magazine, April 2013.

It’s hackneyed, sure, but it’s almost impossible to start any piece about Frank Turner without reflecting on just what Frank Turner means today – especially if you happened to be around just over ten years ago when he first came to our collective consciousness as the slightly lank big-haired singer in Million Dead. If someone told you the that shouty kid fronting up what was essentially At the Drive-In lite would be playing at the multimillion pound opening ceremony of the bloody Olympic Games alongside the likes of the Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney, you’d be all fuck off, mate, that’s not a Thing.

But you better believe it was a Thing. Having your name fleetingly in the purview of a gurning nation hepped on the thrilling feeling of not actually getting something catastrophically wrong for once  is one thing, perhaps a more lasting and credible testament to just how far Turner has come is the fact that his latest, Tape Deck Heart was produced by none other than Rich Costey. That’s Rich Costey who can include such popular beat combos as Interpol, Weezer and TV on the Radio among his previous clients. We caught up with Frank to talk about his new record, his falling out with the leftwing press, and – of course – Englishness.

First, let’s discuss his entrance into the Costey-an pantheon. Perhaps unsurprisingly given his rather regal back catalogue, he is, reflects Turner, something of a ball breaker:

“Rich is an amazing guy, a real studio genius. He really pushed me to dig deep and find more blood, sweat and tears to put into the album, he was kind of a slave driver...but in a good way!”

Costey, of course, operates from California. Those of you who know your geography will be keenly aware that this lies slightly outside of the borders of Æthelred’s kingdom – perhaps a somewhat unexpected move from the man who performed a song called “Wessex Boy” to the world.

Turner acknowledges this: “I was a little hesitant about recording in the USA, to be sure. The music I make is self-consciously English, and it's such a cliché to suddenly up sticks to Hollywood the moment that success beckons, and that's not something I want to do.”

If you want to work with the likes of Rich Costey, well, you’ve gotta do what you gotta do: “After trying to persuade him to come to the UK, I gave in - basically, he has everything he needed to do the job in his studio in Burbank, so we went there.” He adds by way of mitigation, though that, “it was fine actually; we were working so much we didn't really see any of California while we were there.” So long as you didn’t have any fun, eh? Pretty English...

So, what can we expect from Tape Deck Heart? Does he draw from his usual well of musical inspiration or can we expect a shift away from England Keep My Bones’ more boisterous leanings? Or is it more mellifluous ones for that matter?

“Over and above my usual stock of musical interests, Black Flag to Bruce Springsteen or whatever, I guess that The National were looming pretty big in my mind this time around, as indeed was Weezer's Pinkerton’ although that record always looms, for me.”

“There is probably a change in sound,” he continues. “Though it's organic rather than calculated – I don't think analytically about that kind of thing, I just let the songs happen however feels best. The record is about change, I suppose, and within that it's kind of a break up record.”

Turner has, in fact, mentioned elsewhere he’s a bit worried that the record is going to get him stabbed as a result of it fidelity to real life events. So, between all the potential shankings and the slave driving, was it worth the pain? The answer is... Wait and see: “I'm pretty pleased with it, though of course you should probably ask me again in a few years.”

Turner’s previous record, England Keep my Bones – which arguably really cemented his place if not in the mainstream, then at least a rather substantial tributary thereof – is certainly a record with which he can be pleased. So, given we’ve been talking about his working away from the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, it seems prudent to ask, what was – or is – it about Englishness that inspired him to make a record about it?

Fittingly perhaps, he draw a parallel with Americana: “I suppose the best way of putting this is that I'm a big fan of Americana as a concept. It's a loving celebration of American culture, and indeed the underbelly of that culture, that doesn't stray into jingoism or nationalism, and that appeals to me. I feel like it should be appropriate to have something similar for where I'm from - Anglicana, you might say - and I think that's what I was trying to get across on the record.”

‘Genuine traditional’ and folk music are increasingly of interest to him, he adds. “English Curse” might be something of a giveaway on that front. It wasn’t however so much of an influence on Tape Deck Heart; there’s something about the nomenclature of these albums that really gives the game away, don’t you think?

“It did feed into [England Keep My Bones], and I'd imagine will do so again in the future.”

The themes of Englishness on the record gave it a distinctly political feel – often where dealing with the personal – think “Wessex Boy”, and its quiet reverence for an English hometown, individual loss portending the looming shadow of the homogenising forces of modernity. Turner, however, is reluctant to classify himself as a political musician: “I've flirted with politics in my music in the past, and it's not something I wish to continue. Aside from what I said before, I'd also put it like this: politics is divisive. The music I make, particularly in a live context, is about bringing people together, and introducing politics into that mix breaks that spell, spoils the mood. So I'm kind of over it.”

Did last year’s very publically played-out drama over views Turner had previously expressed (on not being a fan of leftwing governments) contribute to this?

“There's nothing a fanatic hates as much as an apostate. That whole kerfuffle about my politics was no fun at all, and the people who shout loudest are not exactly the most discerning of political commentators, let's say. It made me uninterested in including politics in my music. I can't be fucked with that level of bullshit. My politics involve treating people as equally valid individuals, and that's about it.”

The level of interest this garnered however takes us back to where we started – Frank Turner is big business these days. How is he finding fame?

“I don't really think of myself as famous – that strikes me as a dick move, right? I mean, people come and say hello in bars or whatever, but it's almost always low key and respectful, so it's fine. It doesn't really affect my life; I have a pretty tight-knit circle of old friends who rejoice in taking the piss out of me to keep me grounded.”

So presumably, making it big in the US of A isn’t something he wants to jot down on the to-do list under ‘play opening ceremony of major international cultural event’, ‘sell out Wembley’ and ‘sign to Interscope’?

“I think the idea of ‘breaking’ the USA is pretty bogus, it's possible to be medium successful there, that all-or-nothing approach seems pretty counterproductive to me.” He adds, however, that he is fond of the New World. “I've been touring there for many years and always enjoy going back; it's an endlessly fascinating part of the world.”

It seems that they’re pretty fascinated by him too, and with the backing of a hench major, and news inches/minutes on the MTV, it seems like Turner is sailing with a pretty good wind. Did he ever expect to achieve the success he has, post Million Dead?

“I don't think I expected much at all from playing solo after Million Dead, so it's all a pleasant surprise, haha!”

But, perhaps to finish, we should move away from the trappings of this fickle material world, and finish on an ecumenical matter. Frank, can rock ‘n’ rolls save our souls?

“Maybe. It certainly keeps life interesting...”

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